Meet the Buddhists Who Hate the Dalai Lama More Than the Chinese Do

Meet the Buddhists Who Hate the Dalai Lama More Than the Chinese Do

On Feb. 5, roughly 100 people affiliated with the fringe sect of Buddhism that worships the spirit Dorje Shugden chanted slogans and waved signs denouncing the Dalai Lama outside the Hilton in downtown Washington, D.C. Inside the hotel, U.S. President Barack Obama was headlining the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, was in attendance. One of the movement’s members handed me a flier; among other disparaging accusations, it claimed that the Dalai Lama is “the worst dictator in this modern day.”

I asked one of the movement’s spokespeople, 41-year-old William Fettig, a former Long Island middle school English teacher, whether he actually thought that the Dalai Lama is the worst dictator in the modern world. He did. Another man, a 37-year-old Shugden follower from Washington state who declined to give his name, told me that the Dalai Lama might actually be a Muslim because he has not expressly claimed to be a Buddhist. And unlike Obama, another famous person spuriously accused of being a Muslim, the Dalai Lama has never denied being a Muslim, this man told me.

Dorje Shugden is an obscure trickster spirit, believed to have originated in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in the 17th century. And though the spirit’s followers in the Western world probably number only a few thousand, they’ve been surprisingly successful at generating attention for themselves and their campaign to discredit the Dalai Lama. Recently, Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Washington Post, among other outlets, have covered the Shugden followers’ protests, and in a measured tone — surprising for the absurdity of the Shugden followers’ claims. In its Feb. 6 edition, Newsweek put the Dalai Lama on its cover with the headline “Relentless: The Real Dalai Lama.” A Shugden supporter gleefully handed me a photocopy of the article, in part because the article included the subheading “False Dalai Lama” — the same chant Shugden followers make at protests.

Besides protesting the Dalai Lama during his trips to the United States and Europe, Shugden followers produce websites filled with anti-Dalai Lama material and write and distribute pamphlets, articles, and books denouncing the Dalai Lama. Consider, for example, The False Dalai Lama: The Worst Dictator in the Modern World, published in October 2013. The book describes its purpose as helping people to “understand the deceptive nature” of the Dalai Lama, who stands accused of “destroying pure Buddhism in this world.” If that weren’t enough, it depicts the Tibetan spiritual leader as a “Muslim” who is firmly in the grip of a “fascination with war and Nazism.”

One might think, given Beijing’s well-known hostility toward the Tibetan spiritual leader, that the book is a work of calumny sponsored by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But its publishers are, in fact, enthusiastic Buddhists. Specifically, the International Shugden Community (ISC), a California-based organization representing a small religious sect whose members worship Dorje Shugden, and whose website claims its mission is “exposing the dark side of the Dalai Lama.”

There is no evidence to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party funds the ISC or any of its affiliated organizations, which are based in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, India, and China itself. But the goals of the Shugden movement — to discredit the Dalai Lama and weaken his hold as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people — align nicely with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party. One of China’s major policies “is to divide and rule,” said Thubten Samphel, the head of the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank for the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. “We feel they are using Dorje Shugden as a force not only to oppose the leadership of [the Dalai Lama],” he told me, “but to sow dissension within the Tibetan community.”

Beijing wants to appoint the next Dalai Lama or to credibly announce that the current Dalai Lama will be the last of the line. “Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China,” Zhu Weiqun, a top religious affairs official in the Chinese Communist Party, said in mid-March. The weaker the current one is when he passes away — he’s 79 years old and in good health — the easier the government’s job will be. And if Beijing succeeds, the Shugden folks will deserve — depending on whom you ask — some of the credit or some of the blame.

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The thousands of Westerners, as well as a small number of Tibetans, mostly living in the West, who worship Dorje Shugden tend to follow the teachings of a Tibetan named Kelsang Gyatso. In 1991, Kelsang Gyatso founded a Buddhist movement called the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a meditation-heavy practice affiliated with the ISC. It’s unclear where the anti-Dalai Lama vitriol comes from, though it appears to have been a political move by Kelsang Gyatso, who saw it as a way to grow his influence. An 84-year-old Tibetan monk who according to several sources interviewed for this article lives somewhere in London, Kelsang Gyatso hasn’t been seen in public since October 2013 and may be sick, though several of his followers denied that. (In an emailed response, an employee of NKT said that Kelsang Gyatso is retired, “in strict retreat,” and was unavailable for an interview.)

“To me, he was the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my life,” Fettig, who was ordained as an NKT monk in 2004, told me, looking calmly into my eyes. “I just thought he was a beautiful being.”

Nicholas Pitts, a 41-year-old with a shaved head and easy smile, is also very involved in the movement, working as a spokesperson and helping to put together media materials disparaging the Dalai Lama. Over lunch in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, Pitts, who lives in Hong Kong, where he works as a meditation teacher, described Dorje Shugden as sort of a spiritual personal trainer. He sent me a passage from Heart Jewel, a 1991 book written by Kelsang Gyatso: “[Dorje Shugden] always helps, guides, and protects pure and faithful practitioners by granting blessings, increasing their wisdom, fulfilling their wishes, and bestowing success on all their virtuous activities,” it reads.

Worshipping Dorje Shugden outside Tibet is a relatively new phenomenon, one that basically began in the early 1990s, when Kelsang Gyatso started the NKT. Inside Tibet, however, Dorje Shugden has long been a troublesome presence, almost like a Tibetan version of a mischievous trickster god — one whom some Tibetans have felt the need to propitiate. Dorje Shugden can be translated as “the powerful man with a thunderbolt.” He’s often portrayed as a man riding a fierce snow lion; sometimes he has a third eye in the middle of his forehead. Some, including the Dalai Lama, call him Dolgyal, which roughly translates as “the devious spirit from the land of Dol” and which many Shugden practitioners find offensive.

An expert on the theology of Dorje Shugden, 36-year-old Tibetan monk Yangten Rimpoche studies Buddhist texts in Dharamsala — the Indian town at the foothills of the Himalayas that hosts the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Yangten traces the spirit back to the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), remembered as a great scholar king. There are other origin stories for Dorje Shugden, but Yangten told me that in late 17th-century Tibet, people in Lhasa “would suddenly fall sick or see demons.” Discordant noises could be heard at random throughout the city, he said, for which Dorje Shugden was deemed responsible. Somewhere around 1674, “seven high lamas performed a fire exorcism to eliminate it,” he said. This was apparently successful, he told me, and the smell of burning flesh wafted across the plateau.

Tibet was a theocracy — its religious leaders were also its heads of government — and it seems appropriate that the tricky spirit Dorje Shugden caused so much political controversy throughout Tibetan history. Over the past few centuries, disputes involving whether or not to worship Dorje Shugden would occasionally re-emerge, mostly within Gelugpa, the school of Tibetan Buddhism associated with the Dalai Lama. High lamas would pray to Dorje Shugden and then subsequently denounce him. Schisms appeared, widened, and were eventually smoothed over through bloodshed and compromise.

Which is what happened in the modern era, as well: in March 1996, the current Dalai Lama admitted that although he used to worship Dorje Shugden, he came to the conclusion that Dorje Shugden is a “vow-breaking demon.” Shugden followers claim the Dalai Lama subsequently banned Shugden worship. Instead, the Dalai Lama instituted a new requirement that followers of Shugden not attend the Dalai Lama’s formal religious teachings, said Robbie Barnett, who directs the program of Modern Tibet Studies at Columbia. Certain monasteries that follow the Dalai Lama also asked their practitioners not to worship Shugden, though it’s unclear if the Dalai Lama himself ordered this, Barnett added.

Today, a minority of the roughly 6 million Tibetans living inside China worship Dorje Shugden. Exactly how large or small a minority is hard to ascertain: Since violent protests in March 2008, it has been extremely difficult to get credible information on sensitive issues inside Tibet. Pitts estimated that “comfortably 2 million inside Greater Tibet” worship the protector deity. In a recent news release, ISC claimed that “people of [the] Shugden faith account for over four million people worldwide.”

The Western Tibetologists I interviewed believe that this number is ridiculously inflated, but agree that Shugden worship is a phenomenon in Tibet. “Maybe there’s 100,000 Tibetan supporters of Dorje Shugden, but you could choose to worship the spirit at home” but not publicly, said a Western academic who studies Tibet and who asked to speak anonymously. “Many people won’t say it openly, because it could mean ostracism with those who support the Dalai Lama’s view,” said an American Tibetologist who asked to speak on background because he doesn’t want to get publicly involved in the Shugden issue — other sources had mentioned emailed harassment from Shugden followers. For his part, Barnett, estimates that roughly 10 percent of lamas inside Tibet teach their followers to propitiate Dorje Shugden and that a much smaller fraction of them teach that Dorje Shugden “is to be worshipped as a form of the Buddha. It is this second and now more controversial practice that the NKT promotes.”

While Shugden followers in the West likely greatly exaggerate the level of discrimination experienced by their brethren in the East, it certainly exists. In May 2014, the website of the Tibetan government in exile posted a list of Shugden followers “who took part in protests against His Holiness the Dalai Lama” on his visits to the United States and Europe. The government even lists the address of one of the protesters, potentially endangering her. In Dharamsala in December, when I interviewed Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, he denied that there is government discrimination, but told me that perhaps on the individual level for some Tibetans, “there might be some reservations” about the Shugden worshippers. “Our position is very clear,” Penpa Tsering, the speaker of parliament for the Tibetan government in exile, told me. “If you’re a Dorje Shugden follower, please don’t come to the empowerment teachings of the Dalai Lama!” As for the Dalai Lama himself? “We feel very uncomfortable to be associated” with Shugden followers, he said as part of an online Chinese Q&A session in July 2010. “Apart from that, we have done nothing to throw them out of the Tibetan settlements.”

Many members of the Tibetan government in exile, as well as some American Tibetologists, believe that Beijing so obviously gains from this rift in the Tibetan community that the Chinese must be helping to fund the Shugden movement. “We know that people who profess and teach have easy access to go to China or Tibet,” said Tsering. “The way and manner that they organize themselves, their slogans and statements, it looks very likely that Chinese influence is present there.” Shugden spokespeople strenuously deny this. Indeed, it remains unclear whether the movement receives money from the Chinese government. If Shugden followers in Tibet are anywhere near as numerous as their spokespeople claim, that would suggest they receive at least tacit support from Beijing. Details inside Tibet, however, are sparse.

The remark of one young Tibetan woman in Dharamsala, who asked that I not mention her name so that she could speak freely, seemed to represent the widely held view among Tibetan exiles. “Whether we have actual proof or not,” she told me, followers of Dorje Shugden “are being supported by the Chinese.” (The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Repeated calls to the city of Lhasa’s Publicity Department went unanswered.) What does seem clear, however, is that Beijing recognizes that this is a situation it can spin to its advantage. Chinese propaganda officials have used the allegations by the Western Shugden protesters “as a new way to attack the Dalai Lama,” Barnett says — and China seems to have continued to make frequent use of them by encouraging the worship of Dorje Shugden inside Tibet. “They seem to have viewed them as a golden opportunity,” he said.

So if not from China, then from where do the ISC and the NKT get their money? Suzanne Newcombe, who has researched the NKT at the London School of Economics, said that “the evidence is they rely heavily” on volunteering, as well as charging members and nonmembers for classes and retreats. Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, claimed that the money for the Shugden organization comes from worshippers “selling their apartments and houses” and giving the money to the organization. Fettig, the NKT monk, said he has “no idea” whether people high up in the organization have gotten rich.

At the Washington Shugden protest, I also met a stonecutter by the name of Sonam Lama who insisted that the group is poor — at least at the lower levels. “We went to a protest in Vancouver, and we paid for it,” ourselves, he told me. In the hotels they often stay it, “there are “two beds for three people, or four people,” he said. Pitts, the meditation teacher, also painted the organization as bare-bones. When they travel they take overnight buses, he said, stay at “cockroach-infested slum holes,” and eat “dried-out sandwiches.”

It’s hard not to conclude that Beijing is the only winner in this dispute.

Of all the Shugden worshippers I spoke with, Pitts was the most eloquent in articulating their cause, passionately trumpeting the iniquity of the Dalai Lama. At the protest, I spoke with an older man from Los Angeles who said his name was Neil. When I asked him about Kelsang Gyatso, he told me he had been to a teaching presided over by the NKT founder. Kelsang Gyatso “is a humble man, an incredible man,” Neil said. Suddenly, a woman came up to us and said I had to stop speaking to him. She told me he had to return to his job of handing out fliers. “He has a job to do,” she said, and pulled him away. She declined to give her name or to answer any questions, and she marched brusquely away. Pitts, who witnessed the altercation, shrugged his shoulders and turned away, a sad smile on his face.