New Kadampa Tradition, Shugden and the Dangers of an Exclusivist Attitude

GUEST POST by Joanne Clark

Recently, I sat for long hours throughout the night and day beside my mother’s bed as she lay dying. I sang her hymns. I read her verses from the bible. My mala was around my wrist, ready, but it remained mostly unused. Instead, I entered my mother’s devout Christian world in order to better help her. Not only did this give her comfort, it comforted me as well to know that she could be helped. I felt a strong gratitude towards Christianity for that fact.

Unfortunately, this was not the case eleven years before, when I sat beside my father’s deathbed. All I could do then was recite mantra. I lacked the courage and insight to see what he might find comforting and what his unique needs were. I dared not enter his theistic world to better help him die and provide him comfort—because I was Buddhist. I was exclusively Buddhist, “pure” Buddhist, born-again, Kagyu Buddhist. I had taken a vow to help all sentient beings, down to the smallest insect, until every one is totally helped—yet I lacked a perspective broad enough to help my own father.

I was also psychologically damaged at that time, a cult-follower. I dressed, acted, decorated my house and spoke in ways that divorced me from my family and friends. I thought in ways that divorced me from my greater intelligence. My life had become narrowed to a single, totalistic view of the world, a simplistic menu of mantra, devotion and puja practice—nothing like the vast expanse of the Buddha’s wisdom—of Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa’s teachings. I did not read or commune with any views outside of my single Tibetan Buddhist lineage of the time. I was a nice person, but I was unprepared for reality, unable to help a soul. This is what I call cultism—and sectarianism—at their very worst.

When I turned away from my last Dharma center and decided to study and practice in exile, through the guidance of HH Dalai Lama, it took me many years to break free of that exclusivist, narrow outlook. I wanted one practice, one thought, one “pure tradition” that would help me get better. Instead, I found myself in a nuanced, multi-dimensional, contextual, complex reality—the Buddha’s reality. There was this approach to a bad day—and that approach—and yet another approach still. I kept my vows and commitments strictly, but I discovered that they also were vast and inclusive of many realities and approaches. This new outlook became the source of my mental health and my ability finally to sit beside my mother’s deathbed and provide some small assistance in her greatest time of need.

In this context, whenever I hear protestors accusing the Dalai Lama of limiting their religious freedom, I am always shocked. That is very far from my own experience! The Dalai Lama’s approach to dharma gave me back my religious freedom—it freed me from deep biases and exclusivism. In those dark, early days of my recovery, the words that penetrated most deeply were his instructions to “read more books,” to “become a 21st century Buddhist,” to “know the reality” and “study, study, study.” By this, he did not mean his own books—he meant the texts by the Nalanda scholars and Buddha himself and many other great Buddhist scholars, such as Kamalashila and Tsongkhapa. He also meant books by scientists and leaders of other religions. He meant that we live in a world of mass communication and interdependence and it is no longer appropriate or wise or compassionate to hide away and practice in a narrow, exclusive reality.

Recently, my courage in this regard was challenged when I found myself engaged in debate with bloggers on the website Dialogue Ireland. The comments there were full of vitriol and venom towards my teacher, the Dalai Lama, accusing him of deceit and evil intentions, of being the mastermind of a great conspiracy to take over the minds of millions of human beings. They called him a “lamaist cult leader.” Despite the fact that their comments were mostly silly, illogical and childish, they seemed to have a momentum and power and so I took upon myself the job of checking on their allegations to see if they contained any truth.

I read widely. I read Tibetan history according to legitimate mainstream scholars—and also according to biased reports such as the Trimondis, Chinese propaganda and Dalai Lama devotees. I read from the Dalai Lama’s autobiographies. I read from the websites that were quoted on Dialogue Ireland. I discovered that their allegations were all either complete fabrications, statements and facts taken out of context, or flagrant exaggerations.

Later, I discovered that there was a strong possibility these commenters had some connection to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso—because he was the only Tibetan Buddhist lama they refused to criticize. So I started reading his books as well. I have been surprised to find within them an exclusivist approach to the Dharma that is very different from the approach of my own teacher. So today I am asking how far that exclusivism goes? I ask if those protestors shouting themselves hoarse outside a Dalai Lama teaching would allow themselves the freedom to do as I am doing? Would they read the Dalai Lama’s two autobiographies? Would they read his Buddhist teachings and books on secular topics? Would they attend his conferences with scientists and religious leaders? Would they read histories of Tibet by peer-reviewed scholars? If not, how can they give themselves the right to shout?

Last October, I attended a teaching with the Dalai Lama in New York city. While waiting in line, I was subjected to a small band of protestors, shouting over and over “Dalai Lama go home.” I smiled to myself, thinking how silly that sounded, thinking to myself, “The Dalai Lama would love to go home.” But then I noticed the elderly Tibetan woman in front of me. She looked hurt and bewildered by the shouting. I wondered about her life in Tibet before leaving, whether she had suffered badly. I wondered whether she had family still in Tibet whom she worried about.

I write this only to remind Shugden protestors that reality is much bigger than their one narrow view, that there are suffering human beings involved and so, it is their duty to read widely and objectively—to know all the details and complexities of the reality they are claiming to know.

In this context, I question the exclusivist approach to dharma being taken within the NKT study program. I question its potential danger to students and to others. I question whether it is realistic—or does it limit students’ ability to help others and honor their bodhisattva vows? With only one teacher interpreting the entire Buddhist canon, with very few exceptions, I believe that the NKT study program risks being biased and dangerously limited. In his commentary on Lamrim, Geshe Kelsang writes:

If possible, we should study Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way and Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way together with their commentaries, especially the commentaries by Je Tsongkhapa. A commentary to the Guide to the Middle Way can be found in the book Ocean of Nectar [by Geshe Kelsang himself]. The texts by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti are like doors that open the meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and Je Tsongkhapa’s texts are like keys to those doors. However, if we cannot study so extensively we should study and practice according to the following Lamrim instructions because they contain the essential meaning of all the other great texts. (p. 518)

Given that “the following Lamrim instructions” are Geshe Kelsang’s own interpretation of Lamrim, and given that he lists another of his commentaries in the list of important texts students should read, it would seem that he is telling students that his teachings are sufficient and all that they need to read in order to tread on the Buddhist path.

I have never read such a statement from any teacher before. One trouble with this statement is that it might easily feed laziness and wrong views in a practitioner. For example, we in the West are prone to searching for that quick fix, that pill, that easy, cheap, fast path to enlightenment. If someone says we don’t need to work as hard as Milarepa or other great masters of the past, we might not want to argue!

I have learned from hard experience myself that the greatest, most precious of freedoms is the freedom to be informed. The first step in any totalitarian effort, whether of governments or cults, is to limit access to information. This can be blatant or very subtle—externally imposed or internally imposed. Robert Lifton (1986), who is still quoted today in discussions about cultic characteristics in groups, listed “milieu control” as the first of eight such characteristics:

  1. Milieu Control.  This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

Ex-NKT students claim that milieu control exists in the NKT culture. They say that it is subtle in the early years of students’ involvement, but by the time a student becomes a teacher, the milieu control is blatant and rigid. They claim that teachers are not allowed to study from texts other than Geshe Kelsang’s prescribed texts—and are expelled if they bring texts from outside into NKT premises. Is that true?  I cannot judge myself, but I think NKT students need to ask it—again and again.

Recently, I read a comment by an NKT student on this website which alarmed me:

… the Heart Commitment of Dorje Shugden is to follow one tradition purely without mixing while respecting everyone else’s spiritual path as appropriate for them. So individually, we choose to not mix, but externally we respect everyone’s freedom to practice as they wish.

Is this true? What does it mean to make this “Heart Commitment” (with capital letters) and not mix? I would ask Shugden worshippers if this heart commitment means any of the following:

  • Not reading the texts or scriptures from other religious traditions.
  • Not singing hymns or chanting from another tradition in order to provide comfort to another human being or bring a spirit of religious tolerance within one’s community.
  • Not finding out about other Buddhist traditions, such as other Tibetan Buddhist lineages, Zen, Theravada etc., in order to deepen one’s own understanding and ability to help others.
  • Not investigating the words of one’s teacher and being prepared to question them if necessary.
  • Not doing any of these things because of fear. Not reading a Nyingma text or a text by the Dalai Lama because the thought of doing so brings fear.

If Shugden supporters answer yes, would that be milieu control? Is the NKT approach to dharma exclusive and sectarian? Here is another passage from Geshe Kelsang’s commentary on Lamrim, that demonstrates his perspective on this:

If we know how to practice the whole Lamrim, we shall know how to practice all other scriptures. Whenever we receive any other teaching, we shall know where to place it within Lamrim. In this way, each new instruction we receive will amplify and reinforce those we have already learnt. Suppose someone is given a handful of rice that he or she cannot use immediately.  If that person has nowhere to store the rice he will not be able to put it to good use and will have to throw it away, but if he has built a storeroom to hold bags of different cereals he will be able to put the rice in the appropriate bag and increase his store. When the time is right he will be able to put the rice to good use. Lamrim is like such a storeroom.  For example, Hinayana teachings can be stored amongst the stages of the path of a person of intermediate scope. Mahayana teachings can be stored amongst the stages of the path of a person of great scope, Vajrayana teachings can be stored amongst the stages of Secret Mantra within Lamrim, teachings on dependent relationship and the middle way can be stored within the stage of superior seeing, and so forth. Without studying the entire Lamrim we may receive many different instructions and still be wondering what to do, like a person standing with a handful of rice wondering where to put it. If we are like this, we shall waste most of the instructions we receive.

Indeed, this simile lays a broad outline for Lamrim, one that could easily incorporate a non-sectarian and inclusive approach to dharma practice and study. However, in the next paragraph, Geshe Kelsang narrows this perspective down dramatically:

While the great Tibetan Master Kyabje Phabongkha was living in Kham in eastern Tibet, a Geshe arrived there from one of the great Gelug monasteries and went to receive practical instructions from a Nyingma Lama. The local people concluded that the Gelugpas had no practice since such a great Geshe needed to go looking for one. When Kyabje Phabongkha heard of this he said that it was a great shame that this Geshe had wasted so many years of instruction by failing to realize that all his previous study was to be put into practice. It was possible for the Geshe to lose so much time because he had not built the storeroom of Lamrim within his own mind. (p. 21)

Would Tsongkhapa agree with such a sectarian division carved into Lamrim? Though he was often critical of unethical practices within other lineages, he himself studied and received vows from teachers of different Tibetan Buddhist lineages. In fact, Atisha’s lineage of Lamrim spread throughout Tibet and not only to the Gelug lineage. HH Dalai Lama states in his commentary on Lamrim Chenmo:

Following Atisha’s arrival in Tibet and composition of the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, each of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism in some way adopted the pattern and structure of the stages of the path teachings. For example, in the Nyingma tradition, Longchenpa’s Mind at Ease presents the path in a way that follows the basic structure of Atisha’s approach. The same is true of Sakya Pandita’s Clear Elucidation of the Buddha’s Intent, which could be seen as a fusion of the stages of the path teachings with mind-training (lojong) teachings. Similarly, in the Kagyu tradition, Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation presents the basic structure of the path in a manner just like what Atisha lays out. Sometimes, slightly different sequences are adopted, but basically in all of these traditions the stages of the path are very similar. For example, the Jewel Ornament of Liberation speaks of turning one’s mind away from four things.  If you look at these four turnings of the mind, they echo teachings in the stages of the path tradition. (p.20)

Historically, it has been a tradition among Tibetan masters to study and also to practice all the lineages—Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, Nyingma—and Jonang as well. This is an excellent model. We should adopt a nonsectarian approach, not just studying all of these lineages but also putting all of their teachings into practice. (p. 24)

Why couldn’t the great, inclusive “storehouse” of Lamrim that Geshe Kelsang describes be used to store “grains” from other religious traditions? Why does he use the simile to exclude? Here is what Tsongkhapa says in Lamrim Chenmo about how inclusive students need to be in their practice:

Bodhisattvas make it their goal to accomplish the good of the world [all living beings]. Since bodhisattvas must take care of students who are followers of all three lineages [those of sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas], they must train in the paths of these lineages…

By stating, ‘Those benefactors of beings who accomplish the good of the world through the knowledge of paths…’ Ajita indicates in the Ornament for Clear Knowledge that knowing the paths of the three vehicles is the method for bodhisattvas to achieve the goal they have set. Also the Mother of Conquerors [The Eighteen-Thousand-Verse Perfection of Wisdom Sutra] says:

Bodhisattvas should produce all paths—whatever is the path of a sravaka, a pratyekabuddha,or a Buddha—and should know all paths. They should also perform the deeds of these paths and bring all of them to completion. (Vol. 1: pp. 46-47)

This is in line with the words of HH Dalai Lama, who states,

… Tsong-kha-pa cites many texts, including the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, where the Buddha states that a practitioner must study, understand and actually practice all aspects of the path. If you really aspire to help many billions of living beings with diverse mental dispositions, then you have to understand and practice many diverse teachings and approaches. This is what prepares you.

Later in his commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, His Holiness furthers his inclusive and pluralistic viewpoint by quoting from the Buddha:

For example, in Lankavatara sutra, (Descending Into Lanka sutra), there is a statement where the Buddha identifies various types of vehicles and he calls them the vehicles of the celestial beings, vehicles of the humans, and vehicles of the disciples, vehicles of the bodhisattvas and so on– and where the point is made that as long as there would exist, among the sentient beings, tremendous diversity of mental dispositions and spiritual inclinations, there will evolve tremendously diverse forms of vehicles, spiritual vehicles. So in this sutra, the spirit of pluralism is very clearly presented. (Day Four am: HH Dalai Lama; Teaching on Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatises on the Stages of the Path; 2008, Pennsylvania, USA

The Dalai Lama bases his nonsectarian, inclusive approach on quotes from the Buddha and Tsongkhapa. Where are the scriptural sources for the heart commitment of Shugden? Where are the scriptural sources for the claim that Shugden is a Buddha and not a mundane spirit? If one looks at the bibliographies provided in the three volumes of Tsongkhapa’s great text on Lamrim, one will find pages and pages, listing a great number of sources. However, if one looks at the bibliography of Geshe Kelsang’s commentary on Lamrim, one will find only book titles from Tharpa Publications—only books (with one exception) that are authored by Geshe Kelsang himself! Is this a subtle milieu control?

HH Dalai Lama’s main objection to the worship of Shugden is that it promotes sectarianism. NKT claim that they are not sectarian, that they practice “one tradition purely” while respecting others’ rights to practice as they please. Sectarianism is a big term, one that includes many meanings, such as partisanship, exclusivism and prejudice. Here, I have primarily focused on its meaning of exclusivism, in order to start addressing the issue in meaningful ways. I suggest that respecting others’ rights to practice as they please is limited if it does not include the freedom to share, understand and learn about others’ traditions. When you don’t permit yourself to better understand and experience another person’s reality, then it is difficult to do anything but lip service to the idea of respecting his/her religion. It is also difficult to benefit that being!

Ignorance in our world is clearly the source of intolerance, sectarian violence and hatred. Without full access to knowledge about other religions and cultures, intolerance and sectarianism cannot be combatted. This is my belief, gained through hard experience. By all means, it is important for us to embrace our own religious traditions fully and single-pointedly. However, doing this cannot be done in a narrow chamber. It cannot be done at the expense of broad knowledge and understanding. Otherwise, over time, prejudice and bias creep in and real trouble starts.

So my question to NKT students is finally this: If your mother was a devoted Nyingma practitioner, would you be able to help her if she needed you? Would your heart commitment to Dorje Shugden allow you to step into the role of a true bodhisattva and chant her Nyingma mantras and prayers?