Why I Stopped Practising Buddhism

One of the main reasons I stopped practising Buddhism and embraced Islam instead is because I could no longer bear to be caught up in the dispute between the Dalai Lama and my Tibetan Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso over the practice of Dorje Shugden, which relates to questions concerning the purity and preservation of Tibetan Buddhism. The following paragraphs explains the dispute in the context of my own, limited understanding of Tibetan religious history.

“Dalai” means “Ocean” in Mongolian, while “Lama” is the Tibetan for “Guru.” Putting the terms together, the best translation is “Ocean Teacher” meaning a teacher who is spiritually as great as the ocean. The honorific title ‘Dalai Lama’ was offered to the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588) by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan in 1578. The title was later applied retrospectively to Sonam’s two previous incarnations, Gendun Drup (1391–1474) and Gendun Gyatso (1475–1542). Gendun Drup was a disciple of the great scholar-saint and religious reformer Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) who founded the Gelugpa (yellow hat) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Gendun Drup wrote a special praise to Tsongkhapa called Song of the Eastern Snow Mountain (Shargangrima in Tibetan). In this song he says to Tsongkhapa:

For the fortunate people of Tibet, the Land of the Snows, your kindness, O Protector, is inconceivable.
Especially for myself, Gendun Drup . . .
The fact that my mind is directed towards Dharma
Is due solely to your kindness,
Although I cannot repay your kindness, O Protector,
I pray that, with my mind free from the influence of attachment and hatred,
I may strive to maintain your doctrine and cause it to flourish
Without ever giving up this endeavour.

Many of Tsongkhapa’s disciples attained enlightenment and, as well as the Dalai Lama, the other major reincarnation lineage to come from the Gelugpa tradition is the Panchen Lama. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas often took turns to rule Tibet, with the Panchen Lama acting as regent if the Dalai Lama had not yet reached maturity. The Gelugpas had achieved political supremacy in Tibet in 1642, when the 5th Dalai Lama (1617–1682) was installed as ruler by the Mongols. The 5th Dalai Lama, who is known as the Great Fifth, secured his rule by overcoming opposition from the rival Kagyu and Jonang Buddhist schools, and also by suppressing opposition within the Gelugpa tradition itself, focussed around the orthodox Lama Dragpa Gyaltsen (1619-1656).

The 5th Dalai Lama and Dragpa Gyaltsen were both disciples of the fourth Panchen Lama Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570–1662) at Drepung Monastery, one of the three great monastic universities established by Tsongkhapa and his disciples near Lhasa. Although they had been friends, Dragpa Gyaltsen started to rival the 5th Dalai Lama, and became the focus for Gelugpas opposed to the 5th Dalai Lama’s practice of Dzogchen, a non-Gelugpa practice which the 5th Dalai Lama had adopted from the Nyingma (red hat) tradition and Bön. The conservative Gelugpa element believed the 5th Dalai Lama was corrupting the purity of the tradition by adopting Dzogchen, which had never been taught by Tsongkhapa. Dragpa Gyaltsen was killed at the age of 37, and his spirit started to haunt the 5th Dalai Lama, whose attempts at exorcism failed. Meanwhile, the conservative Gelugpas started to believe that Dragpa Gyaltsen had been an incarnation of the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri, and propitiated his spirit as the Protector of Tsongkhapa’s tradition, calling him Dorje Shugden (Possessor of Supreme Power). Eventually the 5th Dalai Lama made peace with Dorje Shugden.

By the 19th century, Tibetan Buddhism had started to decline. Two reform movements arose: the Ri-me (eclectic) movement, and a Gelugpa reform movement. The Ri-me movement was initiated by the Lama Jamgon Kongtrul, partly as a response to the sectarianism from which he had personally suffered. Born into a Bön family he was a very able boy and, when he visited the town of Derge to visit his father, the local Nyingma Lamas were so impressed by his abilities that he was invited to join their monastery, where he received ordination. He enjoyed studying at the Nyingma monastery but, because of his talents, he was ‘requisitioned’ by the more powerful regional Kagyu monastery, where he was recognised as an incarnate Lama. Later, Jamgon Kongtrul began to “feel regret with what he considered a lapse with his connection with the Nyingma lineage, and he attributed this as the cause for later ill health and various mental and karmic obstacles”. Gradually, as he worked through these problems “Kongtrul developed a profound faith in all aspects and lineages of the Buddha’s teaching . . . The symptoms of the inner conflict caused by the sectarian and political problems seem to have been resolved by the time Kongtrul was forty years old, when he went on to establish the retreat center and continue his prolific writings. The program of the retreat included meditations from all of the practice lineages, some of which were disappearing within the overbearing monastic institutions of the four main schools . . . The non-sectarian (Ri-me) movement flourished in large part due to his contributions.” (quotes from ‘Creation and Completion’ by Sarah Harding).

Despite recognising the value of all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the Ri-me movement prefers to categorise practices according the Nyingma framework devised by Longchen (1308-63) rather than the Gelugpa framework devised by Tsongkhapa. This framework accords Dzogchen the highest position in the hierarchy of practices, so “although the Ri-me drew their leaders from the Sakyas, Kagyus, Nyingmas, and even the Böns, the movement was primarily a triumph of Nyingma eclecticism, in that it emphasised Dzogchen as an element in all true Buddhist practice and supported the idea that all interpretations of Buddhist doctrine are equally valid, with no one version in a position of orthodoxy above any others.” (from ‘Buddhist Religions’, 5th edition, by Robinson / Johnson / Thanissaro). Therefore Ri-me’s pluralistic tendency, rejoicing in the good qualities of all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, may be outweighed by its assimilationist tendency, seeking to integrate and unify the traditions under a common framework with Dzogchen at its centre.

The alternative reform movement was the revitalisation of the Gelugpa tradition by Phabongkha (1878-1941), who re-emphasised meditative practice because the Gelugpas had become somewhat lost in scholasticism. Like Tsongkhapa before him, Phabongkha emphasised the meditative practices (Lamrim & Lojong) brought to Tibet by the Indian Lama Atisha (980-1054), whose followers were known as Kadampas (the Gelugpa tradition is also known as the New Kadampa Tradition). Phabongkha also revived the practice of Dorje Shugden, and there was some hostility between his followers and the Ri-me movement in Eastern Tibet.

The current (14th) Dalai Lama (1935- ) initially studied and practised within the Gelugpa tradition under Phabongkha’s principle disciple Trijang Rinpoche (1900-1981) and engaged in the practice of Dorje Shugden. He later received teachings and initiations from Ri-me teachers such as Dilgo Khyentse (1910-1991) and started to practice and teach Dzogchen. He stopped practising Dorje Shugden and has subsequently banned and suppressed this practice, which greatly upsets my former Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1931- ), who was also a disciple of Trijang Rinpoche. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso organises protests against the Dalai Lama when he visits Western countries, and has recently been involved with the publication of a book attacking the Dalai Lama entitled ‘A Great Deception’. The Dalai Lama’s biological brother Gyalo Thondup has been strongly linked to the suppression of Dorje Shugden practice.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about this magical mess any more, because Allah is my Guide and Protector. My Kashmiri Sufi Sheikh Ghulam Rasool has been very kind in helping me to escape when my spiritual practice was at a dead end. Some others are not so fortunate in finding a way forward. My new resolution is tawhid. Tawhid is the profession of the Absolute Oneness of the Deity, the establishment of the Deity as the Absolute who negates deities.

One way of understanding the negating function of the Absolute is by studying dialectic reasoning. In dialectics, a thesis gives rise to its reaction, its antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two is resolved by means of a third position, the synthesis. The synthesis, however, is not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a new entity, different from both thesis and antithesis but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it negates both thesis and antithesis. As I wrote elsewhere:

Imagine two religious teachers, both of whom are polytheists, but who disagree about a particular deity in the pantheon: one teacher claims the deity is supremely good; the other believes the deity is supremely evil. How to resolve the tension between them? Sweep away the whole pantheon and realise that “there is no god but God”.

In a sense God is the inevitable conclusion or ’synthesis’ arising from the thesis and antithesis set up by the polytheists – but God is not deduced from their premises or their deities, nor does God unite their deities, instead God negates their deities through Absolute Unity.

Posted on November 28, 2010, in Buddhism, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Sally Bannister

    In ‘Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing’ Soren Kierkegaard writes… ‘Truly to have an undivided will can, therefore, mean only to will the Good. For anything else conceivable is not one, and he who resolutely sets his will on anything else by itself must in consequence be double-minded….But might it not be possible that a man by willing evil might will one thing..? Nay, is not the evil, like the people, at variance with itself, divided in itself? Take such a man, remove him from society, shut him up in solitary confinement: is he not there divided in himself? But if a good man were to live in the remotest corner of the world..he would still be at unity with himself and at unity with all, because he wills one thing and because the Good is one.’

  2. I am a disciple of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I admire your eloquent, well informed and reasoned article. However I feel that you did not answer the title’s question. Why did you stop practicing? It isn’t clear. What did you do to attempt reconciling the differing points of view between Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the Dalai Lama? If you have more than one teacher of Islam and an apparent contradiction presents itself, will you stop adhering to Islam and change to another faith?

    Your refer to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso organizing protests and recently involved with the publication of a book. Both the book and the protests are more than two years old. When did you stop praticing?

    When I became aware of the Dorje Shugden controversy I developed doubts and my practice weakened. I did not talk of the issue with anyone within o without NKT because I foresaw that it might negatively affect negatively other’s practice. I deliberately tried and suceeded in overcoming this obstacle. I am a convinced Dorje Shugden practioneer. And yes, I did Heart Jewel this morning.

  3. Hi Peter, thank you for the courteous reply. It is true that this article presents only part of my story, and there are other more personal reasons why I stopped practising Buddhism. I actually stopped for the first time in 1995, when studying with a different Sufi teacher. However I returned to Buddhist practice in 1997 partly because I was concerned that stopping might merely be weakness of character on my part.

    After another 10 years of Buddhist practice (from which I received a number of benefits), and after consulting with other NKT practitioners past and present, I concluded that the NKT suffered from a number of structural weaknesses. Because of my exposure to Sufism, I believe that polytheism/’shirk’ is the most significant NKT weakness, and this problem is also found in other Tibetan Buddhist strands.

    I believe that the Dalai Lama’s and Geshe Kelsang’s positions are essentially irreconcilable using any type of reasonable framework, but that Sufi/Islamic monotheism is a viable synthesis, compatible with many of the elements of Kadampa Buddhism (e.g. overcoming worldly concerns, meditation on death, the importance of future lives, this precious human life, renunciation of this world, love, compassion and altruism, and wisdom realising emptiness (albeit Shentong-style).

  4. Hi Matthew,
    As humans are by their nature deluded,therfore, would you not say that peoples historical or political viewpoint can only ever be accepted as interpretative ? In Music delighting the Ocean of proctectors Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche says the following:
    …” because the Buddhas, who have accomplished the welfare of themselves and others, are fully skilled in the means for subduing disciples by way of many and various inconceivable emanations, they sometimes display faults that they do not actually have. They might appear in a lustful form in order to subdue someone with desire, hateful form in order to subdue someone with hate, or ignorant form in order to subdue someone with ignorance. Moreover, they even display the forms of birds, deer, maras, rakshas, the blind or maimed. It is as said in the Meeting of Father and Son Sutra”,

    Ultimately the only person I know for certain who is not enlightened is myself. If I carry this in my heart, even as a possibilty, It affords the power to see beyond any dualistic presentation that appears itself to me.
    I too would then no longer have to worry about the magical mess that appears.(its interesting that you use the word magical as it implies something unreal appearing to the mind that cannot be easily explained.)
    Although I do not yet know my own mind, I feel my own subjective religous experiences validates my continuing Dorje Shugden practice, I would say that the Polythesim shirk only exists in a conventional sense, In mediation we can experience a dissolution of such distinctions. would you agree Buddhas own words in the perfection of wisdom sutra negate polytheism?

    Love and more love.

    Steve 🙂

    btw Sally, Kierkegaard was an absoloute genius.

  5. Hi Steve, thanks for commenting, you raise a number of interesting points as always.

    I agree that the positions of the Dalai Lama and Geshe Kelsang cannot be resolved rationally. I also agree that a person with a realisation of emptiness would see no contradiction between their positions, as all phenomena are of one “taste” in emptiness.

    However, I believe that, as well as encouraging us to realise ultimate truth, this futile Tibetan dispute also encourages us to reject the flawed conventional frameworks of both parties, i.e. the polytheistic pantheons and the individual deities (disputed or otherwise).

    As the Buddha and Je Tsongkhapa both understood, the qualities of the conventional frameworks with which we work (such as the four noble truths, the six perfections and so forth) are essential if we are to realise ultimate truth.

    If emptiness (shunyata) is like zero (shunya), the best conventional path to emptiness is via the One (Ahad). Without understanding the One we will never understand the zero. This is one reason why polytheism is unskilful – because it obscures the One.


  6. This conflict between the Dalai Lama and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso puts their disciples on the horns of a dilemma, a dilemma which conventional reasoning can’t resolve. They are forced into a different sphere to find resolution, in my case unity (tawhid), in the case of others emptiness (shunyata).

  7. I found your writing eloquent, but your reasoning muddled. Most of all, I am confounded by your leaps from Sufi to Tibetan Buddhism to Islam. One might conclude that you are a seeker of truths from the mouths of others, rather than a seeker of truths from within yourself… based on experience in and of the world. But the truths from the mouths of others must satisfy you, must give rise to no conflict, or else you ditch them?

    And, as we all know, Islam is not ‘monolithic’… has schisms of its own: Shia, Suni, Sufi, Ismaili, etc. So what school of thought have you embraced in Islam, and what gives you confidence that therein lie the truths you seek?

    What might happen in 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years… should Islam no longer give you the truths you want? Will you leap to animism? Vundun? Become Zoroastrian? Convert to Judaism? Declare yourself an atheist?

    [Please understand I ask as one who has struggled with a life-long discomforting relationship with the religion of my childhood, abandoned and replaced by another ‘candidate’, abandoned in favor of a secular life without anyone else’s dogma.]

  8. Hello Jay, thank you for your comment. I understand the importance of your question, and it is one I have dealt with seriously. I first attempted the transition from Buddhism to Sufism in 1995-6. I had recently disrobed as a monk and I went to Kashmir to study Sufism. I found my Sufi practice powerful, but it precipitated a spiritual crisis and I took refuge again in Buddhism, partly because I had a much more comprehensive understanding of that belief system. I also recognised the danger of weakness of character, and was concerned that I had abandoned my Buddhist practice prematurely when things became difficult. Buddhism enabled me to move beyond my spiritual crisis and I practiced it faithfully for another 11 years until 2007-8 when I felt my practice had come to a dead end and I became disillusioned with the New Kadampa Tradition. I then returned to Kashmir and received a Sufi practice from my current teacher. I haven’t looked back since then, and am happy that I am able to make progress in the Sufi path based on a more mature character, and continuing to take inspiration from the many good things about Buddhism.

  9. I was always taken by a line attributed to Buddha which goes something like this; ‘There is no path to happiness, happiness is the path’. It seems pretty clear from my own and others accounts of their personal spiritual travails that suffering, doubt and indecision also form a large chunk of such quests. So much so that we may come to regard these less wanted experiences as being the ones more likely to get us closer to the ways described by spiritual teachers. If we are able to meet these seemingly inevitable encounters with a spirit of strength and acceptance, perhaps they will shape and guide us to the mysterious wonders of whatever our ultimate destinations may be. More recently I tend to think of this as a kind of reconciliation with ones battered sense of being; a settling, an infusing, a dying of the fabric of ones soul.

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