I was having a conversation with my uncle about a controversy that was brewing inside the Rubin Museum, a Himalayan art museum in NYC. My uncle works there. One young Tibetan employee was complaining about how removed the museum was from the political reality of Tibet and how underrepresented Tibetans were within the museum despite it extensively displaying Tibetan art. I told my uncle that I felt that she was justified in her critique and my uncle responded by saying that I, along with that person, were part of a generation that did nothing yet felt entitled to complain about everything. He said my ideas and my reasonings were eurocentric and that he was speaking from a Buddhist perspective. He claimed that he spoke as a Tibetan person while I spoke as an American. I said I did not recognize the profoundness of Buddhist philosophy in his dismissal of me as an under-accomplished person. He said I speak the way I do because I don’t know Buddhism. Inherent in his argument was an accusation that I was less Tibetan than him, and that my critique of the Rubin museum was the result of hubris granted to me by my Western education. To justify his argument, he told me the most bizarre anecdote.
It turns out Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman and the first White person to become a gyeshe,[1. A scholar of Tibetan Buddhism trained in the traditional method.] holds lessons on Tibetan Buddhism for young Tibetan Americans. He begins his lesson by asking the young teens to raise their hands if they are Buddhist and without doubt they all raise their hands, to which he responds by laughing at them.
What an asshole, I thought. However, my uncle thought differently and recommended that I attend one those lessons to learn from Robert Thurman how to be a true Buddhist. My uncle didn’t realize it but he had told me that I was less Tibetan than Thurman. Not only had he delegitimized my claim to the Tibetan identity because I lacked knowledge of esoteric Buddhist philosophy but he had also inadvertently called my grandparents less Tibetan than me and the Indian yogi who brought Buddhism to Tibet, Padhmasambhava, the most Tibetan of all. He was effectively denying Buddhism to a vast majority of Tibetans, mostly the non-elite, and he was conflating Buddhism with the Tibetan national identity, an ideology that has been growing in popularity and establishing a dangerous precedence for the exiled community; it is the defining of Tibetanness based on an assumption that a pure expression of it exists, that one can categorize Tibetanness based on a set of obscure qualifications, one of which is one’s knowledge and subscription to esoteric Buddhism. However, the esoteric Buddhist community itself is not a monolithic institution. It is diverse and has a history of disagreements, some of which have been violent and such disagreements have continued into exile. The attempt to unify Tibetan Buddhism and avoid violent disagreements have in turn caused further violence.
Shugden is a hugely contested deity within Tibetan society. He is the ghost of the Sonam Drakpa Gyaltsen, who was a powerful gyelug lama during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama. Gyaltsen had a tense relationship with the Dalai Lama and later died under mysterious conditions, creating a huge outrage at that time. His ghost is said to have tormented the Dalai Lama until the head lama of the Sakya sect intervened and pacified him. Since then he has been accepted as the protector deity of the Gyelug sect. As Shugden was powerful enough to combat the Dalai Lama, he is believed to have the ability to give his worshippers immediate wealth and prosperity. He also has the reputation for being stubborn and ruthless at times, therefore worshipping him entailed strict observation of daily offerings. As a result, Dalai Lama’s announcement forbidding Shugden worship was met with strong opposition. Such announcements are usually made on the Kalachakra initiation, which is a huge event that takes place at Bodhgaya almost every year. Refugee camps become empty during that time. Dalai Lama stated that Shugden worship was a threat to his longevity and would also disrupt the peace amongst the Tibetan people.
Shugden worship has become a taboo and the deity is now referred to as “the one who cannot be shown” — as sign of the creeping paranoia that has not begun to seize many Shugden worshippers. There have been violent outbreaks between monasteries, and many monasteries with Shugden associations are trying to rewrite their history by claiming other legacies.
The controversy behind the two Karmapas have resulted in similar violence. Karmapa is the head of Kagyu sect.[2. There are four sects in Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gyelug. Each sect has their own head and vastly different intellectual legacy. Dalai Lama is the head of the Gyelug sect.] The 16th Karmapa left behind an impressive legacy as the most successful in proselytizing Buddhism in the West. Most foreigners who practice Tibetan Buddhism are Kagyu and not Gyelug as most would assume. My uncle was a close companion of Sharmapa, a very important Kagyu rinpoche, who recognized the Karmapa that has been ignored by the Dalai Lama. There are those who are secretly resentful towards the Dalai Lama for recognizing another Karmapa even though he had been notified of Sharmapa’s discovery. There are those who refuse to bear any ill thoughts of enlightened beings and follow both the Karmapas. Then there are those who call the Karmapa recognized by the Kagyu sect itself illegitimate, giving the Dalai Lama supreme authority over not only the sect he presides over, Gyelug, but all other sects as well. Such fundamentalist ideologies are an integral part of Tibetan government in exile, which claims to model itself after core principles of modern democracy.
It was election season recently in exile and the most controversial figure to run for office was Lukhar Jam. He has been labeled as being “anti-Dalai Lama” for his secularist ideology and has been accused of being a communist spy for not subscribing to any religion despite having spent years in the notorious Chinese prison for activism. In Dharamshala, the exile capital, people responded by ripping his posters. When my aunt went to vote for him, she was stopped by other voters. He is “anti-Dalai Lama”, they all warned. She voted for him nonetheless but came back home shaken up by the whole experience. She later asked if her political decision was truly “anti-Dalai Lama.” I told her Lukhar Jam has done everything in accordance with the exile constitution and that the constitution was written under the guidance of his holiness.
I did not tell her that I like Lukhar Jam exactly for his controversial label. I did not tell her that I desired a more diverse group of voices to represent the Tibetan plight. I did not tell her that I felt that the Dalai Lama and his growing relationship with the global community and people like Robert Thurman were responsible for the fundamentalist ideology that threatened her and censored Lukhar Jam. I did not tell her of my desire for the Tibetan people to distance themselves from the Dalai Lama and the hegemonic Tibetan national narrative that is dependent on the homogenization of Tibetan Buddhism.
I believed he offered a new attitude and a new political language, one that was not fixated on Buddhism and its purity. He could have been an opportunity for the exile community to bring forth an an alternative expression of Tibet and show the fragility of the mainstream discourse on Tibetan nationhood. He did exactly that and it is unfortunate how he and his ideas were disparaged. He was the most provocative and widely discussed candidate, and he lost.
The project to establish a monolithic Tibetan Buddhism allows people to define who and what is Tibetan and Buddhist. The conflation of Tibetan national identity with Buddhism is not only exclusionary of non-Buddhist Tibetans but is dangerous for the integrity of Tibetan Buddhism. It denies the Tibetan identity from the Muslim Tibetans, threatens to erase the intellectual history of all the sects except the Gyelug, and delegitimizes all voices that do not align with Dalai Lama’s hegemony, resulting in a national narrative that is dependent on a fundamentalist view of Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan National identity, as a result, becomes the creation of censorship, exclusion and violence.
None of this was easy for me to write. I was burdened by the guilt of having marred Dalai Lama’s pristine reputation. I also know that my claim to the Buddhist identity will be questioned because of my secularist politics. I feel a certain obligation, however, and the fact that I would have to have such doubts strengthens my resolution. I can’t accept the current exclusionary Tibetan national narrative. Its obsession with doctoring Tibetan history into a homogenous Buddhist one is a violent project. I also feel that it is not unrelated to my uncle’s accusation of my progressive ideologies as being “un-Tibetan”, and the fact that a figure such as Robert Thurman exists as a cultural custodian of the Tibetan people. Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan national identity are being simplified to fulfill the romantic expectations of homogeneity and the supposed moral and spiritual superiority of the Tibetan people. However, these expectations are adversary to the goals they seek to achieve, which are peace and unity. They work only to accommodate people who are neither in exile nor under occupation, people like Robert Thurman: White, privileged, and with rudimentary knowledge of the Tibetan experience.