The system of ordination in the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) follows Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings on ordination interpreted by Geshe Potowa (1031-1106 CE), and, since this contains the essential meaning of all ordination, it is entirely valid.
It is important to understand the essential meaning of ordination before judging whether NKT ordination is valid or not. Just because it is different from the Tibetan tradition doesn’t make it invalid.
What is ordination?
The definition of ordination vow is a special moral discipline motivated by renunciation and received by means of a ritual practice given by an Ordaining Preceptor. This is true for all traditions of ordination in Buddhism. The aspect of the ordination may change in accordance with the conventions of society but, for as long as the essential meaning of ordination is maintained, it is valid.
The real meaning of ordination is to develop the mind of renunciation (the wish for liberation from samsara’s suffering) and then to practice the actual method for attaining liberation, which is called “the three higher trainings” — the practices of higher moral discipline, higher concentration, and higher wisdom — until liberation or nirvana is achieved.
Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhism follows the Vinaya Sutra, which comes from the Hinayana tradition. In the system of Tibetan Buddhism, the level of ordination is determined by the number of vows. Someone is a fully ordained monk if they hold 253 vows, or a fully ordained nun if they hold 364 vows. (There is no longer any tradition for full ordination for women in the Tibetan tradition and so Tibetan Buddhist nuns are secondary to monks.)
The way of granting ordination within the NKT was designed by Geshe Kelsang following the ancient Kadampa tradition. It is very simple and practical, and follows the tradition of ordination explained by Geshe Potowa and other Kadampa Geshes. According to this system, it is the level of renunciation that determines the level of ordination, not how many vows one holds. In NKT ordination, a monk or a nun becomes ‘fully ordained’ — Gelong or Bhikshu (monk); Gelongma or Bhikshuni (nun) — by holding the ten vows of ordination and having developed the realization of renunciation, that is, having developed the spontaneous wish for liberation such that it is ever-present in the mind, day and night.
The essence of the ten ordination vows of a Kadampa monk or nun is the condensation of all the vows of a fully ordained monk or nun contained in the Vinaya Sutra. These ten ordination vows are derived from a Mahayana teaching of Buddha, a Sutra called The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra; and the commentary to this Sutra is the stages of the path to enlightenment, or Lamrim.
These vows are very practical, compatible with both Buddha’s teachings and the norms of modern society, and sustainable, and they can easily be integrated into daily spiritual practice. Moreover, monks and nuns are equal; there is no discrimination against nuns.