A TIBETAN IDENTITY CRISIS (1996-1999)
© by Ursula Bernis
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . .”
“Whereas . . . the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration . . .”
from the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
While gathering material for a book on seminal Buddhist masters of this century, I became aware in 1996, that because most belonged to the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and relied on the religious protector Dorje Shugden, they were suddenly at the center of a raging controversy. Told by the Dalai Lama to renounce ties with that venerable tradition, they were put into a position of either breaking their vows or facing ostracism from the community. These greatest of masters who included one of the two tutors of the Dalai Lama had been central to the transmission of Buddhism as it traveled from Tibet to India and the rest of the world after 1959. They ensured the integrity of a living wisdom tradition that had been passed on from one adept to another for a millennia. I was shocked to hear the ugly allegations against such venerated and highly respected Lamas. I personally knew many of them, had studied with them, and had had a chance to observe them in close proximity over many years. Like most everyone else, I found their gentle kindness, open-mindedness, and inclusive teachings exemplary.
Since every accusation against them contradicted facts, reason, and my own experience, I felt compelled to get to the bottom of the controversy that had generated such extreme views. It was impossible to continue my project without finding an explanation of how such a dramatic shift from the most revered masters to “devil worshipers” could have occurred and, moreover, how it could so completely possess the Tibetan cultural psyche in such a short time.
In the process of my work on this book I found that open debate about the subject was impossible in the exile community and that the conflict was driven by an emotional zeal for the Dalai Lama beyond all rational considerations, suggesting an identity crisis of unexpected proportions. The conditions of exile, the loss of country, home, family and the threat to the established religious world view certainly contributed to the Tibetans’ exaggerated hold onto the one institution left to them, that of Dalai Lamas. However, there seemed something else at work that extended far beyond the Tibetan community to affect Western Tibet supporters as well. They exhibited similarly irrational responses to the conflict. No matter what approach one brought to the subject, all attempts at rational debate became immediately polarized and turned into a series of outlandish accusations, none of which held up under scrutiny.
At the heart of the difficulties complicating this investigation were the unique problems deriving from the fact that Tibetan society remains largely an oral culture. I traveled throughout India and Nepal, the longest visit lasting four months, and talked to hundreds of Tibetans and affected Buddhists, gathering their stories and oral testimony. At the same time, I collected relevant documentation of government records, published papers, wall posters — a common form of communication about controversial subjects — and circulars of the various social organizations that make up the Tibetan administration. This material forms the background for this book.
Since the Tibetan exile government denies the reality of the conflict it has been instrumental in creating, the issue is presented here from three different perspectives:
- Part I, from the point of view of Tibetans living in India and Nepal most affected by the conflict;
- Part II, a historical background and chronological ordering of events surrounding the conflict followed by biographical sketches of the most influential masters of a tradition now being suppressed as a “cult”; and
- Part III, which examines the issue from an outsider’s point of view.
My analysis traces some of the standard accusations to a basic confusion of religious and political issues. It brings to bear the historical and cultural background to show the dynamics of power relations in the exile community and how they get played out in the international arena through the media. Crucial to understanding the emotional involvement in this issue of Western Tibet supporters is their need to uphold at all cost today’s icon of universal goodness, made accessible by the media to a world bereft of deep spiritual meaning. Even though the Dalai Lama’s politics come into critical focus, the book is not intended as an attack on him.
Although I am indebted to many scholars and experts on the subject, it would be a disservice at the time of this writing to acknowledge their individual help publicly. The nature of the issue is so sensitive that they must remain unnamed. Even so, I would like to express here my gratitude for their contribution.
“By defending those people who are persecuted for their race, religion, ethnicity or ideology, you are actually contributing to guiding our human family to peace, justice and dignity.”
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, Dec. 7, 1998
Never before in its history has Tibet been lost so thoroughly and seemingly irreversibly to invaders. Even during historical periods of strong outside influence such as the Mongolian and Manchu forces in the 17th and 18th centuries, Tibet was not as totally occupied as it is now. Until Communist China subjugated Tibet in the middle of this century, it was never under complete control of another nation. This came at a time when the age of colonization had ended for the rest of the world, which makes this immense loss even more tragic. It would be difficult for any people to accept the sad reality of so much destruction and to deal with it rationally.
Tibetans who grew up in a country as large as Europe, populated by not more than six million people, found the loss of their country and way of life especially hard to accept. Moving from the Himalayan snow mountain ranges — and beyond them, the open spaces of the high plateau, which gave an intense sense of personal freedom — to the stifling heat and congested spaces of overpopulated India with its religious, cultural, and linguistic diversity meant changing to a world as foreign as one can possibly imagine. Today, when the loss of Tibet is becoming ever more apparent to the rest of the world, the hope for Tibetan self-determination is quickly dwindling. Nevertheless, much of the generation growing up in exile courageously holds on to the idea of freedom, even if they see it as deferred to an indefinite future.
To think through the many intrinsic contradictions that make up their political and social fabric in exile would only cause deeper suffering and more intense emotional turmoil. By their own account, most Tibetans simply rely on the Dalai Lama and go on with their everyday business of life. This attitude is not religious — as is claimed in the West — but a desperate solution to an identity crisis of a people in denial. It also explains their often-unrealistic political views which are propagated in a larger international context.
The one Tibetan institution believed to be still intact is that of the Dalai Lama. In him religious and political power are fused in a uniquely Tibetan way. Continuing the heritage through incarnation, the institution of Dalai Lama, first established in Tibet in 1642, has become larger than life today in exile with the overwhelming responsibility of bringing an ancient culture into the twenty-first century. The institution of the Dalai Lama in exile has become the very soul of Tibet, the nation, the culture, and the religion. In the face of the severe disruption in Tibetan life not only by political forces but also global cultural change, it has become the source of Tibetan identity per se. No other Dalai Lama ever had to carry as heavy a burden of his institution as the current, the Fourteenth. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama was formally the “The Great Owner” of the country, still one of his names today. In religious and political ways he was the head of the government and leader of his people. In exile, without a country and only a handful of people, without a legal mandate or a power base other than a globalized version of Buddhism, his tasks as head of state and government have become almost impossible. Yet he is everything to his people, the one true vestige of a cherished way of life that amounts to what is Tibetan for Tibetans.
Communist China took over Tibet beginning in 1949 with a so-called “peaceful liberation” culminating in complete control in 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped to India followed by approximately eighty thousand of his people, a number that subsequently increased to an estimated one hundred twenty thousand dispersed around the world. Then only in his early twenties, the Dalai Lama established an administration in exile8 with the help of his tutors, religious dignitaries, loyal old regime aristocrats, and family. They established an infrastructure in Dharamsala, a small hill station in the foot hills of the Himalayas located in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, assigned to them by the Indian government, to deal with the influx of refugees and to save the largely religious culture of Tibet.
Tibetans were granted refugee status in India at the time under an executive order, since India has not ratified the International Convention of Refugees. In spite of the political and legal reality that the Dalai Lama and his people are not permited any political activities in India, their administration in Dharamsala is called a government. It was formally established during the first few days of the Dalai Lama’s escape in March 1959 in Tibet en route to India. Exile Tibetans consider it the Tibetan government per se even though neither India nor any other country recognizes it as such.
In the 1960′s, most of the older loyalists were pushed out of the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala while the most important political functions were assumed by the Dalai Lama’s family, particularly his older brother Gyalo Thondup. Chinese educated, he seemed to be the only diplomatically trained person then who could present the Tibet problem internationally. Gyalo Thondup had dealt with the Indian government already in 1948 when, unfortunate for its immediate political future, Tibet had failed to recognize Indian independence (1947). He also helped the Tibetan resistance with aid from the CIA. In Tibet, a family member of a Dalai Lama was legally barred from holding office, something that changed in exile, where Gyalo Thondup and others later became ministers. Recently, another brother of the Dalai Lama has claimed that today only three families, including his, run the exile government.
Early on in exile, in 1961, the Dalai Lama began to draft a constitution for a future free Tibet which was adopted in 1963. However, a charter to administer the very different situation in exile was not implemented until 1991. It is a simpler document than the draft constitution and it passed the Assembly of People’s Deputies by a simple majority. Hailed as a “leap forward” in democratizing Tibetan politics, it instituted several novel practices for the exile government such as election of ministers (Tib.: kalon) by the people’s deputies in their Assembly or parliament. Nevertheless, the preamble states the nature of the government to be the union of religious and political affairs in continuity with the Ganden Potang government of Tibet established by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1642. The Dalai Lama continues to be its unelected head and the political system remains without institutionalized opposition.
It is commonly known that the Dalai Lama is still the religious and political head of Tibetans, at least in exile, since in the Western press he is usually referred to as “God-King.” The effort to democratize has not extended to separate the domains of religion and politics. Since the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala is not legitimately a government by legal and international standards, it is difficult to analyze this problema in an easy or straightforward way. It is not a democracy. The Tibetan people have never been asked to vote on any of the major political decisions concerning the future of their country either inside or outside Tibet. Often not even the Assembly and Cabinet (Kashag) are asked. Even more basic, freedom of speech, the very foundation of democracy, is woefully absent among exile Tibetans.
Criticism of official exile government business is usually dismissed as being of Chinese origin. China is doing whatever it can to destabilize the exile community, discredit the Dalai Lama, and silence any criticism of its policies in Tibet. It moves to fan the flames of any internal Tibetan conflict. But Tibetan society today seems to be just as intolerant of internal opposition as the Chinese. Allegations of Chinese interference are widely used by Tibetans as an excuse to silence any opposition.
In an atmosphere where nationalistic and religious fervor for the Dalai Lama are all too often substituted for rational debate and political analysis, the dynamics of social groups plays an important role in enforcing policies of the exile government, which itself is denied this role by its host country. The unusual circumstances of exile require atypical solutions to social and political problems. The exile government works through social organizations which were also common in old Tibet where they did not have the same political functions they acquired in exile.
In 1991, the base of representation in the Assembly was divided into regional groups (based on the traditional division of Tibetan geography into three main provinces, Tib.: chol.ka gsum,or Cholsum) and religious sects functioning like interest groups. A network of NGO’s, made up of different regional sub-groups, social welfare groups, religious organizations, and local chapters of women’s and youth groups effectively carry out the exile government’s wishes usually in the name of the Dalai Lama. Social pressure to conform to anything interpreted as the wish of the Dalai Lama has become intense, especially in the last decade. This type of social control was not exercised in Tibet before 1959 but developed out of the very difficult conditions in exile, where the large number of social groups originated first to help destitute refugees and later to raise funds from international sponsors and donor organizations. Another reason is that the legal status of Tibetans in India is precarious. They are prohibited from engaging in overt “political” activity.
Since Tibetans are refugees in India, they do not have their own police or legal system. The Indian police and legal systems have often proven to be corrupt and Tibetans do not trust them. Thus, social pressure is an effective method of control and enforcing directives of the Tibetan exile government. Tibetans are clannish in ways difficult for us to grasp which makes social pressure an effective device. They are primarily still an oral culture and get their information from radio, tapes, and an amazingly accurate grapevine. This makes them extremely vulnerable to rumor mongering.
Publications in Tibetan or English are to varying degrees controlled by the exile government which exercises censorship. A free press does not exist among Tibetans themselves, although they have access to the international press. The fear and mistrust that naturally develop among exiles are ever on the rise. This is especially true since more and more Tibetans escaped to India from their Chinese controlled homeland in the 1990′s, bringing with them their different use of language and unfamiliar views. The upbringing of Tibetans in Tibet and those in India differs radically, causing even deeper factionalism and paranoia already rampant in the exile community. These factors explain in part why the Dalai Lama’s words carry the weight of law and why an indirect remark from him can destroy someone or actually become incendiary.
Until the 1990′s the one issue uniting the exile community had been Tibetan independence. The State Oracle advising the Dalai Lama and his government had repeatedly predicted in the 80′s early 90′s that freedom was waiting just around the corner. This clearly did not materialize.
With the official political strategy having changed from independence to returning to Tibet under Chinese control, the institution of Dalai Lama has emerged today as the only unifying factor. Where in the 1980′s the Dalai Lama still laughingly responded in the affirmative to the inevitable journalistic question whether he was the last Dalai Lama, in the 90′s he answered the same question by emphasizing different type of continuity for the institution. Among the possibilities he mentioned were a Dalai Lama elected like the Pope or incarnated as a woman. The return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet became the most important issue for exile Tibetans in the late 1990′s. The explanation floated, also in the Western press, was that unless he died and was reborn in Tibet, the Chinese would not accept a future Dalai Lama.
Although full of contradictions that leave everyone guessing, this explanation nevertheless points to the need of ensuring the continuity of the institution of the Dalai Lamas, something that has come to represent the nation in lieu of a country. The clearer it becomes that Tibet is lost, the stronger is the clinging to the institution of Dalai Lama. Hence, Tibetans resist vehemently anything that can be construed as a criticism of his person or administration and react with irrational fury to anything that can be seen as a threat even to his reputation or legacy, let alone his life.
It is not difficult to see that Tibetans are going through the most severe identity crisis in their history. Those living in exile have been displaced from their homeland and those left in Tibet from their culture. The complex set of problems created by all these forced changes in an already complicated society with arcane social practices remain largely inaccessible to the Western mind. Most do not affect us. Yet Tibetans have been a genuine source for spiritual discovery in the last decades for many people around the world, and the Dalai Lama a powerful source of inspiration. There are a number of religious issues embedded in Tibetan political and social problems that take some effort to extricate. The one I found especially striking in its impenetrable abstruseness is the Dorje Shugden protector conflict rooted in the Dalai Lama’s restrictions of his practice, which surfaced in 1996 to receive international attention. It exposes the fault lines and depth of the Tibetan identity crisis like few others.
Inquiring into the circumstances for its eruption, I found out more about Tibetans than I had in many years of participating in human rights work and following the teachings of their masters. The Dorje Shugden conflict serves as an example of the ever-widening gap between appearances and reality in the increasingly fractious refugee community.
In March 1996, His Holiness strongly advised his followers not to rely on the Dharmapala Dorje Shugden because, according to the prophecies of his oracles, Dorje Shugden harms the institution of the Dalai Lama, his life, his government, and the cause of Tibet. Immediately government offices promulgated this advice, stated in no uncertain terms by the Dalai Lama, and turned it into a full-fledged ban. Everyone then, including the Dalai Lama, referred to the conflict as “a ban.” Later, after questions from the international press, the exile government denied that there was a ban and continues to hold this position. At the time, the strong reaction by the exile government to the oracles’ prophecies and the Dalai Lama’s statements resulted in forced signature campaigns, where Tibetans were pressured under threat of force or expulsion to sign a document forswearing Dorje Shugden, desecration and destruction of holy images, death threats and threats of violence. Although few violent incidents actually occurred, the campaign of fear and intimidation pressuring Tibetans to give up their age old religious practice to “save” the Dalai Lama and the “cause of Tibet” resulted in dividing the community, ostracism, loss of revenues for monasteries and businesses, loss of opportunities for education, travel, economic advancement, social welfare, and threatens the survival of a religious tradition.
Chinese authorities, ever on the lookout to embarrass the Dalai Lama and to disparage his followers, did not waste time in 1996 to seize the issue to serve their divisive ends. They criticized the Dalai Lama for betraying his bodhisattva aims, meant to benefit others without concern for one’s own health and well-being as is befitting a religious person. This was an especially embarrassing charge for someone so widely believed to be a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Buddha of compassion. The government in exile used the Chinese interference effectively to silence most critics of the ban, conveniently reversing cause and effect by claiming that Buddhists who rely on Dorje Shugden had caused the conflict and that they were working for the Chinese. This is considered the ultimate betrayal in the Tibetan exile community, the equivalent to high treason.
Dharmapala Dorje Shugden is held in high esteem by many Tibetans as a powerful guardian of religious vows and law. A Dharmapala plays the role of a caretaker or guardian of Buddhist practice. Like parents, he or she is believed to help with establishing conditions conducive for spiritual practice and to avert harm and interferences. The Buddha is the ultimate authority but, just like a president, he or she has aides who work out and enforce the details on the day-to-day level spanning many degrees in rank. Dharmapalas are also beings on the path to enlightenment.
Some of them go back to the time of the Buddha, others evolved in Tibet. Some of the most widely revered Buddhist masters in the last three hundred fifty years of Tibetan history relied on Dorje Shugden as their guardian, including the Dalai Lama until the mid-1970′s. They considered him an emanation whose nature is the wisdom of the Buddha Manjushri but appearing mostly in a worldly, fierce way. This century, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche41, one of the two mentors of the Dalai Lama, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche and Domo Geshe Rinpoche were the most renowned and influential masters of the Gelug tradition, the largest order of Tibetan Buddhism. With their fame also spread that of their guardian, Dorje Shugden. He is believed to be extremely powerful, swift, and precise. Although different views about him were known in Tibet, in exile, this Dharmapala became demonized in unprecedented ways even for Tibetans.
The aim was to destroy the practice of Dorje Shugden — not its possible misuse — since at no time was any distinction made between relying responsibly on this guardian deity and misusing to which all religious practices are subject.
The source of the demonization was oracles (mediums in trance) of the Tibetan exile government, many Tibetans believe to be unreliable. Their prophecies declared Dorje Shugden to be an evil spirit intent on harming the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibet seen by many as synonymous. The exile government’s continuing uncompromising stand on this point polarized the issue and turned any attempt to present a different interpretation, even those made in good faith, into an attack on the Dalai Lama and, hence, a confirmation of the “prophecies.” Thus, the Dorje Shugden believed to be evil and the one religious people rely on seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. They are two different beings with each side believing that the other invented its own story of Dorje Shugden. They could not be further apart, one a demon, carrier of seemingly absolute evil, the other believed by most of Tibet’s greatest Buddhist masters to be an emanation of the Buddha’s wisdom within worldly action. In part, these different views are the result of dragging into the political arena an esoteric religious practice that is easily misunderstood, especially when made public in this way. The difference between the two radically different conceptions of Dorje Shugden also pits two kinds of authority against each other, one religious, the other political. Proclaiming Dorje Shugden an evil spirit denies more than two hundred acclaimed Tibetan Buddhist masters — not counting their tens of thousands of disciples — their religious qualifications. These are based on the ability to distinguish between good and evil, the very essence of wisdom. From a Buddhist point of view this is clearly absurd. It makes sense only from a non-religious context. Hence, the differences concerning Dorje Shugden have to be considered from a political point of view.
In the summer of 1996, the Tibetan government in exile was accused of human rights violations by many Tibetans and some of their Western supporters. Since then most critics have been pressured into silence. Although two prominent human rights organizations expressed their concerns privately to the exile government, they refused to do so publicly for several reasons including that it could be seen as undermining the efforts of the Dalai Lama and the much larger and more serious issue of improving human rights in Tibet under Chinese control. Amnesty International specified recently that there had been no human rights violations — torture, death penalty, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention and unfair trials — in the Tibetan exile community as a result of the Dorje Shugden conflict. Since the Tibetan exile government has to function under Indian law, it is clear that it could not use such methods to begin with. The methods Dharamsala has used to pressure Tibetans into giving up one of their cherished religious practices and the tradition, it is meant to protect are based on silencing any genuine disagreement with its policies through a kind of psychological warfare that uses threats against those perceived to disagree with the Dalai Lama, intimidation, and social pressure. How this gets played out in a uniquely Tibetan way in their unusual exile circumstances will, I hope, become clearer in the course of the book.
PART I — EXILED FROM EXILE
One of the main aims of this book is to give Tibetans a voice, since they cannot speak out in their own communities without facing serious consequences, intense social pressure, threats of violence, slander, and ostracism. In this part of the book are documented the experiences of Tibetans affected by the Dorje Shugden ban. They are excerpts from many informal conversations and formal interviews I conducted mostly from October 1997 to May 1998 in the areas in India and Nepal where Tibetans live in large numbers: Delhi, Dharamsala, Spiti, Kinnaur, Mysore, Mundgod, Goa, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and in Nepal’s Kathmandu valley.
In what might be called an ethno-phenomenological approach, I collected additional oral testimony about the conflict from Tibetans and other Buddhists in different parts of the world from May 1996 till the present. For the most part, I have included those parts of the conversations that are representative of many other voices. This is by no means an exhaustive study. Most of the Buddhists who were deeply affected by the ban of their protector practice were too afraid to expose their names to the world. So I am including only some names. Others have been changed or left out altogether. Sometimes I have left out the name of the place for reasons of confidentiality. Each conversation partner told me much about his or her social, religious, political, and family background. I have included some of that information to give the reader an idea of how pervasive the practice was through all levels of Tibetan society and how far-reaching is the despair about the conflict.
I tried to include voices from a cross-section of Tibetan society. However, the religious and intellectual elite most qualified to explain the reasons for the conflict to the world is not represented directly by interviews. It is not even clear at the moment how many of the leading Gelugpas still rely on Dorje Shugden. In the emotional atmosphere of the “war of words,” they were accused of cowardice and their silence interpreted as betrayal. I have good reasons to believe it was out of respect for His Holiness and religious concerns. With their silence they resisted participating in the split created by the ban and refused to disgrace the Buddha Dharma they are trying to preserve for future generations.
Since my Tibetan is not adequate to conduct lengthy and detailed conversations such as these, I had to rely on translators. Many exile Tibetans who know English do not know Tibetan well enough to understand the intricacies of the language, the religious terms or the language of official documents. My concern was that a translator should master the Tibetan language rather than have flawless English. Both of my main translators were well educated in Tibetan and also knew English quite well. But since the English needed editing, I often used my own terms and expressions for words not precise enough in the original. For this reason, the truly authentic Tibetan voice comes through only sketchily, a common problem when working with translation.
I noted whenever the discussion was originally in English.
I would like to provide a glimpse of the complexities of Tibetan culture in its mixture of religion and politics and how multifaceted is the issue that brought the uniquely Tibetan identity crisis into focus for the rest of the world and the many different levels on which it gets played out. I intentionally did not order the content of the interviews around categories of my choosing in the hope that the authenticity of the Tibetans’ concerns comes through more clearly this way.
I would like to point out to the reader unfamiliar with Tibetan culture that Tibetans do not complain in public. It is very difficult to get them to express their thoughts and feelings to begin with, especially to a stranger from another country. It simply is not done in Tibetan culture. So, whatever deeply troubles them is expressed in a most understated and indirect way. The following testimony, even though a barometer for the Tibetan exile society’s feelings about the current identity crisis, has to be seen in the context of this type of extreme understatement of the inner turmoil that is tearing people apart in that community.
Tibetans do not answer specific questions, I learned. They almost never answer with a straight “yes” or “no.” This is culturally determined. Whatever I asked concerning the subject of Dorje Shugden, the answer came as a long story or as a great deal of accumulated reflections and doubts. After a while I gave up trying to elicit responses to specific questions. I was trying to document the conflict and what Tibetans most directly affected felt about it. They needed to talk. On more than one occasion people broke into tears sobbing that they had no one to whom to tell their story. To see old monks cry like that, especially those who had safeguarded His Holiness out of Tibet in 1959, was more than disconcerting.
I talked to hundreds of people and became aware of their exaggerated fears that contradict the media image of happy Tibetans. One of these fears, I discovered, was of their beloved leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This greatly surprised me. Why would Tibetans be so afraid of someone they believe so literally to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion? This became one of the most puzzling questions that led me to uncover many contradictions in the Tibetan exile society.
Aside from their intense fears, what also struck me was that almost all of the people I talked to were upright, strong people — good citizens, we would say — who had served either the exile government or the Tibetan community at large for decades on a day-to-day basis with hard work, devotion, loyalty, and innovations. The older Tibetans had been the backbone of the exile community in the sixties and seventies and many of them had put together its social infrastructure in the first place. They are for the most part capable, hard working people with many community leaders other Tibetans turn to for help in times of need. It is literally unbelievable that now they all allegedly receive money from China for spying and creating conflict in the Tibetan community. To anyone who knows these people and their demonstrated loyalty to the Dalai Lama, it seems pathetic, even silly, to allege they have become a security risk intent on harming the life of the Dalai Lama — the most devastating accusation for any Tibetan.
My aim in this section is to document how Tibetans feel about the identity crisis occurring in their communities in exile not establish the truth about the ontological status of Dorje Shugden. That would be beyond the scope of all but a handful of realized, spiritual masters.
Religious truth cannot be legislated or established by a general survey, by voting, giving opinions, or by recounting one’s personal experiences. It is not a political subject. Whom we choose to believe as acting solely on religious grounds is up to each individual, the reader as well as those whose feelings and statements are recorded here.
In order to familiarize the reader with the political status of exile Tibetans in India and the administrative system they have constructed, the first interview presented is with Samdhong Rinpoche, advisor to the Dalai Lama and senior most government official since 1991. It touches on the subject of the relationship between religion and politics in the Tibetan exile government and starts this section to aid the reader in following with greater ease the grievances voiced by Tibetans affected by the ban.
At the end of this section I include the views of two non-Tibetans whose close affiliations with the culture and language qualify them to add their own unique perspective. Since their presentations might be more systematic, the reader would perhaps benefit from reading them first. However, I have included them at the end since this section is meant to give voice to Tibetans.
From Conversations and Interviews
Interview in English with Samdhong Rinpoche, Chairman of the Assembly since 1991 and co- drafter of the Charter for the Tibetan exile government. For more than twenty years, he has also been the Director of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, which is affiliated with Sanskrit University at Varanasi, India. He has consistently been devoted and loyal to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sarnath, January 12, 1998:
Q: How can a government that mixes religion and politics actually become democratic? Is the Tibetan exile government at the moment more interested in preserving the Ganden Potang government46 or in democratizing and trying to find an appropriate government for, one hopes, a future free Tibet. Can you say something about that?
A: As far as the Tibetan government in exile is concerned, the direction in which it is moving is quite transparent. And there is no room for any confusion. The Charter for the Tibetans in exile which was drafted by His Holiness and placed before the 11th Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies was of a secular character. His Holiness clearly mentioned that the nature of the polity of the Tibetans in exile would be secular. When it was put before the Assembly to be adopted, the Assembly was divided and there was less reasoning and more emotions. The people were carried away by emotion and we were not able to adopt it. That was in 1991, when the Charter was presented for the first time. I was not able to convince the people to adopt the word “secular” [in the Preamble] because they understood secular to mean anti-religion or opposite of religion. Particularly the English word “secular” translated into Hindi gives it a sense of indifferent attitude towards religion. So that was not really pleasant. And therefore we lost by two or three votes; 22 were in favor of secularism and 24 against. So we removed the word “secular” and substituted it with the combination of Dharma and politics as we used to in Tibet: chos.srid zung.’drel. Thus, chos.srid zung.’drel was reinstated. Then it went to His Holiness for his consent. He did not insist upon restoring the word “secular” because he sensed the emotion of the members of the Assembly and he respected that. At the moment in the first article the nature of polity is given as a combination of Dharma and politics, but the composition or constitution of the charter is a completely secular one. And we are now working under that charter. Since we have a combination of Dharma and politics I now have to defend the religious polity. This is not a big problem since the rest of the charter is a secular one. And the words “combining religion and politics” do not cause any particular problem in carrying out its mandate. His Holiness has a very clear vision that a future Tibet must have a secular kind of governance. That is not because he is against religious tradition but because he thinks it is appropriate for the people and the rest of the world. The entire world is now in the fashion of secularism. The world at large may not understand the religious polity and it may be misused by irreligious people in the name of religion, if you have a combination of religion and politics. On the other hand, the religious institutions might become more powerful and overshadow state affairs as we have experienced in the past. I personally believe very strongly that religion and politics can never be combined properly.
Q: Do you feel it is never appropriate or just not in this particular historical period?
A: Actually it is only a lack of information and education among the people. Otherwise I personally feel that a secular government can serve and preserve more appropriately and more powerfully religious traditions. I think that a secular government was never meant to be an anti- religious government and a secular government can do a lot of things for the preservation of cultural and religious traditions. I am a very firm believer, and His Holiness too, that Tibet’s identity is inseparable from its religious tradition. That is the essence of Tibetness: it is our culture and our religion. The preservation of culture and religion is the first and foremost responsibility of the Tibetan government in exile or the Tibetan government in Tibet, whatever it may be. His Holiness gives political sovereignty secondary importance to the preservation of religion and cultural heritage, because our religious tradition and our religiosity, our religious mind and the culture, which is a manifestation of our religious mind, are very, very important for the entirety of humanity. It does not belong to the Tibetans alone, it belongs to the universe and we have a sense of universal responsibility to preserve it. For that purpose, His Holiness is ready to give up the demand for complete independence. He is more concerned with the preservation of religious tradition and culture and for that purpose a secular government can work more effectively and more appropriately.
Now I am coming back to the combination of religion and politics and how it works in the government in exile. Our policies are based on the religious mind or on the basic principle of religion and that does not mean it is Buddhism or Hinduism or any -ism. We say the eternal Dharma. The eternal Dharma subscribes to truth, non-violence and equality. Truth and non- violence and equality is the essence of the eternal Dharma and that is the commitment of our polity. The Tibetan polity’s first and foremost commitment is to the truth, non-violence, and equality. For “equality” we sometimes use the word “democracy” and sometimes we use the word “equality, according to the context. These three are the basic structure of our polity. This has been the essence of eternal Dharma. Dharma and polity become one and the religious mind is governing the provision of our polity. And here you should not understand that the religious institutions have something to do with politics. No religious institution has anything to do with politics. The religious institution is an institution, not a religion. We only refer to the religiosity of the religion, not the organization of the religion. So this is my summary.
There is a second thing which many people question and many people argue: if you have a polity governed by religiosity, how it can be a popular democracy? In that matter, I am very clear that a proper democracy is only possible if the polity comes out of religiosity, a religious mind. Otherwise, if your polity is based on negative emotions or negative thoughts which are based on a kind of selfish motivation or competition or very strong nationalism, which can go to any extent to preserve and promote its self-interest, that is not a proper democracy. That democracy can become very corrupt, which is what we are witnessing in Pakistan and India and elsewhere. In the name of democracy all kinds of corruption and atrocities are going on. We don’t want that kind of democracy. A genuine democracy can only be established if the people of the community or the country by and large are religious-minded and pure-minded.
Q: In the present form of the exile government, what in your view are the checks and balances on power? What is the relationship between India and the exile government and its legal basis, since on the one hand India does not accept the exile government as a government, so to speak, yet, at the same time, India is very accepting?
A: That problem we cannot solve as long as we are based in India. The Indian government is so tolerant and helpful just to ignore the existence of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Otherwise, legally and politically we cannot exist in India. The Indian government does not recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile and yet this is just a bluff. Within the working relationship, they recognize everything.
Q: They recognize your institutions and they give your government the responsibility for taking care of the Tibetans?
A: Yes, yes, yes, yes. In other countries, for example, this would be very difficult. In India, we use our own letterheads with the name of the government-in-exile. On these letterheads we correspond with the government of India. The government of India accepts them and responds, only not addressing us as “government-in-exile.” They do not recognize any institutions. They only recognize the institution of Dalai Lama and his representative. On that basis, we are working the entire administration of the government-in-exile, everything which the government of India supposedly does not know. So we say the government of India shuts one eye and opens one eye as far as Tibetan affairs are concerned. They are so tolerant.
As far as checks and balances are concerned, I have to make certain clarifications. Tibetans in exile in India have to abide by Indian civil law as well as Indian criminal law. We are not above the law. We are not outside the law. Whosoever is in India has to abide by Indian law and there cannot be a separate legal system within the legal system of India; that is very clear. Therefore the government in exile cannot have an independent judiciary system. Because that judiciary might legally clash with Indian law, we don’t have an independent judiciary system as such. We have one only insofar as it fits into Indian law of arbitration.
As refugees, the Tibetans in India are legally protected by an executive order alone. India is not signatory to the International Convention of Refugees and the country itself does not have any laws concerning refugees. If the government policy changes, our position is very weak. If one day a government takes the decision not to accept Tibetans as political refugees then we cannot go to the court of law because there is no legal protection.
The Tibetans or any other refugees which are accepted by the government of India legally have all the fundamental human rights which are enshrined in the Indian constitution, except the political rights of voting and standing for election. This is clarified by a Supreme Court order. When Prime Minister Li Peng was visiting India about 50 Tibetan demonstrators were imprisoned by the police on the charge they were doing some demonstration and burning the Chinese flag and so on. On this charge they were detained. Some people went to the Supreme Court and it gave the order that the Tibetan refugees living in India have all the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Indian constitution and laws except the political rights. Under that order they had to release immediately all detainees and that order still stands and is one of the legal protections. Therefore freedom of press, of religion, and of association, which are also enshrined in our charter, are protected in India by Indian laws; that is one of the guarantees. And anyone who thinks there is a violation of these rights can go to the Indian courts of law and seek redress and remedy for that.
Coming back to checks and balances in the exile government, certain disputes cannot be taken to an Indian court of law. For example, political discrimination or decisions of our government cannot because they don’t recognize the exile government. Therefore, in lieu of the independent judiciary we have a Justice Commission provided in the Charter. For its jurisdiction, we had to find some room in Indian law which we found under the provision of arbitration. Arbitrators can be appointed by anyone and they have the power to maintain judgments. Those judgments can be challenged in an Indian court. But unless challenged in an appropriate court, their orders will be held as good as an order of a court of law. If looked at from the Indian point of view, it is arbitration within the Indian provision of law, and from our side it is an independent judiciary to protect the provisions of the Charter for the Tibetans in exile. If any interpretation of our charter is disputed we can go to the Justice Commission and we can debate it there.
Q: What about criminal cases?
A: Yes, criminal cases would have to go to Indian courts. No criminal case can be dealt with by the Justice Commission, only civil disputes and especially disputes within the Tibetan administration and in the interpretation of the Charter.
So, the rest of the checks and balances are in our Constitution. Our Charter is neither a presidential nor parliamentary system. It is in-between. There is a second handicap and we don’t have political parties at the moment.
Q: You can’t really talk about democracy unless you have opposition parties. This is a fundamental aspect of democracy.
A: Yes, that may be, but we have to interpret it in a different way. The opposition parties are necessary but not indispensable. The Assembly in exile is the highest decision-making body. It is represented by the provinces and the religious traditions and some other people. It is an elected body of forty-six members which really represents and is answerable to the people. At the moment, that decision-making body has the role to act as the ruling party and the rest as opposition party. Both of these roles have to be performed by the same representatives. As a ruling party the assembly has to make all the policies and programs for the government and they are binding on the government. The Kashag [Cabinet] is elected by the Assembly and it stays in office as long as it enjoys the confidence of the Assembly. The members of the Kashag have the right to sit and speak in the Assembly, but they don’t have the right to vote. The executive [the Dalai Lama] and the Kashag are answerable, accountable and responsible to the Assembly, which has the power to dissolve the Kashag at any time or to replace any particular Kalon [minister] at any time by majority vote. The legislative is more powerful than the executive body and the executive does not have any kind of veto power. Whatever decisions the legislative makes are binding on the executive.
Q: In practice, does it work that way?
A: Yes, exactly in that way, exactly in that way.
Q: What is His Holiness’ structural place in this?
A: He holds two very important positions, one is the head of state and the other is the head of the government. And as the head of state all executive decisions and their implementations are done in his name on behalf of him. He is working on the advice of the Kashag (Cabinet) which he can accept or not. But His Holiness answers to the Assembly, his advice is not binding. If his actions are contrary to the Assembly’s decisions then they will not recognize them. He cannot do that.
Q: And you said he does not have veto power?
A: He has veto power in a sense. Any decision, any resolution that is adopted by the Assembly is sent to him for his assent. Unless he gives his assent, it cannot become a law. He can voice his disagreement with a piece of legislation within two weeks and send it back to the Assembly with his reasons and comments for reconsideration. And for that he can address the parliament in person or he can send a message through the speaker or in writing to the parliament. If the Assembly agrees with his suggestions it may amend the legislation. If it does not agree with his suggestions, it can send the same decision back again to His Holiness. At that time he has only two options, either he accepts it or declares a referendum. That is the final measure. The result of a referendum would be binding on the Assembly as well as on His Holiness. None of the institutions are above the referendum.
Q: And have you had a case in which His Holiness did not accept a decision twice?
A: Not yet, it is only a provision in the charter. We have not used it.
Q: Do you think it will ever happen?
A: His Holiness is by nature very democratic. He always goes by the majority53 consensus of the Assembly. I don’t expect during this present Dalai Lama to be any confrontation between him and the Assembly, because he is very flexible. He always goes by reason and his reasons are powerful and that can convince the Assembly, and otherwise he will be reconciled with the Assembly’s decision.
So even without opposition parties, the entire Assembly is performing the role of the opposition. It has been quite effective and powerful, because the Kashag [Cabinet] and the executive have no power in the Assembly. When the entire parliament stands for some issue, there cannot be a division. On the other hand, with a multi-party system, whether the party members consciously agree or do not agree they have to follow the party whip and that is also one kind of repression. We do not recognize it as such, but it is one form of repression. I agree with Jaiprakash Narain who, in his later age, recommends a party-less democracy. It is one of the most powerful ideas of democracy and I am very much convinced by it. For quite some time I used to argue that without a multi-party system there cannot be a proper democracy. But now I am more experienced with the nature of people in India and also with the Tibetan community. The multi- party system may not be very suitable for us. In India it is the greatest failure. For the 50 years since independence, at any time the ruling party did not get more than 22% of the votes. And recently, party discipline mostly goes against the conscience of the people. The party as a whole makes other decisions and its members have foregone their right to speak and act. They have to agree to party discipline. That is one kind of repression. Also, the power-seekers are not principled to stay with one party but change parties like an overcoat. This has caused all kinds of instability. In our case, there is no such struggle because we have a party-less democracy. My objection to the multi-party systems in the US and England, for example, is that public opinions are not generated by the public. Public opinions are enforced by the party, and powerful propaganda and advertising brainwash the people. Therefore the basic right of the people’s conscience is always damaged. We are very much against the Communist system of brainwashing. I personally feel that brainwashing is one of the most insufferable crimes against humanity, against basic dignity and basic individual freedom. But in the so-called-multi-party democratic countries the brainwashing takes place in a different way. It always goes on. It goes on through education, through workshops, through governments, through electronic media, through print media and Internet and what not, all kind of bombardment of advertisement makes you almost mad and reduces you to a helpless creature. You have to surrender your own power of thinking and guide it or abide by one of the powerful media. That is the worst result of multi-party democratic systems and market-oriented economies. They have taken away basic human values and human individual freedom which they are never able to protect.
An interview in English with Geshe Cheme Tsering. He received an Acharya degree from Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies, Sanskrit University, Sarnath, where he studied in the Nyingma Division and a Lharampa Geshe54 degree from Ganden Shartse, 1996. Delhi, October 22, 1997:
Q: What has the ban of Dorje Shugden done to you personally, to your life?
A: It is interesting how reality shatters your imagined perception. My perception of the inside workings of the Tibetan exile government has completely changed. My experience of this ban also has changed my perception of how His Holiness works within Tibetan society. It also changed my perception about how Western Buddhist centers and supporters of Tibet receive and give and gather information.
The Tibetan exile government is now perceived as experimenting with a democratic form of government. The long-term aim is to transform Tibet itself into a democratic country. But when it gets challenged to test the democratic principles, it does not stand up to the challenge at all. This was demonstrated by how they handled the ban. Usually in democratic countries, issues are introduced through the parliamentary process and then taken up by the upper house and then the President. In this case and in many other cases, it was brought up unilaterally by the Dalai Lama himself. In 1995, the oracles (mediums) advised him that continued worship of Dorje Shugden is not constructive for the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government’s work towards freedom. On March 10th and 21st, 1996, he publicized these oracular prophecies in a public teaching. Neither the Assembly, the Cabinet nor the heads of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, not even the head of the Gelugpas were consulted. After the announcement was made, it was endorsed by the Cabinet and the Assembly and became policy. That is how the Tibetan government works. Before we did not know these things, because we were not inside the problem. Now we are. So this is not just theory.
When His Holiness first proclaimed the ban, he took the oracles as reference. “There is indication that it is harmful to me and Tibetan society, a negative effect for Tibetan society, if Dorje Shugden worship is continued.” That is how he first put it in 1996. This theme was immediately taken up by the Tibetan government and its various branches around the world. When His Holiness was asked by an Indian journalist, the reason for the ban he said was, “Buddhism is a very profound religion and the worship of Dorje Shugden is denigrating Buddhism to the level of spirit worship.” He also said that, “Worshipers of Dorje Shugden have been sectarian throughout history,” when asked by a Western journalist about the reason for the ban. Here, he opted for ecumenical unity between different Tibetan traditions, “The worship of Dorje Shugden is against the ecumenic spirit.” On more than one occasion in the US and in Switzerland, he even prohibited Western Buddhists [who rely on Dorje Shugden] from attending his initiations and teachings. From this and many other observations we have made one can say that whenever he makes announcements and gives reasons, they are more based on the expediency of the moment than a solid foundation applicable in the West and East both. First he said worship of the deity in Tibetan society is not good. If that is so, then why prohibit Westerners from worshiping Dorje Shugden? Going through all these reasons, His Holiness has given different ones everywhere. He has not given reasons that hold ground or have meaning everywhere. This has changed my perception about His Holiness.
Outside, His Holiness projects a picture of a very compassionate society and since he is a winner of the Nobel peace prize, people embrace that view of Tibetan society. But in reality I now find that what His Holiness tells the world about the need for compassion and loving kindness bears no relation to the actual way in which he treats his own critics in Tibetan society. Some of the Tibetan public in Dharamsala is clearly showing that they do not want to be a part of this ban anymore, since they have seen its destructive effect among Tibetans. If we look to the private observations of lower ranking Tibetan government employees, this much is evident.55 The Dalai Lama on the other hand has taken every opportunity, such as ordination of monks, public teachings in Dharamsala and those like his recent Kalachakra initiation near Darjeeling, to keep public indignation against devotees of Dorje Shugden at the boiling point. He misses no opportunity in these and other Tibetan gatherings to express openly that he is against the worship of Dorje Shugden. Unlike other politicians, this has very serious repercussions in Tibetan society. Once the Dalai Lama expresses his displeasure at someone, no matter who he is or however great his or her contribution to Tibetan society has been in the past, that person becomes a pariah overnight in Tibetan society. The key Tibetan policy makers know this very clearly. Front-ranking Tibetan intellectuals fought against this trend but have now come to the conclusion that at least in this generation the Dalai Lama has absolute hold over the Tibetan public and honest disagreement or dissension stand absolutely no chance. This is one of the reasons why my perception of His Holiness’ actions outside and inside Tibetan society has changed.
Those in the Western world that are sympathetic to Tibet but have no exposure to Tibetan society at the family, government, or monastic level, do not have this understanding. Unlike any democratic society, the exile Tibetan community is a unique entity in itself. At the top level you have a handful of Tibetans who are intimately aware of shifts in international politics. This is mainly represented by the Private Office of the Dalai Lama. Below these people and far less powerful is the Tibetan exile government. In this government also, the key policy decisions are more often made on direction by the Private Office of the Dalai Lama rather than through parliamentary procedures or the wishes of the people. Below the government are sixty percent of Tibetans who are older — monks and lay people alike — largely unexposed to modern education, their mind frame stuck in ancient Tibet. This proportion of Tibetan people demonstrate no personal initiative to explore new ideas or methods or policies regarding the future of Tibet. Individually they are very efficient in meeting their personal necessities. They have almost blind faith in the Dalai Lama. This faith retains complete reliance on the Dalai Lama. When very carefully examined, this exposes two fundamental defects: (1). As far as the future of Tibet is concerned, at a subconscious level, they do not want to take any initiative or personal responsibility. (2). This lack of personal confidence breeds a hollow but inescapable blind trust that if they rely on the Dalai Lama, everything will be fine. Given these factors this mass of Tibetan people is an ideal and willing tool to propagate whatever policy or pronouncement the Tibetan government deems fit. The remaining 30 or 40% of Tibetans are the younger ones, most of whom are not well acquainted with or sufficiently grounded in their mother culture. So they really do not have a reference point to evaluate a modern society, outside society. Those who have sufficient knowledge of Tibetan society and the outside world have no voice in the Tibetan government to bring in fresh air. Some of these enterprising Tibetans started Tibetan political parties, but they became the target of intense public indignation and had to abandon their efforts. Others tried to express their view through the written media. They were either beaten by the mob or threatened within an inch of their lives. A few others started a newspaper of their own. It was so successful that it brought down the circulation of other Tibetan newspapers. However, a public rebuke by the Dalai Lama of this newspaper during a teaching in Dharamsala forced its closure. This is where the Tibetan exile community stands more than four and a half decades after they lost their independence to China.
Q: But how did the ban affect you personally?
A: Ever since 1962, when I joined the Tibetan school in Shimla in northern India until my graduation as Geshe Lharampa from Ganden Shartse in southern India in 1996, I have been an exemplary student. I always obtained A grades. Especially in south India, I made more than my share of contribution towards the cause of Tibet and development of the monastic college. The Tibetan exile government is well aware of all these. I was even being considered for the post of official translator for the Dalai Lama at that time. I have never had any connections with China or Taiwan. This fact can be easily verified by anyone. After I voiced my disagreement against this ban in April 1996, however, the Tibetan exile administration in Dharamsala has used every conceivable method to destroy my credibility. For example, the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament, Samdhong Rinpoche, in June 1996 spread the word in south India that I was holding two different passports. In New Delhi the Head of the Foreigners Registration Office tried to summon me twice, through notices, in an effort to revoke my permit to stay in India. The Bureau of the Dalai Lama in Delhi expressly sent its liaison officer more than once and told the concerned officers in the external affairs office of India that they must not renew my identity certificate [the yellow book issued to Tibetans in lieu of a passport]. None of these however succeeded. Most recently I have learned that the local foreigners registration office in Mundgod has been petitioned by front organizations of the Tibetan government in Dharamsala that they must not renew my RC [Registration Certificate]. This was in July 1997. This is just one part of the harassment that Dharamsala is subjecting me to. If I were to go to Dharamsala on my own, chances are that I would meet not only with public hostility but quite possibly I may be manhandled and beaten without mercy. But Dharamsala is not any exception in this respect. In any other Tibetan settlement in India, I am a marked man. If I were attacked in any of these settlements, no Tibetan would come to my defense — would dare to come to my defense.
An abbot of a Gelugpa monastery, an incarnate Lama, a Geshe, well educated, in his seventies, very gentle, soft spoken, kind and warm. He did not know me and I had no introduction. I did not really know who he was when I met him in a public place of the monastery until I found out his name later on. We talked in Tibetan and after just a few minutes he took me into another room where we could speak in private. He trusted me that quickly with a subject everyone was afraid to talk about openly. The monastery has given up performing Dorje Shugden rituals officially or in groups, but many of the monks still continue privately. He did not want his name to be used publicly; October 6, 1997:
Q: How has the ban affected you?
A: It has caused us great difficulties. We are at crossroads. The dilemma is whether to follow His Holiness and throw away our commitments to our root Gurus or to keep that commitment and displease His Holiness. This dilemma has caused untold inner turmoil. We lost our peace of mind. Often I cannot sleep; my mind is always on this subject. The inner turmoil prevents any kind of deep Dharma contemplation for which the mind has to be calm.
Those of us who live in India have considered escaping the difficulties created by the conflict. For example, if we want to attend His Holiness’ teachings, he says those who rely on Dorje Shugden cannot come. This is a source of deep hurt and stigma. If we went back to Tibet, we could not be sure that our freedom of religion would be upheld there. If we went to other countries, we could not be sure that we could continue to practice the same way as now because of so many different circumstances. So the ban has created many complications. It has even caused madness.
Q: How will this affect the future of the Gelug tradition?
A: It will weaken it because there is no trust among Gelugpas anymore. Some will follow the Dalai Lama and some their root Guru. Naturally there will be some fighting and hence more mistrust. In one way or another, everyone within the Gelug tradition will break their damtsig,
their sacred word and commitments. Conflict arises between parents and children, husband and wife, Ganden Jangtse and Shartse, which were so close before and had good relations. They now oppose each other and so much conflict has sprung up between them. For example, Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche told any people not to rely on Dorje Shugden. Now these people say instead of offering tormas to the protector, we offer him shit. This kind of hatred creates so much bad karma. Serkong Rinpoche and his father (the great adept, Serkong Dorje Chang) had a falling out over this issue and separated. Up in Spiti, they now call Serkong Tsenshab by the name of his father, Serkong Dorje Chang. This is how the Gelugpa tradition is changing. These days we have to be like the Gelugpas during the Kagyu wars, when Geshes wore hats that were red on the outside with the yellow hidden on the inside. When they were caught wearing yellow hats, they would be punished. During that time, many Gelugpas went far east to Kham and caused the tradition to flourish there. It is still a Gelugpa stronghold today.
Today, the situation is like this: Dorje Shugden followers say bad things about the Dalai Lama and this creates more conflict and more discrimination against Dorje Shugden followers. This becomes a cycle of ever larger and deeper conflicts. Like two stones hitting one another — one needs to worry about fire. Neither side is willing to change. Personally, I am worried that the conflict will escalate into a larger one, since both sides are dug in. They will die for their positions. In future, this might split the Tibetan community. Dharamsala says there are just a few Dorje Shugden followers, but this is not true. There are so many, about one third of all Buddhists who really practice (not of the general population) rely on Dorje Shugden. Because Tibetans don’t have the freedom, they are afraid to speak out.
The exile Tibetans are supposed to be democratic, but they are not. For example, in the monasteries, if someone goes against the abbot, he is suspended. The Tibetan government acts the same way. Their structure and actions are the same as that of a monastery. The Tibetan government is not true, not honest. They have democracy on their tongue but do not act on it. I am only saying this because I am really fed up with their actions and all of these conflicts they have created. I am speaking from my heart, not merely complaining. We lost our leader and we have no others. Everyone is too scared.
Jamphel Yeshe, sixty-year-old President of the Dorje Shugden Society, summarized and wrote down his life’s contributions upon request from a Dorje Shugden support group. What follows is an extract from the translation of an unpublished biographical statement. From September 1997, the Tibetan community has been circulating my dossier (one among ten others) published by the Security Bureau of the Tibetan exile government. Like a “wanted poster,” it was put up repeatedly on walls of Tibetan settlements around India and Nepal. This poster gives basic information about my whereabouts and that of my family. It also gives defamatory, wrong information about my person, falsely accusing me of working for the Chinese government, the worst possible disgrace for a Tibetan in exile. This and other defamatory acts that aim at ostracizing me and my family from society have been very painful and changed my life radically. Even worse than the death threats against me were the threats against my wife, who had to leave as a result. I had to send the children abroad for safety reasons. When my six- year-old daughter playfully answered the telephone, anonymous callers told her, “We will kill your Daddy.” This traumatized her so severely that she would check on me constantly, try to close all the doors, and prevent me from going outside. We have all been separated from each other for quite some time now, mother and father from children, husband and wife from each other. In addition, my business is boycotted by Tibetans who believe the distortions of the exile government, and my economic base is disappearing. I am alone and isolated from others in my already isolated exile society.
I am listing here my small contribution to social and public life since coming into exile, in order to set the record straight. Soon after I escaped from Tibet in the middle of 1959, I served as a group leader in Dalhousie for several years. Under my care were about eighty old people who were part of a temporary settlement of five hundred Tibetans. At the same time I was in charge of the Dalhousie branch of Ganden Shartse monastery. I acted as its treasurer for several years. After that, I served the Dalhousie branch of the Cholsum Organization, the largest umbrella of all Tibetan regional and social welfare organizations.
While studying in Varanasi at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, I contributed to many activities of the Institute. I was also an active member of the freedom movement from its inception at Varanasi. This organization became part of the backbone of the Tibetan exile administration. I served this organization in various capacities also in Dharamsala and Delhi. From 1975, I served the Gelugpa Cultural Society as a representative of Ganden Shartse and was active in exploring the possibility for a joint Mönlam Festival64 of all Buddhist traditions. In 1979, the Great Prayer Festival was celebrated by monasteries belonging to the Gelug, Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, presided over by the two Tutors of His Holiness, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche as well as many abbots, tulkus, monks, scholars and prominent lay people. This was the most special event in the history of the Gelugpa Cultural Society.
During my long stay in Delhi, I have tried to perform social services for different kinds of Tibetans according to my capacity. My personal name, Jamphel Yeshe or Chatreng Yeshe, is well known for my contribution in the Tibetan community. I have made continued efforts to request members of my own community and other countries to support Tibetans in need and the Tibetan cause in general. I received a medal of appreciation from Amdo Jamyang, the camp leader at the time of Majnuka Tilla in Delhi, for helping raise funds for the Tibetan school at that camp. My own regional group, the Chatreng Association, has acknowledged my contribution to developing its organization and helping its members. I also tried to find a way to build a residence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Delhi, since he does not have a place of his own to stay on his many visits to and through the Indian capital on his way abroad. But since I am merely an individual without means, I made an impassioned appeal and detailed proposal to the Tibetan Women’s Association. But the plan never materialized. His Holiness still has to stay in hotels when he comes to Delhi.
For all my life in exile, I have had the welfare of Tibetans and the idea of freedom constantly on my mind. As is well known in the Tibetan community, I worked towards that end in many different ways. All of this is destroyed now by the defamation campaign against me and my family. Because of death threats, I cannot go anywhere alone. I have to live in constant fear of losing my life, my family, my community, my access to religion, my livelihood, — in short, everything that is dear to me and makes my life worth living.
From an interview with Jamphel Yeshe, Delhi, October 1997: When we first escaped to India, it was because of our religious faith. We also had the strong hope to return to a free Tibet. For more than thirty years we held the hope we will get freedom for our country. But that has changed completely now and not only because the Chinese are so intransigent. Even the hope for future freedom has been dashed because of the exile administration’s more recent policy.
Q: How has the ban affected you personally?
A: Since the ban we have endless inner turmoil, day and night. My situation is not exceptional. Each and every Tibetan Buddhist who is not able to relinquish faith in his or her Guru is in the same situation. Since the ban was imposed by the Tibetan exile government, families have broken down in every Tibetan community. Children broke relations with their parents and teachers and students have stopped speaking with each other. These things happened because the Tibetan exile government started a signature campaign against our faith. We were asked to sign a list swearing that we will give up our reliance on the Dharmapala (Dorje Shugden) for this and all future lives. These lists were passed around very publically so everyone could see who signed and who not. When the government stopped, the Women’s Association and Youth Congress continued to push people to sign. Through the public nature of this campaign we have been completely marginalized. As the president of the Dorje Shugden Society, it was my duty to inform all Tibetans about the situation.
If a Tibetan speaks out, the automatic reaction now is to find out whether or not he relies on Dorje Shugden. If he does, then as a Tibetan, I should not have any contact with him, according to the Tibetan exile government. Because of the atmosphere of distrust created this way, I have lost many of my former friends and business contacts. They all know I rely on Dorje Shugden. It has become a trend within the Tibetan exile community for people to declare openly that they want to go after me and finish me. Threats are also made openly against my colleagues in the Society and we experience this prevailing atmosphere of fear and distrust as a great burden.
I am a family man, I have three children. My oldest son is twelve years old, the second son nine years, and my daughter is six years old. The two older children were in school at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) in Dharamsala. I and my family received many explicit death threats. I found out through reliable sources — I can’t tell you who — that an ex-military man and a member of the Tibetan parliament from Rajpur was discussing my two sons and their whereabouts in school in Dharamsala and my involvement with the Dorje Shugden Society with other Tibetans from a military background.68 He said they were well trained and that he and his colleagues would do whatever was necessary and whatever the Tibetan exile government wanted them to do against the Dorje Shugden people.69 So I took my children out of the school in Dharamsala and sent them to a safe place in another country. The perception was that anyone who wanted to attack us was free to do so. The threat letters I received included statements like, “We will not spare your wife and children.”
My wife and I received many threatening phone calls, and even our six-year-old daughter. When asked for a name, the answer was only “I am a man.” Once, when they called, the child answered the telephone, as she often did, and the person on the other end told her, “There are fifteen of us here in Delhi and we will kill you and we will kill your father. We will destroy you.” My daughter was very upset. She went to close all the doors and told me to stay inside. Early in the morning, she would come to my bed and touch me. When I moved, she shouted, overjoyed, “Daddy is still alive.”
Mrs. Pema is the wife of the retired schoolteacher Dr. Thubten. It is not clear why people call him doctor. He had been a monk earlier and holds a Geshe Lharampa degree from Ganden Shartse (1958). He escaped from Tibet in 1959 and joined the teacher training program in Dharamsala. From 1963, he worked for the Indian government for 29 years in the Central Tibetan School system in Mussoorie, in South India, in Dalhousie and Shimla. In 1991, the family bought a small piece of land in the Clementown Tibetan settlement near Dehradun and built a house there. They have a daughter age twenty-two. Mrs. Pema says she was introduced to the Dorje Shugden practice by her husband but has become a strong believer herself now. She is crying as soon as she starts to talk and intermittently breaks into uncontrollable sobs. She is clearly still traumatized from the events which happened a year ago and again several months ago. I talked to Mrs. Pema’s nephew, a monk at Ganden, independently at another time. He had been locked inside the house during the arson attempt and confirmed her story. I met Mrs. Pema unexpectedly in Delhi in October 1997; her husband was somewhere in Delhi in an undisclosed place, so I could not interview him.
Mrs. Pema: My husband knows much about Dorje Shugden because he is a Geshe Lharampa and earlier had studied the subject extensively. He explained the history to people who had not even heard about Dorje Shugden before and were told all kinds of misinformation. So after that people were saying he is not obeying the Dalai Lama. October last year (1996) we came to Delhi for religious observances and left our daughter and nephew in the house [in Clementown near Dehradun]. On November 7, 1996, a group of people came and locked the house from the outside with the children inside and then threw stones at it and tried to set the house on fire. Luckily only the curtains caught fire through the open windows, the house did not burn because it is made of concrete. The children were able to stop the fire from spreading inside but men with masks had poured kerosene over the front door before they ignited it. For two hours they pelted the house with stones and shouted obscenities, including references to Dorje Shugden in Amdo dialect. Kalsang, my daughter, was finally able to open the door from the inside with a hairpin. She called us in Delhi. When we went to talk to the police, they told us that they could not protect us and that we should leave for a while because our lives were in danger there. They assured us that the house would be under police protection. So we left for Delhi.
On June 29, 1997, our house in the Clementown settlement was attacked again. We got a call saying that if we wanted to save any of our possessions we better come back immediately. When we got there, we went to the police station for help. They accompanied us and left two policemen with us while we looked through the house to see what could be salvaged. We found the door had been broken down and everything was destroyed with broken china everywhere. Thirty years of hard work went into this house. Fifteen to twenty minutes after the other policemen had left, a group of seventy to ninety Tibetans came and bombarded the house with stones again for two hours. The two policemen left for our security ran away. After some time twenty to twenty-five different policemen, some with two or three stars, came from Dehradun. A journalist took pictures. The crowd took his camera and injured his hand.71 Two or three women held back a policeman while the Tibetan men kept attacking the house. Leading officers finally told us to take our possessions and to leave since the crowd would kill us and they would not take any responsibility. I told them I did not want to leave the house. If I cannot have religious freedom, I will die for it.
We asked the police for a written statement saying that they could not protect us, but they refused. They only said that if we did not leave, the mob would kill us. Then a policeman came with a truck and took us away for protection. We were kept in police custody for five hours. A friend and the driver who had brought us from Delhi were hurt and did not receive medical attention. Then the local police brought our belongings, saying that we had to vacate the house. They did this as a favor to us since the mob was threatening to burn down everything. Since most of the things were broken, like the TV and refrigerator, we told them they are of no use anymore, that they should have left them to burn.
Q: Why did you not initiate legal action?
A: We don’t know anything about Indian law and if we try to complain or file a case, there is a bribery system. We don’t have any money. A complaint will take a long time. Besides, the Clementown police were bribed by Tibetans. The truck the police had loaded our things on and sent us away from the settlement was paid for by the police with money they received from the government in exile. They have made our life like hell.
Now we live in Delhi where we have to pay rent. We lost everything and my husband is too old to start over again. The people in Clementown want to kill him. Only because of the religious ban did we have trouble there, after we had lived there peacefully for five years. My daughter did not sign the petitions to give up Dorje Shugden. There were ten to fifteen families in Clementown who relied on Dorje Shugden. We were the only one that did not sign the petition. My husband was a disciple of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and had strong faith in him. So there was no question of giving his signature. My husband taught Tibetan children for thirty years. Many of them now hold office in Dharamsala and they turned against him like this. Everywhere he went, he used to get respect from former students — thousands and thousands. Now everything is destroyed, is finished. We are refugees a second time, once from Tibet and once from India.