Are Buddhsist Racist

Read my one & only interview in the New Statesman

What is Racism?


Race can be defined as:

"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.

Words as Weapons

Today saw the start of the latest round of protests in Hamburg against the Dalai Lama's ban on Dorje Shugden worship and as usual before the event media packs were issued by teams on both sides of the disagreement.

The International Shugden Community (ISC) which organise the protests gave out their usual media pack, whereas the Dalai Lama's representatives issued a media pack that was slightly more unusual than previous ones. What I found most surprising about the Dalai Lama's media pack was it's explicit focus on the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) school of Buddhism.

Usually the Dalai Lama's people refer to Dorje Shugden practitioners as a cult, the members of which are fanatics and terrorists that threaten the very life of the Dalai Lama. But it seems that the approach now is to try and shift the focus away from the human rights issues which lie at the heart of this matter, and divert attention instead onto the NKT.

Both sides are quite well known for making the occasional exaggerated or unsubstantiated claim, but you sort of expect that. I personally can't remember ever having received a media pack that was 100% accurate - they always overstate their claims and need some further fact checking, but that's normal, you never completely trust a media pack.

What's unusual is the inclusion within the Dalai Lama's media pack of a declaration from ex-NKT members who are speaking out against the protests. In it they claim that the ISC is the NKT and then use this as a reason to attack the NKT and also to try and denounce human rights claims.

There seems to be a concerted effort at the moment to establish this belief that the NKT is the ISC and that the issue is all about the NKT, which I find both unusual and disturbing.

In the recent panel discussion at the SOAS department of the University of London (click here for more details) even Geshe Tashi Tsering was unable to support this claim. At most he claimed 80% of protesters were members of the NKT, but he was unable to even substantiate this figure. In reality there are a lot of NKT members who attend the protests, but this is completely different to saying that the NKT are organising the protests.

The protests feature members of several different schools of Buddhism, anyone who has witnessed them easily understands this, for instance you can't miss the big red sign from the Tibetan Gyeden Tensung Society. So the claim that the NKT are the ISC is obviously false, but that hasn't stopped it from being used in the official media pack, which is worrying.

This move to conflate the issue of Dorje Shugden with the NKT poses a danger to the freedom of the Tibetan exile community, who are the victims of this religious ban and subsequent persecution.

The reason for this angle is more than likely because the NKT was established by the Tibetan monk that has taken the most vocal stance against the Dalai Lama's ban, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. As such it seems that the Dalai Lama's team is engaged in an attempt to discredit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in the belief that this will distract people from the key issues of this disagreement.

The reality for Tibetans in exile is that if they practise Dorje Shugden they are outcasts. They are banned from working for their government in any official post and they become social pariahs. Their children, if they want to grow up and become teachers, politicians, or doctors within the Tibetan state system, have to denounce their parents religion and refuse to offer them any material support.

As I have quoted elsewhere this social exclusion has been independently established by Rebecca Novick on the basis of hundreds of interviews with Tibetan refugees. She stated, "Shugden practitioners gradually became social pariahs. Shopkeepers refused to sell to them, and landlords refused to rent to them." It is also written in Tibetan government resolutions and its constitution.

Whatever the claims are against the NKT they shouldn't be dragged into this issue - it's not about the NKT, it's about the Tibetan exile community. Similarly attempts to justify this intolerance should not take the place of an explanation of how it will be remedied.


Justifications for the ban

Often the ban is justified as being simply a 'restriction' and one that is considered necessary because Dorje Shugden practitioners are violent and dangerous.

The claims of extreme violence by Dorje Shugden practitioners often refer to the murder of 3 monks in Dharamsala in 1997. To date no-one has yet been found guilty of the crime, but there is some evidence claiming to link this to Dorje Shugden practitioners.

For the past 17 years however there is no other evidence offered to support this claim that Dorje Shugden practitioners are violent or dangerous. Also the claims of Dorje Shugden practitioners being terrorists is somewhat dubious and as such the Dalai Lama's representatives offer no evidence to support this claim.

As Bruce Hoffman's explains, "Terrorism, in the most widely accepted contemporary usage of the term, is fundamentally and inherently political. It is also ineluctably about power: the pursuit of power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power to achieve political change. Terrorism is thus violence -- or, equally important, the threat of violence -- used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim." (Inside Terrorism)

I don't think anyone who examines this issue would accept that Dorje Shugden practitioners are striving to overthrow the Tibetan government through the use of force or coerce it into agreeing to a certain political agenda. They just want to be able to freely practise their religion without being discriminated against - that's a far cry from terrorism.

The other justification for discrimination the Dalai Lama gives is that he is simply applying a restriction, and that previous Dalai Lama's such as the Thirteenth and the Fifth also applied this restriction. If you were forced to resign from your job because of your religious beliefs I doubt it would make much difference to you if it was called a 'restriction', it's simply religious discrimination.

Likewise, claiming to be upholding the behaviour of someone who lived 100 years ago is also not a suitable justification for this situation. Racial segregation was only abolished in the US almost 70 years ago, so by the same logic it would be acceptable to return to such discriminatory practices.

In the present day discrimination against people on the basis of their religious views is unjustifiable. So why are so many people trying to excuse it in this situation? Is it because the Dalai Lama is exempt from modern standards, or is it because having a Nobel Peace Prize gives you carte blanche to behave however you want?

Whatever the claims and counter-claims of both sides media packs, an essential, undeniable truth still exists that within the Tibetan exile community people are treated differently on the basis of their religious views. The Dalai Lama needs to take this opportunity in Hamburg to explain why this is happening and what he will do to stop it, rather than just lecturing everyone on Human Values.

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