No, he did not. There is not one instance in Ven. Geshe Kelsang’s books, teachings, or conversations where he claimed to be the “Third Buddha”. Tenzin Peljor, on a Tricycle editors’ blog, refers to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso: “In NKT there is an autocrat and he uses his power in an autocrat way.” NKT “survivors” sometimes make similar claims. But Geshe Kelsang never sought veneration from his students, or said, “I am your Spiritual Guide” or “You must follow what I say”. Nor did he ever say such things in private.
Geshe Kelsang never used any self-aggrandizing terms in relation to himself — he was very humble and attributed any success or good qualities that he may possess to Je Tsongkhapa and his Spiritual Guide, Vajradhara Trijang Rinpoche. He never claimed to be an ultimate spiritual authority. In an introduction to a teaching in California, 1996, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said:
I am a Buddhist monk, I came from Tibet. I am normally called Geshe Kelsang, my real name is Kelsang Gyatso. I am not a special person, just a humble Buddhist practitioner. There are four different traditions in Tibet and I belong to the Gelugpa Tradition. Trijang Dorjechang is the lineage holder of the Gelugpa Tradition. He is our head Lama, chief Lama, lineage holder, our father. I was born from him. My lineage, all my teachings of Sutra and Tantra, came from him. Therefore, now my students who are giving teachings are also this lineage and have the unbroken blessings of this lineage. Through receiving his blessings, I now have an opportunity to help Western people in their spiritual development. All my ability to teach, write books, organize, help, everything came from this Lama. Without this Lama, Geshe Kelsang is powerless. He is still my life.
In a teaching before a Je Tsongkhapa empowerment in 1995 he said:
We can think, how is it possible that a foolish man like myself can write fifteen Dharma books? These are very different from other books. The NKT Dharma books that we are using as our subject of study and practice are not just a collection of lectures. They are complete with root text, commentary and outlines, made perfectly like Dharma scripture. How can a foolish man write these books? I can say that because Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings are so profound, precious and clear, it gives Geshe Kelsang the opportunity to write these books. All the explanations of NKT Dharma books come from Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings. Because these teachings are so special, even a humble practitioner and foolish man like me has the opportunity to present such beautiful books. Through this alone we can understand the pre-eminent qualities of Je Tsongkhapa.
Geshe Kelsang has also taught how not to rely inappropriately or in a cult-like way on a Spiritual Guide. Buddha’s traditional instructions on Guru devotion need to be understood and practiced carefully within a modern Western context. For example, in Paris in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:
Generally, of course, relying upon the Spiritual Guide is the root of Dharma realizations, as Buddha Vajradhara said in the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings and Buddha Shakyamuni said in the Sutra teachings. This teaching is everywhere — from Buddha Shakyamuni up to our present teacher, every teacher has unanimously taught this. We cannot change this. But because society, times and other conditions are different, we need to be careful. What we say and what we want should always remain in the middle way, never extreme.
Geshe Kelsang explained that although it is a traditional and vital Buddhist teaching to view one’s Spiritual Guide as a Buddha in order to gain realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment, this view must be kept inside the heart and not verbalized; and the teachers and students must also not claim to be holy beings (whether they are or not). This teaching should also not cause people to act inappropriately but in accordance with the norms of our society. He explained:
Je Tsongkhapa strongly rejected revealing clairvoyance and miracle powers, or giving physical or verbal indications that we are a holy, pure or enlightened being.
The only reason for having a Spiritual Guide is to receive guidance on a spiritual path. And the only reason to follow or rely upon that Spiritual Guide is to make progress on that spiritual path — never to gain worldly power or success. Geshe Kelsang said in Paris in October 2008:
To understand who our Spiritual Guide is, we should know what the spiritual path is. If we know this, then we can understand how someone can be our Spiritual Guide…. If we understand that the qualification or characteristic of the teacher is to sincerely lead his or her students to correct spiritual paths (principally the trainings in renunciation, universal compassion and the correct view of emptiness) through giving teachings and showing a good example, we don’t need to worry. He or she will never cheat us. Otherwise we may be cheated.
So be careful, keep Dharma purely and never allow extreme views. Teachers should never use Dharma for their position, and students should never use their teachers for their position. We should follow Guru devotion only according to the development of Dharma realizations. Because the modern world has developed so much, it is very easy to follow in an extreme way. We know that other religions have this extreme; teachers say something and their students immediately follow them, and this causes suffering to so many people. It is very necessary to prevent these kinds of things.
Teachers should never show ‘I am a holy being, I am Buddha’ and so forth, and also the students should never say, ‘My Teacher is a Buddha’. This is ridiculous. Saying ‘My Teacher is Heruka’ or ‘My Teacher is Vajrayogini’ is not correct conversation! We should speak and act exactly as normal. We should respect what people in society believe. Otherwise, if we behave and react in strange ways that society does not accept, we will become isolated. They will never appreciate us. Even faithful disciples never talk like this. For example, I have many faithful students, but they never say ‘Geshe Kelsang is Heruka’ or ‘He is Buddha’ or ‘He is Lama Tsongkhapa’. They never say this.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s passing away
When Geshe Kelsang passed away in September 2022, he broke with the convention for high Lamas by not opting for embalming or a lasting memorial such as a pilgrimage stupa, but asking instead for his ashes to be disposed of in the ocean. He did not leave instructions for prayers for his swift return, either, as would be typical.
For more on the practice of relying upon the Spiritual Guide, see the answer to this question: Is the New Kadampa Tradition over-reliant on one teacher?