It was a Monday afternoon in early October and the balmy autumn was gradually getting wetter and cooler. On arriving, I was greeted by friendly and efficient members of the community and shown to a room in the Barn Retreat annexe where I deposited my laptop and bag. The Barn has six rooms available on a bed and breakfast basis and appears to be very popular. Ven. Khyenrab had generously offered me the use of a room for the night.
I met Ven. Khyenrab later and we talked for a while in the World Peace Café, a comfortable room in the main house which is popular with local people and ‘passing trade’. Indeed, Ven. Khyenrab mentioned that it had resulted in a significant flow of funds into the Centre. He also mentioned that the NKT were building international ‘World Peace’ hotels which functioned as a normal hotel but with the benefit of a shrine room and meditation teaching. The absence of alcohol and loud entertainment attracts those who appreciated a quiet and peaceful atmosphere.
Ven. Khyenrab then showed me around the extensive grounds, and the site for a future new temple, funds permitting.
As a supporter of the Theravada Forest Sangha, (who follow the traditional Vinaya), I was interested in the nature of NKT ordination and vows. I asked Ven. Khyenrab whether he followed the Vinaya precepts and he replied that he followed the Lam Rim framework originally written by Atisha in the early Middle ages. At this time Atisha had been invited to Tibet from India and produced a structured summary of Buddhist doctrine that became known as the Lam Rim. This subsequently formed the basis for the Kadampa tradition. Some followers of Lam Rim keep to the Vinaya framework whilst others, including the NKT, simply follow Lam Rim and vows which extend the five lay precepts. Some in the Tara community follow pratimoksha and Bodhisatva vows and a celibate lifestyle.
Ven. Khyenrab described some of the past difficulties that the NKT had experienced; the Dorje Shugden dispute with the Dalai Lama and problems with Tibetan groups who viewed the NKT with distrust and antagonism. Such problems were acute about ten years back but have subsided to some extent since then, although the NKT still tend to be viewed with disquiet in some quarters today. Apart from the founder and Spiritual Director of the NKT, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, almost no senior member of the NKT is Tibetan.
Ven. Khyenrab showed me an internal NKT document describing moral guidelines for senior NKT members. Such guidelines are essential for maintaining the integrity of any organisation (and are also to be found in great detail in the Vinaya). Reading the booklet later in my room I found that it outlined processes for dealing with possible misdeeds of senior members who may, for example, have misappropriated funds, broke their vows, left the NKT tradition, or disseminated non-NKT teachings.
The NKT does seem to be concerned for the purity of its teaching and perhaps this is the reason that only the works of the Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso are to be found at the centre. Obviously all traditions have to clarify what it is they teach, however, in my experience ‘purity’ can be a troublesome concept, especially when we strongly attach to our particular ideal of ‘purity’. Many Buddhists could, if they thought about it, probably give excellent reasons why their tradition is ‘pure’ Buddhism. Ven. Khyenrab informed me later that, ‘Certainly we (NKT) do not believe that we are pure and other traditions are not!’
Coincidentally, someone remarked to me over the evening meal that they were uncomfortable that there seemed to be disapproval of non-NKT reading material, and that she was going to read such ‘contraband’ anyway.
The fact is that Buddhists often like to read books and the internet provides an incredible array of Buddhist material; some of it valuable. It is unlikely that any curious and intelligent Buddhist can be prevented from accessing such material. And any attempt just creates a sort of ‘big-brother’ atmosphere. Perhaps it is better to encourage Buddhists to develop their powers of discrimination to determine which books are useful and which are not.
Venerable Khyenrab assured me later that ‘it's only our public areas that are kept free of other books so visitors are clear where we're coming from. They can quickly see what we follow. No-one here is stopped from reading what they like’.
We discussed some areas of Buddhist etiquette – areas where tension can arise between different traditions. Ven Khyenrab agreed that Buddhist groups in Universities and elsewhere should be clear about their affiliation. This has been a bone of contention, that a University Buddhist Society can actually be exclusively NKT (or some other tradition) without identifying itself as such.
Ven. Khyenrab appreciated the information circulated from the NBO, but was not sure that the aims of the NBO were very clear. He welcomed a rewrite of the NBO constitution to clarify NBO objectives. At the moment he found that could not justify spending much time on NBO activity particularly when weighed against his many teaching and other responsibilities.
Later that evening Ven. Khyenrab led a Teacher Training Programme meeting. This sits alongside the general and foundation programme, which provide structured training in all aspects of the New Kadampa Tradition and eventually lead towards becoming a qualified NKT Dharma teacher. The advanced programmes are long and intensive, include examinations, and all programmes are based upon Geshe Kelsang’s works. Normally those on the teacher training course will be resident at the centre. Other activities hosted at the centre include school visits, art courses, holiday courses, empowerment events and retreats.
The centre appears a very busy, efficient, and enterprising establishment.
For more information visit: http://www.taracentre.org.uk/index.htm