Will the Dalai Lama return to Tibet?

Meindert Gorter gives his views on religious freedom in China today and the prospects of the Dalai L

The Dorje Shugden Society is trying to put a stop to the ban on the worship of Dorje Shugden on the basis of India’s constitution, a country where you are free to worship almost anything. The Indian High Court is due to consider the case in September.

Advanced Buddhist hermeneutics are unnecessary to understand a protector, which is actually simply a powerful thought used for developing wisdom instead of attaining mundane goals. Increasing wisdom is never forbidden and while the Buddhist teacher Tsongkhapa’s middle way philosophy has room for interpretation you have to rely on your own teacher, because he’s your protector. Teacher and protector are indivisible and the so called ‘guru-devotion’ relationship is the heart of this Buddhist practise.

You can, however, criticise your teacher. Buddhism does not mean blind adherence to dogma but rather the opposite: individual analysis. One could say the Dalai Lama found his own truth, so than let him ban the deity, but the guru-disciple relation does not apply here. It’s a decreed dogma, justified by the Dalai’s dreams: he calls upon your faith in him.

This brings back memories of the theocratic Tibet. Alas, factual history has nothing in common with the romantic Shangri-la portrayed by Hollywood, but recalling this gets you branded as anti-Dalai Lama by most who are said to be pro-Tibet. But should not pro-Tibet campaigners be working on constructive dialogue, instead of repeating the same litany over and over, creating an atmosphere of mistrust? If any constructive dialogue with the Chinese is going on, it's taking place behind the scenes and without the Dalai Lama, thanks to his policy-making friends in the West. Maybe he could fire some compassionate arrows towards Beijing.

Criticising the Dalai Lama is as taboo as Dorje Shugden is and would instantly get you branded as pro-Chinese by the majority of Tibetans. As an outcast from society, even guesthouses don’t allow you in. The Dalai Lama is encouraging this as is widely documented. His portrait next to Mahatma Gandhi’s on the Dharamsala walls shows his appreciation for Gandhi’s style of peaceful revolution, but while Gandhi's achievements were transparent and relevant, the Dalai Lama’s ways are inscrutable. When the Dalai Lama accuses China of ‘cultural genocide’, he seems to forget times have changed. The cultural revolution has ended and Buddhism is practised by millions all over China and Tibet, with the government funding the restoration of the Tibetan monasteries that the Red Guards destroyed. Its clear that China is absolutely not democratic, but as long as Tibetans don’t mix religition with politics, they are free to practise. The Dalai Lama is welcome back as long as he’s not politically involved. And, as you can read on his website: “his commitment to the Tibetan issue will cease to exist once a mutually beneficial solution is reached”.

So, back in Tibet, the only role left for him would be a religious one. He could be the humble monk he has always claimed to be, but does he really have it in him? Or is he harbouring ambitions to become the religious leader he never was, in spite of all the naive parroting of him being a ‘temporal and spiritual leader’? Why else can he be so zealously devoted to uniting the lineages? I can’t think of another reason why he’s profiling himself as a religious chief than to create the possibility of his return to Tibet as Dalai Lama.

His dual role allows him to stop being a politician and the suffering of the Tibetans in exile ends' but the Dalai Lama seems set on leading them back as the dogmatic Buddhist pope that he never was.

Meindert Gorter is a student of Kundeling Rimpoche, a major critic of the Dalai Lama’s ban on the deity Dorje Shugden. He lives in the Netherlands with his wife and two children.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue