The Politics of Tibet’s Poisonous Religious Divide
By David Lauge, Paul Mooney & Benjamin Kang Lim 22 December 2015
HONG KONG — The doctrinal schism that the Chinese Communist Party is using to hound the Dalai Lama arose long ago in the internecine politics of his own school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Dalai Lamas are drawn from the dominant Gelugpa School, one of the four major Buddhist traditions in Tibet.
When the 5th Dalai Lama united Tibet in the 17th Century, he made an effort to embrace the other schools to enhance political unity, according to the French Tibetologist Thierry Dodin.
This move angered other senior members of the Gelugpa School who opposed sharing power and privilege. They united in a clique within their school around the worship of Dorje Shugden, then a little-known “protector deity.”
Over the centuries, Shugden devotees came to dominate the Gelugpa School and the religious politics of Tibet. After the Communists came to power in 1949, Shugden practitioners became influential in the exiled Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. At first, they were hostile to Beijing, particularly after Tibetan monasteries and cultural relics were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
That changed with the current Dalai Lama, 14th in the line. He too had been educated under senior Shugden monks. But from the mid-1970s, he began to shape a more inclusive doctrine. In part, this was a political move aimed at unifying the different traditions in Tibetan Buddhism in the face of pressure from Beijing, according to Dodin and other Tibet scholars.
During a period of reflection, the Dalai Lama began to question the value of Shugden worship on the grounds it was harmful. In 1996, he publicly advised his followers to shun the practice. Since then, scholars say, there has been a gradual shift towards Beijing by the Shugden movement—a move that accelerated in the past decade.
China is careful to avoid obvious public references to its Shugden strategy. But on the ground, evidence abounds that Beijing has thrown its weight behind Shugden devotees.
Chinese authorities have poured funds into rebuilding and maintaining Shugden monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region and surrounding provinces. Reports in the state-run media show that China has financed extensive restoration at the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery in Yunnan Province and the Dungkar Monastery near Tibet’s frontier with India, both leading Shugden monasteries.
“There’s a massive drive to keep the remaining Shugden strongholds alive with a lot of support from the party,” said Dodin, director of the website TibetInfoNet. “This does not mean that others are left in decrepitude, but there is no such thing as a poor Shugden monastery.”
Buddhists who openly follow the Dalai Lama’s teachings face persecution by Chinese authorities, according to human rights groups and exiled Tibetans. It is now a criminal offence to discourage Shugden worship, they say.
Beijing also allows Shugden monks to travel overseas to teach and study with foreign Buddhists and exiled Tibetans.
In December 2012, Beijing sponsored the visit to Switzerland of Lama Jampa Ngodup Wangchuk Rinpoche, the first Tibetan lama sent abroad by the government to teach, according to the website dorjeshugden.com, one of the websites that publish news and commentary about the sect.
“By officially nominating him to travel abroad to teach, this would mean that the Chinese government is openly encouraging the proliferation of Buddhism, China’s ancient heritage and Dorje Shudgen’s practice,” an article on the website said.
Another clear signal of Beijing’s preference: Senior Shugden monks are central to China’s effort to educate the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in religious stature.
In 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized a six-year-old Tibetan boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. The boy and his family soon disappeared; Chinese authorities have said he is in protective custody. To sideline the Dalai Lama’s choice, Beijing then recognized another Tibetan boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as Panchen Lama. This maneuver was crucial to Beijing’s plans to control Tibetan Buddhism, as the Panchen Lama plays a major role in recognizing reincarnations of the Dalai Lama, according to supporters of the Dalai Lama and experts on Tibetan Buddhism.
Many of the senior teachers responsible for educating Beijing’s hand-picked Panchen Lama are Shugden practitioners, according to experts on Tibetan Buddhism. Lama Gangchen, the most influential Shugden monk living abroad, has been photographed with this Panchen Lama as well.
President Xi Jinping in June met the party-approved Panchen Lama in Beijing. The monk told Xi he would “resolutely uphold the unity of the motherland and its people,” state television reported.
Chinese authorities have put aside their atheist convictions to insist they will vet the selection of the next Dalai Lama, according to official statements and reports in the state-run media.
This is part of an effort to ensure that the future spiritual leader of the more than six million ethnic Tibetans in Tibet and bordering provinces are loyal to the Communist Party. In response, the Dalai Lama has suggested he may reincarnate outside China or, perhaps, not at all.
That idea drew an outraged response from Zhu Weiqun, the point man in Beijing’s efforts to neutralize the Dalai Lama. “The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has to be endorsed by the central government, not by any other sides, including the Dalai Lama himself,” Zhu said, according to a March 11 report in the state-run Xinhua news agency.