Why did the Dalai Lama ban Dorje Shugden?

Meindert Gorter explores the history and reasons behind the Dalai Lama's ban on the deity Dorje Shug

The Dalai Lama has given several reasons to explain the excommunication of the protector, Dorje Shugden, back in 1996. However what he has actually seemed to be doing is adapting the gravity of the ban to match the level of protest against it within the Tibetan community. In some interviews he has even denied having banned the deity; he only wanted to give a warning, people can make their own decision.

The deity is accused of fundamentalism because he obstructs the mixing of the four main schools of Buddhism, which is supported by the Dalai Lama and his teachers. The Dalai Lama said the thought of Dorje Shugden bothered him while taking initiations from one of these, the Nyingma lineage.

We, who stubbornly go on with the deity-practise, don’t see any reason whatsoever to mix the lineages. Each lineage has its own unique transmission; if mixed we think it's like mixing an apple pie with a banana split: you will end up with an undefined mess. There is a lot of mutual respect between the lineages so why give them up?

Knowing the Dalai Lama’s status and the adoration Tibetans feel for him, his words caused turmoil in Tibetan society. Solely due to social pressure, people decided to abandon the practice of worshipping Dorje Shugden, choosing to live by the lines set out by the Dalai Lama.

After all, continuation of this practise was bad for the Dalai’s health and damaging the Tibetan cause, and who wants responsibility for that? Serious Dorje Shugden practitioners however felt it impossible to choose between the two. "The Dalai Lama wants me to choose between my father and my mother," said some when asked why they would not stop. Others, more philosophically trained monks and teachers, found the ban to be anti-Buddhistic and for that reason alone would not stop.

Gradually the pressure on Dorje Shugden practitioners got worse. Fanatical Dalai Lama followers began to demolish statues of the deity, the existing social solidarity amongst Tibetans was gone. Even in Tibet itself, where restoration of temples is in full swing and people enjoy new religious freedom, this ban created suspicion. Dorje Shugden worshippers were accused of being part of the ‘Dorje Shugden sect’ and became outcasts. The Dorje Shugden Society was founded, an ad-hoc group of people working together to oppose the ban - not to save the enlightened deity from harm but to help thousands of people from becoming outcasts.

But numerous appeals and worldwide protests have not helped. The Dalai Lama has not responded and refuses all contact. If you think the Dalai Lama is only in the business of provoking positive sentiments, as most Westeners believe, you have to firmly close your eyes to imagine this less romantic reality.

During speeches in India in January 2008, he has enforced the ban more strictly then ever before, claiming that his own religious freedom is obstructed by Dorje Shugden.

The last years brought us forced signature campaigns, in which monks promised to stop propitiating Dorje Shugden in return for obtaining travel documents from the exiled government or to be admitted into monasteries. Last January monks were engaged in weird actions such as swearing in a loud voice to denounce the deity. All contact with those monks that have not followed the ban is forbidden. This implements a de-facto apartheid with signs forbidding monks from entering classrooms, hospitals and shops. They even have to study and dine separately.

However, in spite of all this, there exists some solidarity with the Nyingma monks helping the Dorje Shugden monks to survive within this hostile monastic environment.

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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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.