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Department of Home Affairs Rejects Buddhist Monastery’s Application for Revered Abbot’s Visa Saying Abbot is not in Monastic Environment

Date - 05/11/20


5 November 2020

The Department of Home Affairs has rejected Abbot Geshe Lharampa Thupten Rapten as a skilled worker on the grounds that he does not work in a monastic or cloistered environment because of his many dealings with the communities in the Greater Bendigo region and wider Victoria.

The popular abbot was nominated as a skilled worker by Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery for a Minister of Religion Industry Labour Agreement but was denied because the Department defines monastic and cloistered environments differently to Gelug Buddhists.

Venerable Thubten Gyatso, who founded the monastery in 1997 and is the most senior monk in the monastery after Abbot Geshe Rapten, said: ‘By far the most common monastic practice across the world today is one that encourages members to interact and contribute to the community at large’.

Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery, the only Tibetan Gelug Buddhist monastery in Australia and the only Australian monastery in the spiritual tradition of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, applied for the labour agreement via the Temporary Skill Shortage short-term stream (subclass 482) in November 2019. The stream enables employers to address labour shortages by bringing in skilled workers where employers cannot source an appropriately skilled Australian worker.

‘Venerable Geshe Rapten is a Tibetan Buddhist Gelug master and the only one qualified to serve as an abbot in our monastic community of Gelug Buddhists. Without him, we cannot function as a monastery. The monastery was established 23 years ago but we need him to minister our rituals and liturgical practices so that we are fully fledged and operational,’ said Venerable Gyatso.

‘If there were an Australian with Venerable Geshe Rapten’s level of knowledge and accomplishment to lead the monks, then an Australian monastic would be in the position. But we do not have an Australian Gelug monk at a high enough proficiency available to be in the abbot’s role in Australia. In fact, there is no Australian currently in the world that is at the level required. It’s why Venerable Geshe Rapten was originally invited to live, work and teach at the monastery, and why he has been here since 2015.’

As part of the visa application, the monastery asked for an exemption on Abbot Geshe Rapten’s English language requirements under the Department’s terms that different criteria can be applied if the nominee works in a cloistered or monastic environment. The Department rejected the visa in Abbott Geshe Rapten September this year on the grounds that Geshe Rapten engages too much with the general public to be considered as living and working in monastic or cloistered conditions.

‘The Department has fundamentally misunderstood what a Gelug Buddhist monastic is and how a Gelug Buddhist abbot operates. Venerable Geshe Rapten spends most of his time alone, meditating or quietly attending to his monastic duties as abbot at Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery. However, his role as abbot necessarily entails teaching the ordained and general public, and receiving audiences from those who request or require his personal instruction. This is perfectly aligned to Venerable Geshe Rapten’s vows as a Mahayanan Buddhist. His level of interaction with the public is also entirely consistent with a Buddhist monastic and abbot, especially of a monastic in the Gelug tradition’, said Venerable Gyatso.

‘The view that the Department of Home Affairs has on what constitutes a monastic or cloistered environment is based on archaic ideals grounded in Western ideology that do not reflect the Gelug Buddhist tradition.’

The Department’s misapplied interpretation compounds a problem introduced in 2017 when replacement visas for skills shortages were implemented with tougher English language standards. The stricter requirements on standards of English were aimed at helping provide more job opportunities for Australians by putting them first in the job market, but the move created a bias against religious communities that do not have the skilled workers they need because no skilled workers who speak English well enough are available to fill leadership roles at the highest level.

Venerable Gyatso said: ‘We are not yet fortunate enough to have a distinguished Gelug Buddhist master who is fluent in English. Thanks to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, Buddhism in a general sense has gradually become more familiar to non-traditional Buddhist countries over the past 20 years or so, but we are still in the early days and the majority of Gelug Buddhist teachings are not translated into English and won’t be for some time’.

‘Masters of Gelug Tibetan Buddhism with Venerable Geshe Rapten’s credentials and breadth of experience rarely speak English. The need to teach English-speaking practitioners who do not come from a traditional Buddhist culture is only relatively new. It does take around 25 years of intense higher-level study to be a Gelug Buddhist master and that doesn’t include the foundational studies and secular education that is required beforehand.’

The Department’s rejection of Abbot Geshe Rapten as a skilled worker has far-reaching detrimental effects. The abbot is a well-known and respected community figure who has officiated over Gelug Buddhist practices and activities for the past five years. He is a revered spiritual authority who has made a significant contribution to the spiritual development and wellbeing of Gelug Buddhist monks, Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery nuns, lay Buddhists, and the general public in Bendigo and across Victoria. The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion and Atisha Centre are also adversely affected by the Department’s decision; they share the same extensive bushland property as the monastery and are closely affiliated to Abbot Geshe Rapten’s activities and function as a religious leader.

Devastated Gelug Buddhists across Victoria are sending petitions to Acting Minster of Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge asking him to intervene in the matter and overturn the Department’s decision.

Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery also calls on Acting Minister Alan Tudge to overturn the Department’s decision.

Media enquiries

Peter Stickels
National Coordinator for FPMT in Australia
+61 408 428 545

Further information

• Atisha Centre’s media release is available on its website.
• The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion’s media release is available on its website.
• FPMT in Australia’s response to the Department’s decision is available on its website.