Said Dawa Norbu in 1976…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

Dawa Norbu’s editorial in Tibetan Review of September 1976 focussed on sectarian harmony and national unity:

‘It is diplomatic in the present ecumenical age to minimise and even to conceal philosophical differences among religions. For the Tibetan refugees it has become a political necessity to eschew sectarian differences for the sake of national unity. But fortunately there exist philosophical differences among the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism which constitute four distinct approaches to fundamental Buddhist issues like Emptiness (sTongpa. Nyid): and despite obvious limitations the posterity would be grateful for such diversities which offer such wide scopes to suit one’s aptitude and inclination in attaining the single common Buddhist goal—Nirvana. Indeed Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism would have been immeasurably poorer without the various sects, their diverse approaches to Buddhism, their different traditions, and their different lines of Gurus and teachings which make Tibetan Buddhism today “one of the most complete and powerful spiritual system that has ever been brought to mankind.”

However, the attempt on the part of “progressive” lamas to conceal philosophical differences among the four basic sects are neither possible nor desirable. Modern plural society, which seems to be the Dalai Lama’s future vision of Tibet, makes it possible to have unity within diversity. It seems therefore the leading lamas have caught ecumenicalism by the tail. This perhaps should not be surprising since the recent philosophical trend among the young lamas has been towards Buddhist fundamentalism and socialistic humanism which seems to sweep away “minor” sectarian diversities.

Any sectarian problem in the Tibetan community seems to have been invested with a sensitive and explosive character. There is, therefore, a great need to adopt an open and healthy attitude towards all sectarian matters. The problem calls for a clear and cool thinking, instead of wishy-washy attitude which has clouded sectarian issues, philosophical as well as political, in the past. The determination of each sect to continue its separate tradition without seeking to dominate others in any way should be welcomed. What, however, should be condemned is any un-Buddhistic exploitation of sectarian differences for sectarian or even for an individual lama’s gain. Understanding and respect for each other’s traditions is the way to inter-sectarian harmony, and not by hiding or patching up philosophical differences with home-baked ecumenicalism.

In an otherwise static society the emergence of various sects appear as the only dynamics of change in Tibet. The rise of each sect caused great philosophical and political changes in the evolution of Tibetan civilization as we know it. Objectively, the development of various Buddhist sects in Tibet represent the creative and positive Tibetan response to the introduction of Buddhism into the country since the 7th century. They are the branche, of a tree called Buddhism, and no lamaistic hybrids as the 19th century Europeans thought. Every sect has made its own contribution to Tibetan culture as a whole, offered the Tibetans rich and diverse ways of religious practice to suit one’s taste: “mysticism” of Nyingmapa, tantricism of Kagyupa, wisdom of Sakyapa, and intellectual, disciplined philosophy of Gelukpa.

ln the field or Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, probably the biggest theoretical issue is Nagarjuna’s concept of Emptiness: Does an object really exist ? The proposition received an enthusiastic and enduring reception in Tibet. As Dhingo Khentse Rinpoche points out, what makes the four sects philosophically different from each other is basically their different views on the concept of Emptiness. Each school tried to resolve the philosophical contradic­tion between apparent/conventional existence of a phenomenon and the non-existence of it as an absolute, inherent or ultimate entity. Each sect, in its own way, tried to trans­cend duality. The Gelukpa school did so by emphasizing the emptiness aspect (tongcha) and largely ignoring the positive aspect (selcha). The Sakyapa had the benefit of doubt: If a thing called emptiness does not exist, how can you have a name with­out the object of designate? The Kagyupa and Nyingmapa sects seemed to have transcended duality and ernptiness by putting chöku or rigtong (enlightened mind) above everything, including Emptiness.

The dynamic role of sects in poli­tics is no less apparent than in the religions sphere. Each sect (except the Nyingmapa order) played the role of a political party in Tibetan history. While their spiritual con­tributions continue to shine as im­mense and creative, their political roles were, on the whole , disastrous, and ignoble in many ways. As soon as they appear one after the other on the Tibetan political stage, they are theoretically on alien grounds, and lamaist polity, as it unnatu­rally evolved through centuries, continued to suffer from inherent weaknesses and contradictions, for which Tibet had to pay the biggest price—independence.

Thus after the assassination of Lang Darma, major internal political struggles in Tibet were mainly those of sectarain nature or waged in the name of sects. The fanatical attempt to impose a particular sect’s views and beliefs at the expense of other sects invariably led to a political struggle for supremacy because in the ultimate analysis political power was needed to achieve such un­-Buddhistic objectives. Inter-secta­rian struggles in turn invited exter­nal intervention because a particular “church” had to depend for arms and political support on neigh­bouring countries. The result was a graduai erosion of Tibet’s sovereign­ty and ultimate loss of her indepen­dence.

As each successive sect tried to evolve its own form of Government—particularJy Gelukpas and Sakya­pas—the Government in power tended to have a sectarian charac­ter. This naturally led to sectarian domination. And it is particularly true of the Gelukpa puritanical movement in the 16th century which almost pushed the Kagyupa sect out of the country, resulting in the conversion of Bhutan and Sikkim to Kagyupa order.

Thus, the present predominently Gelukpa character of the Tibetan Government owes it to its long his­tory of ruling Tibet since the 16th century. It cannot, therefore, be denied that the Ganden Phodrang Government as such was a result of Gelukpa sectarian victory, that the Datai Lamas as its successive heads have been Gelukpas, by definition, that the monk-officials  (tsi-drung) were mostly frorn the three great Gelukpa monasteries in Lhasa. It was these big monasteries which played a predominent role in Tibetan national affairs upto 1959, and not other sects.

Despite democratic intervention, patterns of the past still continue to persist in exile. For example, only Gelukpa abbots are paid salaries by Dharamsala! Such practices must be one of the basic causes for the lack of sectarian harmony today.

The dominant sect must not only accept an equal status with others but also must make some sacrifices in order to achieve national unity and inter-sectarian harmony. It has to give up its claim to the monopoly of Buddhist truth (which applies to others as well) and also its claim to political power on the strength of the number of its followers. The Tibe­tan Administration at Dharamsala does not understand—or pretend not to—the psychology of the minorities, and paying lip service to the Con­stitution, it does not care to go an inch out of its way to assuage the­ fears of minorities and to ensure their interest. Even upto this day, the Bonpos do not have their represen­tative either in the Council of Re­ligious Affairs or in the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies which other sects enjoy. On the part of minority sects there must be greater and more willing co-operation and participation in the Tibetan public life.

Since 1963 when the Tibetan Cons­titution was promulgated, there has been a move to set the Dalai Lama above all sects and dissociate him publicly from the Gelukpa sect. This is a welcome and necessary move if he is to remain as the future­ Head of State. However, sy­cophants and fanatics continue to play up his two tutors along with the Dalai Lama on almost every important political occasion. The attempt to accord the private tutors a status higher than those accorded to heads of sects should be stopped. Historically, heads of other sects have played a more prominent role­ in Tibetan history than the two tutors put together. The Senior Tutor, as the Head of Gelukpa Order can, of course, enjoy an equal status with other heads.

If the political role of sects. which brought them much discredit in the past, will have no place in future­ Tibet, their cultural and religious role will remain the same. As guardians of Tibetan culture, they have the over­whelming responsibility of preserv­ing and propagating Tibetan spiri­tual systems. Towards that aim there should be a Tibetan Buddhist As­sociation or Fellowship embracing all the sects including Bonpos, and its chairmanship should be in rota­tion by Heads of States, with the Dalai Lama remaining as President. In the past, most of the Tibetan delegates to Buddhist conferences in India and abroad have been mostly Gelukpa monks. This practice should be stopped and in future the proposed Association should select appropriate delegates from appropriate sects preferably in turn.’

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.