The Dalai Lama faces protests from within the Shugden Buddhist community on his Australian tour, 11th June 2008
This week the Dalai Lama returns to Australia in fact for the second time in a little over a year. And as we go to air this morning, he's giving a press conference in Sydney.
Stephen Crittenden: That's a recent protest rally outside the Albert Hall in London.
The reasons behind these protests are either incredibly simple or incredibly complicated. The simple explanation is that for some years the Dalai Lama has been trying to eradicate the veneration of an obscure Tibetan deity called Dorje Shugden. Followers of Dorje Shugden say he's an emanation of the Buddha; the Dalai Lama says he is an evil spirit.
But there's also a more complex explanation. For years, the Dalai Lama has been attempting to unite the main strands or lineages of Tibetan Buddhism under his spiritual authority. But he's running up against fundamentalist groups even within his own Gelugpa strand, many of them Western Buddhists. And as he's tried to exclude the practice of praying to Dorje Shugden, Dorje Shugden seems to have become more and more central to their practice.
They say the Dalai Lama is a hypocrite who campaigns for human rights in Tibet but persecutes his own people, and that monks and nuns have been forbidden to follow Dorje Shugden and when they resist they have been ejected from monasteries.
So who or what is Dorje Shugden, and who are these saffron-clad protestors? Kelsang Pema is a spokesman for the Western Shugden Society. She's a British Buddhist nun who has been a prominent figure in protest rallies in the UK and she's just flown into Sydney.
Kelsang Pema: Dorje Shugden is a Buddha from the Buddhist tradition. He's a deity who has been prayed to and whose teachings have been followed for up to 400 years. The Dalai Lama himself practiced this prayer and the teachings until the 1970s when he had either a change of faith or a change of heart. And he himself personally decided not to follow this any more. It's a very simple practice which Buddhist people follow in order to develop pure minds of love, compassion, wisdom and spiritual protection.
Now the Dalai Lama has had a change of faith and not being satisfied with his own change of faith he decided to inflict this upon the Buddhist community in general internationally, and this is the problem that we face at the moment, because he is saying that people who follow this deity, Dorje Shugden, are no longer Buddhist.
Stephen Crittenden: Why is he opposed to it? My understanding is that this is a fairly unusual practice, is that right?
Kelsang Pema: I would say it's definitely not an unusual practice, it's 400 years old.
Stephen Crittenden: That's a pretty short length of time in Buddhist terms I suppose.
Kelsang Pema: No, not when you consider that the new tradition the Dalai Lama himself created is only about 15 years old.
Stephen Crittenden: Am I right in thinking that Dorje Shugden is a somewhat malevolent emanation of the Buddha?
Kelsang Pema: Oh, absolutely not, no. He's a protector, and protector from the point of view of as I say his purpose is simply to encourage people to develop pure minds of love, compassion, wisdom and spiritual protection, they're not malevolent, the practice is not harmful and it cannot have any harmful effects, because that would be complete contradiction to the nature of the practice.
Stephen Crittenden: As it's been explained to me, the background to this story is that the Dalai Lama over many years now, has been trying to unify all the major strands of Tibetan Buddhism, and that your group is really resisting his spiritual authority, and that the Dalai Lama has run up against the cult of Dorje Shugden. It's a practice that he sees as an obstacle in the path to this greater unification of the various strands that he's trying to bring about.
Kelsang Pema: Not entirely correct, one because Dorje Shugden practice is not cultic; second, he's not running up against us, he himself is causing division within the British community because his two reasons that he's publicly given for abandoning these practices. 1) it causes his lifespan to shorten; and 2) it interferes with Tibetan independence. Well the guy is 72 years old, so it's obviously not very harmful to his life span, and it actually has no ability to harm anybody's lifespan, let alone the Dalai Lama's and second, he's publicly said many times recently, that he's not interested in Tibetan independence. So if they're the two valid reasons he's given, then there's no valid reason left for abandoning the practice.
Stephen Crittenden: But is it true that your group is a rejectionist group within the Gelugpa tradition, a movement that rejects the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama?
Kelsang Pema: No, that's not correct, because if the Dalai Lama would just allow people to have religious freedom, they'd be very happy to accept him. I think one gross misunderstanding in the West is that the Dalai Lama is perceived to be the Buddhist leader per se. He's not. If you got to Burma, Sri Lanka and so forth, ask those Buddhists who's their Buddhist leader, definitely they would not say the Dalai Lama, and even within Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, the position of Dalai Lama has never had authority over the other three schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Only now in this century, during the time of this 14th Dalai Lama has such a proposed unification been proposed.
Stephen Crittenden: That's why I raised the question. I mean what the Dalai Lama's project has been over recent decades, he's been trying to unify all the major strands of Tibetan Buddhism under his authority, that's correct, isn't it?
Kelsang Pema: According to him, yes. But if you check with each of the other schools, actually this is not correct, because each of the other three schools also are fighting an internal turmoil because the Dalai Lama is cutting of limbs of those branches also. The Karmapas, for example, they've been paralysed for many years because the Dalai Lama is interfering with their tradition. In the same way he's now trying to reorganize the Gelugpa school.
Stephen Crittenden: So this is as much to do with the authority of the Dalai Lama as it is to do with a simple prayer?
Kelsang Pema: I think the two become mixed because of the Dalai Lama's own agenda. As we all know, he has two hats, he has his political and he has his religious, and it definitely seems that he's using both hats to accomplish one aim, and this is where a lot of the problems are stemming from.
Stephen Crittenden: How many Buddhists around the world follow Dorje Shugden?
Kelsang Pema: There are actually millions of them internationally, and even within Tibet alone, over one-third of the population relied upon the practice of Dorje Shugden.
Stephen Crittenden: But your group, if I'm correct, your group has grown up in the West. Are you part of the New Kadampa tradition?
Kelsang Pema: No, we're the Western Shugden Society.
Stephen Crittenden: Right, and they're separate groups?
Kelsang Pema: They're completely separate, the New Kadampa tradition is a registered company and charity, the Western Shugden Society is simply a group of Dorje Shugden practitioners who come together to be heard by the Dalai Lama, because for 20 years individual practitioners have been writing letters requesting audiences, sending faxes to the Dalai Lama requesting him to explain his position and to basically allow religious freedom to prevail within the Buddhist community, and he's not even acknowledged such requests. So therefore we've decided together to unify and with one voice ask him.
Stephen Crittenden: Right. I have to say I've read your letter on your website. It's a pretty tough, strident letter. It's really a letter of demand, I'm not surprised he hasn't answered it.
Kelsang Pema: Well considering we've sent countless letters and petitions over the course of 20 years, we have no choice, we were forced into a corner, you know, especially when in January he initiated a referendum which basically if you follow his view, you receive an identity card, which is your passport to human freedom within the Tibetan in Exile community. Without it, and that means if you continue to practice Dorje Shugden you're a victim to any number of atrocities.
Stephen Crittenden: You're following him wherever he goes around the world on his travels, protesting. And this will be the first big protest of this kind in Australia.
Kelsang Pema: Correct. We started in America in April. We were in Germany with three demonstrations and three recently in the UK, and now we have them in Australia.
Stephen Crittenden: And will these be peaceful protests?
Kelsang Pema: Absolutely. We have completely pure intention and motivation and our intention is simply to protect one pure ancient lineage from being destroyed without valid reason and our motivation is compassion. So there's no anger, there's no hostility. We're just looking for a peaceful resolution. Of course we make noise, but without noise we're not heard, and that's been proved over 20 years through the correspondence that he's ignored.
Stephen Crittenden: Pema, given the political situation that the Dalai Lama is dealing with at present with the Chinese and the Tibetan situation, I have to ask you the question that most Australians are sure to be asking: are you agents of the Chinese Communist Party or are you their dupes?
Kelsang Pema: Absolutely not. You can check me out, do whatever you like, I've got no connections with the Chinese at all, and I have to say to you that this is just again the propaganda of the Dalai Lama's camp because there's no valid reason for claiming that.
Stephen Crittenden: But surely it's nothing to do with propaganda to make the point that your protest at this extremely inauspicious time, can only, surely it can only, undermine the Dalai Lama's authority and weaken the situation of the Tibetan people. The Chinese must be laughing their heads off.
Kelsang Pema: I don't know what the Chinese are doing but I wouldn't say this is inauspicious when I'm witnessing people being denied medicine, people being denied education, being ostracised from their homes, being vicitmised and threatened simply because they want to maintain this prayer. They don't want to encourage other people to practice it, they just simply want to get on with their own spiritual life, and that's happening because of the Dalai Lama initiating, endorsing, and proactively campaigning for the abolishing of this practice.
Stephen Crittenden: Where is this persecution that you're alleging? Where is it happening?
Kelsang Pema: It's happening right now as I speak in India, and even last week in Paris, the Dalai Lama's own sister was travelling around encouraging people to abandon this practice, and in America also.
Stephen Crittenden: Is it true that the Panchen Lama, the fake Panchen Lama, the Chinese Panchen Lama has got himself mixed up in this controversy? I know he's been photographed in front of an image of the Dorje Shugden?
Kelsang Pema: I don't feel I'm in a position to comment because I don't know much about that situation.
Stephen Crittenden: That's Kelsang Pema, who's a spokesman for the Western Shugden Society.