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Dr Kees Kuiken: "Criticism of the Dalai Lama should be nuanced"

01 July 2009

Last week the Dalai Lama paid a visit to the Netherlands. The visit was pounced on by some media as an opportunity to publish critical pieces about the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, Freek de Jonge in the Volkskrant called the Dalai Lama a ‘dubious figure’ who terrorized the supporters of other movements. Dr Kees Kuiken, religious historian & Chinese teacher, thinks this criticism is unjust.


In order to better understand the Dalai Lama, it’s important to know a bit about the history of the office, explains Kuiken. ‘In the Middle Ages, there were about three Buddhist orders of monks in Tibet. The monasteries of these orders were extremely large and rich. A reform movement started up in the fourteenth century. People thought that the monasteries had become too decadent.’ As a sign of protest, the reformers turned their caps inside out, and entered the history books as the Yellow Hats. The leader of the Yellow Hats is the Dalai Lama. Since that time the Dalai Lama has had significant spiritual authority in Tibet. ‘Since the seventeenth century, he has been recognized by all four of the Tibetan orders.’

Relationship with China

The Tibetan lamas always maintained good contacts with the Chinese emperors. For example, lamas were the court chaplains for the last ruling family, the Manchu emperors. The relationship between the two countries was so good in the Early Middle Ages that Chinese princesses were married to Tibetan rulers. Nevertheless, Tibet was never a Chinese colony in the past, as the Chinese currently maintain. Kuiken: ‘Tibet was always independent territory. That ended in 1950 when China invaded. And now it is a colony, even though China says that Tibet is an autonomous region with self-rule.’

Religion of the people

After the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, Tibetan Buddhism remained a flourishing religion. The theological tradition in this stream of Buddhism is of a very high academic level, explains Kuiken. ‘At the same time, Buddhism in Tibet is a religion of the people. The bridge between these two worlds is formed by the Buddhist concept of upaya, which can be translated as “expedient means”. According to upaya, everyone can be taught Buddhism in his own way. There are phases of enlightenment, and there is a teaching method for each phase.’

Nuanced communication

Kuiken mentions the statement by the Dalai Lama that he came to the Netherlands to sell his smile as an example of upaya. ‘He said that because he is speaking to a wide audience. It is a didactically adapted message. After all, there’s more to Buddhism than happiness. For initiates it is a very strict doctrine.’ Kuiken explains that given the starting point of upaya, the standpoints of the Dalai Lama in different questions are not always clear to everyone. ‘Some people call it opportunism. But it’s exactly this nuanced means of communication that is so important to his position as a spiritual leader. This is how he succeeds in holding the different parties together.’

Dorje Shugden

And then there is the Dorje Shugden affair. Dorje Shugden is a Tibetan god of protection who represents the militant face of the doctrine. ‘He is often depicted in a warlike stance. The story goes that this oracle advised the Dalai Lama to flee to India in 1959.’ Nevertheless, at a certain point in time the Dalai Lama turned away from Dorje Shugden. Particularly under initiates, he has strongly condemned the worship of Dorje Shugden.

Sensible policy

Kuiken thinks that this is a sensible policy, given that Shugden worship appears to contradict the non-violent principles that the Dalai Lama emphasizes. ‘Violent actions do not work, as shown again last year when the Tibetan monks rebelled. Violent opposition is actually embraced by the Chinese as a reason to make Tibet even more Chinese.’ There is also a suspicion that the Chinese government is playing a role in stimulating the Dorje Shugden movement. ‘They want to set the Tibetans against each other. So the Dalai Lama has to move back and forth between the parties as a conciliatory leader.’

Network of illusions

In fact, in Buddhism it doesn’t actually matter whether the Dorje Shugden cult is heresy or not, thinks Kuiken. ‘The orthodox doctrine of Buddhism goes much deeper than whether or not to worship “idols”. The concept of emptiness plays an important role in this. We are caught in a network of illusions, and illusions about illusions. In that light the entire Dorje Shugden affair is irrelevant. It is a bubble that will soon burst. Just like the Dalai Lama, who doesn’t call himself “temporary” leader for nothing.’

Curriculum vitae

Dr Kees Kuiken studied social sciences and general arts at the University of Groningen. He has worked as a copy editor, text writer and since 1982 as a sworn translator, teacher and researcher in Groningen, Hong Kong and Haren. In 2002 he gained a PhD at the University of Groningen with a thesis on an 8th-century Southern Chinese Zen holy man. He taught Indian religions at the same university from 2003 to 2006. He has published history books and articles, a collection of essays and a collection of poems. He has also won a Hendrik de Vries Grant awarded by the City of Groningen and a Wolters-Noordhoff Academy Prize. He is a member of the Religious Symbols working group (University of Groningen), the Fryske Adademy (KNAW), the Medieval Memory research consultation committee (Utrecht University) and the Working Group on Elite History.

Contact details

Dr Kees Kuiken. Telephone: 050-5370068. E-mail: kuiken prosopo.nl

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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