In childhood encounters with houses of worship, I never got past the front doors. Many Saturdays I waited outside a shul in Coney Island with my father and sister for my grandmother. She emerged in a crowd of old people in dark clothes and no one spoke English. Then we all went to the boardwalk, where my sister and I played Skeeball and ate hot dogs at Nathan’s. Sunday mornings, I often waited impatiently outside Epiphany Church for the kids on my block in downtown Manhattan to reenter our common world of the street. I never went into Epiphany Church, and I never entered my grandmother’s temple.

The Epiphany Church was alien to my family and by turns frightening and intriguing; nonetheless it coexisted on the Monopoly board of my life with other “properties” outside the neighborhood such as Chinatown or Harlem. In contrast, the threshold of my grandmother’s temple represented a Continental Divide between the old world and the new, the past and the future. To enter the shul was to leave America, to back into the remnants of a landscape charred by history.
When, in my early twenties, I did leave America, I headed East. In my travels through Asia, and subsequently the Middle East and Europe, entering holy structures was the currency of tourism. I watched old women kneeling at Shinto shrines; black-clad widows of Spain at the altars of rural churches; monks from Sri Lanka circumambulating the stupa at Bodhgaya; monks on the bridges of Bangkok with their begging bowls; men on prayer mats among the fabulous mosaics of Esfahan. People in prayer could convey such intense intimacy with themselves that sometimes the act of watching evoked the sensual shame of breaking a taboo. I imagined that the pleasures attributed to sexual voyeurism must pale in comparison; and I imagined that someday I might risk the practice of prayer myself.
My most salient memories as a religious voyeur go back to a Tibetan refugee camp in western Nepal in the foothills of the Annapurna, where I taught English to the children. In 1965 the physical and emotional circumstances of Tibetans in exile were brutally raw. Yak-hide tents and wooden huts were used for sleeping. All other activities, such as cooking, eating, washing, shitting, and praying, were performed outdoors and quite publicly. Without cover of a roof, there was a particularly poignant nakedness-at least to my eyes-to the refugees doing full prostrations on mats outside their tents. There was no resident lama, no particular time set aside for prayer, and no collective religious activities.
Prostrations, the turning of the handheld prayer wheels, and the incessant recitation of mantras were all carried out with the utmost ease. For them, the rituals of religion appeared to be nothing “special.” But for me it celebrated a remarkable, seamless integration of religion and daily life, of intense devotion and relaxation, of doctrine and self-reliance. This was Shangri-la, fulfilling the longing for peace and perfection on earth.

WHY THEN, I HAD TO ASK myself just a few weeks ago, was I less than enthusiastic to see a man on my block in lower Manhattan kneeling in prayer on a mat that faced East? The answer took form, reluctantly, through my assumption that the man was Islamic; and my first associations were not to the beautiful latticed tiles of Esfahan or to the mosques of Istanbul, but to the World Trade Center bombing, to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head, to the recent killing of 70 people in Luxor by Islamic fundamentalists, and to the continued terrorism in Algeria. Identifying the source of my unease allowed me to explore the pernicious prejudice it implied.

Still, I was left with the troubling awareness that watching a person in prayer had set off visions of violence; prayer was no longer a symbol of peace. I do not want to associate prayer with violence. Not within Islam; not within Buddhism. I would like to hang on to the wide-eyed innocence of the pubescent Dalai Lama in the movie Kundun when he echoes, in stunned disbelief, “There are monks who carry guns?”

TWENTIETH-CENTURY ASIA provides no shortage of examples of monks who carry guns. National politics generally has been the motive for monks arming themselves, not differences of doctrine. Yet a recent and disturbing example of violence does involve a doctrinal dispute. Last February three Tibetan monks were viciously murdered in Dharamsala less than a hundred yards from the Dalai Lama’s residence. The perpetrators remain at large. However, the Indian police have implicated several Tibetan monks who they believe disappeared into occupied Tibet. The murders have been linked to a controversy that dates back to the seventeenth century; it involves Dorje Shugden, a protector deity of the Gelugpas, the dominant lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. In this issue Stephen Batchelor introduces us to the origins of this complex situation and its role in doctrinal disputes waged within Tibetan buddhocracy. As well, Donald Lopez investigates both sides of this controversy through two interviews: Geshe Kelsang Gyatso represents those who consider Dorje Shugden to be a buddha; Thubten Jigme Norbu, elder brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, views Shugden as a cult figure responsible for inciting sectarian prejudice and hostilities.
The Dalai Lama himself was instructed in Dorje Shugden practices, as were most of the leading members of the Gelug hierarchy. But in the mid1970s, in his new role as the exiled leader-and embodiment-of all Tibetans, he began to discourage Dorje Shugden worship, claiming that it was damaging to the unity of his people and to the cause of Tibet. To outsiders, the Tibetans seemed unified by the single leadership of a beloved Dalai Lama, and by their common crises with China. But the Dalai Lama’s increasing attempts to halt Dorje Shugden worship began to catalyze dissension within his own lineage.
This fracture first came to light in the West when members of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s Britain-based organization, the New Kadampa Tradition, staged demonstrations against His Holiness in London in the summer of 1996. They accused the Dalai Lama of violating their religious freedom. This dilemma is so layered in historical, political, and religious intricacies and so immersed in the shamanistic dimensions of Tibetan Buddhism, that it threatens to be as impenetrable as old Tibet itself. Yet this has not deterred Westerners from joining the debate, and the Internet reveals passionate arguments that continue the sectarian divisiveness that has characterized so much of Tibet’s history.
When Tibetan teachers came to the West, they imparted to their disciples the sectarian biases and hostilities embedded in their own lineages. Tibetans also emerged from their Himalayan hideaway believing that the earth was flat. But no one accepted that belief, and the lamas willingly allowed their Western friends to educate them on this subject. Yet in matters of doctrine-even when they involve a murderous and political past-it seems that many Westerners are unwilling to deconstruct the wisdom of their elders and figure out what aspects of Tibetan dharma are best left behind in the realm of the flat earth.
Over and over again, Westerners have had to grapple with extracting the heart of eternal dharma from its temporal and cultural contexts. Translation of the dharma into a workable Western language is still in its infancy; and still trying to find its balance between blind allegiance and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a willy-nilly path and is perhaps best navigated with an open heart, one that is available for surprise and bewilderment, loss and transformation. At the very least the Dorje Shugden affair offers us an opportunity to check our own belief systems, superstitions, biases and personal cosmologies.

FOR ME, THE DORJE SHUGDEN feud leads back to the threshold of my grandmother’s shul: once again I don’t want to leave America to enter it. I don’t want to tread a narrow tunnel of ideology, hemmed in by an ancient order, fueled by a primitive tribalism. I don’t want to abandon the American commitment to diversity and pluralism. I want to lose my idealism and retain my ideals. Given a choice, I would prefer my experiences of the refugee camp to remain undiluted by Tibetan history, or by the Dorje Shudgen affair, which assaults the idealized, romantic image of a pacifist Tibet. Yet paradoxically, this unwelcome confrontation with a bigger view of Tibet, and with the entanglement between religion and politics everywhere, inspires workable ideals. At the end of the day, Tibetan dharma cannot be held hostage to feudalism and the Christian Right in America does not own Jesus. And I cannot use the Luxor massacre against the man on the street kneeling on a prayer mat facing East.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .