Spiritual Split

In many ways, it's been a breathtaking couple of years for the Dalai Lama -- one of the world's most revered promoters of tolerance, compassion and nonviolence.Just this month, Martin Scorsese tossed his blockbuster, Kundun, a filmic ode to the Tibetan leader's struggle against the Chinese occupation, into the general sea of veneration.Then there was the adoring Seven Years In Tibet, with Brad Pitt, not to mention the mountain of publicity generated by Hollywood stars protesting the North American visit of Chinese premier Jiang Zemin in October.But this exhaltation notwithstanding, all is not rosy in the house of the famous monk from the Himalayas. For the first time since its establishment in Dharamsala, India, in 1959, the Tibetan government in exile -- headed by the Dalai Lama -- is suffering a crisis of moral legitimacy.And the man who has built an international reputation on wisdom and respect for all sentient beings is being called an oppressor.You can get a whiff of the problem at the Tibetan Buddhist Chandrakirti Centre on Yonge Street, a small room sweet with the smell of incense and strewn with plaques of brightly coloured deities. Here you will find talk of Tibet independence, renunciation and universal oneness -- but you will not find any pictures of the Dalai Lama.The reason for this strange turn of events is that temple-goers here are violating a prohibition of the Tibetan leader and communing with an old warrior god with bulging eyes and a blazing sword, sitting astride a white lion. His name is Dorje Shugden and, until recently, many of the 100,000 Tibetan exiles in the world paid homage to him as they were taught to do by their masters.But in 1996, the Dalai Lama stunned his followers by suddenly announcing a ban on the worship of Shugden, saying his oracle, Nechung, had advised that the deity Shugden was a threat not only to his personal safety but to the future of Tibet.Shortly after, the Tibet government in exile declared that anyone working for its institutions had to forgo prayers to the deity or lose his or her job.What followed was a complex and disturbing squabble rife with political overtones -- threats and intrigue, charges of witch-hunts, Shugden statues being smashed in people's homes -- and the Dalai Lama for the first time in his life having to answer charges that his followers were threatening other Buddhists.All this is occurring while his mortal enemies in the Chinese government watch the dissension with delight.***The dilemma faced by the spiritual and political leader of Tibet is not a simple one. It's a dispute that's difficult for most westerners to grasp, rooted as it is in a centuries-old history of power struggles between spiritual leaders in old Tibet.For Tibetans, both religious and political power are fused in the person of the Dalai Lama (roughly translated as Ocean of Wisdom), whose ultimate political and personal advisers are the invisible protectors who speak through his oracles -- human conduits for spiritual beings.Though it appears ironic on first view, many believe the Dalai Lama's motivation for wading into this dangerous ancestral conflict is his desire to unite the various Buddhist tendencies under his reign as political leader."The Dalai Lama is a peacemaker," says Paul Williams, co-director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol in England."But real peacemakers sometimes have to make hard choices. He is stamping on something that he sees in the future giving rise to a hell of a lot of problems for the Tibetans, in terms of creating a proper democratic and therefore tolerant society."The conflict intertwines various sects in Tibetan Buddhism, a religion characterized by assorted oracles and wrathful figures among its conglomeration of divinities. Some of these deities have their origins in Bon religion, a name often used for religious practices found in Tibet before the advent of Buddhism.Some hold that these Bon rituals found their way into the practices of the Nyingmapa, Tibet's second-largest and oldest monastic order.Shaman RitualsThe now-dominant Buddhist sect in Tibet and Mongolia -- the Dalai Lama's own Gelugpa order -- was founded in the 14th century, combining the teachings and practices of both Tibetan and Indian Buddhist sects, and was in part a reaction against the many shamanist-like rituals that characterized older sects like the Nyingmapa.Three centuries later, after a Tibetan abbot and rival of the then Dalai Lama was either murdered or committed suicide -- depending on which legend you believe -- his spirit took the name of Dorje Shugden, or "hurler of thunderbolts," because of his immense power and wrathful nature.Shugden is regarded by his followers as a protector deity, a powerful figure Tibetans will turn to for help in more worldly affairs, a kind of godfather, notes Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor."There's a kind of intimacy that Tibetans feel with these 'protective deities,"' says Lopez, an intimacy "that they wouldn't have with a Buddha, which is more of an exalted kind of being."As the legend goes, Shugden's job is to protect the Gelugpas from the corrupting influences of the Nyingma. The deity's followers are supposed to punish anyone who mixes the practices of these two sects.It is this strain of sectarianism that many say worries the Dalai Lama -- who has to be seen as the ecumenical head of his nation.Before the current ban, "at least half if not more of Tibetan Buddhists either were or are practitioners of Dorje Shugden, according to Stephen Batchelor, a writer and former Gelugpa monk who is director of Sharpham College, a nondenominational Buddhist educational centre in Devon, England.Batchelor, the author of an upcoming historical article on the controversy, to be published in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, says, "It has been an issue of divisiveness within the Tibetan community for at least 20 or 30 years now, and it flares up periodically."Although originally a Shugden adherent, the Dalai Lama abandoned any connection with Shugden in the mid-70s, rejecting the monk as a deity and calling him an evil spirit, but at the time he did not suggest that others should follow.Loyalty callIn 1996, he was more pointed, calling on Tibetans to show their loyalty to their country by banishing Shugden. In a speech in London in July 1996, he declared that while Buddhist tradition is profound, "There is a danger (it could) degenerate ... and become like spirit worship."He went on to say that he wanted to promote all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions and that "simultaneous practice is very, very useful." Shugden practitioners, he went on, "dislike that kind of nonsectarian practice."(Spokespeople for the Dalai Lama in New York refer all questions to the government of Tibet in exile Web site.)Most exiles, who revere the Dalai Lama as a god himself, dutifully complied with his stricture against the warrior spirit.Here in Toronto, where 150 of this country's 2,000 Tibetan Buddhists live, Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario president Rinchen Dakpa says that because of the Dali Lama's prohibition, none of the Tibetans in Ontario follow Shugden anymore."My understanding is that, from my historical perspective, this deity has ties with ancient spirits and also seems to obstruct Tibetans from finding a way for the future course of Tibet, so that's why His Holiness has been advocating not to practise this particular deity."But not all exiles were able to put Shugden aside. Then there's the added confusion that one wing of Shugden supporters organized in the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and founded by a Tibetan monk, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has become a prosperous outfit by recruiting heavily in the West.The University of Bristol's Williams notes that New Kadampa was the original name of the Gelug tradition when it was first founded, and that by naming his order after it, Geshe Kelsang is claiming that they alone are the true Gelug tradition."So what we've got here is more than just Gelug triumphalism," Williams suggests, "almost a sort of Protestant revivalism -- 'We are the pure followers of the Gelug tradition, therefore all the current followers of the Gelug tradition have gone wrong."'Cult characteristicsIn the current dispute over Shugden, NKT adherents insist they are standing up for freedom of speech and religion -- rights they say are guaranteed by India's constitution -- and decry media coverage depicting them as a small group of fundamentalists out to harm the Dalai Lama.But Williams notes that NKT has "things that you find with an awful lot of what we normally call cults -- a strong, central, charismatic leader and a group that sees itself as over and against the world."***Removing my shoes at the Chandrakirti Buddhist Centre -- the local NKT temple -- I am greeted by a friendly Gen Kelsang Tharchin, the centre's principal teacher, who offers me some tea or juice and leads me into the main area.His tradition, says the American expatriate, contains a "complete path to enlightenment as was originally presented in Tibet by great Indian masters whose teachings and writings have been at the core of the Gelugpa tradition since then."Dorje Shugden, he says, is like all protectors who defend the tradition "from both internal and external obstacles -- mainly our own inner delusions, our own ignorance, our own anger, our own attachment."Asked why he thinks the Dalai Lama has instituted a ban on Shugden worship, Tharchin hesitates to speak against the leader he says has done so much to benefit the cause of Buddhism.But, he notes, "in 40 years as political leader of the Tibetan government in exile, he has not been able to accomplish his political agenda, which is to free Tibet. It's often the case, when political leaders fail to accomplish their agendas, that they look for scapegoats to blame, and Dorje Shugden is blamed directly as being against the interests of a free Tibet."He also worries that in trying to synthesize the four traditions, the Dalai Lama is attempting to "create within Tibetan Buddhism a kind of papacy, a kind of complete authority, not only on the temporal level but on the spiritual level."As to charges that his movement is intolerant of other Buddhist practices, he says, "I've never heard any of the great lamas that I have received teaching from, or any practitioners of Dorje Shugden, ever try to incite people to develop negative attitudes toward other traditions."NKT followers claim the Dalai Lama's remarks have led to harassment of Shugden followers in India, but Lopez doubts such harassment is coming directly from the Dalai Lama."The Dalai Lama will make a fairly guarded and reasoned statement, and then some of the more zealous of his followers will take that to extremes," Lopez ventures, referring to reports of the Tibetan Youth Congress smashing of Shugden statues. "But that's not done with his sanction."Conversely, members of the NKT were questioned in connection with the murder last February of three Dalai Lama disciples at Mcleodgung, near Dharamsala. Killed were the Dalai Lama's close friend and confidant, 70-year-old Lobsang Gyatso, and two of his pupils.No Arrests"No one has been arrested for the murders," Lopez notes, "and the speculation is that whoever did it escaped into Tibet."The whole controversy has served as a sobering wake-up call for non-Tibetan Buddhists around the world, many of whom have been attracted to the practice as an antidote to a widely perceived spiritual emptiness in the West.The Shugden affair, says Lopez, author of the forthcoming Prisoners Of Shangri-La, "is a very difficult question because we in North America have this idea of religious freedom and that it's important to tolerate the intolerant. That kind of 'enlightenment' -- in the western sense of the term -- has not really become ingrained in the Tibetan exile community, which really came out of a pre-industrial society in 1959 and has been coping with these body blows of modernity since then."To Williams, however, the Shugden controversy has to be seen in the context of the Dalai Lama's attempts over the last five years to promote a democratic constitution."He is trying to get Tibetans to adopt democracy, and he's having a hell of a job about it, because the moment he gets the Tibetans to hold elections, they just start falling into faction fighting. This is one reason why he goes around saying things like, 'All the Tibetan schools completely agree, they're just different ways of approaching the same thing,' which, as a scholar, I think is a bit overstated."Sidebar OneOn The OutsJohn GoetzLAKE GENEVA, Switzerland -- For many of his western supporters, the Dalai Lama represents sanity in a world gone awry. Yet few have asked themselves about the way he runs his exile government or even about what Tibet looked like when he did rule it.Consider the case of Gonzar Ripoche, the spiritual head of a temple that faces the snowy Swiss Alps high above Lake Geneva. A gentle-spoken man in a red robe, Gonzar Ripoche heads one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the exile community outside India.Guiding me through his sanctuary, he indicates the most prominent shrine in the place -- the one dedicated to the Dalai Lama.But his words are fraught with an almost crushing ambivalence."I have spent many years in exile and have a great reverence for His Holiness, the Dalai Lama," he tells me. "But now he is abusing our freedom by banning Shugden. It makes me very sad."Indeed, just metres away from the photo of Tibet's spiritual head sits a statue of Dorje Shugden, to which Gonzar prays daily."We are not doing anything wrong, we are just keeping on with this practice which we have received through great masters. I respect His Holiness very much, hoping he may change his opinion," he says.Gonzar, who is seen as the incarnation of a former lama and whose recognition was, he says, confirmed by the Dalai Lama himself, left Tibet in 1959, within days of the leader's famous exodus. It was the Dalai Lama who, he says, persuaded him to learn English and who sent him to Switzerland to teach Buddhism."He was very kind to me in Dharamsala. Just to have a glimpse of him was regarded as a great blessing. Now he speaks in hard ways. The exile government is forcing us to choose between His Holiness and our personal protector deity."I cannot accept this ban on Shugden. If I accept this, then I accept that all of my masters, wise great masters, are wrong. If I accept that they are demon worshippers, then the teachings are wrong, everything we believe in is wrong. That is not possible."It's the painful dilemma created for many Tibetans by the Dalai Lama's new hard line.Few question the Dalai Lama's right and responsibility to make decisions concerning the Tibetan religious belief system. Every religion has leaders who decide what belongs in the cannon. But it is the Dalai Lama's confusion of his roles as head of the exile government and religious leader that angers Shugden-believers most of all. It is his ability to translate his religious ideas into government policy that they believe bodes ill for a future free Tibet.This is exemplified by the enthusiasm with which the exile government has taken up the prohibition promulgated by the Dali Lama's office, which declared belief in Shugden "one of the greatest dangers to the cause of Tibet and the life of His Holiness."The department of health, for example, wrote on April 18, 1996: "If there is anyone who worships Dorje Shugden they should repent and stop worshipping. In case there is anyone who does not abide by the address of his Holiness, then such a person should submit their resignation."The Dalai Lama has even gone so far as to call for Tibetans to spy on each other. The office of His Holiness ordered the superiors of the Sermey monastic college in Bylakuppe, India, "If there is anyone who continues to worship Dhogyal (Shugden), make a list of their names.""The myth of the Dalai Lama is stronger than the truth -- it creates a shadow over the truth," says Ursula Bernis, a doctor of philosophy now in Delhi doing research for her book Exiled From Exile.Psychic WarfareBernis recounts, for example, the story of a family whose home in the Tibetan settlement of Clementown, India, was firebombed and stoned because they were Shugden believers. "There have been other homes, stones thrown," she says. But the Tibetans are more likely to use psychological warfare, like character defamation."If you say someone is against the Dalai Lama, that means they are excluded from society," Bernis says. "Exclusion from society is almost worse than death."Wanted posters for the people believed to be Shugden leaders have been put up in monasteries, settlements and in Dharamsala. "They list their addresses, the whereabouts of their families and the family members' pictures," Bernis says. Posting private information on the leaders is an "invitation to harm them," she says.P.K. Dey, a human rights lawyer from Delhi, has also travelled throughout India taking the statements of 300 who claim to have been threatened for praying to Shugden. "Those worshipping Shugden are experiencing tremendous harassment. It is not in a particular part of the country but everywhere where there are Tibetans. Dalai Lama supporters are going house to house searching," he says.But if the Dalai Lama came to his prohibition against Shugden as a consequence of heeding his oracle, it's not clear at all how he made the decision to drop independence from China as a political goal in 1989, favouring autonomy instead.To this day, this remains a sore point in the Tibetan exile community. Lhasang Tserjing is the director of the respected Amnye Machen Institute for the Study of Neglected Aspects of Tibetan Culture, in Dharamsala, and was publisher of the leading independent Tibetan newspaper called Mangtso (Democracy). Tserjing is critical not only of the decision to give up independence as a goal but also of the way the decision was made."Concerning democratization, I can only say that the efforts of the exile government have been half-hearted. The executive has made decisions on the issue of independence all alone. Not even the exiled parliament has been consulted, let alone the people."Despite the long tradition of western literature describing Tibet as a centre of wisdom and a lost paradise, pre-occupation Tibet had little in common with the Shangri-La of orientalist imagination.Tibetans were indentured servants, and education was the exclusive privilege of the monks who ruled the country along with a corrupt aristocracy. Tibet scholar Jens Uwe Harmann of Humboldt University in Berlin is an enthusiastic supporter of the Dalai Lama, yet he strongly objects to the image of old Tibet as a paradise."The society was organized in a very strict, hierarchical way. There was a form of serfdom, there were draconian punishments up to the point of physical mutilation, whippings and the like. And all of this shows us that this society cannot have been quite as ideal as has been continually presented to us."Then there is the matter of the Dalai Lama's writings on sexuality, which have upset his gay supporters. In his 1993 book Beyond Dogma, he declares, "The inappropriate parts of the body are the mouth and the anus, and sexual intercourse involving those parts of the body, whether a man or a woman, is considered sexual misconduct."Last June, a group of gay Buddhists in San Francisco asked for and received a private audience with the Dalai Lama. Here the leader confirmed his position and asked, "Sex is for procreation, right?" Those present responded with silence.Steve Peskind, coordinator of the Buddhist AIDS Project in that city and an attendee at the meeting, says, "Gay Buddhists hear such comments and ask themselves, 'What the hell is this?"'For too long, the discussion of Tibet has employed two main orientalist cliches -- the evil, atheist Chinese hordes and the good, religious, peaceful Tibetans. The Chinese occupation has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people through Maoist social engineering. The national "autonomy" the Chinese claim has been granted to the Tibetans is a farce, and the Cultural Revolution resulted in the destruction of countless wonders of Tibetan culture.But it cannot be forgotten that in Tibet it was the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that enforced the abolition of indentured servitude and built the first public schools. It was also the PLA that kept careful watch as bonfires engulfed the records of the debts owed by common people to the aristocracy.Any movement to support a free Tibet that forgets the role played by the Chinese Communists in abolishing Tibetan feudalism runs the risk of falling into the trap of those who supported the Ayatollah against the Shah in 1979 or the Mujahadin against the Soviet-supported Najibullah government in Afghanistan. The tragedy of Tibet is not only the brutal Chinese occupation but also the desperation that has led so many to believe that return to the Dalai Lama is the only alternative.

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