The Dalai Lama's Buddhist Foes

July 18, 2008

Author: David Van Biema

Source: TIME Magazine,8599,1824531,00.html

It was not an object lesson in Buddhist dispassion. On Thursday afternoon, following a teaching by the Dalai Lama at New York City's Radio City Music Hall, a group of 500 or more audience members screamed at and spat at a mixed group of about 100 people, both Tibetan and Western, who had been peacefully protesting the high lama. Police felt it prudent to move in fast, with horses, and herded the smaller group into buses for their own protection. The pro-Dalai Lama crowd had also flung money at their foes, an insult indicating that they had been bought (presumably by the high lama's enemies in Beijing). Said one of the anti–Dalai Lama protesters, Kelsan Pema, who is British, has a Tibetan name and is the spokeswoman for the Western Shugden Society, "If this is what the Dalai Lama's people do to us in America, can you imagine what they would have done somewhere else?" The combination of adrenaline, relief and the prospect of coverage left her sounding almost elated.

What had prompted the unnerving Buddhist-on-Buddhist confrontation was an intra- Tibetan problem that seems poised to go international. The protesters, devotees of a fierce "protector deity" called Dorje Shugden, claim that the spiritual leader of Tibet has curtailed their civil rights as part of a religious vendetta. For now, the allegations of the Shugdenpas (as they are known) are hard to prove or disprove. But even a brief investigation provides a vivid look into what experts call "the shadow side" of Tibetan Buddhism, contrasting the tolerance and rationalism that the Dalai Lama represents globally and the theological hardball over mystical principles that he seems to play on his home turf.

Dorje Shugden is one one of hundreds of "protector deities" that distinguish Tibetan Buddhism from more purely philosophical varieties. Historically, the god is associated with maintaining, sometimes violently, the purity of Dalai Lama's own lineage of teachers and gurus, called the Gelugpa. Indeed the high Lama himself prayed to Shugden for years; but the sect's purist and exclusionary emphases contradicted his own outreach to other Tibetan lineages, and in 1996 he began demanding that monastic abbots renounce the deity.

Those who did not suffered consequences, although how dire is yet unclear. Shugdenpas have long claimed to have been shunned and harassed. A 1998 Amnesty International report, however, said Shugdenpa complaints fell outside its purview of "grave violations of fundamental human rights," adding that "while recognizing that a spiritual debate can be contentious, [we] cannot become inolved in debate on spiritual issues." The sect suffered a public relations setback in 1997, when Indian police were quoted in the press saying that practitioners were suspects in the ritual slaughter of one of the Dalai Lama's close associates. (The suspects have never been tracked down or tried, however, and the Shugdenpas claim they were never proven to be devotees.)

See also: Buddhism