Shugden Buddhists protest during Dalai Lama’s visit to Berkeley

Carlos Caceres/Staff
More than 100 Shugden Buddhists protested Sunday against the Dalai Lama during his talk at the Berkeley Community Theatre.

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More than 100 Shugden Buddhists gathered to protest the Dalai Lama during his visit to Berkeley on Sunday morning, demanding religious freedom for Shugden practitioners in the second of four planned demonstrations during the spiritual leader’s visit to the West Coast.

Chanting, “Stop lying, Dalai Lama” and “Religious freedom Dalai Lama give” outside the Berkeley Community Theatre, where the Dalai Lama was giving a speech about happiness, the protesters urged him to renounce his 1996 condemnation of Dorje Shugden, an ancient Tibetan deity. The protesters allege this condemnation has led to the “persecution” of many Shugden Buddhists around the world.

The Dalai Lama has stated that Dorje Shugden is a spirit who is in conflict with the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan government and is a threat to the interests of all Tibetan people.

“All he has to do is lift the ban. He had the power to enforce the ban in 1996. He has the power to lift it,” said Len Foley, spokesperson for the protesters. “He appears to be a man of peace, but his decision has caused a lot of pain and suffering.”

According to Foley, members of exiled Tibetan communities in India have been forced to sign oaths and carry cards stating they are not Shugden practitioners. Those who refuse face religious and social persecution and are being denied access to schools, hospitals and employment, Foley said.

Jigdol Ngawang, a Tibetan Buddhist who volunteered at the event, says Shugden practitioners are not being persecuted, as the protesters say.

“The Dalai Lama has no way to persecute people,” Ngawang said. “Why would a Tibetan (hurt) another Tibetan?”

The protesters refute the Dalai Lama’s claim that Dorje Shugden is a threat to the well-being of Tibetan Buddhists, arguing that people have been worshiping Dorje Shugden for 400 years. They add that the Dalai Lama himself worshiped the deity for more than half of his life without any negative consequences and that he might have ulterior motives for imposing the ban.

“He’s using his religious authority to accomplish political goals,” said Thekchen Kelsang, a Shugden Buddhist monk.

Some followers of the Dalai Lama, however, say the protesters are the ones with the ulterior motives, accusing them of colluding with the Chinese government in order to attack the Dalai Lama’s authority and in turn weaken the movement for Tibetan independence from China.

But the protesters deny any association with the Chinese government, saying that they feel socially ostracized in many Buddhist communities and that they are standing up for Shugden Buddhists in Tibet and India who do not have the freedom to protest themselves.

The Shugden Buddhist protesters intend to demonstrate at the Dalai Lama’s two other events this week in Santa Clara and Los Angeles.

Contact Kathleen Tierney at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @kathleentierney.