Context Changes Everything: Do Geshe-la’s Writings Promote Sectarianism?

ESSAY #2

Context Changes Everything: Do Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s Writings Promote Sectarianism?

Considering the NKT’s position regarding the Tibetan traditions in general, Geshe Kelsang has stated on innumerable occasions that he deeply appreciates all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, praises Buddhist masters from all four schools in his books, and teaches that all four schools provide a complete and valid path to enlightenment. The nearly 4,000 pages of his collected writings contain not a single criticism of any other spiritual tradition, Buddhist or non-Buddhist. (James Belither, former Secretary of the New Kadampa Tradition, talk.religion.buddhism, 22 February 1998)

I invite you to double check the following analysis by David N. Kay from his book Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development, and Adaptation (p. 92, © 2004). Context changes everything, so I have included whatever surrounding text appears relevant, whether it be just a few sentences, one or two paragraphs, or even at times an entire section. See for yourself whether the isolated quotes are in keeping with the spirit of Geshe-la’s writings, or whether we are given the wrong impression when they are taken out of context. You can click on the links below to view the quotations in full and in their original setting. If we want to know the real intended meaning of Geshe-la’s words, it’s best to go directly to the primary source material.

Geshe Kelsang’s texts list the traditional qualities that should be possessed by the ideal spiritual teacher, and he encourages students to check these qualifications thoroughly before relying upon someone as a spiritual guide. This attitude of critical inquiry should be retained throughout a person’s spiritual career (Kelsang Gyatso 1982: 144). Since the creation of the NKT in 1991, this teaching on the importance of personal authority in negotiating the Buddhist path has been overshadowed by an emphasis upon developing ‘unwavering faith and confidence’ in the guru and upon having faith in the teachings ‘even if we do not fully understand them’ (Kelsang Gyatso 1993a: 78). The exclusive emphasis on the authority of Geshe Kelsang is also reflected in the texts. The earlier view that practitioners ‘must depend upon the advice of spiritual guides—fully qualified spiritual masters—and meditate according to their instructions’ (Kelsang Gyatso 1982: 180) was replaced following the NKT’s creation with the narrower claim that they must ‘rely upon a qualified Spiritual Guide and practice precisely according to his or her instructions’ (2nd edn: 190). According to Geshe Kelsang, the student must now ‘be like a wise blind person who relies totally upon one trusted guide instead of attempting to follow a number of people at once’ (Kelsang Gyatso 1991b: 17).

Kay’s report on its own may indeed cause alarm for the reader, but there are a few problems with his interpretations. For example, it is unclear why Kay singled out the one instance in the revised edition of Clear Light of Bliss where the wording was changed from ‘spiritual guides’ to ‘Spiritual Guide,’ when there are other passages throughout the book which retain this plurality. (Click here to see a side-by-side comparison of these passages from the two editions.) Additionally, two of the four quotes cited above are based on figurative language coming from traditional Tibetan analogies. When this is taken into account, Geshe-la’s instructions appear far less extremist than Kay would have us believe. Always presented out of context by critics, the wording of the last quote was derived from a story about the differences between wise blind person and foolish blind person. This particular analogy was never meant as an imperative to take anything on blind faith. Besides, that quote has nothing to do with how many Spiritual Guides someone has but how many Tantric Deities one practices, the ‘one trusted guide’ here being Buddha Vajrayogini for she is the Guide to Dakini Land:

If we continually recite Vajrayogini’s mantra we shall remember the mantra when we are dying, and then, as if in a dream, we shall hear Vajrayogini and her retinue of Dakinis calling us and inviting us to her Pure Land. In this way Vajrayogini will guide us through death and the intermediate state and lead us to the Pure Land of the Dakinis. (pp. 6-7)

These are not the only instances of ‘quote mining’. Elsewhere (p. 60), Kay again neglects the surrounding context that would have shed light on Geshe-la’s intended meaning:

[T]he early texts indicate that Geshe Kelsang’s primary orientation was exclusive. For example, he encourages students to commit themselves to their chosen practice and to follow it exclusively. His critique of students who ‘jump from one meditation to another’ (Kelsang Gyatso 1980: 197) may be an allusion both to the Tibetan practitioners within the Rimed movement who follow multiple lineages of practice, and to the Western trainees encountered at Manjushri Institute who adopted a similar approach to their Buddhist training…. In [Clear Light of Bliss] he maintains that ‘pure’ practitioners within all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions uphold the Prasanghika Madhyamaka view of emptiness, and that without this view, ‘there is no chance of their attaining liberation or enlightenment, no matter how much they meditate’ (Kelsang Gyatso 1982: 192). There is no explicit mention here of Nyingma Buddhism, but the hardline approach taken towards the Prasanghika Madhyamaka school clearly rules Dzogchen out as a valid or legitimate path to enlightenment. Coupled with this is his emphasis upon the importance of refuting ‘mistaken or misleading teachings’ (Kelsang Gyatso 1982: 153).

As described in the previous section of this website, there are both unhealthy and healthy forms of exclusivism, but here Kay seems to equivocate the two. Extreme exclusivism says, “Our tradition is right, and all the others are wrong, so stay away from them,” while moderate exclusivism says, “After choosing the tradition that is right for you, stick with it through to the end.” Unlike the extreme exclusivist, the moderate exclusivist has no interest in criticizing the beliefs of other traditions; it is sufficient merely to state what is relevant (or not) within one’s own school of thought. Geshe-la’s view accords with the latter, cautioning us against being fickle practitioners who do not stay with any one practice long enough to experience its transformative effects; merely dabbling brings no lasting benefits. Next, by looking at the preceding paragraphs leading up to talk of refuting mistaken teachings, it is obvious that Geshe-la was referring to an erroneous Mahamudra teaching, not any Dzogchen teaching. His primary concern in writing a book on Mahamudra is for Mahamudra practitioners to get these particular teachings right. Although Kay claims that “There is no explicit mention here of Nyingma Buddhism,” in fact Geshe-la praises this tradition of Buddhism by name just three paragraphs before, citing the examples of “the great Nyingma Lama, Longchen Rabjampa … and indeed the great Padmasambhava” as followers of Nagarjuna’s Prasangika view. Plus, in Joyful Path of Good Fortune (p. 10), Geshe-la clearly says that Padmasambhava had spread “pure Dharma” in Tibet.

Personally, I have never said that Dzogchen or Nyingma are not Buddhadharma because I respect these traditions. In ‘Joyful Path of Good Fortune’, I said that the teachings of Padmasambhava are pure Buddhadharma. Before Lama Tsongkhapa, Lamas such as Buton Rinpoche, Sakya Pandita, Lotsawa Rinchen Sangpo, debated whether Dzogchen was Buddhadharma or not, but I have never been interested in this debate. If you wish to have a full explanation of what these Lamas said and what other Lamas said to prove the contrary, please ask other Tibetan scholars. I do not wish to become involved in this debate. I respect and appreciate very much the Dzogchen and Nyingma traditions. I rejoice in their practice, and I think that it is very important to respect each other and to keep harmony between traditions. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, alt.religion.buddhism.nkt, 25 November 1997)