The propitiation of Dorje Shugden can be traced as far back as 400 years ago. And in that time, Dorje Shugden was revered as an enlightened Dharma Protector who is in fact the emanation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. This view of the Protector was held by virtually all Gelug high monastic establishments including, at one point in time, the 14th Dalai Lama himself. Historical accounts confirm that it was the oracle of Dorje Shugden whom those closest to the Dalai Lama trusted and consulted in 1959 to seek divine intervention to assist the Tibetan God-King’s escape from Tibet.
However, this all suddenly changed without much explanation. In 1996, the Dalai Lama went from worshipping and praising the deity Dorje Shugden to publicly renouncing and condemning it as a demonic practice. Turning against Dorje Shugden, the Dalai Lama began repeatedly calling for the cessation of the Dorje Shugden practice, primarily citing that it harms his life and the Tibetan cause.
In swift response to the Dalai Lama’s new negative sentiments, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Dalai Lama’s loyal supporters undertook drastic measures and employed very questionable and persecutory tactics as a means to stamp out the Dorje Shugden practice. Essentially, the Tibetan leadership’s purposeful opposition of a religion is an infringement on the freedom and rights of the Shugden practitioners, not to mention a blatant breach of the Tibetan Constitution.
The Parliament and Cabinet of the Tibetan government-in-exile even went as far as passing resolutions effectively decreeing the worship of a Tibetan deity, a criminal act. As a result, those who steadfastly believed in Dorje Shugden, ordained and lay practitioners alike, were singled out, marginalized, refused public service and jobs, denied voting rights and systematically discriminated within the Tibetan exile communities. Hence, the start of the Dorje Shugden controversy that continues to plague the Tibetan people and Tibetan Buddhism to date.
Many cannot understand why the Dalai Lama, an established icon of peace, harmony, compassion and tolerance, would act in complete contrast to all the values he appears to stand for. Over time, one insubstantial reason after another was advanced to explain the ban but when tested against established Buddhist doctrines and also secular logic, they were easily debunked.
The ban is now 20 years old and much damage has been inflicted on both sides of the divide. Still, no viable justifications or plausible explanations that have withstood the test of reason have been given for the Dalai Lama’s violent move against an ancient religious tradition.
In this article, we will look at some theories that are frequently raised to explain the Dalai Lama’s perpetuation of the ban against the Dorje Shugden practice.
1. The Dalai Lama genuinely believes that the Dorje Shugden practice is just spirit worship and it harms his life
The Dalai Lama asserts that Dorje Shugden is not enlightened and is merely a spirit. Hence, stopping the propitiation of Dorje Shugden is necessary to prevent Tibetan Buddhism from “degenerating into a form of spirit worship”. Ironically, if one agrees with this theory, one inevitably is not only undermining the enlightened status of the Dalai Lama but also the power of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. If we believe the Dalai Lama’s statement, we are actually agreeing that the Dalai Lama, supposedly an emanation of Chenrezig, the embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas, is powerless against a mere spirit. Also, if that is indeed the case, why bother taking refuge in the Buddhas?
In addition, many are perplexed that the Dalai Lama has gone on record stating that all high lamas who believe in Dorje Shugden, including his own guru, H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, are wrong without providing solid evidence to substantiate such statements. Their concern takes into account that;
- In Tibetan Buddhism, lineage is very important as it ensures the authenticity of the teachings. Therefore, such serious assertions cannot be made lightly without strong justifications. If any teaching by a teacher or Guru can be negated by mere allegations, it will throw the whole system of belief and teachings into question, not to mention the legitimacy of the lineage that survives on the basis of a teacher passing the lineages pure and intact to the next generation of qualified student-masters.
- Furthermore, the Guru in Tibetan Buddhism is viewed as the Buddha and central to practice, especially for Tantric practice, without which the training cannot yield positive results. Thus, by rejecting Dorje Shugden in such a high-handed manner, the Dalai Lama has also severed his allegiance to his Guru, which sets a dangerous precedent that calls into question the very foundation of the practice, leading to the degeneration of Vajrayana Buddhism.
2. The Dalai Lama genuinely believes he has to consolidate power and to do that it is necessary to destroy old customs like the Dorje Shugden practice
This theory stems from the fact that for most Tibetans, religion is the foundation of their lives. Therefore, reverence towards their respective lineage teachers is paramount. This would also mean that the Dalai Lama was never in complete control over the Tibetan population. It is said that in exile, those close to the Dalai Lama saw either an opportunity or the necessity to consolidate power and therefore the various religious sects had to be forged into a single entity under the Dalai Lama’s lordship.
However, the great Gelug lamas were in the way and as long as they were around, they would continue to command the hearts and minds of the people. Over time, as the Dalai Lama’s consolidation plans stalled, the Dalai Lama came to view them as a threat to his political ambitions, and hence their preeminence had to be brought down and traditions that upheld their significance, abolished. However, it would be difficult for the Dalai Lama to attack these lamas directly as many were his teachers and teachers of other notable Tibetan people. And so the Dalai Lama commenced hostilities against Dorje Shugden whose lineage is synonymous with the high lamas whose power the Dalai Lama wanted to subvert.
Many have questioned the Dalai Lama’s motives in wanting to unite all Tibetans, considering that it is the ban itself that has and continues to split the Tibetan community. Some have even ventured that the Dorje Shugden ban is another attempt by the Dalai Lama to wield greater control over the masses for less than honorable reasons. The Dorje Shugden ban appears to be a repeat of the Dalai Lama’s divide-and-conquer tactics previously used in the Karmapa controversy, where the Dalai Lama overstepped boundaries and traditions and interfered in the succession process of the Karma Kagyu school that resulted in two rival Karmapas and a rift within the sect that persists even today.
3. The ban is the Dalai Lama’s weapon and bargaining chip with China
The Sino-Tibetan conflict is the classic David and Goliath story. In facing China, the new global super-power, the Dalai Lama has no military or financial power to speak of and seems to be totally helpless. However, the Dalai Lama does command the affection and loyalty of 6 million Tibetans inside what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), who hang on the Tibetan God-King’s every word.
China on the other hand wields tremendous economic power and has the largest army in the world. But there is one thing that China fears above all, which is inchoate unrest from its many ethnic tribes that may be triggered by the discontent of 6 million fevered Tibetans.
According to this theory, in imposing the ban the Dalai Lama had hoped to create a headache for the Chinese government. Of the 6 million Tibetans in TAR, approximately 70% belong to the Gelug lineage and of that, most would have been Dorje Shugden worshippers given the widespread influence of Shugden lamas such as H.H. Pabongka Rinpoche and H.H. Trijang Rinpoche.
The Dalai Lama’s decree for all ‘loyal’ Tibetan people to abandon their faith and teachers is a calculated move to prove to the Chinese authorities that he still wields the power to spark riots that will then become the catalyst for ethnic uprising against the ethnic tribe overlords. The Chinese regard the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist and this is exactly what they fear – that the Dalai Lama would ‘weaponize’ the Buddhist religion and turn it against the Chinese.
4. Dorje Shugden is a convenient scapegoat
This theory revolves around the fact that on many occasions, the Tibetan leaders had promised the Tibetan people that they would soon return to their homeland. In addition, many people around the world had contributed funds and effort believing in the Tibetan cause for liberation. In fact, over the 50-year period since entering exile, the Tibetan leadership has done very little to advance the Tibetan dream or provide a future for the loyal Tibetans who had followed the Dalai Lama into exile.
To deflect the blame away from themselves, the Tibetan leaders used Dorje Shugden as a convenient scapegoat. By pointing the finger at Dorje Shugden practitioners, the Tibetan leadership has been quite successful at diverting the majority of the Tibetans’ attention away from their incompetence and failures, thus enabling them to escape accountability for their actions. It has also directed the frustrations and angst of the people towards Dorje Shugden practitioners instead of the Tibetan leadership, acting like a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” for the Tibetan leadership.
However, it is no longer just the Tibetan people who are getting restless but also a global community of supporters who have donated countless millions towards the Tibetan cause. The “Get Out of Jail Free Card” no longer works as the majority of this group of people have no qualms about questioning the Tibetan leadership, if they see such need to do so. United States Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Maura Moynihan (daughter of United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan) are but two of a number who are beginning to take the Tibetan leadership to task for their failures and misrepresentations to the public.
5. The Dalai Lama is not who people think he is
Generally, the mere mention of the Dalai Lama conjures up the image of a humble monk, the embodiment of Buddhist values, an icon of peace in these degenerate times. Yet, many are finding it difficult to reconcile such persona of the Dalai Lama with his extreme position in respect of the Dorje Shugden ban. On a spiritual level,
- The imposition of the ban has forced many people (who are under the reign and control of the Dalai Lama) into breaking their samaya with their (other) spiritual teachers, which is in fact spiritual suicide especially for those who have been initiated into higher practices. This not only destroys their spiritual life now, but endangers the happiness of their countless future lives.
- With the ban, the Dalai Lama has created a schism in the Sangha, which is one of the Five Heinous Crimes of immediate retribution. It is said that anyone who commits such an action will go straight to Avici Hell at the end of that life, which is why it is called an action of ‘immediate retribution’.
- By triggering and perpetuating the ban, thus resulting in much harm, pain and suffering to Dorje Shugden practitioners, the Dalai Lama is clearly acting contrary to Lord Buddha’s teachings and breaking a whole host of Root Bodhisattva vows in the process.
Hence the premise of this theory, as why would a Sangha relentlessly perpetuate the Dorje Shugden ban when the resulting spiritual damage is so foreseeably enormous?
On a secular scale, the Dalai Lama’s insistence on the Dorje Shugden ban despite the obvious severe consequences and harm towards Dorje Shugden practitioners runs afoul of his calls at international platforms for universal peace, harmony and compassion. It is hypocritical that the Dalai Lama continues to espouse his views about religious harmony, democracy and compassion for all whilst continuously ignoring the plight, pain and suffering of Dorje Shugden practitioners despite clearly being aware of them.
6. It is part of the Dalai Lama’s “bigger” plan
Some believe the Dorje Shugden ban is actually part of the Dalai Lama’s bigger plan of spreading the Dorje Shugden practice. This stems from the fact that the imposition of the ban by the Dalai Lama has resulted in much attention on the Dorje Shugden practice, with many being exposed to and becoming aware of the existence of this Protector. It has culminated to a situation where any mention of the Dalai Lama is always followed by the mention of the Dorje Shugden controversy. Hence, according to this theory, the ban is said to have in essence led to the widespread fame of Dorje Shugden.
In addition, the Dalai Lama’s ban has served to separate the wheat from the chaff. Through the ban, real practitioners who have steadfastly kept their vows and promises to their Gurus at all costs are clearly distinguishable from those who readily abandon their practices and integrity in exchange for benefits. It has also caused many to really examine the state of their own practice and the value of the Dorje Shugden practice. Such exercise has even led to many becoming more resolved to practice and even to defend the lineage accordingly.
Some have sought to discredit this theory by dismissing it as merely idealistic views of those who try too hard to find justifications for the Dalai Lama’s conflicting actions. However, regardless of whether one agrees with this theory or not, looking at the situation at hand, it would appear that such result bears striking similarities to actions of the great awakened Mahasiddhas of the past who similarly conducted themselves in a manner that appeared to contradict the Dharma but much later was revealed to be their unconventional ways to ultimately benefit Buddhist practitioners.