‘It’s too confusing for me,’ I heard a student confessing outside Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.
To the right was a group of Tibetan exiles with their brightly coloured flags, here to greet the Dalai Lama on the Oxford leg of his UK tour. In the middle, a smaller group of Chinese students with one large red Chinese flag and a poster showing a wedding against the backdrop of the Potala Place – presumably to suggest the ‘happy union’ of China with Tibet.
But to left, was a much larger group of maybe 500 people bearing two big banners which read: ‘Dalai Lama: Stop Lying!’ And for those of us who couldn’t read, they chanted the same lines – like a stuck record, for four hours. ‘But they aren’t Chinese!?’ said the confused student. ‘They’re not Tibetan!?
It was true: I looked but could not spot one Tibetan among them. Although many were garbed in the robes of Tibetan Buddhism, the assembled protesters were overwhelmingly white and British. ‘Why are all these British people protesting against the Dalai Lama?’ the student went on, in his determined fog of un-enlightenment. The simple answer is that they were from the Western Shugden Society which is accusing the Dalai Lama of violating the human rights of Buddhists by ‘banning’ a prayer to Dorje Shugden, a deity central to their practice.
To explain their case they called a press conference at Oxford’s prestigious Randolph Hotel. Spokesperson Kelsang Pema (aka Helen Gradwell) claimed that in recent months hundreds of monks had been expelled from their monasteries and that devotees were being attacked and discriminated against in Tibetan communities in India. She claimed that more than a third of Tibetan exiles were adherents of the practice. Tibetan refugee Diki Dolma, who has connections with both Britain and India commented: ‘That’s nonsense! We know the Tibetan exile community and we know it’s just not true. Very, very few follow this practice. I feel sorry for these protesters. I think they don’t know much about Buddhism. They make out they are monks, but, look they don’t even know how to wear their robes properly!’
The emergence of such an orchestrated protest at this time – and the personalized and vituperative nature of the attacks against the Dalai Lama – raises other questions. ‘We are not connected with China,’ insists Helen Gradwell. ‘The Dalai Lama is mixing politics up with religion but we are not. We are not political. We have no position on Tibetan autonomy.’ Asked whether it bothered her that protesting at this time might be playing into the hands of the Chinese authorities, she said that the fault lay with the Dalai Lama for banning the prayer.
To add to the confusion the Office of Tibet in London claims that the Dalai Lama has not banned the prayer. He is ‘advising’ against it – but saying that those who choose to ignore his advice this cannot expect to attend his teachings. He considers Dorje Shugden a ‘fierce spirit’ which can be used to curse others. Devotion to this spirit is seen as encouraging sectarianism, harming the prospects for Tibetan autonomy and, indeed, the Dalai Lama’s own longevity.
In 1997 Indian police investigations linked the murder of three Tibetan monks, who had been outspoken in critics of Shugden practice, to members of the Dorje Shugden Society who escaped over the border to Tibet. The Chinese have been actively encouraging Tibetans to practise the Shugden school as a way of reducing the power of the Dalai Lama, said a spokesperson from the Free Tibet Campaign.
When monks in Tibet’s Ganden monastery destroyed a statue to Dorje Shugden they were arrested by the Chinese authorities and ordered to pay for a replacement. The fact that the Dalai Lama is being accused of precisely the charges he levels against the Chinese authorities – abuse of human rights, lack of freedom of speech – has not gone unnoticed by his supporters.
‘We assume that China is behind it but we don’t have the evidence to prove it,’ said one Tibetan exile, who did not want to be named. Towards the end of the demo in Oxford a man standing close to the Shugden contingent started up his own separate and not altogether intelligible chant. Nearby, I could hear a tall British monk saying into his mobile phone, ‘It’s alright now. The police are coming for him.’ And sure enough the man was promptly bundled off by two officers.
‘What about his freedom of speech?’ I asked one of the Shugden stewards. ‘He was just causing trouble,’ came the reply. Er…