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A lesson for the Dalai Lama

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. But this is no longer the end of the story.

Johannes Nugroho
17 October 2014
Members of Western Shugden Society Protest against the Dalai Lama in 2008.

Members of Western Shugden Society Protest against the Dalai Lama in Australia 2008. Allan Milnes/Demotix. All rights reserved. When the Dalai Lama visited Oslo in May for the commemoration of the twenty fifth anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize reception, he found protesters accusing him of discrimination against devotees of the Tibetan deity, Dorje Shugden.

His subsequent tour of Europe was also marred by further Shugden protests. The Dalai Lama may look back with fond memories to bygone days when his foreign visits were not yet tainted by such public remonstrance.

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 has 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 a few brands 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 changed, at least for the Shugden devotees. The Shugden practitioners are to be found wherever the Gelugpas are, in Tibet, within the 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, and 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 the deity took place in the 1970s. In 1996, the Tibetan Parliament in exile went further and passed a resolution against the employment of Shugden practitioners in government departments.

Western Shugden activists claim that within the Tibetan community in India, Shugden devotees are discriminated against, and 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 an activist group in their own defence.

The opposite is the case, however, 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.

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 the just punishment of Shugden followers, western converts, responding to liberal impulses, reject this as discrimination and an attack against religious freedom.

The two opposing views cling to and defend their own logic with equally great 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 continued 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, 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, and to try and approach them differently.

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