Monday, September 15, 2014

The Spirit That I Called - Dorje Shugden And The Unresolved Political History Of The Gelugpas

"From the spirits that I called, Sir, deliver me!"
Unlike in The Sorcerer's Apprenctice, in the Dorje
Shugden story nobody is coming to the rescue.

All hell has broken loose since the 14th Dalai Lama has announced that there is sectarian spirit worship in the Gelug order, the Buddhist school that traditionally underpinned the Tibetan state and instituted Dalai Lamas as heads of government for the last five hundred years. It is also the order that prides itself on its debating skills, its emphasis on ethics and logic, and its combination of study and meditation. In the current dispute however, there is no skillful debate to be detected, nor ethics or logic. Neither side studies the arguments of the other, let alone meditates on their position! What one side says the other listens selectively, focusing only on what confirms their own prejudice. Entangled in the polemics of the blame game, there is no analysis taking place and no big picture emerging.

Where should one start to understand the reasons for this archaic conflict over an invisible thing? Rather than going away any time soon, the topic is driving a wedge between people, leaving nothing but losers across the board with His Holiness the Dalai Lama's image suffering, the Gelugpa order in disarray, insecure practitioners and social peace shattered. With the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, it's no longer an internal issue either. There must be a way to understand it in a manner that makes sense.

In the past, it was unthinkable that Tibetans in the free world would join protests exclaiming, "False Dalai Lama, stop lying!" as some are heard shouting during his recent visits to Western countries. It was inconceivable that Tibetans would try to take a Dalai Lama to court for violating their religious rights, as some in India did. I am glad my grandparents didn't live to witness these developments. The rift runs deep leading all the way into Tibet where it splits age-old communities and families. What caused such a drastic estrangement?

Before this dispute, no Tibetan ever questioned the Dalai Lama's fundamental integrity. After he had been to Strasbourg in 1988 to present his Five-Point Peace Plan to members of the European Parliament, for example, nobody was seen demonstrating or attempting to take him to court, even though he single-handedly sacrificed regaining independence as the goal of the political struggle. An elected leader of another country may have been ousted from office over such highhandedness and perhaps even put on trial for high treason. But as far as his people are concerned, the Dalai Lama never faced any kind of scrutiny. Many had a hard time letting go the dream of an independent country. In the end, they put his wish above their own heart's desire. In my eyes, this emotional sacrifice underscores the extent of the Tibetans' trust in the Dalai Lama. Regardless of any autocratic tendencies, their devotion to him has always been unconditional.

The decision to remove Dorje Shugden from the Gelug pantheon was similarly high-handed. While it affects only a part of the community, it has met with resistance. This decision was not about replacing one political idea with another, such as independence with autonomy, with the Chinese running the show irrespective of Tibetan requests. On the one hand, it had a concrete effect on people's private practice: Suddenly their religious orientation drew public criticism from the highest level. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama's negative assessment of Dorje Shugden also had implications for the Gelugpa teachings in general: Propitiating this "spirit" was passed down by lineage masters held in the highest esteem. This last one in my view, is crucial for the dissonance coming from within the Dalai Lama's own ranks. Therefore I will look at it in a bit more detail.

Tibetan tsa-rgyu bla-ma or root and lineage masters derive their authority to transmit Buddhist teachings based on the belief that they gained irrevocable insight into the ultimate truth. In other words, such masters are considered enlightened. It shows for example in the way people address them by putting Kyabje in front of their names, which means "Lord of Refuge". These enlightened lineage holders thus pass the teaching from one to the next with the line traceable all the way back to the historical Buddha himself. Tibet has brought forth four such main lineages through which the Dharma has been transmitted in this fashion. One of them is the Gelugpa lineage, the others being Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya, as is well known.

If some Gelugpa masters of this caliber were now hoodwinked by a "spirit", had a sectarian bias, or even engaged in missionising and forced conversion, as is sometimes alleged, they couldn't possibly have been enlightened at the same time? And if they weren’t, then the conclusion can only be that the transmission was invalid: These root and lineage holders were charlatans and hundreds if not thousands followed an erroneous path. The criticism of Dorje Shugden being a sectarian spirit can thus be perceived as ultimately threatening the legitimacy of the Gelugpa transmission. This interpretation is the likelier cause for the current falling-out rather than political instigation by China using pecuniary means to damage the image of the Dalai Lama, as is sometimes claimed. When Tibetans are prepared to sacrifice their independence for the Dalai Lama, what difference could Chinese mammon make? What we in fact have is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of Dorje Shugden and the related consequences for the Gelugpa lineage.

What then should one understand by "the nature" of Dorje Shugden? Who or what is this thing? Basically there are two allegations hanging in the air: That he is a "spirit" and therefore not a proper Buddhist deity, and that he is sectarian and therefore socially divisive. Although officially only worshipped by a minority, the guy seems to spell enough trouble both on religious and political grounds that it's deemed necessary to remove him from public life. So let's take a look at both allegations one after the other.

There are plenty of stories of how Dorje Shugden "arose" and who he "was" in previous lives. The interpretations vary greatly based on which side of the conflict one stands. For a general understanding however, we can ignore the details because we are moving about in Tantrayana where abstruse-sounding details abound. Once we get an idea of the peculiarity of the Tantrayana, we can also follow why Theravadans may think, what the Tibetans are doing is not Buddhism at all. And we will also understand why Tibetan masters generally advise students to keep their tantric practice to themselves: The Tantrayana involves a type of mindset which - mildly put - requires getting used to. When someone has to keep justifying himself for propitiating a "spirit" for example, he will never get around to acting upon his Bodhisattva vow and help others. People will start to have negative thoughts which can create unwholesome karma for them, and that's not exactly what an aspiring Bodhisattva should encourage. That's why it's recommended not to talk about the technique in the first place. What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over. But since the Dorje Shugden practice has been exposed to the public, we need to look at it in a bit more depth in order to understand the nature of the conflict without getting entangled in its polemics.

For our type of discussion, it is important to look at the issue in the cold light of day without getting distracted by fantastic but irrelevant details. It is important to look based on universally accepted Buddhist tenets, such as the inherently empty nature of all phenomena. These cannot suddenly become invalid when moving about in a tantric context. Having said that, it is necessary to take a generic look at the category of protector deities or Dharmapalas (Tibetan: srungma) in order to have a reference point from where to start our reflections. Since their ancestors opted for the Tantrayana, Tibetans owe it to themselves to understand Dharmapalas at least at a conceptual level.

To make sure everyone is on the same page: The foundation of the Tibetan Buddhist practice is the same as in Theravada; practitioners work to transform their thoughts, speech and actions to become ethical in order to avoid rebirth in lower realms and stop perpetuating the samsaric cycle. In addition, as adherents of the Mahayana pursuing the Bodhisattva ideal, Tibetan Buddhists strive to develop wisdom and compassion – not to become great saints, but to make themselves the best they can be in order to help others. To achieve this goal, practitioners use various meditation techniques, do specific retreats, recite Mantras and take special vows as recommended by the Lama under whom they are studying.  To intensify their efforts, some then move on to tantric meditations around the trio consisting of Lama (Guru Yoga), Yidam (deity meditation) and Sungma (Dharmapala propitiation). The function of a Dharmapala is to protect dedicated lay and ordained practitioners from any obstacles that may occur on the path to transform one's ordinary body, speech and mind into those of an enlightened being.

Some Dharmapalas arose from hostile pagan spirits of pre-Buddhist Tibet and were converted by great masters of the past to protect the Buddhist teaching, it is said; then there are fantastic stories of Dharmapalas "recruited" from the Devas and Bodhisattvas; to complicate the concept, some protector deities are said to possess Buddha nature as the Three Jewels, not at all of inferior status assigned to do a lowly job as guards, as their form would suggest. And not enough: Enlightened masters, it is said, can also manifest as Dharmapalas; out of their great compassion, they make themselves available beyond their physical death, so to speak, so that practitioners can ask them for guidance via a medium. This in short, is the wondrous world of Dharmapalas as I have come to understand.

Generally speaking Dharmapalas are neither a main practice nor do all practitioners propitiate them by reciting these specific prayers and making offerings. The main practice consists of working towards directly experiencing Emptiness and cultivating stable Bodhicitta. Nevertheless, Dharmapalas must have their legitimacy for they also appear in the Field of Merit or tsog-shing, which lists the "Who's Who" of a Tibetan Buddhist school and serves as a source of inspiriation for practitioners. Shown in the Field of Merit of each school are the people who were instrumental in transmitting the Dharma in this specific lineage. Alongside the root and lineage Lamas, there are meditation deities, Bodhisattvas and Arhats,  as well as Dharmapalas (chos-skyong, srung-ma) all of whom the practitioner is supposed to visualise as being formed by rays of light coming of Buddha Shakyamuni's heart. The message is that all these people and objects in the Field of Merit are of the exact same nature as the Buddha himself and not a separate, anonymous crowd. They are a practitioner's "divine friends" who help getting ahead on the path to enlightenment. To cut a long story short, from their inclusion in the Field of Merit it follows that generally speaking Dharmapalas can be of the same nature as Buddha and qualify as objects of refuge.

The crunch question is of course whether Dorje Shugden can be considered as one of these "enlightened Dharmapalas". The Dalai Lama clearly says no. He has repeatedly stated that Dorje Shugden is a divisive spirit whose worship results in a number of negative outcomes. As evidence, he cites his own experience, which also goes back into previous reincarnations. Those with great faith in the Dalai Lama, considering him their main spiritual guide, have accepted his view without further ado. From a secular standpoint it may seem immature and submissive, but from a Buddhist practitioner's position, it must be deemed okay: There are those, who advance on the path by working mainly with their faith. As long as behaviour remains ethical, there is no need to go into laborious explanations as to why one decides to follow one's Lama's advice, that's my understanding.

Then there are those who try to advance on the path by working more with their "wisdom mind". If we belong to this group, we must aim at a correctly derived analysis based on objectivity or non-attachment, above everything else. Aggravating the analysis in this specific case is that the person raising the doubts is the Dalai Lama. In Tibetan circles, there is a heavy dose of lèse majesté with regard to this issue. The topic is deemed too hot to handle with everyone preferring conspiracy theories and walking on eggshells in order not to compromise him. However, if we investigate the issue undeterred, we may first bring to mind the fundamental Buddhist principle of the so-called "inherently empty nature of phenomena" as Buddha Gautama proclaimed in the third seal of the fundamental "Four Great Seals of the Dharma". A popular association would be the story of a son who gives his old mother a dogtooth pretending it's a relic of the Buddha; wholeheartedly believing him, the mother worships it and eventually gains genuine spiritual insights from it. If a dogtooth had the inherent nature of just a dogtooth, the old lady would not have been able to produce such a result. Her attitude and motivation made all the difference. Many Tibetans are familiar with this story and its line of argument: The object of veneration is as holy or unholy as the mind of the venerator.

When we accord the insight of the inherently empty nature of phenomena to Dorje Shugden, it explains why some can say full of conviction that he is a manifestation of Buddha Manjushri. At the same time, the guy has absolutely no relevance to uninvolved onlookers because it's WYSIWYG - what you see is what you get. Tibetans are unlikely to knowingly worship a "spirit" because as Buddhists they know it's pointless to go for refuge in an object that is not a representation of the Three Jewels. But they cannot be unknowingly worshipping a spirit either because that would amount to Dorje Shugden having the inherent nature of a spirit, which blatantly contradicts the principle of the emptiness of all phenomena. My conclusion is therefore that for his adherents, Dorje Shugden must be a bona fide object of refuge, a so-called "enlightened Dharmapala" of the same nature as a Buddha.

But how can we explain that when His Holiness the Dalai Lama looks at Dorje Shugden, he sees a divisive spirit? An answer is found in the systemic nature of the institution of Dalai Lamas: They are recruited from the Gelugpa order exclusively, but their function differs greatly from that of its other Lamas because the person who serves as Dalai Lama, the Gyalwa Tulku, has also served as the head of the government and as such is the leader of all Tibetans, not just Gelugpas. While the sole responsibility of regular Gelugpa Lamas consists of ensuring that the spiritual lineage is passed on from one generation to the next, the responsibility of a Dalai Lama, above all, is to look after the welfare of the Tibetan people as a whole. His task is thus by definition political. By systemic default, Dalai Lamas wear two hats – one religious, i. e. Gelug Lama, the other political, i. e. head of state and government. If they want to serve all Tibetans equally, Dalai Lamas have no choice but to transcend their narrow lineage responsibility, there is no alternative within the framework of the traditional Tibetan political system.

Especially after going into exile, the ruling Gelugpas must have realised that their form of government had to become more inclusive if they wanted to hold all Tibetans together across regional and sectarian lines. The 14th Dalai Lama then initiated democratic reforms with the aim to make the exile polity fairer and more representative. On a personal level, he also began to complement his Gelug practice with teachings from the other Tibetan Buddhist schools. In the process, it seems an inner conflict arose as the Dalai Lama had also inherited the propitiation of the Gelug protector Dorje Shugden from some of his root teachers. The Dalai Lama has not been specific about the nature of these tensions but since it is a personal experience, it suffices to acknowledge that to him it didn't feel right to continue. It is in this context of trying to transform an exclusivist Gelugpa government into an inclusive pan-Tibetan leadership that the Dorje Shugden worship was eventually identified as an obstacle to unity.

Why pick on this particular poor devil when there are dozens of protector deities in the Tibetan tantric pantheon? By trying to answer this question we are moving from the religious aspect of the conflict into its political dimension. The Dorje Shugden practice is a relic of the past when the Gelugpas were among themselves in government and sectarian bias was the institutionalized norm. As its very name emphasizes, the Ganden Phodrang government established in 1642 and in charge until the fall of Tibet in 1950, was a Gelugpa government. As such and by today's standards, it must be considered sectarian and biased by nature in itself. It is my assertion that an exclusivist, sectarian abuse of Dorje Shugden must have occurred within this larger historical context: Politicised Gelupas must have instrumentalised the Dharmapala towards their worldly aim to expand Gelug rule. This would also explain why other Tibetans to this day sometimes associate Dorje Shugden with Gelug hegemony.

In the new exile polity however, a Nyingma member of parliament, a Bonpo clerk or a Kagyu official understandably had no reason to participate in state-sponsored Gelugpa protector rituals, and particularly so when they associated Dorje Shugden with the old Gelugpa-dominated state and abuse of power. The guy clearly didn't possess majority appeal in the new Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama saw that. A separation was perhaps all the more necessary as the new government still had a Dalai Lama, a Gelugpa Lama, as its head until 2011 when the 14th Dalai Lama formally stepped down from political power. To hold people together, the government either had to drop this ritual or settle for a Dharmapala that was acceptable to Tibetans of all religious backgrounds. As a personal consequence, the Dalai Lama discontinued his own practice of Dorje Shugden. The advantage was that he and the government became better identifiable for all Tibetans. Parting with Dorje Shugden was an important gesture that the government was now catering to the needs of all Tibetans equally. On a personal level, the Dalai Lama had meanwhile also become a professing follower of the Rimé movement and the Gelug-specific Dorje Shugden practice definitely didn't feel right to him anymore.

Historically, Rimé – which is often translated as “non-sectarian” - was the answer by Tibet's smaller orders to counter the Gelugpas’ sectarian expansionism. With political backing and powerful patrons, the Gelug order was free to spread its school of Buddhism into the farthest corner of the highlands. Precious transmissions and teachings from smaller orders were at risk of being extinguished and so great masters of the past - lineage holders in the true sense of the word - took it upon themselves to save and consolidate them, hence the Rimé movement was born. That a Dalai Lama would one day join the underdogs and stop putting the interest of his own school above the interest of the others is therefore extraordinary. Not only does it hold great symbolic significance for Tibet's religious minorities, but it is fulfills the necessity of exile to keep everyone together under one roof.

What we are witnessing, in my view, is therefore nothing less than the dying days of Gelugpa rule. Any hegemony exhausts its cycle. Buddhists would say it's impermanence at work. The exile polity is becoming more inclusive and with it, the Rimé movement is experiencing a revival. At the dawn of this new era, it would seem Dorje Shugden has become a convenient scapegoat for the official Gelug school to absolve itself from its historical responsibility of institutionalised sectarian rule. Singling Dorje Shugden out as the culprit and projecting collective shortcomings of Gelugpa rule onto this "spirit" allows the official order to extricate itself from the potential stigma of religious Apartheid. By getting rid of Dorje Shugden, so perhaps the new Gelugpa calculation, the order would be able to survive historical accountability unscathed, and the Tibetans could have a new beginning. More research is required to back up my conclusions, but that's my hypothesis in a nutshell for the moment.

Setting the current dispute into the historical context of Ganden Phodrang rule would also explain, why today's people in the Dorje Shugden camp all slip under general suspicion of being Gelug chauvinists: That's what politicised Dorje Shugden adherents of the past must have been. No smoke without a fire. It is known that power corrupts. It has a similar effect on people as money, sex or drugs. Over time, the dopamine boost causes addiction and leaves traces on the psyche. If this is done in an institutionalised manner and over centuries, the effect on the Gelug order can hardly have been flattering?

It is important to differentiate though, that contemporary followers of Dorje Shugden in Tibet and abroad, are private people without any association to state power and who have a different notion of the Dharmapala altogether. They also vehemently reject any wrongdoings with regard to belittling other Buddhist schools. The most vocal ones among them are not the most skillful in advancing their point, but if one listens to their message with a willingness to understand their concern, one may notice that their bewilderment at the accusation is actually genuine. - It shouldn't come as a surprise really because Gelugpas in general have a poor historical awareness of the problematic nature of their order's long-term marriage to political power. This unawareness also explains why the accused are totally clueless and the critics can direct any kind of sectarianism guilt pointedly on Dorje Shugden and his followers, without having second thoughts about themselves. On this point, all Gelugpas high and low are equally history-blind.

If there is sectarianism however, it is not found in an object but sits in the heads of people who are projecting their biased thinking onto this object. Siding with Dorje Shugden therefore cannot be considered “sectarian” per se. It says nothing about people’s motives and any blanket judgment must fall short. Though this is a Buddhist truism, the association of Dorje Shugden with Gelug power politics persists. Einstein didn't say for nothing that a prejudice is harder to crack than an atom.

What we need to keep in mind is that supreme Buddhist principles do not suddenly become invalid when moving about in a tantric context. Then we will also recognise that insisting on something being a divisive spirit is an eternalist fallacy, just as is claiming the contrary that this thing is an enlightened Buddha: Both positions can become dogmatic and rigid when continuously overemphasized. If an almost octogenarian Dalai Lama continues with what he refers to as his "duty" to alert people, even neutral observers will begin to take it as a sign of senile stubbornness. And if the Dorje Shugden folks don't stop shouting at his talks, they will have ruined the reputation of their Dharmapala beyond repair. People on either side must be careful not to become attached and compromise their ethics in the process, creating the conditions for a lot more trouble. Fact is opinions are sharply divided and the Sangha is split. Each side projects their preference. What more proof do we need that phenomena are inherently empty? And since neither side is on speaking terms with each other, this is also the theological end of the story. Live and let live.

The political end is more difficult to foresee. In hindsight, the biggest miscalculation in the quest to remove Dorje Shugden from the Gelug pantheon was the assumption that as in the past, people would follow the Dalai Lama's recommendation out of loyalty. Had the Dalai Lama left the disassociation from Dorje Shugden at the state level and his personal situation as its head, the dispute may have ended with the separation from the dissenting monks. But for whatever reason he began to repeatedly raise the issue at large public gatherings. Once his concern was publicised, things developed their own dynamics. So when people still don't listen after nearly twenty years of constant reminders, it can't be because they haven't heard the message? Rather they don't seem to appreciate protectionist interventions with regard to their personal religious practice. Perhaps then it is time to look at the dissent as an exercise for the Tibetans to become more self-reliant. The Dalai Lama won't be around to coach his people forever. The sooner they learn to figure out what they want, the better.

I don't know whether the "Dorje Shugden Tibetans" are aware of it but with their refusal to comply, they have created a historical precedence: For the first time since Lama Tsongkhapa, we now have a section of the Gelugpas that is completely cut off from the old ways of "religion and politics combined". These renegade monasteries and lay practitioners are now as independent as the Nyingmapa, Sakyapa and Kagyupa have been, never coming into the orbit of government. Could it be then that the Tibetan dispute so painful to observe at present, will be looked upon by later generations as a watershed in history, when a part of the Gelugpas was able to shake off the burden of government and become a normal Tibetan Buddhist school? In the heat of the polemics it may be difficult to envision this transition, but the Dorje Shugden supporters dominating the headlines are hardly representative of the whole group. There are less visible Tibetan masters, monks and and lay practitioners who stand on their ethics, and who focus on their spiritual practice to benefit others. By keeping a low profile, they help to avoid adding fuel to the fire. They also remain respectful of His Holiness the Dalai Lama though they do not share his view on the protector. 

It would be desirable for the head of the Gelugpa school, the so-called "Throne holder of Ganden" or Ganden Tripa, to play a more active role and put things into perspective for everyone. Dharmapalas are personal and not a main practice. Amidst the hype, a molehill appears like a mountain. The Ganden Tripa should also lead efforts to dissipate the doubts cast on the authenticity of the spiritual transmission. Furthermore, he should be at the forefront to investigate with ruthless candor the political role his order played during the Ganden Phodrang rule. At the same time it is clear that the Ganden Tripa's hands are tied. Even the person who represents Lama Tsongkhapa on earth has trouble stepping out of the Dalai Lama's shadow. The entire discussion is not easy because previous Dalai Lamas, especially the 5th to which the current 14th seems to feel particular affinity, are themselves implied in sectarian conflicts and the Dalai Lama is still among us, active in public affairs and dominating public opinion. It doesn't help either that, unlike the other Tibetan Buddhist schools, the big Gelugpa monasteries in India, including the throne holder of Ganden, are under the administration of the exile government and receive funding from them. - How can Lama Tsongkhapa's earthly deputy find a good way to act in the best interest of the lineage, irrespective of political concerns and without making His Holiness the Dalai Lama appear in a bad light?

This was my high-level take on the issue based on the free flow of thoughts. I hope it didn't add to the confusion or oversimplify the problem. My big picture can be summed up with the motto "Life punishes those who delay". The ugly dispute we currently have is the price the Tibetans are paying for their unresolved past. They prefer to localise the problem in an external source, in this case Dorje Shugden, when what is really required would be a critical self-analysis and the Gelugpas doing some serious introspection regarding their historical role: To what extent did the order compromise its ethics due to exercising state power?

With my prayers for peaceful co-existence
Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

"When others, out of jealousy, mistreat me
With abuse, insult and the like,
May I take the defeat upon myself
And may I offer the victory to others."

5th verse from the Lojong text "Training of the Mind in Eight Verses", by the 11th-century Kadampa master Geshe Langri Tangpa Dorje Senge; the text is commonly used in Bodhisattva-training.