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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Dalai Lama's Buddhist Foes

July 20, 2008

By David Van Biema
Friday, Jul. 18, 2008

It was not an object lesson in Buddhist dispassion. On Thursday
afternoon, following a teaching by the Dalai Lama at New York City's
Radio City Music Hall, a group of 500 or more audience members screamed
at and spat at a mixed group of about 100 people, both Tibetan and
Western, who had been protesting the teaching. There were no arrests,
but the police felt it prudent to move in fast and herded the smaller
group into buses for their own protection. The pro-Dalai Lama crowd had
also flung money at their foes, an insult indicating that they had been
bought (presumably by the high lama's enemies in Beijing). Said one of
the anti-Dalai Lama protesters, Kelsan Norden, who is British, has a
Tibetan name and is the spokeswoman for the Western Shugden Society, "If
this is what the Dalai Lama's people do to us in America, can you
imagine what they would have done somewhere else?" The combination of
adrenaline, relief and the prospect of coverage left her sounding almost

What had prompted the unnerving Buddhist-on-Buddhist confrontation was
an intra- Tibetan problem that seems poised to go international. The
protesters, devotees of a fierce "protector deity" called Dorje Shugden,
claim that the spiritual leader of Tibet has curtailed their civil
rights as part of a religious vendetta. For now, the allegations of the
Shugdenpas (as they are known) are hard to prove or disprove. But even a
brief investigation provides a vivid look into what experts call "the
shadow side" of Tibetan Buddhism, contrasting the tolerance and
rationalism that the Dalai Lama represents globally and the theological
hardball over mystical principles that he seems to play on his home turf.

Dorje Shugden is one one of hundreds of "protector deities" that
distinguish Tibetan Buddhism from more purely philosophical varieties.
Historically, the god is associated with the maintaining, sometimes
violently, the purity of Dalai Lama's own lineage of teachers and gurus,
called the Gelugpa. Indeed the high Lama himself prayed to Shugden for
years; but the sect's purist and exclusionary emphases contradicted his
own outreach to other Tibetan lineages, and in 1996 he began demanding
that monastic abbots renounce the deity.

Those who did not suffered consequences, although how dire is yet
unclear. Shugdenpas have long claimed to have been shunned and harassed.
A 1998 Amnesty International report indicated that the complaints were
exaggerated. The sect suffered a public relations setback in 1997, when
Indian police named two of its practitioners as suspects in the ritual
slaughter of one of the Dalai Lama's close associates, seeming to
confirm (although the suspects have never been tracked down or tried)
the worst suspicions of critics.

Yet Shugden practitioners deny that they are fundamentalist, purist or
violent, and have renewed their complaints in light of an intensifying
crackdown by the Dalai Lama. He — or people acting in his perceived
interests — has expanded the loyalty demand from abbots to monks and
even laypeople as far afield as France. In a nod to the Tibetan
Government in Exile's self-definition as a democracy, each monastery has
been taking a referendum on Shugden. When the "anti" faction inevitably
wins, the monks pledge to renounce Shugden and deny spiritual or
material aid to those who hold out. In transcripts that Shugdenpas
allege record the Dalai Lama's comments, he sounds atypically
authoritarian. "Shugden devotees are growing in your monastery," he is
quoted as snapping at one abbot "If you are this inept, you had better

What pushes the current allegations into a potential human rights matter
is the contention that those who won't take the oaths are denied
monastery I.D. cards that the Tibetan Government in Exile allegedly
requires to process visa requests through to the Indian government.
(Most of the Tibetan diaspora lives in India.) "Families are being torn
apart," reads Shugden literature.

Tashi Wangdi, the Dalai Lama's American representative, denied the
allegations. "I have heard about the [I.D.s]," he said. "But as far as
official policy goes, there's no discrimination." Regarding the oath to
give no assistance, he said "I am sure that no Tibetan government
administration office has asked anyone to sign this document." However,
he notes, "It is within the rights of individual organizations to have
conditions that they stipulate for members."

The problem is that in Tibet most people shun whom they think the Dalai
Lama wants them to shun. The protesters display photos of signs they say
have gone up recently in Tibet urging shopkeepers not to do business
with tainted monks. They could be written by anybody, but most people
assume they know the ultimate author of the signs.

Experts seem to think that there is something to the Shugden
allegations. "There is considerable anecdotal evidence to support what
they say," Stephen Batchelor, co-founder of the Sharpham College for
Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry, wrote in an email to TIME,
although, he adds, "I have yet to see any hard evidence." Robert Barnett
of Columbia University, adds "I bet it is a lot easier to get a visa if
you have an exile official at your side."

Norden, the Shugden spokesperson, observes correctly that even if the
Dalai Lama is not behind the current Shugden woes, "if he wanted it to
stop, all he'd have to do would be to snap his fingers." Yet no-one
expects that. Most scholars e-mailed for this story were hesitant to
line up behind the Shugdenpas; partly because of insufficient data;
partly, perhaps, because of a feeling that this was a Tibetan issue
("these are monk wars," said one); partly because many are themselves
deeply invested in the Dalai Lama; and partly because of the whiff of
fundamentalism and recklessness that clings to the sect. Shugden "is
about vengeance," says Columbia's Barnett. "I think that any talk of
[its devotion to] compassion is misleading." Barnett believes that the
movement's true goals must be "brought out into the open" — especially
to innocent Westerners — before "the real social concerns that must
exist" in Tibet can be addressed.

"People see hope in the Dalai Lama," says Shelley Turner, another
protester spokesperson, with some empathy. "Seeing these protests
against him must make them feel hopeless." She means, when they finally
hear the harsh truth about him. Others surely believe the truth is on
his side.
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