14 December 2015

Commentary on a controversy

It is rare that I feel the need to write in a way that could be viewed as being critical of another person or group. Those who know me will know that I have a very inclusive approach. For example, for over 3 decades I have been consistent in advocating an inclusive or integrated approach to health matters generally and cancer management specifically, and I have spoken at many Interfaith gatherings.

However, having been asked regularly to explain why people gather to demonstrate against the Dalai Lama, and why there is another Buddhist public talk scheduled on the same night Sogyal Rinpoche is to speak in Melbourne on January 5th, there may be benefit in me speaking personally, not on behalf of anyone else, and explaining my understanding of the context. To do so, I have quoted heavily from Wikipedia, but first

                Thought for the day

      Do not be idolatrous about or bound to 
     Any doctrine, theory, or ideology, 
     Even Buddhist ones. 
     All systems of thought are guiding means; 
     They are not absolute truth.

                          Thich Nhat Hanh

The Dalai Lama is well known for his inclusive approach. 
He has made major contributions to the Inter-Faith movement, speaking at many major gatherings around the world that promote better understanding and better relationships between people of different faiths.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are four major groups, a bit like the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church groups in the Christian tradition. The Dalai Lama comes from the Gelugpa group, which in recent times many would regard as the largest and most influential of the four, but again, he has been very inclusive and supportive of the other three. But not so everyone.

The practice of Shugden and where it originated
Back in the 1930s, a very influential teacher, Pabongkha, noting the flourishing “Rime” or ecumenical movement amongst the Tibetan Buddhists of that time, regarded the practice of non-Gelugpa teachings by Gelugpa monks as a threat to the Gelugpa-tradition, and opposed the influence of the other schools, especially the Nyingma – which is Sogyal Rinpoche’s lineage.

Pabongka used a specific spiritual practice, Dorje Shugden, as a central plank in his strong opposition. Pabongka fashioned Shugden as a violent protector of the Gelug school against other traditions, and one who harms any Gelugpa practitioner who blends his practice with non-Gelugpa practices.

The Dalai Lama of those days was opposed to all of this and placed restrictions on the practice of Shugden. Pabongka apologized and promised not to practice Shugden any more.

The practice of Shugden and why the Dalai Lama opposes it
The conflict next reappeared with the publication of the Yellow Book in 1976. The text asserts the pre-eminence of the Gelug school which is symbolised and safeguarded by Dorje Shugden, and presents a stern warning to those within the Gelug whose eclectic tendencies would compromise its purity.

The current Dalai Lama publicly rejected The Yellow Book, stating that it could only damage the common cause of the Tibetan people because of its sectarian divisiveness. Also, after studying the scriptures in-depth, the Dalai Lama concluded that the practice of Shugden did not belong in Tibetan monasteries. He advised everyone against the practice and requested that people who did practice Shugden not come to his talks. Not everyone was happy.

The rise of the New Kadampa Tradition
Next step in all this is the rise to prominence of Kelsang Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, monk and scholar from the Gelug Tradition who promoted the practice of Shugden.

Kelsang Gyatso was a contemporary of Lama Yeshe, the founder of the FPMT (Tara House), a Tibetan Gelugpa group that is closely aligned with the Dalai Lama, has centres worldwide and is involved in activities like organizing the very successful Mind and its Potential conferences.

In the late 1970s, Kelsang Gyatso was working closely with Lama Yeshe, but then without consulting Lama Yeshe, he opened up a Buddhist Centre in York under his own spiritual direction. Commentators see this as the beginning of a conflict between Lama Yeshe and Kelsang Gyatso, that led to quite a schism.

In 1991, Kelsang Gyatso founded The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT—IKBU). This is now a global Buddhist organization registered in England as a charitable, or non-profit, company. It currently lists more than 200 centres and around 900 branch classes/study groups in forty countries.

Followers of the NKT—IKBU refer to themselves as Kadampa Buddhists. The temples of the New Kadampa Tradition are referred to as Kadampa Buddhist Temples, and more recently, NKT—IKBU teachers are named Kadampa teachers.

Whereas the NKT-IKBU celebrate Kelsang Gyatso as the one who "is primarily responsible for the worldwide revival of Kadampa Buddhism in our time”, critics have described The New Kadampa Tradition as a breakaway sect or cult and argue it is not part of the ancient Kadampa Tradition but a split from the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Why the protests?
The problem would seem to be that Shugden practitioners are angry that their practice is no longer part of the mainstream of Tibetan Buddhism. They blame the Dalai Lama for this. They want to discredit him and try to force him to reverse his decision through harassment.

Robert Thurman, a leading Tibetan scholar (and yes, father of Uma Thurman), states that the International Shugden Community, which is the main organizer for the demonstrations, is a front group of the New Kadampa Tradition.

Chinese involvement
To complicate matters further, according to Thurman, Shugden activities are financed by the United Front Work Department of the government of China as part of its strategy against the Dalai Lama. Raimondo Bultrini documents the Chinese coordination of Shugden activity in the book The Dalai Lama and the King Demon.

Writing in 2010, Warren Smith claims that within Chinese controlled territory, the Chinese government demands monks to worship Shugden, in conjunction with forcing them to denounce the Dalai Lama and fly the Chinese national flag.

According to the Tibetologist Thierry Dodin, "China had encouraged division among the Tibetans by promoting followers of the Dorje Shugden sect to key positions of authority.

What is happening in Melbourne? 
The New Kadampa Tradition has its Australian headquarters in Monbulk and it has what is called the Kadampa Meditation Centre at 140 Queen St. Meditation groups and other activities are presented at various other locations around the city.

It may well be pure coincidence that a free Kadampa meditation event has been scheduled and highly publicized in Melbourne at the very time Sogyal Rinpoche (a close friend and prominent supporter of the Dalai Lama and another who actively advocates Inter-Faith and inclusive approaches) will be speaking at the Collingwood Town Hall.

Now while it needs to be clear that I am writing personally on my blog and do not do so as a representative of Rigpa or Sogyal Rinpoche, I do know for a fact that it can be categorically stated that the Rigpa organisers of this event had no prior knowledge of the Kadampa plans and again, it is probably just coincidence.

However, for anyone wondering about the context, hopefully you are better informed and can make up your own mind!

Sliding doors





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