June 22, 2010

On disagreeing with the Dalai Lama

dalai lama, sea shepherds, anti-whaling activism, stonewall uprising, stonewall riots, gay liberation, female ordination

A few posts back I cited an AFP article in which the Dalai Lama, in advocating nonviolence, appeared to criticize the Sea Shepherds, a group of anti-whaling activists who have been much in the news lately. After the AFP article appeared, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society president Captain Paul Watson responded on the organization’s website, reiterating his group’s commitment to nonviolence while acknowledging the Dalai Lama’s past and present support::

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama said at a media conference in Japan that he continues to support the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He did rebuke us and said to his Japanese hosts that our activities should be non-violent. He issued this criticism in response to accusations by some in Japan who have accused Sea Shepherd of violence during our interventions against the annual bloody slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

“The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society agrees with His Holiness on the imperative of taking a non-violent approach, but also believes that the Japanese government has misinformed him of the activities of the Society.”

Watson added that “the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society respects the Dalai Lama and his guidance is of great value to the Society.”

At the Guardian, Mark Vernon, blogging about the Dalai Lama’s position on violence, may help to explain  why so many are confused when the Dalai Lama makes statements that are inconsistent with the popular view of him in the West:

The Dalai Lama quite routinely says different things to different audiences, an approach that is valued in Buddhism and is known as “skillful means”. It is not a kind of duplicity. Rather, it aims to have the right word for the right time and context. The difficulty is that when his words ripple out across the internet, as they do, they are also ripped out of their original context. Skillfully interpreting the Dalai Lama then becomes very hard.

The occasion for Vernon’s post? The Dalai Lama sent a message of support for Armed Forces Day, which is next Saturday in Britain:

In it, [the Dalai Lama] writes of his admiration for the military. That is perhaps not so surprising. As he explains, there are many parallels between being a monk and being a soldier—the need for discipline, companionship, and inner strength.

But this may indeed surprise, although Vernon offers context for this statement and also argues a more general point about traditional Buddhist—and more specifically, Tibetan Buddhist—views on violence:

Attitudes towards violence in Buddhism are enormously complex. There are some traditions that argue aggression, and killing in particular, is always wrong. But there are others which argue that killing can be good, when executed by a spiritually skilled practitioner who can do so with the right motivation. Tibetan Buddhism falls squarely into the latter tradition, and previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama have been such practitioners. The 13th, for example, modernized the Tibetan army.

Determining that someone is “spiritually skilled” enough to commit violence brings with it its own dangers, and I can’t say I buy it. But Buddhists will probably never agree about whether violence of any kind is necessary—Tibetans themselves do not agree about whether violent rebellion against the Chinese is justifiable—and the range of views varies as much among Buddhists as it does, say, among Christians. (This was made abundantly clear in a roundtable we ran in Tricycle not long after 9/11.)

Yet while Vernon’s insights may in part explain confusion about the Dalai Lama’s words, one thing that  troubles me is that when anyone offers sound criticism of one the Dalai Lama's positions, the response from some of his proponents is fast and furious—and usually pretty unpleasant. The Dalai Lama himself doesn’t seem to mind, but many devoted to him have difficulty imagining that occasionally he may be—and sometimes is—simply wrong. When I blogged about his position on same-sex relationships, for instance (he’s against them for Buddhists), some email responses were so hostile I had to wonder whether the people who wrote them were listening to the Dalai Lama's teachings at all.

It is important to remember that the Dalai Lama does not speak for all Buddhists or even most Buddhists. And if one is not his disciple, it just isn’t a big deal if one disagrees with him. Sometimes it’s necessary to, especially since his words mean so much to so many. When we disagree with him about female ordination or same-sex marriage, for instance, it’s incumbent upon us to express open and reasoned disagreement.

Over the weekend I went to see The Stonewall Uprising with a few friends. It’s a great documentary about the the violent resistance in 1969 to a routine  NYPD raid on the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. More than any other single event, it is understood to have triggered the gay liberation movement. I was struck when one of the participants—in what the police preferred to call “the Stonewall riots”—expressed certainty that without pushing back—and violently—change would never have been possible. I’m ambivalent, but I have to agree that in the face of routine and violent injustice, a violent response is not only understandable but also arguably reasonable.

For Gandhi, nonviolent resistance to injustice was the best and most difficult path, but violent resistance was better than no resistance at all. This can be a vexing issue for us Buddhists. It is something that we will no doubt  continue to discuss in our communities, where, I think, wisdom is most likely to be found.

Photo is of the Stonewall Uprising, 1969

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Haras's picture

From Wikipedia:

" The reason why the Dalai Lama didn’t sue over ‘A Great Deception’ is because every word is referenced to third party publications and is true! You can’t sue if someone publishes the verifiable true about a particular issue. The Dalai Lama is guilty as charged…”

it is really an eye opener how far the ‘brainwashing’ in the NKT can lead one away from the facts.

First of all:
The Dalai Lama has not being found guilty. The Indian Court said

" Justice S. Muralidhar dismissed the writ petition and application on the grounds that the allegations of violence and harassment were ‘vague averments’ and that the raised issues ‘do not partake of any public law character and therefore are not justiciable in proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution.’

Citing the ‘absence of any specific instances of any such attacks’ on Dorjee Shugden practitioners, the Court noted the counter affidavit submitted by the respondents, referring to ‘an understanding reached whereby it was left to the monks to decide whether they would want to be associated with the practices of Dorjee Shugden.’

Closing the doors on the possibility of similar complaints in the future, Justice Muralidhar concluded that the ‘matters of religion and the differences among groups concerning propitiation of religion, cannot be adjudicated upon by a High Court in exercise of its writ jurisdiction.’

2. There is no evidence from any reliable source that the wrong Dalai Lama was chosen (as the “Great Deception” and other WSS propaganda publications claim), such a claim is even against what Trijang Rinpoche said, Kelsang’s own root Guru. The book “Great Deception” is indeed a great deception because it exploits academic sources to spin the facts according to the imagination of the NKT leadership. Rewriting of history is a well recognized tool of New Religious Movements which NKT apply as well as other cults do.

3. To make it not too long: The only reason why the Dalai Lama or any body else do not sue NKT or Kelsang is that they can—unlike NKT—bear that there are different opinions about them, even if it is untrue or defamation. It is a sign of cult leaders to threaten to sue ex-members or critics because they are full of themselves, they think they are godlike or Buddhalike. Because Kelsang Gyatso is a cult leader (the Third Buddha of our time) and NKT is a cult they threaten forums, academics and individuals to sue them.
Because the Dalai Lama is not a cult leader but a relaxed and open minded person, it is no problem for him if he is slandered, he just will not take any lawyer to defend himself. He is also used to be defamed by China’s leadership and press and other hostile human beings. He takes it with ease and humour, because—unlike cult leaders—he has no exaggerated feeling of self-importance as cult leaders have.

Hence what the Dalai Lama says about the Western Shugden Society expresses his qualities: “I am extremely happy that they can enjoy freedom of expression.” No lawsuit threat, no lawyer, only peace ;-)

Geshe Konchog's picture

Dear Sarah:

So much bitterness NKT causes. It is seen in the thousands directly hurt by NKT, and even in many remaining in NKT trying to defend NKT’s battles with Buddhists.

Under the guise of Buddhism, albeit a distorted guise, people join NKT thankful for finding a nearby connection with the wonders of Buddhism, diverse and expansive, offering the simplest and most noble of ideals, compassion.

Some immerse themselves. Some rent living space inside an NKT ‘center’. Some take NKT ordination vows. Some donate their savings to NKT. Some loan money to NKT.

Financial contributions, some of which from taxpayer subsidies, and volunteer efforts eventually lead to refurbishing of and mortgages for new NKT real estate holdings technically organized as ‘charities’, although they make minimal if any contributions to the community.

Since it began in 1991, NKT has amassed substantial real estate wealth in many countries.

As NKT’s wealth has increased, so has its ego and defensiveness, so much so that NKT has gone on the offensive.

Insiders questioning NKT’s ambitions are thrown out, regardless of their dependency, like mothers with children. Some leave in disgust.

Several hundred share their stories under the name NKT Survivors as part of their healing process from what they realized was an insidious cult. Many in the group have been targeted by NKT for slurs.

Those examining NKT from the outside are also targeted by NKT for slurs.

NKT’s targets are sometimes threatened with litigation.

Virtually anyone sharing their painful experience with NKT or assessing NKT’s public campaigns against Buddhists are quickly trivialized by remaining NKT supporters still trapped by the NKT cult, which thrives itself by nurturing the ego of its defenders with promises of ‘merit’ and quickly attaining enlightenment. So addicted they reveal much bitterness in their attacks. Statisticlly, eventually they too will become NKT outcasts or waste their lives with hate.

NKT’s negative campaign against those outside NKT and those scared to leave NKT is NKT’s legacy.

From NKTworld.org

Just another asshole with an opinion's picture

"Politics", what a lovely name for the eight worldly dharmas.

What some of you do not see is that operations like Sea Shepard have very little positive effect, and merely serve to polarize the "opposition".

There is good reason for Watson's ouster from Greenpeace in 1977. And there is a consistent record of his ineffectiveness and grandstanding.

Moreover, is he committed to non-violence? Greenpeace does not think so:

"We passionately want to stop whaling, and will do so peacefully. That's why we won't help Sea Shepherd. Greenpeace is committed to non-violence and we'll never, ever, change that; not for anything. If we helped Sea Shepherd to find the whaling fleet we'd be responsible for anything they did having got that information, and history shows that they've used violence in the past, in the most dangerous seas on Earth. For us, non-violence is a non-negotiable, precious principle. Greenpeace will continue to act to defend the whales, but will never attack or endanger the whalers."

Perhaps the folks at Sea Shepherd should listen to HHDL, that is, if they really want to protect sentient beings. And perhaps you folks who are having a knee-jerk reaction against HHDL ought to listen to him as well.

Sarah D's picture

Hi James,

I'm sorry for reacting to 'Ron's' insult, but the information I posted on the DalaI Lama's double standard with respect to whaling was valid and relevant and I would therefore like to repost it:


It's food for thought.

James Shaheen's picture


David's picture

cool. you can understand my confusion as you did not identify who you were speaking to

James Shaheen's picture

Hi David,

No, I deleted the offending comments, they weren't yours! I did indeed leave yours intact and I've enjoyed our exchange.

All best,


David's picture

"As for those hurling insults at one another—I’ve deleted your comments and I ask that you refrain for this sort of talk on this site. "

Is that directed at me? It appears so. I don't know what you are referring to, as it is not my style to engage in personal attacks or malicious slander. It looks as though my comments have been left intact, so what are you talking about? If you consider using the word "gripe" is a form of personal attack or slander, then, respectfully, I think you are a bit oversensitive, which by the way, is just expressing an opinion, no more, no less. Please explain this.

Ron's picture

Dear James: I'm all for having a moderator weed out malicious slander and personal attacks, nevertheless, as it is said when one is hit by poisoned arrows, naturally the first thing to do is remove them, but ultimately the best course is to identify and, if necessary destroy the archer who shoots them.

James Shaheen's picture

@ David Thanks for your comment. And I agree that the Dalai Lama does not say what he thinks people want to hear. I will add that Vernon is clear that for the Dalai Lama it's a matter of skillful means, not duplicity. Maybe I could have been clearer. As for cutting him slack—fair enough. It's easy for me dismiss the many considerations he must have. I do want to say, though, that whatever his considerations, as Bob Thurman makes clear, what the Dalai Lama says is important. Many of his most loyal followers object to some of the things he says and unfortunately, criticism of his position is often confused for criticism of his person. But that misperception shouldn't stop any of us from publicly objecting to statements we think will cause only more suffering.

I appreciate your comments and I read them carefully and with gratitude.

As for those hurling insults at one another—I've deleted your comments and I ask that you refrain for this sort of talk on this site. I understand passions can run high and I have no doubt you are sincere in your beliefs. You are welcome on this site—from time to time any of us can write or say things we wish we hadn't and the occasional lapse is understandable. But we have to at least try to live up to the Buddha's teachings and treat each other with respect.

David's picture

@ james, sorry if I have pegged you wrong here, but I thought I detected an undercurrent of something, or perhaps I was overreacting to Vernon and Mumon's gripes and suggestions that the Dalai Lama tells people what they want to hear. I think you disprove that in your post, for if the Dalai Lama just wanted to tell people what they want to hear, he would take a different stand on same-sex marriage, wouldn't he? I do get annoyed when he waffles on the issue of female ordinations. But then I don't sit where he sits and have to deal with everything he has to deal with, so I am willing to cut him some slack, even though I think the time has come to get off the fence.

Mumon's picture


If only he didn't go on Larry King Live...that's not my problem...it is a problem for how he presents himself: by doing that he puts himself in an equivalence class with Deepak Chopra, Tammy Faye Bakker, James Dobson, Levi Johnston, H. Ross Perot, Mick Jagger, Dan Ackroyd talking about UFOs, Bill Maher, and what not.

True, it's a problem as well for Michelle Obama and other people who do it for the publicity...but when they do it reflects on them.

Also, as I wrote earlier, on the Armed Forces message, I actually agree with him.

James Shaheen's picture

@David - I'm not "griping" about the armed forces message. I don't even think it's objectionable, and Vernon provided sufficient context to make it clear he doesn't, either.

The Dalai Lama has been an agent of nonviolent change and I have deep respect for him. You're seeing something that isn't there, or perhaps you object to his message. If you do, I don't take issue with that, which was one of the points I was making.

David's picture

@ Mumon - if there is an issue about the Dalai Lama being a celebreity, that's your issue, your problem. You need to deal with it and hopefully by not picking on the guy unfairly. You can't lay it on him. He has said, Bob Thurman and others have said that if the DL had his druthers, he'd be by an anonymous monk somewhere on a three year retreat. He's a humble guy who is uncomfortable with his celebrity hood and quite frankly at times he doesn't know how to handle well.

@James - yes, but isn't that what you two are implying? You're both kind of griping about this Armed Forces Days message. Frankly I think it is much ado about nothing. You can contact me if you want some real issues to disagree with the Dalai Lama about, but these aren't them.

James Shaheen's picture

@ David Thanks for your comment. Vernon did not mean for those to be taken as the Dalai Lama's words, nor did I. Vernon was making a more general point. As for standards, the Dalai Lama holds himself to a higher standard than most of us and he generally lives to it. It's why he is so widely respected, and why so many take his words so seriously. To never disagree with him would be to hold him to no standard at all, though.

Mumon's picture


The issues with the Dalai Lama are:

- He is the ultimate celebrity Buddhist, and other celebrity Buddhists fawn over him. There's anything wrong with being a celebrity and a Buddhist, but there is an issue with Buddhism as an aspect of celebrity.

- There are legitimate differences of opinion concerning his politics. Unfortunately, many people employ the construction fallacy and often give him a free pass on some things because other things he says comports well with Buddhism - it's the flip side of "the Dalai Lama is held to a much higher standard ." But it's the karma of celebrity, too.

David's picture

"Determining that someone is “spiritually skilled” enough to commit violence brings with it its own dangers, and I can’t say I buy it." Yes, but those are Vernon's words, not the Dalai Lama's.

I don't agree with the Dalai Lama on everything, but some of the recent criticisms seem to me just nitpicking. Even Ghandi was a pragmatist. When asked what to do if a tiger was attacking a village, he said "Kill the tiger."

I don't suppose it has ever occurred to anyone that the Dalai Lama may not be the most gifted PR guy around. Maybe the people around him aren't either. Who crafts these statements? Is there something lost in the translation? Some of the trouble he gets into is when he makes public announcements in English, which he has never been able to get a handle on. And so on. Many variables and I wonder is anyone takes these into consideration.

It seems to me that the Dalai Lama is held to a much higher standard or say level of expectation, both pro and con, than any other Buddhist teacher. People have seen him in Apple ads so they think that he must be this wonderfully hip and exotic guy. The truth is that he is a decent human being caught in a singular and complex position both politically and spiritually, who has one foot in the modern world and another foot in a culture that just rose out of the 14th century fifty years ago and sometimes it does not make for a good mix.

Advocatus D.'s picture

To me, believing that violence is NEVER justified feels like clinging to an absolute.

If you subscribe to the idea that not acting to the best of your ability in order to prevent an atrocity is itself an immoral, then I can imagine times when you would be compelled to act through violent means. I believe that nonviolent action is almost always the best course of action for producing the most good in the long-term, there is that nagging "almost." Every once in a while, it seems like real compassion necessitates an act of violence.

For me, the problem seems to be knowing when it is necessary to act through violence. I really like the idea that one must be spiritually skilled in order to take violent action.

I'm interested in hearing some other points of view.