Freedom Celebration: Tibet Fest supports endangered tradition

From City Beat
By Gregory Flannery

Kuten Lama, who teaches at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Colerain Township, hosts Tibet Fest this weekend in Clifton.

When the Dalai Lama fled persecution, he found refuge in India. But where do people persecuted by the Dalai Lama go? Cincinnati.

This weekend the monks of Gaden Samdrupling (GSL) Buddhist Monastery will serve Tibetan cuisine, exhibit elaborate hand-painted silks (thangkas) and talk about peace at Tibet Fest, a two-day celebration at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center. Proceeds benefit a spiritual lineage that’s under threat of extinction.

These refugees from a most unlikely oppressor — the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner — have found a home in a most unlikely setting. GSL is less than a mile from the hyper-suburban sprawl of Colerain Avenue, a proximity belied by the quietude that reigns over the 8.5-acre monastery.

Given the pressure the GSL monks have faced, a festival might seem surprising. But that hints at the very point that the monks want to make: You can’t find peace by trying to change your enemies.

“The true enemy is in ourselves,” says Kuten Lama, resident teacher at GSL. “In our delusions is the true enemy. If you want to defeat the enemy, you need to defeat your delusions and anger.”

‘Very hard for us’

Myths about the Dalai Lama abound in the West. He is not, in fact, the head of Buddhism around the world; he isn’t even the head of Tibetan Buddhism. Before the Chinese invasion, he didn’t preside over Shangri-la; Tibet was a feudal society, a place of extreme poverty ruled by a theocracy supported by a wealthy nobility.

While the Dalai Lama smiles beatifically, his policies as head of the Tibetan Government in Exile have suppressed religious freedom.

At issue is a devotional practice the Dalai Lama once followed but has now decided to stamp out. This involves honoring Dorje Shugden, a wisdom Buddha who is an important part of the lineage that GSL Monastery and millions of Tibetans follow.

The Dalai Lama hasn’t simply discouraged honoring Dorje Shugden. Declaring the deity an evil spirit, he’s vowed to crush the tradition.

The Tibetan Government in Exile denies identity cards to Tibetan nationals who refuse to sign oaths renouncing the deity, leaving them unable to travel, hold jobs or receive aid, according to Lisa Farnsworth, a law professor at Indiana University. Monks who hold fast to their loyalty to Dorje Shugden have been expelled from monasteries, she says, and others have been denied food or barred from participating in prayer rituals.

“We’re talking about basic human rights — being able to eat, being able to have housing, (not) having your life threatened,” Farnsworth says. “You can talk about love and compassion all you want, but people are being hurt by the Dalai Lama’s actions.”

The issue attracted attention earlier this summer when a crowd leaving the Dalai Lama’s lecture in New York City started heckling Dorje Shugden followers who held signs saying, “Dalai Lama, Give Us Religious Freedom.” Police officers urged the protesters to leave the scene for their own safety.

“There were 50 police officers there who said, ‘We can’t protect you. You’ve got to get on the buses and get out of here,’ ” Farnsworth says.

Farnsworth is a lay student at Dagom Tensung Ling Monastery in Bloomington, Ind., GSL’s “sister” monastery.

“There was one primary reason why we established our monastery: to preserve our lineage,” Kuten Lama says. “The hardship is because (the Dalai Lama) took our religious freedom, our human rights. But it is very hard for us ordinary persons to explain to the world because he is so powerful and famous and our words are not too important.”

Taming the monkey

The spirituality and culture that GSL will celebrate this weekend at Tibet Fest are rich in color and flavor. The monks prepare the meals, featuring Tibetan vegetables, noodle threads and momos.

“Momos are dumplings with meat or with potatoes and cheese, but it tastes different from the dumplings that you get in Chinese restaurants,” says Jamyang Lama, a monk, translator and teacher at GSL. “They contain secret Tibetan spices and a lot of love.”

The festival includes a photography exhibition documenting a 2007 pilgrimage to Mongolia by monks and students from Cincinnati and Bloomington. The photos of shrines in the Gobi desert, like the prayer room at GSL, capture something of the paradox of Buddhism — a tradition that employs an intricate iconography while holding that all phenomena are essentially empty.

“Tibetan culture is very intricate, very ancient, very colorful and very symbolic,” Jamyang Lama says. “The most important is how art and culture connects with the mind and happiness. When you study the Tibetan culture and heritage, you learn how to cultivate happiness and be kind.”

The festival includes lectures such as “Taming Monkey Mind.”

“‘Monkey mind’ is a metaphor,” Jamyang Lama says. “Our mind is like a monkey, always jumping and striking things. It never sits still. In this lecture, we talk about meditation so everything you do can be more productive and beneficial.”

Tibet Fest is part of a fundraising effort for construction of a new monastery in traditional Tibetan architectural style. Students at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning helped create the concept for the new building.

The expansion bodes well for a lineage experiencing a double persecution.

“We are hoping to build a monastery and heritage center that will be a great asset to Cincinnati,” Jamyang Lama says. “It will be very special for the city because there are few cities in this country that have this kind of presence. There is a growing interest in studying our beliefs and traditions in the community. Therefore our space in the monastery is too small.”


  1. Dear preciousmetal,

    I think it’s great that you are neutral on the issue, yet you still leaving the issue open for discussion and debate on your blog. This is really kind of you. Thank you.

    If the Dalai Lama would lift the ban on Dorje Shugden practice the whole problem could be resolved fairly quickly. But if we just remained silent I don’t think the Dalai Lama would ever lift the ban.

  2. goldenmala: Thanks for your comment. I posted this article because I believe everything should be debated and questioned, no matter who said it.

    I neither back the side that is pro-Shugden, nor do I back His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s approach- I have not done enough research to acquire a belief in either.

    I do believe, however, in the freedom of speech and of religion, so that’s why the article was posted.

    My best to you goldenmala!

  3. Thanks for posting this. Shugden practitioners usually don’t have much of a voice with the media. This article gives these Shugden practitioners a voice.

    The protests of the Western Shugden Society are definately having a positive effect.

    Pressure mounts on the Dalai Lama to solve the problem of religious freedom amongst Tibetan exiles

    Recently, five delegates from the European Tibet Support group came to Dharamasala. They said:

    “For the last few months, Shugden devotees have protested widely. They are alleging that there is no religious freedom in the Tibetan exile community. A lot of world have picked up on this news and people are starting to pay attention to the issue.

    On the other hand, we are fighting for religious freedom in Tibet. When there is a claim of a violation of religious freedom amongst Tibetan exiles, it is difficult for us to do our work.

    Therefore, it would be good if you could solve this problem among yourselves.”

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