Many observers were shocked last year when a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks in Britain waged a public campaign against their leader, the Dalai Lama.
But this conflict revealed simmering yet sharp differences between more traditional and “modern” Buddhists. In the Journal of Contemporary Religion (October), David Kay writes that Tibetan Buddhism has long been divided between an “inclusive orientation,” meaning an openness to the world and other faiths — personified by the current Dalai Lama — and exclusivist groups who stress the purity of the faith.
This division among the exiled Tibetan Buddhist community is expressed in a controversy over the status and nature of deities (known as “rDo rje shugs Idan”) whose purpose is to protect the Buddha’s teachings and its practitioners.
The traditionalists would claim to worship this deity as a Buddha while more modern Tibetan Buddhists say such reverence should not be shown to such a “worldly deity.” This dispute is far from an esoteric one. The Dalai Lama has criticized the traditionalist’s position for dividing the Tibetan community and hurting the Tibetan cause, playing into the hands of its Chinese opponents. The Dalai Lama is speaking out against a faction “who are opposed to his modern, ecumenical and democratic political vision and who believe that the Tibetan government should champion a fundamentalist version of Tibetan Buddhism as a state religion in which the dogmas “of the more modern schools in the tradition are discredited.
The controversy has also brought to the surface new divisions between Western Buddhist groups, some of whom have taught such controversial doctrines while being unaware of their divisive nature.
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Centre for New Religions, Dept. of Theology, King’s College, University of London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS UK)