British Buddhism [Hardback]

Teachings, Practice and Development

Author : Bluck, Robert

British Buddhism [Hardback]

Book Details

  • Publisher : RoutledgeCurzon
  • Published : 2006
  • Cover : Hardback
  • Pages : 218
  • Size : 240 x 160mm
  • Catalogue No : 14997
  • ISBN 13 : 9780415395151
  • ISBN 10 : 0415395151
Wisdom Price : £67.50
Publishers Price : £75.00 (Save 10%)
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A 'post-Tibetan' Western organization?

NKT centres are described as 'legally and financially independent', bound together by devotion to Geshe Kelsang, rather than 'organizational or financial structures' ('Over the Moon', 1992: 46). However, the NKT constitution -designed to 'protect the Centres from corruption and degeneration' - firmly restricts them to 'protecting and promoting the pure tradition of Je Tsongkhapa' and determines their management structure, with separate spiritual and secular roles ('A Healthy Constitution', 1992: 36). These include a resident teacher, an education programme coordinator, and an administrative director. Each centre must also follow a consistent pattern of teaching content and method, and Kay's description of the NKT as 'uniform and centrally administered' (2004: 85) may not be unfair.

Apart from Geshe Kelsang, there are no ethnic Tibetans in the NKT, and no remaining links with the rest of Tibetan Buddhism. Belither (2004) described the NKT as 'a Mahayana Buddhist tradition with historical connections with Tibet', rather than a Tibetan tradition, and he explained that Geshe Kelsang wishes his followers always 'to present Dharma in a way appropriate to their own culture and society without the need to adopt Tibetan culture and customs' (Belither, 1997:
7-8). However, there remains an apparent contradiction between claiming a pure Tibetan lineage and complete separation from contemporary Tibetan religion, culture and politics.

While (Jeshe Kelsang's role as spiritual guide is crucially important, there is no 'hard line' enforcing his instructions and individuals may regard him as an authoritative teacher or a spiritual friend offering advice (Namgyal, 2004). However, Kay (2004: 94) found the role of NKT teacher described as a 'channel' for transmitting Geshe Kelsang's teachings 'without colouring them with their own personal ideas', and one saw himself as 'a talking book' where 'Geshe-la's teachings come through your mouth'.

Until recently Geshe Kelsang himself has 'always been available for private consultations' to support students with any difficulties, though he has recently moved from Manjushri to a secret retreat house in the United States to 'regain his strength for his teaching commitments and his writing', and to allow other teachers to take on more responsibility (Belither, 2004). His senior disciple Gen-la Samden is now resident teacher at Manjushri, and continues to offer individual advice to community members on their practice.

Waterhouse (1997: 139-40) found that while ordination is often 'the normal progression for unmarried members', there is also considerable emphasis on lay practice, in contrast to Tsongkhapa's 'strict monastic rule' in Tibet, where tantric practice was restricted to experienced monks. Unlike the Karma Kagyu tradition, frill ordination is not available, and those who do ordain remain as novices, though again this is common in Tibet. Namgyal (2004) explained that NKT monks and nuns are simply described as 'ordained', and usually take the name 'Kelsang' from Geshe Kelsang, who still ordains all monastics personally. NKT ordination vows have been slightly modified to be 'more appropriate for westerners' (Waterhouse, 2001: 139): vows are always taken for life, though some monastics have disrobed over the years.

There is less separation between monastics and lay people than in some other traditions. Geshe Kelsang (1997: 169) defines Sangha traditionally as 'four or more fully ordained monks or nuns' but adds that this may also include 'ordained or lay people who take Bodhisattva vows or Tantric vows'. Monastics no longer sit in the traditional order of precedence, which was seen as peripheral, and Geshe Kelsang has encouraged 'more integration' between monastics and lay people (Pagpa, 2004), which may begin to blur the distinction between them.

Most teachers are appointed to centres by Geshe Kelsang before they have completed the Teaching Training Programme and continue studying by correspondence, with an intensive study programme at Manjushri each summer. After 4 years as a resident teacher, monastics take the title 'Gen' and lay teachers become 'Kadam' (Namgyal, 2004). Most resident teachers are ordained, with only a few centres having a lay teacher, though local branch classes are often taught by lay students (Prasad, 2004). Kay (2004: 85) found that lay people were almost as likely as monastics to be given teaching and leadership roles; and he sees this as an important Western adaptation of Gelug Buddhism, again because this includes tantric practices which Tsongkhapa restricted to those with 'a solid grounding of academic study and celibate monastic discipline'.

The image of the family is widely used in NKT literature. Kay (2004: 111) described how Manjushri is called the movement's 'mother centre', with festivals as 'family reunions', and followers as 'the sons and daughters of the same father '. This 'primary metaphor' is used, he suggests, to support group commitment and to evoke 'the traditional qualities that are considered lacking within modern society'.

Waterhouse (1997: 17Sf.) found no discrimination between monks and nuns, with 'many well-respected nuns who play leading roles', although one woman was ~uneasy about having to remain a ten-precept nun' and was unaware of the wider debate about women's ordination in Buddhism. The ordination of Kelsang Rigma, a married woman with five children, who lived with her family as the resident teacher at the Hull centre, showed that the NKT 'values not only the contribution which women can make but also the parental role'. Kay (2004: 85) also found men and women acting equally as teachers and leaders, partly due to the emphasis on the bodhisattva vows, which 'cut across the traditional hierarchies - including gender-based distinctions - that are considered irrelevant to Buddhist practice in the West'.

Soon after its formation the NKT became a registered charity to help raise and distribute funds. Fees are charged for meetings, payable at the door or by a monthly 'Centre Card' covering all local classes (Waterhouse, 1997: 144). The Manjushri Spring and Summer Festivals generate considerable income from the 2,000 or more lay and monastic guests. Like Samye Ling there are fixed charges for accommodation and courses, and a large shop and general stores sells Geshe Kelsang's books, CDs of sadhanas and statues.

More controversially, Bunting (1996b: 26; 1996c: 9) claimed that monastics changed out of their robes to sign for state benefits, residents financed NKT centre mortgages with their housing benefit, some members were pressurized into donating money through covenants or loans and the movement had acquired large properties including 'several stately homes'. Waterhouse (1997: 144) reported properties being bought and renovated as local centres, with set board and lodging fees for residents who were often on state benefits, and she questioned whether those on the Teacher Training Programme were genuinely available for work.

All such accusations of wrongdoing were vigorously denied by interviewees. who explained that using housing benefit to support mortgages is wholly legitimate and that monastics often have part-time work and may wear ordinary clothes if this is more convenient (Namgyal. 2004). While smaller centres may struggle financially, donations were always voluntary. Manjushri's large community and popular courses make it financially secure, a few people are sponsored because of their NICT work but others are on 'extended working visits' or work locally, and some are legitimately on employment benefit (Belither, 2004). However, while individual rule-bending has never been sanctioned, it may sometimes have been knowingly ignored, at least in the past.

Kay (2004: 60) described how the Manjushri Institute bookshop originally stocked a wide range of material, and Geshe Kelsang's early books included references to other Tibetan, Theravada and Zen authors. He argued that an increasingly exclusive approach discouraged students from reading books by other teachers: they are often largely unaware of other Buddhist traditions, and some members even 'consider that the NKT is now the only pure tradition of Buddhism in the world' (Kay, 2004: 90). However. Belither (2004) explained that although only Geshe Kelsang's books are studied at centres, there is 'no rule against NKT students reading books from other traditions', as this is a matter of personal choice.

Bunting (l996b: 26) also claimed that the NKT excluded a family for questioning 'the total dependence on Kelsang', expelled one member for praising the Dalai Lama and threatened another with legal action if he published his concerns about the movement. She concluded that the movement's response to criticism is 'to exonerate the organization and throw the blame back on to the dissenting individual'. Again interviewees strenuously rejected such claims, which they saw as coming from disgruntled ex-disciples whose evidence is biased. This is certainly sometimes the case, but there is also a continued unwillingness to acknowledge that the movement itself may have made mistakes.

An article in Full Moon argued that the NKT brings 'the prospect of Buddhism becoming a global religion' ('Over the Moon', 1992: 46). Bunting (1996b: 26) described the movement's aim as opening 'a centre in every major UK town' and becoming 'the biggest umbrella Buddhist organisation in the West'. Waterhouse (1997: 143) found that 'casual attenders' were 'encouraged in enthusiastic terms to attend further courses', and often felt this was an evangelical approach. According to Kay (2004: 96), the NKT aims to spread worldwide, but it is sensitive to accusations of 'empire-building' and claims that expansion 'stems from a pure motivation to help others'. Interviewees reflected this view: Belither (2004) explained that the movement's aim was 'simply to present the Buddhism of our tradition to as many people as possible who might be interested'.

One of the 'twelve commitments' of going for refuge within the NKT is 'always to encourage others to go for refuge': Geshe Kelsang (2003: 164) advised followers to speak skilfully to people to help them develop 'fear of suffering and faith in the three Jewels'. Belither (1997: 13) confirmed that all NKT centres 'should have as their goal the establishing of new centres in order to help the people in that locality'. Interviewees claimed the movement's expansion was led by local demand rather than central control, as more people start groups because of their faith in Geshe Kelsang and his teachings (Jenkins, 2004). As Kelsang Namgyal (2004) explained, 'we would like everyone to have inner peace. . . so we are trying to give it to as many people as possible'.
With no remaining Tibetan links, central control of teaching, little contact with other schools, an expanding programme of residential centres, widespread if selective publicity and overt proselytizing, the NKT as an organization is far removed from the mainstream of traditional Tibetan Buddhism.

A Westernized Tibetan iconography

Like the Kagyu tradition, the NKT has an important and complex iconography. Much of this is exemplified by the new temple at Manjushri Centre, whose three-tier design consists of a square main hall which can seat 700 people, an octagonal clerestory and a tall lantern. The exterior has large wooden doors on all four sides, surmounted by golden deer and Dharma wheels and a repeated frieze of traditional Tibetan 'eight auspicious signs' in local limestone.

The interior is carpeted throughout, with rows of chairs and only a few meditation cushions. Three walls are mainly of glass, with rows of offering goddesses (bare-breasted musicians and dancers) in pastel-coloured relief plasterwork above. The fourth wall is almost filled by a huge shrine cabinet, with three glass cases housing statues mostly clothed in gold brocade garments. The central figure is of Sakyamuni Buddha (flanked by Mañjushri and Maitreya), with large statues of Tsongkhapa and Geshe Kelsang's raised seat and photograph placed prominently in front of these images. Here we see the founder, reformer, protector and spiritual guide of the tradition portrayed together in a visual summary of the NKT's lineage and deity practice. There are also finely bound copies of Geshe Kelsang's works, one of them prominently displayed in the traditional Kanjur cabinet, which contains 100 volumes of scriptures in Tibetan.

There are also huge thangkas representing VajrayoginI, Heruka, and the Indian and Tibetan lineage masters. All these statues and paintings (and the images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities available in the shop) still appear as strongly Tibetan, though the NKT now has qualified Western artists, whose work may be seen increasingly as more generalised Buddhist images, not linked to Tibetan culture, according to Kelsang Namgyal (2004).

Geshe Kelsang (2003: 131) encourages his followers to make offerings to Buddha images as if they were 'actually in the presence of the living Buddha', including bowls of water or 'flowers, incense, candles, honey, cakes, chocolate, or fruit'. Many such offerings are placed in front of the shrine cabinets. Local centres frequently copy this pattern of shrine cabinets, offerings and photographs on a more modest scale, though still often occupying a whole wall of their shrine room.

While the iconography of the NKT remains clearly Tibetan to an observer. Belither (2004) argued that the symbolism 'would be recognised across traditions', and Kelsang Namgyal (2004) confirmed that there is no attempt to preserve a Tibetan style, which is to do with 'another country's culture' rather than the essence of Buddhism. There may be an ambivalence here, reflecting the NKT's unusual relationship with traditional Tibetan Buddhism, but the prominent images of Sakyamuni, Tsongkhapa, Dorje Shugden and Geshe Kelsang himself, whatever their style, indicate the veneration with which these four figures are regarded.


Waterhouse (1997: 178) argued that the NKT is based so finnly on Geshe Kelsang and his texts and sadhanas that the so-called 'essential Buddhism' which he presents for Westerners 'must be an essential Tibetan Buddhism'. Yet while the NKT strongly emphasizes its pure unbroken Tibetan lineage, it has no Tibetan followers and claims to stand outside current Tibetan Buddhism. This means that comparisons with the parent Gelug tradition will have different values for NKT members and for observers of the movement.

Certainly the NKT has expanded very rapidly in a short time, and its historical background remains problematical. Complex meditations and sãdhanas have been translated into English and simplified, but are still firmly based on Tibetan practice. Teachings are also similar to traditional Tibetan Buddhism, though the distinctive study programmes may present a relatively narrow interpretation. lmportant narratives include historical and mythical Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the role of lineage, the identification of Geshe Kelsang as an important spiritual guide and the presentation of a pure Buddhism to the West. There is an emphasis on strong faith, inner peace, the development of compassion and bodhicitta to overcome negative emotions and on traditional moral discipline, with relatively little difference between monastic and lay ethical codes (unlike Tsongkhapa). A highly centralized organization includes lay and monastic teachers, little or no gender bias, an ambivalent relationship with other Buddhist groups and a strong wish to expand through residential centres, publicity and proselytising. The movement's complex iconography is said to represent Buddhism as a whole but still appears very similar to that of Tibetan Buddhism.

The NKT could be viewed from outside as a movement aiming at what Titmuss (1999: 91) called 'conversion and empire-building', with a dogmatic and superior viewpoint, 'narrow-minded claims to historical significance', intolerance of other traditions and 'strong identification with the leader or a book'. A more scholarly external view might emphasize instead the enthusiasm, firm beliefs, urgent message and 'charismatic leadership' which Barker (1999: 20) saw as characteristic of many NRMs. An alternative picture from inside the movement would include a wish to bring inner peace to more people, based on a pure lineage of teaching and practice, with faith and confidence in an authentic spiritual guide. Our choice of interpretation may depend on how we engage with the other viewpoint, as well as the evidence itself, and until recently the NKT's supporters and critics have largely ignored each other.

Experienced disciples suggested to Kay (2004: 112) that the NKT's appeal was due to a combination of Geshe Kelsang's 'very conservative and traditional presentation of Buddhism' and Westerners' wish for 'a meaningful alternative to spiritual pluralism'. The NKT may represent a form of 'evangelical Buddhism', with a powerful appeal to those seeking certainty and an unquestioning faith in a living person and his writings, but this interpretation tends to ignore the movement's context. The NKT was born into a very different atmosphere from that of the 1960s, and Geshe Kelsang's 'conservative and traditional' approach may have inadvertently struck a chord with young people in the more austere l980s and l990s. Perhaps Buddhism cannot be separated from its cultural setting as easily as some have claimed.

A movement only formed in 1991 may still be in a relatively early phase of activity, sometimes characterized by rapid expansion, enthusiastic and singleminded practice, firm (perhaps even narrow-minded) adherence to particular teachings and the confidence to ignore outsiders. lt may well be that the NKT continues in this mode for some time, though it has already shown itself as sensitive to criticism, and may soon be more willing to engage with other Buddhist traditions in Britain.