Controversies related to Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lamas and Tibet – Q&A with Thierry Dodin

The following question and answer session is part of a bigger questionnaire which was once compiled in order to address the claims of the Western Shugden Society (WSS) and the claims of certain sources they use for their worldwide and massive Anti-Dalai Lama campaign.

Initially, Tibet scholar Robert Barnett (Columbia University, New York) was asked by to examine and judge the claims of the campaigning Western Shugden group. He agreed and in turn suggested that he be given a questionnaire that could be answered. It finally sorted out that Tibetologist Thierry Dodin answered some parts of the subsequent questionnaire.

Some other questions of the questionnaire were answered in an interview with Robbie Barnett about the protesters and their claims and in an interview with Thierry Dodin about the Shugden conflict, both in 2014. The Nazi-Tibet myth which the Western Shugden group wanted to revive was deconstructed by Tibetologist and Historian Isrun Engelhardt in Nazis of Tibet: A Twentieth Century Myth in 2008.


Q: The journalist Michael Backman, in describing the Dalai Lama, in an article called »Selling Tibet to the world«, published in The Age, said:

To enhance his authority, he has sought to merge the four traditions into one and place himself at its head. But Dorje Shugden presents a roadblock. One aspect of Shugden worship is to protect the Gelugpa tradition from adulteration, particularly by the Nyingma tradition. Nyingma followers respond by not wanting anything to do with Gelugpa followers sympathetic to Dorje Shugden. So to allow a proper merger of the four traditions, the Dalai Lama needs to get rid of the Shugden movement. If the Dalai Lama can claim to represent all Tibetans, it will increase his political prestige and clout with overseas Tibetans and with governments.

Michael Backman

In relation to the above, Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, and the Western Shugden Society, claims that the Dalai Lama’s intention is to merge all four Tibetan Buddhist schools, aiming to place himself as their head. What do you think about this?

Thierry Dodin: These two statements are based on inaccuracies and judgements of intent. The only really important element they bring to light is their implicit acknowledgement of the link that exists between the Dorje Shugdhen cult and sectarian issues within Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, the Shugdhen cult was born out of a move by groups within the Gelugpa school to assure supremacy over Tibetan Buddhism. Sectarianism and disputes, even wars by proxy have been part and parcel of the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Although this is often denied or talked around, historical records are very clear in that regard. At the same time, however, there has always been a counter-tendency to overcome sectarianism, and this not remotely in the sense of homogenising the traditions and merging all lineages into one, but in the sense of making borders between schools and lineages more permeable and less rigid. This more tolerant approach is based indeed on the assumption that the different schools all offer different perspectives, which are complementary rather than contradicting each other. The most famous attempt at overcoming sectarianism was the Rimey movement which originated in Eastern Tibet in the 19th century. It is also important to note that historical disputes between schools were not disputes on dogmas, i.e. about the ›right belief‹, but in most cases political disputes about power and influence over certain regions, estates or even over the whole country of Tibet. There also were, and still are, many disputes bound to the determination of who should be regarded as the legitimate holder of a certain lineage, in particular following the death of a lineage holder.

At a very early stage, conscious of the problems bound to sectarianism and although being himself the highest cleric of the Gelugpa School, a school he never denied he belongs to, the Dalai Lama was always keen on remaining open to other schools and lineages. There were certainly primarily religious reasons for this, but, with the specific situation Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism found themselves since the 1960s, clearly also political ones too. In 1962, the then very young Dalai Lama invited all major Tibetan Buddhist teachers who had made it into exile to a sort of conclave in order to put an end to historical contradictions and rally the schools under a common goal of facing together the odds of the time. There was never any attempt however to merging formal structures of the different schools or water down any part of their teachings. The ecumenical attitude of the Dalai Lama made sure that today even the Bonpo school, which Buddhist historical records depict as opposing Buddhism, is treated as being a de facto school of Buddhism.

The endeavour was partly successful, but partly less so. Die hard territorialities and antagonisms still persist and are still apparent in some incidence. Most quiet resistance against a more supple and productive relationship between the different directions of Tibetan Buddhism came from parts of the Gelupga School, who had been politically dominant in traditional Tibet. The 5th Dalai Lama had established the political prevalence of the Gelugpa School with the help of Mongol Khans and troops in the 18th century, but he was nevertheless keen on remaining inclusive towards other schools. For instance, he made rituals of the Nyingmapa school into official state rituals. It is the opposition of some Gelugpa supremacist of the time against the inclusion of Nyingmapa traditions into the official state and government structures, which stand at the start of the Shugdhen cult as we know it (the exact process which led to the apparition of the deity itself is still not entirely clarified). With time, these circles gained influence, gathered political support and succeeded in rooting the cult deeply into the Gelugpa tradition. The bastions of the Shugden cult were set up around the seats of power and in regions were the Gelugpa faced ›competition‹ from other schools, for instance in eastern Tibet.

In the early years of the diaspora, the Tibetan exile institutions were still largely monopolised by Gelugpa followers who were also the most decided Shugdhen followers and often quietly opposed the young Dalai Lama’s reform agenda. Ultimately, the Dalai Lama, widely supported by the younger generations to whom ancestral sectarian rivalries appeared obsolete, prevailed and followers of the Shugdhen cult lost ground.

Today, the Shugdhen cult has almost disappeared both in exile and as well as in Tibet (despite being de facto supported by the Chinese authorities within an apparent divide and rule policy). While this is mainly due to a patient but determined effort by the Dalai Lama to push against sectarianism, it is also true that at times heavy pressures were exerted by over-zealous opponents of the cult on its followers.

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Q: How strong is the power of the Dalai Lama in the exile community, is he an autocrat who can do as he likes; does he order and Tibetans obey?

Thierry Dodin: The allegation that the Dalai Lama controls every aspect of Tibetan society has no reflection in tangible reality. There is no doubt that his moral influence on the very large majority of Tibetans in exile and in certainly equally high number of Tibetans within Tibet is indeed enormous and historically, it is likely that no Dalai Lama before has ever had so much direct influence on his people. However, the nature of this influence and the nature of his power have to be qualified. The Dalai Lama is not a potentate with fanaticised followers as it is sometimes depicted in particular in Chinese propaganda as well as by some of his opponents, for instance among the Shugden cult followers. This type of leader is in fact widely absent in Tibetan history and hardly matches with Tibetan mentality as we know it. Although the Dalai Lama on occasions correctively intervened in current matters, he has kept himself away from day-to-day government business. In fact, most observers of the Tibetan exile society agree that the Dalai Lama is a more convinced democrat than the average Tibetan. The Dalai Lama is regarded by most Tibetans as a guarantor for the existence of Tibet as a distinct cultural entity. Historically, the Dalai Lama was widely segregated from the population. Even when he was carried through Lhasa for some ceremonies, for instance during the new year festivities, his face would remain veiled from the populace. Only few very high dignitaries had ever seen the face of the Dalai Lama at audiences held in his palace. This traditionally distant, almost other-worldly presence stand in stark contrast to his almost permanent omni-presence of today on portraits in each and every Tibetan home and his strong media presence. That any Tibetan can attend his teachings and speeches is completely new in Tibetan history and will widely explain the one-time influence which he has upon Tibetans in comparison with his predecessors. However, even for Tibetans, there is a large field of interpretation between the words of the Dalai Lama and the way they will be implemented in society or by individuals. When a decision or a statement of the Dalai Lama appears inacceptable, the typical pattern will be that those who consider it so will insist on this decision or this statement as having been made under the influence of ›wrong advisors‹. This pattern by the way is not new in the exile society, it also existed in old Tibet.

Q: In 1997 Kelsang Gyatso said in a reply to the Newsweek article »Cult Mystery« that

»Within the exile Tibetan community, it is HH the Dalai Lama alone who has power. He controls every aspect of Tibetan society«, and »All the present problems regarding Dorje Shugden within the Mahayana Buddhist world have no creator other than HH the Dalai Lama«.

Kelsang Gyatso

He also said:

His (the Dalai Lama’s) words are causing disharmony between Shugden practitioners and Nyingma practitioners. Why is HH the Dalai Lama creating this new problem? Until now there have been no problems between Gelugpas and Nyingmapas, and there has been no arguing or criticism.

Kelsang Gyatso

Can you comment on these claims?

Thierry Dodin: That there is no argument or criticism between Gelugpa and Nyingmapa is not correct. Kelsang Gyatso probably means that there had been no open conflict in the sense of actual confrontations. Although that is not entirely accurate, it is true that such open confrontations have been rare. This, however, was less the result of an harmonious relationship between the schools than a simple reflection of the rapport of force. In olden times, the Nyingmapa or other schools would have no chance to withstand an open confrontation with the Gelugpa establishment, at least in Central Tibet. Kelsang Gyatso’s remark is therefore fully out of context. It is nevertheless true that some Gelugpa hierarchs indeed entertained warm relationships with Nyingmapa teachers or some from other schools. Even the late Trijang Rinpoche, one of the current Dalai Lama’s preceptors (yongdzin) and the champion of the Shugden cult in the second half of the 20th century, is on record as supporting non-Gelugpa teachers, like for instance Kalu Rinpoche, although the latter belonged to the Kagyu tradition (Gelugpa and Kagyupa long competed for political power over Tibet). Inversely, even a Gelugpa teacher like the Lahuli Kunu Rinpoche (Negi Lama) faced fierce opposition from the Gelugpa establishment during his stay in Lhasa. The reality of traditional Tibet was more complex than it is possible to express here, but what is important to remark is that the political positions of a number of Gelugpa hierarchs and their ability to suppress political competitioners was a reality and a crucial fact that affected the relationship between schools in old Tibet.

Q: How pervasive was the power of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet? Often the Dalai Lamas and Tibet are seen as synonymous giving the impression that since the 5th Dalai Lama a single figure, the Dalai Lama, had omnipotent power over Tibet and people had to obey. Can you give in a nutshell an overview regarding the power situation in Tibet since the 5th Dalai Lama? Was the power divided between monasteries, regional rulers or the four schools of Tibet, or did some person or group have total control?

Thierry Dodin: The political structures of traditional Tibet were very complex. The system that was installed by the 5th Dalai Lama indeed placed the Dalai Lama at the pinnacle of the system. However, although absolute rulers in theory, his power was in effect distributed among different agencies. And the Mongolian king who brought him to power took the position of the temporal ruler of Tibet, at least in theory. Further, the big Gelugpa monasteries, mainly those around Lhasa but also Tashi Lhunpo in Shigatse, were powers in themselves which even the Dalai Lama had to contend with. It is important to notice that his first successor never had real power and died young under mysterious conditions, the 7th Dalai Lama exerted some political power, but the 8th Dalai Lama widely concentrated on religious issues. After that, all Dalai Lamas died young until the 13th Dalai Lama at the end of the 19th century. The 13th Dalai Lama escaped a number of attempts to murder him and only managed to grasp power by pushing aside those who actually exerted it in his name. With that, he made himself enemies who did their best to later destroy his reform endeavour. They mostly succeeded, ending up making Tibet an easy prey for Chinese troops in 1951. Opposition to the Dalai Lama was exerted by established structures who in effect resisted any change without expressively opposing to such, but in some cases opposition found in what, for Tibetan standard, must be regarded as straightforward ways. There has been for instance at least one episode described in which monks from one of the major monasteries effectively occupied the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, in order to pressure him not to take steps, which they disagreed with.

Q: What was the role of women in Tibetan society before China’s invasion; were they emancipated? How important is the role of women in the Tibetan exile community now?

Thierry Dodin: There are indeed some reasons to regard the traditional status of women in traditional Tibet as more equal and flexible than in other Asian countries of the same period. But from a general point of view Tibetans, like many other people and cultures in the world, would consider the birth of a baby boy as more valuable than that of a girl. There is also evidence that there was a higher mortality among girls at a lower age than among boys, probably because boys were better taken care of. There were also strong opinions on gender roles. Traditionally, Tibetan women was considered to be the ruler over the house and responsible for children and family, while the man was the one representing the family to the outside world and taking decisions on financial issues etc. This however, was an ideal, which did not always correspond to daily realities and individual case could vary a lot. Also, there were many variations within Tibet. For instance, the strict separation of the roles of men and women was certainly stronger in eastern Tibet, in Kham. There were some taboos related to women, particularly related to religion and popular beliefs, for instance they were generally expected to stay away from temples or sacral ceremonies during their menstruations periods. On the other hand, women were not prevented from travelling alone or to taking up business activities. Men and women sat together in public or went together on the street, and despite some discrete elements of etiquette related to married women, there was no strong compulsion for women to appear publicly as dependent on their husbands.

In exile and as well as in Tibet itself, things have evolved. The influence of the modern world with its more liberal approach to gender and the concept of emancipation have further softened the difference between men and women. There are however persisting inequalities. For instance, girls are still more often taken away from schools than their brothers. Some professions, which require a certain level of assertiveness are still much more likely to be taken up by men than by women, and there is no doubt that women are still strongly expected to behave in a more ‘decent’ and modest way than men are, while particularly young men are more easily excused for poor behaviour, simply because they are boys. Another issue is that, although regarded as equal to men in terms of their rights, women are expected to be more bound by duties. Expectation for the first-born child in a family are at times enormous. But they tend to be even stronger when the first born is a girl.

Q: There are competing Western images over Tibet and the Dalai Lamas. There are either romantic Shangri-la projections or simplified theocracy/feudal system portrayals. There are reports about the death penalty, torture, murder, conspiracy, slaves, mutilation, bond-slaves etc. What would be a middle way or accurate view on these possible extremes of Tibet and the former Dalai Lamas from the 7th century to 1956 (in a nutshell)?

Thierry Dodin: The old Tibet was undoubtedly a system with feudal structures and a system where the concept of human rights in a modern sense was non-existent. Reports about death penalties or tortures as a mean of punishment are very much exaggerated by Chinese propaganda, but there is no doubt that they are ultimately rooted in facts. Isolating Tibet from the rest of the world, either by making it a land of promises which have been unfulfilled somewhere else, or by depicting it as a ›hell on earth‹ fails to depict reality. The perceptions of Tibet by ›others‹, as the perception of any land anywhere, reflect more the others’ negative or positive projections influenced by personal, cultural, political or other bias than any tangible reality.

Q: Some feel there is a discrepancy between the Dalai Lama’s statement of being a »simple monk« and then when he comes to the West being accommodated in very expensive hotels and having bodyguards. Can you comment on this?

Thierry Dodin: The declaration of the Dalai Lama about being a simple monk and the fact that he is accommodated in expensive hotels when he comes to the West, can only appear as a discrepancy if one does not take in account the realities of Tibetan culture and religion, as well as religious faith in general. The Dalai Lama is considered to be a supreme religious leader by his followers, both Tibetans and non-Tibetans. As a mark of respect, and in a very similar fashion to political leaders, religious leaders are always accommodated in rather luxurious conditions while travelling on invitation from their followers. Besides being a religious leader, which already certainly makes him an important person in public life, the Dalai Lama is also taking position on various political and social issues, he for instance opposes Chinese policies in Tibet. This makes him a potential target for all sorts of enmities and even attacks. In so far that he is given police escort and bodyguards both by the exile government and by the government of the countries he visits, is certainly not surprising.


Thierry Dodin is a Tibetologist. Focal points of his work are cultural history, modern history and social, political and environmental issues in Tibet and the countries and cultures of the Himalayas, as well as in countries of the Buddhist cultural sphere. Since the early 1990’s he has been most closely associated academically with the University of Bonn. He has also been associated in various functions with the Tibet Information Network (TIN), most recently as its executive director. He is the founder and director of TibetInfoNet.


Header image: © Michael A. Terraces in Ladakh.