It’s easy enough to compare this stereotype to the “serious” convert to Buddhism, who, though they too may talk about tantra, sport distinctive hairstyles, or be white and affluent, seem at least to wear their prayer beads as more than just a fashion statement. Yet how easy is it to identify where religious conversion begins and cultural appropriation ends?

For world religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam the distinction is perhaps obvious. These religions operate according to an evangelical logic: everyone can (and often must) enjoy access to the means of salvation. Accusations of cultural appropriation, suggesting group-specific rights and restricted entry, might seem incompatible with an ethos of universalistic salvation. Tibetan Buddhism, like Islam and Christianity, is an enthusiastically evangelical religion. Buddhist theology widens the possibilities of evangelizing enormously: beyond spreading the dharma to their fellow human beings, Tibetan Buddhists say prayers for everything from ants to vampiric spirits so that these beings might be swiftly reborn in human form and achieve salvation through Buddhist practice. Like Islam and Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism is today an increasingly global religion. Unlike Christian and Muslim missionaries, however, today’s cosmopolitan Tibetan lamas have been motivated by both a universalist theology and a sense of urgency to preserve their religion in the face of persecution by Chinese authorities in Tibet. As such, Tibetan Buddhism’s significant spread westward in recent decades cannot be separated from Tibet’s colonial history: its occupation by the People’s Republic of China in 1950 and the exodus of thousands of Tibetans from their homeland following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. The political context of Tibetan Buddhism’s globalization has made the Western convert an ambiguous figure.

A newcomer to Buddhism, the convert is on the one hand culturally and spiritually impoverished: dependent on Tibetan experts, she is a beneficiary of Tibetan lamas’ spiritual charity. Compared to most Tibetans, who are stateless refugees or occupied people, however, she is distinctly advantaged. Her material and political privilege means she is often positioned by Tibetans in the traditional role of patron (jindak), yet while Tibetans may expect or hope that converts will serve as allies and advocates for Tibetans’ interests, commitment to Buddhism doesn’t guarantee any particular political subjectivity. These dynamics can make the lines between conversion and cultural appropriation blurry in the Tibetan Buddhist context.

In November of last year, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso completed an extensive lecture tour of the United States. Of the thousands who showed up for the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s talks, one group arrived without fail to each of his events: crowds of mostly white protestors in Tibetan robes who came to boycott the religious leader. Brandishing placards and shouting slogans, they accused the Dalai Lama of being a hypocrite, a liar and a denier of religious freedom. Calling him “the worst dictator in this modern day” and a “false Dalai Lama,” the demonstrators seemed to be channeling the most zealous of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideologues. Yet these were no party cadres. Rather, they were converts to the Dalai Lama’s own school of Tibetan Buddhism. As representatives of the International Shugden Community (ISC), the protesters came to highlight their grievances over the Dalai Lama’s opposition to a Tibetan deity known as Dorje Shugden and the discrimination and human rights violations they claim the religious leader’s rejection of this being and its followers has engendered.

The ISC is a major mouthpiece for the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a sect of almost exclusively non-Tibetan converts to Tibetan Buddhism that currently spearheads the global pro-Shugden, anti-Dalai Lama agenda. On the surface, the NKT’s almost two decades–long global campaign against the Dalai Lama and his supporters—that is, the overwhelming majority of the ethnic Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist global population—appears to be primarily about a dispute hinging on opposing theological positions within a single tradition. The Dalai Lama believes that Dorje Shugden is a dangerous demon masquerading as a benign deity; the NKT believes that the being is a bona fide buddha. What I want to argue here is that the controversy, and specifically NKT’s involvement, points to the politics of race, appropriation, and privilege involved in conversion and new religious movements and highlights ongoing tensions between ethnonationalist and universalist impulses in the globalization of Tibetan Buddhism and culture.

The Dalai Lama and NKT converts are all members of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, in which, at least since the 19th century, Dorje Shugden has been seen by some practitioners as a particularly potent worldly “protector” (in Tibetan Buddhism such protectors are ferocious egotistical spirits that have been ritually converted into defenders Buddhism). Although the Dalai Lama is technically not the highest spiritual authority in the Gelug school (this is the Ganden Tripa), his line’s historical political leadership of Tibet has made him one of the school’s most prominent figures. His dual role as a national leader and sectarian authority, however, has generated some tension, and historically the Dalai Lamas’ more inclusive, nationally oriented policies have clashed with the narrower sectarian priorities of some Gelugpa elites.

Himself once a Shugden propitiator in accordance with his Gelug education in Tibet, the current Dalai Lama began to voice reservations about the spirit in the 1970s. Shugden’s reputation for ruthlessly punishing (and assassinating) prominent Gelugpa practitioners who engaged with teachings from other schools has made the spirit iconic of a certain brand of Gelug supremacism. Such bias is in fundamental conflict with the Dalai Lama’s particularly nonsectarian vision of Tibetan Buddhism and a Tibetan nation in exile. Thus, to protect himself and the Tibetan people from what he sees as a dangerous demon, the Dalai Lama has prohibited those with ritual commitments to the spirit from attending any of his teachings, and some officials have set about purging exile monastic and government posts of anyone associated with the being.

Different actors and institutions in exile have interpreted and responded to the Dalai Lama’s statements about the spirit in their own diverse, haphazard, and inconsistent ways, with different community prohibitions being independently implemented on the ground. Ultimately, though, given Shugden’s current status, ties with the spirit automatically preclude involvement with any exile administrative institutions. While some pro-Shugden lamas continue to hold posts in exile monasteries, their continuing relationship with the spirit ensures their isolation from mainstream religious life.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who studied with one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers in Tibet, refused to accept the spirit’s demotion. In 1977, under the auspices of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)—a Gelug organization in exile that has over time come to cater increasingly to non-Tibetan converts—Kelsang Gyatso relocated to England and quickly amassed a number of inji (non-Tibetan, typically white) students. By the time the FPMT formally went along with the Dalai Lama’s rejection of the spirit, Kelsang Gyatso had already moved away from the organization and its leadership. In 1991, he founded the NKT, and set himself up as its sole spiritual director. From this moment, Shugden reliance, opposition to the Dalai Lama, and a strict focus on Gelug exclusivism became pivotal parts of Gyatso’s disciples’ identity. Unyielding in his conviction that Shugden was an enlightened protector and increasingly disturbed by what he saw as the laissez-faire, ecumenical approach of his Gelugpa peers in exile, Kelsang Gyatso came to believe that he alone could preserve the authentic and unadulterated Gelug tradition for posterity. Importantly, despite becoming one of the largest, fastest-growing Buddhist group in Britain, when Gyatso cut ties with the FPMT and the Dalai Lama, the NKT became effectively isolated from the wider Tibetan world.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (Kadampa Meditation Center New Mexico)

Cut off from other Tibetan Buddhists, NKT members have made their quarantine into something of a virtue. NKT converts claim Tibetans have become too worldly and politically focused to be worthy of functioning as custodians of pure Buddhist teachings. Though inji monks and nuns entering the NKT rely on a Tibetan guru, adopt Tibetan names, wear traditional robes, and preserve lineage practices hailing from Tibet, any direct engagement with Tibetan politics or culture is denounced as retrogressive and unnecessary. The NKT’s philosophy is one of “one lama, one yidam [meditational deity], one protector” in reference to their sole reliance on Kelsang Gyatso and his particular teachings, a stance distinctly at odds with how Tibetan Buddhism has historically been practiced. Today, the NKT curriculum is based exclusively on Kelsang Gyatso’s texts, and ritual activity and teaching in NKT centers worldwide happen pretty much entirely in languages other than Tibetan.

How legitimate are NKT members’ claims of human rights violations? The Shugden controversy has had serious consequences in Tibetan communities. Tibetans thought to be associated with Shugden have suffered discrimination. Evidence remains patchy, but it appears that individuals and families have been denied services, harassed, and attacked. A mood of paranoia prevails, with Shugden “scares” and witch-hunts periodically erupting in Tibetan communities. Monastic communities have been split. In 1997, Lobsang Gyatso, a Gelugpa geshe and close friend of the Dalai Lama was murdered in Dharamsala, India, along with two of his students in a “revenge killing” by assailants who were identified through a letter at the scene as Shugden advocates (the NKT denied any involvement and the perpetrators were never apprehended). The Tibetan administration in exile continues to publish lists of Tibetans who have taken part in Shugden protests around the world, replete with specific, personal information.

As the Shugden controversy has evolved, a policy change internal to the Tibetan societies has come to implicate not only Tibetans but non-Tibetan converts across the world. On one level, inji NKT converts want to expunge themselves of Tibetanness. On another, to make themselves heard and intelligible, they have appropriated the suffering of Tibetans affected by the Shugden controversy as their own. While NKT members claim to speak for Tibetan Shugden practitioners and amass cases of Tibetan-on-Tibetan discrimination in exile to bolster their cause, they fail to explain how their subjectivities and politics diverge from those of Tibetans so affected. For most Tibetans raised in Shugden propitiation, especially newcomers arriving from Tibet, family or monastic histories of Shugden practice do not equal a wholesale rejection of the Dalai Lama or of Tibetans and their politics. This inconsistent solidarity from typically anti-Tibetan injis is both curious and perversely ironic. The ISC/NKT’s tireless, well-coordinated and well-funded attacks on the Dalai Lama—which ultimately have very little to do with the merits or demerits of Shugden reliance—have helped cement for Tibetans an image of Shugden practitioners as a unified and organized group, unambiguously and unanimously opposed to the Dalai Lama—not to mention fueling popular theories that the NKT are Chinese agents on CCP payroll. An insidious circularity is at work here: protestors’ agitating against the Dalai Lama helps persuade exile Tibetans of the real threat of Shugden supporters in their midst, a witch hunt mentality ensues, and then the NKT uses this as legitimation for its claims and efforts. Tibetan activist Tenzin Dorjee has underscored NKT converts’ privilege in no uncertain terms. As he wrote in a Facebook post,

The Ultimate Insult: After 300 years of colonizing, plundering and devastating the East, the White man in the West now claims they’re the victims of a homeless refugee monk who has no army nor police nor an inch of territory on which to set up a tent? If these people feel oppressed by the Dalai Lama, all they have to do is take off their robes and walk away, back to their edifice of European privilege built largely from the bricks of former colonies.

Ultimately, the Shugden controversy underscores the challenges involved for Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhist converts in negotiating the links between religion and politics and in deciding how ethnic identity is mobilized in response to these. To what extent and in what ways does conversion oblige political commitment? Where does religion end and culture begin?

The Dalai Lama has often stated that Tibetan Buddhism in the West need not import Tibetan culture wholesale nor follow any particular politics. He has admonished Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike to disaggregate core Buddhist teachings from “folk” (Tibetan) practice. By engineering a (Tibetan) Buddhism where Tibetans are expendable, the NKT might seem to exemplify just this kind of independent Western Buddhism. Yet the NKT presents a more complex picture. In his zeal to perfectly preserve the teachings of his own lineage, Geshe Kelsang has prioritized non-Tibetan disciples and interests over Tibetan ones. His is an extreme and peculiar case, one he has rationalized in terms of a plan by Shugden himself to relocate the teachings to the West for posterity. Here Buddhist evangelical and sectarian imperatives overpower any loyalty to ethnicity and nation. Yet considering that one of Tibetans’ key strategies in appealing to the world for political support against China over the last half century has been to emphasize the distinctiveness of Tibetan culture and civilization as enshrined in Buddhism in particular, this is troubling. By arguing that the flame of pure dharma has passed to the West and to the NKT specifically, NKT members reprise a stubborn Orientalist trope. Namely, that the erasure of Tibet as a distinct nation is what will allow for the universal teachings of the Buddha, once sequestered and “frozen” in timeless Tibet, to at last become “open access,” to be enjoyed by their truest, most deserving heirs: modern (typically white) Westerners.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Savage Minds blog.

For a comprehensive, balanced treatment of the Dorje Shugden controversy, check out Tricycle‘s 1998 special section “Deity or Demon?: The controversy over Tibet’s Dorje Shugden,” which includes essays from scholars Stephen Batchelor and Donald S. Lopez Jr. and interviews with NKT founder Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the Dalai Lama’s brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu.

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