Pat Enkyo O'Hara. Courtesy Sally Boon.
Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Courtesy Sally Boon.


At 12:30 p.m. on June 8, Michelle Laporte struck a large brass gong 108 times to initiate Tricycle’s third annual Change Your Mind Day. The setting for this day of meditation in a free and public format was a quiet wooded lawn in New York’s Central Park.

Monks from Sri Lanka. Courtesy Sally Boon.
Monks from Sri Lanka. Courtesy Sally Boon.

The Reverend T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki from the New York Buddhist Church opened the presentations with a vigorous chant. Pat Enkyo O’Hara of the Village Zendo, a co-host of the event, led a guided meditation. A talk by Lobsang Samten of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia followed. Next, John Daido Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, took questions from the audience.

Zentertainment was provided by John Gibson, playing compositions of his own and those of Philip Glass; Allen Ginsberg and Kevin Glassco sang songs. Other participants included Bonnie Myotai Treace of the Fire Lotus Zendo in Manhattan, Master Sheng Yen from the Ch’an Meditation Center in Queens, the Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa from the New York Buddhist Vihara, and Joseph Goldstein from the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Maggie Newman, a venerable t’ai chi teacher, led everyone in a series of contemplative movement exercises. According to the Parks Department, there were 1,500 people there for the day, while another 1,000 came and went; with everyone following Ms. Newman in unison, Central Park acquired a rare moment of active serenity.

Allen Ginsberg. Courtesy Sally Boon.
Allen Ginsberg. Courtesy Sally Boon.

The most theatrical part of the day came when Gelugpa monk Michael Roach led two young Tibetan monks, Ngawang Thupten and Jampa Longrey, in a classic geshe Tibetan debate on the nature of karma. In imitation of the raucous debating practice of a Tibetan monastery, Roach introduced the audience to the crescendo roar that signals the disapproval of an answer.

Master Sheng-Yen. Courtesy Sally Boon.
Master Sheng-Yen. Courtesy Sally Boon.


As in previous years, there was an easy camaraderie between those who came specifically for the event—bringing lawn chairs, picnics, blankets, etc.—and those who came out for a spring stroll and suddenly came across 1,500 people sitting in absolute silence, or stretching their hands to the sky, or roaring a Tibetan lion’s roar. But one troubling event was also very much part of this one: the brutal beating of the young piano teacher that had taken place near the Ramble just days earlier. As of June 8 her assailant still had not been found, and the park was rife with police distributing posters of the wanted man. In part because the woman remained unidentified for several days, alone and unconscious, the attack mesmerized the city, and the need to extend compassion to both her and her assailant was a theme that several of the teachers returned to in their talks. It was a sad and disturbing note, but one that gave a particular poignancy to the meaning of “Change Your Mind.”

Maggie Newman leading contemplative movements. Courtesy Sally Boon.
Maggie Newman leading contemplative movements. Courtesy Sally Boon.

YES, BUT. . .

For years Germany has been trying to nurture an economic relationship with China, negotiating billion-dollar contracts and squeezing out American competitors. But this partnership may be coming to an end, due to China’s human rights record in Tibet.

In June the German government withdrew public funding from a privately organized conference on Tibet that was to take place in Bonn. However, Germany rejected a demand from the Chinese government that the gathering be canceled altogether.

Shortly thereafter, Germany’s parliament passed a resolution condemning China for its abuses of human rights in Tibet. Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel had planned to visit Beijing this July, but China canceled his visit, calling the German resolution an “open, flagrant violation of international law and a serious case of interference in China’s internal affairs.”

Klaus Kinkel made a statement on June 24, saying that Bonn did not support demands for Tibetan independence: “We’d like talks to be held with the Dalai Lama,” he stated, but added, “That is in no way recognition of Tibet. We want Tibet to continue to belong to China.”


In Sonoma County, California, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, lies what is now the largest Tibetan Buddhist center in the Western Hemisphere. Odiyan, named after the birthplace of Padmasambhava (who brought Buddhism to Tibet), took twenty-one years to build. Spread over 1,100 acres, it contains more than 1,750 stupas, 6 major temples, 108 meditation sites, 1,242 electric prayer wheels, 108,000 statues of Padmasambhava, and 800 prayer flags. It is a replica of Samye, Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery, and is laid out in a series of mandalas, one within the other. In the center is Mandala Temple, surrounded by a lake with four bridges that lead to the outer rim, where the living quarters lie. Odiyan can house fifteen to fifty lay students, who can stay for short retreats or for years at a time. Until June of this year, only members, volunteers, and contractors have been allowed in, though in the future it will become a retreat center, open to the public.

The spiritual leader and organizer of Odiyan is Tarthang Tulku, a lama in the Nyingma tradition who fled from Tibet in 1958 and arrived in Berkeley in 1970. Odiyan cost from $10 to $12 million to build, most of that having been paid for by Tarthang’s network of nonprofit projects, such as the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center, the Nyingma Institute, and Dharma Publishing.


William Frank Parker in jukai ceremony, 1996. Courtesy Tom McKitterick.
William Frank Parker in jukai ceremony, 1996. Courtesy Tom McKitterick.

In 1984, William Frank Parker murdered his ex-wife’s parents, abducted his ex-wife, and shot and wounded her and a police officer. Now, on death row in Arkansas for those murders, he wears a rakusu, shaves his head, has an altar complete with candles and incense where he meditates for forty minutes a day, and studies every Buddhist text he can get his hands on. In May he tookjukai, confirming his initiation into the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Parker was first introduced to Buddhism seven years ago, when a prison guard gave him a copy of theDhammapada as a joke. Parker was in solitary confinement for hitting a guard and had asked for a Bible to pass the time. At first he saw himself in the Buddha’s teachings about impure thoughts leading to impure actions. Later, it was the teachings about death and impermanence that hit home.

The Dalai Lama and other prominent Buddhists have taken up Parker’s cause, writing to Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker to ask for clemency, citing Parker’s transformation. However, Parker has forbidden his lawyer to file for any more appeals. “I don’t want to die, but I’m ready. In fact, I’m sort of looking forward to the journey. I’ve studied it for so long,” Parker told the New York Times.

Jim Guy Tucker granted Parker two stays of execution; however, having been convicted himself on charges of misusing government-backed loans in the mid-1980s, Tucker has been replaced by fundamentalist Baptist minister Michael Dale Huckabee. Tucker had set the execution date for September 17, but when Huckabee took office he moved it up to August 8.


In 1994 the British Library was given thirteen birch-bark scrolls by an anonymous donor. This last July the library announced that the scrolls, containing approximately twenty different texts, may be the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever discovered.

Richard Salomon, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Washington in Seattle, was called in to examine the scrolls because he is one of the few scholars familiar with the language of Gandhari, in which they were written. Gandhari was the dialect spoken in the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara, which included eastern Afghanistan and part of Northern Pakistan. Salomon dates the scrolls from the end of the first century to the beginning of the second century C.E.

The scrolls may help to clear up the long-standing controversy over what is the original language of the Buddha’s teachings. Approximately 100 years ago, the Buddhist text known as the Dhammapada was found, which was written in Gandhari, but other early texts were written in Sanskrit, Pali, and Magadhi. “It’s possible—though preliminary—that by comparing these Gandhari to Pali, we’ll get something close to the underlying language,” Salomon told the New York Times.


On June 24, Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld signed a bill that bars the state form doing business with companies that do business with Burma (now called Myanmar by its government).

The bill came at the same time that the United States, in response to the death in prison of Leo Nichols (an American honorary consul in Rangoon), called on Burma’s military rulers to free all those being held for exercising their political rights.

Nichols was said by diplomats and opposition sources to have been arrested because of his friendship with opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi. He had a long history of medical problems, including high blood pressue and diabetes, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his cell on June 22. Amnesty International said it had reports that Nichols had been deprived of slep during longs interrogations in prison. 


In 1988, Providence Zen Center (PZC), founded by Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, joined with its neighbors in a protest, objecting to a housing development planned next to the center. The development would divide the property into single family and duplex lots, which PZC saw as threatening the character of the neighborhood.

After a series of actions taken by PZC and other community members, the developers built about two dozen homes. In 1989, the developers filed suit against PZC, charging that the actions had delayed their project and thus cost them approximately $700,000. In 1994, the Rhode Island Superior Court dismissed the case, but developers appealed to the State Supreme Court. Even though PZC was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the State Attorney General, the State Supreme Court overturned the Superior Court’s summary judgment and determined that there should be a trial. Instead the two parties agreed to settle their dispute in independent mediation. On July 9, a figure was agreed upon: PZC is to pay the developer $107,500.

Kenro Izu, courtesy Howard Grennberg Gallery, NY.
Kenro Izu, courtesy Howard Grennberg Gallery, NY.


Detail from Kenro Izu’s photo of a tree root at Angkor, Cambodia: three exposures butted together. In January, Izu will exhibit at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in SoHo, New York City. He will make as many prints as demanded, cut his usual price in half, and use the proceeds to help pay for a children’s hospital near Angkor.

Tibetan Freedom Court, June 1996, San Francisco. Courtesy Frank Olinsky.
Tibetan Freedom Court, June 1996, San Francisco. Courtesy Frank Olinsky.


The Tibetan Freedom Concert held in San Francisco on June 15 and 16 was the largest benefit concert to take place in America since Live Aid in 1985. The sellout crowd of 50,000 per day filled the Polo Fields of Golden Gate Park. The concert received national media attention and was covered at length and indepth by MTV.

The event was organized by the Milarepa Fund, a San Francisco nonprofit organization cofounded (with Erin Potts) by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Yauch called on his musical colleagues—including some of the biggest names in rock: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Fugees, Beck, De La Soul, Yoko Ono, Bjork, and Sonic Youth—to lend their talents to help raise awareness about the situation in Tibet.

The concert featured two stages: one decorated with red Tibetan-style flames and the other with blue clouds. The entire area was decorated with thousands of prayer flags and a large temporary stupa that was set up near the concession stands. At the far end of the field was a tent where monks from various Tibetan Buddhist orders performed chants and created sand mandalas.

The young audiences who came to listen and mosh to their favorite bands were exposed to the politics and religion of Tibet, in most cases for the first time. They were attentive as Robert Thurman addressed them with a plea for support, and later when Palden Gyatso, who was imprisoned by the Chinese Government for thirty-three years, described through an interpreter his torture by fire, boiling water, and cattle prods. On the second day of the concert, audience members stayed rapt after the music died down to listen as the monks offered a closing blessing.


On June 6 a demonstration was held outside the Office of Tibet in London in protest against the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile. The two hundred demonstrators were not supporters of China but British Tibetan Buddhists, members of a recently formed organization called the Shugden Supporters Community (SSC). The issue at stake is the status of a protector deity called Dorje Shugden, a wrathful figure with bared teeth, riding a horse. While devotees of Dorje Shugden regard this deity as a Buddha, the Dalai Lama believes him to be a dangerous and divisive force. According to the SSC, the Dalai Lama has authorized the forcible removal of images of Dorje Shugden from private homes in the Tibetan refugee communities in South India. This behavior, they argue, suppresses religious freedom and thereby places the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile on a par with the Chinese Communist regime in Tibet.

In their official response to this accusation, the government-in-exile affirms the Dalai Lama’s view that those who worship the protector Dorje Shugden are not only acting against the cause of a free Tibet but endangering the life of the Dalai Lama. But they deny all allegations that they have used force to suppress the religious freedom of those who believe in the efficacity of this deity. The international media, meanwhile, has been alerted to an issue that could seriously damage the campaign for Tibetan independence as well as tarnish the image of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

This bewildering story begins during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who unified the country in the 17th century. It is said that a monk in conflict with the Dalai Lama vowed to be reborn as a protector of the pure Gelukpa tradition. While the Dalai Lama was a senior figure in the Gelukpa hierarchy, his involvement with the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism would have compromised for some his standing as an orthodox Gelukpa. Soon after the monk’s death a wrathful spirit was identified as his reincarnation and placed in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon of deities with the name “Dorje Shugden.”

Little is heard of this figure for the next two hundred years. But in the early 20th century Dorje Shugden was adopted by the powerful Gelukpa lama Pabongka Rinpoche (1871-1941) and allegedly used in the suppression of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Buddhism in eastern Tibet. In the 1930s and 40s, in the confusion that followed the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, the followers of Pabongka argued that the traditional protector deities of the land had deserted Tibet. Now, they claimed, the State should seek protection from Dorje Shugden. This opened a rift both in the Tibetan government and the Gelukpa order, only adding to the disarray of a state that was ultimately unable to resist its overthrow by Communist China in 1959.

At this time the young Dalai Lama himself practiced the meditations and rites connected to Dorje Shugden. But in 1976, following the publication of a sectarian, pro-Shugden tract, he reconsidered his position. He concluded that Dorje Shugden was a destabilizing force, whose worship would lead to schisms within the Tibetan community. He ordered images of Dorje Shugden to be removed from public view in the Gelukpa monasteries in India but did not regard himself as having the authority to forbid its practice in private. Now, twenty years later, he has issued another statement that suggests a growing exasperation with Tibetans who persist in worshiping the deity. Principal among these is Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a lama based in the north of England who has broken away from the Gelukpa school and founded an order called the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). Not only does this school make no secret of its allegiance to Dorje Shugden, but it also initiates Westerners into the practice and declares Geshe Kelsang to be the Third Buddha (after Shakyamuni and Tsongkhapa—the founder of the Gelukpa Order). It appears that SSC, the group that organized the London demonstration in June, is predominantly made up of members of the NKT.

What we are witnessing today, not only in demonstrations but also through numerous communications on the Internet, is the eruption of a well-guarded Tibetan secret into the public domain. Such exposure is liable to polarize Tibetan lamas and their followers into two camps pitched against each other in a bizarre, occult struggle between good and evil. It would be sad and deeply ironic if the Tibetan cause were to be threatened not only by continued Chinese occupation but by arcane, unresolved conflicts within Tibetan religious culture itself.

– Stephen Batchelor

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