I Am Not Your Teacher
by Andrea Ballance
The shortcoming of hanging pawns is that they present a convenient target for attack. As the exchange of men proceeds, their potential strength lessens and during the endgame they turn out, as a rule, to be weak. – Boris Spassky
Definition: Hanging pawns are an open, half-isolated duo. It means that they are standing next to each other on the adjacent half-open files, usually on the fourth rank, mutually protecting their stop squares. They share a number of characteristics of weak pawns they are not directly protected by other pawns and may become targets of attack.
I was ordained and living in Manjushri Centre. For as long as I had been there I experienced a troubled relationship with the centre teacher who at the time was Samten Kelsang. I would ask him questions, get cryptic answers, bad answers, an answer read out of one of Kelsang Gyatso’s books or no answer at all.
In his defence, I was passionate about the Dharma and had an unending list of questions to ask and get answers to. I was so utterly blown away by the scriptures and what their meanings could be. I was desperate to talk to people who had more knowledge than me. I probably annoyed him. I know he had no idea how to ‘deal’ with me.
I had tried for many years to be a friend to this teacher and he would fluctuate between being a friend, treating me like a stranger or treating me like I was an enemy trying to harm him. He refused to let me join the Teacher Training Programme like the other students. When my friend asked him why, he just replied, “she is not ready”.
Gradually over the years I became sicker and sicker with what I now think was some form of chronic exhaustion brought on by stress. This also played a part in what people and this teacher thought of me. I think it was widely accepted that I was a shirker and I was lazy.
I was constantly thrown into arguments with this guy. He would say the most shallow things and I would have to check if they were for real or not. I have used this example before, where he said that, “Fat people do not look good, but that thin people might be sick”. He would sit and just stare at people when they were in asking for advice. He would be inappropriate and fixate on lay people. He was unsupportive and very obsessed with his own reputation and his pond-like fame. He was also in very poor health a lot of the time and he tried to hide that from his students. Could one be a Buddha and still be epileptic?
Samten tended to work by the ‘dogs tooth’ method of being a teacher. Better to hide all the flaws, not be open about who you are and let the student ‘project’ pure teacher onto you.
This idiotic and traumatic student-teacher connection ended one summer when this teacher decided he wanted me to be kicked out of Manjushri Centre. He got the management together and convinced them that the best thing for him would be if I was told to leave the centre. I was completely devastated.
As a nun I never and, I can truly say this, never, approached this teacher without meditating. Either meditating on the cushion, if I felt what was going to be broached would end in an argument, or breathing and taking refuge as I walked up towards him. To me, he had a powerful energy and I found it hard to breathe around him, so I always needed to be clear as to why I was talking to him. So I would take refuge in my guru and the Buddhas…imagine their light shining in through my crown chakra into my heart and then deal with whatever ridiculous situation was before me.
Because of this, because I would take this confusion into my meditations and practice, I was confident that even though I had had troubles with this teacher, I had always done my best. So when the centre management ganged up on me and told me I was to be thrown out, I refused to leave without seeing Kelsang Gyatso. After all I felt that I was straight with my guru and the Buddhas.
I remember in the days that followed the management’s request for me to leave that I cried a lot. Manjushri Centre meant a lot to me and although I had never fitted in and I was endlessly confused there, it was the only place I had ever been a nun. One afternoon while this was all kicking off, I went to the toilet. I had to walk over the chapel to get to the toilets. As I opened the doors I heard two people chatting in the chapel.
The male voice said,
“She will not leave unless she sees Geshe-la’”
A female voice replied,
“She will see him over my dead body”.
Of course they were discussing me.
I was devastated. Exhausted from illness and sure no one would take on a nun that had been thrown out of another centre, I was lost. I had no chance of speaking to my guru – the one person who would be able to see my intention and help me. I had people actively preventing my situation from being told to him. So I would leave the centre, be barred from my guru and have nowhere to go. I was gutted.
Like I said, I was passionate about the Dharma and completely dedicated to my ordination and the life I had stumbled upon. At that point, I had no plan B and I was panicking. My friends started to help me. People tried to smuggle me in to see him and I wrote a letter that a friend either gave to him or just left in his room after she had been to see him. I remember the letter. I could hardly write it. It looked as though it had been written by a child.
A few more days passed and I still was not sure that he had even read the letter. I went to the office and checked my mail and the nun who had exclaimed that I would see Geshe Kelsang “over her dead body” walked up to me. She seemed amused and her voice had softened and she said “Geshe-la will see you” and she gave me a date and time. I said thank you and felt relieved. I nearly didn’t hear what she said over the blood rushing through my veins and the anxiety filling my mind.
I had to prepare to see the guru now. I think I had met him briefly a couple of times but he didn’t know me. In fact, the first time I ever met him was as he was walking around the centre with his entourage. A boy called Chris really wanted Geshe-la to meet me and kept pointing at me and saying my name. Eventually Kelsang Gyatso looked over at me and instead of saying, “Hello”, he said,
“This one is trouble.”
So we weren’t best buddies. We didn’t ‘know’ each other in the ordinary sense of the word but he had ordained me so I thought I could call him my guru and see him in that way. I had no Dharma possessions left because from the moment he arrived in Manjushri Centre, I slowly gave him everything. I don’t want to talk about that because I really was trying to be pure and make good karma for people, and in the hope I made some I don’t want to ruin it by feeling embarrassed about it now.
So I had nothing to take to offer him and I had to buy something. I had a little money and so I managed to get an unfilled statue that was unpainted and a katag and then I just had to wait. I just had to wait and hope he would help me.
Most of the rest of this is a blur for me. I went to the audience with him. He was much smaller than I had remembered him. Bird-like. I sat down and the door was left open. I gave him my offering. We talked about things and the main reason I cannot remember what was actually said was because he was looking at me with a really peaceful face while at the same time shouting at me with a really annoyed, angry voice. He was like two people. He indicated that he needed to sound angry with me for the people outside of the room.
In this audience he told me that I needed to act more like a nun and that he was not my teacher.
I think at that point my mind left the room and shortly after that he let me leave. I stood up and as I left the room the little bird-like guru hugged me. It was a hug that was made out of the energy “sorry”. It said, “I am sorry”. He did not say I am sorry, though the energy of the hug felt like he was trying to say “I am really, really sorry.” After that I went back to my room.
I was devastated all over again. I was just a person who wanted to go to teachings, be a nun, to have a teacher… The whole stream of teachings and pujas and meditations demand that you respect your teacher… that you have a teacher, that you devote yourself to a teacher… When you ordain – you have to realize here that I genuinely thought I was actually ordained – the moment you ordain, your guru is Geshe-la. Every prayer book, meditation guide and ritual prescribe visualizations of the Teacher, the guru – Geshe-la… except he just told me that he wasn’t my teacher.
No words can describe the utter confusion and loss I experienced after that meeting. If he was not my teacher, then what was this ordination about? What was my life about? I was horribly lost. Slowly all the corner pins of my good intention and determination were being kicked out from beneath me.
I really could not resolve the meeting I had had with Geshe-la and I still cannot today.
About a week after the meeting, Geshe-la sent someone to ask me if I would move to Losang Dragpa centre in Todmorden. I was really unsure because I just had a gut instinct that I would not get along with Samden Gyatso, the teacher there, but I agreed because Geshe-la was ‘the guru’.
A few weeks later Samten Kelsang got transferred from Manjushri Centre and appointed the resident teacher of Losang Dragpa Centre – the centre I was moving to. Samden Gyatso was transferred to Manjushri Centre and took over as Resident teacher of the ‘Mother Centre’.
Make what you will of all of I have explained above, because I still have not worked through it all and I have been disrobed for over ten years.
After all of that I just felt like a lost jigsaw piece. I realized that in some way my reputation had been reinstated through moving me to Losang Dragpa rather than simply asking me to leave Manjushri, but there was no solidity, no definite plan, no one who said “Oh, this has been done to help you.” It just felt like I was a joke being played on Samten but maybe I was just being used as a pawn in the bigger NKT game – a game that I had not consented to and still have no understanding of.
Header image: Photograph of Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, taken from the back cover of “Clear Light of Bliss” by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Wisdom Publications, London, 1992. No photographer credited.
- Andrea Ballance is a survivor of the Buddhist group NKT – Interview with ASLI
- The story of a New Kadampa Tradition nun: “Disrobing” – Andrea Ballance
- Stealing the Dharma out of the air – Andrea Ballance
More NKT survivors’ testimonies
- FB Group: New Kadampa Survivor Testimonies
- For list of testimonies see: Experiences with the New Kadampa Tradition and Kelsang Gyatso 2011/01/07