Prominent Buddhists are welcoming the apparent downfall of Tenzin Dhonden, accused of abusing his position as gatekeeper to the Buddhist leader.
Prominent Buddhists in North America are welcoming the apparent downfall of the Dalai Lama’s self-styled “personal emissary of peace”, a Tibetan monk who befriended celebrities and billionaires but has been accused of bullying, celebrity worship and corruption.
The Dalai Lama Trust has replaced Tenzin Dhonden as its executive secretary with a temporary appointment following claims, which the trust has said they are investigating, that Dhonden abused his position as a gatekeeper to the Buddhist leader.
It is not known what the outcome of the trust’s investigation is or whether they have reached any conclusions. Dhonden has vigorously denied the corruption accusation, which was made by a Seattle-based philanthropist. He has not publicly responded to the other allegations.
If permanent, his replacement by the trust would be a severe blow to Dhonden, who from his base in La Jolla, near San Diego, California, built a network of wealthy supporters, including the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the Seagram heiress Sara Bronfman.
The Guardian revealed last month that the 53-year-old had been suspended pending an investigation into allegations from a Seattle-based technology entrepreneur that Dhonden extracted unjustified payments from him between 2005 and 2008, in return for setting up an event with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s personal secretary said the monk had been suspended pending a “conclusion” to the allegations.
Dhonden strongly disputed the allegations and hired a venerable New York legal firm, Patterson Belknap, to defend his reputation and reclaim his position on the trust.
But last week Dhonden’s name disappeared from the trust’s website and a trustee, Tashi Namgyal Khamshitsang, took his place as the organisation’s “acting secretary”.
It is not known in what circumstances he has left his position as secretary of the trust. It has made no public comment about the new appointment or the status of its investigation into Dhonden. The trust and the Dalai Lama’s office did not respond to requests for information for this article. Emails to Dhonden’s attorneys asking about his fate and future plans also went unanswered.
Prominent Buddhists in North America with connections in Dharamsala, the hill town in India which hosts the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetans, have welcomed the trust’s appointment of a new secretary, a decision said to have been taken at a board of trustees meeting on 10 November.
The accusations against Dhonden shone a light on his role as a bridge between Dharamsala and Dalai Lama supporters in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
“I would like to join many others in expressing my deep gratitude to you all for stepping in to protect the precious reputation and legacy of His Holiness through effecting the recent transition of the leadership of the Dalai Lama Trust,” Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator, said in a letter to trustees seen by the Guardian.
Jinpa, a former monk who has translated and edited about a dozen books by the Dalai Lama, wrote that it had been “painful” to see the spiritual leader’s name and legacy snagged by “unnecessary distractions … and discordant messages” which he said reflected “celebrity orientation”.
Jinpa’s letter did not name Dhonden but said that under his stewardship the trust had alienated allies with “embarrassing” and “bullying” behaviour. “Most sadly, the Trust has unfortunately acquired a reputation of being authoritarian, confrontational, petty, and uncaring, characteristics so far removed from His Holiness’ personal ethics.”
In a phone interview Jinpa said the letter had been intended just for trustees but confirmed its contents. The Dalai Lama, who is the trust’s chairman, took a “very firm” stand once alerted to the allegations, he said. “I think his highness was clearly disturbed by the allegations.”
The criticism is a marked contrast to praise for the monk’s “equanimity” and “pure goodness” in a 2015 San Diego Union Tribune profile. The article said he was a diligent emissary for the Dalai Lama.
Other prominent Buddhist figures, however, share Jinpa’s satisfaction at the apparent fall of a monk who grew up in Dharamsala and moved to the US in 1991, where he helped organise celebrity-studded public events and private audiences for wealthy donors during the Dalai Lama’s visits to the US.
“His questionable values, arrogant disposition and objectionable behavior have generated confusion, anxiety and extensive unhappiness for many years, impeding the work of His Holiness in North America and jeopardizing his reputation,” Marty Krasney, director of the San Francisco-based Dalai Lama Fellows, wrote in a letter to the Dalai Lama’s private office, and copied to trust board members, which the Guardian has seen.
Krasney thanked the board for taking action to “protect” the Dalai Lama and to keep his vision and message “untarnished”.
Richard Grace, a Napa vineyard owner who has been friends with the Dalai Lama for more than 20 years, also wrote to the Dalai Lama’s office to welcome the decision.
Grace initiated the push against Dhonden after attending an 80th birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama in 2015 in Anaheim, near Los Angeles, which featured a golden cake, dancers in tight bodysuits and celebrities previously unassociated with Buddhism – “insulting” elements he blamed on the monk.
Krasney and Grace persuaded Daniel Kranzler, a Seattle-based entrepreneur, to meet the Dalai Lama face to face in June and lay out allegations that Dhonden had demanded payments in return for ensuring the spiritual leader appear at a large event which Kranzler hosted in Washington state in 2008.
Dhonden has not responded to requests for comment but vehemently rejected wrongdoing via his attorneys. They said last month that Kranzler’s allegations related to events that “occurred nearly a decade ago, are largely inaccurate and otherwise relate to conduct that is not unlawful, unethical, or even inappropriate”. They added that the allegations were “designed to falsely and unfairly tarnish” Dhonden’s reputation and that any payments he received were for legitimate work.
In a phone interview last week Grace, a former marine, claimed Dhonden loyalists in Dharamsala had insulated the Dalai Lama from complaints and that action was overdue.
A California university administrator who liaised with Dhonden over Dalai Lama events, and requested anonymity, said colleagues gave the monk a coarse nickname for his perceived obsession about inviting celebrities regardless of whether they had any interest in Buddhism or Tibet.
Some critics also blamed Dhonden for organising an event in Albany in 2009 hosted by Nxivm, a controversial self-help organisation that has been compared to a cult, a description adherents reject. The event was initially cancelled after an outcry but then went ahead, giving a misleading impression that the Dalai Lama endorsed Nxivm, according to Dhonden’s detractors.
Leading Nxivm adherents include Sara Bronfman, a wealthy heiress with a longstanding interest in Buddhism whom Dhonden has befriended, according to several sources.
The monk is also close to Pierre Omidyar, the eBay founder, and his wife Pam, travelling in their private jet, visiting their estate in Hawaii and facilitating meetings with the Dalai Lama, according to people who have attended some of the meetings. The couple has a longstanding interest in Buddhism.
Bronfman and the Omidyars did not respond to requests for comment.