Home > Dalai Lama's Campaign Against Dorje Shugden > Mixing Religion with Politics: The Dalai Lama’s Ban on Dorje Shugden Prayer, Part II

Mixing Religion with Politics: The Dalai Lama’s Ban on Dorje Shugden Prayer, Part II

In analyzing the recent catastrophic failures in the American political system Al Gore analyzes the importance of separation of church and state in warding off abuses of power. I find some of his analysis is particularly relevant to the Dalai Lama’s recent actions in banning the prayer to Dorje Shugden and the abuses of power that have accompanied that ban.

“[Our Founders] were also keenly aware of the thin and permeable boundary between religious fervor and power-seeking political agendas. “A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction,” wrote James Madison, but the new American nation would nevertheless be protected against the ungovernable combination of religious fervor and political power as long as the Constitution prohibited the federal government from establishing any particular creed as preeminent.

The separation of church and state was thus based not only on the Founders’ insights into fear, faith, and reason, but also on their new awareness of the nature of power. They understood that the love of power can become so intoxicating that it overwhelms reason. It was actually this distrust of concentrated power that led them not only to separate organized religion from the exercise of governmental authority, but also to separate the powers of the national government into three coequal branches and embed each in a complex web of checks and balances designed to further prevent the aggregation of too much power in any one branch. (The Assault on Reason, p49-50)”

Now those in the west who have fallen in love with the Dalai Lama’s ecumenical philosophy have been lulled into thinking that it is okay to impose this ecumenical philosophy on others; and have become incompetent to discern what might motivate someone to force a religious view on others. Now if you haven’t been following this blog you might counter that the Dalai Lama isn’t forcing his view on anyone. Please read the first few installments of this blog for hard evidence in video format of the Dalai Lama praising the ban on Dorje Shugden prayer and promoting it as his own.

In this article I will be looking at how the Dalai Lama’s actions (as well as those of the Tibetan Government in Exile) in banning Dorje Shugden are political in nature and are functioning to degenerate Tibetan Buddhism into a pro-Tibet political faction. We can observe this phenomenon in the language used by the Tibetan Government in Exile in promoting the ban on Dorje Shugden prayer:

“After 20 years of painstaking research and investigation, His Holiness the Dalai Lama found that the propitiation of this spirit by the Tibetan people harms the Tibetan national cause and endangers his own personal security. Therefore, he has urged the Tibetan people to stop propitiating this spirit.” ( Read source article )

“However, some people have continued to propitiate Dolgyal, either because they failed to appreciate the threat it poses to the Tibetan cause or because they have decided to disregard it. There are yet others who not only propitiate Dolgyal themselves, but also actively encouraged others to follow suit. This has impaired the sacred relationship between the people of Tibet and their protector-deities. Today, this is one of the greatest dangers to the cause of Tibet and the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” (Read Source from TGIE website )

There is something deeply problematic about this simplistic reduction of a profoundly religious subject into terms of “harming the national cause of Tibet” because it is a politically loaded statement given all the pro-Tibet and anti-China rhetoric pervading the Tibetan community and Western media.
It is saying quite explicitly that the prayer to Dorje Shugden harms the Tibetan nation which pits the pro-Tibet political movement against the people who pray to Dorje Shugden. The implication here is that the people who pray to Dorje Shugden are a member of a political faction — the anti-Tibet faction. Evidence that this is the message being taken to heart is clearly demonstrated by what happened after the Dalai Lama’s talk at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on July 17th

The New York Times reported:

“About 200 members of a Buddhist sect, the Western Shugden Society, were outside the hall protesting the Dalai Lama, who they said had persecuted monks who supported the sect. Some among the thousands coming out of the lecture began shouting at the protesters. The crowd began to swell, and eventually thousands were shouting “Long Live Dalai Lama” and waving dollar bills at the protesters, asserting that they had been paid by the Chinese government.” (Read source article )

So if you disagree with the Dalai Lama’s views on the Dorje Shugden practice, which I should highlight is a prayer — the implication being drawn here is that you are against the Tibetan national cause and must be on the Chinese Government payroll. Why should one’s religious beliefs necessarily determine one’s political allegiances? If you disagree with the Dalai Lama on the subject of a prayer why does that make you against the Tibetan cause?

We can see from this example why the Tibetan Government is characterizing the Dalai Lama’s religious views as a political ideology — because it incites a nationalistic response in the masses which is functioning to exclude all those who do not share the Dalai Lama’s religious views.

The marriage of political and spiritual agendas is something that the Dalai Lama is invested in and is central to his political ideology. He is invested in it of course because it is the very basis for his qualification as leader of the Tibetan people. Quoting the Dalai Lama’s older brother Thubten Jigme Norbu (Tibet, p323):

“I also believe that our system’s greatest strength comes from the undisputed leadership of the Gyalwa Rinpoche (the Dalai Lama); but this is an act of faith that must be difficult to understand. Others in our government can be weak, but never our highest authority, for he is the reincarnation of Chenresig, the embodiment of perfection and enlightenment. It is pointless to criticize the Tibetan system without considering and allowing this faith, for without it the whole system becomes a mockery.”

Now I am a Buddhist and so I am a student of faith, but I disagree with Norbu’s usage of the word faith. Buddha discriminated between blind faith and faith that is based on reason; the difference being that the latter would not ignore contradictions with observable facts and manifest evidence. So in my understanding a Buddhist interpretation of faith does not try to hide contradictions with the truth, in fact due to actually having some degree of faith one would be courageous enough to challenge the assumptions upon which that faith is founded knowing that if the faith was well placed it would hold water.

So for me I do not believe that having faith in the Dalai Lama means never questioning his actions, quite the opposite. If the Dalai Lama is the embodiment of Chenresig then surely we should be able to discuss his actions using the rule of reason to scrutinize his actions and his good qualities would shine through. If we start calling everyone who disagrees with the Dalai Lama a fundamentalist or a Chinese agent, we are doing the Dalai Lama and in truth all of Tibetan society a disservice. And of course in this instance because people are being denied access to monasteries, hospitals, and food there is good reason to bring the Dalai Lama’s ban on Dorje Shugden prayer into question.

As Michael Backman noted in the Age on June 5th:

“Why is the Dalai Lama so hell-bent on moving against Shugden supporters? A reason might be that he genuinely believes Shugden worship is wrong. Another seems to derive from his desire to unite the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism – the Nyngma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa. This has always been one of the Dalai Lama’s problems. He is not the head of Buddhism; he is not even the head of Tibetan Buddhism. Traditionally, the Dalai Lamas are from the Gelugpa sect. But since leaving Tibet, the current Dalai Lama has sought to speak for all Tibetans”

Because the Dalai Lama’s influence is based on his spiritual authority he is at a loss with respect to the Kagyus, Nyingmas, and Sakyas because he himself is a Gelugpa. As Norbu notes: “While not denying the validity of the other school, each believes that its own emphasis is the most important” (Tibet, p233). To forge new spiritual relationships with the other traditions, particularly certain Nyingma lamas, the Dalai Lama has had to denounce the practice of Dorje Shugden which is the Dharma protector practice meant to protect Je Tsongkhapa’s Oral Lineage from being mixed with other traditions. So what we have here is the Dalai Lama making religious policy for political purposes.

What is this political purpose?

It is the protection of an extremist ideology that views the Dalai Lama as the sole hope for Tibet’s future. It is the view that the Dalai Lama and the future of the Tibetan people are inextricably intertwined. Referring to Norbu’s quote from above, it can even mean that the Dalai Lama is the saving grace of the Tibetan people. I have observed this view in many of the people casting negative aspersions towards Dorje Shugden practitioners. It is a phenomenon also revealed in Robert Thurman’s latest book “Why the Dalai Lama Matters.” For this ideology to achieve dominance the Dalai Lama needs a coalition of support from all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions. To remove any barriers to this coalition the Dalai Lama banned the prayer of Dorje Shugden and is engaging in a systematic campaign to destroy it. This highlights the dangers of a unified church and state.

Thomas Jefferson had great insight into this as Al Gore notes:

“Jefferson wrote that throughout history, the state-sanctioned religious authority ‘has been hostile to liberty.’ He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection of his own.” (The Assault on Reason, p46)

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  1. Tenzin
    October 20, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    This is another important, well-reasoned article, thank you.

    You make a perceptive point: “Because the Dalai Lama’s influence is based on his spiritual authority he is at a loss with respect to the Kagyus, Nyingmas, and Sakyas because he himself is a Gelugpa.” So the only way he can maintain influence over everyone in Tibetan society is to mix it all up together and have himself as sole religious leader. Then he can pass that also onto his successor, who he says he may well choose before he dies (in yet another break from tradition that demonstrates what an ego-trip he is on).

    Interestingly, in Tibet itself, it would have been far harder for him to mix up the traditions, let alone try and destroy an entire tradition. This is due to the geography of the country and vast distances (and lack of modern communications) — the monasteries and so on were more independent the further away from Lhasa they were, and more influenced by their own Lamas and Abbots than the TGIE. They could revere the Dalai Lama safely, from a distance, without him actually interfering with their spiritual lives.

    It is in the pressure cooker of the Tibetan community in exile that the Dalai Lama has been able to make his bid for becoming Dear Supreme Leader. But due to his actions, this pressure cooker looks set to explode.

  2. Jimmy
    November 15, 2008 at 2:40 am

    Another great article, keep them coming.

    Your readers may also be interested in the excellent Ursula Bernis research on the whole controversy written in the late 1990s — well written, scholarly and also reflective of a society in crisis: http://www.shugdensociety.info/Bernis0EN.html

    Here is an extract pertinent to your blog:

    “It is commonly known that the Dalai Lama is still the religious and political head of Tibetans, at least in exile, since in the Western press he is usually referred to as “God-King.” The effort to democratize has not extended to separate the domains of religion and politics. Since the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala is not legitimately a government by legal and international standards, it is difficult to analyze this problematic in an easy or straightforward way. Democratic it is not. The Tibetan people have never been asked to vote on any of the major political decisions concerning the future of their country either inside or outside Tibet. The confusing and much discussed referendum of 1995-7 was never put to a vote. People realized they had no real choice and decided to follow the Dalai Lama’s choice, which had already been confirmed by the State Oracle. More detail, see Part II. Often not even the Assembly and Cabinet (Kashag) are asked. Even more basic, freedom of speech, the very foundation of democratic striving, is woefully absent among exile Tibetans. Criticism of official exile government business is usually dismissed as being of Chinese origin. This practice has a long history.”

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