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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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.