During the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s tour of the United States of America and Europe in 2014, well organized opponents held widespread protests against his vocal condemnation of the worship of the Tibetan deity Dorje Shukden. Just before his visit to the Netherlands in May 2014, I alerted Dutch journalists to the Dalai Lama’s scholastic background by examining one his favoured rhetorical devices:
‘Besides being the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935) also is an accomplished Tibetan scholastic: He completed the traditional monastic curriculum of the Tibetan Geluk sect by passing the so-called Geshe exam. The Dalai Lama took his exams in 1959 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, in the form of public scholastic debates with the most senior scholars of the day. The Dalai Lama passed with flying colours and has been entitled to call himself ‘Geshe Lharampa’ ever since. This Tibetan degree might be compared—very roughly—with a summa cum laude doctorate in orthodox theology.
A clear awareness of this background helps us see how some discussions suddenly awaken the Geshe inside the Dalai Lama, who then tries to decide the argument. Like any nimble debater or lawyer, the Dalai Lama recognizes the power of discourse. He knows that debaters who succeed in imposing the terms of a discussion, predetermine its outcome. This is why the most interesting, informative phase precedes the debate itself. Right then, presence of mind is at a premium, and this is no less true when facing the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama’s response in the Norwegian press to a recent protest during his visit to Oslo (7 May 2014) illustrates this. On his American and European tour, the Dalai Lama’s appearances are stalked by professionally led protesters. In the streets of Norway protesters held up placards such as: ‘False Dalai Lama, Stop Lying!,’ ‘Give Religious Freedom,’ and ‘Hypocrisy!’ With these texts, they support their favoured deity Dorje Shukden. However, the Dalai Lama repudiates such worship. He regards Shukden as an intolerant, evil spirit whom he calls Dölgyal—after the mountain lake Döl in Tibet where the ghost resided for some time.
During a press conference, the Dalai Lama was asked to comment on the protests in Oslo. First off, he emphasized that it is better and safer to stick by the religion one grew up with. Still, he declared, those who find Buddhism useful are free to follow it. Like the Buddha before him, the Dalai Lama encouraged interested people to thoroughly test his claims and not just accept anything.
About Shukden he said: “In my ignorance I worshiped this spirit myself, from 1951 to the early 1970s. I noticed something was wrong with him, and found that the fifth and thirteenth Dalai Lama have turned against him. I then discontinued this practice. Eventually, the public became aware of this and now I feel it is my duty to inform people.”
The Dalai Lama also disputed that he had “banned” followers of Shukden: “Between a teacher and his followers exists a spiritual bond, and I merely ask those who worship this spirit not to attend my teaching. They call this a ban and shout ‘Stop lying'” The Dalai Lama asked journalists to find out who is lying, and concluded: “I’m trying to be non-sectarian. This practice has been associated with sectarianism for years. I feel sorry for the protesters’ ignorance on this matter.”
With that last sentence, the Dalai Lama comes full circle. Here, tacitly, in true scholastic fashion, Geshe Tenzin Gyatso introduces the following argument: ‘It is better and safer not to adopt a religion you do not know—which you have not investigated and tested.’ And in doing so he deftly presents his opponents—Western Shukden protesters—as living proof of this claim.
True, the Dalai Lama habitually warns his audience in advance that it is better not to exchange religions or beliefs. However, the real point is this: Hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people in his Western audiences nod in agreement while believing that they themselves are the exception to the rule. The irony of this cannot escape the Dalai Lama: A large contingent of his Western supporters adopts Tibetan Buddhism loosely, on the basis of the most trivial impressions. They are just as ignorant about Shukden/Dölgyal as the protesters he pities. In other words: Their support for his position is equally unfounded.
During the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Netherlands (May 10-12, 2014), Shukden-protests will be held in Rotterdam and The Hague. Hopefully, journalists will not only try to determine who is ignorant and who is lying. Above all, let them consider who is using which rhetoric—and why and how this matters. After all, Geshe Tenzin Gyatso deserves a worthy opponent during his press conferences.’