Tibetan Buddhism: Erosion From Within Or Without?

Traditional Buddhist debate in Sera Monastery

By: Shashi Kei

For centuries Tibet has been associated with the Buddha’s teachings and its reference as The Rooftop Of The World indicates its mythical status as the one place on earth where a person can get closest to the Buddhist heavens.

It follows that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and one-time temporal head of independent Tibet is the individual most closely identified with the Dharma. Many regard the Dalai Lama as an emanation of the Buddha of Compassion and state of Tibet itself was seen as the Buddhist “mecca” with the Government of Tibet as the guardians and protectors of the Buddha’s highest teachings.

The People’s Republic of China on the other hand, being a bastion of Communism represent the anti-thesis of the Tibetans in terms of Buddhism. Communism regards religion as the “opiate of the people” and this was very much reflected in the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of religious establishments as purveyors of poison in society and must be eliminated. In the early years of Communism, Buddhism like other organized religions in the country was ruthlessly oppressed and Mao’s China came close to eradicating one of the oldest religions in the world.  But it didn’t.

Monks in Tashilhunpo Monastery

So, on the one hand we have the Dalai Lama, his government and people who were regarded as the great custodians of an ancient religion based on ethics and morals; and on the other hand we have the Chinese Communist Party leaders some still in the shadows Mao Zedong’s legacy, seemingly hell-bent on destroying the Buddha’s teachings believing it to be a counter-revolutionary weapon designed to keep the ruling elite in power.

In this way, these two images of Tibet and China were proffered to the world as complete opposites locked in an epic battle  – one, to preserve an ancient and secret map to an elixir that could bring an end to all suffering, and the other, trying to stop it.  It is therefore not surprising that the fight for Tibet’s freedom is also linked by inference to be a fight to protect the principles of Buddhism and here the exiled Tibetans and their government (known today at the Central Tibetan Administration) have for decades scored perception points over the Chinese “aggressors”.

But if there is one thing Buddhism has taught us, it is that nothing is permanent and so, casting perceptions aside, let us explore developments within the Dalai Lama/CTA’s camp and compare them to policies and initiatives undertaken by the Chinese Communist Government in recent years, to see how the actions of each have either promoted or harmed the practice and propagation of Buddhism.

Let’s us start with China. No doubt Buddhism in China in the 60’s and 70’s was characterized by state-sponsored programs designed to remove Buddhism from the natural mind streams of the people as monasteries and Buddhist institutions were destroyed and members of the monastic community ridiculed and pegged as useless traitors of the country.  But then something happened.

After years of destructive policies towards Buddhism there was quite a sudden turn-around in the 80’s as a giant nation found itself caught in a spiritual and ideological vacuum that was created when it left the stations of faith and beliefs during the Mao era to embark on a journey towards a social utopia that Mao promised but failed to deliver them to.

With small controlled steps at first, the Chinese Government reversed its policies towards religion and nowhere was this more obvious than in its many efforts it has since undertaken successfully to restore Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries and learning centres that had been destroyed during the years of conflict. This includes the prestigious Sera Monastery, no doubt one of the most remarkable and prestigious Buddhist Universities that has preserved and taught Tibetan Buddhist Culture. Today in Sera Monastery, senior monks and novices resume daily monastic activities in time-honored tradition, like their predecessors have for hundreds of years. Sera Monastery is not an exception and Tashilunpo Monastery is another example where Tibetan Buddhist traditions have been revived and is thriving. As a matter of fact Tibetan Buddhist culture of various traditions are being revived and spurred on by Chinese government support in the Tibetan plateau.

In 2006 via the 11th Standing Committee Of The Tibetan Autonomous Region People’s Government, the Chinese Government implemented measures for the Regulation On Religious Affairs which essentially guarantees the individual’s right to practice his or her belief without interference from others or the state.

And recently, on 28th December 2012, one hundred Tibetan monasteries including Sera were awarded the status of “Model Monasteries” by the Chinese Communist Party and in the same event over 7000 members of the Tibetan monastic community were honored.

Buddhism is no longer a poison in Chinese eyes but instead they seek it as the antidote for the society’s declining moral values.

It would seem that the Communist Party, known for its iron grip on anything that could promote diversity and differences has learned its lesson. Today the worship and study of Buddhism is encouraged and supported as a matter of policy and both Chinese and Tibetans enjoy the practice of their respective beliefs and traditions in peace and confidence.

But what about the Tibetan Buddhist kingdom of the Dalai Lama and his government now in-exile? How have the perceived traditional guardians of the Buddha’s teachings been fairing in terms of protecting and spreading Buddhism? Here a surprising picture emerges.

To begin with, the intricately woven socio-religious-political structure of the Tibetans that had held the society together in a feudalistic system under a theocracy, proved to be an obstacle to the principles of Buddhism in the modern era. Buddhism is a religion of peace and tolerance and above all it advocates accepting responsibility for one’s own karma and abhors violence. But the structure and cultural attitudes of the Tibetans often reflects the opposite.

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Because in Tibetan society there is no separation between church and state, when Tibet was reclaimed by China, both monks and the laity were instantly forced to choose between loyalty to Buddhism and the monastery and loyalty to the nation and its leader the Dalai Lama. Those who took up arms against the Chinese instantly broke their Buddhist vows and yet those who refused to resist the Chinese aggressors by force were deemed to be traitors of the country and also to the Dalai Lama. It became very clear from the start that the way the Tibetan society is organized and managed by its leadership cannot reconcile the interest of Buddhism and the interest of politics.

The wisdom of Karl Marx’s warning that religion can be used, as a counter-revolutionary weapon is best manifested in the Tibetan community in exile today and the hand of political intention often moves religious matters, which in themselves are void of spiritual reasoning.

The clearest example of how religion has been used as a tool for political reasons is seen in the banning of a 360-year old practice of a Buddhist deity called Dorje Shugden by the Central Tibetan Administration. The Protector worship of Dorje Shugden is a main practice amongst the Gelugpas, a sect to which the Dalai Lama also belongs. In the late 80’s as the Chinese Communist Party was rethinking its approach to Buddhism, within the exiled Tibetan community people were beginning to question the efficacy of their leaders in returning them back to their homeland after so many years of false hopes and promises. Instead of offering sound logical reasons for their failure to negotiate successfully for Tibet’s freedom, the government of the exiled Tibetans pinned the blame on a Buddhist deity, claiming that Dorje Shugden activities was the reason why Tibetans have failed to regain their freedom. Using Dorje Shugden as a scapegoat the CTA effectively used Buddhism as a tool to suppress dissention and the practice was banned.

Tibetans Buddhists demanding freedom to practice their belief

To the bewilderment of practitioners, the CTA has also accused Dorje Shugden as a Han-Chinese spirit and those who worship this deity as traitors to the Tibetan cause. Here we see how religion has been grotesquely abused to explain a political failure of the Tibetan leadership.

Overnight monks and laypeople that worshipped the deity as part of their religious practice were forced to stop or face the wrath of the government. Shugden statues and temples were destroyed and monks loyal in their devotion to what they regard as their core Buddhist practice were expelled from monasteries.  Lay practitioners of the Buddhist deity were ostracized and marginalized by the Tibetan society and refused basic welfare such as schooling and medical care.

The Central Tibetan Administration inflicted on the freedom to practice Buddhism what the CCP had done during the early years of communism. The roles have been reversed. The custodians of Buddhism have become the enemy of its values and growth.  The actions of the CTA in banning a Buddhist belief and practice undermines confidence in the Tibetan Buddhist religion – who knows which Buddha will be banned next and when will the CTA politicize another Buddhist tradition? And how does the CTA expect Tibetan Buddhism to grow when an enlightened being can suddenly become a demon overnight, and by government decree of all things.  The ban severely split the already small monastic community of monks in exile and made them choose yet again between loyalty to Buddhism and loyalty to the state interest. None of any of the actions of the CTA is particularly Buddhist nor promote Buddhism. The contrary applies.

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2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Wow you are very bold to write something like this. Much respect to you. I think the Tibetan Buddhist community remain very bound by their loyalty to the Dalai Lama so it would be very hard to even think of saying something like this. I respect your courage. I’m glad someone is speaking up and showing a different view.

  2. Excuse me, when did Dorje Shugden become a Han Chinese spirit? The CTA has gall to do that and accuse those who worship this deity as traitors to the Tibetan cause.

    China under Mao and the CUltural Revolution was a totally different entity from what it is today. They have moved forward in leaps and bounds while the CTA has remain stagnant. And like stagnant water, it stinks. They still try to cling to their feudal background and oppression. When will the Tibetans realize that and do the right thing?

    When can they think for themselves and see what is wrong and what is right. However much they disagree with others’ practice and however much they love the Dalai Lama, they have to think and question whether the CTA has really carried out the Dalai Lama’s wishes fairly.

    Behind all the politics, Buddhism is a huge religion in Tibet and the foundation of Buddhism is mindfulness, kindness, compassion and equanimity. So, on the basis of the simplest of teachings of the Buddha, how can discrimination against the practice of Dorje Shugden be right?

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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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