Sectarianism in the UK:
'My Bigotry is Purer than Yours'

Some years ago, in 1999, at an audience for Europe-based Tibetans with the Dalai Lama at the Wembley Conference Centre, I was struck by the Dalai Lama's rather curt tone toward his fellow countrymen when he chastised them for speaking of themselves as Gelugpas, Sakyapas, Nyingmapas or Kagyupas (the main sects of Tibetan Buddhism), Such a narrow vision of oneself, he said, was destructive to  Dharma and to the Tibetan cause.

 Clearly, this form of destructive thinking is not new among Tibetans. It is said that the 19th century Nyingma master Patrul Rinpoche would answer the question, 'Which tradition do you follow?' with the retort, 'The Buddha's tradition".Irony certainly wasn't lost on him.

A rare photo of the incomparable Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887)

Tibetan Sectarianism

In fact, throughout Tibetan history, religion and sectarianism have been inextricably, almost indistinguishably linked, ever since (and probably before) the different sects came into existence. Indeed the centuries following the dark age of the non-Buddhist king, Langdarma, were like a long-running, 'no holds barred' bare knuckle fight between them, up until the 17th century, when the Great Fifth Dalai Lama 'imposed peace and unity' by ordering his Mongol troops to attack Kagyu followers, and to "annihilate any  traces of them, even their names.” and to make their "children and grandchildren like eggs smashed against  rocks".  Nice!

Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682)
The fun didnt stop there however, and by the mid 1930s, under the instruction of Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo and accompanied by his pet demon Shugden, enthusiastic (that's a nice word for 'fundamentalist zealot') Gelug followers ran rampage in Nyingma, Kagyu and even Bonpo monasteries , destroying their statues, sacred images and scriptures alike. All in the name of 'purity'.

Pabongka, 'He who ate the momos', Gelug master and infamous demon worshipper
And so it was that, when the Chinese entered Eastern Tibet in the early 50s, they met with hardly any resistance at all from the overwhelmingly non-Gelug populus. As far as these were concerned, it was high time for a change in who held the power in Lhasa. Their contempt was mirrored by those Gelugpas who were based in the East and who, on receiving instructions from the 14th Dalai Lama to perform wrathful invocations of Padmasambhava, patron saint of both Tibet and the Nyingma tradition so as to dispel Chinese invaders,   refused to perform the rituals because they were 'not Gelug'. Even the Tibetan Kashag, its parliament composed solely of Gelug followers, decided against implementing the advice of the great non-sectarian master Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro for dispelling the invaders since it entailed the veneration of a particular form of Guru Padmasambhava.
Guru Padmasambhava in the posture known as "Nangsi Zilnon" or "Complete Victorious Triumph over all Illusory Appearances".
Thus it was that the demon of sectarianism, along with its friends arrogance and bigotry, led directly to the downfall of Tibet. Indeed, it would be correct to say that the divisions between the sectarian followers of the different sects (that's not all of them, by the way) were responsible, to a significant degree, for the downfall of that nation as well as for all of the suffering and misery we see there today. Little wonder then, that the Chinese are pouring significant funds into the construction of Shugden temples in Tibet, India and Taiwan, all  in order to maintain the current status quo.

The Chinese flag flies over the Potala

Tibetan Buddhist Sectarianism in the West: The Cancer Spreads

 Based on these experiences, you would think that Tibetans and Western, Tibetan Buddhist converts, would have learned a valuable lesson with regard to the arrogance and bigotry that caused the downfall of the motherland. But you'd be wrong.

My first experience of this was, coincidentally, when I first encountered the then Gelug, FPMT teacher,  Kelsang Gyatso  (I dont use the term 'Geshe' or 'Rinpoche' here as the jury is still very much out on both), who taught that the Madhyamaka Prasangika view taught by the founder of the tradition, Tzong Ka Pa, was  'The highest philosophical view taught in Tibet'. Of course, never having been to Tibet in the period before the invasion (I wasnt born), how was I to know any different? Not doubting Kelsang even for a moment (as appears to be the way-'Suspend all judgement, all ye who enter here'), it wasnt long before I began to develop the arrogant, bigoted and ignorant view of myself as a follower of by far the  most superior version of the Buddha's teaching, not duped by the inferior heresies of the Sakyas, Kagyus or Nyingmas, or any of those deluded Theravadin Hinayanists. 
Such sectarian views echoed perfectly the poisonous sentiments of those espoused by bigots of the four sects in pre-invasion Tibet and have already begun to sew the same destructive discord here in the Western Buddhist world, as they did in past in the East. 

However, whereas before the justificatory basis for bigotry was one's sect or philosophical perspective, in the West, this poison has taken on a new guise, that being the tendency, not to view oneself as a follower of the Buddha (as Dza Patrul would no doubt have advised), but instead, to view oneself as a member of any particular Buddhist organization.

I say 'any' because this is a problem for all of us, not just cultish zealots. We may have encountered followers of, for example SGI, the NKT, the FWBO/TBC or Dhammakaya International, who are overwhelmed by the glory of their own, particular party membership but, in fact, this poison of partisan thought goes much further to the point where, I believe, seeing oneself as a member of any particular Buddhist group other than the worldwide, universal Sangha is a destructive poison, both from the perspective of the existence of Buddhism in the West, as well as from that of our own personal development.

Organizational Arrogance: 'The Chosen Few' 

Once we have the concept of 'my organization'  this creates the image of  'other organizations' and, because we are sure we've found the best one (even though we didnt check out any others, but  it must be true because the guru said so, and anyway, everyone else who follows him confirms it) then automatically, the others are worse, inferior, shallow, inauthentic and/or impure. Ive even seen this between different organizations that follow the same lineage of teachings.'Wow, look how f****ed up they are! Arent we just so fortunate to have our teacher; at least he managed to keep things pure!'

Now, all this may  even be true on a relative level, but one has to ask, what does thinking like this have to do with becoming Buddha? I mean, if I squint hard, I can maybe make some sense of it, but isnt this just reinforcing our arrogance and spiritual egotism? When everybody else is so wrong, then arent we just the clever little one who got it right? In fact, isn't thinking like this is a not very subtle manifestation of Spiritual materialism that seemingly spiritual mind which  actually turns the pursuit of religion into an ego building and confusion creating mind game?

Whenever we start to feel  a sense of pride or specialness about our status, whether it be internally, about some state of mind we might have glimpsed or externally, about the people, group or tradition we follow, we are experiencing an aspect of spiritual  ego, not our Buddha nature, because we believe we have found something that makes us different to, better than others. But we arent really that different and we certainly arent that special!

Thinking we're special can have dreadful consequences
And, once we are on the side of purity, we soon begin to fight the good fight, usually by telling everyone else how lost they are or how wrong they've got it. One need only listen to the insane ramblings of NKT followers, especially when theyre wearing their Shugden hats, to see how sad this can be. Remember? The only true followers of Guru Tzong Ka Pa (who didnt practice Shugden), the only true followers of the Gelug , who practice it without mixing it with politics (Or at least I think thats what the placard said?)

The NKT, oh sorry, W$$, gently reinforcing the purity of Buddhism and creating the causes for enlightenment by following their humble guru's instructions and screaming 'liar' at the Dalai Lama (Ed: Does it really work like that?)

But seriously, we dont have to look to the behavior of loud-mouthed bullies and zealots (no offence meant) to see this type of thinking manifest. In fact, such arrogant ideas of spiritual superiority are often at home in our own backyard, among the followers of the supposedly genuine traditions. So what makes us any better (apart from the fact that we dont dine daily with the devil)?
Anyone for entrails?

From an inward-facing perspective, being a member of a community or organization gives one a ready made framework onto which one can project a hierarchy. And, once you have a hierarchy, you can start to imagine who and what you are and exactly where you stand in it. 
'All disciples are equal, but some disciples are more equal than others'

You might be an 'important person', perhaps because you hold an important administrative position or do certain things for a teacher (all sorts of 'things', it seems!). I remember feeling I was something very special, much more important than others, when I got the job of cleaning the faeces from the tail fur of my teacher's dog, for instance.

Either way, whether you achieve the dizzy heights of dog's arse wiper or are just an ordinary beginner, once you are 'in', you have your foot on the first rung of the ladder of ambition: like the chap I knew who told his teacher that one day,he wanted to be 'a lama' (I think Im spelling that right?) Just think, 'One day, you too could be running your own Dharma centre'! Mmmm: cant wait.

The point is, while fulfilling such roles is no doubt of great karmic consequence and importance, and while those who fulfil such roles are deserving of respect (most of the time), feeling that this makes oneself important, or worse, aspiring to be important, is nothing other than ego and has nothing whatsoever to do with Dharma
'Wow! Is that really me?'
Some people even go so far as to push themselves into the teacher's presence at every opportunity,  (even though stalking is illegal in most states) just so that others can observe them basking in the teachers glorious light. Why? Because, if they are near, or more importantly seen to be near spiritual people, clambering around the upper echelons of the imagined charismatic hierarchy, it makes them 'spiritual ' too. 
'The incredible, self-inflating lama', T$em Tulku (Who 'doesnt practice $hugden anymore' honest),  in his latest money-spinning guise, with members of his burgeoning & gullible  groupie army of adoring benefactor$

Click here

& here
Unfortunately though, standing next to the Commander-in-Chief doesnt purify the mind or  grant one any 'powers' (assuming he has any to give); what it really boils down to when it comes to getting enlightened is putting bone to stone, pushing beads, and resting in the nature-there are no short cuts, no freebies and contact highs are nothing more than that: highs. And high turns to low (and being 'in' means one day, youll be 'out')Ouch! 

There are even megalomaniacs who appoint themselves leaders of their own little empires, then instruct naive and gullible disciples to behave in ways which totally contradict the Buddha's intent, all in the name of spreading His (though usually, their) word,  or perhaps in that of purity and 'tradition'. Like fools who believe war is the cause of peace, their followers practice negative actions with the intent of creating 'virtue'.While their disciples book their tickets for a long term stay in the lower realms, these deeply holy men adopt spiritual poses as they bank the proceeds. 
Kelsang Gyatso,  founder of the NKT, puppet master extraordinaire and successful real estate developer
Truth is, seeing oneself as anything more than just an average 'Joe' is a very dangerous game to play in Dharma and Dharma communities and usually means youre cruising for a bruising. According to the current Dalai Lama, even seeing oneself as a 'Buddhist' (for which the Tibetans dont have a word, by the way), is an obstacle to  seeing the sameness of oneself and others,  a fundamental footstep on the path to the development of compassion. How then, can one possibly come closer to truth and enlightenment  while simultaneously seeing oneself as an important member of the spiritual creme de la creme,  a senior officer in the army of the righteous?

In reality, we are all equal in the fact that we are born alone, die alone, and no one experiences our pain but us=that's who we all are and that's our real 'community'. Now, while this might sound a little miserable, you can wipe your tears because it actually provides a sombre sense of solitude which can act as a starting point where one can begin the important task ahead: becoming Buddha for others. If you realize you are on your own and that nobody is going to do it for you, then you also realize that your destiny is in your hands. All you have to do is follow the instructions!
'Decay is inherent in all compounded things, work out your own salvation with diligence'.
Alternatively, you can invest all of your time in proving you are an important person and that your organization is the best. Of course, it wont be of any positive, lasting benefit, and will certainly contribute to divisiveness and the destruction of the Buddha's teaching but, hey, at least it will feed your ego for a lifetime. After all, isnt that the most important thing?

Any cap we wear, any flag we fly, becomes the cause of division and conflict


  1. Good for you! You go on about sectarianism whilst quoting "the incomparable Patrul Rinpoche" (thus revealing your connection with the Nyingma tradition) you then launch into an angry tirade against everything Gelugpa.

    How is this NOT the very sectarianism you seem to be complaining about? Why maintain this sectarian hatred whilst seeming to criticize it? isn't that hypocritical?

    1. Good point indeed. Care ought to be taken by looking into oneself, into one's own mirror. The article could be less dramatically written, too, some adjectives display hard felt emotions of the author. It is a bit like saying I HATE RACISTS while the very notion of hating already makes one into a racist proper, since 'hating racists' equals opposition to any designated group one dislikes and thereby one falls under the very definition oneself.
      The Buddha taught of a balanced and compassionate mind and when one leaves this state of mind, no matter of what one opposes with hatred, Shugden-venerators and who not, one cannot possibly be right.
      It is hard to let go of that critical mind, very hard indeed and till then perhaps better to point out one's own faults than pointing at others...

  2. Actually, this just means you didnt read the article properly. Patrul Rinpoche was a master who respected all four sects and who still is respected by all four-hence 'incomparable'.Patrul was a staunch critic of sectarianism and a descendant of the Rime movement. Compare Pabongka, a sectarian fundamentalist who condemned the other sects and schemed to bring about their destruction-again Patrul was'incomparable'

    Again, what is condemned here is sectarianism, not Gelugpas Thats why it criticizes "the sectarian followers of the different sects (that's not all of them, by the way)" I think perhaps if you read it again, with this in mind, you will see your mistake

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