Realising the Guru’s Intention: Hungry Humans and Awkward Animals in a New Kadampa Tradition community¹
by Carol McQuire
Mexico City, 1994
I had been praying to find a spiritual path. I’d spent eighteen years as a professional musician in Mexico but life had become complicated and painful; my relationship was breaking down and as I had a young child it was difficult to work. On the desk of a friend in her “eco-house” on a mountain was Joyful Path of Good Fortune,² by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who had started to teach Tibetan Buddhism in England in 1977, open on a page that reflected thoughts I’d had that week. I bought a copy for myself as soon as I could; reading it I knew I had found the teachings I craved; they seemed deeply familiar. And my friend studied this book with an English Buddhist monk! I sent the monk a message, my cultural and spiritual yearnings united and he appeared in a Mexican plazaas arranged, telling me how to cope with too many beggar boys requesting money, saying that giving was an intention and not necessarily a physical action.
“If you want more teachings,” he said, “organise them.” I did. I knew where this monk could perform and where to advertise. Many people came and he was grateful.
“First you put the Dharma into your life, then you put your life into the Dharma!” That’s how he phrased it, this beautiful English monk who answered all my questions week by week, and was so polite when he stayed in my house after teaching. I’d fallen in love with Dharma; this ethical and compassionate philosophy of Buddhism seemed both complex and coherent. Through the Dharma I loved the monk; he brought community and focus into my fragile life and gave me an active role in my own future; hauled in by the attractions of Tantric teachings and spiritual friendship, practising the moral discipline he taught calmed my mind. I had needed this. And the enlightenment he promised I would attain was the ultimate in mental stability; no attachment, anger or ignorance; only bliss, for the benefit of all. I soon received a Tantric empowerment in Mexico; the sacred blessings and instructions of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. I learnt to “self-generate” or imagine myself as this Buddha, a way of “realising” or bringing that blissful Buddha-nature into my conscious experience.
In those early months I remember staring at an aerial photo of Manjushri Centre, the mother centre of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), such an enormous mock Victorian castle in Cumbria, England, that I thought What am I doing? This could be a cult … but I swamped that voice with the joy I felt from the practices. I’d “checked out” Geshe Kelsang Gyatso with the well-known owner of the biggest spiritual bookshop in Mexico City. “Reliable and orthodox,” he’d said.
I was heartened to meet other students of Tibetan Buddhism in Mexico but after mentioning me to their Tibetan Lamas they wouldn’t talk to me again. I was shocked. The English monk explained a little; the Dalai Lama appeared to be an “enemy” who was unjustly isolating the NKT from other Buddhists. It was 1995, before the internet, and I did not understand the conflicts at the heart of this Buddhist world; Geshe-la’s spiritual guide, Trijang Rinpoche, had been the Dalai Lama’s Junior Tutor but by 1996 Geshe-la would be expelled from his monastery, Sera-Je, by fifteen prestigious Lamas, a fact rarely mentioned within the NKT.
Within five months of meeting the monk I separated from my partner. The money the monk offered me to stay and run an NKT centre in Mexico City couldn’t meet my family’s needs. I would survive better as a single parent in Britain, there were NKT residential centres in the UK and Geshe-la, the only Spiritual Guide in the NKT, was teaching Highest Yoga Tantra at Manjushri Centre that summer. I felt it was an extraordinary opportunity I did not want to miss. NKT “Highest Yoga Tantra”, the empowerments and practices of Heruka and Vajrayogini, were seen as the “fast path to enlightenment”. I was told the commitments could not be explained beforehand but these were meditations that even celibate NKT monks and nuns could engage in. I returned to the UK in 1995 to live near my parents, took those empowerments and happily dedicated myself to promoting the NKT’s “pure Dharma” of Je Tsongkhapa, the 14th century monk seen by Geshe-la as the source of the NKT’s “essential practices” of Guru Yoga and devotion to Dorje Shugden in the daily Heart Jewel prayers. Je Tsongkhapa himself did not practice Shugden.
The Shugden ritual crept into my NKT life slowly. I did not practise it in Mexico but in 1997, enthused by the deep sense of injustice expressed by all the NKT Teachers I knew and with free transport provided from my NKT centre, I attended a pro-Shugden / anti-Dalai Lama demonstration in London. The NKT became, slowly, less Tibetan; all the prayers were translated into English and “Western” music composed. I was sad, in 1996 I’d learnt how to play the Tibetan trumpet for the Shugden Tsog pujas, extensive chanted prayers during which we’d offered food and music. No money was ever collected for Tibetan causes. The reason for the Tibetan Lamas in Mexico advising their students not to talk to me was that they, and the Dalai Lama, considered “Shugden”, the being prayed to in this daily “protector practice” of the NKT, personally and culturally damaging, detrimental to a unified Tibet and the mental stability of the practitioner.
Five months of intense retreat in a quiet house in a Surrey village during 1998 convinced me that the methods of meditation that Geshe-la taught were invaluable and extraordinary; my personality had changed profoundly and irrevocably. I wanted to live in an NKT residential community in Britain to deepen my practice and find support like that I had received from the Sangha, the NKT Buddhist community, in Mexico. I stopped training as a counsellor and from 1998 to 2006 I lived within or very near an NKT centre with my children, depending entirely on British government social security benefits. I joined the Teacher Training Programme (TTP) and then, to fulfil my intention to promote these teachings for the rest of my life, requested ordination, scrawled on a slip of paper as, simply, the last on a list of study questions I’d sent my Resident Teacher, the teacher assigned by Geshe-la to my local NKT centre. Weeks passed. When I asked again he was in a hurry to leave for Italy and apologised for not having time to talk. He told me to “send an email to Manjushri Centre” to ask. Three weeks later, with only two weeks left to find ordination robes to wear as well as gifts and money for Geshe-la, I was given permission to ordain. I was told that my path to enlightenment would be even faster as being ordained I could concentrate on helping others. The only prerequisite was having the desire to ordain and my only preparation was the NKT monk from Mexico giving me a short whispered “transmission” of the commitments at an NKT Summer Festival, with a suggestion to keep these for a year “as if” I were ordained. I had done so, content. Ordaining, I would promise to abandon killing, stealing, sexual activity, lying, and taking intoxicants and would promise to practise contentment, reduce my desire for worldly pleasures, abandon engaging in meaningless activities, maintain the commitments of refuge (to Buddha and NKT Dharma and Sangha), and practise the three trainings of pure moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom. For the rest of my life.
Entering the Guru’s Mandala – July 29th 1999 – Cumbria, UK
A vision of perfection draws me on: our method is “Sutra and Tantra”, “Lamrim, Lojong and Mahamudra”; my goal is enlightenment. The path I follow is that of Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche and the whole world is Geshe-la’s mandala, his sacred Buddha world we enter to make offerings and be blessed, and he is the monk who has taken the Dharma from Tibetan culture and given that complete path to bliss to us non-Tibetans, “westerners”. I will not fail; I will become a good nun. I feel it is an opportunity that no-one else can give me; I do not have to find sponsorship, leave my daughter and live in a Tibetan nunnery. Geshe-la’s kindness brought the Dharma to me so I, now, will join my life to his path; Kadampa ordination. My daughter and her godmother will wait for me outside the New Kadampa Tradition’s first World Peace Temple, recently opened at Manjushri Mahayana Buddhist Centre, the New Kadampa Tradition’s “spiritual home” near Ulverston in the Lake District of northern Britain.
I am the last to arrive, my excuse childcare. I quickly choose a meditation cushion in the back row on the right next to some future monks but am told that future nuns are to sit on the left. I had not seen any sexual distinctions in the NKT before; I had trusted that, but I step over to the other side and sit on the only empty cushion I can see. It’s in the front row, almost at the centre, just below Geshe-la’s throne. No way back, no way out; previously ordained Sangha, the third Buddhist “Jewel” after the Buddha and the Dharma, many of them Resident Teachers from all round the world, are seated on the Temple chairs behind me, watching. I am no longer sitting behind thousands of people, whispering to my child to be quiet during the main teachings. This is the ceremony where my inner refuge will take on an outer shape; I will become one of them, an ordained person on the fast and only path …
We are told to stand as Geshe-la is arriving. He prostrates alone three times towards the shrine and we prostrate to him as soon as he is seated on his throne. Then we sit and he gives us the ordination talk, preparing us for a new mind, a new name and the new “physical aspect” of a shaved head and Tibetan robes identical to his own. Mine are too large for me; they were left behind at my centre by monks who’d “run away” to lay life again but I know I will never give up on this pure tradition. I already know those commitments, just ten, and I also know that, by relying on my Highest Yoga Tantra practice, I can keep them; sexual energies are transformed into “energy for meditation”. No more need for sexual intimacy. No more babies … Reverting to habit, I wrap my zen, the long rectangular sheet of dark red compassion, round both my shoulders like a Mexican rebozo,³ not off one shoulder as it should be, and listen to the teaching that only the soon to be ordained and the ordained can hear as no-one else is allowed in the Temple. During the ordination I take notes; I do not want to forget any of the words; all my life has led to this precious ceremony. Ordaining, I will become one of Geshe-la’s “Fortunate Ones” …
Soon Geshe-la speaks of keeping our ordination through to future lives. I glance around; no-one moves, no-one looks upset. Are they all such realised beings they know this already? Have they been told? I suddenly feel alone. I am prepared for no killing, stealing, lying, sexual conduct or intoxication. I am prepared to commit to my training, to refuge and to promoting the tradition, but only for this life. Not for them all! The vows expand indefinitely; my mind follows and I fall into a space where I am terrified of breaking my promises, even before I have taken them. I am not prepared for this … My ordination Master continues and insists that if we have powerful realisations we can carry our ordination into future lives …⁴
We are told to prostrate again to him, to Geshe-la. Is this my test, my training – he knows I can do this? It feels far too big … I did not know … A senior teacher had said that Geshe-la would only push us as far as he knows we can go …
We prostrate together in a line, in time and it is a majestic sweep of colour, shape and sound, a Buddhist wave. Dropping swiftly to the floor you can hear a gentle wind in these wings of cloth but if you fall too fast your robes will slip. This is new for us. Someone gets out of sync but we try to stay together, sixteen Sangha, almost ordained, heads shaved except for one small tuft of hair which Geshe-la will cut off each of us in turn. But I cannot prostrate towards him – there is a small yellow bee lying on the floor directly between myself and my Geshe, my preceptor. I pray to the bee to move but it writhes in the same place. If I prostrate on top of it I can kill it so I prostrate to the left, towards the shrine behind our Guru. What is most important, my compassion or my respect?
My second prostration is to the right, towards the monks and Geshe-la’s sister, an elderly nun. Perhaps this bee is an emanation of my spiritual guide to see what I will do? I will not fail. I pray again. The bee wobbles, and stays. Is it hurt? We wear no shoes but monks, and some nuns, have large and heavy feet. Surely someone else will notice it? Or should I pick it up and walk out?
Again I prostrate, the third, the last, at an angle completely out of line with the others. Where is my refuge if my compassion stops me prostrating to my Guru, to the person who is giving me ordination? I pray that Geshe-la knows what I am doing. And if I can’t promise to be a nun in my future lives, then it means I have attachment to having a relationship in a future life. I must let go of that mind … I must practise contentment …
I stand up, have my hair cut, sit down again and wait for the envelope with my new name. I want a Sanskrit name, not a Tibetan one. But I have told no-one; it is just a thought.
I was the only person to get a Sanskrit name at that ordination ceremony. The envelopes were given out according to where you were seated, apparently at random. But he’d known, hadn’t he? He knew that name was the one I wanted; Kelsang Shraddha, Fortunate One of Great Faith. I’d been mentally naked, now I was clothed. “Faith” is a mind that does not see faults in a virtuous object. That was the NKT definition I had learnt. Not to see faults in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha of the NKT world. That was the view I was told to develop, construct, like my identity; for days I felt like no-one. I had to look at my Festival Pass, a card hung on a string around my neck with a tiny NKT logo on it, to see my name, to make my “new imputation” firm. I am one of Geshe-la’s nuns. I am Shraddha, Shraddha, Kelsang Shraddha … From nothing, I will become someone … forever …
When we stood up at the end I was beside Geshe-la. I looked at his face but he did not smile or appear to see me; he seemed tiny, immoveable and distant. I fled to the back of the group and my face barely shows in the photographs. Only later, wearing the wisdom robe, the golden chogyu, seemingly identical to the Dalai Lama’s and one of the highest robes of the Tibetan tradition, did I realise I had forgotten the tiny bee … Did that matter? I would follow one tradition purely …! Faith, compassion, wisdom – surely “faith” was the most important? It was my name.
NKT Ordination: Traditionally breaking a tradition and teaching it with Shugden
Even though we were ordained and he was considered our only “Root Guru”, we were not generally given access to Geshe-la for “spiritual advice” – in 12 years I never talked to him personally – and he would only give public teachings a few days each year. He told us that his books would “function as a spiritual guide” instead; we had to rely on our Resident Teacher, the NKT study programmes he or she gave, and our practice. I saw a gradual increase in security precautions and secrecy. Geshe-la spent all winter months “at a secret location” in the US but he would directly oversee the purchase of land or buildings for each new NKT Temple.
The preoccupations of earning a living and saving for old age were regarded as mundane and irrelevant; we needed to become Resident Teachers of new centres to receive sponsorship. There was no other NKT support. After my centre room rents went up, the rate set by the Resident Teacher, I was so poor that I once had to cook the rice from my mandalakit, picking out all the precious stones before I could boil it for my daughter. The mandala offering represented creating the universe in a pure form as an offering to the Buddhas; a set of metal plates and rings, rice and precious stones was repeatedly built up into a small cake-like palace then tipped out on a cloth spread on the floor whilst chanting prayers. It was a practice of giving.
When Geshe-la said that we did “not need to receive full ordination in a separate ritual ceremony” as we would “naturally become a Gelong”, (a fully ordained monk)⁵ by developing our practice, I did not know what this meant. He said that our moral discipline was not based on external behaviour or “rules”, the hundreds of vows of the “Lesser Vehicle Hinayana” practitioners that the Tibetan ordained follow, but on intention; our function was to increase other’s “faith”, to enlighten everyone. Therefore we could handle money, live with ordained of the opposite sex and lay people in the NKT centres and like myself, also live with our children if we already had them.
As there were no formal instructions and guidelines for our behaviour weren’t clearly defined each Resident Teacher developed his or her own way of “disciplining” monks and nuns at their centres and at mine this could be harsh. As to the non-ordained we had to “reflect the purity of the Guru”, “harmony” and “contentment” and therewas an ethos to be “more professional than the professionals” (even though we had no specific training for our centre jobs), we had “Sangha meetings” where our “performance” would be analysed. Admonitions and tears were frequent. It was accepted that ordained Sangha could easily get upset; cold coffee or a ripped robe could suddenly provoke irritability. So, as compensation for the stress of “giving up everything” and trying to be “humble” monks and nuns like Geshe-la, the ordained were given the better rooms in the centre. This did not apply to me as I had children.
Unlike in the Tibetan tradition, there was no ceremony for disrobing, no “clean break”. Those who disrobed had to stay away for a year and could never teach in the NKT again. Leaving was seen as shameful and a person who left would rarely be mentioned. It was said that disrobing would make our “bad karma” ripen as “hellish” experiences. We were told we were following a “special, new” ordination that “nobody has done before” but even though our ordination was different, we looked like Tibetan monks and nuns.
I was told the robes “tend to lend authority to ordained teachers” and soon after my ordination I began teaching. The first time I taught, enthusiastic, I heard voices in my head during the teaching saying Who do you think you are? and criticising me for teaching when I knew nothing! Upset, I stopped teaching even though Geshe-la said that teachers who get “discouraged” are “foolish”. A year later, my Heart Jewel practice was stronger so I began again. Teaching was considered our main practice for “promoting the tradition”, a “heart commitment” of Shugden practice, along with regarding Shugden as inseparable from our Tantric practice deity and our Guru.⁶ We needed to become “qualified spiritual guides” as soon as possible, one NKT teacher would be “more important” to Geshe-la than “the hundred [students] who become Buddhas”.⁷ Being qualified didn’t mean passing our exams, that wasn’t necessary, it meant “relying on the Guru’ through Heart Jewel and then teaching others the NKT texts. The Heart Jewel Guru Yoga and Shugden practice was recited at every NKT centre in the world every day and by every NKT teacher before teaching. NKT study books were edited versions of selected texts from the Gelug school with commentaries by Geshe-la, many of them common to all Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
One function of a Buddha, we were told, was to teach Dharma, the path to enlightenment. Geshe-la told us that whether a teacher “is a real Buddha or not depends upon the student’s faith and view, not on the actual qualifications of the teacher” and this applied to any NKT teacher, including Resident Teachers, and whether we were listening or teaching. Students would “meet Geshe-la” through us. “We need to project that we are fully qualified teachers. This is not a shame because we are holding the Guru at our heart.” During the meditations of Heart Jewel you could “download” the “wisdom minds” of different Buddhas to your own mind at your spiritual “heart” in the centre of your body. For me, Geshe-la’s “wisdom mind” was the most present;⁸ Geshe-la “appearing as” Guru Je Tsongkhapa would give me wisdom. In the second half of Heart Jewel practice, Geshe-la “appearing as” Shugden would reinforce those “blessings” and “protect” them. I was told Geshe-la would “always remember” me and “never let go” but I had to remember him at the time of my death to gain a good rebirth. I knew nuns who would “write” and “talk” to Geshe-la daily even though they rarely, if ever, met him.
Requests were made in Heart Jewel to prevent obstacles to the expansion of the tradition; the “success” of our teaching meant new students and new venues. In 2011 the NKT claimed to have “1,100 Kadampa centres and branches” in 40 countries around the world. As well as at the centres and in “branches” (rented rooms in towns), NKT teachers taught at schools, universities, health services, hospitals, prisons and chaplaincies and “Kadampa Communications” continuously promoted the NKT on the internet. It was our commitment to distribute publicity.
Historically, “Shugden” was a practice dedicated to an “external” being who “comes into” into an oracle.⁹ I attended a ritual at my centre, unknown to the general public, around 1997, when Kuten Lama, Gyatso’s uncle, was “possessed”; he “became” the Shugden oracle and gave advice to senior NKT teachers but he did not teach Dharma. For me, “downloading the Guru’s blessings” worked; I loved teaching. My nerves were intense as I had suffered from memory loss in public all my life, but straight after Heart Jewel, which I sometimes did several times before teaching, I could become relaxed, confident and articulate for hours; it did feel as if Geshe-la was talking “through” me as I’d often speak with beautiful phrases and make spontaneous hand gestures like the “teaching mudras”, hand gestures representing enlightened states of mind I’d seen in Tibetan paintings. I heard and led meditations using the low and slow “NKT” voice which I identified later, during training in hypnotherapy, as that used to create hypnotic states in clients. I have not heard it used in any traditional Tibetan Buddhist context. We were not allowed to “mix traditions’ as this would “cause sectarianism”; we would be asked to stop teaching if we referred to texts other than Gyatso’s books or if we weren’t “happy” teaching. “Ordinary” society was based only on greed and selfishness; our “Kadampa society” wasn’t, but we had to be careful with newcomers; they could read other books and see other teachers, but if one of us went to see another teacher then this would “destroy our function as NKT teachers”. We were not to talk about the protests against the Dalai Lama as this could discourage new students. Or explain our ordination vows. We should never talk to the press or to academic researchers. Only senior teachers could do this, by appointment, so what was said could be “authorised”.
Soon I had a sequence of answers for every query without “thinking” about it; I “spoke” Geshe-la’s words of wisdom and was told I would “receive protection, blessings and special care continually” from Dorje Shugden. In this way I would become “extraordinary” as I had an “extraordinary goal” in which “ordinary rules don’t apply”; words from a teaching I had pinned to my bedroom wall as inspiration. However, I still searched for my “inner Guru”. In a hotel bedroom in New York, at an International NKT Festival, I was invited to “work for the centre” as Bookings Manager by an impressive group of ordained teachers. A few years later I was asked to be “Deputy Admin Director” and look after the Centre for the benefit of all. Community life was complicated and had to be “managed” properly, prioritising “harmony” for roughly 30 residents and the wider community. I was moving up the hierarchy.
Living with the rats
I yearned for more teachings and answers to my questions. As Dharma realisations depended on my “merit” which would increase the more I “worked for the Guru”, I knew I needed to work more. I was already dealing with the rats. The rat-catcher said we had very few, but left alive these could become hundreds. All the rice was removed from our offering bowls in the bedrooms and the main meditation rooms or Gompas, all edibles were packed in tins but still they’d come, those brown rat urban dwellers. “My” Admin office (we weren’t encouraged to call anything our own) was in the basement where I could relax from the public side of the “mission”; Geshe-la would hold up the example of Christian missionaries. I felt on call 24/7, my Admin, teaching, and centre retreat and study schedule was relentless, but the “office” rat didn’t disturb me; it made no demands; it would run the edge of the room behind the desks and office equipment. There was always Geshe-la’s photograph, quotes reminding us that we had work to do; boards on the walls listing places to teach, numbers attending. Little was in order, the priority was receiving the money, increasing attendance at classes and sending teachers all over our area of England, creating new branches, then new centres under ours as the “mother” centre. If I hid here (as long as there were no “complaints” I could do my jobs however I wished), answering emails, creating Excel files for all the course bookings, then with me was the rat, fast, furred, a rustle like a whisper of something alive and responsive. This rat wasn’t one I wanted to kill even though I was responsible for “cleaning up” the centre. After a detailed discussion on methods of killing, the Resident Teacher had decided to use poison but that meant we had to search for the smell of freshly dead rats and take out the rotting corpses.
Another dead rat was under the lounge, in the social area, there was the smell, probably a mother as we’d heard tiny hunger cries in the weeks before. Perhaps it was the warmth that drew them – the lounge was the only room that was constantly heated. The men didn’t think I could move it; they usually did the maintenance whilst I did office work, but they showed me what to do. Empowered by my Guru’s blessings I can do anything … I needed merit; I wanted a challenge.
One floorboard was pulled up in the lounge. The space was tiny. I had to put my head and arm down into the gap and stretch along with the broom handle until it reached the bloated body then pull it towards me as fast as I could without piercing the flesh or it would explode and force us to pull up all the floorboards and be blamed for the cost and inconvenience. The Gompas had thick luxurious carpets and elaborate, expensively decorated shrines. But the lounge wasn’t a Gompa! Money should not be spent on the social areas, for residents. The rat had to stay whole.
That stench, putrid and fetid, corrupt, held as a mark of hell; there is nothing like the smell of a rotting rat corpse, poked and rolled, exploding with tiny pockets of gas as it nears you. It stayed almost like a physical presence on my tongue for days. I was breathing shallow and telling everyone else to go away.I moved the rat into the black bag. We were undertakers clearing up corpses.
Oh, the outrage that killing should happen here, where the kind Buddhists live! Mother sentient beings do not deserve this! The law – we could be shut down as a public building if we did not kill them. But “all the restaurants in town have rats” said the residents who used to be Animal Rights Activists and gave this up to be Buddhist practitioners in a community. Rats have community. They’d appear according to karma we’d say. We gossiped in the lounge. Buddhist texts say “bad smells” are connected to moral discipline; breaking it “smells” bad. Dead rats smell very, very bad.
The rat-catcher found rat routes – they got inside the building via the drainage, ran under the lounge and up into the Resident Teacher’s private flat, less frequently to the other residents’ single rooms. He told me he was feeding the rats the offerings from his shrine! Whilst below we had to prod the rotting carcasses of the mothers …
I liked my rat and wished it well but I didn’t feed it.
Who were these rats? Were they impelled by karma to run a conveyor belt of pleasure up to the attic and out into the Resident Teacher’s feast above? The best offerings were there, unpacked – the best plates, the best fleshy fruit and imported chocolate, the best bottles of non-alcoholic fizzy drinks, pungent cheese and perfumed toiletries. These were offerings to show respect and consideration for the teacher and a creation of merit for the giver. The Resident Teacher had to eat from each plate that was offered during the ceremonies. Tsog offerings were a banquet; colour matched and decorated. If you got fatter whilst you were ordained you didn’t have to get new clothes, you just loosened your robes …
In the Gompa fresh offerings to Shugden of alcohol, tea, cake, milk and curds were made each day as in every NKT Centre all over the world, as well as water bowl offerings to the Buddhas and a cup of tea for Gyatso next to the teacher’s throne.The alcohol and meat offerings for the Tantric Tsog were in tiny egg-cup shaped bowls placed on a beautiful box. But at my centre in the early days the box they were on contained the measuring mechanism and weights a previous resident had used for selling drugs. It was like that – what appeared was what mattered. And more than that, it seemed that what “appeared” was what things were. And if things were their “appearances”, what things used to be or what “ordinary people” would think they were became unimportant and was often seen as mistaken. We had to “keep the centre going”; that was the priority, and if that meant creating an illusion, or even killing, then so be it. Whatever it took.
Fear and fitting the Dharma into “sectarianism”
My Resident Teacher had sat down on a sofa in the lounge and given me advice after my ordination.
“Pray not to be a mother in your next life” he’d started. Obvious if I was supposed to stay ordained! But I asked him why not.
“You could be more useful to Geshe-la if you weren’t a mother …” I gulped. I needed to be more useful?
“For instance, you could travel, be a Resident Teacher. And don’t you think there are aspects of behaviour that are suitable for a parent to follow but unsuitable for an ordained person?”
I couldn’t think of anything, except perhaps killing the lice on my daughter’s head, but what difference to killing the rats? I had blessed the lice with mantras, connected them to Geshe-la. To future lives with Dharma. And there were already Resident Teachers who were nuns and mothers …
I became determined to show that Dharma practice and ordination were compatible with motherhood. I organised entertainment and child care at NKT Summer Festivals and “Dharma for Kids” and “Parent and Baby” meditations at my centre. But instead of reconciliation, I increasingly developed fear. I feared “outsiders” who did not understand the purity of the NKT and “insiders” who could “destroy the Tradition”. This was not a lonely paranoia; in 2008 the NKT published a list of “enemies” on the internet; specific individuals blamed for harming the “pure Dharma”¹⁰ and an author was threatened successfully with libel in 2010.¹¹ Unlike many residents who simply wished to “live a quiet life” in a community, I wanted more Dharma. However, I always feared criticising Geshe-la; I thought that without him my life would be meaningless and painful. But I felt that what I thought was Dharma, based on moral discipline, wasn’t sufficiently respected by some NKT teachers. And the teachers were “his”, Geshe-la’s. Unsupervised.
I was exhausted – I hadn’t had much time to sleep for years – but I began waking up many times each night with anxiety, unable to cope with the contradictions between what I was trying to do and what I was “allowed” to do, between what I saw and what I was “supposed” to see. Soon, needing to talk to someone I trusted, I “disturbed the harmony of the community” by raising serious concerns about my centre with a senior monk in the NKT. No longer deserving of the “Guru’s kindness”, I was told to stop teaching and admin work immediately, not to talk to anyone and to leave the centre as soon as possible. However, I “should continue studying on the Teacher Training Programme” and could “perhaps teach again” if I “behaved properly”. I was told later by that same Resident Teacher that I had “needed the shock” of becoming homeless to destroy my pride.
I left the centre and the Teacher Training Programme in 2006 but stayed ordained. After it became known that the then current, ordained Deputy Spiritual Director of the NKT had allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with nuns I had my last conversation with an NKT nun who was a Resident Teacher and a friend. She told me that, unlike ourselves, Geshe-la’s “special disciples” who had sex with their students wouldn’t go to hell. We discussed what Geshe-la meant by telling us we couldn’t get enlightened if we disrobed as that contradicted the idea of Buddha-nature; that every sentient being, possessing a mind, can get enlightened.
On asking, I had been told at Manjushri Centre that I was only allowed to study at the centre I’d been made to leave, but I could no longer see my local teacher “as a Buddha” or even as a legitimate teacher either on or off the throne. I told my nun friend how I felt and she asked me what I was going to do if I couldn’t study Dharma?
“Do you mean to say”, I replied, “that you don't think it’s possible to get enlightened at the feet of any other teacher in the world?”
We stared at each other in silence. I knew I would not see her again.
I could no longer support any NKT teachers or practices. I had nowhere to send people who took refuge in me as a robed nun on the street. I found out that my ordination name, practices and robes were tied to the NKT and could not be transferred. My daughter, having left the centre, did not want to leave the town she’d grown up in and as a mother I would not leave my child to “retrain” as a nun. I felt forced to disrobe because of my own integrity and distraught with that inevitable decision. Even when Tibetan Lamas and Geshes assured me I could still get enlightened as a lay person I did not believe them.
In 2008 I emailed “kadampa.org” with my decision to disrobe. I received no answer except the confirmation of receipt I had asked for. I symbolically drank alcohol but it still did not feel as if I had broken the hold of my promises to Gyatso. My “Buddha-nature” felt lost as if it only had Gyatso’s name on it. I stopped every spiritual practice so that his influence would wane but his name mantra still “said itself” and I could “hear” NKT teachings continuously. My symbolic world collapsed, slowly folding in as I tried to find out who I was without the “Shugden Guru” or Dharma to guide me. I no longer knew how to live or earn my living and “ordinary life” seemed meaningless. I did not fit anywhere. I felt I was neither a nun nor a lay person. I was a hungry ghost floating in the bardo, the “in-between” of leaving the NKT, transitional, uncertain. I was diagnosed with “complex trauma”. My identity had become so tied to the hook of the NKT that it took me four years to realise I was not a bad person.
The NKT did provide “spiritual homes”, Temples and “Vajra (Tantric) brothers and sisters” but exactly what spiritual path was I following as an NKT practitioner? The plentiful supply of Dharma teachings available elsewhere had been hidden from view by my NKT ethos of the “pure tradition”. Attending Tibetan Buddhist groups I was astonished and shocked to find out that every person who so wished could talk one-to-one with Tibetan teachers who had decades of Geshe training and retreat experience. Each time I asked I received astute, personal and careful advice which I was not obliged to follow. The contrast with NKT practice upset me. My questions had not been “intellectual pride”; they were necessary for a deeper practice. I had spent twelve years of my life dedicated to a path that led to my exhaustion and stress. Even though I had had concerns and buried them I was not prepared for the shock of finding out that my NKT ordination, in which I had believed so much, could arguably not even be called a “Buddhist ordination” as, according to fully ordained monks and nuns, it did not correspond to any given by Je Tsongkhapa¹² or Buddha Shakyamuni¹³ but only to the pre-ordination vows of the Tibetan tradition.¹⁴ We did not study the traditional Tibetan Vinaya, or monastic teachings; there we would have seen that all Tibetan and other Buddhist ordinations cannot be taken into future lives. And that disrobing is not dishonourable; it is an allowed choice and does not necessitate exclusion from the community. Ten NKT “promises” contrasted to three hundred and sixty four vows for fully ordained Buddhist nuns. And I remembered that I was told that Gyatso did not train at Tantric College and, on his own admission, did not receive a formal Geshe degree. I felt so deeply betrayed, so naive; I had taken my ordination and disrobing so seriously but there had been no need to do so.
Sadly, I found it difficult to follow the instructions of any spiritual guide; I became overwhelmed with distrust, frightened of what these teachers might feel a right to demand from me in return. But contradictorily and mistakenly, I also regarded an organisation as insufficient if it did not demand profound and prompt commitment. It has taken me years to unthread “Dharma” from “NKT Dharma” and find a path to my Buddha-nature separate from my commitment to Gyatso. It is a painful and profound psychological journey I do not wish on anyone.
I did find “very special”, “extraordinary experiences” through meditation during my first years in the NKT, but not “a pure happiness that will never let you down” and the enlightenment in this one lifetime that the NKT claimed to offer. My faith in the NKT was created through this illusion of quick results and based on my yearning to practice. My insecurities whilst in the NKT were valid; I was not a “Dharma teacher” even though I tried, with Guru Yoga and Shugden practice, to be a good one. My teachers were Westerners new to Buddhism. How could it have been possible to become a “Dharma teacher” so quickly, responsible for the spiritual welfare of others, even if Gyatso himself had trained me? Tied to the desire to “keep my vows”, I feel I, and the “Dharma” I studied, were pushed into the box of an organisation in expansion. What reason was there for the Guru’s “intention” of creating a “World Peace Temple in every city” if Gyatso and NKT Dharma were not “the source of all goodness and happiness” for all living beings? But how could they be? That was a question Gyatso’s students, including myself, did not ask or answer.
Meditation practices are not superficial. Traditional Tibetan texts tell you to check out a person for up to twelve years before taking them as your teacher, but, as a westerner unused to Asian traditions, how could I have known the need for this? I now understand Buddhist “faith” to be a trust based on the completely verifiable qualities of what is trusted, but I did not have “un-mistaken knowledge” of Gyatso as a trustworthy teacher and his NKT as a reliable refuge based on personal contact and long experience of following personal advice. I had simply convinced myself they were trustworthy and worked unceasingly for the NKT, unpaid, thinking this, as I was told, a privilege and a path to enlightenment. Without experienced spiritual advice I lost my meditation practice and my quietening mind. The NKT was the instrument of the “Guru’s intention”. I could not “realise” it; instead I realised that for me it was questionable.
I can only relate my experiences. What brought me to the telling was the similarity of my story to that of many others and the concern this provoked. The finer details require more explanation but this will suffice as a general “insider’s” introduction to the life and practices of what was my “NKT world”. ■
 The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU), will be shortened to NKT and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, its founder, will be called Geshe-la or Gyatso.
 Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 1990, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Tharpa Publications, London
 The rebozo is used in Mexico to wrap babies and young children in. They can sleep and breastfeed unnoticed.
 Quotes are taken from the NKT Ordination Handbook and from transcripts of oral teachings given exclusively to ordained sangha by the NKT Deputy Spiritual Director or other senior Resident Teachers. We did not study the Tibetan Vinaya.
 In the Tibetan tradition full male ordination requires a ceremony. Full female ordination (Gelong-ma) is not given as yet in any Tibetan tradition. This “issue” is side-stepped as the NKT commitments are the same for both sexes.
 Kangso, Melodious Drum Victorious in all Directions, Introduction, Tharpa Publications, provisional translation, no date.
 Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, “Training as a Qualified Dharma Teacher” in Susan Mumm (ed.), Religion Today: A Reader (London and Aldershot, 2002), p. 30
 Heart Jewel, The Essential Practices of Kadampa Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications, Ulverston, 2002, p. 97. Buddha Shakyamuni’s, Manjushri’s and Je Tsongkhapa’s wisdom “appears” as Shugden.
 As “sacramental, deliberate deity possession”. Jean La Fontaine, Jean, 2009, The Devil’s Children (Farnham 2009), p. 182
 http://www.wisdom-books.com/ProductDetail.asp?PID=22023 (accessed 17th August 2012). Libel documents – copies are with INFORM, London School of Ecomomics.
 These are very specific instructions for behaviour and for “overcoming” faults. See Je Tsongkhapa and Geshe Graham Woodhouse, The Essence of the Vinaya Ocean and The Namtse Dengma Getsul Training (Dharamsala 2009), p. 17.
 Graham Woodhouse (trans.), Direct Instructions from Shakyamuni Buddha: A Gelong’s Training in Brief, His Holiness XIVth Dalai Lama (Dharamsala 2009), p. 7 and p. 75.
 See Geshe Tegchok, Monastic Rites (London, 1985), p.9.
McQuire, Carol (2013), “Realizing the Guru’s Intention: Hungry Humans and Awkward Animals in a New Kadampa Tradition Community” in Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World, Edited by Timothy Miller, Ashgate: 65–82.
Courtesy of the Author.
Header image: © Carol McQuire. Transform Your Life (2014).