WASHINGTON — Protesting the Dalai Lama? For many, that sounds like throwing eggs at Santa Claus.
Yet on his current tour of the U.S., the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism — and Nobel laureate — has been dogged by protesters nearly everywhere he speaks.
Organizers of these demonstrations expect hundreds to chant outside the Washington National Cathedral during the Dalai Lama’s visit on Friday (March 7).
These protesters are from the International Shugden Community of Buddhists, whose devotion to the centuries-old deity Dorje Shugden has been rejected by the Dalai Lama as divisive. This has not only limited Shugden religious practice, say those who revere the deity, but ostracized them from the Tibetan community in exile, which makes its home in India.
“This particular deity is a special deity, a protector deity,” said Len Foley, a Los Angeles-based spokesman for the Shugden community who said Dorje Shugden can offer protection over the course of not just this lifetime, but many lifetimes.
“To take that away is horrible,” Foley said.
Dorje Shugden (referred to by the Dalai Lama as “Dolgyal” or “demon king”) “arose out of hostility to the great Fifth Dalai Lama and his government,” in the 17th century, according to the Dalai Lama’s website. Worship of the deity has “a history of contributing to a climate of sectarian disharmony in various parts of Tibet, and between various Tibetan communities.”
The current Dalai Lama, now 78, was born in a poor Tibetan village and given the name Tenzin Gyatso. He is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, and until three years ago was the head of the Tibetan government in exile.
A critical book on the Dalai Lama published by the Shugden community is entitled “The False Dalai Lama,” and subtitled “The Worst Dictator in the Modern World.” Recent signs and chants outside the Dalai Lama’s speaking engagements in California accused him of trampling on the community’s religious freedom.
Members said they can’t get government jobs in India because of their beliefs, and that their nuns and monks have been kicked out of monasteries.
Foley and others want the Dalai Lama to “lift the ban” on rituals involving Dorje Shugden. Supporters of the Dalai Lama said he hasn’t banned any practice — and that Buddhism does not allow for such a restriction.
According to the Dalai Lama’s website, though the Buddhist leader once practiced rituals associated with the deity himself, he has “strongly discouraged” them since 1975.
The fifth Dalai Lama denounced the deity as a “malevolent spirit,” and unchecked devotion to the spirit runs the risk of morphing into “cult-like practices,” the website says.
Robert Thurman, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University, has written that the Shugden community is backed by the Dalai Lama’s foes in Beijing; China has rejected the Dalai Lama’s quest for greater autonomy for Tibetans within China.
Foley said Thursday that the protests are funded by the protesters, not outsiders.