Correcting misinformation spread by the anti-Dalai Lama Protesters

Columbia University’s Robert Barnett on Shugden Protests

By Robert Barnett, Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University

On June 13, 2015, the Observer newspaper published an article, Extremist sect threatens protests against Dalai Lama during UK visit. This article alleged that the Chinese authorities were encouraging a “toxic” campaign by the International Shugden Community (ISC) to undermine the Dalai Lama. Described as extremist by theInternational Campaign for Tibet, ISC followers were said to have disseminated images of the guru as a pig, described him as a Muslim and compared him to Hitler. The story suggested that Shugden worshippers believed in an evil spirit that inflicted madness and death on its enemies. It said demonstrations, organised by the Shugden-following UK based New Kadampa Tradition(NKT), were planned when the Dalai Lama visited the UK.

NKT/ISC followers responded furiously and en masse [the 300+ written complaints they received was actually a record], denying that they were extremist, or that they had any links with the Chinese. They denied that the NKT was organising the protests and rejected entirely the idea that they believed in an evil spirit. Many demanded that the Observer apologise for bringing the name of the NKT into disrepute and demanded an apology. The Observer responded immediately by launching an [thorough] internal inquiry, the findings of which can be seen here.

During the course of the inquiry, the Observer sought the advice of an expert on the Shugden issue in its contemporary context, Professor Robert Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. While Professor Barnett’s advice was sought because of his academic neutrality, it should be noted that Shugden protesters have often cited his work, albeit somewhat selectively, in support of their position, particularly with regard to the issue of whether or not there is a ‘ban’. Thus, it is certainly the case that many within the Shugden movement consider him supportive of their views. What follows are notes by Professor Barnett in response to the questions the Observer raised in the course of their inquiry.

1. Is there a specific ban by the Dalai Lama against worshipping Shugden?

The word “ban” is used by the western Shugden protestors and their supporters in the sense of an absolute prohibition applicable equally to all members of a society or community, like a law in a modern state or a fundamental rule that governs an entire church or religion. The protest campaign run by the ISC argues that the Dalai Lama has issued a universal ban on Shugden practice that applies throughout the Tibetan Buddhist community or church, applicable to all its members.

The Dalai Lama did not issue a ban of that kind, or any instruction that applies to all members of the Tibetan or Tibetan Buddhist community. He did issue an instruction or prohibition on Shugden worship with respect to those who ask to take initiations or formal Buddhist teachings from him and monasteries directly under him. This is based on the view, widely found in Tibetan literature, that Shugden is a low-level spirit with dangerous propensities. The prohibition against worship of this spirit could be termed a ban, but it is not general or discriminatory, since it applied only to those who voluntarily asked to be his formal disciples. It is normal for a religious leader to issue instructions about religious practice to his or her immediate followers and to set conditions for their formal entry into religious membership. In Tibetan Buddhism, teachings and initiations are regarded as a contract between the student and the teacher (it is the existence of such a contract or bond that is the source of the Shugden dispute, since the bond made by Shugden followers in the course of their initiation is said by some to be damaging to others or themselves). Tibetan Buddhist teachers routinely impose some requirements on their students before taking such vows, and Shugden teachers make similar requirements of their students (in the case of the NKT this reportedly includes requiring them not to follow the teachings of the Dalai Lama or other teachers outside their tradition).

Most Tibetans, including those who regard the Dalai Lama as a paramount religious figure or as a saint, follow and revere the Dalai Lama, but are not his direct students or disciples. The requirement he imposed on his religious students regarding Shugden worship does not apply to them. When addressing this larger community and the public, the Dalai Lama has framed his views about Shugden worship as advice or suggestions, not as requirements or as prohibitions. The prohibition issued by the Dalai Lama with regard to his immediate disciples is not a ban in the universal, discriminatory sense suggested by the ISC. The ISC literature does not acknowledge this distinction.

A number of exile Tibetan monasteries imposed bans on Shugden worshop among their members, but these are not discriminatory, since such a restriction relates directly to the core function of these institutions and since membership of them is voluntary. Separate monasteries have now reportedly been formed within the exile community specifically for Shugden worshippers, with mutually agreed division of land and assets.

There is strong evidence that some offices of the exile government, some exile Tibetan community organizations, and some private shops imposed bans at certain times after 1996 on Shugden worship among their own members, staff, or prospective customers. Since these are not religious institutions, such bans are discriminatory and provocative. These cases should be properly investigated and remedied. But these bans were not issued by the Dalai Lama and it is not clear if or to what extent they still exist.

The issue has been complicated by the response of the Dalai Lama’s officials and supporters, who have denied the existence of any ban by the Dalai Lama. They are correct that there is no ban in the broad sense of the term used by the ISC, and that the prohibition by the Dalai Lama does not apply to all Tibetans or all Buddhists. They are also correct that what he has stated for the broader community has been in the form of advice or a warning about what he regards as the dangers of the Shugden practice, not a ban. However, his defenders have chosen not to acknowledge that, in a narrow and legitimate sense, he did issue a prohibitive requirement with respect to his immediate religious students, even though there is nothing illicit about a requirement of that kind, and it is not a human rights issue. This has allowed their critics to accuse them of a cover-up.

The exile Tibetan administration and its leaders could have done more to make clear to their own community the importance of non-discrimination, even where a view or practice is regarded as dangerous or contentious. Leaders of the exile government have made statements about Shugden worshippers or taken actions against them which have been discriminatory and incendiary. However, the ISC campaign appears not to be primarily concerned with these issues, but with damaging the personal status of the current Dalai Lama.

2. Is there any evidence of direct Chinese influence on the ISC?

There is no evidence of Chinese funding or significant involvement in the Shugden protests organized in the West by the ISC. However, there is strong evidence of Chinese funding, support and involvement in the Shugden organizations and campaigns in India and certainly within Tibet. Leaders of the exile Shugden groups in India frequently travel to China and have held formal receptions with Chinese officials, at which they have made public statements. So that connection is not hidden.

The western Shugden organizations, meaning the NKT and its sister groups such as the ISC, are not formally linked currently to those exile Shugden groups in India and in recent years they have downplayed such connections. But on a number of occasions in 2008 they issued joint statements with them and announced a joint campaign, and there are other indications of cooperation between these groups. As for funding, the NKT is a wealthy organization, with declared funds of some 19m GBP in the UK, but it could have obtained these from its members or from property transactions, so this is not evidence of third-party funding. While there is a link between the western and the exile Shugden groups in India, details of the relationship of the western Shugden groups to the Chinese authorities remains unknown.

However, the Shugden groups in the West, such as the ISC, express the same core views as the Chinese authorities and use similar terminology, notably attacking the Dalai Lama ad hominemand describing him as “false”, as well as other accusations of an extremist kind. This does not indicate direct contact between the western Shugden groups and the Chinese authorities, and the ultimate objectives of these two groups clearly differ. But their tactical aims and methods are similar. Whether intentional or not, this strongly effects the way the protests are understood by most Tibetans and others. It therefore appears disingenuous of the Shugden groups not to acknowledge the similarity of their project with the Chinese one, at least in appearance and effect.

The convergence of interests between the Shugden groups in the West and the Chinese government is not concealed by the Chinese government. It frequently publishes in government media lengthy statements by Shugden supporters in the West and often expresses strong support for them (see for example http://eng.tibet.cn/2010zj/xw/201407/t20140712_2007033.html). In 2008 the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, published an article which praised protests by Shugden supporters in the West against the Dalai Lama and called for more such protests to take place (see http://china.org.cn/government/news/2008-02/05/content_1242189.htm). This does not show direct involvement by China with the NKT or its sister groups, but it indicates an underlying common interest between their projects.

3. Do the Shugden followers worship an evil spirit?

Many, perhaps most, Shugden followers among Tibetans may consider Shugden to be a spirit, and may view it as having ferocious and destructive powers which can be used against their enemies. But it is not correct to say that members of the NKT, who are almost entirely westerners, believe Shugden to be a spirit, let alone an evil one. They – or at least the junior entrants in the sect – have been told that this spirit has become enlightened and is an embodiment of compassion. Whether they are right about this and why they have chosen to believe such a claim is another question, one which deserves serious research. This is what is highly unusual and heterodox about the NKT and its claims – it has elevated Shugden, previously widely regarded as a relatively low level if potent spirit, to an elevated and extremely controversial position.

The NKT has a gradualist teaching strategy, so that most of its members do not know what the core teachings involve, let alone that these are controversial and provocative. They are probably not exposed to the more unusual views until later in their development and may be largely unaware of them. Many of them are not taught about the political, anti-Dalai Lama views of the sect until relatively late in their progression, and only certain chapters of the sect encourage their novice members on the demonstrations. Instead, they are taught that Shugden is a caring and enlightened figure. Such views are presented by senior figures and teachers in the sect as standard and traditional, and that is how ordinary NKT members regard them.

Among Tibetans, the historical view of Shugden and the debates over his status are well-known. It is likely that most or many Tibetans who still engage in Shugden practice see him as a spirit that can be helpful if well handled. It is also likely that many Tibetans who propitiate Shugden as a deity do not regard that practice as incompatible with respect for the Dalai Lama, and are not party to the current protest movement.

Conclusion

The chief difficulty facing the ISC and its predecessors in the West is that its rhetoric differs from its declared objectives. It claims to be seeking to end religious discrimination among Tibetans, which is a justifiable human rights objective, but its protests appear to be aimed at damaging or destroying the personal status and credibility of the Dalai Lama. This is the apparent purpose behind its primary slogan that the Dalai Lama is false, which is explained as meaning that the current incumbent is an impostor and has no claim to his religious title other than through fraud. By contrast, the leader of the NKT is described by his followers, who apparently constitute the bulk of the ISC, as an enlightened leader equivalent or equal to the Buddha – a view which may be technically possible but which is unorthodox and is not found outside their ranks. The protests, whatever their original intentions, therefore appear to have become a largely sectarian project that aims to damage the Dalai Lama personally, and perhaps to provoke conflict in the community. This has made any hope of progress in tackling problems of discrimination relating to this issue more difficult.