Smear: NKT has broken away from the main Tibetan Buddhist traditions, including the Gelugpa
Truth: The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist tradition with historical connections with Tibet, rather than a Tibetan tradition. The reason for this is that Geshe Kelsang wishes NKT practitioners always “to present Dharma in a way appropriate to their own culture and society without the need to adopt Tibetan language and customs”. For example, we do not recite prayers in Tibetan, practice reliance on oracles, recognize Tulkus (reincarnated teachers), do Lama dancing, or use prayer wheels, prayer flags, and so forth, which all come from Tibetan culture. Nor do we engage in any political activity whatsoever, including Tibetan politics such as the campaign to free Tibet.
When Buddhism moved from India to Tibet, was Tibetan Buddhism a ‘splinter group’ from the main Indian traditions? No, it was a new development of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings in Tibet, and its practitioners were Tibetan (not Indian) Buddhists. In the same way, the NKT is a new development of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings in the modern world and NKT practitioners are Buddhists of all nationalities (not Tibetans or Tibetan Buddhists).
The NKT follows the pure Gelug tradition that has been passed down from Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 AD) and whose teachings can be traced back through a line of lineage teachers to Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Therefore, Kadampa Buddhism started in India, spent a period in Tibet, and is now flourishing in the West.
While there are Tibetans who are (and have been) Kadampas and Gelugpas, Kadampa and Gelugpa Buddhism are not uniquely or naturally Tibetan. Although Je Tsongkhapa was born in Tibet, it is not necessary to be a Tibetan Buddhist in order to be a Gelugpa. Je Tsongkhapa presented the timeless wisdom of Buddha Shakyamuni, which is independent of culture and nationality.
There is no contradiction between claiming a pure Tibetan lineage and separating completely from the contemporary Tibetan establishment and other Tibetan Buddhist groups, as some people have suggested. It is possible to be a Buddhist follower in Je Tsongkhapa’s lineage but not a Tibetan Buddhist, just as a child of Russian immigrants to America may consider themselves American but not Russian.
Everyone who practices Je Tsongkhapa’s special explanation of Buddha’s teachings purely without mixing is a Gelugpa, and so the NKT is definitely a Gelugpa tradition. However, the NKT is quite separate and different from the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition. Its prayers and teachings are not in Tibetan, it has no relationship with the Dalai Lama, it has no political affiliations, and the presentation of its teachings is Western. It is Gelugpa in terms of view, practice, and action, rather than in terms of being a member of the politically-influenced Tibetan Gelugpa organization.
The presentation of Kadampa Buddhism by Geshe Kelsang is a modern incarnation of this ancient tradition and its presentation is especially suitable for Western and other modern-day practitioners. Before he passed away, his root Guru Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche advised Geshe Kelsang to teach in accordance with the needs of his Western students. Therefore, this presentation has been designed by Geshe Kelsang with the permission and encouragement of Trijang Rinpoche. Judging by the increasing number of Kadampa students throughout the world, it is working very well.
As for the claim that the NKT is a controversial NRM deriving from Tibetan Buddhism, the NKT is not a “new” movement in terms of doctrine but an ancient Mahayana tradition whose presentation has been adapted to the modern world. Paradoxically, the NKT is described as “traditionalist” and “orthodox” in its presentation of Buddha’s teachings, yet at the same time called an NRM for not compromising on tradition.
The NKT is not part of Tibetan Buddhism as it has separated out from the Tibetan hierarchy to become an independent organization. This was done in order to not compromise pure Dharma by allowing it to become a theocratical mixture of religion and politics.
“Controversy” arose in Tibetan Buddhist circles due to the NKT’s vocal disagreement with the Dalai Lama in the 1990’s over his banning of their ancient religious practice in the Tibetan exile community in India. This disagreement arose from the intention to preserve the traditional Protector practice of Dorje Shugden, which has been passed down by great Gelug teachers for generations.
Finally, it is in many ways ironic to call the NKT a ‘breakaway’ tradition when in fact they closely follow the teachings of their Spiritual Guide, who in turn relied upon the teachings of his own Spiritual Guide, and so on. One could argue that the real ‘break with tradition’ came with the Dalai Lama’s decision to abandon the teachings of Trijang Dorjechang, who was both his Guru and the main upholder of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition in his generation.
For more related information, see What is the Relationship Between the NKT and Tibetan Dorje Shugden Practitioners.