The Dalai Lama, one of the world's most iconic figures and a symbol for world peace, is visiting the UK this week. While many are due to gather at his talks in London on 19 and 20 September, not everyone will be welcoming His Holiness with open arms.
The International Shugden Community (ISC) has organised protests against the Dalai Lama during his visit to Cambridge on 16 and 17 September and is anticipating a crowd of hundreds. A similar protest was organised in June 2014, with the spiritual leader being greeted by 600 protesters as he opened a community centre in Aldershot, Hampshire.
Who is the ISC?
The ISC describes itself as an umbrella organisation that fights for the rights of four million Shugden Buddhists worldwide. It claims the Dalai Lama has discriminated against it by preventing its members from being able to practise their worshipping freely. The group is demanding that the Dalai Lama write to Tibetan communities throughout the world calling on individuals and communities to "completely stop all discrimination against the practice of Shugden and its practitioners".
What do the Shugdens believe and why does the Dalai Lama believe something different?
Shugden Buddhists worship Dorje Shugden, a deity associated with the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, which has origins in the lifetime of the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682). Dr John Powers, a specialist in Asian religions with a focus on Buddhism in India and Tibet, says that after the violent death of a rival of the Dalai Lama, Drakpa Gyaltsen (1618-1655), the Dalai Lama began to be haunted by the spirit of his enemy. The spirit became known as the Dorje Shugden and became a Gelugpa protector.
"It is associated with sectarianism and is viewed as a malevolent force by members of the other orders," Powers said. "Because of its associations with sectarianism and in light of the need for unity among the Tibetan refugee community, the current Dalai Lama has urged Tibetans to cease propitiating Shugden."
The Dalai Lama has claimed to have had a dream where the Shugden was attacking Pehar, the main protector deity of the Dalai Lamas. Other such events have led the Dalai Lama to believe the Shugden is working to kill him. Powers says he has also spoken to members of other orders who are also deeply afraid of Shugden and believe it wishes them harm.
Some were initially reluctant to follow the Dalai Lama's orders to halt worshipping of the Shugden as they had begun the practice of Shugden worship with their root Lamas. However, over time, several prominent Gelukpas began to publicly support the Dalai Lama's position and today, most accept the shunning of the worshipping of Dorje Shugden.
However, Shugden worshippers believe this is a traditional Gelugpa practice that was taught and practised by prominent figures of the tradition. Therefore, some still continue to do so to this day.
Why are they protesting against the Dalai Lama?
A spokesperson for the International Shugden Community alleged the Dalai Lama was responsible for spreading "religious hatred" and that Shugden worshippers felt "absolutely excluded and ostracised" due to his actions.
ISC says Shugden worshippers have been asked to cease their practice by the Dalai Lama and have often been asked not to attend his religious rituals due to his fear of the practice threatening his life. Due to the Dalai Lama's worldwide support, many have followed his lead and strayed away from the faith and those who practise it. Most Gelugpa monasteries have now renounced it and monks who wish to continue with it are often asked to leave.
ISC claims it has tried to start a dialogue with the Dalai Lama for 20 years, with no response until July. However, the meeting resulted in "just another criticism of Shugdens".
Powers speaks of his visits to Shugden monasteries in Tibet, saying his tour guide would not go any closer than a kilometre away and said locals also shun the monasteries. He pointed out that while most Tibetan monasteries are full of people, the Shugden monasteries he visited had high walls, spiked metal fences, and no visitors – just a few monks. "My tour guide clearly saw Shugden practice as something distasteful," he said.
Shugden worshippers believe the animosity created towards them is a direct result of the Dalai Lama's actions and are demanding he fixes the situation by releasing one clear statement confirming he does not support the alienation of Shugden worshippers.
What are Dalai Lama's defendants saying about it?
Many Tibetans believe the International Shugden Community is funded by the Chinese government to undermine the Dalai Lama. Kate Saunders, from the International Campaign for Tibet, described the group's actions against the Dalai Lama as "a political agenda which is clearly unsuccessful given the Dalai Lama's global popularity and influence".
She said: "The very vocal protests by this group, which compares the Dalai Lama to Hitler, creates distress among many Tibetans and British people who are turning out to give His Holiness a warm welcome this week in the UK."
The International Campaign for Tibet maintains that no established human rights group has confirmed any of the ISC's claims of international human rights abuses by the Dalai Lama or the Central Tibetan Administration.