Of the Dalai Lama and a witch-hunt

Print edition : December 23, 2001

Interview with the 13th Kundeling Tagtsha Jetung Rimpoche.

For Lobsang Yeshi Jampel Gyatso, or the 13th Kundeling Tagtsha Jetung Rimpoche (as a large group of Tibetans believe is his incarnate identity), the abrupt decree from Dharmasala on March 7, 1996 banning the worship of the popular Tibetan deity D orje Shugden, came as a bolt from the blue. He was of course a Dorje Shugden devotee but was also, like many other Tibetans, an ardent and unquestioning follower of the Dalai Lama's spiritual and political leadership. "I felt the ground slipping under my feet," said Kundeling Rimpoche who received the news while he was in Europe. "What followed was even more shocking - the persecution of and propaganda against respected masters of the Dorji Shugden spiritual practice."

Dorji Shugden is a Mahayana Buddhist deity, a "Dharma Protector" and an ancient object of veneration in Tibet and amongst Tibetans. He is said to have been a historical figure who lived in the 15th century during the period of the fifth Dalai Lama. The D orje Shugden tradition is part of the Gelugpa religious lineage, to which the Dalai Lama also belongs. Not only was Shugden worship forbidden by the Dalai Lama, Shugden followers were subjected to a witch-hunt that has been well documented in the interna tional media. The German television programme 'Panorama' and the Swiss '10 Vor 10' have documented the human rights abuses by the Dalai Lama's administration - the violence and even death threats against the practitioners of this particular Buddhist trad ition and their ostracism.


Although the Kundeling Rimpoche has become the spokesperson of the movement of dissent from within the Tibetan population in exile, he makes it clear that he does so as an Indian national who is of ethnic Tibetan origin. For taking on the Dalai Lama and his entire support base in India and abroad, the Kundeling Rimpoche has had to face extreme personal hardship - from petty harassment by the local administration and the police in Mysore where he lives, to veiled death threats from the Dalai Lama's follo wers.

In this interview with Parvathi Menon in Mysore, the Kundeling Rimpoche links the ban on Dorje Shugden worship to the movement for Tibetan independence that the Dalai Lama spearheads and the contradictions within that movement. Excerpts:

Is yours the first open and organised movement of dissent against the authority and policies of the 14th Dalai Lama who is in exile? What led you and others to raise the banner of protest?

Yes, this is the first open expression of dissent and also the first organised expression of protest against the Dalai Lama. What is not known, however, is that opposition to the religious and political policies of the Dalai Lamas is not something new in Tibetan history. Indeed, opposition to the present Dalai Lama, the 14th one, has taken place for a long time within the exile community in India. However, the voices of opposition were throttled. Because of this, people feel this is probably the first d issent movement in Tibetan Buddhist circles.

Personal vendetta has nothing to do with my opposition to the Dalai Lama's policies. His organisation has falsely alleged that it was because the Dalai did not give me recognition as the incarnate of the 13th Kundeling Lama that I have turned against him . I was, in fact, one of the first persons to congratulate the Dalai Lama's recognised candidate - a bright young boy who is unfortunately a puppet in the Dalai Lama's political manoeuvres. There is good reason for his recognition. He is from the Lhasa r egion, where the fanatic zeal for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan 'freedom movement' is concentrated.

As an individual I was a supporter of and believer in the Dalai Lama. It was only when he put a ban on the worship of the deity Dorje Shugden in March 1996 and presented a barrage of unfounded and false reasoning for the ban that our perception of the Da lai Lama underwent a drastic transformation, in the space of a fortnight. I was to discover that this man was an autocrat, willing to do anything and go to any extent to destroy a pure spiritual heritage on which many like myself rely, and of which he hi mself is part and parcel. That was the first time that I actually came to believe that this man uses religion to consolidate his political powers and politics to consolidate his religious powers. Thus he encourages all those believing and supporting him to adopt his political ideology too. In a nutshell, all those who become his followers and supporters would have to adopt an anti-China stand, and campaign for his 'Free Tibet' programmes, collect funds, and so on. In reality, this 'Free Tibet' political ideology of the Dalai Lama has no substance.

Could you explain why you characterise the 'Free Tibet' movement and the anti-China programme of the Dalai Lama as having no substance? After all, the institution of the Dalai Lama has been built around the demand for Tibetan independence on the one h and, and a high-profile anti-China political campaign on the other. This campaign eventually led to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Everybody has the right to political and religious freedom and the Tibetans are no exception. But who defines Tibetan political and religious ideology? Only one man - the Dalai Lama! The whole idea of the Dalai Lama and the large group of Tibetans going into exile was to campaign for a 'free Tibet'. Tibetans are a placid kind of people as far as movements are concerned - religious or political. They solely relied on the Dalai Lama - from a religious point of view, to guide them to enlightenment, and fro m a political point of view, to guide them to a 'free Tibet'. In this agenda, the Dalai Lama's voice has been the last word. A large section of people still desire freedom but are disillusioned. Even the Indian government, to some extent, in particular t he Bharatiya Janata Party, has been cashing in on the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan freedom movement in some ways - playing the Dalai Lama card in the hope that some concessions can be realised in dialogues with China. It is believed that the previous Dalai Lama, that is, the 13th, initiated a 'Free Tibet' movement and hence the concept of Tibet as an independent country or nation came into being.

The Dalai Lama at Dharmasala.-ANGUS McDONALD/AP

Tibetan history is complex and confusing. The misuse of Buddhism in the political spheres of Tibetan society, the Lhasa government's conflict with and over-dependence on Mongolia initially and China eventually, were historically responsible for Tibet's p olitical complexity and unclear identity.

The 14th Dalai Lama initiated the Tibetan 'freedom movement' given the necessity he felt to achieve a position of undisputed infallibility of spiritual and temporal leadership. But he himself with a stroke of his pen went ahead in 1988 in the European Pa rliament in Strasbourg to sign off Tibet's independence. It is here that he changed his stand - from the demand for Tibetan independence to the demand for Tibetan autonomy. This fact was not publicly known until after the ban on the Dorji Shugden spiritu al practice was announced in early 1996.

In exile the Tibetans could not achieve democracy and unity. What would Tibet look like if the Dalai Lama and his fanatic band of watchdog organisations and followers were in power? It would be a fascist regime, slaughtering opposition and dissidence, mu tilating the limbs and gouging out the eyes of political opponents of the Dalai Lama! The history of Tibet shows that what I have just stated is not an exaggeration. Finally, is there a White Paper on Tibet's proposed development which the Dalai Lama or his government in exile has brought out? All claims by his exile administration are mere propaganda. This is what I mean when I say that the movement has no substance!

When I heard about the witch-hunt being launched by the Dalai Lama's government in exile, and the public attacks, slander, and abuse of the leaders and followers of Dorje Shugden (who were initially supporters of the Dalai Lama, including myself), I was horrified. This person whom we believed to be the embodiment of purity, peace and compassion was nothing but an ordinary man bent on consolidating his powers by destroying opponents by all means.

Why did the Dalai Lama perceive the followers of Dorje Shugden and their spiritual practice as a threat to him? Was there a background of opposition from amongst them towards him in the past?

There was no need for anyone to feel threatened by the Dorje Shugden followers. They were a non-political group. In fact, it is a well-publicised fact that Dalai Lama himself was a follower of this deity. His very own Mulaguru (principal perceptor) and a succession of well-established prominent masters in Tibet's history have all been followers of Dorje Shugden. Initially, to justify his ban, the Dalai Lama solely cited the objections of his oracle Nechung who said that the ongoing worship of Dorje Shug den was a hindrance to achieving the aspirations of the Tibetans. He called the deity a "Chinese demon helping the Chinese government". He also said that the worship of the deity was a threat to the Dalai Lama's life. Later, when the world media began to go deeper into the reasons behind the ban, the Dalai Lama began to give a more sophisticated reasoning. He said that the worship of Dorje Shugden creates sectarianism and fundamentalism in Tibetan society because the practice opposes his so-called ecume nical approach. He also said that Dorje Shugden worshippers are obstacles to the so-called Tibetan cause. Now the term 'cause' has multifaceted meanings. It earlier meant independence for Tibet, and later autonomy. But the ban came because the Dalai Lama had to cover up the failures of his own policies. He had to consolidate political hegemony within the Gelugpa tradition and the followers of Dorje Shugden were not falling in line.

What is your reaction to these arguments?

It is rubbish and a distortion of facts and history. But looking at it from the Dalai Lama's strategy, it is a superb initiative and a master plan to solve his problems and create scapegoats. Since he wants to become not only the supreme religious leader of all Tibetan traditions but also the universal leader of all Buddhists worldwide, he has been trying to initiate a new Buddhist tradition which incorporates all the lineages in the name of ending sectarianism and fundamentalism. Dorje Shugden follower s on the other hand reserve their right to follow their own spiritual practice as they always have. In order to justify the ban, he opened old wounds and bygone hostilities amongst the various Buddhist traditions, making it look as if conflict was still there. He cast aspersions on some of the most revered personalities in the history of the Gelugpa tradition, purely saintly spiritual practitioners such as the 19th century Phabongkhapa Rimpoche, and Thijang Rimpoche (who in fact was his Mulaguru).

What has been the impact of the ban?

Severe. I call it the Tibetan Inquisition initiated worldwide, but particularly in India. For example, the house of every Tibetan was searched, pictures and images of Dorje Shugden were trampled upon, desecrated, burnt or destroyed publicly. The houses o f prominent people - followers of Dorje Shugden - were attacked during the nights, and death threats issued to all those who did not follow the dictates of the Dalai Lama. A number of monks were expelled from the monastery at the Mundkod settlement for h aving participated in a peaceful protest march organised by me on May 15, 1996 in the Mundkod settlement. When the Dorje Shugden Society was established in April 15, 1996 in Delhi, the Dalai Lama and his so-called ministry used threats, money, and the In dian bureaucracy to close it down forcibly. Besides, when a prominent Buddhist teacher, a pro-Dalai activist, and his two students were murdered, the blame for it was put on the Dorje Shugden society's prominent members. Charges were filed and the Kangra police more than enthusiastically supported the Dalai administration. The Supreme Court cleared the names of the accused in 1997. Regardless of this, the Indian police - at Kangra and in New Delhi - suppressed the free movement of Geshe Cheme Tsering an d Geshe Konchog Gyaltsen, two erudite scholars.

What kind of persecution have you had to suffer personally?

The worst forms. The Dalai Lama's representatives in the camps, the heads of the fanatic women's and youth organisations, and fanatic members of various monasteries have called me his 'Enemy No. 1' ! They accuse me of having dubious parentage, of loose m orals, of having a criminal record, and of being a Chinese spy on the Chinese payroll!

They have proffered false information about me to the police, intelligence and the State government in Karnataka. The police and State intelligence personnel have been after me since 1996 because the Dalai government has told them that my organisation is being funded by the Chinese. They have stated that the purpose of my stay in Mysore, which lies at the junction of three Tibetan settlements, is to attack the Dalai Lama physically if and when he visits (the settlements), and to create disharmony betwee n Indians and Tibetans. The fact is that I am the only ethnic Tibetan Lama of Indian nationality who is trying to build a bridge between Indians and Tibetans by engaging in social work projects with hard-earned money.

What do you see as your role in relation to the Tibetan 'cause'?

I want to clarify my role by stating that I am an Indian and not a Tibetan national. This issue of confrontation with the Dalai Lama with regard to his persecution of me and others is important, but is not my primary agenda. My life's agenda has been to revive the Buddhist heritage in India as an academic or cultural heritage, if not as a religious practice, and to inspire Buddhist monks and Mahayana Vajrayana practitioners to come out of the conservatism of their outlook and contribute towards the soci al projects within the Indian mainstream. Since Buddhism is merely a living relic of past history in India and the holy places related to Buddhist development are now but mere open museums, my intention has been to revive the essential message of altruis m and compassion for all beings by putting it in a language of practical interaction that can be related to the masses in India.

Under what conditions do you think can Tibetans living in exile return to the Tibet Autonomous Region of China?

I think it is most important for the Dalai Lama to engage in a serious and positive dialogue with the Chinese rather than beating around the bush. His insincerity, his strategy of buying time, and not discussing or addressing the two issues that are rele vant to the society of Tibet is evident. If there ought to be a Tibetan nation, as the Dalai Lama desires, then there is the issue of its economic development along with the development of education, science and technology. The second issue is that of th e democratic rights of the society, which can only develop if there is literacy and intellectuals and thinkers are encouraged and developed into true policy-makers. The first set of development markers have been achieved to a great extent by China. This is not only my personal opinion but also that of others and the Dalai Lama himself who in his recent speeches on the question of autonomy for Tibet has been praising the current development of Tibet. He should be joining hands with the Chinese to bring f urther development within Tibet and seriously working towards a solution himself. He should ask his followers to cease all their anti-China activities within Indian soil and that of other countries.

What is the Indian government's stand on the allegations made by the followers of Dorje Shugden about human rights abuses by the Dalai Lama?

The acts of discrimination and ongoing persecution of the devotees of Shugden by the Dalai Lama and his coterie are well known to the Central government and the Karnataka government. There is, however, a duplicity in the Indian government's stand towards the Tibetan followers of Shugden. While the authorities in Delhi have understood the Dalai Lama's antecedents and moves, there is little willingness on their part to ask him to refrain from abuse of human rights. During the Dalai Lama's visits to the se ttlements, the Karnataka police keep a strict surveillance on Shugden followers and their shrines merely because the Dalai Lama and his supporters say they apprehend a threat from the worshippers of Shugden. The Dalai Lama, knowing the weight of his word , points to imagined threats from Shugden followers. The remaining job of citing individual names of dissidents is followed up by his henchmen. Since the ban, the Dalai Lama has increased the number of his visits to the settlements in India and abroad. H e is scheduled to visit the Kollegal settlement in Mysore district and is supposedly planning to spend two days in Mysore city. As usual whenever he visits I am forced to leave my home temporarily for the simple reason that the Dalai Lama has other enemi es, and if they harm him, I will be falsely implicated. This has forced me to take recourse to police security and limit my movements. The government of Karnataka, local authorities in Mysore, and the State intelligence department are bombarded with peti tions and complaints against me.

I understand that at a recent high-level meeting of the Home Ministry with the representatives of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, they were told to tone down their campaign against the followers of Dorje Shugden. Perhaps in response to that, the Da lai Lama issued a public statement in the Tibet Times, published from Dharmasala, that appears to reflect a softening of his stand on Shugden worship. He now says that he never banned the practice, he only discussed its pros and cons! This is abso lutely false! It is perhaps in response also to the pressure from human rights groups in India and abroad that he was forced to say this! All undertakings or projects of the Dalai Lama begin with a lot of heat but end up in a fiasco - like the Free Tibet campaign! If the Dalai Lama is truly a man of peace who believes in dialogue, let us have a public discussion which would also include prominent Indians, from the press and the public. This will once and for all settle all disputes beyond doubt and put both parties under the scrutiny of the public.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor