Kadampa Buddhism, a vibrant and profound tradition within Mahayana Buddhism, presents a unique path to personal enlightenment. Rooted in the teachings of the Indian Master Atisha and later revitalized in the contemporary era by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Kadampa Buddhism integrates ancient wisdom with modern life, offering an accessible approach to achieving inner peace and ultimate enlightenment.
What is Kadampa Buddhism?
Kadampa Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in Tibet in the 11th century and was revived in the late 20th century as a global Buddhist order by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. The term “Kadampa” derives from the Tibetan words “ka,” referring to the word of Buddha, and “dam,” which signifies the instructions of Atisha, an esteemed Buddhist master from the 11th century. Therefore, Kadampas are essentially “those who follow the word of Buddha and Atisha’s instructions.”
The original Kadampa tradition, also known as the “Old Kadampa School,” was established by Atisha (982–1054 AD), a renowned Buddhist teacher from Bengal. His teachings emphasized the integration of study, meditation, and moral discipline, underscoring the centrality of loving-kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta (the altruistic intention to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings) in the path to enlightenment.
The modern manifestation of this tradition, known as the “New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union” (NKT-IKBU), was founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1991. This contemporary lineage is known for its special emphasis on the accessibility and practical application of Buddha’s teachings in everyday life. It is characterized by a systematic, step-by-step presentation of the path to enlightenment, as presented in Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s comprehensive series of Dharma books.
One of the defining features of Kadampa Buddhism, particularly the New Kadampa Tradition, is its focus on a specific set of practices known as the Lamrim, or “Stages of the Path.” This presents a comprehensive and sequential series of meditative contemplations, designed to bring practitioners from a state of ordinary, unenlightened existence to full Buddhahood.
Kadampa Buddhism also places a strong emphasis on the practice of Tantra. However, within this tradition, Tantra is not viewed as a separate or distinct path, but rather as a method to be integrated into the broader Lamrim practice.
Despite its Tibetan origins, the New Kadampa Tradition often presents its teachings devoid of cultural trappings, promoting what it sees as a universal form of Buddhism that is relevant and applicable to contemporary life in any culture or country. Consequently, the NKT-IKBU has gained a significant international presence, with hundreds of centers and branches around the world.
It should be noted that the New Kadampa Tradition has been the subject of controversy within the wider Buddhist community, due to doctrinal disagreements, issues regarding religious authority, and the practice and promotion of the deity Dorje Shugden, which is seen as sectarian and controversial by many within Tibetan Buddhism.
The main teachings of Kadampa Buddhism
Kadampa Buddhism, both in its original and modern forms, features a distinct set of teachings that draw from the broader Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Its key teachings can be encapsulated within three main aspects: the Lamrim, Lojong and Tantra.
- Lamrim: The Lamrim, or “Stages of the Path,” constitutes the foundational framework of Kadampa Buddhism. Rooted in Atisha’s “Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment,” the Lamrim presents a sequential progression of meditative contemplations designed to lead practitioners from an unenlightened state to full Buddhahood. It outlines a comprehensive path that begins with basic teachings on ethics and the law of karma, advances to reflections on the nature of existence, and culminates in profound insights into the nature of reality (emptiness) and the cultivation of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
- Lojong: Lojong, or “Mind Training,” is a set of practices aimed at transforming the mind by cultivating attitudes of patience, compassion, and love towards others. Lojong teachings emphasize exchanging self with others (putting the needs of others before one’s own) and transforming adversities into the path to enlightenment. The ultimate aim of Lojong is the cultivation of an uncontrived sense of universal compassion and the reduction of self-centeredness.
- Tantra: Tantra, also known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, forms the third key aspect of Kadampa Buddhism, particularly in the New Kadampa Tradition. In contrast to some views of Tantra as a separate or distinct path, Kadampa Buddhism presents Tantra as a method to be integrated into the broader Lamrim practice. Tantra involves visualization practices, mantra recitations, and meditations designed to accelerate the path to enlightenment. It incorporates esoteric rituals that symbolize the transformation of the practitioner’s body, speech and mind into those of a Buddha.
A characteristic feature of Kadampa Buddhism is its emphasis on the practical application of these teachings in daily life. It encourages integrating Buddhist practice into everyday activities to promote ethical living, mental transformation and spiritual progress. This is embodied in the motto of the New Kadampa Tradition: “Turning the Wheel of Dharma in the Modern World.”
The key principles of Kadampa Buddhism
Kadampa Buddhism upholds a set of key principles that underlie its philosophical and practical teachings. These principles can be outlined as follows:
- Bodhicitta: At the core of Kadampa Buddhism is the principle of bodhicitta, the altruistic mind that aspires to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. The cultivation of bodhicitta involves developing profound compassion for all beings and the determination to liberate them from the cycle of suffering, or samsara. Bodhicitta thus acts as the motivational force behind a practitioner’s spiritual path.
- Emptiness: The understanding of emptiness, or shunyata, forms another fundamental principle. This refers to the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena, indicating that everything exists dependently upon causes, conditions, parts, and perceptions. This principle challenges our ordinary, self-centered view of the world and ourselves, opening the way to deeper wisdom and compassion.
- Interdependence and Karma: The principle of interdependence encapsulates the idea that all phenomena arise in dependence on multiple factors and conditions. Nothing exists in isolation. This principle is closely linked with the law of karma, the understanding that virtuous actions lead to happiness and non-virtuous actions lead to suffering. These principles serve as an ethical guideline for practitioners, encouraging the cultivation of virtuous actions and the abandonment of harmful ones.
- Integration of Study, Meditation and Moral Discipline: Kadampa Buddhism emphasizes the need for an integrated approach to the spiritual path. Study involves learning the teachings of Buddha; meditation refers to the internalization and realization of these teachings through focused contemplation; and moral discipline involves the application of Buddhist ethics in daily life. These three aspects are seen as mutually reinforcing and essential for progress on the path.
- Practical Application: A distinguishing principle of Kadampa Buddhism, particularly in its modern form, is the emphasis on the practical application of Buddhist teachings in daily life. Kadampa practitioners strive to transform every moment and experience into an opportunity for spiritual practice. The aim is not to withdraw from the world, but to interact with it more skillfully and compassionately.
- Universalism: The New Kadampa Tradition, in particular, promotes a form of Buddhism that transcends cultural and national boundaries. It strives to present Buddhist teachings in a form that is accessible, understandable, and applicable to people of all walks of life, regardless of cultural background.
The key principles of Kadampa Buddhism embody a combination of profound philosophical insights, ethical guidelines, and practical approaches for personal transformation and the attainment of enlightenment. They reflect the tradition’s broader Mahayana orientation, with its emphasis on compassion, wisdom and the universal potential for enlightenment.
The differences between Kadampa Buddhism and other Buddhist traditions
Kadampa Buddhism, while sharing much with other Buddhist traditions in terms of fundamental tenets, has several distinctive features that set it apart.
Systematic presentation: A prominent feature of Kadampa Buddhism is the structured presentation of Buddhist teachings in the form of the Lamrim, or “Stages of the Path.” While other traditions certainly employ similar frameworks, Kadampa Buddhism is particularly noted for its emphasis on the sequential progression of meditative contemplations, offering a comprehensive and orderly path from basic teachings to advanced philosophical insights.
Focus on practical application: Kadampa Buddhism, particularly in its modern form as represented by the New Kadampa Tradition, places a strong emphasis on the practical application of Buddhist teachings in daily life. It encourages practitioners to integrate their spiritual practice with everyday activities, using each moment as an opportunity for ethical behavior and mental transformation.
Universalism: The New Kadampa Tradition, in particular, strives to present Buddhism in a universal form that transcends cultural and national boundaries. Unlike many Buddhist traditions which retain the cultural trappings of their geographical origins, the NKT-IKBU presents Buddhist teachings in a culturally neutral format, designed to be accessible and relevant to people of all backgrounds.
Controversies: It is important to note that the New Kadampa Tradition has been the subject of controversies within the wider Buddhist community. The NKT-IKBU’s promotion of the deity Dorje Shugden, considered sectarian and controversial by many within Tibetan Buddhism, has led to doctrinal disputes and criticisms. This distinguishes the NKT-IKBU from many other Buddhist traditions that have managed to avoid such controversy.
Tantra integration: While Tantra is found in many Tibetan Buddhist traditions, Kadampa Buddhism integrates it within the broader Lamrim practice, viewing it not as a separate path, but as a method to be integrated into the overall progression toward enlightenment.
Three study programmes: The New Kadampa Tradition offers three study programs – the General Programme, Foundation Programme, and Teacher Training Programme. This structured approach provides a systematic presentation of the entire range of Buddha’s teachings as a coherent spiritual path, which is quite unique compared to other Buddhist traditions.
Global reach: While many Buddhist traditions have spread globally, the New Kadampa Tradition has done so in a notably structured and organized manner, with hundreds of centers worldwide all following the same study programmes and using the translated works of a single teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.
8 Famous Kadampa Buddhist centers around the world
Kadampa Buddhism, particularly as represented by the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), has established a wide array of centers around the globe. These centers serve as important venues for the dissemination of Kadampa Buddhist teachings. Here are eight renowned Kadampa Buddhist centers:
- Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre: Located in the English Lake District, this is the mother center of the New Kadampa Tradition. The center resides in a historic Victorian mansion and offers a wide range of courses, retreats, and festivals. It is also home to the NKT-IKBU International Temples Project and a publishing company, Tharpa Publications.
- Kadampa Meditation Center New York City: Situated in the bustling metropolis of New York City, this center serves as a beacon of tranquility amidst the urban frenzy. It embraces the ethos of the Kadampa tradition, providing accessible meditation classes, workshops and retreats tailored to the needs of modern urban dwellers. Under the guidance of experienced teachers, both seasoned practitioners and newcomers to Buddhism converge to explore the profound teachings of Kadampa Buddhism.
- KMC San Francisco: Based in the heart of San Francisco, this Kadampa Meditation Centre offers a full program of study, meditation classes, workshops, and retreats. It also hosts the California Dharma Celebration annually.
- KMC Singapore: The Kadampa Meditation Centre Singapore offers a variety of classes, courses, and retreats for all levels of interest. It also houses a Buddhist shop and a World Peace Café.
- KMC Brasil: Located in São Paulo, this center offers a variety of study programs, meditation classes, and Buddhist prayer sessions. The center’s serene environment provides a perfect setting for introspective contemplation.
- KMC Australia: Situated in the lush Dandenong Ranges in Victoria, this center provides a peaceful environment for retreats and meditation. It also hosts the annual Australian Dharma Celebration.
- Tharpaland International Retreat Centre: Located in Germany, this unique center is dedicated to hosting meditation retreats. Tharpaland offers a variety of retreats ranging from weekend introductions to several weeks in duration.
- KMC France: The Kadampa Meditation Centre France, known as Tharpaland KMC, is located in a tranquil environment in the countryside of Haute-Marne. It offers a wide range of courses, retreats, and festivals in both French and English.
These eight centers, along with many others, serve as significant global hubs for the practice and propagation of Kadampa Buddhism, providing teachings, retreats, and events for practitioners at all levels.
In conclusion, Kadampa Buddhism emerges as a vibrant and influential tradition within the tapestry of contemporary Buddhism. It unique approach, underpinned by the profound teachings of Atisha and elucidated by the venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has garnered a global following, transcending cultural boundaries and resonating with diverse audiences. Through a harmonious blend of ancient wisdom and modern applicability, Kadampa Buddhism offers a transformative path that addresses the complexities of contemporary living.