News & Politics

Hundreds Gather at National Cathedral to Protest Dalai Lama

The demonstration was in opposition to his ban on a strain of Tibetan Buddhism.

Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

As a persecuted spiritual leader, Nobel laureate, and general espouser of peace and reconciliation, the Dalai Lama is usually welcomed, in this country at least, by adoring crowds. Not today. A speech by the Buddhist leader at the Washington National Cathedral about “building a more compassionate and peaceful world” brought out several hundred protesters calling the Dalai Lama an oppressor, for banning a strain of Tibetan Buddhism.

“He lies all the time,” says Yangte Rinpoche, a Tibetan national who follows the Shugden branch of Buddhism, which worships a deity considered to be a “Dharma protector.”

The Shugden school was banned by the Dalai Lama’s predecessor, a policy he continued when he rose to the position. But members of the Shugden community accuse the Dalai Lama of turning his back on something he himself practiced for decades. The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhists.

The ban, says Rinpoche, makes life difficult for followers in Tibet, including limiting hospital access.

“He’s crazy,” Rinpoche says while leading a mostly American crowd in chanting, “Religious freedom.”

Besides chanting and slowing traffic on Wisconsin Avenue, Northwest, the demonstrators passed out pamphlets calling the Dalai Lama “the worst dictator in this modern day.”

The reason for the Shugden ban is a murky brand of Himalayan inside baseball, but the Dalai Lama has made statements in the past that it is harmful to his health.

According to Choma Ostheimer, a Shugden practitioner from San Francisco who, like many in today’s crowd, has chased the Dalai Lama on his current US tour, the Dalai Lama’s claims about his health don’t make sense.

“He’s older than most Tibetans by ten years,” Ostheimer says.

The average life expectancy for Tibetan males is 67 years. The Dalai Lama is 77.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.