The Pope and Dalai in the eyes of Beijing by Raimondo Bultrini

English Translation by Raimondo Bultrini & Francesca Paoletti of Papa e Dalai agli occhi di Pechino

One thing is certain: that the commitment to peace by Pope Francis is indubitable. But for what reason did the pontiff not meet the Dalai Lama?” This is what Il Giornale [translator’s comment: this is a mainstream Italian newspaper] asks after the announcement that the Vatican is “snubbing” – to quote the words of the Guardian – the Tibetan leader. “There are no official reasons – writes Il Giornale – The background could be the relationships (which today are still very tense) between Beijing and the Holy See, with the claim by the [Chinese] government to nominate the bishops (this has become a common practice), totally ignoring the approval coming from the Pope. But negotiations are ongoing and, soon,relations could improve. For this, Tibet’s reasons can wait …

I found this text in front of me while I was trying to answer the same questions. Why does the Pope, who is so inclined towards social outcasts and the victims of injustice, not receive a man who was forced to escape from his country as a refugee, one of the many that – according to Bergoglio’s words – are living on the sacrifice of Christ himself?

OK, the Dalai is a “refugee” holding a Peace Nobel Prize, he has had good fortune in terms of fame, not only as the representative of an oppressed culture, but also as a wise one coming from a different religion, Buddhism, who has so far given advice that was able to change millions of lives. Nothing compared to the multitudes of the followers of Christ’s message. But still he is the victim of a huge injustice, such as was the expropriation of his country, of his home, depriving him of the contact of those people that, after generations, still love him and are loved in return, despite all Chinese attempts to conquer minds and hearts of the Tibetans. If the Italian government, instead of the Lateran Treaty, had imposed on the Church the seizure of all goods and the submission of the Pontiff to the Party of the Duce [Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party], it would not have been a nice thing. So out of mutuality, between persons who believe in the freedom of faith, an embrace of solidarity with the Dalai Lama, just like those given to leaders of other religions and to Muslims, would have been universally appreciated. But certainly not by China.

Screenshot article
The kiss between the Pope and the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church Bartholomew (Photo Filippo Monteforte/Epa). On the right, the embrace with the Argentinean Rabbi.

Now, we can assume that the Pope might be moved by the compassionate intention not to hurt Beijing, especially – as Il Giornale reminds us – while there are currently delicate discussions going on, but for sure this leaves many others disappointed. Especially because the Catholics in China do not have much hope left for a treatment different from that reserved to the Tibetans, should they actually choose to go under the patronage of the Pope and not only or no longer under that of the United Front Department, Section for Religious and Ethnical Affairs of the Communist Party.

We do not know what image Pope Francis has of the religious situation in China and the consequences that befall individuals and movements that may pose any threat to the power control of the Party and the State. The Falun Gong and its annihilation with torture, killings and mass arrests of followers are a warning from history. Since the Vatican well  knows what the persecution of priests and devotees means in the same People’s Republic, it can therefore also imagine why, in turn, the highly spiritual Tibetans look for support, from an entity of perhaps moral and ethical “infallible compassion” such as the head the largest body in the Western Church.

A patrol of the Chinese army in front of the Potala in Lhasa.
A patrol of the Chinese army in front of the Potala in Lhasa.

The Vatican only need observe the photos and videos on social networks where you can see the Chinese tourists entering the monasteries and temples with shoes on, throwing the butts of cigarettes around, taking selfies with two V fingers amidst devotees and monks who meditate or prostrate themselves to the Buddha. Sure, they are acting in a gentler fashion than the soldiers of the PLA did when they razed religious buildings and statues and trampled the rosaries and prayer wheels of the devotees, and sometimes still do, according to reports from human rights groups and Tibetan exiles.

But in today’s China, there are more subtle ways to denigrate a religion and with it the love that binds the people to their current spiritual leader. To this end, China is supporting a group that accuses the Tibetan leader of committing injustices against the devotees of a certain deity of fierce aspect called Gyalpo Shugden or Gyalchen. This organization, which is headed by an old lama who was expelled years ago from his monastery for “severe violations of religious bond with the Buddhist community,” is so rich they can ship hundreds of people around the world  in order to demonstrate in the street and accuse the Dalai Lama of being a liar.

There is evidence of payments made by the followers of this erudite scholar and recognized heretic, Kelsang Gyatso, to organize the travel of the wandering protesters. Gyatso, the founder of the “New Kadampa Tradition”, whose aim is to revitalise the tradition of the original school to which the Dalai lama still belongs. With a luxurious seat in England and hundreds of centers in America and other countries where they practice the worship of Shugden, considered powerful and effective against all enemies inside and out, but that according to the Dalai Lama, is a source of discord and tension between the Tibetans from its origin to the time of his fifth predecessor, in the seventeenth century. The operational arm [of the NKT] in the current international anti Dalai campaign is the Western Shugden Society, recently renamed the International Shugden Community; their first public appearance, with the same tenor as that of today, was at a protest in central London in 1996.

One of the three monks killed in the name of the Gyalpo Shugden cult in '97
One of the three monks killed in the name of the Gyalpo Shugden cult in ’97

It ‘s a story full of intrigue and mysteries, including a triple murder in Dharamsala in India the year after that first demonstration in England, near the residence of the present Dalai Lama. A group of Tibetans who belonged to the same cult and was – at that time officially – connected to the NKT, was investigated and has not yet been acquitted in the investigation based on the substantial evidence of a plot to assassinate the director of the local school of Tibetan Dialectics, who had sided with the Dalai [Lama] against this practice considered so “dangerous”. In the assault, three monks were killed by stabbing them. Among the investigation papers were seized a list of authorities of the then Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai lama at the head, to be eliminated. A risk that according to intelligence Tibetan exiles still exists today.

Since there were no other “tracks” plausible, the culmination of the investigation of the triple murder focused inconclusively on the role of the association  owned by a group of Tibetan monks and lay people of a district in New Delhi, the Dorje Shugden Devotee’s Charitable & Religious Society, passed into the background. Yet it would have been important to get to the bottom of this, as it was its adherents that opened up for the first time to the Chinese the opportunity to realize the benefits of their special version of Tibetan Buddhism, based on the worship of a spirit which, ideally, is on their side and not that of the enemy, the “separatist” Dalai.

Starting in the days just after the triple murder in February of 1997, the Chinese authorities granted special privileges to practitioners of Shugden (the killers entered China via Nepal despite an arrest warrant being still pending), and invite them regularly to political and strategic consultations on how to reduce the influence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. In exchange for this, they offer help in building yet more new temples dedicated to their “Buddha” Shugden, while Tibetans urging people not to follow this worship, as recommended the Dalai Lama, are even arrested as happened in these current hours to the 77-year old Jamyang Tsering.

A statue of Shugden with the fierce face hidden
A statue of Shugden with the fierce face hidden

At the international level, the current media strategy of the International Shugden Community is much subtler and employs millions of posts on social networks and invitations to the followers to participate in the campaign “Dalai lama stop lying” via twitter or more directly in places where demonstrations that are taking place in several places in the world visited by the Tibetan leader.

China naturally observes this, rubbing its hands together at this controversy which aims to undermine the figure of the Tibetan leader right on his personal strong point of human rights. The Dalai explained  his position many times on this subject and there are hundreds of gigabytes of online documents and testimonials from his own voice as well as books by scholars such as Georges B.J. Dreyfus [‘The Shugden Affair: Origins of a Controversy‘] and the Dolgyal Shugden Research Society (‘Dolgyal Shugden: A History’).

In this way, even the experts of the Vatican can investigate the background of this case and catch here and there a glimpse of the kind of strategy of defamation and denigration that China could take to downsize, just like the Dalai Lama, even the Pope of Rome.

For example, some more recent history, and equally embarrassing for the Catholic Church as that Tibetan spirit-demon, could re-emerge, history which has as protagonists Pope Bergoglio and other priests during the darkest period in modern Argentine history. In 2000 a court in Buenos Aires wrote in the judgment against three former soldiers sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two progressive priests, that the church hierarchy had “closed its eyes” to that double murder. Those were the years when the current pope was leading the argentines Jesuit order (1973-1979), at the top of the Catholic hierarchy who were asking the faithful to act as “patriots”.

A young Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires
A young Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires

Bergoglio remained officially silent even during the kidnapping of two other priests of his congregation, who were accused of conniving with the opponents of the regime while they were working in the slums. The Pontiff has always denied that he abandoned his men and instead always said that he helped several times the priests of the underground resistance. But he refused twice to act as a witness in related lawsuits, until in 2010 when he decided to appear in front of the judges and the lawyers said he had been overly “evasive”.

The accusations, from which Bergoglio has always been acquitted, are relatively important in the past of a monk of flawless faithfulness to the ideals of the Church. But when making agreements with men of power, such as for sure are the Chinese politicians negotiating with the Vatican, there are many surprises to be encountered. Considering all this, St. Peter’s hierarchs would have been well advised to reconsider their decision to renounce the meeting with the Dalai Lama only in order not to offend Beijing. If one day it could deem useful, the mud of those years under the generals in Buenos Aires could come back to the surface and the Pontiff would find himself – just as the Dalai Lama –at the centre of a controversy built up by others and backed up by the religious Department of the Communist Party.

For even in Chinese they say: “Defame, defame, something will remain”.

Originally published at La Repubblica Blog: Papa e Dalai agli occhi di Pechino (14 Dec. 2014)

line-gothicRelated articles

Interviews about ‘the Shugden controversy’ with academic experts

Related blog posts