MARK COLVIN: The Dalai Lama’s Australian tour moved to Brisbane today, where he gave a large audience his advice on attaining happiness.
But following him up to Queensland was a small but noisy group of Buddhist protesters, who have picketed every stop of his tour since the Dalai Lama arrived in Sydney last week.
The group belong to a minority Tibetan Buddhist sect called Shugden. They claim the Dalai Lama has marginalised their members and they describe him as false and a dictator.
Their language has drawn comparisons with that used by the Chinese Communist Party, which drove the Dalai Lama into exile in the 1950s.
And at least one Tibetan scholar believes China is actively supporting the worship of Shugden inside Tibet.
Bill Birtles reports.
BILL BIRTLES: The chants of protesters pierced the tranquillity outside Brisbane’s Convention Centre today. On one side, a group of about 40 demonstrators, clutching signs telling the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism to stop lying. On the other, separated by police, a slightly smaller group of supporters warmly welcoming him.
The Buddhist protesters worship one of the more significant Tibetan Buddhist deities, called Shugden.
Nicholas Pitts is the spokesman for the International Shugden Community. He’s travelled around the world organising protests against the Dalai Lama and has travelled to Australia for this visit.
NICHOLAS PITTS: They’ve basically been segregated completely to the extent that there are signs in shops, restaurants, even medical facilities saying if people practice faith, they won’t be treated, they won’t be served. And so we’d like the Dalai Lama to make a public statement saying he doesn’t support segregation, he doesn’t support discrimination, he wants the Shugden Buddhists to be welcomed back into the Tibetan exile community.
BILL BIRTLES: Once upon a time, the Dalai Lama worshipped Shugden among other deities. But in the 1970s he renounced the practice, describing Shugden as a “fierce spirit” that inspires a sectarian, divisive form of worship that threatens Tibetan unity. But the protests against him didn’t really kick off until the 1990s when he asked Shugden worshippers not to attend his religious teachings.
David Templeman, a Tibetan history scholar at Monash University’s Asia Institute, says many Shugdan Buddhists couldn’t accept that.
DAVID TEMPLEMAN: In the West, it starts with the particular Lama, Lama Kishan (phonetic) Gyatso, who also refused to give up his Shugden worship. Who I notice has really sidestepped out of the picture and it’s really now up to his very zealous Western, predominantly Western, followers who’ve taken up his initial stance, which was a fairly understated one and they’ve made it something very, very much bigger.
BILL BIRTLES: Nicholas Pitts claims there are two million Shugden followers in Tibet today, one third of the population there. David Templeman believes the number is much lower, around 100,000.
Another Tibetan history and religious scholar, Professor John Powers from the Australian National University, also says the Shugden community is now relatively small. But he says those who are there are shunned because other Tibetans believe they receive backing from the Chinese Government.
JOHN POWERS: I was in Tibet about two years ago and I visited two Shugden monasteries. There really aren’t very many of them. And mostly these monasteries are very well funded by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Government is putting up statues of Shugden in non-Shugden monasteries and forcing the monasteries to accept them against their will. So there is a significant shunning of this practice by most Tibetans.
BILL BIRTLES: Was it definite that the funding for those statues did come from Chinese authorities?
JOHN POWERS: Oh, absolutely, they made it very clear that it was the government doing this. This is what I was told by the monks.
BILL BIRTLES: Nicholas Pitts rejects any link between Shugden Buddhists and the Chinese government, which has long viewed the Dalai Lama as a separatist seeking Tibetan independence.
PM sent questions to the Chinese embassy, but didn’t receive a response.
In the long term, a bigger question for the future of Tibetan Buddhism is what will happen once the 80-year-old Dalai Lama dies.
Professor Powers says that will give rise to an extraordinarily complex situation.
JOHN POWERS: In 1995, the second most prominent lama of the order of the Panchen Lama was arrested by the Chinese authorities and he’s been in detention along with his family since then and they appointed a puppet Panchen Lama in his place and they’ve made it very clear that they intend to use their puppet Panchen Lama to choose the next dalai lama.
But the Dalai Lama has countered by saying he will reincarnate and it will be in exile. So there will be two rival dalai lamas, one the PRC’s dalai lama and another one chosen by the religious leadership of Tibetan exiles.
MARK COLVIN: Tibet expert, Professor John Powers from ANU, with Bill Birtles.