Letter to Thurman/no response to my offer to write for WSS

I sent a copy of this to the WSS, with an offer to write for them at least 2x. They never responded.

Dear Deans, Professors of Religion, and Mr. Thurman: March 9, 2014

I am writing today, a practicing Buddhist of 14 years to express my concern that Mr. Thurman is disgracing your university with his seemingly blind adherence to any wish of the 14th recognition of the Dalai Lama.  He has written at least two documents of which I am aware, which in both cases give a completely biased and revisionist account of history, including two separate but important issues: the Karmapa recognition and also the ban, which Mr. Thurman claims does not exist, on Dorje Shugden (Mr. Thurman calls him Dolgyal Shugden, which is a derogatory/bigoted term for Dorje Shugden).  These two documents are a letter, which concerns the Karmapa controversy, which Mr. Thurman wrote on Columbia University letterhead and a recently posted article in the Huffington Post, “the Dalai Lama and the Cult of Dolgyal Shugden” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-thurman/the-dalai-lama-cult-of-dolgyal-shugden_b_4903441.html).

Mr. Thurman uses his credentials as a professor of religion from Columbia University to further the religious-political agenda of the Dalai Lama, to the detriment of the Buddhist religion.  In the case of the Karmapa letter, in which Mr. Thurman seems to side with China’s candidate for the Karmapa recognition, which was backed, for political reasons by the Dalai Lama, Mr. Thurman uses Columbia University letterhead (http://www.karmapa-issue.org/news/2006_documents.htm#three).  My concern is that Mr. Thurman sides in all cases completely with the Dalai Lama, who is not actually in charge of Buddhism, or even the head of his own school (Gelugpa). I am also concerned that Mr. Thurman’s writing reflects poorly on your university, especially when he uses your letterhead, given Mr. Thurman’s completely biased reporting.

Since some of you may be unfamiliar with Tibetan Buddhism, I will give some brief background; there are actually four main schools of Buddhism in Tibet, and some minor schools; each school has traditionally had jurisdiction over choosing its own leadership; in the case of the Karma Kagyu School, for example, the head of the school is the Karmapa.  The Karmapa’s line of reincarnate lamas (people recognized as the reincarnation of the lama that recently died before them) precedes the Dalai Lama’s line by 300 years (http://www.karmapa-issue.org/arguments.htm).  To clarify, the Kagyus choose their own leader, the Karmapa, and obviously did not require any Dalai Lamas to recognize them, especially since for the first 300 years of the Karmapa line, there were not yet any Dalai Lamas .The 14th Dalai Lama, who I have never been convinced is an enlightened being, claimed he was in charge of all four schools this lifetime.  He never was before, and in a move in what appears to both attempt to appease China and control a long standing powerful spiritual rival, the Kagyus, gave his recognition to the Chinese candidate, thus dividing the rival school.  Interestingly, Robert Thurman, says that Lea Therune’s account of the Karmapa controversy, in which she favors China’s and the Dalai Lama’s candidate “is valid and reasonable,” (http://www.karmapa-issue.org/news/2006_documents.htm#three) though in the Huffington Post article, Thurman clearly has issue with the Panchen Lama that China picked. Apparently, China’s choice is okay, as long as the Dalai Lama says so, Mr. Thurman?

There are two candidates for Karmapa; Thaye Dorje, whom I met several years ago myself in India, and by whom I was very impressed, who was recognized by Shamar Rinpoche, with the backing of several high Kagyu and Nyingma lamas.  The Gelugpas (the Dalai Lama’s school) have a long standing rivalry with the Kagyus, which has been mitigated from time to time by the high lamas themselves showing acts of goodwill to demonstrate a good example to their followers, such as the friendship between Trijang Rinpoche (an important Gelugpa lama who did the Shugden practice), and the 16th Karmapa (the head of the Kagyu school).  Shamar Rinpoche (the second highest lama of the Kagyu school ) wrote Mr. Thurman a letter some time back, which was concerned with how Mr. Thurman gives a very one sided (pro- Dalai Lama) account in a letter Mr. Thurman wrote about a lawsuit between the Kagyus and Lea Terhune.  Shamar Rinpoche asks Mr. Thurman “to be an honest scholar,”(www.karmapa-issue.org/news/open_letter_thurman.htm) which is something I as a Shugden Buddhist would also encourage Mr. Thurman to attempt.

Concerning Mr. Thurman’s recent article in the Huffington Post, I must explain that it is quite biased toward the Dalai Lama’s agenda, and also has several factual inaccuracies.  It seems that Mr. Thurman implies that the “Shugden cult” was responsible for the deaths of three non-Shugden Buddhists, though the supposed murderers were not even tried in court, so I am not sure how we can be sure if they murdered anyone or were really doing the Shugden practice; it is common in India and Nepal to hire a third party to do dirty work, and also to bribe the police.  The implication is that Shugden people did something very bad, because there is a lot of nonsense being put out about Shugden people.  Whoever did kill someone, I am truly sorry that anyone was murdered, and I have never personally met a Buddhist, Shugden or otherwise, that would intentionally harm a being by taking its life.  The Dalai Lama, who sometimes does not act very Buddhist, did say, in an interview with the same Mr. Thurman some years back, that

“… if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or ten enemies to be eliminated—if there was no other way.”

(’34 1  from Mother Jones, Nov 1997http://www.westernshugdensociety.org/our-cause/public-announcement/).

A few days after the article was published there were signs posted in Tibetan Communities asking for the death of 10 Buddhist teachers who practice Dorje Shugden; (Dorje Shugden practioners are supposed to be siding with China, according to the Dalai Lama).  One of my lamas, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, headed that list of 10 lamas to be eliminated.  He now has to be protected from death threats from confused followers of the Dalai Lama.   I have been to teachings with Buddhist lamas, including Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and have only ever seen them help others; they do not ever even imply that “eliminating one or ten enemies” would be okay, as it would directly contradict the Buddha’s teachings, and lead other beings into great confusion.  The Buddha never condoned violence.

In addition to implying that “the cult of Dorje Shugden” killed people, though the non-Shugden Dalai Lama is the only ‘Buddhist’ that has ever suggested elimination of enemies, Robert Thurman’s Huffington Post Article has a number of overtly stated inaccuracies concerning the history of the practice of Buddha Dorje Shugden. First of all, the Gelugpa were not the only people to say Shugden prayers, so it is not right to call people who do these prayers sectarian; the Sakya lamas used to rely on Dorje Shugden, as did the Drugkpa Kagyu.  There has never been anything sectarian about the practice of Dorje Shugden, but there has been a new definition of what is sectarian by the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama, who wished to merge all 4 schools of Tibetan Buddhism under his own command, was met with opposition from the other schools (www.karmapa-issue.org/arguments.htm) and from pure lamas within his own school.  The Dalai Lama’s version of ‘non-sectarian’ seems to be that all Tibetan Buddhists do anything, including whatever prayers, the Dalai Lama himself would like.  If anyone disagrees, then this person is causing disharmony and is therefore sectarian.  By analogy, this would be like if all of Christianity were forced under one man, for example, the U.S. President, who decided we were now sectarian if we did not keep to his new edicts on Christianity, including, for instance, if he were to disallow the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed for anyone wishing to enter a shop, hospital, or send their children to primary school.

I am also concerned that Mr. Thurman claims there is no ban on Shugden amongst Tibetans in exile.  That is in contrast to several accounts, including high Rinpoches (Buddhist teachers) like Kundeling Rinpoche, and pictures that depict Tibetan shops, clinics, etc., where Shugden people are expressly forbidden, much like segregation in the South in the U.S. prior to the civil rights movement. (Please see the following websites for pictures and videos directly showing evidence of the ban Mr. Thurman claims doesn’t exist:  http://www.westernshugdensociety.org/chronicle/evidence-of-the-ban/; http://truedalailama.com/?page_id=9).  In the case of the Shugden followers, they are expressly kept from government positions by order of the Central Tibetan Authority.  (Please note, the ban went into effect at the time the Dalai Lama was in official control of the government; at this point it would be safe to say he directs from behind the scenes.)  If the Dalai Lama, whom a lot of Tibetans listen to, would in fact tell people to be tolerant of one another and allow people medical care, to work in government, and also for their children to attend primary schools, without making them give up their Shugden practice, then that would help matters tremendously.  A lot of Tibetans do follow the Dalai Lama, though I am not sure I would agree with Mr. Thurman that the Dalai Lama is as adored as Thurman claims, as I have never myself studied in a school that took him as their main lama.  In fact the Mongoose-Canine letter demonstrates that the Dalai Lama might not be as adored as Mr. Thurman would have us think. (Link to Mongoose-Canine Letter: http://truedalailama.com/?page_id=185).

I will agree with Mr. Thurman on one point; that it isn’t Buddhist to ban or excommunicate people; however, the Dalai Lama and the CTA, without actually calling it a ban, have, in effect, banned people who do the practice of Dorje Shugden from shops, Tibetan medical clinics, and their children from Tibetan primary schools.  So, I do agree that it wasn’t Buddhist of the Dalai Lama to do this, but rather political, which wouldn’t be shocking to any of us that are at all familiar with the concept that sometimes politicians, even the Dalai Lama, are capable of lying.

That Mr. Thurman refers to Shugden practioners as a cult is unfortunate in a professor of religion.  After all, a cult is supposed to be when we follow someone who is a person, rather than a deity, or are strictly adhering to rigid or cult beliefs.  Obviously, in religion, one useful topic is historiography and philosophy of religion; Mr. Thurman downgrades what is an aspect of Buddha (in my opinion) to a worldly deity by referring to us as a cult.  He says this as though it is a fact, when in reality, it is simply his opinion.  It is also not a fact that we are sectarian; as stated previously at least 3 of the 4 traditions did prayers to Dorje Shugden; I consider myself a Shugden practioner, as it is my daily practice, but keep pictures of Kagyu lamas on my shrine as well; sometimes I have attended the Kagyu teachings, which hasn’t bothered anyone from either tradition, though Mr. Thurman mistakenly thinks I am in a sectarian cult, which won’t tolerate other Buddhist schools.

So, how does exactly someone of Mr. Thurman’s level of education decide to side every time with the Dalai Lama, and give no credence to any other side of the story, claiming that we are funded by China?  The sad truth is that it would appear that Mr. Thurman was mistaught about the Buddhist faith at some point; while lamaist Buddhists do follow their lama’s advice, this advice is generally about Buddhist practice; there are a lot of practices, and a lot of aspects of Buddha.  So, for instance, a Buddhist might go to their lama to ask which practices to do; following every wish of their lama, even in the political arena, is very dangerous, unnecessary, and I have never seen any legitimate teacher of Buddhism ask this sort of nonsense of their students.  It is also against what Buddha Shakyamuni taught, as he taught us to examine even his teachings as though we were shopping for gold in the market.  Mr. Thurman, I understand your guru devotion, as I have lamas of my own, but please consider that from my perspective, you have fallen for pyrite while shopping in the market, rather than gold.

Concerning Columbia University, I am simply asking that you suggest that Mr. Thurman might allow for more than one side of the story, rather than simply being a ‘yes-man’ to the Dalai Lama.  A lot of what the Dalai Lama teaches, is, at least when he quotes Buddha or Shantideva, as he did while praying on the floor of the Senate, good.  This is similar to how a pastor might say something good when quoting Christ; we always look for religious leadership with follow-through on what they say, so please understand that the Dalai Lama does not give the appearance of follow through with what the Buddha taught in many of his actions, particularly concerning Dorje Shugden and his interference in the Karmapa recognition.

I think, as a person with only a Bachelor’s degree from a mid-size state school, that I am concerned when I see an “expert” on Buddhism such as Mr. Thurman, giving such a biased account of things that affect so many people.  It is understandable, and is similar to the court of medieval kings agreeing with all the religiously oppressive policies of their contemporary monarchs.  I was taught, both in the secular world, and by all my Buddhist teachers, to examine ideas for myself; Mr. Thurman, I would be concerned for anyone entering your department of religion in Buddhist studies, since if they ever disagree with the Dalai Lama, then it would obviously be problematic to have you on a committee.  Please be more willing to look for sources other than those provided by the Dalai Lama and his followers; this is like if the Protestants outlaw the Catholics for being idolatrous, and only rely on only Protestants to report on what is going on with the Catholics.

In closing, though Mr. Thurman claims that Shugden people are being funded by China, I would like to tell all of you that I know no one who is funded by China among the Shugden groups.  I am simply expressing some concerns on my own, for instance, and have not been contacted by any Chinese, or paid in anyway.  I find it very ridiculous that you would accuse people of being funded by China who are trying to ask for human rights.  I would also like to remind Mr. Thurman that the Pilgrims got on boats to escape various forms of religious persecution; eventually, when the U.S. formed a democracy, freedom of religion was one of the main tenants; I do not want communism, but I do not think, for instance, that if I disagree with the Dalai Lama, George Bush, or Barak Obama, that I would necessarily be following China.  In a democracy, we need the ability to think for ourselves; as a professor it would be good to set an example of sincere open-mindedness, otherwise you simply inadvertently aide in potential oppression; if we cannot think and analyze in a democracy, then we would more easily fall prey to oppressive regimes like communism, simply because we lost the ability to think for ourselves, while listening to people like Mr. Thurman dictate our morality .


Kelly Inman, Buddhist of 14 years

San Diego, California


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