A few years ago I wrote on my previous blog an article called ‘NKT: Succession & Question of Authority regarding difficulties in the New Kadampa Tradition in managing the succession from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso to a new generation. Much has changed in the subsequent five years and I want to comment on the new arrangements.
My general attitude towards the NKT hasn’t changed. As I wrote then:
“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.”
To fill this out a little I will shortly be posting an article I wrote some time ago on the Dorje Shugden dispute.
In 2010 the NKT adopted a new constitution: A Moral Discipline Guide: the Internal Rules of The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union which I recently read it with some interest. Over the years I have been involved in comparable issues in my own movement, which is now called the Triratna Buddhist Community, as recounted in my article Growing Pains: an Inside View of Change in the FWBO, and it’s interesting to me to see how others are addressing similar issues.
I was prompted to write in 2007 by the news that Samden Gyatso, the NKT’s General Spiritual Director (GSD) and appointed successor to the founder Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, had stepped down amid accusations of sexual impropriety. This followed the resignation in similar circumstances of his predecessor, Thubten Gyatso, some years before. Another NKT monk, Kelsang Khyenrab, who I know a little, became the movement’s new GSD (I think this was formalized in 2008), while Kelsang Dekyong, a Norther Irish nun, became the Deputy Spiritual Director (DSD). In 2010 Khyenrab stepped down due to ill-health and Dekyong became the new General Spiritual Director. This seemingly smooth transition all occurred according to the arrangements set out in The Rules.
In my previous article I suggested that more collegiate, cooperative arrangements might evolve. In fact, The Rules centralize organisational and spiritual authority in the General Spiritual Director and Deputy and stipulate a high degree of uniformity across the movement. The GSD and DSD have the power to authorise new NKT centres, grant monastic ordinations, conduct certain tantric empowerments and recommend and or appoint the principal NKT teachers including NKT Centre Directors (points 5.1-7 of The Rules). Indeed, the GSD is ‘the Spiritual Director of each and every NKT-IKBU Dharma Centre’ (1.2). More than this, The Rules state that ‘The GSD shall be regarded as the representative of the Founder of the NKT-IKBU, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.’ This is straightforward in a way: the GSD lives at the Manjushri Institute in Cumbria, which is Kelsang Gyatso’s main residence and presumably works in consultation with him. However, The Rules also outline how the organisation will run after the 81 year-old founder’s eventual demise, which lends this item a somewhat mystical hue. The GSD will be Kelsang Gyatso’s representative even when he is dead: and the whole movement is built around a system of training that involves intensive study of Kelsang Gyatso’s books. No other books are available in NKT centres and reading other expositions of Buddhist teachings is discouraged. There’s an important caveat: the GSD and DSD each serve four year terms and ‘shall not be eligible for immediate re-election’ (5.9). Normally, the Deputy will replace the outgoing General Spiritual Director and will step in if he or she resigns prematurely, as happened in Khyenrab’s case. There are also provisions for removing a General Director who misbehaves in various ways (7.1-4). The new Deputy is nominated by the Directors of the NKT-IKBU charity and elected by the members (the NKT centres).
The main thrust of The Rules is to centralise power within the NKT and enable central bodies to ensure that all NKT activities are in accordance with standard practice. All NKT centres must adopt a model constitution, become members of the overall NKT-IKBU UK-based charity (1.4), and follow its decisions. What’s more, individual teachers can only publicly teach material that accords with NKT doctrines and they may only publish material that has been centrally approved (11.4).
Time will tell how these arrangements work out for the organisation, and I know that in practice things can be rather different from how they seem in theory. Also, I haven’t had a chance to discuss these issues with NKT members to find out how they look from within the organisation. Nonetheless, several points emerge for me in relation to the points I raised in my earlier article. By instituting this rotating leadership the NKT has found a way to limit its dependence on a single individual. That seems prudent and realistic, given their experience with past General Spiritual Directors. However, these arrangements certainly don’t encourage diversity or greater collegiality, moving instead from dependence on a living teacher to dependence on a body of texts and teachings.
In some ways that has always been the NKT’s approach. Geshe Kelsang is considered authoritative because of his ability to pass on and clarify teachings that have come to him through his lineage. The personal qualities his disciples find in him enable him to fulfil this role, but he himself isn’t the primary focus of devotion. NKT literature repeatedly states that the movement presents ‘the pure tradition of Mahayana Buddhism (1) passed down in an ‘unbroken lineage’ that has flowed through Atisha, Tsongkhapa and later Gelugpa teachers. Authority lies with the lineage and Geshe Kelsang is authoritative because he passes that on.
Personally, I find the reliance on lineage problematic, but that’s a much wider issue than the NKT and I intend to write about it in a future blog post. [here] The present point is the NKT’s approach to lineage and authority and where that leaves the organisation. No doubt, having total faith in a particular set of texts brings great clarity and focus, and I assume this is a reason for the phenomenal success of the NKT. In recent years it has left most other Buddhist movements, certainly including my own, far behind in terms of numbers involved and the speed of expansion. There’s a very clear NKT orthodoxy. I don’t think that orthodoxy is necessarily bad, but it easily turns into dogma. Actually, there may even be a case for dogma, but after dogma come intransigence, rigidity and eventually fundamentalism. Writers such as Steven Schettini and Stephen Batchelor have recently written about these tendencies in their Gelug training – the same training that Geshe Kelsang himself received. And while Geshe Kelsang has streamlined Gelug material, his books operate within the same parameters.
Within the framework established by the rules there appears to be no room for divergent views within the organisation, and little room for individual creativity in how the teachings are expressed. It would seem that all NKT centres are being enjoined to keep repeating the same material in the same way in perpetuity under the strict controlling eyes of central NKT authorities. The Rules contain so many safeguards that one can only imagine that they address concern that centres will diverge from standard teaching or leave the NKT altogether, that Resident Teachers will give tantric initiations without authorisation, that senior people will say things that don’t fit with the orthodoxy and that any or all of these things would be a disaster.
My own view, which comes from my experience within the Triratna Buddhist Community, is that there is value in the teacher’s authority but also value in the student’s individuality and capacity to think and understand things for him or herself. I happen to believe that this matches the Buddha’s teachings. I increasingly sense that there is an inevitable tension between autonomy and receptivity for individuals and between order and chaos for organisations. That tension can be creative, and if you try to eliminate it by imposing order and conformity I suspect you create fresh problems. By the way, I don’t think the Triratna Buddhist Community has fully resolved its own issues about authority, leadership and diversity, and I may write more about that as well. However, I do think we have faced them squarely and discussed them from first principles, seeking unity in underlying principles rather than rules and through kalyana mitrata (spiritual friendship) rather than institutional control.
The Rules will make the NKT streamlined, uniform and efficient, but perhaps a certain amount of chaos is an essential ingredient of freedom and creativity. Without these I doubt we can really flourish either as human beings or as Buddhists. I also think that approaching the truth requires an awareness of the contingency, as opposed to the uncontaminated purity, of our beliefs. Sangha – the Buddhist practice of creating spiritual community – requires faith and harmony between individuals, but, for me, a mature engagement with sangha requires space for dialogue, debate, exploration and uncertainty.
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