by Linda Ciardiello
For about the last 18 months the Dalai Lama has been under sustained public attack from a group of mostly white westerners calling themselves the International Shugden Community (ISC), for alleged human rights abuses, supression of religious freedom and for causing a schism in the Tibetan Buddhist community.
The executive leadership of the ISC consists entirely of senior members and teachers of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), such as Nicholas Pitts, aka Kelsang Rabten, the National Spiritual Director of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT-IKBU) for New Zealand and Australia, residing currently in Hong Kong, who recently wrote a piece for the Lanchester Review.
His article was rife with accusations and insults against the Dalai Lama and against anyone who disagrees with the ISC’s critical stance towards him, such as The Guardian, Geshe Tashi and the International Campaign for Tibet – that they are all vitriolic, ill-informed or liars. Not only is the leadership of ISC made up entirely of NKT members, but likewise are the vast majority of its rank and file members. Given these facts about the leadership and membership of the ISC, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the ISC is effectively just the latest in a string of political front groups for the NKT, who have been openly targeting the Dalai Lama for attack since 1996.
NKT members, both lay and ordained, are seen protesting at the highest volume they can muster, complete with dozens of drums and megaphones, displaying to the world a disrespect bordering on contempt towards the millions of Tibetans and others who revere the Dalai Lama as a great Buddhist teacher. To blur the image of only westerners’ engagement, the NKT brings in few Tibetans they gather from different places to place them in the front row.
At his recent talk in Aldershot Football Stadium, to which people flocked in their thousands, many ordinary and sincere Buddhists – westerners, Nepalis and Tibetans – were prevented from being able to hear and listen to the Dalai Lama speak, due to the huge cacophonous volume of the NKT protesters just outside the stadium gates.
The Dalai Lama and most of the attendees kept calm in the face of this provocation, but sadly a few lost their tempers afterwards with the protesters. Their angry reactions were caught on video and gleefully posted online by the ISC, in a manner reminiscent of psychopathic bullies who torment their victims and then gloat triumphantly at their visible pain.
So who are the NKT? Is there any truth in their allegations against the Dalai Lama? Or, as many of their critics claim, are these allegations more a case of projection of the faults of their own organisation and their own teacher, Kelsang Gyatso, onto the Dalai Lama?
So let’s start with the allegation that the Dalai Lama has created a schism in the Tibetan Buddhist community and restricts religious freedom. Actually, the New Kadampa Tradition itself formed after its founder created a schism in the fledgling FPMT Tibetan Buddhist community in the UK, to start his own “tradition” of Buddhism, which many critics and former members describe as a cult.
On the advice of the Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso was invited to teach at the FPMT’s Manjushri Centre in the 1970s, only to promptly repay this kindness by wresting control of the centre for himself and his own purposes, allegedly using shady means to achieve this (see the Good Night Lama transcript).
Having usurped control of Manjushri Centre he then set about restricting the religious freedom of its residents by banning the display of any photos of the Dalai Lama there and ordering the removal of all books from the centre’s library, other than his own.
Since its inception in 1991, all NKT bookshops stock books by one author only – Kelsang Gyatso. Anyone bringing other books into NKT centres are usually scolded and warned about the danger of polluting the “pure dharma” of Kelsang Gyatso. Any resident of Manjushri Centre who was not prepared to accept Kelsang Gyatso as their one and only teacher, to the exclusion of all other Buddhist teachers, was asked to leave. See the BBC’s documentary “An Unholy Row” for more details on this.
Nowadays, if an NKT centre resident studying on one of their programmes lets slip that they are also attending teachings from other Buddhist lamas, this will usually result in summary eviction from the centre. So if you value “religious freedom” joining the NKT is not recommended and the NKT’s charge that the Dalai Lama is a dictator who destroys religious freedom seems highly ironic, to say the least.
Now let’s examine some of Pitts allegations in his article.
He claims that the Dalai Lama “uses (his) position as a veil to conceal his true actions and intentions, exploiting his celebrity status to further his own personal and political ambitions.“
The problem with this claim has been pointed out by Gavin Kilty in his Open Letter to the New Kadampa Tradition already: “If he wanted power, why would he have voluntarily given up the title of political leader? Moreover, restricting the practice of this protector (Shugden) in no way accrues any more power to him.”
Because Pitts lacks a deep understanding of Tibetan history and Shugden history, not knowing or ignoring its sectarian and divisive character within Tibetan society, he has succumbed to sloppy conspiracy theory thinking, reducing the complex history of Shugden worship in Tibetan Buddhism and society to the false premises of simplistic black and white thinking.
What Pitts and the protesters fail to recognise is that the Dalai Lama, as spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, had no choice but to address the Shugden issue because of its divisive character, in the context of Tibetan society, and because of its marriage with sectarianism and Gelug exclusivism, at the cost of the other Tibetan religious schools. There is no academic paper, nor any established academic expert on Tibetan issues, who does not understand the need that the Dalai Lama had to address the Shugden issue.
Their inability to understand or consider the broader context of this issue, demonstrates that Pitts and the protesters cannot put themselves into the shoes of others, but instead view the matter from a narrow, parochial and selfish angle, that clings to its own likes, views and wishes, unable to see the whole picture, including the detrimental effects of Shugden worship for the unity of the Tibetan people.
Jens-Uwe Hartmann, Professor of Indology and Tibetology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, explains the dilemma of the Dalai Lama by pointing out, that this protective deity carries with it,
a constant potential for conflict, both within the Gelugpas and between the Gelugpas and the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that Shugden is definitely not a protective deity for Tibetan Buddhism in its entirety, but that the followers of other schools reject it, and some even vehemently, is of the utmost importance in understanding the dilemma in which the Dalai Lama finds himself today.
According to Hartmann, the Dalai Lama’s “intentions accordingly can be interpreted as that he considers the balance between the different schools as a supreme good, rather than exclusively favoring his own school in the style of a party politician, and that he is even ready to pay for this a high price of massive conflict within his own school. Only by doing so would he be able to fulfill his stated claim to be the Dalai Lama of all Tibetans”.
Pitts and the protesters ignore these points. For them Shugden worship is seen as being as innocuous as “The Lord’s Prayer”, because Kelsang Gyatso has taught them a white-washed, sanitised version of the practice that sweeps under the carpet the aspects of it which inspire very real fear among many Tibetan Buddhists.
Given their wilful ignorance, in order to explain the Dalai Lama’s rejection of Shugden practice, it seems the NKT Buddhists can barely avoid constructing for themselves a conspiracy theory in which the Dalai Lama has a secret agenda, is an omnipotent and almighty ruler who is slavishly followed by dumb Tibetans, fearing to question him and who are brutally oppressed by this “worst dictator of the 21st century”.
Interestingly, the exiled Tibetans who live all over the world in freedom stream in their thousands to the Dalai Lama’s teachings. The vast majority of Tibetans love this “worst dictator of the 21st century” deeply, and are greatly offended by the actions of the protesters. Yet according to Pitts, probably the Dalai Lama has just manipulated them or maybe Tibetans are just stupid?
As Dr Nathan Hills from London’s SOAS pointed out:
This accusation [of suppressing freedom of religion] makes no sense … the Dalai Lama is not head of any state; he has no military or police at his command; he has no political jurisdiction over which he can exercise suppression. … Some members of the Gelug sect left the authority of the Dalai Lama in order to follow what they see as a purer form of religion. These people may not be very popular … but their human rights have not been violated, nor their freedoms suppressed; even if some people did want to suppress or silence the pro-Shugen side, they simply have no means of doing so.
Dr Nathan Hill is not alone in this assessment either. The protesters and some Shugden activists in India have taken their claims of human rights abuses to organisations like Amnesty International and the High Court of India, but no authority beyond themselves has found any evidence to back their claims of persecution and human rights abuses.
In fact, there exists a thriving minority of Tibetan monks in India who reject the Dalai Lama’s advice on Shugden. Contrary to the protesters oft-repeated claim, none of these monks were made homeless. The ISC circulate a deceptive propaganda video entitled “Exiles in Exile” which, complete with violin music, shows children wandering dusty streets with begging bowls, while the voice-over claims they are homeless due to the Dalai Lama’s “ban”. It turns out that the footage is of young Burmese monks doing traditional alms rounds, not Tibetan monks at all, let alone homeless Shugden monks. For the truth is no Shugden monks have been made homeless. The Shugden-worshipping and non-Shugden worshipping monks took a vote and decided, in effect, to “divorce”. Each group was given their fair share of monastic property and resources and the Shugden monasteries in India are now thriving, well-funded, beautiful places, by all accounts.
Nor have there been any police reports or independent media reports of any of the abuses they claim. On the other hand, there have been several police reports of attacks by Shugden worshippers on Dalai Lama followers and there are still Interpol Red Notices on two Shugden worshippers, wanted for questioning regarding murder crimes.
Amnesty International’s report could even be interpreted as a mild rebuke to the Shugden group, insofar as their campaign deflects media attention away from the very real persecution and abuse of human rights being suffered by Tibetans in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese regime there.
Pitts also alleges that the Dalai Lama has an “elaborate public relations machine, financed by the millions he shamefully earns from Buddha’s teachings”. This is just not true. On the Dalai Lama’s website it states “as a long-standing policy His Holiness the Dalai Lama does not accept any fees for his talks”.
Indeed, his teachings in India are free, with tea and bread generously served to attendees. Proceeds for events overseas are used to cover visit expenses with excess used by the host sponsors either for charitable purposes or to further their own mission. If you want to donate to the Dalai Lama, you will be directed to the Dalai Lama Trust, a charity which supports many causes. For example in 2013 it contributed $50,000 to the Red Cross Philippines typhoon relief effort. In 2012 $1,250,000 was donated to the Mind and Life Institute in Massachussetts, $10,000 to the New York Tibet Fund and $84,350 to the Tibetan Village project in Colorado. On the other hand, the NKT make no charitable donations at all to such causes.¹
For those who wish to be more informed on the issue based on facts, not on propagandist fiction, there are interviews with two established academics about the protests and the Shugden controversy available here:
- Protests against the Dalai Lama over Dorje Shugden – An interview with Robert Barnett
- The Dorje Shugden Conflict – An interview with Thierry Dodin
Our call to the media is this: please be more careful and seek the expertise of the academic disciplines of Tibetology and Buddhist Studies when it comes to reporting on the complex religious, political and social issues of Tibet. There is already too much inaccurate information and confusion out there and it benefits nobody when the media helps spread extreme religious views without challenge.
¹ The White Shadow of the Dalai Lama – Joanne Clark
Linda Ciardiello is a former member of the New Kadampa Tradition. Linda Ciardiello also wrote How ‘Kadampa Buddhists’ (NKT) Use Systematic Fraud to Manipulate Twitter Trend Statistics.
Press coverage with a critical or an enlightening approach (chronological order)
- The readers’ editor on… Buddhism and organised lobbying – The Guardian
- ‘Extremist’ sect threatens protests against Dalai Lama during UK visit – The Guardian
- ‘Zealous’ supporters of minority Buddhist sect target Dalai Lama – ABC NEWS
- Explained: Who are the Shugden Buddhists criticising the Dalai Lama? – ABC NEWS
- Meet the Buddhists Who Hate the Dalai Lama More Than the Chinese Do – Foreign Policy
- Relentless: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Steel – Newsweek
- Shugden followers forcefully bang drums – Sidetrack Attack on the Dalai Lama – Neue Züricher Zeitung
- The Followers of a Wrathful Buddhist Spirit Take on the Dalai Lama – VICE
- Angry White Buddhists and the Dalai Lama: Appropriation and Politics in the Globalization of Tibetan Buddhism – Tricycle
- Elderly Tibetan is Jailed For Discouraging Worship of Controversial Deity – RfA
- Another Tibetan is Jailed For Discouraging Worship of a Controversial Deity – RfA
- The Dalai Lama Gives New Yorkers A Lesson On Wisdom As Opponents Protest Outside – The Huffington Post
- 6 Things You Should Know About the Anti-Dalai Lama Protesters – The Huffington Post
- Concerning The Current Wave of ‘Protest Demonstrations’ Against His Holiness the Dalai Lama – The Huffington Post
- Here’s why demonstrators are trolling the Dalai Lama’s US tour – GlobalPost
- Breakaway Buddhists take aim at the Dalai Lama – PRI’s The World
- Group to protest Dalai Lama talk at Princeton next week – The Daily Princetonian
- Distance from Dalai Lama protests among differing opinions – The Foreigner