When American-born Kelsang Jampel became a Buddhist monk in 1996, the last thing he thought he would ever be doing was protesting against His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But that is exactly what 26-year-old Jampel, who lives in Boston, and dozens of other monks are in New York to do this week. While the temporal leader of Tibet and Nobel Peace laureate is in town to accept the Juliet Hollister Award (for “heightening spiritual awareness and engaging in interfaith dialogue”) from the Temple for Understanding, the monks will picket. They are part of the Shugden Coalition, a group numbering in the thousands that is contesting the Dalai Lama’s ban on the popular Buddhist tradition of worshiping Dorje Shugden as a protector deity.
The Dalai Lama once practiced Shugden worship but has discouraged it since 1976, when the Nechung oracle suggested the deity was a malevolent spirit harmful to the leader’s personal well-being and to the Tibetan cause. In 1996, five years after a senior monk, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, established a Dorje Shugden order in England called the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), the Dalai Lama issued his official decree. The Shugden Coalition calls this a suppression of religious freedom. It has collected some 15,000 signatures petitioning the Dalai Lama to lift the ban, which, the Coalition claims, has incited human-rights violations – house-to-house searches, destruction of prayer books and images of the deity – among some of his followers, primarily in Dharmsala, India, seat of the Tibetan leader’s exiled government. The NKT (which has a center in Brooklyn) also cites the Tibetan regional council’s statement that it is unlawful to worship gods not recognized by the government, and the fact that the Dalai Lama’s private office has asked for the names, birthplaces, and addresses of Shugden worshipers. “The Dalai Lama portrays himself as a Gandhi figure,” says Jampel, “but he is acting more like a modern-day Hitler.”
“There is no infrastructure or paramilitary authority in place to attribute a Draconian angle to this,” says Ganden Thurman, a director at Tibet House (which was founded at the Dalai Lama’s request). “The whole thing is like a squabble over a minor saint in the Christian church.” But Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhism at the University of Michigan, has called the split “the most important conflict in the Tibetan exile community.”
“People are left to decide for themselves,” says Dawa Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s representative in New York, “even though noncompliance may have negative consequences.” As for protester Jampel, he says, “I feel a moral obligation to help the thousands who are suffering as a result of this ban.”