Cracks Show in Tibetan Buddhism

By Johannes Nugroho

Some followers in the west march to a different drummer

When the Dalai Lama visited Oslo in May for the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize reception, he found protesters accusing him of discrimination against devotees of the Tibetan deity Dorje Shugden.

The Buddhist prelate’s subsequent tour of Europe was marred by further Shugden protests. He may come to look back on with fond memories the bygone days of not having his foreign visits tainted by such public remonstrances.

The Shugden protests are in many ways, however, inevitable. This is mainly due to what Tibetan Buddhism has undergone for the past few decades. As a result of the Dalai Lama’s peaceful struggle for Tibetan autonomy since his exile in 1959, Tibetan Buddhism alongside the Tibetan cause have become internationalized.

Additionally, the Dalai Lama is today perhaps the most famous Buddhist alive. Technically speaking, however, he is a high-ranking monk of the Gelupga lineage within Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana, which has several more schools, and, ultimately Vajrayana is only one of the few varieties of Buddhism worldwide.

Yet his international high profile has made him the unofficial ambassador of Buddhism, revered by interfaith activists everywhere. From the 1990s onwards, however, his hitherto unsullied reputation as a champion of religious freedom has changed, at least for Shugden devotees.

The Shugden practitioners are to be found wherever the Gelugpas are, in Tibet, within Tibetan community in India where the Dalai Lama resides, and in the Tibetan Diaspora worldwide.

As the Tibetan cause gained international recognition, a number of lamas have chosen to migrate to Western countries and there establish their own respective Tibetan Buddhist communities. A clear example of this is Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the UK-based New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a Buddhist organization indentified by Dalai Lama’s supporters as the main culprits behind the Shugden protests in Europe.

Kelsang Gyatso is a devotee of Dorje Shugden, whom he regards as the patron deity of the Gelugpa school, and it follows that his students within the NKT would also propitiate the same deity. Thus, the Western Shugden communities were born, made up of Tibetans and Western converts who study under Gelugpa Tibetan teachers who honor Shugden.

More significantly, it is the Western Shugden devotees who spearheaded the campaign to pressure the Dalai Lama to stop discouraging Tibetan Buddhists from worshipping Shugden. The official discouragement against worship of the deity took place in the 1970s. In 1996, the Tibetan Parliament in exile also passed a resolution against employment of Shugden practitioners in government departments.

Western Shugden activists claim that within the Tibetan community in India, Shugden devotees are discriminated against, prevented by ordinary people from entering shops and denied hospital services.

However, the Central Tibetan Administration counters that the ill treatment of Shugden practitioners is a spontaneous act by the people, not an official government policy. Tibetologist Thierry Dodin, while agreeing that Tibetan Shugden followers are “shunned by the community,” said in an interview in May that the shunning takes place “for no other reason than the fact that they themselves choose to live in groups largely cut off from the rest of the community.”

Judging from various interviews with the media, the ostracized Tibetan Shugden followers living under the jurisdiction of the CTA, while bemoaning their fate, have so far failed to organize themselves into a militant group.

The opposite is the case with their Western counterparts. There is undeniably a great difference in cultural values between Tibetan Buddhists who grew up within their community in India and the Western converts who were raised with liberal western values.

The Tibetan Shugden followers in India say they are confused by the Dalai Lama’s intransigence against a deity they have worshipped for centuries. However, as most Tibetans see the Dalai Lama as a living Buddha, they are culturally inhibited against speaking out to condemn someone who is seen as semi-divine.

By contrast, the Western converts of Tibetan Buddhism do not see him as infallible. While the Tibetans see ostracism as just punishment of Shugden followers, Western converts, responding to liberal impulses, reject it as discrimination and an attack against religious freedom.

The two opposing views cling to and defend their own logic with equal panache. However, the issue no longer concerns religious dogma. The lesson for the Dalai Lama here is that he can no longer pretend that, in today’s internationalized world of Tibetan Buddhism, there are still two separate audiences.

In a lecture given in Tibetan before a Tibetan crowd, the Dalai Lama claimed that those who continue to worship Shugden were endangering his life intentionally. This may sound reasonable to a Tibetan audience culturally conditioned to accept his word as law but it would seem like emotional blackmail to a Western audience, even illogical.

Many supporters of the Dalai Lama have also voiced their opinion that the NKT does not qualify as Tibetan Buddhist practice, implying that it is heretical. However, the concept of heresy itself goes against the core of Buddhist teaching which is far from being doctrinal in nature.

There is no doubt that the conflict over Dorje Shugden will continue to haunt the Dalai Lama well into the future, unless he somehow reconciles himself with the Shugden followers.

Twenty-five years on after his Nobel Prize, he must also realize the world has changed, and so has Tibetan Buddhism. From a faith being practiced by a remote land-locked nation, it has become a fast growing religion in the West, as well as a model of tolerance.

Further, with the advances in technology and the internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the Tibetan and the global audiences, especially when the two are approached differently.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman based in Surabaya, Indonesia.


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4 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Well said ! Tibetan Buddhism has truly grown in latitude and strength covering many parts of the world extending to many different cultures around the world ! How wonderful ! Rejoice, as it benefits so many sentient beings of this age and the future too !

  2. To be honest, I think this ban came in handy as well. Without the ban, Tibetan Buddhism would not have moved over to the Western community as well. So I guess this would be the only blessing in disguise for this ban then.

    It is great that many people in the Western community are now practicing Dorje Shugden or Tibetan Buddhism as a whole. It is just heart warming to know that the lineage is all over the world now.

    I believe that the younger generation of the Tibetans are now questioning more and not just take everything that is being told to them. I am glad that more people are curious about the ban, and are starting to have their own stand and thoughts with the ban.

    After some time, I realise that maybe this ban that the Dalai Lama has manifested is to be spreading the lineage and forcing us to study and know more about the Dharma, allowing the Dharma to be passed down for many more generations.

  3. “However, the Central Tibetan Administration counters that the ill treatment of Shugden practitioners is a spontaneous act by the people, not an official government policy. ”

    The CTA could and should put a stop to this ill treatments. As the government, it is their duty and responsibility to ensure peace and proper security within the community. By keeping silent, they are condoning it. How can they a blind eye to this incidences and condone it? Sounds like a bunch of clowns to me, rather than the governing body.

    By the sheer fact of the existence of the ban, all kinds of discrimination will occur and continue to occur due to the ignorance of the people. Therefore the government must do something to maintain peace and order. And, that has nothing to do with religion but rather is basic policing of a nation and human rights.

    Please, Dalai Lama, in all your wisdom and compassion as Chenrezig, please lift the ban that there may be peace and harmony within the Tibetan Buddhist. Please live up to your Nobel Peace Prize and all that it represents.

  4. The Dalai Lama, the manifestation of Avalokitesvara, Buddha of Compassion is practicing dualism, so it seems. He preaches compassion and kindness in his worldwide teachings events and yet he was video taped to be encouraging expelling monks from monasteries, forcefully if need be. These monks had lived and relied on the monasteries since childhood and due to the ban on Dorje Shugden which practise they received from their Gurus, they are forced out of their homes. Some Shugden monks were assaulted for standing up to the destruction of Dorje Shugden statues by CTA’s lackeys and some had their monasteries taken over. The lay Shugden practitioners faced abuses, insults, depravation of daily needs, medical needs and monetary needs, daily.

    The Dalai Lama can’t be blind to all these sufferings of his own people and as a Boddhisattva, should instruct his governing body CTA to uphold the laws of religious freedom and human rights. A Nobel Peace Prize winner??? What peace?? He gives a set of reasons for the ban on Dorje Shugdden to his Western audiences and another set of reasons to his Tibetan audiences….why??

    I pray hard that the Dalai Lama will quickly one day declare his mistake and once again recognise Dorje Shugden as an enlightened Protector that he is. Pray that it is before there can be no return of unity amongst the practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, especially those of Gelugpa lineage.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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