To Protest or Not to Protest: What is an NKT Student to Think?

GUEST POST by Joanne Clark

Dear NKT students, fellow brothers and sisters in the Dharma. It is my belief that most of you are sincere, goodhearted, well meaning practitioners of the Buddha’s Dharma. None of you would intentionally harm his teachings or other sentient beings. I suspect that at this time there are calls being made to many of you to come out and protest against HH Dalai Lama when he teaches in the West. I am writing this in order to help you decide whether to accept or reject this call.

Standing outside a precious Dharma event and shouting insults at the teacher is a serious action. I personally cannot think of anything that would make this ok. I personally wonder about the negative karma from such an action. In that light, I want to ask:

Why do the protestors dance, play drums, sing and laugh while they chant, “Dalai Lama liar?” Is this a funny affair? Is it a joyful affair?

I will also tell you that in the monastic tradition created by Buddha, the tradition that Tsongkhapa revered and upheld, monks and nuns are forbidden from singing and dancing. Why do NKT monks and nuns dance and play drums, while they call a Buddhist teacher a liar?

I heard that during a protest years ago, fliers were handed out that called the Dalai Lama a “Saffron Robed Muslim.” Is that true? Is that the type of action you would support?

Recently the Central Tibetan Authority (CTA) made the (somewhat unwise) move of publishing pictures and names of some Tibetans who had been involved in recent protests in Europe. While most of us in the West were opposed to the CTA’s move, the International Shugden Community (ISC) took their reaction to new heights by calling it an “intifada.” Perhaps they think that inciting Islamaphobic emotions is useful for inspiring Westerners to action. Do you want to support this?

I want to point readers to the twelfth Jataka tale, entitled “The Story of the Brahman.” For those not familiar with the Jataka tales, these are stories of some of Buddha’s previous lives. They are stories of courage and altruism that demonstrate what is needed to successfully traverse the Buddhist path from lifetime to lifetime. In this particular story, Buddha is reborn as a Brahman. As a young student, he and his fellow Brahman students are asked by their teacher to steal in order to alleviate the teacher’s poverty and misery. All the students but Buddha readily agree to this because their devotion to their teacher is very strong and they are willing to do anything that he asks. However, Buddha goes very quiet and stubbornly—but respectfully—he refuses to do what his teacher asks.

In fact, it turns out that this particular teacher was testing his students, testing their moral mettle. And Buddha was the only one who could not be swayed from his moral code, despite the fact that his devotion and respect for his teacher were strong.

Along the same lines, Tsongkhapa quotes from the Cloud of Jewels Sutra with the following: “’With respect to virtue, act in accord with the guru’s words, but do not act in accord with the gurus’ words with respect to nonvirtue.’” And Tsongkhapa then concludes, “Therefore, you must not listen to nonvirtuous instructions. The twelfth birth story clearly gives the meaning of not engaging in what is improper.” (Lamrim Chenmo, Vol. 1; p.86)

So I am saying to you that we have it from Buddha—and Tsongkhapa—and many other great teachers—that it is not only ok to seek approval from your own moral code before following an instruction from a teacher, it is mandatory. This is true, even if you revere that teacher, even if you think he/she is Buddha himself. It is ok to look closer at what you are being asked to do and even to refuse if that is necessary.

Towards that end, I wish to pick some key points from the pages and pages of information provided on this website and others that will help you better decide if protesting is an action that fits well with your own moral code. Ultimately, before you decide to protest, you should—and must—do extensive research and investigate the reasons for protesting to test if those reasons are moral and valid. However, it might be that only a few key points are necessary in order to decide NOT to protest—and then you could save yourself some work! So here are some few key points:

1. Is HH Dalai Lama threatening the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism?

This seems to be a central reason for protesting provided to NKT students, so it seems a good place to start.

As a student of HH Dalai Lama, I find this claim to be quite extraordinary. I have listened to hundreds of hours of his teachings on texts from Buddha, Nagarjuna, Atisha, Tsongkhapa and many other masters who form the pillars of the Kadampa tradition. In fact, it is under his guidance that many Kadampa texts are being translated into different languages, so that practitioners around the world can benefit from them. How could he be threatening this tradition that he reveres?

There seems to be some implication that Shugden worship is essential to furthering the Kadampa tradition. Given that none of the great Kadam trailblazers, such as Atisha, Dromtonpa and Tsongkhapa, worshipped Shugden themselves, then this doesn’t make any sense at all. These great masters practiced the great Kadampa tradition perfectly well without worshipping Shugden. So what is this claim all about? I have read nothing that makes any sense at all.

2. Is HH Dalai Lama restricting religious freedom?

Is he restricting yours? He’s not restricting mine.

For those who care about his opinion and guidance, HH Dalai Lama is restricting them from worshiping Shugden. For those who don’t, they are free to do as they please. Is that restricting religious freedom? If you believe that Shugden is a spirit capable of harm, the Dalai Lama is protecting your religious freedom. If you believe that Shugden is a Buddha and he is essential to Buddhist practice, then you might object to the Dalai Lama’s warnings. You might want to prove that his advice is wrong. Or you might simply want to go your own way and practice as you please.

One point is clear. As spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s job is to warn practitioners of dangerous practices. That is his responsibility and sacred duty. From one perspective, that is all this is about. The Dalai Lama has warned against propitiating a spirit. Those who are particularly fond of this spirit have protested. That’s one, very simple way of looking at all this trouble.

However, you should know a few undisputable facts. First, as I mentioned above, Shugden was not worshipped by Buddha, Nagarjuna, Atisha, Tsongkhapa or any other trailblazer of the Kadampa tradition. He wasn’t even around in their times. Shugden played no part in establishing the Gelug or Kadampa tradition whatsoever. This is fact.

Second, Shugden was considered a spirit, not a Buddha, for hundreds of years. It is only recently that the idea of him being a Buddha has emerged—and there are only a few teachers making such a claim. In fact, there was an Oracle of Shugden. Buddhas do not have Oracles!

So when you hear the claim that Shugden worship is an ancient religious tradition, what are they saying? Did he give teachings? What is this tradition exactly? Is it different or the same as the Kadampa tradition I practice without worshipping Shugden?

This is why His Holiness spoke forcefully to an NKT nun who was calling him a liar who restricted religious freedom. He told her that this is not about religious freedom; this is about spirit worship. Without Shugden, there would still be the complete Kadampa tradition of the great Gelug masters. That is certain.

3. Are Shugden worshippers being persecuted?

If there were widespread persecution of Shugden worshippers, then:

  1. Why have neither Amnesty International nor the Indian Courts found evidence of this?
  2. Why are there no media or police reports of cases that the ISC and Western Shugden Society claim have occurred?
  3. Why does the ISC need to resort to deceit in order to substantiate the claims of persecution?
  4. Why are there no full transcripts of research results or the Dalai Lama’s words provided on the ISC website?

NKT students need to know that Amnesty International and the Indian Courts both investigated claims of religious persecution of Shugden worshippers and found insufficient evidence for the claims. The fact that Western protestors are being asked to protest about persecution allegedly occurring in India—despite the conclusions reached by the Indian courts recently—is disturbing.

On Shugden websites, there are obscure pictures of wounds on the heads, hands and backs of monks, along with implications that these were inflicted by anti-Shugden persecutors . There are also obscure video clips, claiming to be “evidence” of violent protests against Shugden worshippers instigated by the Dalai Lama. However, I have yet to see any press coverage—or any other substantiated evidence—of any of these claims. I have even checked police reports and found no evidence. Have I missed something? Have the Indian courts missed something? Has Amnesty International missed something?

On the home page of the ISC website, there are numerous video clips attempting to expose the alleged deceitfulness of the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, all of them are deceitful themselves! For example, one is entitled “Surprising Revelations From Dalai Lama’s Official for Europe.” However, the man they are referring to, Mr. Wangchen, is a member of the Tibetan Parliament. He’s neither connected to Europe nor the Dalai Lama (who is no longer in political office)!

Another Video is entitled: “Dalai Lama Loses Cool With Peaceful Nun.” By peaceful, they are referring to a nun who says to the Dalai Lama, “Dalai Lama stop lying, Dalai Lama stop lying, Dalai Lama stop lying.” The idea seems to be that because her voice is quiet, she is peaceful—however, her words are not peaceful! And because the Dalai Lama speaks with feeling, he “loses his cool.” One way to look at that video is that the nun sounds robotic and the Dalai Lama sounds human!

And yet another video is entitled “Exiles in Exile: Tibetan Monks Outcast by the Dalai Lama.” There is a short clip in this video of young monks begging for food. The implication seems to be that the Dalai Lama’s restrictions on Shugden practice have made these monks homeless and they now have to beg for food. However, these monks appear from their robes to be Theravada monks, making their traditional begging rounds and they are not Tibetan monks at all! Why was there the need to deceive?

Later in this same video, a monk spoke of the CTA’s recent publication of that list of Tibetan Shugden protestors—and he then claimed that such a list had been made in the past and people had been hurt because of it and someone had even been murdered. As far as anyone knows, this is simply not true—and there is no evidence of such an event provided anywhere on this website or anywhere else. It appears to be an outright lie.

There are also two videos on the ISC home page about “why the Dalai Lama is lying.” On one of these, claims are made about how there are large numbers (probably millions) of Shugden worshippers in the Himalayan regions and elsewhere who are being harmed by the Dalai Lama’s restrictions. There is talk about research done by Mills in the Himalayas that demonstrates this. According to this “news” clip, Mills found solid evidence that the Dalai Lama sent his brother into Sikkim to destroy Shugden images and coerce the people to stop worshipping Shugden.

When I investigated this, I could find no research from Mills on Sikkim, (which is not to say that no research exists). However, I did find research by Mills on Ladakh. In this research, Mills came to very different conclusions than those suggested in the video clip. He concluded that Ladakhis worshipped Shugden as a mundane spirit and lamas were considered higher than mundane spirits. So it was a clear choice for Ladakhis to follow the advice of the Dalai Lama, whom they revered as their lama, and stop worshipping Shugden. And yes, it appears that the Dalai Lama’s brother might have been involved in destroying images of Shugden—but this was under the compliance of the Ladakhi people! They were not coerced!

What is most glaring about all the ISC spin is the fact that if you click on the link “Articles and Resources” on their website, you will not find articles and resources. You will not find the research by Mills that is referenced in the video. You will not find substantiated media reports of persecution of monks as claimed in another video. You will not find police reports. You will not find any solid evidence to back the claims whatsoever.

What you will find is an obscure copy of a “letter” that was allegedly sent to an NKT nun. In this letter, which rambles on and on, “physical action” against those who were listed by the CTA is encouraged. The Dalai Lama is called a “god”, over and over. Over and over, the author says that Tibetans must do what the Dalai Lama says, without question. Tibetans must take action against those who are listed by the CTA. The CTA does whatever the Dalai Lama asks etc. etc. etc.

This letter is a clear fabrication. Clear, because it presents every crazy spin of the ISC—and those of us who have spent time within Tibetan communities know that it does not ring true in terms of Tibetans attitudes, language or approaches (e.g. I have never heard a Tibetan calling the Dalai Lama a “god”— a Buddha, yes, but not a “god”). Also, I would simply ask: why on earth would such a letter be sent to an NKT nun? It doesn’t threaten her or even speak to her directly.

And so it goes, on and on. Tenzin, the owner of this website, has been chasing this type of deceit for many years. It seems one could spend a lifetime chasing after the deceit of these people. My experience is that, like a fire, it only takes seconds to start a lie—while it takes hours, days, weeks and months sometimes to expose the truth and put the fire out. This is sad. Doesn’t everyone have better things to do?

So with all those little distortions of fact, all adding up to a very distorted attitude, when you are asked to protest against the alleged persecution of Shugden worshippers in India, can you believe that it’s necessary? Can you believe the claims? If the Indian Courts and Amnesty International found no evidence—if the ISC website has to be deceitful in order to provide “evidence” of persecution—if their website can’t provide media or police reports of injuries or other sufferings inflicted on Shugden worshippers—can you believe that there is due cause to protest? Can you trust your sources? Surely, if there had been criminal destruction of Shugden shrines in Sikkim, for example, this would have been a reportable event. Police would have been called in. Media would have arrived. Where is that evidence?

On the other hand, I imagine there probably are Tibetans who are giving Shugden worshippers a hard time. I would imagine there might be—people don’t always get along. Emotions run high around this issue and there are bound to be incidences here and there of misbehavior. This is true around disputes in every community on earth.

Along these lines, NKT students need to know that there was a vicious, gruesome, bloody murder of a monk and his two attendants in 1997 not far from the Dalai Lama’s residence in MacLeod Ganj, India. This murder still has not been solved, but the two key suspects are members of a Delhi Shugden society (who escaped into China). There is clear, media reported evidence of this. Ever since that event, some Tibetans became more fearful of Shugden worshippers, ostracizing them from shops and restaurants in MacLeod Ganj and Dharamsala. Within the context of a culture that believes in dangerous spirits, one might ask: is this persecution or just simple human fear?

Surely it is best to leave these questions to the courts and Amnesty International. It seems to me that whether there are or aren’t instances of persecution in India is a Tibetan problem, with cultural and historical ramifications that lay Westerners, such as ourselves, cannot possibly hope to understand fully or easily. Let’s not fool ourselves. To understand this problem properly entails study and investigation.

For these reasons, I suggest it is enough for us to understand and explore our own place in all of this. We need to understand what is important to our own practice and what isn’t. In this context, why have you, as a lay Westerner, been asked to protest and become involved in these issues that are not directly relevant to you? Why are the protests being held mainly in the West and not in India?

I ask you, dear NKT practitioner, are you being persecuted? Are your religious rights at risk in any way? If not, then why would you protest? I suggest that before you agree to protest, you make an effort to understand the situation fully, with all its cultural and historical contexts. I suggest that you listen to teachings and talks by HH Dalai Lama and investigate how he spends his time. Most of all, read his long and considered reasons for restricting Shugden practice. Find out for yourself if he is in the wrong. If you are not willing to do that bare minimum, how can you justify disturbing his teachings and calling him a liar?

4. Is the Dalai Lama Lying?

There’s a difference between lying and disagreeing. There’s a lot of talk about that word “ban” and whether or not His Holiness has “banned” Shugden practice. His Holiness says he hasn’t “banned” anything. Shugden worshippers say that it is a ban and he’s lying. Is that a lie or simply a difference of opinion?

There is no Tibetan word, “ban.” In that context, His Holiness has not said he “bans” worship of Shugden. Full stop. When His Holiness spoke to the monasteries all those years ago, advising them not to worship Shugden, he spoke in Tibetan. There is no exact translation from English—“ban”—to any equivalent Tibetan word, so how can His Holiness be lying? The discussion is semantic and is a disagreement about the extent of the restrictions he imposed or didn’t impose. Whether you agree or disagree with His Holiness, you can’t say he’s lying. That’s an emotive term that simply fires up protestors, looks impressive on placards, but does little to advance understanding.

As for other claims that he is lying, I have addressed most of those already, as most of those have to do with claims of religious persecution. Many of them are based on the assumption that every action done by any Tibetan is done under the complete knowledge and direction of HH Dalai Lama, and that is simply untrue and silly.

So please, dear fellow Dharma student, consider the facts and look within your heart before you decide to protest or not. It is ok that you and I have some robust disagreements between us. However, I believe that it is not ok to give ourselves permission to transgress on each other’s sacred space. I hope that I would never do that to you—and I ask that you think twice before doing that yourself.

You need to know that when I attend a Dalai Lama teaching, this is a very precious occasion for me. It is a time of deep spiritual meaning and reflection. He is my teacher. I believe you might understand what this means. So then you would also understand how I might feel to hear the shouting and the drums and the joyful dancing as others insult him loudly. I believe that most of the people who attend these events with me feel the same. It is disturbing and disruptive. So please, think deeply before you respond to the next call for protests. Look into your heart, consult your moral compass.

See also