As far as the major religions go, Buddhism has a pretty good reputation. In general, we don’t go around embarrassing ourselves in public on a major scale. You’ve never seen stories about pedophile Buddhist monks, nor are we associated with terrorism in people’s minds. We don’t have any problems with evolution and seem to be pretty chill with the whole gay marriage thing. Our panties don’t tend to get into a twist about other people’s very personal choices. Overall, we don’t tend to make a big fuss or even statements about political matters. And hell, and the most famous Buddhist in the world is a beloved public figure with a great laugh, twinkly eyes and a Nobel Peace Prize under his robes, to boot.
So, when the whole issue of Tibet comes up, the Dalai Lama and the Tibet supporters tend to get a very sympathetic hearing. Even people who don’t understand the whole history of the issue tend to come down on the side of Tibet simply because the picture in their minds of the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks and nuns is that of peace and compassion. This positive image is a huge weapon in the arsenal of the pro-Tibet camp.
Oh? What’s this? Why are these Buddhist monks and nuns protesting the Dalai Lama? Oh lordy, lordy, it’s Tibetan Buddhism’s dirty laundry getting strung up for all the world to see. It’s the Dorje Shudgden controversy rearing its ugly head again.
The controversy is quite complex and there are plenty of resources on the web on both sides if you really want to dig deep. (Also for further information about the NKT that is free from the NKT PR machine, please see go here) However, here’s a thumbnail sketch from my perspective: Years ago, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (aka Geshe-la) who is the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition got into a rift with the Dalai Lama over a dharma protector/demon (depending on your view) named Dorje Shugden. My feeble understanding is that the Dalai Lama views Dorje Shugden as a demon who is out to harm the Dalai Lama as well as the future of Tibet. In 1996 he asked his followers to no longer engage in any practices worshipping/propitiating to Dorje Shugden. To do so would be to go against His Holiness’ well being as well as the Tibetan cause. Geshe-la, on the other hand, views Dorje Shugden to be an integral part of the lineage that both he and the Dalai Lama share. In fact, to NOT do Dorje Shugden practice would be going against their teacher Trijang Rimpoche. In Tibet, after the ban, reports say that Dorje Shugden practitioners were being oppressed and harassed. The conflict gets ugly and people on both sides are harmed, and even murdered. Geshe-la joins the fight on the side of the Shugden practitioners and calls for his students in the NKT to protest the Dalai Lama outside his speaking engagements in the States and Europe. The reputation of the NKT got pretty tarnished. Geshe-la eventually gave up the cause publicly. The NKT continued to practice Shugden. Outside certain Tibetan Buddhist circles no one really cared.
Apparently, because there has been recent activity against Shugden practitioners in Tibet, the NKT is once again taking up the picket line against the Dalai Lama. When I first heard this, I shook my head in dismay. While my NKT days are now behind me, I still have good friends who study and practice within the NKT. These may be very confusing times for them. I remember when I was asked to participate in the protests of a decade ago. Here I was this relatively new practitioner, and being offered a free trip to New York City. New York City!? I love New York! Oh, if I accept the free trip, I have to participate in the protest against the Dalai Lama . . . uh . . . um . . . no, no thank you. The issue made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable now.
I don’t know who is wrong or who is right, or if there is even a wrong or a right in the matter. If the Dalai Lama is truly oppressing the people who wish to practice Shugden, that is wrong. Right? I mean, most people would agree that religious intolerance is wrong, and when we see it happening, good hearted people should stand up for the oppressed. Yet, doesn’t the Dalai Lama, as the spiritual leader of most of Tibetan Buddhism, have a right to change doctrine? But, what about his role as the political leader of Tibet? Can you truly have both a political and spiritual leader without advocating a theocracy? Tibet is really the only country I know where people long for the old days of the theocracy.
I guess my real problem is the timing of these protests. With the Beijing Olympics putting the Tibet issue on the front page, how messed up is it that a splinter group comes and tries to move the spotlight into this little known corner of Tibetan infighting. I mean, come on . . . Also, the NKT, as an organization seems to be going through some turbulent times and people’s faith is really being put to the test. Who knows, maybe that is the point. Maybe the point is shake people out of their comfort zone, to strip them of their attachment to good reputation and to test if they truly have reliance upon their spiritual guide. I don’t understand it. I’m really hoping that the reasons behind the protests do have to do with religious freedom and justice, and not anger or power or wanting to suck up to the Chinese government.
I’m glad this is not my battle. I don’t want to fight. All I can do is pray: may everyone be happy, and may everyone be free from misery.