Author Tsering Woeser uses her blog "Invisible Tibet," together with poetry, historical research, and social media platforms, to give voice to millions of ethnic Tibetans who are denied freedom of expression. In a recent commentary for RFA's Mandarin Service, she talks about the politicization of a centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist dispute by the ruling Chinese Communist Party:
On Dec. 21, 2015, Reuters ran an article by three of their most experienced journalists titled "China co-opts a Buddhist sect in global effort to smear Dalai Lama."
"A Reuters investigation has found that the religious sect behind the protests has the backing of the Communist Party. The group has emerged as an instrument in Beijing’s long campaign to undermine support for the Dalai Lama," the article said.
The name of this Buddhist sect is Dorje Shugden, shortened to Shugden.
Problems first began to emerge with Shugden in the 17th and 18th centuries, but weren't spoken about publicly until the 1990s.
The Dalai Lama, based on many years of observation and more importantly on Buddhist teaching, has said that if monks and believers wish to be true followers of his Gelugpa sect, they should give up the worship of spirits like Shugden and base their practice on Buddhist doctrine.
The problem of Shugden has lasted for 300-400 years, and through five incarnations of the Dalai Lama.
However, a more detailed examination of the issue would mean investigating experiences which are often only accessible to meditators who have worked through certain practices in sequence. The very precise words used to describe such experiences are frequently misunderstood by a lot of people.
But it's not just about spirits: religious belief is in itself a very personal thing.
There is no question that human beings have worshipped all manner of spirits, gods, animal and plant totems through history.
But if you call yourself a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, and you rely on deities and spirits rather than Buddhist doctrine; if you see them as more important than the Buddha himself, then there's a problem.
Even more importantly, adherents of Shugden practice are the fundamentalists of the Gelugpa sect, because they recognize only the Gelugpa school as the true form of Buddhism. They are intolerant, and reject the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya and any other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, seeing them as inauthentic.
The Dalai Lama doesn't want to see infighting between the schools lead to the fragmentation of Tibetan Buddhism, and sees the fundamentalism of the Shugden followers as religious intolerance.
Monks in the pay of China
In indicating that followers of the Gelugpa school should drop their Shugden practice, he is effectively handing over greater religious freedom to believers. It is effectively a negation of something negative that yields a positive.
He also makes the point that Shugden practice doesn't really constitute a religious belief. Tibetan Buddhism has its wellsprings in the teachings transmitted by Nalanda monastery, or university [c. 400 B.C.-1200], and it would be sad and terrible if its rich teachings were to be reduced to the worship of a deity and the protection of a single soul [rather than the salvation of all sentient beings].
That's why the Dalai Lama has acted to set the Gelugpa school to rights. This is the first major reform to Tibetan Buddhism since that of the Tsongkhapa [1357–1419].
Unlike today, Tibet was entirely under self-rule back in the day of the Tsongkhapa, and he was only able to bring in his sweeping reforms and restore Buddhism to its original state because religious affairs were the province of religious people. His reforms ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity.
The Shugden issue used to be just a religious one, and one confined to the Gelugpa school at that, although the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools were deeply alienated by the desire of Shugden followers to suppress all of the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and despised Shugden as a symbol of evil.
But other forces had to get involved, both overtly and covertly, turning the Dalai Lama's reforms into a tug-of-war, and making what should have been a religious matter political.
As the Reuters report put it: "A leaked internal Communist Party document shows that China is intervening in the dispute. The party document, issued to officials [in 2014], said the Shugden issue is 'an important front in our struggle with the Dalai clique'."
What about the Tibetan view? One Tibetan intellectual told me: "There are many good things about Tibetans as a people, and many weaknesses, which include narrow-minded contentiousness and the endless internecine bickering of religious sects. This even goes on among Tibetans in exile ... And they can be greedy too. Some of these followers of Shugden see him as a lifelong cash cow."
He's right. Some people get their livelihood from Shugden; some have got rich from him or been promoted to higher office because of him.
As the Reuters report said, China paid senior Shugden monks to plan and coordinate the activities of the sect’s followers overseas, controlled and funded by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s ideological unit, the United Front Work Department.
For a lot of people, Shugden isn't about religious belief any more; he's their bread and butter.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.