Are Buddhsist Racist

Read my one & only interview in the New Statesman

What is Racism?


Race can be defined as:

"A classification system used to categorise humans into distinct populations or groups by anatomical, cultural, ethnic, genetic, geographical, historical, linguistic, religious, and/or social affiliation.”


Racism can be defined as:

“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”


When a group of people are labeled according to a certain religious belief or affiliation and their access to public services, jobs, livelihoods and social freedoms are denied or restricted on the basis of this belief or affiliation this is racism.

Columbia University Professor Confirms the Ban Exists


If you have been watching the events of the Dalai Lama's fall tour of the US unfold you will have been witness to the key arguments on both sides of the Dorje Shugden debate played out in the media. On one side the protesters claim that a ban on Dorje Shugden practice exists, on the other side the Dalai Lama and his government deny it exists.

The media and the public are caught in the middle - they don't want to say the Dalai Lama is lying, but they can't ignore the size and strength of the protests.

Evidence is presented in the form of photographs detailing the discrimination, statements issued by the Tibetan authorities, and first hand accounts. However the Dalai Lama and his officials remain steadfast in their assertion - no ban exists, the Dalai Lama can't ban anything, he has only given advice and people are free to choose.

So the media turn to independent experts for clarification and discover that finding an independent expert is like the proverbial needle in the haystack. Professor Robert Thurman is usually espoused as the leading expert in the US, however his recent involvement in the LamaGate scandal has destroyed any credibility or semblance of independence he once had.

This was further compounded by Thurman's relentless portrayal of protesters as Chinese funded agitators set on undermining the Dalai Lama's reputation. When the US media stopped paying attention to him, he used all of his influence at the Huffington Post to get three highly inaccurate and inflammatory "articles" printed to try and promote this agenda. Instead it further weakened any remaining credibility he had.

As I was preparing an article examining this aspect of the coverage I reached out to Columbia University for comment, and rather than receiving a reply from the Associate VP of Media Relations, Robert Hornsby, I instead received a lengthy email from Dr. Robert Barnett.


Dr. Robert Barnett

Dr. Barnett is the founder and director of Columbia's Modern Tibet Studies Program, which is part of their Weatherhead East Asian Institute. It is the only program in the West dedicated to Modern Tibetan Studies and he is the only researcher in that field who focuses on contemporary politics. In this respect he is possibly the most qualified academic in the west to be able to comment on the existence or non-existence of the ban on Dorje Shugden.

What he said to me has such bearing on the protests and is so overwhelmingly in the public interest I felt there was no choice but to share it. In his address to me he stated:

"As you know, the exile authorities do not accept that there is a ban on Dorje Shugden practice...and does not accept that there is discrimination towards Dorje Shugden practitioners within the exile view is the opposite on both these questions."

This was the first time I had encountered an academic with such close ties to the leaders of the Tibetan exile community being so outspoken. Yet here he was confirming categorically, without any doubt, that in his professional opinion there is a ban and there is discrimination.

Whilst he is known to disagree with the protesters on their other claims regarding the qualifications of the Dalai Lama, he agrees with them on the most fundamental and key aspect of the controversy - the ban and subsequent discrimination exists.


What does this mean?

In terms of any immediate change in the position of the Dalai Lama and his government this will mean very little. They will no doubt continue to claim that there isn't a ban and that there is only advice. However, for any independent observers of this controversy the conclusion is alarmingly clear - the protesters are correct in their claims of a ban and discrimination.

It also brings into question what the Dalai Lama will now do in the longer term. He is scheduled to visit Switzerland and Australia in 2015 under the same guise of promoting religious tolerance and understanding. Yet he clearly appears to be endorsing a religious ban and discrimination within the exile community of Tibetans.

Anyone with the vaguest grasp of the power structure of the exile community knows that it would only take a simple statement from him to bring this ban and discrimination to an end. So the question arises, why does he do nothing to stop this?

It is a question that will continue to follow him throughout his many international appearances as no doubt will his entourage of protesters. Until the Dalai Lama can bring this ban and discrimination to an end he will always appear to be a contradictory phenomena.

He will remain someone who promotes inter-religious harmony whilst simultaneously promoting a religious ban and discrimination. The very antithesis of a simple, humble monk.



Since this article was published on Nov 6th 2014, Dr. Barnett has publicly claimed that his comments have been "taken out of context", and that they were part of a private letter. He goes on to state that this was deliberately done by myself to to provide a misleading presentation of the situation.

I am uncertain as to Dr. Barnett's precise reasons for these claims, however he is in touch with the Tibetan exile leadership and his work depends to a significant degree on their support and co-operation. It is my opinion that since I published his comments about the ban he has come under pressure to distance himself from them or to claim that they are misrepresented.

Dr. Barnett made comments to PRI prior to my interaction with him and in those comments he also acknowledged that discrimination against Dorje Shugden Buddhists exists in the exile community. It is therefore quite clear that his comments to both PRI and myself represent his awareness that the ban and discrimination exists.

The interaction between Dr. Barnett and myself was not within a "private letter". His email to me was in response to a formal request for comment I had made to Columbia University's associate VP of media relations, Robert Hornsby. I had expected a formal reply from Mr Hornsby on behalf of Columbia University, instead I received an email from Dr. Barnett.

Although Dr. Barnett had stated these were "off the record" I took into account the fact that he had previously worked as a journalist for the BBC and would understand clearly that "off the record" is at the discretion of the journalist to whom the comments are made.

In deciding to publish an extract of his comments I considered his wishes and balanced these with his background in journalism, his understanding that he was replying to a formal request for comment to a journalist, and the public interest issues at stake given that the ban and discrimination are directly causing suffering to a minority group who are poorly represented in the media.

I also wrote to Dr. Barnett to advise him that I had published an extract of his comments and explained my reasons for so doing. It is unfortunate now that he has decided to accuse me of misrepresenting his comments in a deliberate attempt to misinform the public.

As such I am left with no option other than to publish the entire contents of his email to me so that readers are able to judge for themselves whether his comments have been, "deliberately presented out of context and gave a highly misleading impression of the situation."


Dr. Barnett's reply to a formal request for comment

5th November 2014

Dear "Indy Hack"


I understand you have been researching my comments to the media about the Dorje Shugden group, arguing that my position is identical to that of the exile Tibetan government/administration.

It is normal to contact a speaker or source directly to ask for comments before making allegations against them. 

Nevertheless I will make some anyway.

My position is directly against the exile government/administration on some issues (such as self-immolations, treatment of critics, certain diplomatic strategies, certain claims made against China, and many other matters) and less critical of them on other issues.  

The press tends to print only a tiny percentage of remarks I and others make to them during interviews, which often last an hour or more. Their articles almost always focus on remarks that are critical of China, rather than those that are critical of the exile Tibetans. As a result the range of my views is not always fully represented in those articles. This is to be expected, since China is powerful and important, whereas the exiles are weak and have a minor role in world affairs. 

On your personal issue, I have been directly critical of the exile position, as you should have been able to detect from close reading of the articles. As you know, the exile authorities do not accept that there is a ban on Dorje Shugden practice in certain quarters, and does not accept that there is discrimination towards Dorje Shugden practitioners within the exile community.  If you had read the PRI article, you will have noticed that my view is the opposite on both these questions. I'm surprised you missed this; the exile leaders certainly did not. (On a point of detail, I did not use the word "persecution", which was added by the journalist, but he was summarizing my remarks about the existence of discriminatory practices, for which I think the word harassment is more appropriate.)

As you will know well, the Dorje Shugden protesters have three main types of accusation. One concerns discriminatory practices or harassment of Dorje Shugden practitioners within the exile community. Another concerns the right of the Dalai Lama to make a ruling on the religious standing of the Dorje Shugden worship. A third concerns the claim of the Dorje Shugden movement that the Dalai Lama is a fake and is actually a Muslim.  My view on the first differs totally from the view of the exiles. My view on the second broadly concurs with their view that a religious leader has the right to make religious judgments regarding members of his or her community. My view of the third is that it is wholly without merit and reflects an obvious political agenda on the part of a small faction within the Gelugpa community. I do not know why the Shugden protesters would want to get involved in that fight.

As for why I feature often in the press on these issues, you will of course be aware that I run the only program in the West that is dedicated to Modern Tibetan Studies. I am probably also the only researcher within that field, large though it is, who focuses on contemporary politics. So, unfortunate thought it might be, the press tend to send their enquiries here. In any case, many other researchers do not wish to speak to the press, for various reasons, among which is the fact that they would probably be banned from China, (or from India if they were to criticize India on core issues).

Robert Barnett


Click here to read the follow-up article: A ban in Certain Quarters


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