Bickering Buddhists

Midwest Enclave, Beset By Factional Strife, Braces for the Arrival of the Dalai Lama

Bloomington, Indiana—Having just had its national profile raised by a hate crime, this small midwestern city is looking forward to a round of positive news coverage a few weeks hence when His Holiness the Dalai Lama— after stopping in New York for a spiritual gathering in Central Park with Richard Gere— arrives here to perform the Kalachakra Initiation, described in local literature as "the most reverent of all Buddhist rituals" devoted to furthering the cause of "peace and harmony."

Just how peaceful and harmonious HH's presence here will be is, however, a subject for speculation among knowledgeable locals. Despite its image as one of the world's most benign religions, Tibetan Buddhism has been in discord for the past few years, thanks to the Dalai Lama's zealous condemnation of Dorje Shugden, a deity he formerly held sacred. Though hardly a spot one would expect to be a flashpoint in a Tibetan Buddhist theological battle, Bloomington is a microcosm of schismatic Buddhism about which His Holiness is reportedly less than pleased.

It so happens that Thomas Canada— husband of an heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, a longtime practicing Buddhist, and the former patron of the local Tibetan Cultural Center (run by Thubten J. Norbu, the Dalai Lama's oldest brother and Canada's former mentor)— has a particular affinity for Dorje Shugden. So much so, in fact, that he's helped to establish a Shugden monastery in town. For his troubles, he's received at least one death threat (he suspects from Buddhists in India), says he's been made to feel unwelcome on land he and his wife gave to the cause of Tibetan Buddhism, and now openly wonders whether money, not spirituality, has more to do with the cultural center he helped build. Thubten Norbu— or Takster Rimpoche, as he's known to some— contends that Canada and Shugden followers are welcome and that the rift between HH and Shugden sectarians is much ado about nothing.

So much for harmony.

At first blush an incongruous location for a Buddhist enclave, Bloomington became part of the Tibetan diaspora in 1965, when then Indiana University president Herman B Wells asked Norbu if he'd be interested in leaving his position as curator of Tibetan artifacts at New York's Museum of Natural History to create a Tibetan studies program in the school's Central Eurasian Studies department. While the program quickly gained an international reputation— it was, after all, one of a kind in American academe— it was also a subject of campus curiosity; some speculated it might have ties to the CIA. (In an interview with the Voice, although Norbu confirmed that he worked with the CIA before coming to IU, he declined to comment on alleged connections between IU's Tibetan studies program and the agency.)

Even without the spook ties, Norbu has been one of Bloomington's more compelling citizens. According to John Knaus's recently released Orphans of the Cold War, in 1950 Norbu, rather than accept the Chinese government's quiet offer to become a puppet ruler of occupied Tibet (provided he'd kill his younger brother), instead warned the Dalai Lama of impending danger, and— after his brother sent him West for his own safety— became one of the most vociferous crusaders for an independent Tibet. According to several current and former associates, it was in the late 1960s that a handful of students sought him out, and asked him to again embrace his clerical identity as Takster Rimpoche— the reincarnation of an enlightened master.

"There weren't that many of us, but we were very serious about it, and some of us did a lot of reading and traveling to further our studies— I spent time in the Moroccan desert with nothing more than a bag of clothes and four books on Tibetan Buddhism," Canada recalls. By the mid '70s, Canada had married Kathy Noyes— a scion of the Lilly family— and they decided to help support Tibetan Buddhism locally as well as globally. To that end, they gave 90 acres of a 1200-acre tract of land they owned to the cause.

Over the next decade, Canada and others worked with Norbu to clear the land, first building a stupa, or shrine, before breaking ground for a cultural center that would serve as a lesser counterpart to Dharmsala, the Indian home of the Tibetan government-in-exile. "The Dalai Lama himself came to Bloomington in 1987 to dedicate the center, and it was amazing— he gave me a blessing and when I looked into his eyes, it was like looking into kaleidoscopes," Canada says. "That experience convinced me he was indeed the incarnation of the compassionate Buddha."

Since 1996, however, the Dalai Lama has, in some respects, been looking a bit less like the epitome of gentleness to Canada and many others. In 1978, he stunned his followers when he decreed that Dorje Shugden, a prominent protector god in his majority Gelugpa order, was not a paladin who kept the meditating masses free of evil spirits but a malevolent wraith. HH didn't press the issue, however, until 1996, when he warned the world's Tibetan Buddhists who pay homage to Shugden that they were effectively excommunicated if their worship of the specter continued.

Beyond claiming that Dorje Shugden worship risks sending Buddhism on a downward spiral into base spirit worship, and does both him and the cause of Tibetan freedom harm, the Dalai Lama hasn't provided much in the way of a practical explanation for his antipathy to Dorje Shugden. Reportedly, however, some of his more spirited followers have committed acts of violence against Shugden monks, and Shugden monks have responded in kind. In a development straight out of a spy novel, Shugden elements last year were rumored to be working with Chinese agents to assassinate HH.

Canada was present at the Tibetan Cultural Center when the Dalai Lama visited here in 1996. "He didn't say anything about Dorje Shugden when he was here, but I started hearing more about the ban from people all over the world, so I drove everyone crazy researching what it was all about for the next nine months," Canada says. While he's come to believe that the ban is rooted in an arcane scriptural murder-mystery that few outside Tibetan Buddhism can began to fathom, Canada says he's more concerned with doing his part to ensure the safety and lineage of Shugden worshippers and monks (who, intriguingly, include the men who planned and executed HH's escape from Tibet in 1959).

In a brief interview with Norbu and his son Jigme, both dismissed the Shugden issue as overblown, drawing parallels between Buddhist and Christian sects to underscore their contention that all faiths are welcome at the Kalachakra— an 11-day, $2 million affair featuring a 5000-capacity air-conditioned tent, vendors, a film festival, and, of course, celebrities. While not appearing pleased at the mention of the local Shugden monastery and taking pains to emphasize their total lack of connection to it, they nonetheless seemed surprised that Canada and others would not feel welcome. However, given that the sign in front of the center reads, in part, "Grounds Closed, Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted" and "Guard Dogs on Premises," one can't help but question just how open and democratic Tibetan Buddhism is today.

For information on the Bloomington Kalachakra (August 17­27), call (812) 334-4156 or visit www.tibetancc.com.

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