Canonicity and Divine Interference: The Tulkus and the Shugden-Controversy

King Songtsen Gampo

Michael von Brück
Centre for Religious Studies
Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich

Religions are systems of social communication which at the same time create images of reality which become normative structures of perception, and these in turn define what is considered ‘real’ in a given society. In this way the legitimacy of social structures as well as structures of perception and thinking are established.

Religions develop different ways of creating these patterns and structures, or rather these different patterns and structures are called religions. In course of time, these patterns change. Therefore, ‘orthodoxy’ versus ‘heterodoxy’ or ‘canonicity’ versus ‘changing interpretations’ are only temporally established sets of communication which stabilize each other mutually.

The ‘canon’ is more than just a set of scriptures and their generally accepted mode of interpretetation: it is also a model of social relations and values. But religions also refer to what is not (yet), and thus negate what is. Their very structure includes an ‘ought’ which, in many cases, is imbued with a charismatic emphasis inasmuch as it is a potential or actual criticism of the status quo.

Paradoxically, religious institutions are the subject and object of this critique at the same time. In this way, religion itself is the meta-critique of its own legitimation of reality. Therefore, canon and charisma or religious institutionalization and ‘divine interference’ are two aspects of the same subject matter. My paper demonstrates this interconnection by looking at the present Tibetan Shugden controversy.

As W.C. Smith has shown, we need to be aware that religions are cumulative traditions and, as such, are syncretic. Organized religion tries to channel syncretic processes in order to establish a longer lasting canonicity or stability, but this process itself bears syncretic traits. Identity after all, is not an object but a process in which norms and patterns of argument are continuously being challenged by events.

The result is a process of assimilation and dissimilation which follows pre-established criteria as long as a society can agree on the rules of the process. It seems that these criteria can be subsumed under two categories: (a) an aesthetic logic which determines the limits of that which can be integrated; (b) the power structure in a given community. Both give each other legitimacy.

The actual controversy on Shugden is an example of how canonicity is being defined and redefined in the ever-changing context of power structures. However, ‘power’ is not just political or economic; it is also that which is convincing and plausible, that which asserts itself successfully and becomes a pattern of interpretation for historical events. That is why celestial hierarchies not only reflect mundane hierarchies—the celestial aspect also informs and changes the mundane aspect. Both are in correspondence, or in a dialectical relationship.

Tibetan Buddhism is a highly syncretic and pluralistic form of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism which has integrated elements of Tibetan Bon, Shamanism, Manichaeic tradition and animistic beliefs. Though Tantric Buddhism was introduced into Tibet rather rapidly during the reigns of the kings Songtsen Gampo (AD 620-49) and Trisong Detsen (755-98), a variety of different forms can be observed from the very beginning: more scholastic systems (represented by Shantirakshita and Kamalashila) of a graded path to awakening rival the tantric form (represented by Padmasambhava) and the sudden experience of awakening as practised in Chinese Ch’an (represented by the monk Hoshang at the ‘council’ in the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Samye [792-4]).

Later, different schools developed during the so-called second spread of Buddhism in Tibet after the tenth and eleventh centuries. From that time the Sakya school develops next to the Kadampa (later Gelugpa), the Kagyüpa and the old Nyingma school.

The distinctive character of these schools is established not so much by differing philosophical views (though there are differences in interpreting the classical tradition), as by different chains or lineages of master-and-disciple relationships, because in Tibetan Buddhism the oral tradition and charismatic leadership of a master (skt. guru, tib. lama) plays a very important role.

Even later, when one or the other school became dominant politically, there was never a dominant single religious lineage but rather a polycentric interaction of different traditions. Since the heads of different schools and/ or powerful monastic institutions were regarded as charismatic incarnations of their predecessors, each lineage could develop on the basis of its own authority and authenticity which, at times, could create tensions and conflicts with the religious and political desire to create a generally accepted canonicity in the tradition so as to form a consistent framework of a pan-Tibetan identity.

This paper is a case study of such a conflict between the plurality of charismatic interpretations and the claim of a unified canonicity within Tibetan Buddhism at the present time.

In Tibetan Buddhism religious authority rests mainly on two grounds:

  1. The scriptural tradition, i.e. the canonical Vinaya, Sutra and Tantra texts translated and collected over centuries and finally codified by Bu-ston (1290-1364) in the Kanjur (bka’ ‘gyur) and the commentaries of the Tanjur (bstan ‘gyur).² However, Bu-ston’s selection and arrangement shows a bias against the older Nyingma school (rnin ma pa), which finally contributed to an antagonism of the new (reformed) schools and the old one.
  2. The reincarnated Lama (Tulku, sprul sku), who embodies lineages of tradition that have shaped a specific monastic interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism and a social allegiance that has given Tibetan Buddhism its (regional) coherence. The concept of the Tulku has its roots in the Mahayana-bodhisattva, though its religious and political implications are unique to the Tibetan tradition. The Tulku represents spiritual authority due to his karmic punya acquired over countless lifetimes. He exercises authority for he embodies and combines both the charismatic presence of the spiritual force and ecclesiastical approval of the religious and political hierarchy. However, these different aspects can also lead to conflict as the recent controversy on the legitimacy of Shugden shows.

That Tibetan history was impregnated by those conflicts can be observed by referring to three areas of conflict:

  • The tension between the authority of different Tulku lineages and the centralizing power of the more powerful lineages (such as the Sakyapas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the Gelukpas after the sixteenth century).
  • The tension between the canon of the triratna, i.e. Buddha, dharma, samgha as embodied in the Kangyur and the specific ‘root-teacher’ who is usually a reincarnated Lama responsible for the perpetuation of his specific lineage.
  • The tension between the Buddhist canon and pre-Buddhist practices of the propitiation of deities which have been incorporated into the Buddhist universe but often are not accepted by all Tibetan Buddhists in the same way.

All three areas of conflict were closely tied to Tibetan geography and history—with the vast areas of sparsely populated land inhabited by nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled groups only loosely connected with each other. One reason for this is that cultivation of land was possible only in valleys which far from each other, were connected only by difficult paths over the mountains. This situation fostered independent social developments.

Wider parts of Tibet were unified only after the eighth century, precisely the time when Buddhism was introduced into Tibet. In fact, the Buddhist establishment of administration, the introduction of a script, and a more general Buddhist creed contributed to the unification of Tibet. King Songtsen Gampo (620-49) probably used the structure of Buddhism to unify the country, even more than King Trisong Detsen (755-98).

However, local forces and the old establishment of the Bon tradition (with its countless deities and localized cults) resisted both the unification and the canonization of religious beliefs and practices through Buddhism. This conflict shaped Tibetan history over centuries, and in some ways it is present even today, though in a different form. The conflict is both a religious problem of a generalized canonicity versus individual ‘charismatic’ claims and a struggle between centralized power and the plurality of local traditions.

The present controversy concerning the deity Dorje Shugden (rdo rje shugs ldan) known also as Dolgyal is a reflection of the problem of transmission and canonicity in Tibetan Buddhism. The issue is rooted in a controversy at the time of the Dalai Lama (1617-82), was revived at the time of the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933) and gained momentum since the 1970s when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, distanced himself from the worship of this deity, for he felt that Buddhist refuge is refuge in the triratna and not in minor deities.

HH 5th Dalai lama and Emperor Shunzhi

A controversial book by the late Zemed Rinpoche (Gaden monastery) in 1976 defended Shugden worship, and counter-arguments by Jadral Rinpoche (Nyingma) and others aggravated verbal hostilities. In July 1996 the controversy increased after the Dalai Lama took a stand³ against the worship of Shugden in his personal surroundings and in institutions connected with the Tibetan Government in exile for basically two reasons:

  • The cult of Shugden, as the defender of the ‘pure’ Gelukpa doctrine as against other schools, is divisive on sectarian lines.
  • The sole authority and place of refuge for Buddhists should be the Buddha and his teaching alone, not minor deities.

A number of abbots and monks in Gelukpa monasteries resisted this order of the highest Tulku of the Tibetan tradition and formed a ‘Dorje Shugden Devotees Religious and Charitable Society’ in New Delhi in July 1996. Besides, the Gelukpa Kelsang Gyatso in England formed a ‘New Kadampa’ order openly attacking the Dalai Lama on the Shugden issue and political issues as well.

Fifteen abbots and Geshes of Kelsang’s original monastery, the Sera Je Dratsang (now in Bylakuppe, Karnataka) issued an open letter against Kelsang⁴ stripping him of his membership in the monastery, calling him an ‘apostate’⁵ and comparing him to Mohammed of Ghazni.⁶ Samdhong Rinpoche, President of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, visited the monasteries of Gaden and Drepung in July 1996 in order to explain the Dalai Lama’s position on the issue.

Monks at Sera and Gaden announced a demonstration against the presence of their own leader. The monastic authorities curbed any demonstration. However, some monks staged a silent demonstration and thus charged to have broken their vow of obedience to the monastic authorities. The monks felt they were not guilty. But eleven monks were expelled from Gaden. The last tragic event was the murder of Abbot Geshe Losang Gyatso, Director of the Buddhist School of Dialectics, and two of his disciples in Dharamsala on 4 February 1997—the three Gelukpa monks had been known as outspoken critics of the Shugden worship.⁷

The dynamics of the controversy are not surprising: in Tibetan history, time and again, the differences between different schools of Tibetan Buddhism were reflected in antagonisms between different deities and/ or dharma-protectors who were supposed to protect a specific monastery, tradition, lineage or school. However, the problem today is aggravated because of its political implications concerning the authority of the Dalai Lama and the endangered unity of the different Tibetan traditions (in exile).

Two Aspects of Transmission: Tulkus and Protector Deities

Formally, religious authority is derived from the transmission only of the dharma. But dharma is embodied in several ways, viz. the traditional Buddhist monastic transmission of the teaching, including the special reincarnated teachers (Tulku) and the spiritual powers which have been ‘tamed’ by Buddhism and were changed into Buddhist deities representing mental forces which may powerfully protect (or harm) the dharma.

So far this is not a development in Tibet only, for in other Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, etc. actual religion in the villages (and often in the monasteries too) is shaped by a combination of the veneration of the triratna and worship of deities and local spirits. What is unique to Tibet is the fact that those deities may become associated with specific Tulkus and/or lineages, so that these lineages are connected with the authority of transtemporal deities. That is to say the Tibetan issue of canonicity and ‘charisma’ is the fabric of a hierarchical universe where temporal transmission of the dharma and transtemporal succession of higher powers are interconnected.

The Tulku (sprul sku)

The Tulku is a physical manifestation of higher levels of consciousness, in the exceptional case of Buddha consciousness (buddhatva) itself. Tulkus are countless in number and different in the degree of their spiritual realization. The highest ones are considered ‘beings’ reborn not because of karmic necessity but due to their spiritual freedom to fulfil their bodhisattva vows. That is to say, Tulkus are embodied not to work out and counterbal­ance negative karmic imprints, but to help sentient beings in continuity with their bodhisattvic presence in former rebirths.

There are many Tulkus, acclaimed and selected by their respective monastic institutions, but most Tulkus have no more than local appeal. Since the sixteenth century the most famous Tibetan Tulku is the Dalai Lama. He holds spiritual power as one of the main leaders of the Gelukpa sect,⁸ and he represents political power in as much as the Gelukpas became the dominant group during the sixteenth century.

Generally speaking, the Tulku tradition in Tibet has two different roots: a spiritual-philosophical development in Indian Buddhism, i.e. the bodhisattva doctrine, and a political development in Tibet in relation to the Mongolian connection. It will be necessary to focus on the structural problem of spiritual-philosophical authority in order to clarify the canonical function of the Tulku in the Tibetan system.

The concept of Tulku is connected with the trikaya doctrine in Indian Buddhism, for sprul sku is the translation of the Sanskrit nirmanakaya. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Tulku represents the presence of the Buddha in his rupakaya in the midst of the (monastic) society. Hence, the presence and authority of the Tulku represents the completion of triratna, complementing the dharma (which is the object of study and realization of the monks) and the monastic community (samgha).

The concept of Tulku reinterprets the former bodhisattva ideal in terms of the Tantric siddha tradition. The Tulku may have greater spiritual and magical powers, he may obtain different bodily forms etc. As this kind of incarnation happened deliberately, it needs to be distinguished from the general karmic chain of causation which makes ordinary beings reappear inevitably according to the karmic structure of consciousness.

Though there are levels of higher Tulkus (such as the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, etc.) who have the freedom to choose the circumstances of their reincarnation, and lower Tulkus who have fewer spiritual achievements and therefore less freedom from karmic bondage, Tulkus are classified according to the realization of the traditional bodhisattva bhumis (Ray 1986: 41). In any case there is enough stability, so that Tulkus return into a predictable spatial and social situation such as a specific monastery, etc. Tulku lineages have a beginning, and once they have started they become a personalized expression of the cumulative tradition.

Tulkus have a higher reputation than ordinary Lamas, but they have basically the same function, though, because of their reputation, they bring more material support and wealth from the laity to the monastery (Ekvall 1959: 216). Tulkus are bound to become high Lamas, for they have a better start than other beings due to their karmic imprint. This belief is demonstrated by the fact that Tulkus can jump classes in their monastic colleges. Tulkus, it is said, are manifest where they can enact most effectively their bodhisattva vows to liberate all sentient beings. Their manifestation is always purposeful. Therefore, the general quality of consciousness of enlightenment (bodhicitta), i.e. their karuna, is actualized and historically defined. This in itself is an interesting development in the Buddhist philosophy of history, but we have to limit our presentation to the Tulku issue in Tibet.

To sum up the argument so far, we can state that a Tulku is a bodhisattva who is reincarnated, discovered, and ritually ‘canonized’, viz. re-installed into the seat of religious-political power of his predecessor by becoming a Lama (Ray 1986: 44).

The Tulku may or may not be a charismatic figure, though any touch of charismatic character would certainly enhance his fame and importance in society. Politically speaking, the Tulku system gave the monastic succession greater stability at a time when the Sakyapa—and later Karmapa and still later Gelukpa monasteries—gained considerable political power due to their changing alliances with the military power of the Mongols. Hence, from the very beginning the Tulku lineages not only represent spiritual authenticity but also political power and stability.⁹

The decentralized system of monastic lineages and regional centres of spiritual and political power and centralizing forces which culminated in the take-over of power by the Gelukpas in the sixteenth century came into conflict. And this is precisely where the Shugden issue needs to be located politically, for Shugden arises at a period of conflict as regards the centralization of power by the 5th Dalai Lama. To delineate this conflict it is imperative to deal first with the hierarchy and function of different deities within Tibetan Buddhism, as Shugden is a deity whose status is debatable.

Deities (lha)

In Tibetan Buddhism there exist countless beings above the level of beings with a gross physical body. They are systematized in different classes depending on their spiritual quality. At the highest level, some of them are emanations (sprul pa) of the highest aspects of the Buddha: Mahakala (Nagpo chenpo, in 75 forms), Yama (gShin rje), Shri Devi (dPaldan lhamo), Vaishravana (rNam thos sras), etc. Some are deities (lha) which have a universal appearance and meaning (such as higher dharmapalas, Tib.: chos skyong or srung ma), some are only local ghosts.

The highest beings are beyond any conceptualization and have the function of personal tutelary deities (yidam), they are nothing other than the radiation of universal Buddha consciousness or Buddha nature. Those lower beings that are ambiguous have been tamed and bound by oaths—they are the lower dharmapalas. Generally speaking, all dharmapalas are classified into two different groups: those beyond samsara and those within samsara.

The last group again comprises beings in very different situations concerning their level of being. In order to make contact with the human plane, they use human media who fall into trances. However, there is no generally recognized classification and even within one school or tradition there are significant differences and contradictions of interpretation and classification.¹⁰ This sometimes causes conflict because of the complexity of the subject, and regional as well as sectarian differences. A generally accepted canonization has never been possible.

In the context of this essay, it is most important to understand the difference between the tutelary deity (yidam) and dharma-protector (dharmapala), for to confuse the two may have significant consequences. The present Shugden controversy might have to do with such a confusion of categories: yidams are always trans-mundane, for they are emanations of the Buddha. The meditational practice regarding these yidams is identification with the deity, which is possible through complete surrender or the ‘life-entrustment’ of body, speech and mind by special initiation.

The practice is aimed at a complete union with the deity. Hayagriva (rta mgrin), Yamantaka (gshin rje gshed), Kalacakra etc. are considered to be yidams (ishtadevata), though Hayagriva is a rather rare case where yidam and dharmapdla converge. Dharmapalas, however, are usually not trans-mundane but samsaric, only some of them are trans-mundane.¹¹; Dharmapdlas are only helpers to practice the triratna and remain external, the meditational practice relating to them is never unification for they cannot substitute the refuge in the triratna. Concerning all these deities, we have to add that some of these higher deities have Indian origins (such as Mahakala, Shri Devi, etc.), and they have acquired a number of different forms in Tibet. Others—mainly of the lower class whom Padmasambhava had bound by a specific oath—are of Tibetan background.

This vow or oath (Skt.: samaya, tib.: dam tshig) by which those spirit beings have been bound is of great importance. It is, however, different from the three types of vows human beings can take in order to foster their spiritual progess: vinaya vow, bodhisattva vow and Tantric vow. Out of these the Tantric vow means that the disciple hands over his/her whole life (body, speech and mind) to the spiritual power visualized as that deity and represented by the Lama.

The Tantric vow binds teacher and disciple together in an exclusive connection of total obedience on the side of the disciple. This is even more so in the relation to one’s ‘root Lama’ (rtsa ba’i bla ma), who is the teacher who transmits all the three aspects of the tradition as a single person: (a) the oral transmission of the texts; (b) commentaries on the texts; (c) empowerment into the practice of a specific deity. Such a relationship to the root Lama creates a special karmic situation and is absolutely binding. To change or correct the transmission handed down by a root teacher is not possible unless the relationship has been dissolved and the vow has been returned formally. The one who breaks the vow (dam nyams) commits such a serious ‘negative deed’ that he/she will definitely be reborn many times in hell.

Taking these different levels and beings into account, conflicts concerning loyalty can often arise. Whereas some of the highest deities, such as Mahakala, Tara, Avalokiteshvara, Yamantaka, Pehar, etc. are common to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, certain schools have preferences even for different manifestations of the highest beings. Among the protectors, too, some are claimed to be protectors of special sects, groups, regions or individuals. The quality of these highest beings is undisputed in the tradition, they are ‘canonical’, but the authenticity of the specialized protectors can be disputed. The lower beings can become jealous and vindictive if a person looks for help to another protector. Next to faith in the highest beings, each lineage of Tulkus has special protectors as well. If Tulkus get into conflict with each other, so do protectors.

The Conflict of Authenticity—Aspects of the Shugden Controversy

At present a deep conflict has developed within Tibetan Buddhism, especially in the school of the Gelukpas around the Dalai Lama. This conflict reflects precisely the issue of different levels of canonicity earlier outlined: the universal versus the regional, the scriptural canon versus the charismatic interpretation as embodied in the Tulkus—whose lineages are authorized in addition by their special connections to deities. The problem is the classification or canonical status of a given deity, in our case the deity Shugden.

Shugden (rdo rje shugs ldan) should be considered a deity (lha) belonging to the lower realm, as can be seen by his historical origin. However, the issue is disputed. Obviously, Shugden has been linked to Gelukpa monasteries and became one of the main protectors of the Gelukpas, but there is also a relationship to the Sakyas. He comes from all directions (and monasteries!) in order to protect his worshippers, to fulfill wishes, to purify the dharma, etc. (Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1993: 141) His character is fierce and violent and he destroys all enemies. Animals are sacrificed to him symbolically.

His abode is full of skeletons and human skulls, weapons surround him and the blood of men and horses form a lake. (Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1993: 136-7) His body has a dark-red colour and his facial expressions are similar to the well-known descriptions of rakshasa. However, all these attributes are not unique, they are more or less stereotypes for dharma-protectors in general. Different traditions focus on different forms and colours, e.g. in the Gonkhang (mgon khang) of Geluk monasteries such as Gaden, the deity Shugden is propitiated in his red form, whereas as dharmapala of the Sakya monastery he rides a black horse. How and when these different iconographic details developed cannot be established.

Shugden has obviously been quite popular in the Southern Himalayas. He is invoked to protect ‘the prestige of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha’ and to dissipate ‘the obstructions that hinder attainment of the bodhisattva mind’ (Mumford 1990: 262). So far this description testifies to the noble intentions of the deity and relates it to the refuge in the triratna. At the same time, Shugden is connected with ‘human wealth, food, life, and good fortune’ and asked to grant long life and the fulfilment of all desires, particularly in this life, and invoked against bodily and mental sickness (Mumford 1990: 262-3). This, too, is not at all a deviation from other incantations to protector deities. He is addressed as ‘great king’, ‘religion-protector’, ‘wish-fulfilling gem’ who ‘protects the dharma and prevents its destruction’ and is asked to ‘repel external and internal enemies of the ten regions.’

Like Pehar, Nechung and other deities, Shugden takes possession of mediums, or Kuten (sku rten), which are his physical supports. A famous Kuten of Shugden lives in the Gaden monastery of the Gelukpa sect, which has been approved by the monastic authorities and is tested regularly. I do not intend to elaborate on this aspect since I have dealt with the history and experience of this Kuten elsewhere.¹² It suffices to say that to my knowledge no sectarian tendencies have appeared—at least in connection with this Kuten.

History of Shugden

The 5th Dalai Lama: In order to determine the quality and nature of Shugden, his history needs to be taken into account. However, there is little documented historical evidence before the beginning of this century, though many oral traditions—sometimes mutually contradictory—have to be taken into account.¹³

The story of Shugden¹⁴ goes back to the 5th Dalai Lama (Ngawang Losang Gyatso, 1617-82). He lived at a time of struggle for power in Tibet. It was also the beginning of the Gelukpa dominance over Tilbet and the 5th Dalai Lama consolidated his power and centralized the state on the basis of Mongol military power. In order to unify the Tibetans he was interested in an ‘ecumenical approach’, i.e. he wanted to find a new approach to sectarian strife by recognizing their ‘unity in difference’. Hence, he took instruction not only from Gelukpa teachers but also from Nyingma teachers. In the beginning he wielded a strong hand towards the Kagyüpas, but became more tolerant and accommodating in later years (Schulemann 1958: 235). This was certainly controversial among some Gelukpas, and the following story might well have a historical basis in those controversies.

At the Dalai Lama’s upper residence (bla brang) in Drepung (‘bras-spungs) monastery there was a lama called Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen (sprul sku grags pa rgyelmtshan) who was supposed to be a reincarnation of the Panchen Sonam Drakpa (1478-1554), the disciple of the 2nd Dalai Lama, whereas the first incarnation was Dulzin Drakpa Gyaltsen, a disciple of Tsongkhapa (1357-1410). It is hard to establish this reincarnation lineage historically, it is rather a matter of belief.¹⁵

Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen had probably been one of the contenders to be chosen as the 5th Dalai Lama (Yamaguchi 1995: 12), and this must have caused tensions, especially since the Dalai Lama intended to minimize the number and importance of other Tulku lineages at Drepung in order to centralize power. Due to his wisdom Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen had an increasing number of followers which caused jealousy among the adherents and in the household of the Dalai Lama. Certain circles of government officials connected with the Dalai Lama (including the Regent) decided to kill Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen.

Different versions are handed down as to whether he was killed or killed himself. His main disciple asked him not to leave the world but to come back in proper form and take revenge on his enemies. All sorts of misfortune happened to the Tibetan government, and even the Dalai Lama suffered. Nobody could stop this evil spirit or bind him. When the Tibetan government realized that the spirit could not be subdued, they requested him to co-operate and, instead of causing harm, to become a protector of the Gelukpa sect. The spirit of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen agreed and became Shugden, the protector deity.

Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen

Historical evidence is not clear and the details contradict each other. We cannot even be sure that the events relating to the death of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen and the worship of Shugden in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries concern the same deity or at least form a continuous tradition.

The problem is that he seems to be an evil spirit causing harm to the monastic institutions and the Dalai Lamas, but at the same time he is regarded as dharma-protector of a higher rank.¹⁶ One thing is quite clear: the story of the link between the death of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen and the worship of Shugden has its roots in the power struggles of the 5th Dalai Lama and the successful centralization of power in his hands after the death of the Mongol Gushri Khan.

Developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: The contemporary controversial Shugden worship starts probably with Tagphu Dorje Chang (stag phu bstan p’ai dngos grubsy 1876-1922), the teacher of Phabongkhapa (1878-1941), who handed down the practice to Trijang Kinpoche , the junior tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama. It is here, at the turn of this century, that Shugden (Dolgyal) enters the Gelukpa tradition, whereas before many textual references hint at the Sakya school. And only at that time the deity seems to become a sectarian protector.

Phabongkhapa: This sectarian emphasis or exclusivity is evident in Phabongkhapa (1878-1941). Phabongkhapa (pha bong kha pa byams pa bstan ‘dzin phrin las rgya mtsho) is a key figure in the history of the Shugden controversy. He was a charismatic teacher and member of the Sera Me monastery. Whether he received the Shugden tradition and the controversial Sogde (srog gtad, i.e. life-entrustment)¹⁷ from his teacher Tagphu or not, he preached it forcefully, initiated many disciples into it, and made this practice popular among high Gelukpa Lamas.

In his ‘Initiation texts for the practice of the visionary teachings’¹⁸ which he had received from Losang Choekyi Wangchuk (blo bzang chos kyi dbang phyug), there are teachings on Amitayus, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani, Tara and the Guru Yoga, and there is no mention of Shugden because the text deals with high Tantric initiations. That Shugden is not mentioned in this context suggests that he considers the deity not among this high class of deities. However, in his text ‘The profound blessing of life-initiation of Shugden, the most powerful dharmapala of Jamgön (Tsongkhapa), the jewel chariot bringing forth a mass of blessings’¹⁹ he gives a detailed account of the Shugden practice and remarks:

I have written this at the request of Shugden, because in the past there was a tradition of Sogde (srog gtad) to Shugden²⁰ but later neither the tradition nor the text could be found—they have become like flowers in the sky—so Shugden has asked me two times to write a new initiation text. I have passed on the practice of initiation (dbang) to some disciples in accordance with my own experience, and (a text) has been written as a seed for (a detailed text). But only that would be not reliable and something like an illegitimate son.

Therefore, I explained it in detail to my master Tagphu Dorje Chang and presented this draft to him. … (501) He took that draft and wrote his text down, combining this seed text with his own vision. Tagphu commented about the five types of Shugden, the respective colors etc., the offerings to be arranged, thus at the time of initiation the large Lamrim text should be there on the altar, a cakra representing one’s life, damaru, dorje etc. The practitioner has to utter the life generating words of Vajrabhairava and to make torma²¹ offerings. … (502)

The initiation can be given to somebody who has received initiation into Vajrabhairava and keeps the commitments connected with it. … (502-503) Though there are so many different traditions and philosophies in Tibet, only this tradition of Tsongkhapa is the supreme, the top of the victory banner, the most complete, the essence of the teaching. … (505) To bring Shugden into one’s own service is a very powerful blessing. In order to receive this initiation the disciples visualize themselves as the yidam (Vajrabhairava) and as such invoke and control Shugden. The dharmapala (Shugden) is presented to the disciples as the one who abides by their commands.

He goes on to explain how master and disciple visualize themselves as Vajrabhairava and Yamantaka and then receive initiation into the five aspects of Shugden—including mantras, colours etc.—which emanate from the altar (505). The emanating energies are finally dissolved into the heart of the disciple, with full awareness that he controls the protector.

In order to interpret Phabongkhapa properly we have to distinguish several aspects of initiation in Tibetan Buddhism. There are two types of ‘initiation’, and the first comprises two aspects:

  1. The initiation into the realm or presence of the positive emanation of a deity (dbang) which corresponds largely to the Indian rite of abhisheka;
  2. the permission to continue the practice of a deity (rjes gnang) after initiation (a) proper. This requires control of the deity, and high masters are supposed to be able to have the power to control the deity.

Life-entrustment initiation (srog gtad) which is a complete surrender of the person’s whole life and unconditional refuge—this commitment can be made only to the Buddha or the yidam as his perfect emanation on the personal level.

On this basis Phabongkhapa’s text has two characteristic marks:

It does not say that only Gelukpa teaching leads to liberation, but calls Tsongkhapa’s teaching the highest and the essence of all teachings. But this is traditional parlance and not an exaggerated exclusivity.

The text quoted does not say that master and disciple actually take refuge in Shugden. The yidam and Shugden are kept apart, and the dharmapala is to be controlled. The master transfers the power to control Shugden to the disciple, and this is common practice. However, in so far as the disciple merges with the Shugden energy an identification with Shugden takes place, and this is against the genuine Gelukpa tradition. There can be no life-entrustment initiation (srog gtad) concerning a dharmapala, for the dharmapala is a minor being and not a yidam.²²

Thus, the whole controversy focuses on the interpretation of the status of Shugden. There is a contradiction concerning Shugden that cannot be resolved. On the one hand it is argued that Shugden is a wrathful, mundane protector deity with such and such an origin in history, and to deal with such a spirit one has to have control over him. On the other hand, those who propitiate Shugden maintain that Shugden is a high deity beyond the mundane level and therefore deserves life-entrustment (srog gtad), i.e. complete surrender, like emanations of the Buddha. Whether the sectarian issue (Gelukpa exclusivity) is connected with this problem is a different question. It depends on the interpretation of Shugden, and this varies, as has been demonstrated.

The issue was taken up by the 13th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government, who managed to stop Phabongkhapa propitiating Shugden. The Tibetan government argued (1) that Shugden was in competition with Nechung who, being very close to the government and the Dalai Lama personally, was the protector of the Drepung monastery; and that taking refuge in Shugden was to belittle the refuge in the Buddha-Dharma-Samgha (triratna).

Whether Phabongkhapa’s Shugden practice led to violent sectarian attacks, particularly on Nyingma institutions, is not quite clear. Tsetan Zhabdrung, a famous scholar from Amdo, reports that followers of Phabongkhapa destroyed Padmasambhava’s image and those of other peaceful and wrathful deities.

Trijang Rinpoche: Trijang Rinpoche (1901-81), the disciple of Phabongkhapa and junior tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama, had a tremendous influence on a whole generation of Tulkus and higher Lamas of the Gelukpa order. His residence at Gaden Shartse monastery (in exile near Mundgod, North Karnataka, India) ensured a close relation of this monastic establishment to his teachings.

He also practised the Shugden tradition, and most of the present Gelukpa Lamas, who oppose the order of the 14th Dalai Lama to give up on Shugden, do so with reference to Trijang Rinpoche as their teacher. He mentions his stand on Shugden in his autobiography²³ and in a text called ‘Commentary on Phabongkhapa’s Praise to Shugden.’²⁴

Trijang argues that the deity Shugden already has had a relation with Tsongkhapa, and that it arose as dharmapala in accordance with the wishes of Nechung. He addresses Shugden—’Praise to you who had the courage to take up the wish of Nechung, the most powerful protector, who time and again asked you to arise as this dharmapala specifically for the Gaden tradition.’ (98) Thus, he implies that there is no contradiction between Nechung and Shugden.

Trijang further maintains that the 5th Dalai Lama and Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen could not have had this controversy, but that this misfortune was due to the followers of both Lamas—the seeming difference was an upaya (means for spiritual success) between the Dalai Lama and Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen in order to manifest the power of Shugden (115). He quotes a hymn which the 5th Dalai Lama is said to have written in praise of Shugden (Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen):

… your might and power is like lightning, you possess the courage and confidence to discriminate between right and wrong, I invite you faithfully, so come here to this place. … You subdue various spirits of cremation grounds. I arrange varieties of outer, inner and secret offerings and tormas. I confess that previously due to my selfishness I could not leave this attitude of being so strict (against this spirit), but now I praise you humbly and respectfully with body, speech and mind … may we always be protected by the triratna.

The problem is that this position has no historical evidence, neither in the biography of the 5th Dalai Lama or elsewhere. It could be assumed that had the Dalai Lama known about any connection between Tsongkhapa (Nechung) and Shugden (Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen) he would have acted differently. Because of the very different position and rank of the two it is rather unlikely that the 5th Dalai Lama would have written such a hymn of self-correction.

We could go on quoting several oral traditions which are related by Trijang Rinpoche to establish and defend the Shugden tradition. Trijang wants to show that Nechung and Shugden do not clash or, in other terms, that there is no contradiction between the general protection of the whole of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the specific protection of the Gelukpa school only. Looking into the history of the struggle between different schools in Tibet and judging from the heat of the present controversy there is more to say. It is clear that by historical evidence the authenticity of that tradition on Shugden cannot be decided.

The Dalai Lama’s Arguments against Shugden

When the Tibetans went into exile several Lamas, such as Trijang Rinpoche, Zong Rinpoche and others—many of them connected with Gaden Shartse monastery—brought the Shugden practice with them. Especially Zong Rinpoche, being a student of Trijang Rinpoche, was en­gaged in the practice and passed it on to many disciples, first in Buxa Duar (North India), later in South India. However, it needs to be mentioned that most of the Lamas who received this initiation had been devotees of Shugden long before, and it is obvious that this practice had been wide­spread for at least two or three generations.

This was so not only in Nepal, as mentioned, but also in other areas of the Southern Himalayas such as Ladakh and Spiti. The 14th Dalai Lama himself had been initiated into this practice by his tutor Trijang Rinpoche. But the Dalai Lama publicly expressed doubts about Shugden and stopped this practice, first for him­self in 1976, and since 1996 by asking all official institutions and disciples, who had received initiations from him, to give up Shugden. This is to be seen in connection with his interest in finding common ground in the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Dalai Lama 1984: 200-25) so as to overcome precisely those exclusivist tendencies that Shugden is said to protect.

The 14th Dalai Lama himself has taken up the issue several times. His statements on Shugden have been collected and published recently in Tibetan.²⁵ In order to investigate the canonical status of Shugden and his practice, he applies basically three methodological devices or arguments: (1) historical evidence, (2) political reason, (3) spiritual insight.

(1) Historical evidence:

In order to examine the authenticity of the Shugden tradition the Dalai Lama refers back to the historical origin, implying that at the origin the purity of the tradition is still maintained and therefore the judgment on canonicity on this basis is valid. However, two ‘origins’ have to be distinguished: the general origin of the Buddhist tradition (the Buddha who has preached the dharma and thus established the samgha), and the particular origin of the Gelukpa tradition (Tsongkhapa and his teachings).

The Dalai Lama defends his views in arguing that Buddhism is refuge in the triratna, and that this is the yardstick of canonicity. Any additional practice may help in practising this refuge in the triratna but can never be a substitute. In fact, if such an additional practice leads to obscuring the triratna, it is to be given up. Therefore, he refutes the practice of life-entrustment (sroggtad) to Shugden. Otherwise Tibetan Buddhism would become a kind of Shamanism.²⁶ He also attacks the practice of Shugden as a corruption of the original dharmapala practice for worldly gains.²⁷

Propitiating spirits is a practice originating in pre-Buddhist Tibet. However, when Guru Padmasambhava was helping to establish Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century, He recruited some spirits such as Nechung, the State Oracle, to protect the Buddhist doctrine. Due to his high spiritual attainments, he was able to subdue such spirits and bind them by oath. Propitiating of spirits, therefore, is not a Buddhist practice itself, but a means to help sustain spiritual practice. Over the centuries the practice of propitiating spirits has instead become widespread as a means to achieve fame, fortune and the general well-being for this life, concerns that run counter to the general Buddhist outlook.

At the same time he needs to link his arguments to the specific origin of Gelukpa tradition, to Tsongkhapa. There cannot be a contradiction, for if Tsongkhapa interprets the Buddhadharma rightly, he himself refers back to the triratna. That is to say, that canonicity is to be founded in the triratna as interpreted by Tsongkhapa.

(2) Political reason:

The Dalai Lama is part of the Gelukpa tradition but at the same time responsible for all of Tibetan Buddhism. This is a structural problem, for if the interests of the two conflict, the Dalai Lama is caught in between. His arguments here are based both on historical comparison and general reasoning. He refers to the life of the 5th Dalai Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama, takes these predecessors as examples of a pan-Buddhist spirit which has rejected the sectarian approach, and he himself follows the same line.

In both cases the historical evidence has already been highlighted. The 5th Dalai Lama, for instance, established the political power of the Gelukpas, but in course of time he integrated Nyingma and Kagyüpa teachings and balanced the interest of these groups. He thus achieved political stability—unheard of before. Likewise in the present situation:

he wants all Tibetans to be united in the refuge to the triratna, to respect the differences of the traditions by seeing them in rela­tion to each other (Dalai Lama 1984: 200-25) so as to overcome all divi­sive forces. The 14th Dalai Lama goes on and argues: it is said by the Shugden propitiatiors that Nechung had asked Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen several times to arise as this wrathful deity Shugden (77). Even if this were the case, it is Nechung who would be the subject and originator of the whole tradition. But because of the sectarian spirit, this cannot be.

(3) Spiritual insight:

Since the argument is about deities in conflict (Nechung versus Shugden) a direct insight into the nature of these spiritual levels would be necessary to judge the authenticity. The Dalai Lama—as all the Dalai Lamas before him—relies on Nechung and repeatedly argues that he had approached Nechung (in a special spiritual communication which is not accessible to everybody) and Nechung had told him to bring up the issue (49-50). Accordingly, Nechung is in conflict with Shugden and therefore propitiating Shugden is to be given up. But even here the Dalai Lama judges the authenticity of Nechung by reason.

He states:

“Even if my master says something I compare it with what Je Tsongkhapa said and examine it on that basis. Likewise, I do not right away believe, even if it is said by a dharma protector. I think about it and do divination, I am very careful … Some may think that I am easily believing everything that Nechung says … but this is not so … It is said that we Gelukpas appreciate the power of conventional reason­ing. So we have to keep up with it. Hence it has to be questioned whether Shugden is the reincarnation of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen or not. Even if it were so, it would be on the basis of a conflict between Tulku Drakpa and the 5th Dalai Lama … It is to be judged reasonably … But to judge the exceptional (the deities) on the basis of the level of ordinary beings is impossible. (77)”

However, in spite of these arguments, opposition against this interpretation of the Dalai Lama and the Exile government is still strong on two grounds:²⁸

  • the truthfulness and commitments to one’s root teacher
  • religious freedom

Many of the present Lamas of the Gelukpa tradition have received their teachings from Trijang Rinpoche or Zong Rinpoche. In those cases where he is the ‘root Lama’ (rtsa ba’i bla ma) who has handed down all three aspects of the tradition (oral transmission of texts, commentaries, the empowerments), the relationship to him is absolutely binding. This is an essential part of Vajrayana practice. Otherwise, according to Tantric tradition he might be regarded as a person who has broken the Tantric vow (dam-nyams) and this would concern the Dalai Lama himself as having been initiated by Shugden practice.


The present Tibetan Shugden controversy can be interpreted as a problem of the general validity of arguments based on canonical judgments versus particular religious forces as embodied in special protector deities linked to specific sects and Tulku lineages. This issue is personalized in the institution of the Dalai Lamas. The Dalai Lamas are being interpreted as reincarnated Lamas of the highest spiritual power. They are incarnations of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion for all sentient beings.

As such their scope is universal or at least related to the whole of Tibet, both in religious and political terms. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama belongs to one sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelukpas, who have been engaged in power struggles with other sects and groups. Since the identity of these groups is largely shaped by Tulku lineages, the lineage of the Dalai Lamas is in this respect one among many—a fact reflected in the different interpretations of protector deities, which are connected with those groups, sects and lineages.

These lineages are shaped not only by transmission of the canonical texts but also by Tantric initiations, which transfer spiritual power directly from teacher to disciple. However, the efficacy of Tantric initiation requires truthfulness and commitment to one’s root teacher. Thus, if the root teacher has transmitted the Shugden practice to a disciple, he should not give it up, even if he wishes to. This is the tragic dilemma in the present controversy. That is to say, the present controversy clearly reveals the clash between the need to critically establish canonicity and obedience to the Lama. Therefore, the present controversy and the Dalai Lama’s call to focus on the essentials of Buddhist practice are significant events in establishing canonicity within non-textual aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.

1 I wish to thank H. H. the Dalai Lama for his personal advice and help in getting access to the archives and informants at various offices in Dharamsala. I am also greatly indebted to Ven. Tenzin Tsepak, Dialectic School at Dharamsala, who helped me to locate and translate important texts in the archives and library at Dharamsala.
2 The 100 volumes of Kanjur (bka’ ‘gyur) contain 13 volumes of Vinaya, 21 volumes of Prajnaparamita-Sutras, 45 volumes of other Sutras, and 21 volumes comprising various Tantras. Tanjur (bstan ‘gyur) is divided into three parts: (1) 64 hymns in one volume; (2) 2664 commentaries on the Tantras in 86 volumes; (3) a collection of several texts that can be subdivided into 15 volumes of commentaries on the Prajnaparamita-literature, 18 volumes of Madhyamika-Shastras, 10 volumes of further Sutra-commentaries, 10 volumes of Yogacara-Shastras, 30 volumes Shastras on early Buddhist texts, 30 volumes on logic, medicine, crafts and trade (mostly translations from Sanskrit), and 13 volumes of Tibetan texts on various topics.
3 Statement of H.H. the Dalai Lama on the Shugden issue, 1 July 1996, Archives Private Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala 1996. Cf. Shobhan Saxena’s interview with the Dalai Lama in The Times of India, 17 August 1996.
4 Open letter To the Tibetan Buddhists around the world and fellow Tibetan compatriots within and outside Tibet’, no date (summer/autumn 1996), Archives of the Council of Religious and Cultural Affairs, Dharamsala.
5 ‘To the Tibetan Buddhists’ (5).
6 Ibid. (9).
7 Tibet und Buddhismus 11.41 (1997): 36-7.
8 The Dalai Lama (seat in Lhasa) is not the only and uncontested leading figure of the Gelukpas. The Panchen Rinpoche (seat in Shigatse) and the abbots of the three great monastic universities near Lhasa (Ganden, Drepung, Sera) are important too. In history we observe power struggles between the Panchen Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama which are linked with regional rivalries between the provinces of Ü (Lhasa) and Tsang (Shigatse).
9 Ray (1986: 42) suggests that from the beginning the concept of Tulku and divine kingship as understood in Tibet are connected.
10 Nebesky-Wojkowitz (1993: ix) states that even Lamas of the same sect ‘very often disagree in their explanations of the more complicated religious theories or in the translation of obscure passages in Tibetan works.’
11 The cult of local protector deities had become very popular at the time of the Mahaparirvana-Sutra for it is explicitly justified in that text. See Klimkeit (1990:144)/em>
12 See von Brück (1996).
13 Some material is collected in Kashag (ed.), Dolgyal gyi jungrim (Historical development of Dolgyal). Dharamsala, 1996 [manuscript].
14 Parts (or rather a few hints) of this can be found in the autobiography of the 5th Dalai Lama, but it is retold by Trijang Rinpoche and others, lately also by Nebesky-Wojkowitz (1993: 134-5).
15 See Losang Gyatso (1996: 2).
16 Losang Gyatso refers to the collected works of Phabongkhapa and criticizes him, for he regards him as a great deity and emanation of the Buddha but mentions at the same time that many regard him as a lower spirit which causes harm on account of his bad karman (Losang Gyatso 1996: 5).
17 Srog gtad is complete surrender of body, speech and mind to the deity. The disciple who entrusts his whole life to the Buddha or an emanation of the Buddha can do this only to the highest spiritual beings, not to lower ones.
18 The full title reads Dpal stag phu’i gsan chos rgya can bcu gsum gyi smin byed dbang chog chu ‘babs su bkod pa don gnis ‘bras bus brijd pa’i yons ‘dui dbang po and was printed from the block prints of 1935 from Lha klu House in Lhasa in 1979.
19 Phabongkhapa, ‘Jam mgon bstan srung thu bo rdo rje shugs ldan gyi srog dbang dzab mo’i byin rlab rin chen dbang po ‘dren p’ai yid ches nor bu’i shing rta. In Collected Works. Vol. 7. 498ff. Delhi, n.d. (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives Acc. No. 457, Acc. 1622).
20 He refers to a lost text by Lama Rinchen Wangyal.
21 Tormas (gtor ma) are offering cakes used in rituals made of barley-flour (tsam ba) and butter.
22 However, there is evidence that srog-gtad or rjes-gnang is being practiced also with regard to other dharma-protectors. Hence, Shugden seems to be no complete exception.
23 Published in Tibetan in Delhi in 1978.
24 The full title reads Dge ldan bstan pa bsrung b’ai lha mchog sprul p’ai chos rgyal chen po rdo rje shugs ldan rtsal gyi gsang gsum rmad du byung b’ai rtogs pa brtod p’ai gtam du bya ba dam can rgya mtsho dgyes p’ai rol mo. (Dharma protector of Gaden, Supreme Deity, manifestation of the deity Dorje Shugden …) in Trijang Rinpoche (1978: 98ff.).
25 See Dalai Lama (1996).
26 Statement in a personal talk with the author on 19 October 1996 at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala.
27 The Dalai Lama quoted in Principal Points of the Kashag’s Statement concerning Dolgyal. Geneva: The Tibet Bureau, 1996.
28 Letter to all Tibet Support Groups by the Dorje Shugden Devotees Religious and Charitable Society, New Delhi, November 1996 (Archives of the Private Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala). The letter expresses ‘a great ideal of anguish among a large number of Tibetans and the followers of several prominent Lamas who spread the Dharma to thousands of non-Tibetans around the world’, for the prohibition of the Shugden practice ‘is forcing almost all of the Gelugpa Lamas who have spread the Dharma to the West to break their vow and commitments to either His Holiness or to their root Guru, who is also the root Guru of His Holiness, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.’

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  1. Interesting: “The practice is aimed at a complete union with the deity. Hayagriva (rta mgrin), Yamantaka (gshin rje gshed), Kalacakra etc. are considered to be yidams (ishtadevata), though Hayagriva is a rather rare case where yidam and dharmapdla converge.”

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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