“No. I won’t list it,” was his response. “Do you realize that your organization is against His Holiness, the Dalai Lama?” No, I didn’t know that. In my two years of studies at the center I had heard no mention of being against any sentient being, never mind the Dalai Lama.
My teacher, Gen Kelsang Tonglam, was a Hong Kong Chinese monk with a shaved head who wore maroon and saffron robes and seemed astoundingly wise for someone in his late thirties. He radiated wisdom, compassion and humor—and would draw large audiences for his free Tuesday night meditation classes. The fact that he looked like a Buddha but spoke with a slight Northern English accent (where I was born and where he went to boarding school) only made him all the more intriguing to me.
In our Saturday afternoon Foundation Program, my 30-or so classmates and I would spend hours every week reciting and poring over The Heart Sutra, listening to our teacher read a commentary, discuss the logic, and meditate as a group. The classes were helping me start to access the inner movements of my mind. I was learning to meditate and acquire the skills to recognize, reduce and abandon negative states of mind. Through the clarity of Buddha’s wisdom teachings, I was also starting to sense the virtual architecture of samsara: the iron net of mental conditioning that keeps us trapped in suffering. The center was full of really normal people—a few hundred of them—trying to tame their minds and build inner peace. So I was stunned by the response from this editor.
What on earth was he talking about?
I went to the center to find out. My friend, Ting Ting, calmly explained that in the late 1990s, members of the Kadampa Buddhist community in the United Kingdom had organized peaceful demonstrations to ask the Dalai Lama to lift his ban of the Buddhist deity Dorje Shugden. There was a BBC story about it that year, in which the Dalai Lama says that after engaging in the practice himself until he was about 50-years-old, he decided that it was spirit worship and it was harming Tibetan independence and his own life. He made this decision in the 1970s and 20 years or so later, disharmony was arising in monestaries between those who practiced these prayers and those who did not. The Dalai Lama launched a "referendum" on this in 1998. (You can watch the Dalai Lama speak before it began here. You can read a list of objections to the way the referendum was carried out here.)* His government in exile then sent out the directive that all monks and nuns who did not also abandon this practice be expelled from monasteries. All those who continued the practice were ostracized from society—there are accounts of people not being allowed into monestaries, denied government IDs, healthcare, access to schools and basic human rights.
My root teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso was a close student of Trijang Rinpoche’s and a contemporary of the Dalai Lamas—both are in the Gelugpa school. When Geshe Kelsang travelled to the United Kingdom from Nepal in the late 1970s, he brought these lineage teachings with him in their entirety. He set up the New Kadampa Tradition as a Western charitable organization. Since then, the teachings have spread to more than 1,200 meditation centers around the world.
If you check what we get up to in these centers, it’s pretty normal Buddhist stuff. There are shrines with Buddha Shakyamuni, Avalokiteshvara, Tara and Manjushri, among many other deities including Dorje Shugden. In addition to the study classes, we engage in daily practices such as the 21 Lamrim meditations (Stages on the Path to Enlightenment), retreats and pujas such as Heart Jewel, beautiful prayers where we go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, generate bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment - “may I become a Buddha for the benefit of all”), guru yoga practices, and finally short prayers to Dorje Shugden—may obstacles to my spiritual path be pacified. It is a really calm and compassionate set of prayers.
But then, in the late 2000s, demonstrations were being organized again and I had to deal with the issue first-hand. Several people from my center in Hong Kong went to Australia to ask the Dalai Lama to grant religious freedom—as more monks and nuns were suffering. I didn’t go and many others didn’t. In fact, quite a few people left the center because of all the controversy. I don’t blame them; no one wants to look like they’re against the Dalai Lama, or be taken for a crazy cult member. From the outside, those protests look just nutty. But look closer, and you will hear them just saying, please allow us to continue our religion.
Here’s the thing I was really struggling with: I am a trained journalist, I studied philosophy and literature in university, and have books by the Dalai Lama lining my bookshelves as well as volumes by many other Buddhist teachers, all of whom I admire. I like to think of myself of a fairly sane, open-minded person with the ability to spot a cult when I see one. I remember sitting at home with an uncomfortable, tight feeling in my chest, looking at my shrine with its images of Buddha Shakyamuni, flowers and water bowl offerings and thinking, is this bad? From what I could tell, the only effect of my studies was that I was becoming more patient, happy and loving. After sitting with it for weeks, I decided to just quietly continue with my path. My teachers were too kind, rational and caring and the teachings were too valid for me to walk away from them. Things became quiet—and the storm passed.
So I started to do some deeper research.
I watched this Swiss TV documentary that explains the kind of human rights violations that Dorje Shugden practitioners have been experiencing for decades. It involves a heart-breaking scene where former bodyguards of the Dalai Lama who helped him escape from Tibet to India, monks who must be in their 80s, sit by a river with tears streaming down their faces as they explain the ways in which the ban has affected them.
I read this interview with my teacher, Geshe Kelsang, in Tricycle Magazine in 1998—where he rationally explains the history and lineage of this tradition and how all he wishes is for people to be allowed to continue these prayers. I started to see that actually, the Dalai Lama’s own teachers had practiced this—and then I began to question the motives for banning it. All I can tell from what he’s said on the subject is that the motivation is political—the practice is harming Tibet’s independence. Should a reason like this be allowed to discontinue a spiritual tradition? Or is the mixing of politics and religion no longer such a good idea in our modern world?
I believe that the Dalai Lama is a good person with a kind heart - I have great respect for him and have been taught to always view those in ordained robes as sangha jewels and objects of my faith. This is a basic Buddhist refuge vow. I am a British-born writer who grew up in Hong Kong since the age of two; my roots and my heart lies in Hong Kong, which is currently going through a very difficult transition back to Mainland China—Hong Kong’s singular identity is coming under threat so I can identify with the Tibetan people’s fear of being wiped out. And I certainly do not want to criticize anyone else’s teacher. Faith is an essential part of Buddhist practice. However logic and rationality are also vital elements of the path, as is compassion and the precept to treat all beings with love, respect and kindness.
The protests began last Friday, February 22nd in California. They will continue in Washington D.C. next week. I don't think I'm going because, frankly, I’m not brave enough to stand on the street in protest: my ego clinging is far too strong for that. I am a writer however, so I will approach this—perhaps cowardly—by picking up my laptop and writing from my heart.
And all I want to say is this: please may a Buddhist practice that has continued for hundreds of years be given the humanity and respect and right to continue - please may it not be banned from our world. And if the ban will not be lifted—please may the Dalai Lama offer an open dialogue on the subject. Set up an open forum with my teachers and others who have been affected by this ban to calmly, rationally, and happily discuss the subject. That’s all the protesters have been asking for. And surely that's the compassionate, Buddhist approach.