My biggest inspiration for this blog is my Buddhist teacher, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche, whom I was lucky enough to have in my life from 1981 until last September, 2022, when he passed away. He is still and forever in my heart.
If you want to know more about his life and works, I recommend this page on the official Kadampa website.
It would take too many books to explain his whole life, not just because he accomplished such a crazy amount in one lifetime but because individuals who knew him also have so many stories to tell. It is as if he was everywhere all at once! So I’m just going to say a few things about him here, and then link to some articles related to him that you can find on this blog. And Venerable Geshe-la himself suggested that if people wanted to know his biography, they should read “The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra”.
Geshe-la was born in 1931 in a remote village high on the eastern Tibetan plateau to a humble farming family. He wished to be ordained from an early age, and his mother agreed when he was 8-years-old; at which point he went to Jampa Ling Monastery (a monastery he later renovated). He spent the next twenty years there and at the large monastic college of Sera Je, studying all the Sutra teachings of Buddha, including the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras, the Madhyamika (Middle Way) philosophy, and the Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology and metaphysics). In 1959 he was awarded a Geshe degree — “Geshe” is short for “ge way shay nyen”, literally meaning “virtuous spiritual friend”. This is the highest academic degree awarded in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and considered a mark of great achievement in the study of Buddhist philosophy. He also received Tantric empowerments and commentaries, primarily from his own Spiritual Guide, Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang. He was also known in Tibet as a great healer — when he visited Tibet in the early eighties with some of his Western disciples, they were astonished to see that the line of people wanting his hands-on blessings and healing lasted from dawn till dusk each day.
When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, Geshe Kelsang fled to India and entered a life of meditation, engaging in retreat first near the Nepali border and later in the mountains of northern India. Over the years he developed a reputation as a great meditator, with many coming to regard him as a modern-day Mahasiddha. During these deep retreats he also made a strong connection with Je Tsongkhapa, who transmitted to him the Ganden Oral Lineage.
After almost twenty years in retreat, at the behest of his own Spiritual Guide, Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang, Geshe Kelsang accepted an invitation to travel to the United Kingdom, arriving on August 27th, 1977. There he become one of two Geshes at what was then a fledgling Buddhist center, Manjushri Centre, which had recently acquired (for £70,000 pounds!) the large shambling Conishead Priory, in great need of repair. Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, as it is now known, is the Mother Centre of the New Kadampa Tradition; and Geshe-la lived and taught there for many years. He also returned there last year (2022), after many years away, to spend his last months.
Ven Geshe-la also used Manjushri Institute (as it was then) as his base for setting up his first Centre in York, England in 1979, known as Madhyamaka Centre, which is where I first met him. In 1984 we bought the very beautiful Kilnwick Percy Hall, which is the home of Madhyamaka Kadampa Meditation Centre to this day. Geshe-la visited Madhyamaka Centre frequently, experimenting with the various study programs until he settled on the three programs the NKT uses today – the Teacher Training Program, the Foundation Program, and the General Program. This period produced most of the early NKT teachers, who went on to bring Kadampa Buddhism to other parts of the UK, the US, and the world. For many years, Madhyamaka Centre was also home to Tharpa Publications and the editing and publication of most of Geshe-la’s books — something that I again was lucky enough to be involved in for about 20 years. The earliest NKT Festivals took place between Manjushri Centre and Madhyamaka Centre, one week at each. I have only returned to Madhyamaka Centre a couple of times, but the moment I start walking up the driveway my heart fills with softness and deep peace – it is an incredibly blessed place.
Not long after establishing Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe-la opened Tara Centre (first in Buxton), which has produced many of today’s most well-known NKT teachers and managers. As well as visiting Manjushri Centre, I hope you get a chance to visit both these historic Centers someday. After this, he founded hundreds of other Centers around the world, in cities as far afield as Perth, Australia, Queretaro, Mexico and Durban, South Africa. As he said:
“For Buddhadharma to flourish throughout the world and the wishes of all living beings to be fulfilled, this depends totally on the development of qualified Dharma centers. Only Dharma centers provide Dharma teachings, study programs, Dharma books, and other necessary conditions. Without qualified Dharma centers there is no possibility of pure Buddhadharma developing.”
For this purpose, in 1991, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche founded the New Kadampa Tradition ~ the International Kadampa Buddhist Union, which now has Kadampa Centers and practitioners in over 40 countries around the world. This includes six large and stunning Kadampa Temples for World Peace, part of the International Temples Project, visited by many thousands of students and tourists each year. If you have a chance to go to any of the International Festivals, held for the most part at these Temples every year in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, I think you’ll get an inspiring sense of how much Geshe-la and his many disciples have pulled off over the past half century.
Soon after he started teaching, Venerable Geshe-la realized that the Tibetan Geshe program was not going to work for his Western students, and that the majority of them would also not want to learn the Tibetan language in order to take a deep dive into Buddhism. (I learned a bit of written Tibetan, but it would have taken me years to know enough to study Dharma properly). Therefore, with the permission and blessing of Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe-la started to modernize Kadampa Buddhism, without adding or omitting anything. While faithfully preserving the meaning of these ancient teachings, he prepared a new presentation making them easier to understand and apply in the modern world.
Over his lifetime in the West, he gave thousands of teachings; and many of these have been published in 23 highly acclaimed books (and 50 sadhanas or prayer booklets) on Buddhism and meditation that comprise the entire path to enlightenment. These were originally published in English and have now been translated and published in many languages. As he said:
“My books are commentaries to Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings and his teachings are commentaries to Buddha’s teachings. So these books are Buddha’s teachings. People may say that I am the author of Joyful Path of Good Fortune but in reality it is Je Tsongkhapa’s teaching. Dharmapala Dorje Shugden gave encouragement and energy to produce such a book, and helped to gather the necessary conditions and dispel obstacles, but the teachings themselves came from Je Tsongkhapa’s wisdom.”
Geshe Kelsang has also trained hundreds of lay and ordained teachers, including on the more recent so-called “Special” and “Intensive” Teacher Training Programs — and granted ordination to many monks and nuns, who show a really helpful example in our materialistic world.
Venerable Geshe-la has always encouraged people to do meditation retreats through his own love for them — on top of all his retreats back in Tibet and India, in 1987, a bit to our surprise at the time, he also entered into another three-year retreat in Tharpaland, Scotland! He also founded a number of beautiful retreat centers around the world, including in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and the US.
Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso retired from formal teaching in 2009, but continued to work hard writing and advising. As he explains in his book The Mirror of Dharma:
“The Indian Buddhist Master Atisha founded the Kadampa lineage in general, and Je Tsongkhapa founded the New Kadampa lineage in particular. Both lineages are the very essence of Buddha’s teachings and are most suitable for people of this modern age.”
These are the two Buddhist lineages that Venerable Geshe-la has brought into our modern world.
Last but not least, in order for the New Kadampa Tradition to become a democracy that can last for many future generations, Venerable Geshe-la also created a moral discipline guide called the Internal Rules.
As I said at the beginning, you can find out a lot more about Venerable Geshe-la on the official New Kadampa Tradition website.
If I had to summarize this summary … Kadampa teachings emphasize the importance of meditation as the means for achieving real happiness, and the practical application of Buddhist principles in everyday life. Venerable Geshe-la is known for his commitment, skill, and tireless efforts to preserve and spread the authentic teachings of Buddhism throughout the modern world. His presentation retains all the meanings and insights of Buddha’s original teachings in a format that works for modern-day practitioners, meaning that, for the first time, Kadam Dharma is available equally to people everywhere, regardless of nationality, culture, gender, or age. In all these ways and more — and this is really not an over-statement — Geshe-la has made daily inner peace and the attainment of enlightenment a possibility for a vast new global audience.
Some further reading
Extract: “The world has changed dramatically even in the last 30 years, especially with the technological revolution, but the Buddhist teachings are still working. Geshe Kelsang learnt our language fluently and translated everything we needed. When I started we would chant for hours in Tibetan! I kind of liked it, but it was entirely unsustainable even 30 years ago, and is inconceivable now! Most people are lucky if they have half an hour for formal meditation practice these days. So over the years Geshe-la has packed the profundity of the 84,000 teachings of Buddha into fewer and fewer words without losing their meaning; something that can only be pulled off by someone with rare experience and skill. This has culminated most recently in the masterpiece union of Sutra and Tantra, Modern Buddhism ~ The Path of Compassion and Wisdom. These profound yet simple instructions are even available in the most modern of formats, the eBook!
Extract: “Every day seems to bring difficulties and pains — do you know anyone who is as happy as they’d like to be? Why not? It’s not through lack of trying. Maybe it is because we haven’t yet travelled the path to real happiness and freedom. And one reason we have not yet travelled that path is because we have not yet followed a trustworthy guide.
Without a Spiritual Guide to lead us, we have no idea where we are going, existentially speaking. No Google map can point us the way to mental freedom. No YouTube video can show us how to fix the endless pains of our samsara. No pilgrimage to Mecca or even Bodh Gaya can land us in the invisible destination of bliss and emptiness.”
Extract: “He is talking about Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who is also my Spiritual Guide. As I talk about here, our Spiritual Guide can be anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person. We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works.
Practicing Lamrim, which is all the stages of the path to enlightenment, is the way we can go for refuge to Dharma and solve our problems. We need to get our Lamrim instructions from someone who knows them inside out and has complete realizations of all of them. A book alone does not have that living lineage.”
Extract: “If you’ve read the biographies of the great Buddhist masters I mention above, you’ll know that most people had no real clue who they were or how influential they were going to be until later in their lives or even after they’d passed away (if ever). It seemed to dawn on people over time just how incredible these people were. That is not unique to Buddhism – don’t we often only fully appreciate people’s greatness after the fact?
In particular, whenever I read anything about Je Tsongkhapa or by Je Tsongkhapa it feels like I’m reading something about or by Geshe-la. Here’s what it says about Je Tsongkhapa in Great Treasury of Merit, for example:
“Although Je Tsongkhapa was an emanation of Manjushri who possessed clairvoyance and miracle powers, he did not appear as a special, exalted being, but manifested as an ordinary, humble practitioner.”
Geshe-la is truly humble – he has lived simply in modest surroundings all his 90 years, just practicing what he preaches, helping others all day long, completely uninterested in any status or other worldly concerns.”
Extract: “Geshe-la was already well into his forties by the time he arrived in England to bring us – total novices – the entire modern Buddhism. There are now hundreds of thousands of Kadampa students all over the world and he is still going strong. Put that in your pipe and smoke it next time you feel you’re too old or that you’ve left it too late to get anything meaningful done in your life, lol.
Buddha Shakyamuni was the first Buddhist teacher in our particular world to show us a doorway into ultimate truth, the illusory nature of all phenomena — knowledge of which frees our mind. This is a person we can trust…
Extract: “It was not always like this – there was a time when Buddhism was the precinct of monks (and to a lesser extent nuns) in monasteries, not just in Tibet but in other Buddhist countries the world over. Lay people would be considered the less serious practitioners, whose main job was to support the ordained community. Tibetan Buddhism came over to us from a monastic tradition, and in the very early days you could be forgiven for thinking you had to be a monk and sit in your room all day long to get anywhere, both spiritually AND in the organization. (Not that there is anything wrong with sitting in your room all day long, in fact it can be very helpful — I would submit that we probably all could benefit from more study and meditation if we can carve out the time, especially in these turbulent days. Point being, though, that we can go far by applying the teachings in the midst of a “normal” daily life.)
Extract: “Once we have decided to rely upon a spiritual guide, the big question is – obviously — who?! Who is my Spiritual Guide?
In the book Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang says that our Spiritual Guide
“… is any spiritual teacher who sincerely leads us into spiritual paths by giving correct instructions.”
This can be anyone – from East or West, lay or ordained, male or female etc, black, white, or green with pink spots. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person.
We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works. I can’t tell you who yours is, but I can tell you more about mine.
Venerable Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang
Venerable Geshe-la’s own root Guru and source of inspiration throughout his life was Venerable Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang (1901-1981). Trijang Rinpoche was a highly respected Tibetan Buddhist master and scholar of the Gelug school, which is one of the 4 main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He was the teacher to a great many important Lamas, including Venerable Geshe-la, and was instrumental in preserving and spreading the teachings of the Gelug tradition.
We are encouraged in all schools of Buddhism to find and rely upon a Spiritual Guide, and for me Venerable Geshe-la himself always showed this example. He said:
“I can truly say that meeting Trijang Dorjechang made my life meaningful. Through him I came to understand the real meaning of Dharma. My entire ability to teach and all the help I give comes from this Lama.”
Geshe-la’s disciples could all say something along the same lines for him.
Trijang Rinpoche was born in Tibet in 1901. He began his monastic education at the age of six and went on to study with some of the most important lamas of his time. In 1934, Trijang Rinpoche was appointed as the junior tutor to the 14th Dalai Lama, a position he held for many years. During this time, he played an important role in the Dalai Lama’s education and was instrumental in introducing him to many of the key teachings and practices of the Gelug tradition.
In addition to his work as a teacher and scholar, Trijang Rinpoche was also a prolific writer and commentator on Buddhist philosophy and practice. He wrote numerous texts on a wide range of topics, including Lamrim (the stages of the path to enlightenment), Lojong (mind training), and Tantra.
Trijang Rinpoche was also a strong advocate for the practice of the Wisdom Dharma Protector, Dorje Shugden, which was banned by the Dalai Lama in 1996. Trijang Rinpoche wrote extensively about its benefits, explaining how it was a legitimate and important aspect of the Gelug tradition.