Fundamentalism or Traditionalism?


This is a response to Tenzin Paljor’s article
“Religious Fundamentalism in Buddhism” posted on his blog yesterday. In this article he tries to make the case that Dorje Shugden practitioners are fundamentalists. He quotes Wikpedia’s article on Fundamentalism, and gives the definition as follows:

Fundamentalism refers to a “deep and totalistic commitment” to a belief in, and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), away from doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.

The aim of Buddhist traditions should be to maintain the doctrine of Buddha which is then passed down in its entirety from generation to generation with nothing being added and nothing being omitted. Changing the teachings of Buddha is non-negotiable because they reveal fundamental truths such as karma, rebirth, suffering, liberation and enlightenment and they reveal a flawless path to become free from all suffering and to be of benefit to all living beings. So, given this, are Shugden practitioners fundamentalists?

No, they are traditionalists, as all Buddhist should be.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of Traditionalism is ‘the upholding of tradition, especially so as to resist change’. This is the aim of Buddhism. Of course, there must be flexibility in how to present the teachings of Buddha, and how to put them into practice, but the teachings must remain essentially unchanged; only their presentation and practice can change.

Those who follow Buddha’s teachings during these times need to have the determination to follow them unchanged, but to adapt their practice of the teachings to the needs and norms of society and to be able to present them in a way that is suitable for practitioners at this time. This is something that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has done superbly and is one of the reasons why the New Kadampa Tradition has been so successful in bringing Buddha’s teachings to thousands of people.

The basic problem is this: Tenzin seems to equate someone who only wants to practise one tradition and who doesn’t want someone to arbitrarily change that tradition as fundamentalist but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to practise one tradition any more than there is with wanting to practise many, if that’s your wish. Everyone should have the freedom to practise as they wish without being criticised and castigated as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘sectarian’. Such criticism is itself sectarian – another example of how critics of the WSS and NKT are doing exactly what they accuse them of!

Another example of possible fundamentalism would be the recent furore over NKT ordination triggered by the Australian Sangha Association statement. It could be argued that those who criticise NKT ordination don’t understand the real meaning of ordination and they could also be accused of being fundamentalist because they are unable to let go of their idea of what constitutes ordination, even though how that is defined must necessarily depend upon the culture in which Buddhism is practiced. What’s important always is that the spirit and meaning of Buddha’s teachings is preserved while its aspect can change in accordance with the needs of society and the time of practice. For example, in a spiritually degenerate time, does it make sense to cling to the idea that ordination consists of 253 vows for a fully ordained monk, even though it is virtually if not totally impossible to keep them all? Such clinging to views might also be accused of being fundamentalist, especially when the definition is ‘strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), away from doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life‘.

Tenzin seems to be saying that because Shugden practitioners are unwilling to acquiesce to the Dalai Lama’s demand that people do not practise Shugden, that makes them fundamentalist. Why should Shugden practitioners listen to the Dalai Lama when he has no good reason? It is certainly not necessary to remove the practice of the Wisdom Protector Dorje Shugden from Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition. There is no logical justification for this, even though Tenzin thinks there is one. He says:

Because a main argument in the conflict at the site of the Shugden followers is that their Gurus, e.g. Pabongkha Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche, revealed the Shugden practice and gave obligations on it, one has to follow it, whereas the Shugden opponents in Gelug school cite Buddha in the Kalama Sutra and refer on the sectarian nature of the Shugden practice which is seen by them as a contradiction to Buddhist ethics and Je Tsongkhapa, the Gelug founder, who said one should not follow “if it is an improper and irreligious command”, which is based on the Vinaya Sutra: “If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.”

However, he’s incorrect. The main arguments for the practise of Dorje Shugden is both that it was passed down by our Lineage Gurus and (very importantly) it’s a valid practice that can be known through experience. Just because Tenzin had a bad experience with it doesn’t invalidate the practice – this also goes for the Dalai Lama. There is nothing in the prayer to Dorje Shugden that is not consistent with Dharma – I’d challenge Tenzin to tell me if there is!

In short, Shugden practitioners are thinking people who understand the worth of relying on Dorje Shugden through their own daily experience, not fundamentalists who merely follow the words of their Guru because ‘they should’.

Tenzin also accuses Geshe Kelsang as having a narrow minded attitude, and he gives various quotes from Geshe-la’s books on faith and devotion to a Spiritual Guide and reliance on one tradition as evidence, but this is traditional Buddhism also! The Dalai Lama praises such devotion in his student Lama Zopa, for example, so why is Tenzin trying to paint it as something unusual or narrow minded?

Rinpoche is someone who follows my guidance sincerely, very expansively and with one hundred percent trust. He possesses unwavering faith and pure samaya; not only has he pure samaya and faith but whatever I instruct, Zopa Rinpoche has the capability to accomplish it.

Furthermore, Tenzin claims that “NKT literature lacks a lot of Buddhist teachings” when its basis is lamrim, the condensation of all of Buddha’s teachings. How curious!

Finally Tenzin concludes:

In general as said above fundamentalism is based on non-knowledge so offering more understanding was suggested as one way to address fundamentalism. However, as long as a more narrow minded person refuses to broaden his understanding or to relax his views, and because one can not force others to think about their point of view, this method is very limited.

I would agree with this. Getting the Dalai Lama to broaden his understanding of the nature and function of Dorje Shugden so that he can relax his wrong view that Dorje Shugden is a spirit has been very difficult until now. We can see how entrenched he is in the way that he refuses dialogue with the WSS about this.

Finally, Tenzin quotes the Dalai Lama on the solution to Fundamentalism:

RB. What can the West or westerners do in a concrete way at this point?

HH. “Listen. Listen to their complaints and their reasons. They are unhappy and we should share their unhappiness.”

RB. Your Holiness, you have to admit that is a bit difficult.

It’s certainly appears a bit difficult for the Dalai Lama to have empathy with Shugden practitioners. This shows the Dalai Lama’s hypocrisy once more – as usual, he says one thing and does another. He’s not listening, not sharing and he’s not talking.

My conclusion is that if anyone is practising Buddhist fundamentalism, it is the Dalai Lama, especially when Richard Dawkins characterizes it as ‘clinging to a stubborn, entrenched position that defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence.

We can all see the immense spiritual problems that have been caused by the fundamentalist position of the Dalai Lama and they could all be solved if he simply changed his mind and allowed Shugden practitioners to live and practice freely as traditionalists. We can only hope that such freedom will be forthcoming in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Fundamentalism or Traditionalism?

  1. I’m not interested in refuting Tenzin Peljor’s maze of bad reasons. His lack of Dharma knowledge makes it really difficult to have him as a suitable person to debate with.

    What is suitable is to refute the accusation the Dalai Lama has made against the Gelugpa Lamas as fundamentalists, against the Dharmapala Dorje Shugden as a deity fomenting fundamentalism or sectarianism.

    Now, let’s see. The Dalai Lama started his rejection against the Gelugpa Lamas and the Dharmapala when these Lamas -his own Teachers- refused to follow him in his volition to mix up the practices of different lineages.

    First we must remember the fact that this desire of the Dalai Lama had political reasons –to strenghten his leadership over the whole of the Tibetan community in exile and become the supreme religious leader of all schools of Tibetan buddhism, something that he was not before.

    Then we must remember that it is an important tenet of our Mahayana buddhism that the Buddhadharma has been expressed in many different forms in accord with the needs of many different types of practitioners.
    This alone points to the importance of preserving the integrity of all different lineages of transmission and practice, in order that they can effectively satisfy the needs of different types of minds.

    The Gelugpa Lamas who refused to follow the Dalai Lama in his attempt to create a unique school of Tibetan buddhism with himself as sole sovereign master, in his attempt to destroy the differences, in his attempt to destroy the lineages, those wise Lamas were doing something that is the opposite of fundamentalism: they were preserving the diversity of the different schools, because their differences are important for their practitioners.

    It’s laughable to accuse of fundamentalists those who protected diversity. It’s a contradiction in terms.

    There’s nothing else to say. We rest our case.

  2. I have to apologize to Tenzin Peljor -even if he didn’t read my post. I said the following:

    “His lack of Dharma knowledge makes it really difficult to have him as a suitable person to debate with.”

    This was a hasty statement that I have to qualify. When I say “lack of Dharma knowledge”, in any way I mean to say that he lacks knowledges like compassion, bodhicitta and such. I hope he has them in abundance. And it would be utterly stupid on my part to assume that he lacks them, because I am not clairvoyant to know such things.

    Unfortunately, there is a lack of Dharma knowledge that I can see directly: his lack of logic knowledge. We, the Dorje Shugden practitioners, have answered every one of the reasons given by the Dalai Lama to justify his persecution against a deity and the devotees. That the Dalai Lama does not want to debate with us and ignores us is one sad thing and we have to accept it …

    Tenzin, on the other hand, does not respond to our reasons, he just keeps on and on repeating the bad reasons he got in the Dalai Lama’s websites. This shows a lack of logic, and automatically ends the debate. This is the behaviour that makes him “unsuitable to debate with”, which is not a personal thing but an expression from the debate field.

    So I apologize to Tenzin Peljor for that sentence in my previous post, and hope with all my heart that he is doing well and that one day he will see (good) reason about this unfortunate matter.

    I have to remind us all that Logic is the basis of Buddhism. Among the famous Six Ornaments of Dharma: Nagarjuna, Asanga, Dignaga, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, and Dharmakirti, two of them are master logicians, Dignaga and Dharmakirti. This alone speaks volumes about the importance of logic.

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