Happy NKT Day: Why we are encouraged to follow one tradition purely without mixing

The first Saturday of every April is New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) day.  Normally, on this day we generate a mind cherishing our tradition.  I’m sure there are many other people who will write about all of the different reasons why they cherish this tradition, and I rejoice in all of that.  But here, I am going to intentionally stir the hornet’s nest a bit by talking about a particular type of cherishing of the NKT, namely generating the mind that wishes to follow one tradition purely without mixing. 

One of the core principles of the NKT is while respecting all other traditions, to follow one tradition purely without mixing.  This is an extremely vast subject.  Venerable Geshe-la (VGL) explains in Ocean of Nectar that we need to be careful when introducing the subject of emptiness to those who are not ready because doing so can lead to great confusion.  I would say even more so, we need to be careful when introducting the subject of following one tradition purely without mixing, as this is a special spiritual instruction that can easily give rise to much confusion and doubt, including thinking that such an approach is closed-minded, anti-intellectual, and sectarian.  To many, this instruction can seem very strange, even cultish.  Many people might even wind up rejecting the NKT precisely because this is something taught within the NKT. 

This post (and the linked, more extensive document) attempts to explain the rationale behind this instruction so that people can be happy with putting it into practice.

What is the advice?

This is probably best summarized in Understanding the Mind, where Geshe-la says:

“We must be careful not to misunderstand the effort of non-satisfaction. Practising this effort does not mean that we should become dissatisfied with our tradition or with our main practice, and try to follow many different traditions or mix together many different practices. Every Teacher and every tradition has a slightly different approach and employs different methods. The practices taught by one Teacher will differ from those taught by another, and if we try to combine them we shall become confused, develop doubts, and lose direction. If we try to create a synthesis of different traditions we shall destroy the special power of each and be left only with a mishmash of our own making that will be a source of confusion and doubt. Having chosen our tradition and our daily practices we should rely upon them single-pointedly, never allowing dissatisfaction to arise. At the same time as cherishing our own tradition we should respect all other traditions and the right of each individual to follow the tradition of their choosing. This approach leads to harmony and tolerance. It is mixing different religious traditions that causes sectarianism. This is why it is said that studying non-religious subjects is less of an obstacle to our spiritual progress than studying religions of different traditions.”

Geshe-la also elaborated during the Dorje Shugden empowerment in 1995 when he said:

“Sincere practitioners of the Kadampa Buddhism of Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine should understake as their heart commitment to cherish the Kadam Dharma, the doctrine of Je Tsongkhapa, and to practice and teach this to others without mixing it with other traditions.  We must take some responsibility to enable pure Buddhadharma to flourish throughout the world.  If we make the commitment to accomplish this aim, then this is called our heart commitment.  Keeping this heart commitment is the basic foundation for receiving Dorje Shugdan’s protection, blessings and special care continually.  Because Dorje Shugden is an enlightened being, he has compassion for all beings and is ready to to give his protection, blessings, and special care, but from our side we also need some necessary conditions.  These are to cherish Kadam Dharma, to practice Kadam Dharma purely without mixing it with other traditions, to teach Kadam Dharma without mixing it with other traditions and to take some responsibility to help pure Dharma flourish throughout the world.  Doing this as our commitment is the best method for receiving Dorje Shugden’s protection, blessings and special care continually.”

Following one tradition purely is spiritual advice, not a rule

Throughout all of VGL’s books, he gives countless pieces of advice about how to transform our mind into the enlightened state.  This instruction on following one tradition purely without mixing is likewise spiritual advice given to us by our Spiritual Guide.  Like all instructions, we are free to follow it or not.  It is our choice.  VGL explains in Transform Your Life that if we do not at present understand a given instruction, or do not see its utility, we should avoid various extremes.  To put the instruction into practice when we do not understand it or when we disagree with it would be one extreme (leading to a wide variety of problems).  To reject the instruction would be another extreme.  The middle way he teaches is to not reject it outright, but to put it aside for later when it does seem to be important or useful for our spiritual practice.  Once we see the instruction as something that is important, if we still have doubts we should follow his advice in Clear Light of Bliss when he quotes Buddha Shakyamuni as saying ‘do not believe me because I am called Buddha, instead verify for yourself.’  We should examine all the arguments with an open mind, contemplating deeply their meaning without any preconceptions or attachments to our view, and then only decide to put this instruction into practice when we ‘want to’ and we ‘see its value’ for our spiritual development.  This approach should likewise be used when it comes to the spiritual advice to follow one tradition purely without mixing. 

If we relate to this instruction like a rule imposed upon us from the outside, but we do not ‘want’ to follow it, then the result will be we generate resentment towards the rule and towards those who make it.  This then undermines our faith, we can generate all sorts of negative minds, and eventually this can destroy our spiritual practice. 

So, in short, when should this instruction be practiced ?  When we want to put it into practice.  Who does it apply to ?  Only those who wish to apply it to themselves.  All moral discipline is self-imposed.  We apply it to ourseleves because we see the benefit of doing so and the harm of not doing so.  We take refuge vows because we wish to center ourselves within Buddha’s teachings.  We take Bodhisattva vows because we wish to center ourselves within the Mahayana.  We take Tantric vows, because we wish to center ourselves within the part of the Mahayana that is the Vajrayana.  Specifically, our Tantric vows entail a commitment as to whom is our Spiritual Guide, our teacher.  We do all of these things from our own side because we want to and see the value of doing so.  We place limits on the sources of our spiritual understanding and practice (Buddha’s Hinayana teachings for those who have taken refuge and Pratimoksha vows ; Mahayana teachings for those who have taken Bodhisattva vows ; our Spiritual Guide’s teachings for those who have taken Tantric vows). 

VGL has added a fourth layer of vows for those who wish to be NKT teachers and officers, namely the internal rules of the NKT, which he has correctly labeled as A Moral Discipline Guide.  VGL said that for us, these vows are more important than even our Tantric vows.  It is our choice whether we wish to assume these guidelines as part of our moral discipline or not.  Nobody can force us to do so, nobody is requiring us to do so.  We do so because we wish to.  If we wish to do so, then we are authorized by VGL to teach NKT Dharma and be an officer in an NKT center.  If we do not wish to do so, then we are not authorized by VGL to do these things.  We may still consider him our Spiritual Guide, appreciate his good qualities, put his teachings into practice, etc., but we do not have these special authorizations to teach or be an officer.  The internal rules have many layers of meaning.  It is not up to anybody outside of us to say whether we have the intention of keeping the moral discipline of the internal rules.  Only we can say.  So if internally we wish to take on the internal rules as part of our moral discipline, unless there is a gross violation of these rules that requires action, it is up to us to use our own wisdom to decide how to put these instructions into practice.

What is mixing traditions? 

In order to understand this instruction, we must understand what it means (and what it does not mean) to mix traditions.  To understand this, we must first understand what it means to mix in general.  To mix means to combine two or more things in some way. 

What does it mean to mix our mind with teachings in general ?  To mix our mind with teachings means to familiarize our mind with the meaning of a teaching.  It is to gain an intellectual understanding of the meaning of a teaching and to believe (or appreciate) that meaning to be true for your mind and practice.  In Understanding the Mind, VGL states :  “Basically Dharma practice is quite simple because all we need to do is to receive correct Dharma teachings by listening to qualified Teachers or by reading authentic books, and then mix our mind with these teachings by meditating on them.”  In Joyful Path, VGL explains that we mix our mind with teachings (meditate upon them) in three different ways :  through listening to (or reading) Dharma instructions, through contemplating their meaning (analytical meditation) and through placement meditation on them. 

To mix spiritual traditions, therefore, means to do this process of mixing our mind with teachings in general with the teachings from more than one spiritual tradition.  If one is an NKT practitioner, to mix traditions would mean to mix one’s mind with teachings from the NKT and from a tradition other than the NKT.  The internal rules of the NKT state that the NKT will always be an entirely independent spiritual organization.  What distinguishes the NKT from other traditions is its three study programmes.  In the definition of the three study programmes, all three programmes state clearly that their content is derived exclusively from the teachings and commentaries of VGL.  Therefore, any teaching that does not come from VGL (either directly from him or indirectly through an authorized NKT teacher) would be considered as belonging to another tradition.  A clear test as to whether something is part of the NKT or not is whether it has been published by Tharpa Publications.  Any book or source published by something other than Tharpa Publications is necessarily from another tradition.   Any teaching received by a spiritual teacher other than one who is an authorized NKT teacher would necessarily be a teaching from another tradition. 

Mixing is not a black or white thing, but actually has many many levels of subtlety.  Just as there are many different levels of ignorance, so too there are many different levels of mixing.  It is impossible for us to be completely free from any mixing until we are a Buddha, so the question is not whether something ‘is’ mixing or not, the question is whether somebody has within their mind the intention and the desire to go in the direction of completely abandoning every last trace of mixing within their spiritual understanding and practice.  If one has this intention, then over time we gradually gain a deeper and deeper understanding of what it means to mix, and in this way we can gradually improve the purity with which we practice.  Wanting to do this is part of cherishing the NKT.

In short, the nature of the inputs into our spiritual understanding determines the nature of the outputs of that spiritual understanding (unless we have perfect discriminating wisdom, which none of us have, or at least I do not).  If we have only NKT inputs, then it guarrantees we will have only NKT outputs (internal realizations, teachings, etc.).  If we have NKT and non-NKT inputs, then our spiritual understanding will be a mix of multiple sources, which will result in a mixed output (or at least a great danger of this).  Therefore, unless we can claim we have a perfect discriminating wisdom and experience of NKT teachings, even if we do not want to mix, we will not be able to not mix on some subtle level if we read other tradition’s teachings.  This is especially true for those spiritual teachings that are quite similar to NKT teachings.  There seems less risk of mixing by reading Christian books than there is in reading books on Tibetan Buddhism, especially those books written by diciples of Trijang Rinpoche, even if they are also Dorje Shugden practitioners.

If we understand that the way in which we attain enlightenment is by mixing our mind inseparably with that of our Spiritual Guide, it is clear that if we mix our mind with the teachings of a different Spiritual Guide we will be mixing.  Our mind will be a ‘mishmash’ (as VGL calls it) of our Spiritual Guide’s teachings, of the other Spiritual Guide’s teachings and of our own thinking of how to combine these two.  It is possible for us to take VGL as our Spiritual Guide and continue to mix his teachings with those of similar (or dissimilar) traditions, especially when we are at the beginning of our practice and our discriminating wisdom and experience are undeveloped.  However, he still advises us against doing this.  But there are many pieces of advice he has given us that we are not yet ready to put into practice and he encourages us to put those aside for later.  The instruction on following one tradition purely without mixing is no exception.  However, there definitely comes a time in our practice where we want to start leaving these other sources behind and instead mix our mind completely and exclusively with the teachings of our Spiritual Guide.  By doing so, we can mix our mind more thoroughly with his mind, draw closer to him and his blessings, and eventually attain enlightenment.  It is clear that we cannot fully mix our mind with his if we are still partially mixing our mind with teachings from other traditions. 

I understand this is challenging for some

I understand that this instruction is challenging for many people because it seems contrary to our normal way of thinking about things.  My first teacher told me, “The things we find the most difficult at first later wind up being the teachings that bring about the greatest transformations in our mind.”  So I encourage everyone to investigate for themselves with an open mind.  In the early 2000s, I wrote the attached document in answer to questions some of my students were asking about this topic.  I try address every angle of the question.  If you still have some doubts or hesitations about this topic, I encourage you to look through the arguments presented, in particular work through the answers to the objections that arise.  If you still have questions about it, I’m happy to try provide my thoughts. 

Here is the table of contents of what is contained in the larger document.

This document is organized as follows :

  1. References within VGL’s teachings on this advice
    1. On following one tradition purely without mixing
      • From Understanding the Mind
      • From Great Treasury of Merit
      • From Meaningful to Behold
      • From the Commentary to the Dorje Shugden empowerment, Spring Festival 1995
      • From the NKT internal rules
  2. On sectarianism
    • From Joyful Path
    • From Clear Light of Bliss
  1. The mind with which we examine this question
  2. How to understand this instruction
    • Following one tradition purely is spiritual advice, not a rule
    • What is mixing traditions ?
    • What are the causes of mixing ?  Why do people mix ?
  3. Rationale for the spiritual advice to follow one tradition purely without mixing
    1. Considering valid reasons
      • Advantages of not mixing
      • Disadvantages of mixing
      • Disadvantages of even slight mixing.
    2. Contemplating useful analogies
      • Analogy of the burning room
      • Analogy of climbing a mountain
      • Analogy of a Formula 1 racing car
      • Analogy of commitment to a partner
      • Analogy of specialization
  4. Refutation of objections to not mixing
  • Objection 1.  We can gain a better understanding of a subject when explored from multiple perspectives
  • Objection 2:  We can gain a higher and deeper understanding of universal truth through synthesizing multiple systems of thought.
  • Objection 3 :  All religions say the same thing, just with different metaphors and means.  So what is the problem with me studying and reading other traditions.  Does that not also take me in the direction of enlightenment ?
  • Objection 4:  OK, I agree we should not mix traditions.  I am 100% committed to VGL, I know what we are all about and I don’t want to mix.  So what is the problem with me reading other sources ?
  • Objection 5:  But I do not have freedom because I cannot be an NKT teacher or officer of an NKT center if I still want to go to other things.  So I am not free to choose.
  • Objection 6:  But it can be argued that just because one is in a relationship with somebody else does not mean that they cease to be friends with other people and other women.  In the same way, it is not mixing or violating my commitment to my spiritual path by reading other books, etc., as long as I am clear as to who is my Spiritual Guide.
  • Objection 7: But we are Buddhist, so everything depends upon the mind.  Reading other sources is not from its own side mixing, it depends upon the mind with which we do it. 
  • Objection 8:  Come on !  Certainly you are exaggerating to say it is a fault to even read or be exposed to teachings from other traditions.  Don’t be so paranoid !
  • Objection 9:  It still seems very closed-minded to be so categorical in shunning anything that is non-NKT.
  • Objection 10:  OK, even if I agree with all of the above, certainly it is more skilful to say nothing, since people will misunderstand and leave the Dharma as a result of this misunderstanding.
  • Objection 11:  OK, I agree, something needs to be said.  But why do you have to do it in such a foreceful way. 
  • Objection 12:  OK, point taken.  But what makes an action skilful is whether the action does not undermine the faith of the other person when you engage in it.
  • Objection 13:  OK, fine !  Just tell me what I can and cannot do.
  • Objection 14:  If that is the case, then why do different teachers have different policies and standards on this one ?
  • Objection 15:  But how does your standard compare to that of the NKT as a whole ?  Are you more strict ?
  • Objection 16:  Wait a minute !  I can understand why there would be an issue with Tibetan Buddhism in general, but certainly it is not a problem with Mt. Pellerin.  After all, their teacher was also a student of Trijang Rinpoche, he is friends with VGL, and they are Dorje Shugden practitioners.  Are they not basically a Tibetan version of us, and we are a Western version of them ?  So their teachings can help improve our understanding of VGL’s teachings.  We are all talking about the same thing, so there is no mixing going on.  So it should be OK.  It seems we should at least make an exception with them.
  • Question 17:  OK, I understand all of this and it makes sense.  How practically then are we to implement all of this at the center given the sensitivities involved ?
  • Conclusion

Dedication

I dedicate any merit I may have accumulated from writing this that all beings may find the spiritual tradition that speaks to their heart, and that all beings may joyfully follow one tradition purely without mixing, regardless of what tradiction speaks to them.  I pray that those reading this do so with an open mind and understand that advice such as this is offered by Geshe-la out of his infinite compassion for us understanding what is spiritually the most effective way of progressing along the path.

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