he’s gone.

the empty throne

Kelsang Gyatso left this world on September 17, 2022. So I read.

Since learning this, I’ve been gently turning things over in my head, asking myself how I feel about it.

I’ve experienced mixed emotions since I left the NKT/IKBU (thus named then) in March 2008. I haven’t been concerned about sorting it out; I’ve focused more on following my path forward, which didn’t include that group or the teachers.

Kelsang Gyatso upset a lot of people and apparently made a lot of questionable decisions. Many may think I’m putting it too lightly, while others may think I’ve betrayed my holy spiritual guide and am doomed to experience hellish rebirths. I struggle to find words to put it simply.

Yes, I experienced plenty of pain and uncertainty while I was a member of the NKT. I also experienced immeasurable bliss and inspiration and witnessed more than a few astounding “miracles” (according to my definition). Faith brings that to us. Starting in 2001, I wanted to give my entire being to “the cause” and dreamed of one day being able to serve the community and leave my architecture profession. I took ordination in 2003.

Over the years, extensive donations left me in dire financial straits. I lost precious sleep while designing cafés, housing, and temples through the night (I can’t count how many times I watched the LOTR trilogy to keep me awake), only to rise in the mornings, take my son to school, and show up at a full-time job.

Those were extraordinary times for me, and I discovered precious friendships I hope to retrieve someday.

In late 2006, recurring vivid dreams and perceptions began indicating I needed a more open and tolerant environment. I searched for options within the NKT and found none. Dissonance clattered between the all-or-nothingness of my vows and “Namkhyen” following her heart. The only thing I knew for sure was that if I didn’t follow my heart – with wisdom – as best I could, I would perish. And abandoning myself contradicted many of the teachings I’d received.

By 2008, I felt depleted. I engaged in a reversal of the ordination ceremony in the privacy of my home. There wasn’t an NKT mechanism for returning one’s vows. I felt better afterward (ah, fragile ego) because I fully intended to pursue my path along similar lines elsewhere.

At that time, leaving ordination in the NKT required complete separation from the Sangha. That community had been my world since 2001, so I lost my circle of friends and activities. There was absolutely nothing left for me. It felt like walking away from a house that had burnt to the ground.

A few months later, I learned I couldn’t resume my path. No other groups recognized my vows.

I didn’t feel a tremendous amount of bitterness, just grief. Grief that I could not explore while remaining in the NKT. I grieved for the confusion and mixed messages from the various teachers; and contradictions between the texts we studied and the actions of the organization and teachers. Grief that it seemed impossible for me to live a “pure” life – as long as I had a son and needed to work for a salary.

As if finding stray photos near the burnt house, I kept my robes, books, and ritual implements for years afterward. They reminded me that the experience was real. Because those years profoundly changed and, in many ways, improved my life – despite reducing my mental and physical health.

I mourned my loss, but my heart broke more sharply to read and watch worldwide videos about Buddhism. I learned that not only was the NKT not perfect; Buddhism in general – in this world and time – was (and still is) largely imperfect. It’s still samsara. We’re still humans.

Around 2013, I discovered a Karma Kagyu Buddhist Center and eventually Barom Kagyu teachers with whom I felt strong connections. But nothing moved my spirit as profoundly or magically as my experiences from the early 2000s.

I consulted with these new teachers, and they each gently encouraged me to distance myself from everything related to Kelsang Gyatso. He was a pariah. I parted with the robes and – I thought – all of my texts and prayer books. But random little mementos still pop up whenever I move house or sort through boxes. I couldn’t erase those years from my life hard as I tried.

When I looked at my ritual implements, I hesitated. “These, and my experiences with them… these are mine. They’re genuine and unique to me.” Even though I learned the practices within a widely disqualified tradition, what brought me there was within me.

I kept my implements. In hindsight, I wish I had kept it all, much like I wish I’d kept all the letters from my high school boyfriend. Regrets litter my path, but they pale compared to what I’ve gained.

I won’t go so far as to argue that my ordination should be considered valid among Buddhist circles; I understand why it isn’t. Therefore, I’m not a traditional Buddhist of any lineage. I no longer associate my spiritual success or failure with a particular doctrine. I still consider myself Buddhist because I believe in Enlightened Beings and take refuge in them.

My life lessons have introduced me to a view of Buddhism that doesn’t fit into standard profiles. I recognize that may be delusional, but it’s my reality, and I’ll stick with it until it no longer applies.

I know these words contradict many views held in my heart when I was a practicing Buddhist, especially an NKTist. I relished receiving guidance in my earlier years – I needed it desperately. But now, running down a checklist to see which organization I want to identify with leaves me completely uninspired. I need a break from being told what to do.

Under Kelsang Gyatso’s influence, I discovered profound views and rich methods to help me understand my personal experiences. Other traditions and teachers followed, and I learned from them as well. But the main lesson the later teachers taught me (intentionally or not) was to question, question, question, and think for myself. And not to reject something just because another argues it’s incorrect. Just as we are all unique, we can all benefit from one another in unique ways.

I veered from Christianity because I found fault in its absoluteness and exclusivity. Now I find myself stepping away from formal Buddhism (as a religion) for the same reasons.

The Kelsang Gyatso I knew left me with precious memories and cautionary scars. To think of him as no longer a part of my world would be invalid. He may not have been a legitimate “Buddhist” leader or teacher. Still, his influence expanded my world in wondrous ways, and his guidance (the few glimmers I caught directly) nudged me in the direction of eventually finding true happiness. I still have faith that I can accomplish that goal, and some of the tools I gained there continue to nudge me forward.

The experiences remain; it doesn’t feel like he’s gone.

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