By Jamie Doward
Its followers believe it can help them achieve serenity, but Buddhism itself is under assault from a toxic campaign against its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, that, it is alleged, is being encouraged by the Chinese authorities.
The International Shugden Community, followers of a 300-year-old Buddhist sect, plans a series of protests against the exiled Tibetan leader before his visit to Britain this month, a week before he turns 80. ISC members have in the past disseminated images depicting the guru as a pig. They have described him as a “Muslim masquerading as a Buddhist” and compared him with Hitler. Now they plan to demonstrate when the Dalai Lama appears in Aldershot this month at a ceremony to remember victims of the Nepal earthquake. He is also reported to be appearing at the Glastonbury festival in a fortnight.
The UK protests are being organised by the New Kadampa Tradition, which emerged in the 1990s and now has nearly 50 centres in the UK promoting Shugden practices. In preparation for his visit, the ISC and its supporters have inundated Twitter with tens of thousands of anti- Dalai Lama tweets that have caused offence to mainstream Buddhists.
In the past, aggressive responses from Buddhists provoked by Shugden supporters have been filmed and posted on YouTube. Anticipating further tension, briefing notes prepared for the Dalai Lama’s visit and seen by theObserver encourage mainstream Buddhists not to react to “provocation” from members of the Shugden community. They urge followers: “Do not rise to the bait! All spokespersons and community members need to be warned to show a calm face in response to the Shugden supporters’ now well-established tactic of deliberately provoking and filming responses to support their victimisation claims.”
The advice underlines the unease felt within Britain’s Buddhist community about the increasingly divisive presence of the Shugden sect, which believes in an evil spirit that inflicts madness and death on its enemies. Shugden followers accuse the Dalai Lama of wanting it banned. His supporters insist that he has merely expressed concerns that Shugden practices reduce Buddhism to the level of spirit worship.
“The advice of his holiness about Shugden practice is based on his strong commitment to promote religious harmony and greater understanding between the world’s major religious traditions and the different Buddhist schools,” said Geshe Tashi, a Buddhist chaplain at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Claims that the Dalai Lama wants to ban Shugden practices are part of a campaign of misinformation against him encouraged by Chinese authorities seeking to suppress all opposition in Tibet, according to pro-Tibet organisations. Documentsobtained by the International Campaign for Tibet reveal that China thinks those who protest against the Dalai Lama can be used to promote splits within Buddhism to attack his authority, inside and outside Tibet. “The protesters are from an extremist religious group that is aligned with the political agenda of the Chinese government in Tibet to undermine the Dalai Lama and enforce allegiance to the Chinese Communist party,” said Kate Saunders, ICT communications director. “This systematic campaign against the Dalai Lama and deepening oppression threatens the very survival of Tibetan religion and cultural identity.”
The vitriolic nature of the attacks on the Dalai Lama have dismayed many of the estimated 1,000 Tibetan exiles living in Britain. In a statement, the Tibetan Community in Britain said that it was “deeply distressed by this inflammatory and extremist campaign”.
Damar Ghale, spokesperson for the Buddhist Community Centre UK in Aldershot, one of the organisers of the Dalai Lama’s visit, urged the ISC not to protest on the day that prayers will be said for the Nepal earthquake victims. He added: “We understand that it is the right of the International Shugden Community to protest and express their views; this is a free country.”
The New Kadampa Tradition did not respond to requests for comment.