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. Samsaraneeds 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 ourordinary 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.

The old days

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 middle class and monochrome, because you have to start somewhere and England was a 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 are most welcome. Seriously! Please write something below. 

Related articles

What is modern Buddhism for?

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

A light in the darkness

 

From division to unity

An article co-written by a friend and me. 

One of Buddha Shakyamuni’s qualities is that he has love and compassion without discrimination. Sometimes we fantasize about Buddha’s time, as if it was always peaceful and magical. But the truth is that Buddha went against the grain of his society and invited everyone into the spiritual community — men, women, kings, queens, those of the lowest caste, those shunned by society, even thieves and murderers. This speaks to the foundation of the teachings — that they are for everyone. These teachings, which provide freedom, provide this freedom for everyone. It was powerful then and it is powerful now.

Tibet was pretty feudal, not the most progressive society in the world by any means. Although there were spiritual masters and Yoginis of staggering power, Dharma teachings and teachers were largely confined to the monasteries; and for whatever reason society as a whole was static for centuries. We have a better opportunity than practitioners in Tibet to use Buddhist ideas to make a difference in our world because we are already democratic in theory and because of modern communications. The last time that Venerable Geshe Kelsang, originally from Tibet, visited the States, he praised Western countries:

I find in Western countries very good examples. For example, in Europe and in America, according to their constitutions, everyone is equal. They’ve even made it into law. There is equal education, equal rights, equal freedom for free speech, no discrimination between different races, no discrimination between different religions.

 On paper at least we are doing very well, and this is actually a wonderful achievement. The truth is that you cannot find one single person who is more important than everyone else, or even more important than anyone else. We are equal. We believe it in principle. However, as we know, we don’t always believe or live this truth in practice. Why? Geshe Kelsang explained:

It is so difficult to put this law into practice because we cannot help but discriminate naturally. Due to our self-cherishing mind thinking “I am important” and ignoring others’ happiness, even though the law says everyone is to be treated equally we are not doing this practically. The government constitutions saying “Everyone is equal” looks like a Mahayana Buddhist idea; but we can’t do it practically. 

When Gen-la Dekyong was talking about this in this year’s Summer Festival, she said we need to check inside our heart: “Am I discriminating that everyone is equal? When we think I, I, mine, mine, we naturally cherish that I, thinking it is most important, and neglect others.” As Geshe-la says:

We can’t practice equality if we have never trained in thinking ‘Self-cherishing is bad. It causes problems and suffering.’ Thus the constitution is the law and Mahayana Buddhism is the practice of this law.

As Buddha’s ideas spread into the modern world at large, where everything is connected, we now have a new and inspiring opportunity to use them to reshape our society and become truly democratic. Everyone can make use of these ideas, not just Buddhists, for they are in many ways just super-charged common sense.

Over to my co-writer again for some very helpful suggestions on how we can get started.

Equalizing self and others

If we want to move from division to unity, if we want true equality, one way is to practice equalizing self and others. We can contemplate this for example: 

Just as we value our own peace and happiness, so too should we value the peace and happiness of all living beings; and just as we work to free ourself from suffering and problems, so too should we work to free others. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness 

If we’re going to get to true or actual equality, equalizing is what we each need to practice. This is a very deep attitude, a deep spiritual conversion of our heart. Believing that other people’s happiness is equally or at least as important as our own, we will really help them and pray for them. 

If we all go deep into this, how would it affect the people around us? How would our world change as a result? I think our personal world would change immensely, and the immediate world of our family and community would also change. Our contribution, our influence, would be powerful.

We need to examine our own perceptions and attitudes through introspection or meditation; this is our responsibility. What about those who are not doing this though, who are careless with their self-cherishing, who don’t even know or care that they have it? 

The only appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is compassion. Sometimes it is necessary to force those who are behaving in very deluded ways to stop both for their own sake and to protect other people, but it is never appropriate to blame or become angry with them. ~ Eight Steps

Which means to hate them. We know this. To hate someone who is acting out of ignorance or hatred is no better. It is no solution. It is a deeper transformation of our mind to see that people are being harmed by their hatred as opposed to being their hatred. It takes the wisdom born from meditation to really see the difference between a delusion and a person. It’s not intellectual.  

We are all family

Right now, there’s a lot of division. Broadly speaking, we have friends, we have people we don’t like, and we have a huge group inbetween for whom we feel nothing at all. This is all mis-identification because, according to Buddha, we are all family. We have all been each others’ mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters a million times over. Through the countless rebirths we have had, we’ve changed our relationships repeatedly. We have taken a different rebirth now, but that doesn’t mean the connection we’ve had is gone — it does still exist. We are connected deeply. 

Along with this basic category of friends, enemies, and strangers, we further divide ourselves up in so many different ways: by culture, race, sexual preferences, politics, income, and more. So then what happens? We develop attachment for the people who seem to be like us or who agree with us. And we develop unpleasant feelings — maybe even hatred — for people who do not seem to be like us or who do not subscribe to our views. Doesn’t this sound like what we do!? We create division. We’re fractured.

Dualistic thinking

Just to get profound for a bit … on the deepest level, the origins of these classifications and divisions are what we call “dualistic appearance” and “dualistic grasping.” There’s the truth or reality of me, and there’s also what appears to be me. We see these two things to be separate when they are not

For example when you go to work there’s a professional you in your uniform, then when you go home there’s an at-home you in your old comfy jeans. The professional you is not different from the at-home you — they are just different aspects of what appears to be you. The truth of you is that you are undefined and unlimited in aspects. Gardening you, jogging you, angry you, happy you. There are so many aspects or appearances of you! All of these “you’s” are unified in your truth, which is what Buddha called your emptiness. 

One way to look at it is this — you are truly empty of definition. You are the unlimited possibility of emptiness. It’s a very positive liberating emptiness!  

Your emptiness, or lack of true definition, is how the many aspects or appearances of you are possible in the first place. For the sake of argument, if you really were just one of these aspects entirely, defined only in that one way, the other aspects of you would be impossible. However, how you live your varied life every day in all these aspects tells you what’s really going on. 

All of these modes of you, these ways of being, exist because of your lack of true definition. Your unlimited true nature (your emptiness) and your various aspects are unified.  However we normally perceive these two, our emptiness and our aspects, as two different things, which is called dualistic appearance or mistaken appearance. Out of deep habit we believe this difference or inner division to be true, which is called dualistic grasping. From The Mirror of Dharma:

When we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. However, we do not understand this because of our ignorance. We normally see our body as something that exists from its own side. This is mistaken appearance. ~ The Mirror of Dharma

Whether talking about our body or our self, we are perceiving something that is true as well as something that is not true. We perceive our emptiness, because emptiness is our true way of being, yet we don’t apprehend or relate to it. Instead we see and relate to an ordinary limited self that is independent in its way of being. 

For example, we can think “I’m stuck,” and have this strong sense of a limited real self, yet not understand how that sense of self depends upon our way of thinking and is therefore empty of being stuck, not really stuck! Our mind is obscured by confusion, although the truth is already before us. 

Becoming whole

If our confused mind is creating division in ourself at a very deep level, you better believe it’s going to divide everyone and everything else up too. However, due to Buddha’s great and practical wisdom, we can remedy this situation. We can become whole — individually and collectively. 

If we believe that there is an independent me or self, then this means there’s an independent you or other too. We have divided ourselves into independent me and independent you. Or into real, or actual, self and other. 

Then come the many layers of classification and division that pile on from that ignorance. We believe in so many things that don’t exist from their own side! We put everything into separate boxes, not seeing their interconnection and 100 percent mutual dependence. Understanding the origin point of the mistake, we can address it or abandon it, as Buddha explains fully in the four noble truths

Uprooting systemic ignorance 

Samsara, from a Buddhist definition, is the cycle of impure life — a life that is created by this dualistic self-grasping ignorance along with the self-centeredness (Me first!) that goes with it. This world that we normally see is definitely impure life — created, controlled, and perpetuated by ignorance. It is not so hard to see this truth when it is pointed out. The root of samsara is deep, deep systemic ignorance, and it is therefore pervaded by systemic division and systemic inequality.

The inequality that we see in society is a manifestation of the deep levels of samsaric divisiveness. Because in the origin point of our thinking there is a false duality, everything else is a projection of this duality, this separation, this division. However, instead of believing in an objective or actual “self” and “other” — or an independent me divided from an independent you — we can learn to see ourselves as gathered together into one. Parts of a whole. Unified in truth.

Abolishing inequality

Going back to equalizing, we can see for a start that each one of us is interconnected in a dimensionless, huge, universal wish to be happy and free. We are unified or one in this wish. We can easily begin to overcome our mistaken divisiveness by seeing and feeling that we are all interconnected rather than independent. It’s so necessary, because this view of independence is literally killing us.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Loving others is principally an attitude of mind. The way in which we express it depends upon the needs, wishes, and situations of each individual as well as our karmic connection with them. We cannot physically care for everyone, but we can develop a caring attitude towards all beings. This is the main point of training the mind.

We can spend weeks, months, our whole life on deeply seeing others’ happiness and freedom as important as our own, and developing a caring attitude towards them. If we can do this, we will move beyond division. When we do this, we become someone who creates harmony, who creates peace, who can repair trouble. We become more and more fearless, an abolitionist of inequality. We have the methods. We’ve got such clear instruction that holds incredible power. We’ve got the wish and people are waiting.

Over to you. Please leave your comments and questions for us in the comments so we can answer them.

Related reading 

The meditation on equalizing self and others 

What is self-cherishing and what is wrong with it?

What can we really know about anyone? 

Living beings are not their delusions