Thursday, May 03, 2007

NKT Succession & Questions of Authority

21 Feb 2012. I've posted another article on this subject here: 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.


Jayarava said...

Hi Vishvapani,

An interesting article. I'd like to suggest that you add a few links to it - when you mention the NKT website, or your own article, you should create a hypertext link to them. That way is it easy for people to follow up those mentions.

A peripheral benefit is that Google will rate the text higher if you have outgoing links.


Henrique said...

Someone pointed me out this article and I must say that I find it very interesting. You raise some interesting points that really need a great deal of though on the behalf of NKT’s leadership.

viryabodhi said...

hi vishvapani,

yes, indeed an interesting article. i would agree with jayarava, that you should do what you can to promote your writings, even though you may not know how.

as for your suggestion that in the fwbo we are leaving an emphasis on the 'teacher' i'm not quite sure what you mean. that would need a bit of unpacking for me. for me pesonally the teacher, be it Sangharakshita or somebody else i regard with much repsect, is certainly a very important figure - dead or alive.


Vishvapani said...

Hi Viryabodhi (and others)

Thanks for your comments. One way I am making my writing known is via my website at I am hoping to start posting more regularly on this site as well—I think that's how blogs get known, isn't it? Thanks for the html tips Jayarava.


beeflin said...

Just the kind of musings that the NKT needs to embark upon itself. At the ordinary devotee level, there is so much faith in Geshe Kelsang that it seems impossible to see beyond him. As you say, the most charismatic leader seem to have already tried and failed to establish himself. There is an unenviable choice between character and orthodoxy. But I reckon orthodoxy will win. It may well be better to have a guru who says exactly what he should rather than one with strong individualism. The real problem as far as I can see is the continuing attempt to maintain an ordained sangha in the midst of ordinary life. There is simply not enough support for monks and nuns to make the lifestyle sustainable.

Kelsang said...

The NKT memebers dependence on their Spiritual guide is a strong theme in the movement. The issue of Samden leaving, especially under a cloud, is rather tragic for some practitioners. This tragedy, in my opinion, comes from the "pure view' approach adopted by the Tibetan schools in general. It is a philosophy that is a natural extension of the teachings on emptiness. Indeed, one could say, the NKT is centered around the emptiness approach. The idea is that an enlightened person does not view others with fault; because all things are devoid of inherent existance this is a possibility. So then, when one 'believes' or views their Spiritual guide or their teacher as a Buddha they are seeing a person without fault. A person that accomplishes this is manifesting the purity of their own mind. Geshe Kelsang and others are not responsible for this view, the practitioner is. The tragedy is this, one that has developed this pure view is disillusioned when the person they established this condition towards - leaves. It is easy to see that it would be difficult to re-establish this special view again & again. This approach has its benefits and its obvious pitfalls. I think it is appropriate to develop strong compassion for those affected. The NKT's growth is, in my opinion, a result of some superb wisdom that is available through their centers. People find that when applied it works. Conversely, in my opinion, the later teachings can be rather overbearing for a lay practitioner and even for ordained members, without the support typically associated with Buddhist Nations. I think Geshe Kelsang and the NKT has benefited the world. I do not agree with all the policies, etc.., but I am glad they exist. It would, in my opinion, be foolish to consider such practitioners non-Buddhists. Indeed they train in the basic elements of Dharma. If one disputes whether or not it is true Buddhism, their is room for this arguement, but not because of anything Geshe Kelsang has invented. Indeed, it is the tantric aspect adopted by all Tibetan schools that may be in question by older traditions. Some may regard these aspects as an influence of other Indian traditions. As for the legitimacy of Geshe Kelsang and the NKT because of separation from other Tibetans... this is not the way to determine legitimacy. Approval or disapproval from that which is possibly corrupt is not a confirmation of another entities condition. I think the best way is to examine the teachings and methods prescribed by the the NKT. Since there are many lineages, and have been since the early years, it is best to decide by direct observation. In my opinion, the practice of charging money for some of the teachings is abhorrent. Buddha chastised those that did, so should we. But this is not exclusive to the NKT. I think Tibetans, even high Lamas, should re-consider this approach. If tradition has adopted such a policy then I think any such claim of purity must be abandoned, as per Buddha's policy outlined in the Vinaya. If one claims that it is appropriate to charge for teachings today, I disagree.

I have heard Samden teach. He had much wisdom. As for charisma, I have never seen a charismatic person in the NKT, especially Geshe Kelsang. My experience with Geshe Kelsang sitting in front of him has been very positive. I would say I had not witnessed humility in my life until I had witnessed him teach. I am glad I have that image to strive for. I have met many sincere practitioners trying to purify their minds of non-virtue as Buddha suggested. May they all succeed and may their methods be reliable to that end. Thank you for writing your article, and for reading this comment. I hope it was beneficial.
Best wishes,

Over the Rainbow said...

The NKT has changed its approach to succession (for want of a better word). Now according to their own internal rules: Their deputy Spiritual Director will become spiritual director for a maximum of four years after which the next deputy spiritual director will take over, and so on. Whoever becomes the head of the tradition (or spiritual director) must step down after four years and cannot extend or be returned to the post. This will take the pressure/ emphasis off one teacher and will allow the focus to remain on trying to teach and gain experience of the current books Geshe Kelsang has written. These books Geshe Kelsang continually states are not to be regarded as his. He says that he has tried to put down for western people the essential teachings of Je Tsongkhapa (who himself only aimed to give explanation of Buddha Shakyamuni's teachings). As a result it will be Je Tsongkhapa who is to be relied upon for future generations who will be studying the books of Geshe Kelsang under whoever is the current (changing four yearly) head of the tradition at that time. This is in an effort to return as much attention as possible to the study and realisation of the teachings presented.

Alex Khype said...

Thanks to you all. Your article and comments have been very useful.

Vishvapani said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vishvapani said...

This post is now five years old, though I note that quite a few people are still reading it. Since I posted it the NKT has developed a much more elaborate structure and constitution, which is posted online here:

I hope to comment further on my Wise Attention blog, and I'd be grateful for any pointers to useful discussions and responses to the new situation.