Doctrinal spat puts Bhutan’s “Happiness Index” at risk
An escalating conflict within Bhutan’s Buddhist community could risk depressing its much vaunted “Gross National Happiness Index”. With Buddhists making up about 75% of the population, the controversy has pitted supporters of an ancient deity against vocal opponents in what some observers claim is an artificial conflict stirred by opaque external forces.
Central to the dispute is the devotion of a section of Bhutan’s Buddhist community to Dorje Shugden, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist protector deity (Dharmapala) who has already been the focus of discrimination in the communities of Tibetan exiles in northern India and elsewhere. The Dalai Lama has spoken against the practice, effectively ostracising Shugden worship in the Tibetan exile communities, despite having once been a follower of the deity himself.
While Tibet’s spiritual leader has suggested that devotion to the deity fosters divisions among the exile Tibetan community, opponents counter that freedom of worship is enshrined in the constitution of the Central Tibetan Authority (CTA) — the Tibetan government in exile — and that the Dalai Lama’s de facto ban on Shugden devotion has itself created and accentuated divisions in the community.
In recent history, these divisions have certainly been exploited by external forces in their efforts to gain some regional sway: the West has typically seen support for the exiled Tibetans as an expression of opposition to China’s hold on the Tibet Autonomous region, and has often, openly and covertly, supported the Dalai Lama’s goals, both real and purported, in order to bolster its own geopolitical influence in Asia. It is no secret that the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed the failed 1959 uprising against China in occupied Tibet which led to the Dalai Lama’s exile, and that both the spiritual leader’s brothers were paid CIA operatives.
On the other side, China’s political powers become have tended to verge on apoplexy at any suggestion that Tibet should have more autonomy or claim its independence, and they have sought to use the controversy over Shugden devotion to China’s own ends in order to undermine the global influence of the Dalai Lama.
Observers from across the Buddhist community have said this proxy battle has spilled over, and appears now to be taking hold in several countries in the region, including Bhutan.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny mountain nation nestling in the Himalayas between two giant neighbours, the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and India, prides itself on being the first nation in the world to use “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of national development, considering economic measures alone as an insufficient yardstick of successful policy. Visitors have reported, amazed, that the majority of Bhutan’s population genuinely appears to prize peace and harmony over material wealth and that in public policy, ecological considerations supersede commercial ones.
Bhutan’s constitution is largely based on the Buddhist faith and three quarters of the population are Buddhists, the majority descended from Tibetan migrants. The remainder are mainly Hindis of Nepalese origin. An absolute monarchy for much of its history, it was transformed into a constitutional monarchy in 2008 by its current sovereign, King Wangchuk, who thereby put a limit on his own power.
Though bordered by larger and infinitely more powerful neighbours, Bhutan, whose population is just 800,000, has never in its history been colonised, despite several attempts by Tibet over the centuries. While the British did exert some influence over the country through much of the colonial period, Bhutan has been largely free from external interference over the last centuries.
It appears that some Tibetans have never given up hopes for gaining control over Bhutan, even following exile from their own country. In fact in 1974, Bhutan’s government said it had discovered a series of plots to kill its then monarch that had been orchestrated by a group of Tibetans taking their orders from the Tibetan government in exile — the CTA — which had been based in northern India since the 1959 flight from occupied Tibet. It said the plot, allegedly headed by the Dalai Lama’s elder brother Gyalo Thondup, was in effect just the latest Tibetan attempt to take control of Bhutan.
It was the hope of heading off what were perceived as ongoing CTA efforts to destabilise Bhutan that prompted its government, in 1979, to require the minority Tibetan population to either become citizens of Bhutan or return to China-controlled Tibet. Although the CTA objected, about a third of the 6–7000 Tibetans in Bhutan at the time opted for citizenship, while the remainder resettled in India under CTA rule.
However, it would appear that CTA designs to gain a foothold in Bhutan did not end there, and that Tibet’s leaders in exile have continued to seek to destabilise the country in order to gain political influence there, introducing Shugden devotion as one specific bone of contention.
The Dalai Lama and others have said their antipathy towards the deity stems partly from the idea that Dorje Shugden, as protector of the Gelug tradition — the largest of Tibet’s four principal Buddhist traditions — promotes divisions among Buddhists.
Shugden adherents say devotion to Dorje Shugden is a long and established tradition in Bhutan, and that this is backed up by recently-examined texts written some two hundred years ago by Zhabdrung Jigme Norbu, recognised as the reincarnation of the lama who founded Bhutan, and by Drubwang Tenzin Zangpo, an earlier scholar who is still highly regarded among Bhutan’s Buddhists. By kowtowing to the CTA’s agenda, they say, Bhutan has to an extent abandoned its own traditions.
Furthermore, it would appear that the texts written by Zhabdrung Jigme Norbu and Drubwang Tenzin Zangpo refute claims that Dorje Shugden is a sectarian deity.
Even so, under apparent external pressure, including from the CTA, Bhutan’s government saw no other option than to issue an edict against Shugden devotion. As public debate on social media rages on, there are some opinions that Bhutan has taken steps to marginalise Shugden worship because it remains wary of CTA efforts to exert influence in the country and it is likely that the Shugden ban was in effect a pre-emptive step designed to eliminate the CTA’s ability to create problems by seeking to create a schism within the country.
A wave of acrimony followed the edict, as Shugden supporters protesting the undemocratic way their rights had been confiscated were met by an army of online trolls pushing the Dharamsala line. Not surprisingly, a prime target is Malaysian-based Tsem Tulku Rinpoche who posted a teaching on Bhutan’s Dorje Shugden legacy in his blog . Dharamsala’s corruption of Bhutan’s spiritual integrity is reflected in the polemic attacks on Tsem Tulku carried out by what appears to be members of Bhutan’s monastic community. This is reminiscent of the CTA’s use of Tibetan monasteries to declare what is equivalent to jihads on Shugden practitioners. One Bhutanese Buddhist nun publicly called for Tsem Tulku’s early demise, while another monk brazenly declared having sent afflictive black magic to him. While these may be isolated incidences, it does reveal that the Dharamsala’s instructions have found enforcers in Bhutan, willing to breach Bhutan’s law to adminsiter the Dalai Lama’s edicts. This was clearly an unintended consequence, as the conflict risks damaging Bhutan’s Happiness Index, an important tool for the country to promote its “high quality tourism” industry.
Said one Delhi-based Shugden devotee, escalating attacks on the Shugden practice indicate that the peaceful haven of Bhutan has been in propaganda pushed by Dharamsala — the home of the CTA — allowing political propaganda to corrupt Buddhist spirituality. “It’s a mentality aligned with the philosophy of Myanmar Buddhists — that Buddhism and nationalism go hand in hand,” he said. “It’s a concept introduced and promulgated by the CIA in many of its proxy fights in the south-east Asian region in their efforts to co-opt spiritual Buddhism.” A tactic, he said, that the CTA in Dharamsala has willingly adopted. Bhutan’s Happiness index is currently paying the price.