By: Kay Beswick
The Tibetan exodus began in 1959 when the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama subsequently fled into exile. In the ensuing 60 years, the exiled Tibetan community established themselves in 24 settlements throughout India, on tracts of land generously granted to them by the Indian government. The Tibetan leadership themselves made their headquarters in Dharamsala, a former British hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas, in an environment reminiscent of Tibet.
From their position there, the Tibetan leadership has been plotting their return to Tibet. In the meantime, their people have occupied themselves with the reestablishment of the Tibetan way of life and religion. Their work and efforts include the reformation of monasteries like Gaden, Sera and Drepung.
From 1959 until 1996, it was a comparatively idyllic time. Tibetans from all walks of life and strata of society peacefully coexisted with one another. That is, until the ban on Dorje Shugden ripped the community in half. To justify the ban, the Tibetan leadership attempted to convince their people with various promises which, over the years, have since been debunked. They have been debunked not just because they lack logic but because the promises have failed to withstand the test of time. Here is just a short rundown of the Central Tibetan Administration’s litany of lies and false promises related to Dorje Shugden:
PROMISE #1: Give up Dorje Shugden because it will help the Tibetan cause
In other words, Tibetans were told that Dorje Shugden harms the Tibetan cause. At the time this promise was made, the ‘Tibetan cause’ was defined as full independence from China. How exactly Dorje Shugden harms the Tibetan cause was never made clear; the mechanics of this vague promise was never defined for the Tibetan people. They were however, told that if they gave up the practice, Dorje Shugden would stop creating problems and obstacles towards their return to Tibet.
Encouraged by this, some Tibetans gave up the practice while others were forced and threatened with violence if they did not do so. They were told that if they kept the practice, they were being disloyal, treasonous and anti-Dalai Lama, an accusation which carries with it heavy and violent repercussions within Tibetan society. Having forced many of their people to give up the practice, the Tibetan leadership now claims that vast swathes of Tibetans have given up the practice and Dorje Shugden is a minority practice, with just a few small yet stubborn strongholds who maintain it.
So given that, according to them, most Tibetans do not rely on Dorje Shugden and have given up the practice, why has the Tibetan leadership failed to make any progress in their efforts to return to Tibet? In the 20 years since the ban on Dorje Shugden began, the Tibetans continue to languish in exile and what is worse, do so as a community divided. The leadership continues to rely on non-governmental organizations to organize protests and campaigns, and for their own Tibetan people to self-immolate and go on hunger strikes, all of which are gaining less attention in a world enamored by the Chinese economy and desensitized after 60 years of fruitless Tibetan protests.
In fact, if anything, it is not Dorje Shugden who has damaged the Tibetan cause but, with respect, His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself. It was His Holiness who downgraded the ‘Tibetan cause’ from full independence (rangzen) to the Middle Way (meaningful autonomy; umaylam). This change led to the recent conflicts between the Tibetan people, divided between those who prefer rangzen and those who prefer umaylam (and accuse rangzen supporters of being anti-Dalai Lama).
If the Tibetan people and leadership have no consensus in their raison d’être, how can they expect to be successful in any of their campaigns and achieve any of their political goals? At this juncture, it is important to keep in mind that this division was not caused by Dorje Shugden; it was not Dorje Shugden who harmed the Tibetan cause.
The Tibetan leadership might also want to think twice the next time they insist that Dorje Shugden harms the Tibetan cause, and therefore people loyal to the Dalai Lama and to Tibet should give up the practice. To say that Dorje Shugden can harm Tibet means that Shakyamuni is not powerful enough to get Tibet back. More embarrassingly still, it means His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not powerful enough to get Tibet back. The Tibetan leadership claim Dorje Shugden is a spirit; is His Holiness the Dalai Lama less powerful than a so-called spirit, that he cannot subdue a spirit and he cannot get Tibet back?
PROMISE #2: Give up Dorje Shugden because it will protect the Dalai Lama and extend his life
When discussing Dorje Shugden, it is impossible to escape another promise that the Tibetan leadership made – giving up Dorje Shugden will prolong the Dalai Lama’s life because Dorje Shugden harms the Dalai Lama.
This was the perfect promise to make to an anxious community facing an uncertain future, who had all of their hopes and ambitions resting on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s shoulders. Without His Holiness, a global public relations juggernaut, how were they ever going to get Tibet back? Coupled with their inherent faith in the Dalai Lama, telling the Tibetan people that Dorje Shugden harms the Dalai Lama’s life meant they were perfectly poised to be manipulated and scared into doing anything the Tibetan leadership wanted.
Since the ban was enforced in 1996, the Tibetan leadership has failed to demonstrate any basis for this promise, notwithstanding the Dalai Lama’s own proclamations about the timing of his passing. Over the years, His Holiness has demonstrated a tendency to vacillate on this topic; on one occasion, he may state that the time of his passing is near, while on other occasions he has insisted he will live until 113. The Tibetan people have reacted as expected; when His Holiness has claimed his lifespan is short, they react with fear and worry, and countless requests for him to extend his life. When His Holiness has talked about living until 113, they are relieved.
Is it that His Holiness is a master manipulator and toying with his people’s emotions? Or is it that His Holiness is demonstrating he is in full control of his passing and the timing can therefore be changed? Whatever the actual reason, in doing so, the Dalai Lama indirectly demonstrates that there is very little esoteric basis that giving up Dorje Shugden will protect and extend his life. The Dalai Lama is believed to be an emanation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. How can something the Tibetan leadership deems a spirit (Dorje Shugden) be capable of harming a fully enlightened being? According to scriptures, since he is enlightened being, the Dalai Lama is therefore also in full control of his winds and the timing of his passing. This is perhaps best demonstrated by his own manifested indecisiveness about the time of his passing; it is this author’s belief that the timing changes because His Holiness is in full control of his death and subsequent rebirth, and Dorje Shugden has no impact on this whatsoever.
The promise from the Tibetan leadership also fails to hold any water because historically speaking, which Dalai Lama has Dorje Shugden killed since he was first enthroned as a Dharma Protector by the Sakyas? In fact, since Dorje Shugden’s manifestation as a Dharma Protector, if anyone has harmed a Dalai Lama’s life in all of that time, it is Nechung. It is well-known that when the 13th Dalai Lama was very ill, Nechung’s proclamations led to the administration of the wrong medication, resulting in the 13th Dalai Lama’s premature death. It is also well-known that when the Dalai Lama was considering leaving Tibet, Nechung was consulted and he advised the Dalai Lama to remain in Tibet. Instead it was Dorje Shugden who advised that the Dalai Lama should leave, and that this was a matter of grave urgency.
If anything, the Dalai Lama’s life was saved by Dorje Shugden. It makes no sense for the Tibetan leadership to claim that giving up the practice protects the Dalai Lama when it is Dorje Shugden who has been protecting the Dalai Lama all this while.
PROMISE #3: Give up Dorje Shugden so the Chinese stop spying on us
To ensure the Tibetan population would be sufficiently fearful of Dorje Shugden, their leadership told them that Dorje Shugden is a ploy of the Chinese, designed to drive a wedge in the Tibetan community. And to encourage people to give up Dorje Shugden, Tibetans were told that Dorje Shugden practitioners are Chinese spies and agents of the Chinese leadership.
All Tibetans know what an accusation like this means. It means the person is ostracized from the community. It means their families are blacklisted; the children cannot go to school, the parents cannot get jobs, shops will not serve them, hospitals will not treat them, and relatives cannot bury their loved ones because no one will come to conduct the last rites. Most of the Tibetan population is not wealthy and when faced with the possibility of such a life, with no foreseeable means of escape, it is understandable that people gave up the practice out of fear, to live as trouble-free a life as possible.
Tibetans were encouraged to punish Dorje Shugden practitioners for their perceived disloyalty to the Tibetan cause by segregating them – to separate the moustache from the mouth, so to speak. By segregating them, Shugden practitioners would not be able to participate in Tibetan daily life and help the Chinese leadership to sow seeds of dissent amongst Tibetans. By ostracizing Shugden practitioners, Tibetans were therefore being loyal to the Dalai Lama, their leadership and the Tibetan cause.
Promising that giving up Dorje Shugden makes it harder for China to spy on Tibetans is illogical, to say the least. Everyone practiced Dorje Shugden before the events of 1959, and before the Dalai Lama fled into exile. The Dalai Lama himself practiced Dorje Shugden; was he a tool of the Chinese leadership during his 30 years as a Shugden devotee?
It is similarly illogical and impossible that Dorje Shugden practitioners receive Chinese patronage simply because the Chinese leadership wishes to encourage anti-Dalai Lama sentiment. There are four million Dorje Shugden practitioners throughout the world. Financially, for all Dorje Shugden practitioners to receive remuneration from the Chinese leadership would present a huge expense for the Chinese, not to mention a logistical nightmare – how would the funds even be channeled to individual Shugden supporters and practitioners?
The Tibetan leadership’s promise may be without basis but what is fact is without the ban, there would be no sides for the Chinese leadership to support. So in fact, if the Chinese leadership are at all involved, it was the Tibetan leadership themselves who created a reason for this. Prior to the ban in 1996, many Dorje Shugden practitioners were passionate supporters of the Tibetan cause. When the ban was enforced, many Tibetans questioned why they should be protesting on behalf of a leadership that wants nothing to do with them. Why fight for someone like the Tibetan leadership who has made it clear they want nothing to do with you?
PROMISE #4: Giving up Dorje Shugden will lead to a harmonious Tibetan society
In the push to enforce the ban against Dorje Shugden, the Tibetan leadership promoted the idea that Dorje Shugden practice is schismatic and divisive. They promised more harmony and less conflict if Tibetans gave up Dorje Shugden.
There is no evidence that institutionalizing the ban has led to greater harmony. Most glaringly obvious is the fact the ban has resulted in the split of Sera Mey and Gaden Shartse Monasteries. In the case of Sera Mey, Pomra Khangtsen (fraternity house) broke away to form Serpom Monastery; in Gaden Shartse, Dokhang Khangtsen left to form Shar Gaden Monastery.
The situation was very different prior to the ban when monasteries and monks coexisted peacefully, thanks to their time in Buxa where the Tibetan community lived when they first arrived in exile. In Buxa, Tibetans from all walks of life, sects and backgrounds lived in close proximity to one another with no issues. After the great monasteries were reestablished throughout India, Nyingma and Sakya monasteries found themselves built next to Gelug monasteries (as in the case of Gaden and Sera, for example). The monks would socialize and talk at a degree otherwise impossible in Tibet itself, where the vastness of the land ensured great distances between monasteries.
It has been claimed by the Tibetan leadership that such a split is evidence of religious freedom. They say that the fact the new monasteries exist shows that the Dorje Shugden monks are given their rights to open their own places of worship. But why are such separate places of worship even necessary, when they had been a part of the original monasteries for centuries already?
In the history of the world, ‘divide and conquer’ has never been touted as a formula for harmony and strength. Either the Tibetan leadership has a warped view of what harmony entails, or they truly believe that divisions are indicative of cohesiveness. Given this strange concept of societal harmony and democracy, is there any wonder then they were unable to remain in Tibet and since 1959, have been unable to return?
The claim that the split is evidence of religious freedom is also an erroneous one because the Tibetan leadership has no authority to make such assurances. Being an exiled and stateless government, the Tibetan leadership is bound by the laws of India where they are headquartered. If there is any religious freedom at all, it is afforded to the Tibetan people based on Indian law.
It is in fact Indian law that has protected Tibetan Dorje Shugden practitioners all this while, since the Tibetan leadership has on many occasions directed and organized violence against their own people. In 2000, the 600 monks of Dokhang Khangtsen had to be protected by the Indian riot police when a violent mob of approximately 3,000 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypeople descended on their prayer hall as they conducted a Dorje Shugden puja. The mob threw rocks and bricks, and screamed expletives, demanding to be let into the compound so they could burn down the building.
More recently, the Tibetan leadership published a hit list of Dorje Shugden practitioners who protested for their religious freedom. This was followed by a 27-minute speech by the Dalai Lama, which was shortly followed by a violent knife attack on a 84-year old monk at Trijang Ladrang. A few months later, there was a violent takeover of Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s monastery Gaden Choling in Phedong upon the passing of the caretaker, who was loyal to Dorje Shugden.
The above is a video of the actual attack on Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s Gaden Choling Monastery (Phedong, India) in 2014
And that is just within the Gelug tradition. Within the Karma Kagyu tradition for example, the Tibetan leadership’s endorsement of one Karmapa candidate over another led to violent clashes at Rumtek Monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas during the enthronement ceremony of the non-endorsed candidate.
Then, in May 2016, the Karma Kagyu lama Rabsel Rinpoche wrote of supporters of the Tibetan leadership attempting to label the Karmapa Thaye Dorje a Dorje Shugden practitioner, in an effort to stain his reputation, destroy his influence and otherwise turn people away from him. The Karmapa Thaye Dorje has never previously hinted at any association with the Dorje Shugden practice, but it has not stopped such a ludicrous accusation from being leveled against him.
At a time when the Tibetan leadership can use a Gelug issue to create problems within another lineage, it is very clear to see that the promise that giving up Dorje Shugden will lead to harmony is so illogical, it will never bear fruit.
It seems that the Tibetan leadership cannot get things right and whatever they interfere with, ends up a mess of epic proportions. Instead of bringing people together, the leadership’s decisions have resulted in families being torn apart, as well as political in-fighting, conflict, vulgarities and overall violence. It began with the aftermath of the ban instituted in 1996 and things have been on a steady decline since for the Tibetan leadership. 20 years later, in 2016, the Dalai Lama’s reputation is worse than ever, with fewer world leaders willing to meet him, realizing it is not worth to jeopardize their trade relationships with China for such a meeting.
And the goal of rangzen (or umaylam – whatever is preferred) seems just as unattainable today as it was 60 years ago, regardless of whatever the Tibetan people have been told to give up in order to achieve it. They have given up Dorje Shugden, they have given up their teachers, they have given up their commitments, they have spent 20 years directing violence and vulgarities at those who refused to give up Dorje Shugden…and yet, they still have not achieved rangzen or umaylam. So what is the excuse now?
Can it be that the Tibetan leadership is staffed with incompetent individuals, or is it more likely that the leadership is comprised of self-serving people? The former would not be logical; surely after 20 years, incompetence can no longer be used as an excuse as the leaders would have learned from their past mistakes or the Tibetan people would have found much more capable representatives. It seems much more likely that the modus operandi of the leadership is to be entirely self-serving, hence the wild promises they make to their people, promises which are ever-changing in the hopes of distracting and keeping their populace from the truth.
What the Tibetan leadership needs to understand is that real power does not come from making false promises to and manipulating their people. Real power, strength and solidarity come from bringing people together, not driving them apart. If the Tibetan leadership are intent on turning their people against each other because they want money and power, what they will soon find is that with time, people will only wake up to the truth about them. That is, nothing they say can be trusted because they were never in office for the benefit of their people to begin with.