Modern Day Kadampas

8.5 mins read

Scrolling through the news these days feels a bit like drinking salt water to quench my thirst – I keep vaguely hoping I’ll stumble upon something or someone that can make things better, but I rarely if ever do. This is probably because we cannot make this cycle of impure life called samsara work properly — it is not set up to work, it has not worked since beginningless time, and it is unlikely to start working now.

Better to listen to advice from enlightened beings, if we are lucky enough to stumble into any of that. As Atisha says in his Advice from the Heart

Until you realize ultimate truth, listening is indispensable, therefore listen to the instructions of the Spiritual Guide.

Our samsaric societies have systemic problems such as racism and sexism because samsara’s very source code is corrupted, contaminated by the mental poisons of ignorance, aversion, and uncontrolled desire. Samsara needs to be burned to the ground with wisdom, and a Pure Land built in its place from the source code of renunciation, compassion, wisdom, and the Tantric pure view that sees through our ordinary conceptions to the bliss and emptiness that is already here

A  friend and Yogi in England sends me regular insights and comments from his retreat, and some of you might like this recent one, at least I did:

What day are you reading this, Tuesday? What time is it there? In the world of self-grasping it is Unhappyday every day. No matter what the time, it is unhappy o’clock. In Keajra Pure Land it is Blissday every day and it is always happy o’clock.

Winter is coming

I think it’s always worth remembering that our mental actions or intentions are hundreds of times more powerful than our verbal and physical actions, however necessary these may be. Mental intentions determine the outcome of all our actions or karma, and it is intentionality that creates our experiences, creates our world. This also means that the mental actions of listening to enlightened advice, or Dharma, and working with our minds are never a waste of time but immediately enable us to become a greater source of strength for ourself and others.

This training is going to be very useful as we head into an uncertain winter. There’s no better time than in these coming dark perhaps somewhat solitary months to train as a spiritual warrior, a Bodhisattva, for the sake of our family, friends, community, society, animals, and everyone in the world.

Everyone has freedom

Now back to that Modern Day Kadampas booklet for more about Venerable Geshe Kelsang, as begun in this previous article, A light in the darkness.

Geshe-la has always encouraged his students to present Dharma in a way appropriate to their own culture and society without the need to adopt Tibetan culture and customs. Realizing that it would be difficult for many of his students to learn Tibetan, he taught himself English.

As I’ve mentioned in a few places on this blog, Buddha Shakyamuni was cutting edge in India almost 2600 years ago in ancient India – his teachings and actions freed his followers from the rigid caste system and he ordained untouchables. His Sangha is a classless society.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang has also been cutting edge in today’s world. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to watch this extraordinary person and his disciples change the course of Buddhist history over the past 40 years, and I hope I live long enough to watch some more riveting chapters play out. And, by the way, despite his success in bringing modern Buddhism to our world, Geshe-la has never been partisan. I have never heard him utter anything disrespectful about any other traditions or faiths, Buddhist and not Buddhist. For example, he says in Modern Buddhism (available here as a free ebook, already downloaded a million times): 

Today we can see many different forms of Buddhism, such as Zen and Theravada Buddhism. All these different aspects are practices of Buddha’s teachings, and all are equally precious; they are just different presentations.

He has always spoken up for freedom, “Everyone has freedom!”, and mutual respect.

Beyond politics

From The Internal Rules of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU):

The principal lineage Gurus of the NKT-IKBU are Atisha, of the Old Kadam lineage, and Je Tsongkhapa, of the New Kadam lineage. The New Kadampa Tradition itself is not a Tibetan Buddhist tradition but a completely independent and worldwide Buddhist tradition. The constitution of the NKT-IKBU Charity explicitly forbids the NKT-IKBU to have any political affiliation.

The NKT has divested itself of the political luggage that was carried over from Tibet because Venerable Geshe-la does not agree with mixing religion and politics — any politics, Tibetan or otherwise. We don’t buy into the Tibetan power system, which partly explains why we have sometimes been unpopular amongst Tibetan Buddhists, but also why Kadampa Buddhism is increasingly well received amongst modern people who want to practice Buddhism but have neither interest nor time for learning Tibetan culture, language, or politics.

Back in the day, in England, when I had time on my hands, I personally used to enjoy learning Tibetan and studying old-fashioned style; but I have witnessed how much more accessible is the presentation of Buddha’s teachings and practices now, and how much easier it is to share it with different parts of the world.

Vision

From the start, Geshe Kelsang has been pretty visionary. Again, just from being in the right place at the right time, I was able to ask some questions and receive deep advice over the years about the role of women in Buddhism (because Tibetan society was pretty misogynistic), about the role of lay people (when there was a discouraging wrong view floating about that only monks and nuns could get enlightened), about LGBTQ (Tibetan society was antiquated), and about generally reaching people where they are at as opposed to waiting for them to come to us.

The New Kadampa Tradition started small and English and homogenous, because you have to start somewhere and England was a very good choice; but as the years have flowed by I have watched with awe as Geshe-la has been finding more ways to include and promote women, lay people, children, LGBTQ, people of color, and so on and so forth. Not to mention adapting to countries and cultures all over the world, East and West, over 1200 Centers in 40 countries and counting.

Buddhism is a very forgiving religion because it teaches not to conflate people with their delusions – which is why the scriptures are full of stories of formerly evil people being given the chance to purify and make amends, such as Angulimala or Milarepa, and going onto attain high realizations. At the same time, it is so incredibly important that Buddhist traditions never condone systematic homophobia, racism, intolerance, or abuse.

Over the decades, Venerable Geshe-la has produced and sometimes updated the so-called “Internal Rules” (quoted above), which are vital guidelines on how this tradition can continue to be run smoothly, harmoniously, democratically, and with discipline. He has also appointed nuns and other women to head and run this tradition. This is unheard of in Tibetan circles where privileged monks are the order of the day, rather like white men in the West. Geshe Kelsang has broken all manner of glass ceilings, and I am sure he has a lot more up his sleeve.

Moreover, every time he has brought Buddhism to new countries — whether that be to Spain or to the States or to Brazil or to Malaysia or to South Africa — or to new communities and demographics, our whole Kadampa tradition has gotten so much more rich, vibrant, relevant, and joyful.  

Over the years he has modernized this tradition from many angles, clearing away all that is not necessary or useful for us without in any way diluting Buddha’s message. How many have managed to do what he has done in bringing Buddhism to the lives of so many thousands of people, showing how to transform all the appearances of modern life and make Dharma applicable to the issues of the day? There is nothing to stop us now from gaining enlightenment in the very midst of our regular lives.

No baggage (yet)

This tradition came via India and Tibet and, as mentioned, Geshe Kelsang has skillfully cut away cultural and political accretions that doesn’t serve us whilst keeping the teachings intact. One thing it’s important to take into account in the United States, for example, is that we don’t have the baggage of systemic racism (yet) because we are brand new. Therefore, the question would seem to be, who do we want to be? We have some choice here. As part of a letter received from the Education Council a few months ago, it said:

The NKT does not accept discrimination based on race, gender, background, age, religion, politics, sexual orientation, or otherwise. Everyone is welcome at Kadampa Centers around the world.

It would appear from most of the Kadampas I have spoken to that we want to totally embody our motto “Everyone welcome” by making active and sustained efforts to be thoroughly inclusive, diverse, equal, and so on, to go out of our way to do this. This is both in accordance with Buddha’s teachings and because our tradition will be infinitely stronger if we adopt this approach.

Dharma is for everyone and it works for everyone. This world could do with these ideas spreading everywhere, IMHO, because they can bring about peace wherever they flourish. I think we are nowhere near finished yet in reaching out and growing, boldly going places no one has gone before, and making Buddhism accessible and available to the people of this world. I for one am sure that Venerable Geshe-la is not yet done in finding ways to make everyone feel truly welcome — understanding and embracing the awesome diversity of races and cultures that make up our modern world; and that our tradition will be far more outstanding and dynamic as a result.

Oops, gotta stop there, but I’m not finished talking about Geshe-la yet 😊So in the next article I will explain a bit more about him in particular, and also how we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide in general per Buddha’s advice. 

Over to you! Your comments and stories about Geshe-la are most welcome — please put them in the box below so everyone can read them ….

Related articles

What is modern Buddhism for?

When the student is ready, the teacher appears