Can we have nominated Choeluk MPs?

Norbu Tsering

Norbu Tsering

By Norbu Tsering

TORONTO, Canada, 16 June 2021

Since that momentous day ten years ago when His Holiness the Dalai Lama handed over his political authority, ‘happily and voluntarily’ ending nearly four centuries of Gaden Phodrang rule, to a leader elected directly by the people, there has always been the need to rethink whether it is appropriate to continue to have Choeluk MPs. Monks are supposed to have preferred the life of spirituality to the tumultuous life of the layman. Throwing them into the messy business of parliamentary politics can be a disservice to the Buddha. They can easily become victims to the strange attraction of ego-feeding ambition and self-aggrandizement.

This is what we find has happened to our monk MPs. Because of the way they have sought to hold our democracy hostage, a vast section of our population are disenchanted with them. 

Questions have been raised as to whether it is good for society to let members of the clergy get caught in the whirlwind of politics. We should actually be thinking seriously about keeping the monasteries away from the rough-and-tumble of politics. It can bring disgrace to both the monk community and to the prestige of the Tibetan Buddha Dharma when the monk MPs, chosen only by monks, conduct themselves so ignominiously and recklessly in the Parliament. We shudder when a monk MP stands up to speak to the Parliament. We squirm to guess what angry utterances he will make, and whom he will target. 

Of all the MPs, it is a monk who disparages the Tibetan State Oracle during a parliamentary session televised live to the world. He ridicules the Oracle by wondering who understood the babblings coming out of his throttled neck. And what we remember is His Holiness telling us that if there is anyone who knows the Nechung oracle best, it is him. He has consulted him on many important issues.

Of all the MPs, it is again a monk who declares to the world in the Parliament that he neither believes in the Middle Way, nor has any hope from it, nor does he want to talk about it. It is anybody’s guess as to who he has in mind when he says this. Okay, it is his right to speak in the Parliament freely about any political issue that he regards important. But, the angry way he was condemning the Middle Way does not behoove him as someone who has taken the vow to tread the path of the Buddha.

The bill to remove the three justices was sponsored by the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which is dominated by monks. Yet again, we see all the Choeluk MPs in the group of MPs who refused to take oath from the pro tem Speaker. The pitiable condition of our present Parliament gasping for life is the outcome of the vengeful and unlawful way the justices were removed by Parliament, spearheaded by the monk MPs. 

After the ceremony of the transfer of power from the outgoing Sikyong to the new, presided over by the Supreme Justice Commissioner and blessed by the online presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, most people were expecting a smooth transition from the 16th to the 17th Parliament. What we assumed is that the former Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay would have no problem handing over the reins of power to the new Sikyong, in a ceremony presided over by the Chief Justice Commissioner. But again, all the Choeluk MPs are on the side of MPs who chose not to care a damn for the normal and Charter-prescribed practice of the pro tem Speaker swearing in the new MPs. In no democracy, do we find that new people’s representatives have the choice of taking oath from whomsoever they like. 

The image in our mind of the monk as a calm, humble, soft-spoken, considerate, kind, and forgiving person has been shattered by the more-layman-than-the-layman demeanor of our monk MPs. It is unfortunate that young MP Dorje Tsetan, from whom we have so much expectations, has allowed himself to be used as the spokesman of the never-happy monk MPs who care only for Cholkha politics. SFT has no history of a leader having a streak of partial Cholkha feelings. This is going to do no good to his political career. 

Because he has shocked that large section of people who just do not associate SFT with Cholkha politics even remotely, Dorje Tseten volunteering to lead the group of MPs who have refused to take oath from Charter-prescribed law has given the chance to others to raising unpleasant questions about his integrity. Lhagyari Namgyal Dolker gets votes from her constituency, but does not care for their hopes from her. The youth of our society look up to them as future Tibet-wide leaders. But they seem to be in some hurry to climb up the power hierarchy. There is a revealing English worldly wisdom that says: Hurry makes worry and haste makes waste.

If at all we must have monk representatives in the Parliament because of our nostalgia for the old times when the thousands of monasteries were the center of Tibetan cultural life, and also because monks form a large portion of the exile population, let us have one Choeluk MP from each sect, nominated by the head Lama of the sect. Of course, different Kagyud sub-sects will need to discuss how they will go about nominating their MP. This can become a constant reminder to them that they are, indeed, Choeluk MPs. This may deter them from angrily making irresponsible remarks in the Parliament. What we normally dismiss as ‘Dra-pai Aur-tom’ (monk’s habit of recklessness) can trigger disturbances in the larger society. This is happening. 

We can, then, expect the Choeluk MP to, besides taking part in the general Parliamentary business, talk about the support many monasteries might be needing from CTA. It can be help for improving health care for the monastic community or it can be facilities for improving the monastic educational facilities or it can be help for organizing language classes for the clergy community or it can be help for holding classes for Tibetan history lessons. And, if the monks desire, CTA can help the monasteries organize talks by subject specialists on different spiritual traditions in the world. We have rarely seen the Choeluk MPs, so far, raise in the Parliament issues concerning the interests of the monasteries. 

For those monks with political ambitions, the right to contest elections as a Cholkha MP candidate or even as a Sikyong candidate should be enshrined in the Charter. Of course the monasteries have the authority to bar their monks from contesting elections. This is very different from having monk MPs who represent their religious sects in terms of people’s reaction to what they say or do. If a monk thinks that he has the potential to be another Samdhong Rinpoche, he should get the opportunity not by getting elected by a small section of the society that is supposed not have its hand on the pulse of the political life of the larger society, but by getting elected by the whole of society. 

The problem with the present system of having Choeluk MPs is threefold: There are ten too many; second, they are elected only by monks, whose life we expect to be apolitical; and third and most important, they have a misplaced sense of arrogance rising from their puffed-up self-importance as elected MPs who do not need to worry about what the head Lama of his sect will think of their adventures in the Parliament.

If at all we are not willing to separate the church from the state, let us, at least, make our Choeluk MPs rise in our eyes by getting them nominated by the Head of the sect. This will, surely, have a calming effect. 

If somehow the oath of office taken by the MPs before the picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the book of the Charter is held valid, it may also imply that their argument that the pro tem Speaker’s oath from sacked Chief Justice Commissioner is illegal will also be held valid. This will ensure for us stormy Parliamentary sessions in the next five years. This will be the mother of political intrigues. Whenever the Sikyong rises to speak in the Parliament, a section of MPs, most probably led by the monk MPs will walk out, shouting they do not recognize a Sikyong sworn in by a Chief Justice Commissioner who is unconstitutionally clinging to his job. Oh! how China will lap all this up. God forbid, the present impasse in the constitution of the 17th Parliament comes to this. We have to stop democracy — our proud answer to China’s autocratic rule in Tibet — from becoming a laughingstock. 

About the author

Norbu Tsering worked at Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh, Ladakh, as an English Lecturer, and then at TCV School, Ladakh, as the School Principal. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada.

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