Today I asked the question on Facebook “What, if anything, does NKT day mean to you?”
A lot of you reading this have never heard of NKT Day, so it means absolutely nothing to you If the rest of you are anything like me, you might give it no thought until the actual day is upon us, unless you’re in charge of organizing events around it. (In fact, at times when I’ve not been living near a center, say on solitary retreat, it has not been unknown for NKT Day to pass me by completely… ) But it is a day that people who like Kadampa Buddhism celebrate on the first Saturday of every April, and is in its own way as important as Easter or Christmas is to Christians. I like celebrating holy days, even those in other traditions (the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned – “holiday” after all means “vacation” in British English.) So I thought it might be good to do a short article* on what it is people are actually celebrating this Saturday, with input from Facebook friends and others.
In brief, NKT day commemorates the founding of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1991. Kadampa Centers worldwide hold all sorts of enjoyable celebratory events.
Here is a new tribute I found to Geshe Kelsang, a brief sketch of some of his life and deeds so far.
The centers, the 22 genius books, and so on all originate from the kindness and skill of this physically tiny but spiritually gargantuan man who arrived in the West 35 years ago with nothing except his robes, his rosary, and two texts. Through his inner experiences of Buddha’s teachings, his powerful wish to help, and the blessing and permission of his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, he has created something truly epic. The Kadampa Buddhist tradition was close to extinction in Tibet and through his (and others’) efforts there are now over a thousand centers in the West, and some thriving monasteries in the east.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books
Why is it that these books are so effective? Why has Modern Buddhism been downloaded over 150,000 times in the last 10 months, for example? Why have millions of people now read his books? Here are just a few of my ideas on that.
These teachings come from someone who, you quickly figure out, has complete experience of what he’s talking about. All of them are based on a 2500 year old tradition that has been tried and tested by many generations of meditators, including him. They are not just someone’s new idea.
Geshe Kelsang is an expert. He has consistently been discovering better and better ways to introduce the entire teachings of Buddha to a worldwide audience without diluting them down, and I think it is fair to say that it has never been done on this scale before. (The NKT is supposedly the fastest growing Buddhist organization.) I helped to edit these books, and have taught them all at some point or another, so I’ve read them all many times. But I still find new and spine-tingling insights in them whenever I pick them up to read them again.
Geshe Kelsang is happy. I think it is very rare to find someone so happy, or to find a book written by someone who’s always happy. Other books can do a lot for us, but not necessarily make us so happy.
The books cover the entire array of Buddhist teachings and practices, from A to Z. Some of them are like thick text books, containing extremely detailed investigations on, say, Buddha’s teachings on ultimate truth or the profound creative practices contained within the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings. Geshe Kelsang has explained absolutely everything with a clarity, skill and practicality that I can barely fathom. And he has done this all in our own language(s).
Geshe Kelsang has managed to explain vast and profound topics in increasingly accessible books, the latest being Modern Buddhism. This manages to contain every single meaning of Sutra and Tantra within its 400+ pages without it becoming incomprehensible, in fact quite the opposite. It is so rich, and yet so simple at the same time. No one could pull this off unless they had direct experience of all the subject matter combined with a skill formidable enough to be able to relate it to a new audience.
I could go on and on about the books. Don’t get me started. In truth, I cannot imagine my life without them.
NKT study and meditation programs
Based on the books, Geshe Kelsang has arranged three study and meditation programs that are proving to be a very effective way for people to take Buddha’s teachings to heart and make continual, steady progress. He has laid the foundations for modern-day Buddhist practice on whichever level people choose to participate, and without contradicting their culture or politics. Based on these programs, the NKT has been able to establish many centers worldwide in response to demand.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s background
Just the briefest potted history for now… Geshe Kelsang was born in 1931, auspiciously or suspiciously enough on Dharmachakra Day, or Buddha’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day. He entered the monastery aged 8 and, according to accounts by his classmates, was a very kind child who also spent a lot of time meditating on Lamrim, even meditating through the night on many occasions. He studied and meditated on all Buddha’s teachings.
In 1959 the Chinese invaded Tibet and he fled to India with nothing but his robes and a couple of texts, but he apparently stayed happy, transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path. He entered deep meditative retreat for 18 years until his teacher, the great Trijang Rinpoche, asked him to teach in the West. So he came to Manjushri Institute in 1977.
When he was flying over the sprawl of greater London he asked his translator: “How many people are down there?!” When the answer came back “about ten million,” he replied in surprise, “There are only five million people in Tibet!” And it looks like he is trying to help them all and more — I and many others are a product of that.
Geshe Kelsang has helped bring Buddhism into the modern world stripped of its cultural overlay and separated from politics. He learnt English as quickly as he could, discreetly got British citizenship so he was free to do what he wanted, and started to help people through his teachings, books, example, and personal advice. To begin with, his audience was small – we could all fit comfortably in the so-called North Wing gompa of Manjushri Centre. Now, of course, it is rather large. In Portugal next year, I have no idea how everyone is going to fit.
Geshe Kelsang from Day One has trained equally four types of teacher – lay, ordained, male, female – in a radical departure from the male- and monk-centric way things were done in Tibet. As you may know, the current General Spiritual Director of the NKT is a nun. So, in fact, is the Deputy Spiritual Director! The tradition is run by women! Generations of monks are turning in their graves…
When I got interested in the early 1980s, I thought it was a bit of a stretch when Geshe-la asked me to begin teaching a branch in Bath, South England, considering we were based in Yorkshire (and was foolish enough to tell him so) – but luckily my own complete lack of vision did not make a jot of difference. Down to Bath I went each week, and branches were started all over England in response to requests. Nowadays Geshe Kelsang is bringing Buddhism to the entire world – the corpus of all Buddha’s teachings are being translated into many different languages, and, because Geshe Kelsang has emphasized the training of qualified modern teachers, this looks set to continue.
As someone (whose name I have misplaced) put it a few years ago:
“The real genius is for someone steeped in the Buddhist tradition that arose in a completely different culture and time to be able to translate that perfectly so that it is accessible to those raised in a completely different culture, a modern culture. And to do this without in any way diluting it or losing its profundity and lineage. That’s the genius. And I think we can say that Geshe-la has pulled it off rather masterfully.”
Why does everyone call him “Geshe-la”?
Kadampas regularly refer to Geshe Kelsang as “Geshe-la.” This is like an informal title, or a term of endearment. “Geshe” is short for the Tibetan Ge way shey nyen, which literally means “spiritual friend,” and “la” denotes affection or respect.
What people are saying on Facebook so far in response to the question above
From my point of view, NKT is a representation of Geshe-la’s kindness to present Buddha’s teachings to our modern world. His teachings captivate the western audience and encourage us to finally put Buddha’s teachings into practice. ~ Geronimo Esparza-Dykstra
Yes, a MUCH happier mind thanks to Geshe-la. Buddha was right, pass it on! ~ Sara Pitt
Well, NKT has meant to me a much calmer mind to allow me to be who I truly am. ~ Rita Marie Loy
It means balance. ~ Gail Dyson
The practice of universal love for all living beings (seen and unseen). ~ Brenda McI
NKT Day means a celebration of the path towards mental freedom and more compassion in the world, one heart at a time! ~ Ike Lichtenstein
To celebrate our good fortune of having such a wonderful tradition and web of kindness. Thanks Geshe-la! ~ Kelsang Chokyi
As time goes by the meaning goes deeper and is less easy to express in words. I’ve always liked the idea though… as I learn to relax and be natural, how more & more the warmth of my Guru’s blessings seep in, and slowly each one of the 1,000 petals of the lotus of my heart start to open. ~ Kelsang Lekpa
Wisdom and compassion. ~ Francesca Gallo
Appreciation for these wonderful teachings, teachers and Sangha… off and online. ~ Bill Purchase
NKT: giving Westerners a rare access point to the precious Buddhadharma since 1991. ~ Thomas Ythan Jones
I think NKT Day is like King Yeshe O day. It reminds me of the effort and sacrifice made by Geshe-la and many others to keep pure Buddhadharma alive in the world. ~ Sally Carter
Every day is NKT day for me. Every day I thank Geshe-la and request him to keep me in his service for as long as space exists. ~ Hank Ford
What others have been saying elsewhere…
I live in a small town in the UK that has very little culture or religious diversity. There is a beautiful New Kadampa Tradition centre in the town with 2 shrine rooms. Other than this there is no sign of Buddhism or Buddha’s teachings nearby, so I feel very grateful for Geshe Kelsang’s hard work in spreading Dharma in so many places in this modern world. Without his efforts there would be no Dharma in this area.
Geshe Kelsang must have gone through a lot of difficulties in the beginning when he first arrived in the western world. It was a completely different environment for him, the weather, the food, the culture, the language etc. Despite the difficulties he faced, he managed to spread the Dharma so far and wide.
NKT have grown from strength to strength and become so much of an inspiration for so many other centres around the world. My own Lama and center refers often to the works of Geshe-la and use his books as study materials. So it’s not just the people who are his direct students from NKT. I hope people know that it is also many other Buddhists around the world, like my own little Sangha, who are benefitting from his teachings and compassion.
There’s a lot more where this came from.
*Okay, I know, “short” is relative
Your turn: What, if anything, does NKT Day mean to you?