21 Feb 2012. I've posted another article on this subject here: http://www.wiseattention.org/2012/02/nkt-succession-and-the-rules/ bringing the discussion up to date in 2012
A little noticed recent development in Britain’s fragmented Buddhist world is the resignation in February of Gen Samden Gyatso—the thirty-something heir designate to the leadership of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT)—as the movement’s Deputy Spiritual Director. If you follow links to Samden on the NKT’s webpage they will take you, in a somewhat Orwellian manner, to his replacement, Kelsang Khenrab, with no word of explanation of how or why the change took place.
Samden has been groomed for a decade as the successor to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the NKT’s founder and teacher. A participant on the e-sangha newsgroup received the following reply to her enquiry about the change from the NKT’s headquarters at Manjushri Centre in Cumbria, UK: “Gen-la Samden recently resigned as the NKT's Deputy Spiritual Director, and with Venerable Geshe-la's blessing has embarked upon a retreat. We understand that Gen-la found the prospect of eventually becoming the NKT's General Spiritual Director too heavy.” As well as this explanation, perhaps rather predictably, rumours regarding Samden’s ‘conformity with his vows’ were circulating on the web prior to his resignation.
I hope my mentioning this change does not seem like either prurience of schadenfreude. Although my own approach to the Dharma is very different from that of the NKT, I have been interested to watch the movement’s progress. Even more than the FWBO, the NKT is stigmatized by many other Buddhists, and ties between Geshe Kelsang and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist community have long been severed. Conversely, NKT members tend to idealise its approach as ‘pure’ and ‘uncontaminated’. While I find this conflict sad, I don’t subscribe to either viewpoint, which means that—for all the disputes and stigmatisation—I regard NKT members as fellow Buddhists, just like their critics, and would like to feel a connection with them as such.
Perhaps fired by the purists’s sense of conviction, the NKT has ballooned dramatically from eight centres and twenty groups at its foundation in 1991, to over two hundred centres and around eight hundred groups in 2007. That’s a truly astonishing rate of growth, which shows no signs of abating, and one consequence must surely be that it places great strain on the relatively small number of experienced practitioners.
Reading the comment on Samden I felt sympathy for him. As I understand it, Geshe Kelsang in his role as the NKT’s Spiritual Director, remains the only person who can ordain new NKT monks and nuns, and I assume (though I don’t know) that he also retains the sole ability to impart certain tantric initiations and to authorise others to pass them on. And he is the author of the only books that are studied in the NKT training programmes and sold in its centres. The NKT is Geshe Kelsang’s creation, and while he avoids making grand status claims for himself, his movement’s faith-orientation means that a good deal of adulation surrounds him. This is reinforced by its complete separation from other Tibetan teachers.
In other words, filling Geshe Kelsang’s shoes is bound to be a daunting prospect for anyone. One interviewee in David Kay’s excellent book Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain, which includes eighty very well researched pages on the NKT, writes “The NKT hierarchy is Geshe Kelsang; then there’s a successor, someone who will be Spiritual Director of the NKT after Geshe Kelsang passes away; and then there’s everyone else, all on the same level really.” (p.84) I have never met Samden, but by the account of the NKT statement it seems that, whatever qualities he may have, he found this elevated and isolated position too great a load. If the strain resulted in some infractions of monastic code before he put the burden down (and I am not saying that there were any), perhaps that is forgivable.
Ten years ago, the NKT’s previous Deputy Spiritual Director, the charismatic Thubten Gyatso, was forced by Geshe Kelsang to disrobe, causing great consternation among NKT followers, because he had broken his monastic vows. Thubten Gyatso had been praised in the same idealizing terms as those applied to Geshe Kelsang: I recall seeing him referred to as his heart-son, Dharma heir and as a second ‘fully authorised teacher’. I haven’t seen the quite same rhetoric around Samden, and Khenrab seems less likely again to attract it. I’ve met him a few times and he found him a likeable, down-to-earth man and a very steady presence, but hardly in the mould of the powerhouse that Thubten Gyatso is reported to have been. He seems such a modest man that I don’t think he would mind my saying this.
I wish Khenrab luck, but it does strike me that the NKT’s succession difficulties are a product of the position the movement has got itself into. The emphasis on the guru in Tibetan Buddhism, which becomes idealization through the practice of regarding them as a Buddha (or perhaps, in Geshe Kelsang’s case, the mouthpiece of the Buddha), inevitably elevates him or her above most other Sangha members, meaning that you can’t easily choose or legitimise a successor by electing them, even if the election is restricted to a small number of senior people. In certain cases, senior lamas may be appointed, by a small conclave of their peers, but the NKT has excluded such figures. The tulku system offers an alternative whereby the teacher is succeeded by the child in whom they are considered to have been reborn. A current, and surely rather bizarre variant is the Shambhala movement, where Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche has been replaced by his biological son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
Geshe Kelsang has renounced this system—there seems to be no talk of looking for his tulku when the day comes. And such is his isolation that there is no chance of finding another Tibetan to lead the NKT. But Geshe Kelsang also insists on the importance of lineage and transmission—indeed he legitimises his own position through his claims to be the lineal successor to Tsongkhapa and his Kadampa heirs. Geshe Kelsang is clearly comfortable with this role, but I wonder if it is realistic to expect a westerner to adopt it. Western culture stresses individuality rather than lineage, and any westerner who is strong enough to offer effective leadership to a movement as large as the NKT will surely have his or her own ideas and approaches, which are liable to stray from the orthodoxy that Geshe Kelsang has laid down. If traditional mode produces a fiction of unalloyed transmission, a modern mode produces the anxiety of influence, and Geshe Kelsang’s influence must surely be very strong. It is his steely determination that has led the NKT to separate itself from other Tibetan Buddhists. Would a successor be willing or indeed able to sustain this stance?
The issue of succession affects all Buddhist traditions in both Asia and the West that place a strong emphasis on teachers. I have been involved in the FWBO’s struggles in this regard (as recounted in my article Growing Pains) where our emerging response seems to be not replacing Sangharakshita, and alongside that moving away from an emphasis on the teacher. Each tradition has own version of what to do when a key teacher passes away. The NKT’s attempt—appointing a successor in advance—seems to be failing before it is put to the test. I think they need look at other models, such as collegiate leadership, and I expect they will. But I also wonder if the problem goes deeper and connects with their emphasis on a single, dominant figure, the importance of faith in him, their dependence on a simplified version of traditional Buddhist modes of thought to the exclusion of western ones, and their isolation from any other Buddhist teachers. It seems unlikely that Geshe Kelsang would countenance a change to that, but perhaps it will be forced upon his successors.