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The Dalai Lama's demons

By Capucine Henry and Nicolas Haque, France 24, August 8, 2008

The Dalai Lama is respected worldwide for his peaceful philosophy. Today, some exiled Tibetans, shunned by their peers, no longer believe in his leadership. A controversial buddhist deity lies at the heart of the dispute

Paris, France -- Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is revered as a hero by his people and respected world-wide for his peaceful philosophy. Today, however, there are cracks at the heart of his community.

A minority of Tibetans exiled in India, including monks, no longer believe in his leadership, and are shunned by their peers. France 24 correspondents Capucine Henry and Nicolas Haque take a closer look into the widening rift that threatens to tear apart the Tibetan people.

In a hitherto peaceful village of Tibetan refugees in southern India, certain monks can no longer enter their monastery, and are banned from stores and public places, including hospitals. Their crime? Revering a god considered a demon by the Dalai Lama.

The controversial Buddhist deity of Dorje Shugden lies at the heart of the conflict. Considered by some as an enlightened tutelary deity and by others as a malevolent force, it was labeled a demon by the Dalai Lama himelf. He made this clear last January, in a speech imbued with rare violence at a Tibetan university in Southern India.
 
A historic speech

“I have meditated and considered (my decision to put aside the Shugden) at length in my soul and spirit before coming to the right decision”, he said.  People have killed, lied, fought each other and set things alight in the name of this deity. These monks must be expelled from all monasteries. If they are not happy, you can tell them that the Dalai Lama himself asked that this be done, and it is very urgent.”

The speech was a historic moment in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, and the beginning of a schism which could exclude the four million Tibetans followers of Shugden. A few weeks after the Dalai Lama's speech, Shugden monks could no longer enter monasteries. They regroup themselves outside village walls and meditate on why the Dalai Lama has excluded him.

“Can the Dalai Lama really ban an entire religion?” asks one. “We are in the right, he’s the one who is being incoherent. On one hand, he’s always preaching freedom of religion and compassion, but on the other he’s forbidding us to worship the god we choose”, says another.
 
Apartheid in Buddhist land

Photos of Shugden leaders are posted on city walls, branding them as traitors. Signs at the entrance of stores and hospitals forbid Shugden followers from entry. It’s apartheid, in Buddhist land.

Our reporters followed an ostracized Buddhist monk as he tried to affront the fellow villagers who have banned him. “We’re not violating Buddha’s teachings, and we’re excluded from everywhere just because of our religion” he complains.

“Aren’t you ashamed of betraying the Dalai Lama? You’re a monk! He is our only pillar, the only person we can count on,” he is asked.

In India, Shugden followers are forced to go into hiding. “I fled my house three days ago” says an old woman taken in by a family 300 kilometers away from her home. “I was the only Shugden in my village. Every day I grew more afraid of attacks.I had to block my door with stones for people not to break into my house”.
 
Pro-Chinese ‘traitors’

Behind this Shugden witch-hunt lies the fear of Chinese infiltration in the ranks of the Tibetan refugees. In the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, Shugden followers, with their open Chinese sympathies are considered a political threat.

“The Shugden and the Chinese are obviously allies,” says the Tibetan Prime Minister, professor Samdhong Rinpoche. “Their cults all over the world are financed by the Chinese”. He adds that “people are afraid of Shugden violence. They are like terrorists, they will stop at nothing, everyone knows this.” To prove his point, he shows our reporters the photo of the murder of a leading Buddhist monk and two of his disciples in 1997. Tibetans are certain the Shugden are behind the murder.

A leading Shugden figure, Mahalama Losbang Yechi, defends his links with the Chinese community: “I approve the Chinese presence in Tibet. What we are living with the Dalai Lama today shows how authoritarian his theocratic regime must have been in the past. It was much more violent than what Tibetans are living today under Chinese rule.”

Yechi has filed a lawsuit against the Dalai Lama in an Indian high court for religious persecution. He denies acting on the orders of Chinese authorities.

Shugden followers, willingly or not, have become the symbol of a schism that threatens the struggle for Tibetan autonomy. For that, thousands of refugees have begun to pay a price.



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