The Dalai Lama is both secular and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and the incarnation of Buddha Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. This system of leadership is unique to traditional Tibet (now the Tibet Government in Exhile in India) but stressed since the commmunist overthrow of Tibet (and its secular and religious leadership) in the 1950s - a state of affairs in which NKT seeks advantage.
For nearly 20 years, NKT has publicly opposed the historical role of The Dalai Lama produced over the last 400 years. While NKT promised ten years ago that it would suspend its public battles with The Dalai Lama, this year (2008), NKT bounced back with vengence. In April, Kelsang Gyatso assigned his nun Kelsang Pema to create and direct NKT's worldwide protest campaign - more fierce and determined than NKT's 1996-1998 project against The Dalai Lama. NKT now seeks to crush The Dalai Lama's influence over his people, a goal which happens to coincide with that of the Chinese government's crushing of The Dalai Lama's temporal and spiritual leadership inside Tibet and more recently, forcefully replacing it with Shugdenism. At The Dalai Lama's public teachings on compassion, NKT and the Chinese government protest side by side, and many have concluded that this is not a random coincidence.
NKT seeks to dictate its presumed theocratic supremacy over the Tibetan people and supports the lawsuit in India against India's government and The Dalai Lama over cultish demand for secular and religious deference toward Shugden, a harmful god held in highest esteem by NKT.
Though relatively small in numbers but already having a mature network infrastructure of several hundred clergy, several dozen Dharma centers, and several residential profit center 'hotels' around the world, NKT's reach, revenues and PR muscle are expanding. Marketed more and more loudly over the last few months, NKT seeks to more widely project Shugden and NKT's fundamentalist view that it's theology is superior to all all other spiritual paths.
(For reasons reviewed elsewhere on this web site, The Dalai Lama (and many other Tibetan Lamas) has recommended that Tibetans not engage in Shugden worship since the mid 1970s, (consistent with previous Dalai Lamas the past 400 years), a policy rightfully expressed by The Dalai Lama with which NKT's founder (Gyatso) vehemently disagrees, calling The Dalai Lama a dictator and liar. Notably, because Gyatso sees Tibetan Buddhism as degenerate, Gyatso abandoned his roots of Tibetan Buddhism about 20 years ago to form an independent religion headquartered in England known as NKT. NKT inaugurated its public controversy in 1996 to protect its special 'deity' , Shugden, who NKT purports to be a Buddha whose purpose is to harm those not endorsing his supremacy and role to protect a exclusionist cult largely formed by Pabongkha (1878-1941) and now in the sole hands of Kelsang Gyatso.
The historical role of The Dailai Lama as both secular and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people can be confusing because of the general global trend toward democratic secularism. The following 9/13/08 article by Samten G. Karmay appeared at Phayul.com. It provides a succinct history of Tibetan public policy and likely future evolution toward democratic secularism as recommended by The Dalai Lama.
Ultimately, NKT's Shugden 'theocracy' will unlikely survive any move toward democratic secularism in the Tibetan Government in Exile because the vast majority of Tibetans do not worship the harmful Shugden 'deity'. As for Tibet and China, however, the Chinese government is actively promoting Shugden to diminish The Dalai Lama and achieve cultural genocide in Tibet.
(Though irrelevantly rejected by Gyatso and NKT, the Tibetan people endorsed The Dalai Lama's advice regarding Shugden in 1996. See below the article - Tibetan Parliament in Exile's Resolution of June 1996.)
Tibetan Religion and Politics
The Tibetans prided themselves on what they believed to be a unique tradition, the "combination of religion and politics" (chosi zungdrel). The concept itself goes a long way back in Tibet's history. However, many other countries still have similar traditions. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that countries like France and Japan began to have the legislation for the separation of church and state that gave birth to the idea of practicing religion as a personal belief not regulated by the state. The process of secularization has been slow, but it is moving inexorably forward. This state secularism is the modern trend in many countries the world over.
It was startling to see a political meeting that took place in Dharamsala on May 3-4 2008 and broadcast on YouTube. It was attended by the heads of all the Tibetan religious sects and was presided over by HH the Dalai Lama. One of the topics of the discussion was the tulku issue, the reincarnated lamas, but the outcome of the discussion has not been reported. Not a single layman took part in the gathering not to mention any women. One wondered what happened to the famous democratization of the exiled Tibetan community in India.
The separation of church and state does not imply abandoning the practice of the established religion. Far from it, it secures freedom of religious exercise and therefore the right of personal choice whether one wishes to practice a religion or not. Furthermore it establishes the neutrality of the state as far as the religious denominations are concerned. In the case of Tibet there would be no preferential status whether it is the Bon, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu or Gelug traditions or even the Tibetan Moslems and Christians. What the "separation" does imply, however, is the government and religious institutions being kept independent from one and another and not combined as in the Tibetan political tradition.
A secular state is therefore neutral when it deals with religion by not supporting or opposing any particular sect nor does it give any preferential treatment for a citizen who belongs to a particular religion.
Buddhism as a state religion
Buddhism became the state religion of Tibet in the reign of the emperor Tri Song Detsen (742-797) and it remained so till the end of the Pugyal Dynasty in 941 AD. During the imperial period the emperors were the supreme heads of the state and the emperors were entirely laymen. The fact that Buddhism was the state religion did not affect the personal choice of faith among its members and in the country. However, the imperial government did subsidize Buddhist establishments such as building temples and contributing to their maintenance and this was considered to be meritorious work.
There were other periods during which time a lay government was in power in Tibet, for example, during the Tsang Desi's regime (c.1600-1642) which was most remarkable in its attempt to revive the national glory of the lay government of the imperial period.
The beginning of theocracy
However, in 1642 the Tsang Desi's government was toppled by the combined forces of Tibetans and Mongols at the instigation of the Gelug sect which effectively empowered the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1685), as the head of state. He had been, until 1642, merely the abbot of Drepung Monastery. A new era of theocracy was ushered in with the total supremacy of the clergy and the subordination of laymen to it. At the time of the Sakya and Pakmotu administrations from the 13th to the 15th centuries there were of course elements of theocratic development, but from 1642 the Ganden Potrang, the official seat of the government in Drepung Monastery, came to symbolize the supreme power in both the theory and practice of a theocratic government. This was indeed a political triumph that Buddhism had never known in its history in Tibet.
The term "theocracy" is normally defined as a form of government in which a 'god' or 'deity' is recognized as the supreme ruler. In Tibet's case the Dalai Lamas are considered as the manifestation of the Buddhist deity of compassion. In this theocratic system the head of the state was not only the political leader of the people, but also their spiritual master. In other words, the whole population was subjected and put in the position of spiritual disciple to the master. Within the context of this essentially religious bond no devotee would ever dream of opposing the view of the master, because that would be tantamount to breaking the sacred relationship between the master and the disciple. How does this fit with the discussion of democracy among the Tibetans in exile for whom HH the Dalai Lama is the political leader, but who nonetheless bestows on them the Kalachakra initiation?
Since the head of the state was a "monk-king" (domtsun gyalpo) the entire manner of raising children was immersed in religious education from a very young age without it ever being realized where this was going to lead. In such a system there was no personal choice of the religion that an individual wished to practice. One became aware of what one was subjected to only when one reached a mature age. In other words the faith was simply imposed by the state. The idea of the right of personal choice of one's own faith was therefore totally unknown and in modern terms denied. Important and even enlightening as this religious education might be, it had the undesirable effect of barring the entire population from contact with any kind of progressive or modern education over the last three hundred and sixty years. It is no wonder that the outspoken French socialist Minister of Culture, Claude Allègre, once remarked that he had never come across a Tibetan who was a biologist, archeologist, mathematician or physicist.
An incarnate Lama as ruler
The head of the state in Tibet, however, was never meant to be a tulku, a reincarnate lama. This status was inherited incidentally through the Fifth Dalai Lama when he was ushered in as the leader of the country. The irony is that not only he himself was a reincarnate lama, but he also embarked on creating others, for example, the Panchen Lama Lobzang Yeshe (1663-1737), who was recognized as the tulku of Panchen Lama Lobzang Chogyen (1567-1662), in 1667, by the Fifth Dalai Lama. This initiated the rapid increase of the number of tulkus especially in the Gelug sect. Perhaps one does not need to raise the question as to whether this tulku system ever served the national interest of Tibet at all. It is high time for the Tibetans to learn lessons from the checkered history of the tulku system that has caused so much political instability and disunity for Tibet.
In the 20th century alone, national unity completely broke down when one lama was set against the other as the pawns of great powers such as the Manchus, British India, the Russian Empire, the Guomintang government and now the Communist Party of China. In general, throughout the history of Tibet the tulku institution has invariably been the cause of schism, political intrigue and sectarian squabbles. Because of the tulku tradition we have now two Panchen Lamas and two Karmapas. Are we going to have two Dalai Lamas?
Recently the Religious Affairs Department of the Chinese government implemented a new law called "Order no. 5", containing 14 articles on "Management Measures for the Reincarnation of 'Living Buddhas' in Tibetan Buddhism". The Chinese government's strict control over tulku recognition further proves how politically vulnerable this system is and to what extent the tulku tradition can be exploited for political ends by an occupying power against the interests of the Tibetan people.
HH the 14th Dalai Lama has already announced that he will have no political role if "genuine autonomy" is established in Tibet. However, I believe that the Dalai Lama institution should be maintained if the majority of the Tibetan people agree upon it. Thus, in a future constitution this one should be the only incarnation in the country, and without any political prerogative. Ganden Monastery would be an ideal residence for the future Dalai Lamas if they wish to be a real "simple monk".
In the interview given to Euronews (August 11, 2008) HH the 14th Dalai Lama stated, I quote: "The Dalai Lama's rule is now outdated." If this is indeed the case, and I believe it to be so. it is desirable for the Tibetan people start to planning for the future with his help. He is the only one who has such long term world-wide experience and whose authority is unrivaled amongst Tibetan leaders. A decisive action is needed to be taken and very urgently. If he wishes he can assist the Tibetans in sorting out the theocratic conundrum in order to finally leave an unambiguous political legacy in the form of a total separation of religion and politics.
Unless and until the Tibetan people come to comprehend the need for the separation of religion and state they will never be able to create a healthy and unified community under a truly democratically elected leader.
They do not need to look far a field for a good example of this. In 2008 Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom, very successfully introduced a parliamentary democratic system. Although the Kagyu sect is the official religion of state as represented by the Zhung Datsang, this was left aside and did not play any role in the election. Its new constitution states "It shall be the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.."(article 3.3, www.judiciary.gov.bt)
Of course it appears inconceivable or even sacrilegious to break the taboo on the separation of religion and state for the Tibetans, but we can no longer hide our heads in the sand.
In an interview given in Tokyo, April 2008, HH the Dalai Lama stated that he favoured in fact "secularism". The reason he gave was that "secularism" has no room for "sectarianism". Indeed Tibetan Buddhism has often been plagued by sectarian strife and this is still continuing in spite of HH the Dalai Lama's strenuous efforts to discourage and condemn it. It is precisely because of sectarianism that he has himself abandoned the cult of the deity Shugden, as well as forbidding it in all religious institutions in the exiled community. The main reason for forsaking this cult is that it engenders a sense of the superiority on the part of the Geluk clergy and it acts as an anathema to the other sects. It is not only a question of spirit-worship as people tend to claim when explaining why the cult has been forbidden.
A secularization of the exiled community should contribute towards solving the unending sectarian problems and lead to true unity amongst the Tibetan people, without any further religious interference in the political domain.
The writer is Director of Research emeritus, National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris
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Tibetan Parliament in Exile's Resolution of June 1996
Resolutions Passed Unanimously by the Assembly of Tibetan people's Deputies, the Popularly-elected Parliament of the Tibetans in Exile, Dharamsala
1. In the interest of Buddhism and the Tibetan national cause, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has openly advised against the propitiation of Shugden. On behalf of the Tibetan people, both in and outside Tibet, the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies would like to express our thanks and gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and make a pledge that we will abide by his every advice.
2. This Assembly, accepting and re-emphasizing the series of announcements made on this issue by the Standing Committee of the Eleventh Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies and the Kashag, would like to emphatically encourage all Tibetans to implement the announcements.
3. We would like to express our appreciation to the monasteries, institutions, lamas, tulkus, monks and lay people who have immediately implemented the advice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the recent announcements of the Kashag and the Assembly of Tibetan people's Deputies.
4. Those who have not implemented the advice properly as a result of being misguided into a state of confusion are requested to get literature and audio tapes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's advice from the Department of Religion and other concerned departments and officials. They are requested to make their independent decisions immediately after studying these and clearing the doubts in their minds.
5. Some people have been circulating literature, claiming that the Tibetan Government-in-Exile's decision to issue advice on the demerit of propitiating Shugden amounts to religious persecution. It must be stated emphatically that giving advice Ñ within the context of a particular religious practice Ñ on the merit and demerit of propitiating spirits does not by any means constitute the infringement of religious freedom. ...
6. Some baseless rumours have it that discouraging the propitiation of Shugden goes against the practice of guru lineage. This claim is totally prejudicial, self-motivated and has no substance whatsoever. When the successive Dalai Lamas and many reputed Buddhist practitioners in Tibet, particularly the Thirteen Dalai Lama, restrained the propitiation of Shugden, it was accepted unanimously by all the lamas who were well-known for their erudition and spiritual practice. In forbidding the propitiation of Shugden, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is following the intention of the guru lineage, including that of his two tutors.
7. Some people have been spreading lies that individuals were harassed and their objects of worship seized for propitiating Shugden, and that government officials were expelled from job, etc. Not a single of these allegations were found to be true. Should such an incident ever take place, it must be noted that this is neither the wish of His Holiness Dalai Lama, nor the policy of the Tibetan Administration. We appeal to all the organizations and individuals to ensure that such an incident does not take place.
8. In sum, the departments, their branches and subsidiaries, monasteries and their branches that are functioning under the administrative control of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile should be strictly instructed, in accordance with the rules and regulations, not to indulge in the propitiation of Shugden. We would like to clarify that if individual citizens propitiate Shugden, it will harm the common interest of Tibet, the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and strengthen the spirits that are against the religion. This can be quite clearly and authentically established through texts and logic. Having said this, it is up to individuals themselves to decide as they like. We cannot force anyone to do anything against his or her wish. However, we would like to emphatically plead to the Shugden-worshippers that they should stop taking tantric initiations and teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.