Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ)
Beat U. Wieser, Basel 8.2.2015, 7 PM
In St. Jacob’s Hall the Dalai Lama gives teachings to his followers, while his opponents demonstrate outside (The image is from an earlier visit to Switzerland, April 16, 2013)
The Buddhist splinter group of Shugden worshippers is currently staging a protest against the Dalai Lama, geared to draw the attention of the media. In Basel, as previously in Washington and next in Copenhagen, they denounce the Tibetan leader as a liar.
Thousands stream into St. Jacob’s Hall in Basel. Neither a television show nor a sports event is drawing the people. It is a nearly eighty year-old Buddhist monk, whose scriptural lectures are as complex as they are dry, that the crowd yearns to follow for hours. Asian and Western faces can be spotted in the fully occupied tiers. Tibetans, however, dominate the picture. The presence of the Dalai Lama, having arrived from Washington and on his way to Copenhagen, works like a magnet.
Controversy about a Patron Protector
Outside the hall, on the other side of the street, a few hundred people, predominantly of Western origin, have positioned themselves. Together with a handful of Tibetans, in the icy cold they chant their slogans, accompanied with rhythmic beats from drums, portraying the Dalai Lama as a liar and dictator. The polished rhetoric of the spokesperson for the media who accompanies the demonstrators cannot hide the fact that here is a fringe group that is blowing itself up out of all proportion to draw the attention of the media. It is not very credible, however, that on the other side of the street thousands of people should be flocking to their dictator or that they themselves are oppressors.
There exist many tensions and rifts within the Tibetan community, as also in any other religious community. The image of harmony within Buddhism and the Tibetan world, which is often cultivated in the West, says more about one’s own longings than about reality. The Shugden movement, which has recently come onto the scene more strongly and virtually latches itself onto the Dalai Lama’s heels in order to slander him at each of his appearances in a way that will draw the attention of the media, is neither new nor deals doctrinally with the central Buddhist teachings. The controversy fanned by it is going off on a minor sidetrack. It is as if, within Christianity, one were to lead a dispute over some patron saint.
At its core, Buddhism is an atheistic religion that does not require a creator god. At its center, stand ethics, concentration, mental stability and wisdom. On the Buddha’s path, people are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves if they want to reach enlightenment. Despite that, veneration of protector spirits such as Dorje Shugden is traditionally a component of Tibetan Buddhism. However, it has no canonical basis and its origins probably lie in a diversity of folk religions.
Tendency toward Sectarianism
At the end of the 1970s, the Dalai Lama, who admits that previously he had also honoured Shugden among others, restricted this cult, which had already been controversial for centuries. He did this because he wanted to prevent believers from starting to strive for their wellbeing through the worship of a protector deity, rather than following the path of the Buddha based on individual responsibility. Moreover, the veneration of Shugden stems from the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the present Dalai Lama belongs. He therefore felt a special duty to intervene based (not only) on the basic principles of Buddhism, but also especially because the Shugden followers set themselves off in contrast to the other three big schools, whereas he, as the pre-eminent Tibetan spiritual leader, emphasizes their common ground. This is also the reason why he sees in the Shugden cult a dangerous tendency toward sectarianism.
This decision was never without controversy among the Tibetans. Even on a political level, there were concerns on the part of the negotiators in the dialogue with the Chinese that the restriction could trigger internal discord that Peking would exploit for its own purposes. And this is in fact what has happened. China promotes Shugden worship in Tibet and asks exiled Tibetans about their stance on Shugden on the application form for an entry visa. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama has upheld his decision because, in such a question, he did not see himself, as the religious head, to be in a position to let considerations of political tactics direct him.
The restriction on Shugden worship is not absolute, but concerns mainly the sphere of influence of the Tibetan administration in exile. Privately and in separate schools and monasteries Shugden (rituals) can be practiced. However, the Dalai Lama strongly requests that Shugden worshippers not attend his teachings, because then the trusting teacher-disciple relationship necessary in Buddhism could not develop between them.
Nevertheless, the restriction has over and again led to unrest and discord within the Tibetan community. It has also come to slander, threats and attacks. In 1997, three monks were brutally murdered in Dharamsala near the residence of the Dalai Lama. The Indian police declared that Shugden followers had been involved in the bloodshed.
This internal Tibetan conflict has captured international attention mainly on account of Western Shugden followers and their work with the media. This organisation, which has forcefully banged drums in Basel, calls itself the International Shugden Community (ISC) with its seat in the USA. Despite all attempts at a cover-up, one can detect close connections to the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a Buddhist organization with over a thousand worldwide offshoots founded in Great Britain by Kelsang Gyatso and focused exclusively on him. The NKT has over and again launched groups and organisations just to conduct protests.
It appears absurd when on one side Western persons equipped with banners, megaphones and grim faces broadcast their message of false Dalai Lama and his lies into the cold winter air, while on the other side of the street thousands of Tibetans stream to His Holiness. It is quite possible that among the followers of the Dalai Lama there may be a few Shugden worshippers. However, most of them will probably practice the cult only in private and, because of that, do not turn away from their spiritualhead. That they are acting in that way simply under great pressure is not obvious in St. Jacob’s Hall, and one would not believe that to be the case despite listening to the smart Shugden spokesman with his cultivated English.
Originally published by Neue Zürcher Zeitung: Shugden-Anhänger rühren in Basel kräftig die Trommel: Angriff auf den Dalai Lama auf einem Nebengeleise.