Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Selling Tibet to the World

The Age (Australian Newspaper of the Year)

Selling Tibet to the world by Michael Backman

Shugden supporters claim that the Dalai Lama took advantage of the worldwide groundswell of support that accompanied the Olympic torch protests earlier this year to move against them. They claim that on his orders hundreds of pro-Shugden monks were expelled from Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, mostly in India, leaving them without financial support and shelter. They now argue it is the Dalai Lama who is breaching human rights when it comes to freedom of worship.

While in Britain, the Dalai Lama gave evidence to a British parliamentary committee about the human rights situation in Tibet despite, as Shugden supporters pointed out, him not having set foot in Tibet for almost 50 years. Of course, before that, Tibet was ruled by the Dalai Lamas, under whom the human rights situation was nothing short of disgusting. The brand makeover since has been startling. It helps that Westerners find mountains romantic. Come down from them and anything can be excused.

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 and particularly all overseas Tibetans.

To enhance his authority, he has sought to merge the four traditions into one and place himself at its head. But Dorje Shugden presents a roadblock. One aspect of Shugden worship is to protect the Gelugpa tradition from adulteration, particularly by the Nyngma tradition. Nyngma followers respond by not wanting anything to do with Gelugpa followers sympathetic to Dorje Shugden. So to allow a proper merger of the four traditions, the Dalai Lama needs to get rid of the Shugden movement. If the Dalai Lama can claim to represent all Tibetans, it will increase his political prestige and clout with overseas Tibetans and with governments.

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