A Call For Harmony and Respect …

I had a conversation with a very good friend today and feel the need to speak out on a particular issue that’s troubling me, and indeed the Sangha, and something that needs to be said.

Recently, many New Kadampa Tradition centers have been carrying the book The Great Deception which is a book written by members of the Western Shugden Society. The book is supposedly a “tell all” exposé about the abuses of the various Lamas (who were at one point also heads of secular government) and a scathing attack on the Tulku System (the system by which reincarnations of various teachers are recognized by their students). This book carries a definitely colored, one-sided point of view of a very complex issue within the world of not only Tibetan Buddhism, but also Tibetan culture. It must be said, however, to every complex issue there are at least two sides. There are some thoughts that I would like to share.

Before I begin, let me first say this: It is not my intention to be unskillful or to personally attack anyone with respect to their position or views on this matter. However, it is my intention to provoke reflection, and perhaps a change of thought with respect to how this issue is being approached, by both sides, including members of the New Kadampa Tradition and students of the Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

Let me further say that the NKT is a noble tradition in the lineage of the Dharma, much like the historic Gelug, Shakya, Kagyü, Nyingma schools. Indeed, we remember, that the Buddha taught 84,000 classes of Dharma so that all might hear and benefit from his teachings. So, this is not a criticism of the NKT or any question of its legitimacy or value within the family of Dharma practitioners. This call is, however, a criticism of the behaviors of the NKT Sangha which are not conducive to harmony within the wider Sangha.

I. The Shugden Issue Is Complex And Needs To Be Understood As Such

The history of the Dorje Shugden controversy is complex and involves lots of different people and there has been significant disharmony created by both sides. The issue surrounds the Dharma Protector / Spiritual Entity known as Dorje Shugden. It is not within the scope of this letter to discuss the entire history of the controversy, however, a brief summary is in order.

A Lama (Zemey Rinpoche) published a book known as The Yellow Book which contained stories about the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden punishing and actively pursuing Gelugpas who do not strictly follow the teachings of the Gelugpa school and engage in Rimé (non-sectarian / ecumenical) activities within the Tibetan Buddhist “family” of schools. Unsurprisingly, His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, who has demonstrated a more Rimé orientation in his teaching and has received teachings from the Nyingma school, discouraged this practice and spoke out against Dorje Shugden as an institutional protector. In 1996, His Holiness banned the practice of this protector outright, and the complexities begin here. His Holiness proceeded to declare that Dorje Shugden was not an enlightened being or Dharma Protector, in contradiction to the teachings of his predecessor, the Fifth Dalai Lama who lived in the mid 17th Century. The Western Shugden Society and various pro-Shugden groups allege that the Dalai Lama encouraged violence against those who practice Dorje Shugden and that those who do are barred from receiving benefits normally owed to Tibetan refugees. The Dalai Lama on the other hand, says that Dorje Shugden is no longer relevant in a Tibetan Buddhist world that has grown less sectarian, and where sectarian boundaries grow thinner and thinner.

Both arguments are not entirely without merit. Under the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Gelugpa school consolidated its religious and political power and were often known for their puritanical and sectarian views. Under the blessing of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Gushri Khan proceeded to wrest control of vast areas of Tibet from Kagyü, Nyingma and Sakya and vested control in the Gelugpa monastic institution, which, because of this, became the effective political and religious rulers of Tibet. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, understandably, wants to part ways from this history of sectarian and puritanical behavior and engage other schools of Buddhism, and he has done so. It is therefore understandable, that His Holiness would like to distance himself and the Gelug institution from this institutional historical figure (i.e. Dorje Shugden), who has as his primary hagiographical and legendary trait the persecution and punishment of those who do not follow the Gelugpa path purely or those who receive teachings from the Nyingma school, and an almost fundamentalist obedience and belief in the teachings of the Gelugpa school.

On the other side, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government in Exile and other religious and secular authorities do not have the right to dictate whether someone receives benefits based on what they practice or what they do not practice. It is wrong. There is not much more explanation needed here. If His Holiness, or the Government of Tibet have encouraged violence, then they need to immediately recant those statements. However, even this issue is complex. We do not (and probably never will know) the root cause of the violence or even the denial of benefits. We can assume, we can infer, we can speculate, but in reality, the truth may be harder to find than we think. The Western Shugden Society and their cohorts are hearing only one side of the issue, i.e. from those who feel wronged by the Tibetan Government in Exile, and those practitioners of Shugden who for one reason or another have fallen out of favor with the religious and secular establishment.

These few paragraphs are but the tip of the iceberg of the Dorje Shugden Issue. Even these short few sentences are complicated, let alone what lies beneath them. The NKT Sangha, the FPMT (Gelugpas allied with His Holiness) Sangha, and indeed the Global Sangha need to understand that there are a multitude of complexities in this issue and that it is not as black-and-white as it may seem. One of the things that The Great Deception seems to miss is this very fact. There are two sides to every issue, I cannot repeat this maxim enough. Everything on the Western Shugden Society website appears to be a mean-spirited attack against His Holiness, and indeed even the entire history and lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (save of course the lineage of Je Tsongkhapa down to pure Shugden Practitioners, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso), to which the WSS and its members owe its very existence.

II.  The NKT Needs to Soul Search About The Appropriateness of Selling The Great Deception In Its Centers.

Selling The Great Deception is a political activity that has nothing explicitly or implicitly to do with the propagation of the Dharma, and I believe an activity that is contrary to not only the spirit of propagation of Dharma, but also an activity that is contrary even to the NKT’s own rules.

NKT Centers as institutions (as opposed to individual NKT students) are known for absolute political neutrality and stern isolation from causes outside of its own walls. The NKT actively teaches against the mixing of Dharma and politics. This stance is made abundantly clear in the Modern Kadampa Buddhism booklet:

“The NKT is a legally and entirely independent Buddhist tradition, and the NKT-IKBU has no political affiliations […] The main reason why NKT-IKBU has chosen to become legally registered as an independent Buddhist tradition is because it was recognized that in Tibetan Buddhism there are so many political problems. These problems are due to the mixing of Dharma and politics, with higher Lamas using the holy Dharma of Buddha’s teachings for political aims. The NKT wants the holy Dharma to be free from these political problems. ” (p. 5)

It’s important to note that one rarely, if ever, observes an NKT center cooperating with local non-profits (such as food banks, homeless services, etc.) or engaging in any kind of political activity whatsoever, in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Internal Rules.

The internal rules have codified complete political isolation for all affiliate NKT-IKBU centers

18§7. Unless approved by the Directors of the NKT Charity and the Education Council Representatives, no NKT-IKBU Dharma Centre, Teacher or student shall raise money in NKT-IKBU Dharma Centres for the development of non-NKT-IKBU organizations or projects, or for non-NKT-IKBU private individuals. (emphases added by me)

In principle, these stringent rules have their own logic, and make sense. A dharma center should be a place where all people feel welcome, and a place where all beings can find refuge, safety and comfort under the umbrella of the dharma. Dharma is a unifying force, not a dividing one.

The activity of selling The Great Deception appears to be political activity and fundraising activity (part of the proceeds do go to fund the work of the Western Shugden Society) that is specifically for the development of a Non-NKT-IKBU organization or project.

This appearance of contradiction can mean one of three things:

  1. the activity of carrying and selling The Great Deception, and therefore propagation of the Western Shugden Society’s (“WSS” – which the NKT vehemently denies any affiliation with as an institution) political, religious and spiritual views, is a direct contravention of the Internal Rules, because WSS is a non NKT-IKBU organization whose goals are being furthered by NKT-IKBU centers without express approval by the Directors of the NKT Charity and the Education Council Representatives;
  2. the Directors of the NKT Charity and Education Council Representatives have approved the furtherance and development of the goals of the WSS, and therefore the activity of selling the book and propagating the views found therein are legitimate under the Internal Rules; in which case, I call upon the NKT leadership to publish prominently on their website and send a letter to all Centers for public reading indicating that these approvals have been granted and the NKT does support the furtherance of the WSS and its goals and views; OR
  3. The WSS is a constituent part of the NKT-IKBU, and therefore the development and propagation of its goals and views are wholly consistent with the provisions of the Internal Rules. In this case, I call upon the NKT and WSS leadership to announce publicly that the WSS is a constituent part of the NKT-IKBU by way of a prominent notice on the NKT international and local websites and the WSS website, as well as the sending of a letter by NKT-IKBU leadership to all centers for public reading confirming this fact.

Openness and clarity are needed from the NKT with respect to the positioning of its centers on the political and religious issue of Dorje Shugden. It is understandable that NKT Centers cannot possibly be neutral on this political and religious issue because Dorje Shugden is central to NKT practice and teaching because he is the tradition’s Dharma Protector. It is very important to note here that His Holiness did not declare that anyone who practices Dorje Shugden would no longer be considered Buddhists. He did, however, specifically prohibit the practice for the monastics and institutions under his jurisdiction.

The NKT-IKBU is free, in its own right, to propagate and engage in the practice of Dorje Shugden.  However, the NKT needs to clarify whether its centers as institutions are taking a proactive stand by tangibly and/or intangibly supporting the work of the WSSy, and whether individual NKT members may or may not engage in the propagation of WSS aims within NKT Centers. The NKT must also be aware that: as it has decided to declare itself “a legally and entirely independent Buddhist tradition” (Modern Kadampa Buddhism, p. 5), it has placed itself outside of the Tibetan Buddhist framework in general, and more specifically outside the purview of the Gelug tradition from which it has inherited its teachings. As such, it is natural that the NKT does not and will not have a major influence (if any) on the affairs of the Gelug school. As far as the NKT is now concerned, the Dorje Shugden matter is an internal one with respect to the Gelug School because the NKT has actively and intently extricated itself from the Gelug hierarchy and system.

His Holiness and centers allied with him (including those under the FPMT umbrella) make it eminently clear that those who practice Dorje Shugden are asked not to receive empowerment or other blessing from His Holiness and other teachers at their centers. Furthermore, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, head of the FPMT has given clear guidance that members of the FPMT are forbidden from practicing Dorje Shugden, and that those who do are not welcome (I have my own issues with this, but at least they are clear).

III. Mean-Spirited Attacks Need To Stop! How To Move Forward

I’m no judge of hearts or minds. However, it is worth reminding all practitioners that causing discord in the sangha is a serious no-no in all three Yanas. Also, we need to be careful to represent the issue honestly to fellow sangha members. Saying that the “issue with the Dalai Lama” is resolved is at best a misinformed statement, at worst, it is a lie. The Western Shugden Society continues to paint His Holiness as a despotic dictator on the CIA payroll, and as a corrupt teacher. This is wrong. Whether or not the facts on the WSS website are correct, the spirit behind it doesn’t pass the smell test.

If the NKT believes in promoting harmony and peace in the wider sangha:
–  It needs to clarify its position with respect to WSS activities (including specifically the sale of The Great Deception) in NKT Centers. In so doing, the NKT should also ensure that its teachers, monastics and lay leadership are clear and honest with respect to the issue surrounding its Dharma Protector and to its status within the wider Buddhist community. Saying that “the issue with the Dalai Lama is resolved”, is again, patently not true, especially if the NKT is supporting directly or indirectly the aims and view of the WSS.
–  If the NKT indeed supports the aims and views of WSS, it needs to exert its influence as an institution and individual members to end the mean-spirited attacks against His Holiness on the WSS website and affiliated websites and entities. Make it about the issue, not the person! And if this is the case, the NKT needs to reconcile with His Holiness (this does not mean that the NKT would become Gelugpa or that it is capitulating its independence, it means what it says: reconciliation)
– If the NKT is going to maintain neutrality, it needs to actively and clearly distance itself from the activities of the WSS, including ordering the removal of The Great Deception from its center bookstores and enforcing the letter and spirit of its own Internal Rules with respect to political activities and the support of non-NKT-IKBU organizations and persons.

These thoughts are purely my own. They do not represent the opinions of any organization, teacher, or entity. Again, I apologize for any unskillful words, and I wish that all beings may benefit, but especially the Sangha. May we be a harmonious community of practitioners living the teachings of the Buddha and striving together towards enlightenment.

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