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.
The story of the Indian Buddhist master Atisha and his insulting cook sheds light on the practice of indicting the self. When Venerable Atisha took Buddhism from India to Tibet he also took a rude cook with him who was in the habit of insulting Atisha. The Tibetans, who held Atisha in high esteem, were astonished at the cook’s behaviour and offered to find a replacement but Atisha told them that he needed this man. Everyone else was so polite and respectful to Atisha that this rude, contemptuous cook was a precious resource.
Atisha was a practitioner of training the mind, a special branch of Buddhist practice that subsequently became known in Tibet as lojong. Practitioners of training the mind are very skillful at transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path – at making positives out of negatives. The heart of this practice is indicting the self. This is what Geshe Chekhawa means when he says “gather all blame into one” in Seven Verses of Mind Training. Atisha and his followers, known as the Kadampa Geshes, recognised that all of our problems, suffering and unhappiness are caused by our false sense of self-importance. Therefore it is appropriate to indict or blame this false sense of self.
Atisha’s cook was a valuable resource because he reminded Atisha of the negative aspect of himself while everybody else was busy venerating and respecting him. Because Atisha was a humble spiritual practitioner he would not have lightly dismissed the cook’s insults, thinking “I will accept these insults patiently but really I know that they are false.” Instead, Atisha would have considered the insults carefully, examining his own self for faults. If the cook accused Atisha of arrogance, heartlessness, or fakery then Atisha would have scrutinised himself, suspecting that the cook may be right. This is why the cook was such a precious resource. Atisha advised us not to think about our own good qualities but instead to think about the good qualities of others, and not to think of the faults of others but instead consider our own faults and purge them as if they are bad blood.
If we do not indict our false sense of self-importance it will inflict misery on ourselves and others. The Koran calls the self (Arabic: nafs) in its raw state “the self that commands to evil” (Sura 12:53). The next state is the “self-accusing self” (Sura 75:2). This corresponds to the Kadampa practice of gathering all blame into one. The self-accusing self is our conscience, which is able to objectively see our own faults. Objectivity is key, because it is important not to turn the practice of indicting our self into a process of beating ourselves up, causing low self-esteem. We should identify and analyse our own faults, skillfully turning negative situations into opportunities for personal growth, but we shouldn’t invent faults that aren’t there. Atisha would have taken his cook’s insults seriously, and checked to see whether he really had the faults he was being accused of. However, if he concluded that the fault wasn’t present then he wouldn’t have engaged in caustic over-analysis or self-berating.
By gathering all blame into one through indicting the false sense of self, we reach the stage the Koran calls the self “at peace” (Sura 89:27). We achieve a happy and peaceful mind and are no longer subject to misery and fear, because we have eliminated its root cause, our false sense of self-importance.