The loud, repetitious chant, “False Dalai Lama, stop lying,” could be heard several blocks away from Regions Field, where the Dalai Lama spoke Sunday afternoon.
Outside the stadium, about 300 people gathered to protest His Holiness and what they characterized as his role behind the “segregation and persecution of the Shugden people.” The protestors also accused him of violating human rights and instigating violence based on religious beliefs.
Ann Medlock is a soft-spoken Buddhist with a shaved head and a big smile. Medlock is a practitioner of Dorje Shudgen, a sect of Buddhism, who traveled from Columbia, South Carolina to protest Sunday’s event. Hundreds more traveled from all over to speak out against the Dalai Lama’s “persecution” of those who practice Shugden Buddhism.
In 1996, the Dalai Lama officially condemned the worship of Dorje Shugden in Tibet. Since then many establishments in Tibet have banned Shugden practitioners. Although Shugden is a sect of Buddhism, and they follow Buddhist teachings, they also worship a protector deity, Dorje Shugden, whom traditional Buddhists regard as a false spirit according to Shugden practitioners. Supporters of Shugden Buddhism say this condemnation from the Dalai Lama essentially created the same kind of segregation that defined Birmingham for generations.
“It’s a simple thing really. It’s institutionalized religious segregation,” Medlock said. In Tibet, Shugden practitioners are turned away from hospitals, restaurants and many other establishments based on their religious beliefs, she said.
Opponents of Dorje Shugden claim it is “devil worship” and relies more on worshiping the spirit as opposed to traditional Buddhist teachings.
Shugdens, like Medlock, argue the issue is not with their beliefs, but rather the fact “millions of people” are being ostracized and looked down upon by someone who is a worldwide symbol of tolerance and unity.
“The Dalai Lama is supposed to be the preeminent symbol of religious tolerance, but he authorized segregation in Tibet. There is a sign on the gate to his palace that says, ‘Anyone, man or woman, who worships Dholgyal or has connection with devotees of Dholgyal, please do not contact the settlement palace of His Holiness,’” Medlock said.
“Dholgyal,” she said, is a religious slur for those who practice Dorje Shugden. “Just imagine if that word on his gate was replaced with Jew or Muslim. Does that seem like religious tolerance to you?” Medlock asked.
Across the pond at Railroad Park, supporters of the Dalai Lama gathered. Tibetan and American flags both flew as they sat peacefully by the edge of the pond.
What did they think of the protestors calling their spiritual leader a “False Dalai Lama” and a hypocrite? Dralha Tenkyong, a Dalai Lama supporter, said that it’s sad to see people protesting someone who teaches the fundamentals of human kindness.
“We don’t worship the spirit like they do. They are worshiping the devil,” Tenkyong said, flashing a gold front tooth. “We just don’t want them mixed with us because it goes against our own belief. They are saying His Holiness should accept their religion with ours. And I just don’t think that’s right. We don’t worship the spirit.”
Jigme Ritzekura, a Dalai Lama supporter, echoed Tenkyong’s sentiment about Shugden practitioners worshiping a false spirit. “They just go against the basic principles of what we practice. And His Holiness discouraged it. He never banned it. They are saying that he banned it. He actually has spoken about how he practiced [Shugden] for a little bit — mostly out of ignorance, he admits. And then after that, he said it’s just not right.”
At first glance, Len Foley, a spokesperson for the International Shugden Community, does not appear to be a typical Dorje Shudgen devotee. Unlike the Shugden who dress in robes and have shaved heads, Foley is dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a blue tie. The business owner from California said that he has been practicing Dorje Shugden for more than 15 years now.
“It’s not that people can’t go into a restaurant or a hospital because of their beliefs, it’s the fact that they are being abused. There have been instances in Tibet of mobs attacking people because they are Shugden practitioners,” Foley explained.
“What’s really horrible is it is dividing communities,” he continued. “The Tibetan exile government won’t issue travel visas to Shugdens, so these people are essentially stuck. They can’t do anything. To get a visa, the first question they ask is ‘Are you a Shugden?’ If you say yes, they won’t issue you a visa. In fact a lot of Tibetans here had to lie just so they could travel here.”
Foley said that Shugden Buddhism is a mainstream practice that “has been around for four hundred years,” noting that the Dalai Lama himself used to be involved with the Shugden faith. “For whatever reason the Dalai Lama doesn’t like this particular practice anymore. He used to just say, ‘I don’t like this practice’ and we said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, you’re entitled to your opinion.’ But in 1996 he started this ruthless campaign against us.”
Foley said he didn’t understand the reasons behind the “ruthless campaign.” The Dalai Lama “has said publically it harms his health and harms the health of Tibetans. But that would be like someone going up to a Catholic and saying ‘You reciting a prayer gives me a migraine.’ But that just doesn’t make sense,” Foley said.
“For the Dalai Lama,” he continued, “because he is a political figure, and has so much political power on top of being a spiritual leader, mixing those two things together — it incites this kind of craziness in the people who follow him and they blindly have this praised devotion towards him. And they think anything or anyone that hurts the Dalai Lama, we have to hurt those people.”
Back across the pond with the Dalai Lama supporters, there was no outward show of violence or hatred towards the hundreds of Shugden, who, after a brief lull, had started chanting “False Dalai Lama” again.
Tenkyong contended that there is no segregation in Tibet between the two sects of Buddhism. “How did they all come here from Tibet if they aren’t allowed visas?” he asked. “His Holiness discourages them, but he has not banned them from anything.”
Like several other Dalai Lama supporters, Tenkyong postulated that the Chinese government was paying the protestors to be there in order to make the Dalai Lama look foolish. In one instance, Tenkyong said, at an event where the Dalai Lama spoke in Atlanta, “They dressed homeless [people] as monks and made them protest against His Holiness.”
Foley laughed at this accusation. “Okay, then, where is my pay stub? Who is signing my check?” he asked.
Medlock also wholeheartedly disagreed with that assumption. “We are all here because we are passionate about this cause. We paid out of our own pockets to be here, to be the voice for our people. Nobody is paying us.”
Sonam Lama is a Shugden devotee who is originally from Tibet. Since relocating to Massachusetts several years ago, he began work as a stone mason. He says that he has protested several events that the Dalai Lama has attended, but his work and financial constraints keep him from attending most of them.
According to Lama, there is religious segregation happening in Tibet because of the Dalai Lama’s condemnation of the Shugden people. “I feel bad,” he said. “This segregation has destroyed the Tibetan community and its unity. Not only is it the segregation, but also the Shugdens who are targets of violence,” he said, noting a recent incident where a Shugden was stabbed because of his faith.
Lama and other Shugden protestors questioned why the Dalai Lama won’t end the segregation by “simply signing a piece of paper.” But Lama did say that he believes the Dalai Lama is “spoiled” and doesn’t realize the pain he is causing, or else he would end the persecution against Shugdens.
“From the time he was two years old until now, he has been told, basically, he is God. And for some reason he became very angry with the Shugden and said as long as he lives he will not allow them to practice in Tibet,” Lama said.
Rebecca Gauthier said she traveled from California to protest the Dalai Lama in Birmingham. Gauthier has been attending Shugden protests since 1996 because she believes she can be a voice for “millions of people” who are unable to speak out against the Dalai Lama.
Gauthier said it’s both “sad and ironic” that the Dalai Lama would be speaking in Birmingham in commemoration of human and civil rights. “He is the antithesis of those things,” she said.
“We can come out here and protest, then go buy dinner at Publix. Millions of people are unable to do that, unable to speak out against him for fear of what might happen to them,” she said. “If we have to do this for another 20 years, just until something changes, then that is what we will do.”