Mixing Dharma with Politics

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra states:

When a society comes together and makes decisions in harmony, when it respects its most noble traditions, cares for its most vulnerable members, treats its forests and lands with respect, then it will prosper and not decline…

HH the Dalai Lama:

I believe we must consciously develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. We must learn to work not just for our own individual self, family or nation but for the benefit of mankind.[1]

Western Shugden Society prepares next Anti-Dalai-Lama-Protests in Nantes, France

While the NKT/WSS is actually celebrating the NKT annual Buddhist Summer Festival at Manjushri Institute (Ulverston, Cumbria), led by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, they are also preparing the coming protests, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit and teachings in France which will start August 15, 2008 in Nantes.

A witness reported at the New Kadampa Survivor Forum about the present situation at NKT’s head center in Ulverston. Here is an extract:

I went to the festival or should I say political extremism gone mad. There were posters everywhere you looked, recruiting for the French demo against His Holiness. They were on all doors 2 a time inside and out. In all rooms, hallways. On mobile cooking points, walls and outbuildings. Even on the temple wall. The chapel was used as a meeting point. Even more posters! The walls were covered as were the doors and tables! Mein Gott! K.G. called it a Spiritual holiday to practise dharma. It felt like a BNP political rally. Not National Front.[..]
The ordained, although they have not taken ordination vows were sitting round tables watching videos of themselves at the demos! Attachment? Some told me they were prepared to use violence. Hatred? Why? Geshe-la wants us to win at all costs. Confusion? They have truly been poisoned. [..] I found the whole thing quite perverse. G.K giving an empowerment of Avalokiteshvara while before and after festival gathering and organising his Stormtroopers to attack the Living Embodiment of Avalokiteshvara? For an individual to use such an important time in peoples lives to suit his own ignorance I found quite disturbing and sad. With His Holiness at least we have hope for the future.

Another person confirmed this

Yes, they are gathering forces for their all expenses paid trip to France. Not with my money, they aint! I’ve seen people going to demos (quite new to Dharma) with a literal string of criminal convictions to call HHDL a hypocrite and a liar. Who are the hypocrites? The NKT does nothing else for wider society: this is their whole raison d’etre to keep DS practise alive. This, folks, is their real ‘hidden’ agenda. Shameful.

The NKT nun Kelsang N. stated at her blog:

Of the demonstrations against the Dalai Lama – Not surprisingly, mixed feelings abound, but overall people are feeling very positive about what’s happening. The vast majority of people I talked to had gotten to attend at least one demonstration, and most of them had very positive, meaningful experiences, echoing what my own Sangha buddies had said. But naturally, not everyone is so happy about what’s happening. What I did not hear was anyone who thought that the Dalai Lama’s actions are ethical or in the right. But what I did hear are people who are unsure if this is the correct response, and, disturbingly, I also heard stories of people feeling “pushed” by their local Resident Teacher to participate in the demonstrations. (see HappyNKTer’s webblog – PDF file)

She confirmed further at her happynkter webblog that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the initiator of the protests and views himself as the only remaining representative of Trijang Rinpoche. He also seems to be thinking about suing some critics. She wrote:

Of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso – I always find it interesting to hear stories about what Geshe Kelsang is up to behind the scenes. Rumours always abound, especially at Festivals. So take these stories with a grain of salt!

Geshe-la had a monk read to him all the personal criticism against him that is around on the internet. Apparently it took two hours to read through everything. While the monk read, Geshe-la listened with closed eyes, occasionally saying the word, “Compassion.”

During the annual meeting with the Resident Teachers, he told them what led up to his decision to begin organizing opposition to the Dalai Lama. First, he was invited by some monks to India to see the discrimination that was happening. Upon arriving, he found that the situation had really deteriorated. He talked to many forlorn monks, and ended up giving them a good deal of food and money (food because most vendors will not sell to them, and they cannot buy food within their monasteries). When he returned to England, he spent many sleepless nights and thought to himself, “Perhaps it is the Dalai Lama’s karma to be able to destroy Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition, and it is too late.” But he felt that he was his Guru Trijang Rinpoche’s only remaining representative, and as a representative of his teacher, he had to speak out. He felt he could not sit by and do nothing. One morning he awoke feeling very clear about what to do, and we started down this road of demonstrations.

And watch out — it looks like he may also begin some legal proceedings against some different entities and individuals over all of this.

Mixing Dharma with Politics

In general Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and NKT put much emphasis on the concept of ‘not mixing dharma with politics’. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso made use if this concept to criticize his fellow student Lama Thubten Yeshe and finally to split from him and FPMT. Lama Thubten Yeshe invited Geshe Kelsang in 1977 from Indian exile to England to teach the ‘General Programme’ of Buddhist studies at his centre Manjushri Institute in Ulverston, Cumbria. Two years later Lama Yeshe installed Geshe Jampa Tegchok there to teach the more advanced ‘Geshe Study Programme’. According to the “Sera expulsion letter” finally Geshe Kelsang Gyatso “usurped the FPMT centre and made it his own NKT”. According to researcher David Kay “in 1991, through the successful exploitation of a legal loophole, the assets of Manjushri Institute finally fell under the sole control of the Priory Group” (the close disciples of Geshe Kelsang). (Kay 2004 : 78) Kay states that Geshe Kelsang’s criticism of Lama Yeshe and FPMT “would often be couched in terms of the destruction of the ‘purity’ of the Dharma.” Geshe Kelsang claimed in the NKT publication “Eradicating wrong views”: the creation of the central governing organisation of the FMPT by Lama Yeshe had ‘mixed the Dharma with politics’ and thereby destroyed it. (Kay 2004 : 66)

More than 20 years after the schism at Manjushri Institute, the students of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso use the same concept and logic to criticise the Dalai Lama of ‘mixing dharma with politics’ and to have “caused one of greatest divisions in Buddhism since its inception.” (see e.g. Six Reasons…) In the heat of their world wide protests and media campaign it seems that they don’t recognise that they actually do those actions they accuse others of doing. Many former NKT members see WSS/NKT’s accusations against the Dalai Lama of being a “hypocrite”, a “liar” and “oppressor of religious freedom” or of “mixing dharma with politics” and creating “divisions” as dishonest and wrong. It may not be unfair and far more close to the facts to say, NKT/WSS can apply all these accusations to portray their own actions.

Regarding political acts, Tibetans in general don’t see politics as something dirty or bad. Their view is mainly if politics are good or bad depends upon the motivation, politic is not bad from its own side. In fact also the Jatakamala about Buddha’s former lives (before he became fully enlightened) show that many times he was a Bodhisattva king who ruled a country for the benefit of the people, thereby helping them to do good actions of patience, tolerance and especially ethics, and creating a karmic link to them. Later when the Bodhisattva became finally the Buddha, 2500 years ago, the Buddha gave also advice to kings, as some centuries later Arya Nagarjuna did as well. (One king even consulted the Buddha when he wished to go to war.)

If NKT uses this concept of ‘mixing dharma with politics’ to point out something very bad and NKT members think it is a valid concept they should apply it also to the Buddha. If they do, it follows that even the Bodhisattva who became the Buddha of our age had ‘mixed dharma with politics’.

What HH the Dalai Lama does, who is seen at least as a high Bodhisattva, ruling a country or a community based on Buddhist (ethical) principles, the Buddha has done too in his former lives as a Bodhisattva. This approach was not only a way to help sentient beings but to accumulate the merit (good karma) to finally get fully enlightened.

HH the Dalai Lama and Tibetans hold the view politics can help others and there is a need for politics so that communities can function in a good way. Someone must do this job, so why not make good politics and choose a person of the highest integrity who actions are based on compassion and wisdom for that? What is wrong with this?

The view of HH the Dalai Lama is:

“If we serve sentient beings by engaging in political activities with a spiritual orientation, we are actually following the Bodhisattva’s way of life.” (Gems of the Heart by the Dalai Lama, booklet)

“We share the view that religion and politics do mix and both agree that it is the clear duty of religion to serve humanity, that it must not ignore reality. It is not sufficient for religious people to be involved in prayer. Rather, they are morally obliged to contribute all they can to solving the world’s problems. [..] Politicians [with the aim to serve people through politics] need religion even more than a hermit on retreat. If a hermit acts out of bad motivation, he harms no one but himself. But if someone who can directly influence the whole of society acts with bad motivation, then a great number of people will adversely effected. I find no contradiction at all between politics and religion. For what is religion? As far as I am concerned, any deed done with good motivation is a religious act. On the other hand, a gathering of people in a temple or church who do not have good motivation are not performing a religious act when they prey together.[2]

The actions of WSS/NKT against the Dalai Lama also reflect other stories from the Jatakamala. There are some stories which show that the Bodhisattva, who finally became the Buddha of this present age, also had an adversary in Devadatta. Devadatta’s actions against the Bodhisattva are portrayed in different stories of the Jatakamala to be similar to a fox competing with a lion or a jackal competing with an elephant. Devadatta was extremely jealous of the Bodhisattva and thought in his deluded pride he would be wiser than the future Buddha. When the Bodhisattva became finally the Buddha, more than 2500 years ago, it was Devadatta who split the Monastic Order (Sangha) by creating his own monastic rules and criticizing the Buddha.

Regarding political acts, it is also true that Buddhist masters advised against political activities. It is said that Nagarjuna prayed not be a politician in all his future lives.[3] In general for religious people politics can be damaging distraction undermining their own practice and inner development; or politics can be caught up in the self-centred attitude into longing for gain, honour and praise, finally leading one towards committing many destructive actions. However, from the Buddhist point of view, if ‘political actions’ are harmful, beneficial or neutral will depend upon the motivation and understanding (wisdom) of the doer. Therefore there are Buddhist teachers who hold e.g. the view: “Spirituality and politics aren’t different. People think they are, but they are the same.” (see Rebecca Novick: The Dharma of Politics: Adventures in Interdependence, Mandala Aug/Sept 2008), and there are Buddhist teachers who are completely restrained of engaging in politics. There are also Buddhist teachers or practitioners practising duplicity by claiming not to practice politics while being actively engaged.


Buddhism is a way to come closer to reality and is much more subtle, vast and deep than many of the oversimplified NKT or Shugden follower’s conceptions suggest. Moreover it appears that NKT and some Shugden followers, like “Mahalama” Lobsang Yeshi (Kundeling Lama) or Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, are far more involved in politics than even they seem to think. The question is now to judge to what extent their politics are based on integrity, compassion and wisdom.

[1] The Political Philosophy of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Editor: A.A. Shiromany, Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre and Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, 1998, p XV, ISBN: 81-86230-20-3

[2] Freedom in Exile: Autobiography of the Dalai Lama by Dalai Lama XIV, p 202-3

[3] This claim is made by NKT but until now I have not seen any stanza or text by Nagarjuna which can approve this claim.

last edits: Dec 31, 2009