Dalai Lama protests: A letter to the editors of WELD for Birmingham magazine

You might have noted that it are rather small local US magazines, blogs, or news sites that picked up the sensationalist claims of the International Shugden Community (ISC) protesters against the Dalai Lama during his recent visit in the US. News is a business. The news business sells information and it depends on click rates and an advertisement model to earn money. News are not generally dedicated to the truth but to earn money which in turn depends on the click rates. A new movie highlights the moral corruption that can go along with the pressure to sell information, Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal. I think if you consider this background, its implications, and the stress local news journalists usually experience it is understandable why they so often fail to inform their readers well and rather offer the media-savvy protesters a platform for their propaganda, letting them express their often absurd claims unchallenged.

After a complaint to one of those magazines, WELD for Birmingham, the journalist Cody Owens encouraged me to write a letter to the editor, Nick Patterson. Patterson in turn asked me to sent him a letter he can publish as a reply to their previous piece about the Anti Dalai Lama protests. Since this letter to the editors is not available online on WELD, I was thinking to share it with you because it portrays a general dilemma of the news dealing with the protests and the Shugden issue.

Dear Nick Patterson and Dear Cody Owen,

The October 28 article, “Protesting the Dalai Lama” tries to give a balanced account of the different perspectives of two opposing groups. On the one side, a mainly Western group that accuses the Dalai Lama of “violating human rights”, “instigating violence based on religious beliefs”, “persecution” etc. On the other hand, mainly Tibetans who oppose the protesters’ claims and support the Dalai Lama. The latter try to make the issue understandable for Westerners by referring to Shugden worship as “devil worship” and claim that the protesters are financed by China, a claim which the protesters reject.

Both clashing worlds are quite contrary to each other; what I missed was a perspective that evaluated both sides’ claims.

I think the whole issue is that both sides come from two different worlds which do not meet; what is said is mainly based on cross cultural confusion and misinformation. The protesters strongly emphasize human rights violations and religious discrimination (a Western / U.S. perspective) while the Tibetans stress the nature of the fierce deity Shugden as a violent wrathful spirit that kills and harms those who practice teachings from different Buddhist schools – therefore, for them, it is correct to restrict such a practice due to its religious intolerance (a religious Occidental / Tibetan perspective).

I assume due to a lack of time you were not able to ask any academic expert about this topic. Please allow me to set the record straight by quoting briefly academic experts.

Tibet scholar Robert Barnett from Columbia University (New York) told Time Magazine in 2008 that the protesters were “severely lacking in creditability” and that the practice of Shugden is “heterodox, provocative and highly sectarian in Buddhist terms”. John Makransky, an American professor of Buddhism and comparative theology at Boston College, said about the cross cultural confusion apparent in this context:

“A stunning recent example of this: some Tibetan monks who now introduce Westerners to practices centred on a native Tibetan deity, without informing them that one of its primary functions has been to assert hegemony over rival sects! The current Dalai Lama, seeking to combat the ancient, virulent sectarianisms operative in such quarters, has strongly discouraged the worship of the ‘protector’ deity known as Dorje Shugden, because one of its functions has been to force conformity to the dGe lugs pa sect (with which the Dalai Lama himself is most closely associated) and to assert power over competing sects. Western followers of a few dGe lugs pa monks who worship that deity, lacking any critical awareness of its sectarian functions in Tibet, have recently followed the Dalai Lama to his speaking engagements to protest his strong stance (for non-sectarianism) in the name of their ‘religious freedom’ to promulgate, now in the West, an embodiment of Tibetan sectarianism. If it were not so harmful to persons and traditions, this would surely be one of the funniest examples of the cross-cultural confusion that lack of critical reflection continues to create.”

Bearing in mind the cross cultural background, there are two other things worth to consider: 1) not a single human rights group – despite being flooded with material by the group since 1996 – has ever confirmed religious discrimination or human rights abuses 2) the Indian Delhi High Court rejected the protesters claims because of ‘vague averments’ and an ‘absence of any specific instances of any such attacks’ against Shugden worshippers.

With regard to the accusation itself: It is simply not true, that the Shugden people don’t get travel documents etc. They get travel documents, they get jobs, access to education, health services etc. not even a general ban exists. However, there are a few problematic instances and the practice is restricted in certain institutional contexts like the three main Gelug monasteries. But the restriction on Shugden worship was decided by democratic majority vote in which all the monks had a say, in a “stick referendum” – a procedure laid down by the Buddha to settle conflicts in the monastic communities. A significant majority of monks at those institutions voted to restrict Shugden worship, and those who wanted to continue Shugden worship, though they had to leave the broader institution, got their fair share of the buildings, property and money. If there was an unfair division of assets or other issues of discrimination these could be addressed in India with legal means. The Tibetans in India are under the Indian constitution and the case Shugden campaigners launched in the Indian High Court at Delhi was dismissed.

The protesters build a huge conspiracy theory out of some rare examples, a conspiracy in which the Dalai Lama is “the worst dictator of our modern time”, “a liar” (because he does not share the protesters’ view that Shugden is a Buddha), “evil and cruel” etc. The whole campaign only aims to attack the character of the Dalai Lama, and the “Human Rights”, “Religious Freedom” framework is only the guise to do that. Academic experts such as Prof Jonathan Gold in The Princetonian or Prof Nathan Hill in The Foreigner recently called the accusations of persecution and denying freedom of religion more or less nonsensical.

This brings me to the last point. Who is behind the protests? And why am I writing to you? I was once a part of this very campaigning group and protested and organized protests against the Dalai Lama too, from 1996-98. I was seriously misinformed by the group. Over the last 12 years, I have investigated all of their claims and discovered the majority are false, mixed with some few truths, exaggerations, things taken out of context, misrepresentations and lies that culminate in a total spin of the facts (which certainly appeal to the uneducated person) – twists, that any expert or any knowledgeable person could easily repudiate as false or misleading.

We ex-members of the campaigning group – the New Kadampa Tradition – issued a declaration, and we ex-members are helping each other to recover from the damage the group has done to us in a self-help forum “New Kadampa Survivors” which has 1,270 members. We compare the campaigning group and their strategy with Scientology. There are a lot of similarities, and I think, if Scientology bullies one of their enemies with a huge world wide media campaign, the press would be a bit more careful to report extensively about their accusations.

And this is what I would like to ask the press: please be more careful and please ask academic experts. The reader is otherwise left in confusion about how valid or non-valid the claims of a high profile campaigning group and its opponents are; some of the false allegations will stick to the Dalai Lama and will only undermine his wonderful, human, and enlightening activities and the inspiration he brings to others.

I also hope that the Tibetans will one day engage  a Western media expert to correct the protesters claims because I feel it is not helpful to speak about topics not addressed by the protesters such as the nature of Shugden and what role China plays in the dispute. The accusations must be addressed directly.

With very best wishes,
Tenzin Peljor
Buddhist monk and a former teacher and member of the protesting group

(November 3rd, 2014)