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Rejoicing in the Face of Oppression

 Streetvibes (USA) 28 May 2019

(Originally published: 09/2009) In 1996 the Dalai Lama ordered Tibetans to stop the practice of honoring Dorje Shugden, an ancient Tibetan school of spiritual devotion. Monks who refuse have been denied food and expelled from their monasteries. In 1998 Kuten Lama helped found the Dorje Shugden Society, established to support monks, nuns and lay people who remain faithful to the “illegal Buddha”. The Dorje Shugden Society, based in India, sent Kuten Lama and Jamyang Lama to the USA to start a new monastery. From the unlikely setting of the American Mid West a group of dissenting Tibetans live their lives in perpetual protest to this decree.  - Gregory Flannery

Streetvibes

Courtesy of Streetvibes

Cininnati, USA - Here's a quick test: What comes to mind when you hear the word "Tibet"?

 

1)       The Chinese genocide against a small country;

2)       The Dalai Lama, apostle of nonviolence;

3)       An idiosyncratic Buddhist philosophy; or

4)       Momos, spicy Tibetan dumplings.

All four are correct answers but momos are the most straightforward. Filled with beef or with potatoes, momos are one of the most popular features of Tibet Fest, which recently took place at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, Cininnati.

The other three phenomena are also part of the program but are at least as complex as the makeup of any other political or spiritual culture - and given Tibet's centuries of isolation, probably more so.

Driven into exile by the Chinese invasion and brutal occupation of the past 50 years, Tibetan culture has found a refuge in the cities of Cincinnati and in Bloomington.

The American Midwest seems an unlikely setting for such an exotic tradition - with its mixture of sword-wielding, bare-fanged deities and nonviolent philosophy of compassion toward all sentient beings. Even Jamyang Lama, a resident monk at Gaden Samdrupling Monastery in Cincinnati which also sponsor of Tibet Fest, agrees. He also serves at a sister monastery in Bloomington.

Dressed in maroon robes, breaking into Tibetan or Hindi or Urdu when his cell phone rings, Jamyang Lama can't escape notice when he stops for a sandwich at Quizno's restaurant on Colerain Avenue.

"A lot of times when people see us, they become very curious, especially in the Midwest," he says. "A lot of my friends in California and the East Coast cannot believe I'm living in Indiana or Ohio. Their image is a cornfield, and I'm sitting there. I tell them people in Indiana and Ohio are very wonderful people, accepting people."

More than a few people in Cincinnati and Bloomington have gone beyond acceptance, pursuing the Buddhist path and seeking to preserve Tibetan culture. Tibet Fest 2009 is both an ethnic celebration and an opportunity to help an oppressed people. Proceeds from Tibet Fest will support the construction of a new monastery and Tibetan Heritage Center in Colerain Township.

The illegal Buddha

Jamyang Lama has never been to Tibet. "It's one of my hopes to go there someday," he says. Born in Nepal to Tibetan exiles, he entered a monastery in India at age 16. In 1997 he moved to the United States, becoming a citizen earlier this year.

Jamyang Lama teaches "Introduction to Buddhism" at Gaden Samdrupling (GSL) Monastery. He also serves as translator for Kuten Lama, abbot of GSL and its sister monastery in Bloomington. Kuten Lama, also born to Tibetan exiles, has likewise never been to Tibet and is also a new U.S. citizen.

"I believe in the values of this country," Jamyang Lama says. "This country has given us a lot. This country protects all the people's individual human rights. I believe in the values of this country and appreciate its hospitality. Here you have people from all over the world with different cultures and different wisdoms. That is the beauty of this country.

"Definitely there is some difference between the Tibetan culture and the Western culture," he says. "The West has a very strong emphasis on individualism and materialism. In the East, there is more emphasizing of family and spirituality."

The eight-acre compound of GSL Monastery is an oasis of calm less than a mile from the non-stop traffic and retail hyperactivity of Colerain Avenue. No signs point the way. Nor is Tibet Fest an effort to convert people to Buddhism. The festival can be equally enjoyed by people of any faith or none at all, according to Jamyang Lama.

But separating Buddhism from Tibetan culture is virtually impossible, as he acknowledges. The very language of Tibet was created in order to convey subtleties of Buddhist teaching, a point made at various times - and for utterly different reasons - by both Kuten Lama and the late Chinese dictator Mao Zedong.

"In general, it is true: The culture of Tibet and Buddhist principles - there is no separation between these two," Jamyang Lama says. "The Tibetan culture is based on Buddhist teachings, which is nonviolence, compassion, loving and caring for all living beings."

Those ideals are worth remembering when viewing the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, which honors many Buddhas, or enlightened beings, not only the historical figure known in the West as "The Buddha." Tibet Fest will display some of GSL Monastery's Thankas, highly stylized paintings of Buddhas - some conspicuous for their gentle mien, some seemingly savage in aspect.

Consider the case of Dorje Shugden, depicted with a curved sword in one hand and a human heart in the other, sitting atop a snow lion trampling a naked man. Dorje Shugden is revered at GSL Monastery as Dharmapala - protector of the dharma, or teachings of the Buddhas. Dorje Shugden is the most controversial and least understood Buddha in the West. He is also the very reason for GSL monastery's existence.

The Dalai Lama won't be stopping by Tibet Fest, just as he didn't attend the 10th anniversary of the monastery in Bloomington last year. The Dalai Lama is intent on suppressing devotion to Dorje Shugden - a story that can't be fully understood without a detailed recitation of the finer points of modern Tibetan politics and ancient Buddhist practice. This is the short version: In 1996 the Dalai Lama ordered Tibetans to stop the practice of honoring Dorje Shugden. Monks who refuse have been denied food and expelled from their monasteries.

In response, in 1998 Kuten Lama helped found the Dorje Shugden Society, established to support monks, nuns and lay people who remain faithful to the "illegal Buddha" (see shugdensociety.info). The Dorje Shugden Society, based in India, sent Kuten Lama and Jamyang Lama to Bloomington to start a new monastery. GSL Monastery in Cincinnati began later.

A surprising oppressor

The Dalai Lama, the best-known Tibetan in the West, is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his insistence on nonviolent resistance to Chinese rule. (Have you ever heard of a Tibetan terrorist?)

But though his popular image is one of gentleness and toleration, the Dalai Lama has been unyielding in his determination to suppress a certain lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, namely the one preserved by GSL Monastery. For devotees of Dorje Shugden, the Dalai Lama's behavior mirrors the oppression that he suffered at the hands of Chinese communists: a violation of religious freedom enforced by deadly violence.

A certain irony attends this dispute. Dorje Shugden is what's known in Tibetan Buddhism as a wrathful protector: His sword severs ignorance and desirous attachment. The violence is purely symbolic, according to Jamyang Lama. But followers of Dorje Shugden have experienced a violence that is much more tangible.

The intensity of what might seem an arcane doctrinal dispute briefly caught the attention of the New York Times and other Western media last year when the Dalai Lama spoke in New York. The crowd leaving his speech reacted angrily to the small group of Dorje Shugden supporters protesting outside. Police ordered the protesters onto a bus, saying they couldn't protect the dissenters from the Dalai Lama's fans, according to attorney Lisa Farnsworth, a law professor at Indiana University.

"The Tibetans have this unquestioned devotion to the Dalai Lama, so when someone tells them the Dalai Lama has banned this practice and that this practice is harmful to the Dalai Lama, they become warriors," Farnsworth says.

In Tibetan exile villages throughout India, shops owned by Dorje Shugden practitioners are boycotted and devotees are shunned, Farnsworth says. The controversy has split the famous Gaden Shartse Monastery. Denied food and other aid, hundreds of monks have formed a new monastery, where they can honor Dorje Shugden in peace.

"They're bribing people," Farnsworth says. "They've offered money to monks to give up the practice. Those who refuse are ostracized."

After more than a decade of trying to get the Dalai Lama to drop the ban, the Dorje Shugden Society filed suit against him and the Tibetan Government in Exile. The case is scheduled for a hearing in Delhi, India, this month.

The case has garnered little attention in the West. Nor have the attacks on monks and nuns who defy the Dalai Lama's ban. The Western Shugden Society in London has documented the violence (see westernshugdensociety.org/en). Prominent monks who encouraged devotion to Dorje Shugden have died under unusual circumstances.

"We're just trying to figure out how to survive and how to help the Tibetans in India," Farnsworth says. Survival is not a far-away issue. Kuten Lama might not yet be well known in Cincinnati, where Tibetans constitute perhaps the smallest of ethnic minorities, but he is renowned in parts of Asia, where he is often invited to teach. When some of his Cincinnati disciples accompanied him on a pilgrimage to Mongolia two years ago, they were agog at the reception he received, comparing it to the status accorded rock stars in this country.

Kuten Lama is a title, not a name; it means "physical base." Kuten Lama is an oracle. He channels the presence of Dorje Shugden, entering a trance in order to give enlightened instruction to the faithful.

That puts his life in danger, according to some of his followers. Farnsworth, who has traveled with Kuten Lama, says armed bodyguards accompany him in India and Mongolia. Both sides view Kuten Lama as a vital link to the tradition of Dorje Shugden, and some would like to eliminate that link, Farnsworth says."If they get rid of the oracle, they get rid of our opportunity to speak to Dorje Shugden," she says.

'You should rejoice'

Kuten Lama doesn't publicly criticize the Dalai Lama, seldom speaks in public about the controversy and rarely gives interviews. This story is not one of those rare occasions.

In teachings at GSL Monastery, Kuten Lama has said that humility is a sign of spiritual progress. While his students prostrate to him, Kuten Lama often says that he is no one special. In Cincinnati, he spends much of his time doing the physical labor associated with building a monastery - painting, digging trenches for electrical lines, shoveling snow, and loading furniture onto a pickup truck at a yard sale raising funds for the construction project. In a recent edition of the monastery's newsletter, one student described seeing Kuten Lama cutting grass with scissors after he'd first arrived in Bloomington, unable to afford a lawn mower.

Kuten Lama speaks in a soft voice about the need to practice compassion to all living beings. He urges students to regard misfortune as a blessing and to honor oppressors as great teachers. He has talked about vicious beatings he received as a child monk and how grateful he is to his teachers.

It is in that sense that some Dorje Shugden devotees say the Dalai Lama has done them a great service.

"The practice of Dorje Shugden wasn't very well known until the Dalai Lama banned it," Farnsworth says. "Without his help, it might have gone extinct."

The Dalai Lama's ban, for example, led to the formation of the Dorje Shugden Society, which led to the founding of the monastery in Bloomington, which led to the founding of GSL Monastery in Cincinnati, which led to the celebration of Tibet Fest 2009 this weekend at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.

The festival will benefit a tradition that Jamyang Lama says is in danger of being destroyed. But don't expect gloom or pleas for help. Jamyang Lama is known for his ready laugh, and Kuten Lama is often quoted as saying, "You should rejoice, though." Tibet Fest will be a time for special food, captivating art, children's activities, a Tibetan bazaar and music.

"We will try to present a kind of miniature experience of Tibet," Jamyang Lama says. "People will be able to experience the sounds and sights of Tibet. With the economic problems, many people cannot travel outside the country. We're trying to bring something of Tibet to Cincinnati without a person having to travel."

No physical travel, that is. That doesn't mean the experience won't be otherworldly all the same.

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