From the age of eight Kelsang Gyatso studied extensively at Sera Monastery, one of the great monastic universities of Tibet. He was a member of the Tsangpa Khangtsen, one of the fifteen houses at the monastery.
Initiations in Tibet
According to the Sera Expulsion Letter, as a member of that house, and a part of the general monastic community around Lhasa, he attended many public teachings, including the 14th Dalai Lamaís Lamrim Jampel Shalung at the Norbu Linka summer palace and in 1954 and 1956, along with most of the monks and public from the area, he received the Kalachakra Initiation from 14th Dalai Lama (this was the first Kalachakra initiation by the 14th Dalai Lama).
However, Geshe Kelsang himself denies that he has ever received initiations from the Dalai Lama.
Life in India
After the exodus of Tibet in 1959, Kelsang Gyatso stayed at the initial location of his monastery, in Buxar. Later, after Prime Minister Nehru donated large tracts of land in South India to the community in exile, the monastery moved South. At this time, Kelsang Gyatso left the monastery at Buxar for Mussoorie (a hill station in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). According to the Sera Expulsion Letter, he stayed there for several years as a chronic tuberculosis patient. It is during this time that he exercised some meditational retreats.
Although he claims to have been awarded a "Geshe" degree, according to the Sera Expulsion Letter he is not a Geshe. It has been said that due to ill health he did not actually pass the requisite Geshe exams. To date, no-one is sure which particular Geshe degree it is that he claims to hold, or in which year it was he took the examination.
However, it is clear that at one time he was highly thought of within the Tibetan establishment as three of his works contained forewords by eminent lamas, "Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition" in particular has a foreword by the Dalai Lama. Both Trijang and Ling Rinpoches also provided forewords for his books "Meaningful to Behold" and "Clear Light of Bliss".
Journey to the West
In 1968 Kelsang Gyatso accepted an invitation to live and teach in a center (being planned in Canada) by the Christian monk, philosopher and writer Thomas Merton, who was journeying through India that year. These plans were cut short due to Merton's sudden death and so the center did not evolve.
In 1977 Kelsang Gyatso was invited by Lama Thubten Yeshe to teach at Manjushri Institute an FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) center in England, founded by Lama Yeshe. Later he took over the Manjushri Institute (against Lama Yeshe's wishes) and founded the New Kadampa Tradition in the 1990's. The Center is located in Ulverston and is nowadays called Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre. It is the main seat of the New Kadampa Tradition. There he lived from 1977 giving teachings and guidance to an ever-growing group of disciples.
Expulsion from Sera
Kelsang Gyatso is a follower and promoter of the controversial deity, Shugden, and it his adherence to this deity which is the substantial reason for his break with the mainstream Tibetan tradition. After the reawakening of the Shugden debate caused by the publication of the Yellow Book in the 1970's, Kelsang Gyatso found himself center stage in an argument about the status of this deity. He refused to back down from the orders of HH Dalai Lama, the abbots and rinpoches of his own Sera Monastery, and the Ganden Tripa - the head of the Gelug tradition. This resulted in his public expulsion (see Sera Expulsion Letter) in 1996 from Sera Monastery, brought to a head because the Sera authorities were upset with his open opposition to the 14th Dalai Lama over the Dorje Shugden issue, feeling that it harmed the cause of Tibet. Such expulsions are very rare within the Tibetan tradition.
Geshe Kelsang has written nineteen books which provide Western Dharma practitioners with some essential texts of the Gelug tradition on the path to Enlightenment. There are books like a new translation into English of Chandrakirti's Guide to the Middle Way and many other books on Sutra and Tantra.
Furthermore, he has established three study programmes in his Dharma Centres, called the General Programme, Foundation Programme and Teacher Training Programme respectively. In these programs people can study Geshe Kelsangs books by authorized NKT teachers.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso continues to give teachings in Europe and North America, and has published a series of books on Buddhist thought and meditation.
According to Kelsang Pagpa, a teacher at one of his centres, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has at no time promoted himself as a Buddha, he has never stated that his students should only follow him and not other teachers; and moreover no student of his is prohibited from reading any Buddhist literature that they choose.
His followers say:
"He has established three study programs and over 800 centers around the world, trained qualified teachers and a ordained community, and created a project to build a Kadampa Buddhist Temple in every major city in the world.
In his teachings Kelsang Gyatso emphasizes the importance of meditation and how to apply it in daily life, the need to be truly happy, and how to cultivate a good heart to help others.
This teacher inspires many people from many different countries because he teaches from example."