Is the Dalai Lama a ‘religious dictator’?

As the world’s favourite giggling Buddhist arrives in Britain, a Buddhist nun tells spiked that he is denying people their religious freedom.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

A quiet, middle-class café in Westminster, in the political heart of London, is the last place you would expect to hear someone badmouthing the Dalai Lama. When that someone is a Buddhist nun, dressed in trademark maroon robes and with shorn hair, it seems even more peculiar. ‘The Dalai Lama is a hypocrite and an oppressor’, says Kelsang Pema over a glass of water with ice (what else?), as she fishes from her rucksack ‘stacks of evidence’ to show me why the Dalai Lama ‘cannot be trusted’. A well-to-do blonde-haired woman in a power suit shoots us strange looks from the adjacent table. Slating the Dalai Lama, especially on a crisp, sunny Monday morning as he is due to arrive in Britain for an official visit, is not the done thing in polite circles in London.

Kelsang Pema – birth name: Helen Gradwell, born and brought up in Carlisle, England – is a leading member of the Western Shugden Society, a group of Buddhists who worship the ‘wisdom deity’ Dorje Shugden. Buddhists, especially in Tibet, have been saying the Dorje Shugden prayer for more than 350 years. Pema tells me ‘the prayer becomes your life, your breath’. Buddhists call on Dorje Shugden to ‘help us develop pure qualities’, she says, ‘including love, compassion and patience’. There’s only one problem: the Dalai Lama, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northern India and considered by many Buddhists to be a figurehead of their faith, effectively outlawed the worship of Dorje Shugden in 1996 and overnight transformed Shugden-following Buddhists into heretics and untouchables.

In March 1996, the Dalai Lama decreed that the worship of Dorje Shugden was ‘evil’. In what is believed to have been part of an internal power struggle in his fiefdom-in-exile in Dharamsala, northern India, the Dalai Lama ordered all worshippers of Dorje Shugden to leave his temple on 21 March 1996. A week later, on 30 March 1996, the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (the parliament in exile) passed a resolution banning the worship of Dorje Shugden by Tibetan government employees, and the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued a formal decree for everyone to stop practising the Dorje Shugden prayer. The New Internationalist reported that the Lama’s office wrote to every monastery in northern India and Tibet demanding that they ‘ensure total implementation of this decree by each and everyone… If there is anyone who continues to worship [Dorje Shugden], make a list of their names, house name, birth place… Keep the original and send us a copy of the list.’ (1)

‘After the Dalai Lama’s decree, anyone who continued to follow Dorje Shugden got it in the neck’, Pema says. By 1998, two years after the Dalai Lama described Dorje Shugden as ‘evil’ and instructed monasteries to collect the names of those disobedient Buddhists who continued worshipping it, an Indian human rights lawyer, PK Dey, had collected 300 statements from Tibetans in exile in India who had been either threatened or attacked for failing to comply with the Dalai Lama’s orders. ‘Those worshipping Shugden are experiencing tremendous harassment’, said Dey. ‘This is not in any particular part of the country but everywhere there are Tibetans.’ (2) In December 1996, one 72-year-old woman, Sonam Bhuti, whose family had worshipped Dorje Shugden for generations, reported to the Office of the Notary in Delhi (a civil law institution) that Tibetan officials had ransacked her and others’ homes, ‘forcibly taking out the idols and paintings [of Dorje Shugden]’ and ‘burning’ and ‘breaking’ them (3).

The Dalai Lama’s officials sought to expel Dorje Shugden worshippers from positions of power and responsibility in both northern India and Tibet. On 18 April 1996, the Tibetan Department of Health wrote to doctors and threatened to sack any who continued worshipping the deity: ‘In case there is anyone who doesn’t abide by the addresses of His Holiness to give up Shugden worship… such persons should submit their resignation.’ (4) On 19 May 1998, the Tibetan Department of Religion and Culture advised welfare and settlement officers of the conditions under which Tibetan monks and nuns could leave Tibet or northern India to travel to other parts of the world. Condition no.3 required ‘attestation from their monastery that neither the host [nor the] invitee is a devotee of Dhogyal [a derogatory name for Dorje Shugden]’ (5). In 1998, the New Internationalist reported that there was little point in Dorje Shugden worshippers protesting against their maltreatment – one group of worshippers was told by Tibetan officials that ‘concepts like democracy and freedom of religion are empty when it comes to the wellbeing of the Dalai Lama’ (6).

Into the 2000s, the Dalai Lama has continued to harry the remaining Shugden followers. The German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung reported recently that ‘in Tibet, many practise Shugden only “discreetly”, since their practice has been rejected by the Dalai Lama… as evil’ (7). In January this year, the Dalia Lama held a referendum among Tibetan monks to decide whether it is acceptable to worship Dorje Shugden. Yet Pema says it wasn’t a referendum ‘in any democratic sense’. Instead, monks had to choose a red stick or a yellow stick from a basket, publicly and in front of their superiors; they picked the yellow stick if they opposed the worship of Dorje Shugden and the red stick if they supported the right of people to worship the deity. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the Dalai Lama’s decrees against the worship of Dorje Shugden and the public, archaic nature of the referendum, the yellow sticks won (8). ‘In Britain and America, the Dalai Lama is a religious hero. But for many he is a religious dictator’, says Pema.

Some denounce the Dorje Shugden followers as mouthpieces for China. Pema denies it. ‘Anyone who criticises the Dalai Lama is written off as a Chinese puppet’, she says. ‘It’s just another way of shutting down debate. People in the West look upon Tibet as this ideal place, but Tibetans find it hard to have serious debates or to stand up to the Dalai Lama. It’s almost medieval.’ Others have made a similar point about the way the Dalai Lama’s unquestionable status as high representative of the Tibetan people and all things Buddhist stifles the development of Tibetan public life. In her book The Tibetan Independent Movement: Political, Religious and Gandhian Perspectives, Jane Ardley argued that in terms of the development of internal political life in Tibet and Dharamsala, ‘[It] is apparent that it is the Dalai Lama’s role as ultimate spiritual authority that is holding back the political process of democratisation. The assumption that he occupies the correct moral ground from a spiritual perspective means that any challenge to his political authority may be interpreted as anti-religious.’ (9)

Others claim that the ‘Dorje Shugden clique’ is a cult. They do indeed have cultish qualities, devoting their life and love to an archaic Buddhist deity. But then many Buddhist and other religious groups could be described as ‘cultish’. The most striking thing about the Dorje Shugden story is the Western media’s lack of interest in it. Pema has had meetings with British MPs – yet while some ‘were interested’, she says ‘they knew that criticising the Dalai Lama would damage their reputations’. She has held press conferences ‘but they are usually poorly attended’. The media do, however, turn up to the Western Shugden Society’s anti-Dalai Lama protests – such as the one that will take place at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday this week – but usually only so they can publish stories about ‘mad Buddhists attacking the Dalai Lama’, she says.

The state of denial in the West about some of the Dalai Lama’s alleged power-tripping, or at least the unquestioning attitude towards the Dalai Lama and everything that he does, highlights the role that he plays for many Western celebs, commentators and politicians today: he’s a cartoon ‘good guy’, giggling, pure and righteous, who apparently should be unconditionally applauded for standing up to the ‘Evil Chinese’. All of the Dalai Lama’s bad points – his origins in the stifling medievalism of 1930s Tibet; his archaic practices; his disregard for ‘concepts like democracy and freedom of religion’; his backing from the CIA in its Cold War with the Chinese – are simply ignored, as His Holiness is invited to guest-edit French Vogue, attend charity auctions with Sharon ‘Look at My Vagina’ Stone, and rub shoulders with Richard Gere. Pema shows me the Independent on Sunday, published the day before we met, which has a feature about the Dalai Lama ‘charming the West’. There are around 12 photos showing him meeting celebrites and other do-gooders. Yet in two of the photos, it isn’t the Dalai Lama at all; it’s a different Lama. Maybe these Tibetans all look the same to British picture editors.

‘He’s just a photograph and a symbol to many people in the West’, says Pema. ‘But the reality is very different.’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) New Internationalist, August 1998

(2) Now magazine, Delhi, January 1998

(3) Now magazine, Delhi, January 1998

(4) Dalai Lama ‘a religious dictator’, Brendan O’Neill, LM, November 1998

(5) Dalai Lama ‘a religious dictator’, Brendan O’Neill, LM, November 1998

(6) New Internationalist, August 1998

(7) Stop lying, Suddeutsche Zeitung, 17/18 May 2008

(8) See video footage of the referendum here.

(9) See Tibetophilia won’t set Tibet free, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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