A Commentary on Religious Intolerance & the Dalai Lama

By: Khenpo Gurudas Sunyatananda

Although many Westerners have become more familiar with various expressions of Buddhism, there remain some aspects of the ancient traditions that continue to evade popular culture and understanding. Our ideas are largely shaped by the media, and the “face” painted by various organisations’ public relations efforts, rather than being formed by close examination, reasoning and investigation.

The public impression of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is a classic example of this kind of superficially developed image. Few Westerners understand the workings and politics of Tibetan Buddhism and of the Tibetan Government in Exile. They see the media coverage, the sound bytes encouraging compassion, environmental responsibility and calling for an end to violence and oppression – in which His Holiness seems to speak with a sense of genuine concern for all of humanity. Along with the Karmama, the Dalai Lama is, after all, considered by Tibetan Buddhists, to be the primary embodiment of the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig (Avalokiteśvara).

As a Tibetan Buddhist and particularly as an ordained monk, who has received initiation into Tibetan spiritual practices from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I maintain respect for him as one of the principal spiritual teachers of my lineage. This respect does not, however, preclude the responsibility every monastic and every practitioner has to think for themselves, examine the teachings being transmitted to them, and question anything which appears to contradict reasoning or the message and essence of the Dharma path.

One of the mounting concerns for me personally, involves the marginalisation, displacement and mistreatment of a number of Buddhist monks, including complete withdrawal of food/support, access to medical attention and a seemingly “blind eye” to violence, over what is, at the surface, a difference in spiritual practices/prayers and traditions. And it cannot be ignored that this disagreement has escalated and caused tremendous suffering, in no small part due to a questionable “ban” by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, against the practice of this particular Buddhist devotion, which incited marginalisation and mistreatment of the monks, who were bound by their monastic vows to continue the devotion for life.

This spiritual practice is the devotional practice to a Tibetan Dharma protector (something of a Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a patron saint or guardian angel, although in the Buddhist vernacular, the word “deity” is used – without implication of the kind of Western or Abrahamic “creator deities”). A Dharma protector is said to be an emanation of an enlightened being (or bodhisattva), who have dedicated themselves to avert or protect against any obstacles to a particular group of practitioners spiritual realisation. It has been a tradition within India for every monastery to have its own patron or Dharmapala – a custom which spread among Mahayana Buddhists to Tibet.

This entire concept of Dharma protectors has another aspect – one tied-in to the more superstitious and legends of the ancient Tibetan mythos. For example, many of these protectors or “patron saints” are believed to have been Tibetan “mountain spirits”, who were subdued and bound under oath by the Great Guru Rinpoche, and there is considerable disagreement among various schools and sects, concerning which Dharmapala belong to which class of protectors.

Overall, I have remained uninvolved in such meritless disagreement, politics and sectarian posturing. Such things do nothing to alleviate suffering, and frequently involve elements of ancient dispute and territorialism that are not useful or relevant to a postmodern practice of the Dharma.

The Dharmapala Gyalchen Dorje Shugden is one of the principal Dharma protectors and considered to be the Dharma protector of Lord Manjushri, from whom Je Tsongkhapa – the Great Lama who illuminated the Dharma in Tibet, by bringing the mindstreams of the great sectarian expressions of Buddhism into one enlightened path – received his training.

For some reason, we may never really know, in the late 1970s, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama – who was himself a practitioner of Shugden devotion – issued a statement against the practice. In July of 1980, this disagreement over the practice was elevated by His Holiness’ speech at Sera Monastery, in Southern India, during which he said:

“To summarise my views, I am not saying Gyalchen [Dorje Shugden] is not an authentic Deity, but in any event, for those who mainly rely on Palden Lhamo or Gyalpo Kunga [Nechung], whether it be a great master or a monastery, it does not bode well to worship Gyalchen.”

Such a statement, while surprising, was not something that raised any concern for those of us who read about it in the West, since it seemed to indicate that His Holiness was simply making a prescription from a personal perspective. The Dalai Lama, while perceived to be the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Pope, does not traditionally have the authority (as His Holiness has often reminded listeners) to issue “edicts” and “order” people to engage in one particular spiritual practice or another. In fact, it appeared that historically, the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Government in Exile were devoted to bringing together the many fragmented sects of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon traditions, to recognise and respect the diverse traditions that make up the fabric of Tibetan culture and spirituality.

Three years later, however, the Dalai Lama orders a beautiful murti (temple statue) of Dorje Shugden to be broken into pieces and removed from great Puja Hall of Ganden Monastery. And by March of 1996, it became apparent that what began as a rather curious disagreement over spiritual traditions was now anything but that, as the Dalai Lama issued a formal ban against the Shugden sadhana (spiritual devotion) in his annual teachings at Thekchen Choeling Temple in Dharamsala, saying:

“Whether outside of Tibet or within Tibet, this Deity is [in] discord with [government Deities] … this is serious in the context of the common cause of Tibet. Therefore unless I remind you once again, there are ones who pretend they have not heard it. It will be good if you comply [with what we are saying] without our having to resort to this last step. It will be the last resort if [we] have to knock on doors. It will be good if [they] can heed without having to resort to this last step. Whether it be a monastery, or the residence of eminent spiritual masters, or private individuals themselves, it will be a different matter if they do not have the interest of the Tibetan cause [in their heart]. If you consider the cause of Tibet, if you agree to the leadership of the Dalai Lama, if you support my part in the [exile] government, your stand should not be otherwise [on this point].”

This statement seemed to indicate a very serious breach between His Holiness and his own spiritual Teacher (guru), which raised some concern in my heart as a practitioner. But I also felt there was some sort of underlying political agenda behind the statement, and hoped that it would come to light and become resolved in short order, since these kinds of behaviours were certainly not consistent with the image of a Tibetan spiritual leader whose mission was underscored by non-sectarianism, equanimity and compassion.

I could not fathom what would cause one of my principal teachers to show such apparent disdain and disrespect for his senior teacher, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, his junior tutor, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, or our beloved teacher, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche. In the Tibetan Buddhist practice, particularly in the Vajrayana tradition, this is called “breaking samaya” – severing the bonds and vows made to one’s teacher at initiation.

Shortly after that formal announcement of the ban, read at Drepung Monastery in April of 1996, as reports of sectarian violence began to come into Lojong Monastery and Lojong Hermitage (the monastic community I led in Arizona and Georgia, under the auspices of the Contemplative Monks of the Eightfold Path), we began hearing about the destruction of images, peoples’ homes, and threats being issued over this absurd disagreement. Letters to Dharamsala went unanswered.

Although the Shugden sadhana was part of the spiritual practice of many of our gurus and lamas, it was not something into which we had been initiated in the West; however, we felt compelled to make a string statement, decrying the reports of violence and accusations that were beginning to be hurled by both sides. After all, His Holiness himself taught us, “The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your action will be.”

That motivation by love also forced me, two years later, in 1998, to formally stop wearing the traditional Tibetan robes, until an end to the injustice and intolerance was achieved. We issued a clear statement that this ban represents a human rights violation, and by its own admission, suppresses the perceived “democracy” of the Tibetan Government in Exile (stating, “… concepts like democracy and freedom of religion are empty when it concerns the well-being of H.H. the Dalai Lama and the common cause of Tibet.”).

How can it be that within the Tibetan Government in Exile, freedom to practice all forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Jain Dharma, as well as recognition and freedom to engage in the spiritual practices of the ancient Bön tradition are permitted, while the simple devotional practice of a group of monks who otherwise have far more in common with the main monasteries of Ganden Shartse, Drepung and Sera than any of the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism? Something is wrong. We are not being given the full story.

I certainly do not feel qualified to comment or speculate on whether or not there is a constitutional right for monasteries to reject the traditions of their past lamas and gurus and restrict particular spiritual practices, once considered acceptable. And I will say that if this were simply a disagreement, and resulted in a peaceful, compassion-focused schism between two sects of Tibetan Gelugpa, then I would have seen no dramatic cause for alarm. However, it is never acceptable for a group to abuse its authority and demonise people, causing them to be disparaged, marginalised and displaced from their monastic homes; while simultaneously encouraging the public to refuse any contact and support of these displaced monks – resulting in the considerable hardship, suffering and even senseless death of many monks, who were refused food, shelter and medical care.

Sectarianism is bullshit, in the simplest of terms. And religious separatism is sickening and an embarrassment. But when a philosophy, such as Tibetan Buddhism, which is founded upon the awareness of our role in the creation of suffering, and focused on alleviating that suffering by avoiding the root causes, and serving with an open, compassionate heart, begins to cause more suffering than ever before, all in the name of intolerance and dogmatism, we can not be silent.

In his book, “Gurus for Hire, Enlightenment for Sale”, our esteemed and respected Teacher, His Eminence Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, writes of this controversial ban, “The Tibetans create suffering even in the only thing they have to offer the world: Buddhism. Leave the Tibetans to their own suffering. This has nothing to do with us non-Tibetans.”

I never wish to disrespect or disregard the teachings and advice of these most advanced and attained teachers; however, I must first remain faithful to the vows and commitments made in my ordinations to the Buddhist and Franciscan contemplative traditions. Among those vows was a commitment to uphold human rights, and to “without waivering, confront human rights violations, social justice issues and the causes of suffering” wherever I encounter them.

At serious question is the matter of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s discrimination against Shugden practitioners, and whether he is actually violating Indian laws against religious/deity discrimination, as well as the fundamental concern about the ban’s apparent transgression of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Within India’s Constitution is a provision governing ‘freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion’ demands that ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.’ (cf: Article 25; Constitution of India).

The Shugdenpa – practitioners of the devotion to Gyalchen Dorje Shugden – have not only faced ostracisation from Buddhist gatherings, but have faced such reprehensible and unethical hardships as the loss of their jobs, expulsion from school for their children, refusal of medical care and other inhumane treatment, as well as cases of extreme physical violence.

What has the Dalai Lama done to resolve this cause of unbearable (and unprovoked) suffering? Nothing. Over the past three decades, he seems to have done nothing other than continue to underscore the discrimination and create greater and greater hardships on the people entrusted to his care. I find this very painful to watch.

Article 2 of the United Nations Declaration On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Intolerance And Of Discrimination Based On Religion Or Belief adopted by the General Assembly in 1981 says: “No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or other belief.”

On November 12, 2009, His Holiness was among the spiritual leaders who endorsed and launched the Charter for Compassion – a bold initiative that was the brainchild of 2008 TED Prize-winner, Karen Armstrong, and made possible by the generous support of the Fetzer Institute. The Charter of Compassion is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life.

The words of the brief, but powerful Charter are included below, not only because I personally believe they are concepts we can all get behind and support wholeheartedly, but because I find it deeply disturbing that His Holiness would publicly appear to support such a tremendous work, and yet violate the very principals on which it was founded:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

The violence continues to escalate. In May of last year tulkus Lobsang Damchoe and Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, were savagely attacked by six men. Both of the victims are young boys. Where is the compassion in such violent attacks?

Where is the compassion behind refusing food to a monk? Where is the compassion that drives hospitals and doctors’ offices to refuse healthcare to Shugden practitioners?

What we see in the Tibetan Government in Exile, much like we see within the walls of the Vatican, is what happens when the separations between religious institutions and civil government are blurred.

In February 2008, more than 900 monks were expelled from their monasteries, at the order of the Dalai Lama, under conditions that were, in and of themselves, highly suspect. Since that time, a form of institutionalised apartheid has been put in place within the Tibetan Government in Exile, and every attempt to ostracise, condemn, and spread fear about the Shugdenpa has continued to be made.

My personal perspective is that this kind of sectarianism is the direct result of what happens when the pure intentions and authentic message of great teachers, like Buddha Sakyamuni (or Rabbi Jesus), are corrupted, distorted and manipulated from pure philosophies into “religions”.

We see much the same kinds of persecution occurring in Burma, at the hands of the unjust and inhumane leaders of the State Religion there.

It’s sickening. And to be sure, sectarianism occurs in this country as well. In fact, our refusal to be silent about these kinds of injustices… our refusal to turn the teachings of the Buddha or the Christ into literally-interpreted, superstitious, dogmatic and fundamentalist religions… our insistence at remaining open, inclusive and dedicated to the compassionate care of ALL PEOPLE… has led to our Buddhist-Franciscan community losing all of its corporate and personal benefactors. We lost our monastic homes, our ability to feed hundreds of people on the streets every day, even our ability to clothe and feed our community of 54-74 monks and nuns.

And my recent decision to begin speaking more publicly about the injustices being suffered by the Shugdenpa, despite our not being Shugden practitioners ourselves, has further resulted in attempts to disparage, discredit and hurt my work, my reputation and the existence of our community. In fact, it has resulted in veiled threats and “promises” to make life “unbearable” for me and members of my ladrang (monastic household of the Order’s principal spiritual teacher).

Despite attempts by some to deny and gloss over such facts, Tibetan Buddhism is a highly syncretic and pluralistic form of Mahayana Buddhism, which has integrated elements of Tibetan Bon, Shamanism, Manichaeic tradition and animistic beliefs. Throughout history, the tension between the various authorities/lamas of different Tulku lineageshas created repeated conflicts in Tibet and for Tibetan Buddhism. This, I believe, will one day be revealed to be another unfortunate and unnecessary conflict, arising over political and egocentric agendas, and causing unacceptable suffering.

In an address given in 1996, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said: “Even if my master says something I compare it with what Je Tsongkhapa said and examine it on that basis.”

I have taken that advice to heart, and have therefore felt it necessary to publicly address the issue, and hopefully shed a less biased, less politicised, and less sectarian light on the issues.

It is my firm belief and focus of my constant encouragement for others to respond to sectarianism as a form of disease, and to work diligently to end all forms of intolerance, hatred and violence. To this end, I encourage others to consider ways in which they can support and offer encouragement to the marginalised and displaced monks of the Shugden tradition, as well as lay practitioners around the world. If this commitment makes it difficult for our monastic community to sustain itself, then we will disband, and live in individual hermitages, or on the streets, because nothing is more important than the practice of compassion, and the rejection of intolerance, injustice and all obstacles to the Dharma path. Our lives are vowed to alleviate suffering, wherever we encounter it, by any skilful means possible.

For my part, my refuge in the Enlightened Nature of All Beings (Buddha), the Path (Dharma) and the Fellowship of Practitioners (Sangha) gives me hope and peace. I continue to work for the same to be said for the two “sides” of this unfortunate controversy and disagreement.

I likewise pray to bring about the causes for merit, so that the Great Master Kyabje Zong Rinpoche may take reincarnation and allow us to sit at his Lotus Feet, and be reminded of the importance of an authentic reliance on the essence of the teachings of our supreme teacher, Jamgön (Je Tsongkhapa). I take refuge until I am enlightened, and from the positive merits I collect by practicing generosity, compassion and the other perfections, strive to attain realisation (enlightenment) for the benefit of all sentient beings, until suffering no longer exists.

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Drawing on the essential teachings of the great spiritual teachers, philosophers and freethinkers throughout time, Khenpo Gurudas Śunyatananda (retired Archbishop Francis-Maria Salvato, O.C.) has been regarded as a provocative, revolutionary “voice of reason” within the field of religion and spirituality, since 1983. Having the distinction of being one of the few openly non-theistic, openly-gay and post-denominational thinkers ever to serve as Bishop-Exarch and spiritual leader of the autocephalic Eastern Catholic Franciscans in North America, Gurudas is the author of more than 600 articles, eight books and currently serves as the spiritual advisor for a non-theistic, intentional spiritual community, The Spiritus Project. He can be reached at: http://orderofcompassion.com and http://livingdharma.spruz.com

Copyright ©2009-2010, Khenpo Gurudas Sunyatananda (The Most Reverend Dr. F. Francis-Maria G. Salvato, M.Sc., O.C.). All rights reserved. This material may be reproduced, blogged, quoted or distributed, provided the entire copyright including contact information remain intact. It may NOT be altered in any way, without express written permission.