Protesting the Dalai Lama

Robert Thurman has written an article posted on Huffington Post titled Concerning The Current Wave of “Protest Demonstrations” Against His Holiness the Dalai Lama by the Just-formed New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) Shugden Protest Front Group, The International Shugden Community (ISC).

Protest over Dalai Lama in New York City on Nov. 4, 2014 (Credit: CBS2)
Protest over Dalai Lama in New York City on Nov. 4, 2014 (Credit: CBS2)

The title alone tells you an awful lot about the whole controversy. You see, these “protesters” would like people to believe they are a “people,” an indigenous-like religious minority group, which is why they have recently begun to position themselves as the International Shugden Community, when in fact they are almost all Western believers in a Western cult of Tibetan Buddhism, the New Kadampa Tradition, founded by Kelsang Gyatso.

Thierry Dodin, a Tibetologist who has taught at the University of Bonn and has served as director of the Tibet Information Network in London, says “The NKT can be described typologically as a cult on the basis of its organisational form, its excessive group pressure and blind obedience to its founder.” This sounds very similar to the Japanese Buddhist group with a like organization form, excessive group pressure, and blind obedience to its (de facto) founder, which I spent some years with.

The NKT just opened a new center a few blocks from my home. It’s called Kadampa Meditation Center Hollywood. Outside the building (a church that went out of business), a sign proclaims that this is Modern Buddhism. Another sign advertises a class called “Mindfulness for Busy People.” That alone is enough to make me want to boycott the place. Intro to Meditation classes cost $12, as do some other classes. If you want to drop in for a nice, relaxing guided meditation in the morning or midday: 5 bucks. Not a lot of money but if you went frequently it would add up after a while. I am used to “free” or “suggested donation” both of which are more in line with the Buddhist tradition of not charging for the dharma.

It’s a real shame because having a Buddhist center so close by would be just great. Their opposition to the Dalai Lama (they have a new book out called The False Dalai Lama The Worst Dictator in the Modern World) and their adherence to Shugden practice, insures that I will never set foot in the place.

To be fair, their practice is more diverse than just Dorje Shugden worship. And what’s wrong with that in the first place? Read this piece I posted a while back that includes some of the Dalai Lama’s remarks about protector deities.

And what is the beef these protesters are voicing? Robert Thurman explains

In the case of the current wave of ISC “protests” against the Dalai Lama, we have to ask ourselves–what is the real motive? What does the small group of highly motivated, well-organized, seemingly media-savvy “protesters” really want? They say they want “religious freedom,” but they have always had religious freedom in India or the West, nobody has banned them worshiping as they wish. Within Tibet they have special support from the Chinese government that dominates Tibet (not giving such freedom to pro-Dalai-Lama Tibetan Buddhists), and outside of Tibet they have their own monasteries, Meditation Centers, and support networks. Their Western followers are free to worship as they choose, and are also free to attack the Dalai Lama, as they are doing. They say they want to end “segregation,” but they themselves choose to separate themselves from member of their own Gelukpa sect who decline to propitiate the protector entity they call Shugden, as well as from other sects of Buddhism.”

Read the rest of Concerning The Current Wave of “Protest Demonstrations” Against His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Huffington Post.


The Dalai Lama and Protector Deities

The Dalai Lama is currently on a mini-speaking tour of the U.S. Tomorrow night he will be in Los Angeles to give a public talk on Non-Violence and the Effects of Compassion in the 21st Century at the Forum. Last night, he was in Berkeley speaking on How To Achieve Happiness.

Public talks are different from the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Public talks usually do not last more than two hours and he mostly speaks in English, or at least he makes what is for him a valiant attempt at English. Teachings are given over the course of a 3-4 day period, about six hours per day, and he will only speak in Tibetan with a translator on stage and several other translators behind the scenes translating into various languages.

Reuters reported that “Dozens of Buddhists rallied on the streets of San Francisco on Saturday protesting the Dalai Lama, who they say has persecuted followers of an ancient deity that the Tibetan spiritual leader denounced decades ago.”

For some time in Tibetan Buddhism there’s been a controversy over practice associated with Dorje Shugen, a protector deity. The Dalai Lama is very much opposed to this practice. According to Reuters, “Critics claim that the Dalai Lama has excommunicated thousands of Shugden Buddhists from Tibetan exile communities in India, and continues to push practitioners out of communities around the world by encouraging his followers to deny them jobs, schooling and health care.” I don’t know about the excommunication part, but I seriously doubt the second accusation. I have heard him ask Dorje Shugden believers to leave his teaching sessions, though.

I side with the Dalai Lama on this because practice based on any protector deity falls under the rubric of outer-power (tariki), which I feel has no place in Buddhism. It’s looking for enlightenment outside of your own life and that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught inner-power (jiriki). If you are interested in learning more about this long, complicated controversy, Wikipedia has a good but not perfect overview here.

And from my notebook, here are some remarks made by the Dalai Lama on this subject in May 2001 during a teaching on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life:

You are your own protectors. You should take hardships as positive aspects for your practice.

Not satisfied with the Three Principal Parts of the Path*, other practices are added that corrupt the practice. Buddha is the supreme refuge, but we sometimes think that Shayamuni died a long time ago and is no longer relevant, so other protector deities are used and this is wrong.

Success depends on the practice of loving-kindness and meditation on emptiness, not protector deities. It’s as if some people are trying to bribe protector deities and are not relying on the practice of developing oneself.”

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* The Three Principal Part or Aspects of the Path, a Tibetan Buddhist teaching by Jey Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). The three refer to renunciation, bodhichitta (the thought of awakening), and a correct view of emptiness.