"A classification system used to categorise humans into distinct populations or groups by anatomical, cultural, ethnic, genetic, geographical, historical, linguistic, religious, and/or social affiliation.”
Racism can be defined as:
“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
When a group of people are labeled according to a certain religious belief or affiliation and their access to public services, jobs, livelihoods and social freedoms are denied or restricted on the basis of this belief or affiliation this is racism.
Dorje Shugden Debate
In what was billed as being the first of its kind, the eagerly awaited panel discussion entitled, "The Shugden Controversy and the 14th Dalai Lama" took place in London on Friday 15th August at the SOAS University.
I had planned to attend and report from the event itself, however due to a rapid change in my commitments I was unable to be present in person. I was however lucky enough to catch up with the event via the miracle of YouTube.
As I tuned in waiting for the sparks to fly and the discussion to get to grips with the issues at the heart of this debate my initial enthusiasm and expectation gradually deflated. Each speaker seemed to talk at cross purposes to one another according to their own individual agenda, without ever really getting into a discussion.
Half-way through the event it became clear that possibly the most controversial part of the entire panel was the chosen line up of guest speakers.
Hidden (or not so hidden) Agendas
The event promised to, "address the controversy surrounding the propitiation of Dorje Shugden in the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism", however it seemed more about addressing the issue of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and Dorje Shugden. The relationship between the Gelug school and Dorje Shugden was hardly touched on, but the phrase, "NKT" was repeated almost endlessly from everyone except the International Shugden Community (ISC) speakers (for obvious reasons).
I found it strange that there was such a focus on this issue - it was as if Dorje Shugden is now synonymous with the NKT. Whereas NKT members certainly make up the majority of the protesters in the west the issue is not about that school of Buddhism, but according to the majority of panel members it would seem it is.
For example one of the speakers was Carol McQuire, an ex-NKT member who spent almost her entire time berating and criticising the tradition. Irrespective of whether any of her claims were valid or not she was completely out of place in a panel discussion about Gelug orthodoxy and Dorje Shugden.
Days before the discussion took place Carol was asked what her intention was for taking part in the discussion. She replied, "Intent? Showing a bit about how the NKT 'works' from the view of an insider. If it can help people not get involved as they can see a bit more of what you do inside the group, then, that would be a good result."
This seems to indicate that the intention behind including Carol in the panel discussion was nothing to do with the Gelug practitioners of Dorje Shugden, but was designed to conflate the issue with the NKT and to try and discredit that school.
This issue is about the Tibetan exile community whose members are discriminated against on the basis of their practice of Dorje Shugden, not the NKT. Such an unusual focus on the NKT not only wasted the opportunity the discussion presented for real dialogue but also led me to seriously doubt some of the intentions behind it.
The first speaker was Kelsang Rabten who was from the ISC. Rather than talking about, "Refuting the claim of Tenzin Gyatso as an authentic Dalai Lama", which he was billed to speak about he talked instead about the protests.
He explained why the protesters ask the Dalai Lama to stop lying and why they ask him for religious freedom.
Geshe Tashi Tsering
The next speaker was Geshe Tashi Tsering who said he was just giving his own personal experience and comment rather than representing any organisation.
He made the point that Dorje Shugden was never taught in Lama Tsongkhapa's teachings, that in his opinion the practice had always caused problems and that the NKT are behind the protests.
The next speaker was Carol McQuire who similarly to Geshe Tashi Tsering said she was just there to present her own views and personal experience.
She explained how she used to be part of the NKT and how she experienced the practice of Dorje Shugden and how it had caused her problems.
Dr. Martin A. Mills
Following Carol was Dr. Martin A. Mills who was scheduled to speak about, "Human rights and the Shugden ban amongst Himalayan communities", but instead decided to speak about his time as a young anthropologist staying at a Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, India.
He made a quip that he wasn't going to speak about human rights because I had questioned his qualifications and independence to speak about the violations of human rights the CTA stands accused of (click here).
Next up was Thierry Dodin who was to talk about, "From Lhasa to Singapore. History and function of Shugden worship". Thierry also decided to change his talk a little, instead opting to focus on what aspects of Dorje Shugden he thinks are a problem and why it became a widespread practice throughout the Gelug school.
Finally we had another ISC speaker, John McBretney, who talked about the human rights abuses and religious discrimination people in the Tibetan exile community faced as a result of the Dalai Lama's ban on Dorje Shugden practice.
Dr Nathan Hill
Wrapping it all up Dr Hill summarised everyone's points and addressed his disagreement or approval of them. There then followed a 5 minute slot for each speaker to address or refute any points, followed once more by Dr Hill's summary.
The ISC, which is often presented by the Tibetan government as being terrorists, radical fanatics and so forth, actually came across as the most reasonable members of the panel, which turned out to be a bit of a surprise.
For instance Kelsang Rabten questioned the Dalai Lama's claims that Dorje Shugden practice imperils his life and the cause of Tibet by saying:
"I question whether any reasonable person could really believe that the reason the Chinese invaded Tibet is because of some people praying to Dorje Shugden. I would question whether any reasonable person could really believe that the reason the Chinese continue to occupy Tibet is because of some people praying to Dorje Shugden. And I don't think any reasonable person really believes the Dalai Lama's life is in danger if people continue to follow their teachers advice by praying to Dorje Shugden. So I would say none of these statements are true and when we say stop lying these are the statements we are referring to."
To which Dr Hill later responded by claiming that it wasn't implausible that praying to Dorje Shugden imperils the Dalai Lama's life. He used the example of the 5th Dalai Lama who made prayers as a form of warfare, but noted that he also used an army. He stated, "If a tantric ritual is capable of killing Mongols, it's probably also capable of harming the life of the Dalai Lama."
In actual fact the 5th Dalai Lama used the Mongolian prince Güshi Khan's army to crush his Tibetan opponents in an extremely bloody war which consolidated his power throughout Tibet. Comparing the effectiveness of a tantric ritual to a marauding Mongol army is, I feel, overstating the case a little.
Dr Mills also seemed to support the bizarre theory that Dorje Shugden prayers harm the life of the Dalai Lama stating, "I'm going to reiterate Nathan's point, protector deities are political. They have been in Tibetan history forever. They are constitutional entities. Protector deities were regularly and systematically used in warfare. They were used against the British in 1886, unfortunately the British had Bren guns. Consequently that's why many of the Tibetans after being wiped out by the British decided that Queen Victoria must be a manifestation of the protector deity Palden Lhamo because she's obviously got some serious firepower."
So whilst trying to support the statement that Dorje Shugden prayers harm the Dalai Lama's life Dr Mills actually demonstrated how ineffective protector deities are at harming people.
This is just a small example of how absurd the panel discussion was. The academics who were supposedly there to present some authority and independence instead managed to look a little ridiculous because they were trying so hard to support the Dalai Lama's strange justifications for the ban.
Another such example was in the summary statement made by Dr Hill when he referred to the concept of religious freedom. He said, "I'm a little surprised that either the International Shugden Community or Carol vis a vis the NKT expects freedom from religion. Religion is all about authority and discipline and doing what you're told."
I'm personally not surprised that someone such as Dr Hill who doesn't believe in human rights also managed to completely misunderstand the point of freedom of religion. It is incredible though that the central issue of the whole controversy can be brushed aside with such an inane misrepresentation.
Freedom of religion does not refer to how a religion is practised by individuals, it refers to the universal human right to follow a religion of your choosing or not, free from oppression and discrimination. The fact that Dr Hill could so blatantly misrepresent such a key issue once more raised concerns about why he organised this event in the first place.
It was saddening to see academics in such an illustrious setting doing nothing other than supporting the Dalai Lama's statements on this issue unquestioningly.
There is a very real situation of persecution and discrimination that is present to this day in the Tibetan exile community, yet the majority of the panel simply sought ways to excuse or justify this behaviour.
Discrimination is never acceptable, yet there seemed to be a determined effort to normalise this in the context of Tibetan society. Racial discrimination was normal within the apartheid society of South Africa, but that context in no way excuses or justifies it.
What held the promise of finally getting to grips with the key issues of persecution, discrimination and how to find a solution to resolve the conflict simply ended in the same old stalemate.
Scientists whose research is about Tibetan subjects depend to a large degree on the assistance and co-operation of the Dalai Lama & Tibetan government. As such they are rarely if ever independent or bold enough to challenge them directly. Unfortunately that seems to have been the case with this panel discussion.
Four hours after the initial publication of this article the event sponsors of the panel discussion, London Ney (a London based Tibetan group), published a YouTube video of the debate at approx 13:00 GMT August 18th.
Their YouTube video carries a description of the debate that differs significantly from the original description published on the SOAS website and the Eventbrite ticketing platform. In particular they have altered the scope of the panel discussion to include the topic of the NKT after the event has already taken place.
It would appear that London Ney have taken the unusual step of altering the description of the event in response to my criticism that the discussion's focus on the NKT was neither part of its original stated goals, nor relevant to the subject of religious discrimination within the Gelug school and the Tibetan exile community.
By behaving in this way London Ney appear to be attempting to deceive people about the stated aims of the panel discussion and account for why it inappropriately focussed on an aspect of debate completely unrelated to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.
They also misrepresent the issue of religious discrimination which currently affects the Tibetan exile community. There is no issue of religious discrimination that affects the NKT since their members live in societies outside the jurisdiction of the Tibetan government.
The original description of the panel discussion states:
"This event will address the controversy surrounding the propitiation of Dorje Shugden in the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. Although many members of the school have ceased to honor Shugden and regard his propitiation as problematic, a vocal minority sees him as an essential component of Geluk orthodoxy.
The latter now understand themselves as minority discriminated against on religious grounds. This workshop will include presentations by traditional exponents of both sides of the controversy and by academic authorities.
The discussion is moderated by Dr Nathan W. Hill, Lecturer in Tibetan and Linguistics at SOAS." (followed by a list of speakers and topics)
LondonNey's embellished description of the panel discussion states:
"This panel discussion will address the on-going ‘Shugden controversy’ in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is surrounded by confusion, misinformation, and disagreement. While the Dalai Lama and many Tibetans have ceased to honour ‘Shugden’ and regard the propitiation of Shugden as problematic, a vocal minority, especially the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) established in the West, believe the Shugden deity to be an essential component or Dharma protector of the Gelug School, and claim to be a minority discriminated against on religious grounds.
The community of Tibetan Buddhists has been agitated and are puzzled by the intensity of this dispute concerning the practice of the controversial deity – Shugden. Tibetans are generally bewildered by the actions of Western Buddhist organisations such as the NKT and their protests wherever the Dalai Lama travels, leading many Tibetans to become suspicious of Western Buddhist practitioners in general.
Then, many Tibetans accuse the Shugden protesters as “devil worshippers”, “Chinese agents” and “Taliban Buddhists” while the pro-Shugden protestors question the very authenticity of the 14th Dalai Lama, using slogans such as “fake Dalai Lama”, “Muslin Dalai Lama”, “lying Dalai Lama”, and so on.
The purpose of this unprecedented, moderated discussion among experts and representatives from different sides of the dispute is to openly address this issue. The event is open to the general public with the aim of providing a better understanding of this issue.
The event will be live-streamed in order to provide the opportunity for far greater audiences. Here is the link www.livestream.com/Tibetan.
This discussion will be moderated by Dr Nathan W. Hill, Lecturer in Tibetan and Linguistics at SOAS." (followed by a list of speakers and topics)