Saturday, October 4, 2008

"Evil Spirit" Puts Tibetan Democracy To Test

Over the course of a decade, the Dalai Lama has repeated that worshipping the evil spirit "Dholgyal" harms the Tibetan cause and is detrimental to his lifespan. As a consequence, many who have engaged in this practice seem to have stopped it. For which Tibetan wants to harm the cause and the Dalai Lama? Only a madman or a traitor.

But then over time, a small group of supporters of this evil spirit emerged. Funny enough, their notion was that this evil spirit was actually an enlightened being, a Buddha or something to that effect. For them, it was not "Dholgyal", which seems to be derogatory term, but "Dorje Shugden" or "Choekyong". Eeach side has produced tons of materials over the years to strengthen their argument in this spiritual battle. The internet is full of it.

As long as the conflict over Dholgyal/Shugden remained in the religious realm, we could argue it was about personal spiritual experience and beliefs, and as external observers, we prefer to keep out because we could not follow, and the practice or non-practice had absolutely no meaning to us. At least I ignored the topic for the longest time, thinking it's an archaic religious debate with no relevance to real life.

But then I realised that the political dimension of this conflict concerns all of us, because what had started as a theological dispute, had left the religious realm and had entered the Tibetan mainstream.

So while most of us were not qualified to make a statement with regard to the nature of Dholgyal/Shugden, as people living in a democratic society, we are all entitled to make a statement with regard to the political aspect of the controversy and how Tibetan society has been dealing with Dholgyal/Shugden supporters.

There are several instances where it would seem, Tibetan government agencies have been used to discourage the practice. It is known that the Prime Minister publicly discouraged the practice in several instances. In Switzerland, the assembly of elected Tibetan people's deputies (thunmi) passed a "Dholgyal resolution" which, in effect, calls for singling out pro Dholgyal/Shugden Tibetans living in Switzerland.

In some instances, Tibetans in Switzerland and India have been asked to sign or take an oath that they would abandon the practice. Reportedly, Dholgyal/Shugden supporters in India have been refused necessary documents by the Tibetan government-in-exile, which they would need to obtain formal recognition as refugees by the Government of India. In some Tibetan settlements in South India, shops apparently no longer sell to Dholgyal/Shugden supporters, and entire groups of dissenting monks have been asked to leave their monastery.

If only a fraction of these stories are true, and the evidence would suggest so, they document a type of political pressure that is not normal. In fact, these reports are highly disturbing for our young democracy. In a democratic setting, it would not be possible to single out a group of people, label them and pressure them into compliance with the majority view. It's actually a fascist thing to do and conjures up the darkest memories.

If we consider our society democratic, the question is: Why do some of us tolerate or even support this type of pressure on a minority?

We all know that in a democratic society, the rights of minorities do not depend on the goodwill of the majority. In a democratic society, the rights of minorities cannot be "overruled" by majority vote. The law is supreme and protects the rights of all citizens. We should know that a truly democratic Tibetan society would not force those with deviating views into obedience. A truly democratic Tibetan society would be strong enough to put up with dissenting views even though the majority may not approve of them.

Our problem boils down to the peculiarity of the Tibetan system. If the Dholgyal/Shugden dispute shows us something, then it is the incompatibility of democracy with our actual political behaviour, which, I believe, still reflects the traditional "religion-and-politics-entwined" mentality in both ruler and ruled.

Everyone knows that in the traditional system, the Dalai Lamas have held a double function: On the one hand, they have been top-ranking priests of the Gelug order, and on the other hand, they have functioned as the head of the Tibetan government. We also know that in a democracy, the secular and religious spheres are strictly separated and not ruled by one person for there is the danger of the abuse of power. All democracies in the world have a balance of power to prevent too much power in the hand of a single person.

In the current Dholgyal/Shugden dispute, it would seem the Dalai Lama has been using his political power as the head of the government to promote a religious goal, the clean-up of the Gelug order. This is very problematic, in fact, in a democracy, using political authority for a religious purpose constitutes an abuse of power.

The next question then is: Why is nobody raising any red flags?

Tibetan social behaviour in this dispute would confirm that in a system, where the leader is held in God-like esteem, it is difficult for the average citizen to hold diverging views. In such a system, there is little space for egalitarian discourse or democratic debate, because one participant is, by definition, infallible and beyond scrutiny.

Many Tibetans seem to save the intellectual effort because they believe the Dalai Lama is an enlightened being, and the rest of us are not. Due to his divine background and omniscient capability, many seem to believe he knows by default what's best.

Many may also support his views out of gratitude. After all, the Dalai Lama does have an impressive track record of what he has done for his country and his people. We all love him for that. The whole world loves him. So many Tibetans are deeply grateful and give him unconditional loyalty in return.

For these reasons, many Tibetans are inclined to take an automatic stand in favour of the Dalai Lama even if they may not have a religious stake in the Dholgyal/Shugden issue per se.

But in a democracy, the leader or government is only one element of the social fabric made up of political parties, organisations, institutions etc. A true democracy is diverse and pluralistic, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. The spiritual experience of a Dalai Lama is no more true than the spiritual experience of the average Tibetan is false. If they end up with diverging views, it is wrong for the Dalai Lama to pressure others into accepting his view. Even if his spiritual insight is considered superior, the others have the democratic right to believe in their view.

The few, who have arrived at diverging views regarding Dholgyal/Shugden, and somehow manage to adhere to them, have been virtually shut out of society. They are not welcome at Tibetan gatherings and the Dalai Lama has regularly asked them to leave the venue when they attended his teachings.

People seem to have no problem with this style, because the majority seems to be stuck in the traditional "religion-and-politics-combined" mentality: How dare they be smarter than the Buddha? How dare they defy the leader without whom we would have been finished long ago? How dare they ignore the advice of someone who has nothing but genuine compassion at his heart? How dare they?

The reaction has been to ostracise and slander this minority as non-patriotic, pro-Chinese, murderers, greedy for money, and members of a cult rather than real Buddhists.

But when we take a closer look, we realise that it is a diverse group of people who practice Dholgyal/Shugden. They are not a monolithic block with the goal to damage the Dalai Lama's reputation, help China or corrupt Buddhism.

The most controversial Dhogyal/Shugden supporters seem to be the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and the Western Shugden Society. Since these groups are mainly made up of Westerners, they are not under the sphere of influence of Tibetan society and as such have been the most vocal in protesting against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Their protest for religious freedom is likely to continue since they cannot be directly pressured by Tibetan society.

The Tibetan side of Dholgyal/Shugden practitioners seems less organized and also avoids direct confrontation with the Dalai Lama. There is an organisation called "Dorje Shugden Devotee's Charitable & Religious Society" based in New Delhi, but how numerous they are and how far they are prepared to go to safeguard their religious freedom is not clear.

Some Dholgyal/Shugden supporters voiced their grief on Swiss TV several years ago, some are said to have gone to Indian courts and others approached Amnesty International for support. But my impression is, most Tibetan Dholgyal/Shugden supporters keep a low profile. In general those defiant Lamas, Geshes, and lay people are without any affiliation to an organization. They tend not to voice their dissent in public for fear of being exposed.

I personally know of several people who stick to Dholgyal/Shugden as part of their spiritual practice. I have no idea what that practice looks like and I'm not the least interested. All I can say is that they are neither pro-Chinese, nor greedy for money, nor do they approve of violence to resolve a dispute. They do not believe in Gelug supremacy to the point where they belittle other Buddhist schools. I have never heard a bad word from them about Kundun. They seem sad but not bitter. They do not understand why the Dalai Lama wants to exterminate this practice. But unlike the Western Dholgyal/Shugden supporters, they have kept their grief to themselves hoping that if they keep quite and do not retaliate, the storm will pass.

It would be foolish to follow that all other Dholgyal/Shugden supporters have some sort of affinity with China just because a few are considered Chinese spies. And if some have murdered, it is silly to believe, everyone worshipping Dholgyal/Shugden is violent. If some pray to Dholgyal/Shugden to become rich, it doesn't mean that everyone worshipping Dholgyal/Shugden only thinks about money. And if some people who worship Dholgyal/Shugden believe in Gelug supremacy, it doesn’t make everyone worshipping Dholgyal/Shugden a Gelug chauvinist.

We must be careful not succumb to the habit of labeling dissenters. We should make the effort to look behind the label to the content and differentiate, otherwise the witch hunt will continue.

If Tibetan society were truly democratic, cooperation would be based on free will, and people would be encouraged to think for themselves, making up their own minds. If Tibetan society were truly democratic, people who do not follow the opinion leader, would not be ostracised.

The way Tibetans have been handling the Dholgyal/Shugden issue says quite a bit about the state of our democratic values. We Tibetans are okay with dissenters being forced into obedience. We see nothing wrong with this political style. We have no issues with the Dalai Lama exerting pressure on dissenters by using secular government organs and tolerating oaths and signature actions in his name. Some even believe it is their duty to expose Dholgyal/Shugden supporters and slander them.

Until recently I thought, the more we talk about this conflict, the worse it becomes. I have changed my mind. I know now that it is wrong to remain silent. All genuine Tibetan democrats must speak up in the political debate over Dholgyal/Shugden. When a few are forced to take on the view of many, we’re going down a dangerous path. It is our duty to speak up. Our young democracy will remain in bad shape if we let this happen without a reaction.

Mountain Phoenix

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