What saddens me is that so many strong minds are preoccupied with defending or attacking an invisible spirit rather than honing the skeptical empiricism to which the Buddha dedicated his life.
The Dorje Shugden affair that emerged in the 1970s has brought division and strife to the Tibetan Buddhist community; sadly, murder too. This dispute over an invisible god illustrates the archaic nature of Tibetan Buddhism and is reminiscent of medieval Christianity, when religion, myth, politics, superstition and ethics were entwined under the banner of ‘faith.’
Some people have suggested that I’ve taken sides on this issue; I haven’t. I long ago admitted that my belief in invisible gods was insincere and, though I remain infinitely grateful to my old Tibetan teachers, I no longer identify with Tibetan Buddhism. I’m now just a student of the historical Buddha.
The Dorje Shugden practices are tantric rituals typical of Tibetan Buddhism and cannot be entered into without rites of initiation. Those so inducted are obliged thereafter to consider the initiating lama equivalent to the god itself. Having been asked by the Dalai Lama to cease this practice, Dorje Shugden initiates who remained loyal to their commitments were subsequently ostracized. This caused untold confusion and stress.
Add to conflicting loyalties the fear of tantric hell (exponentially worse than conventional hell), and one begins to understand how unbearable this situation has been for many Tibetans and some Westerners. Today, the Tibetan community is split. The founding monastery of the Gelugpa sect in which this schism was hatched, Ganden Namgyal Ling, is today divided internally by a gateless wall.
Taking sides bears social as well as religious consequences. Lifelong teachers and students are estranged. Access to such powerful institutions as the Dalai Lama’s office is barred to Shugden followers. The great monasteries of Sera, and Drepung in South India – centres of the Gelugpa sect at the centre of the division – are split. Explicit signs forbid Shugden followers entry into a variety of monastic and lay institutions, even shops and restaurants.
The bigger tragedy, of course, is that so many strong minds are preoccupied with defending or attacking an invisible spirit rather than honing the skeptical empiricism to which the Buddha dedicated his life.
The following is from an early draft of The Novice.
Dorje Shugden (also known as Gyalchen Shugden or Dolgyal) is one of many dharma protectors – worldly gods supposedly tamed and converted to the cause of Tibetan Buddhism by tantric yogis. It’s said that some protectors subsequently become practitioners themselves and advance on the path to Buddhahood. While some Tibetans believe Shugden to be an enlightened being, others consider him a danger to their tradition. (See Controversy, below.) Dharma protectors are a characteristic feature of Tibetan Buddhism and are an inheritance from the pre-Buddhist Bön, an animistic religion that presumably grew out of the shamanistic practices of an even earlier society.
Editor’s Note – The dharma protector tradition has its roots in India, and various Mahayana (Chinese,Vietnamese) sects do have dharma protector practises though much of it is lost. Dharma Protector practise is not exclusively pre-Buddhist Bön. The Dharma Protector Setrab was known to have been brought to Tibet through the great translator Loden Sherab.
Tantric yoga, an esoteric practice in which one visualizes oneself as fully enlightened, is described as the practice of ‘taking the goal as the path.’ Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have revealed these extremely secret teachings to a select group of highly realized disciples, deeming them too dangerous in the hands of the unqualified.
Every tantric text is prefaced with a warning describing the prerequisite qualifications and demanding nothing but the most remarkably advanced practitioners. In the hands of such yogis, Tantra is believed to lead either to rapid enlightenment or to inconceivably miserable vajra hells – hence its danger and the need for secrecy.
The power of tantra lies in transforming anger into insight, desire into compassion and ignorance into wisdom, by strategically engaging in what’s normally considered negative behaviour. In the highest class of Tantra one manifests with great wrath and lust. In sharp contrast to the conventional path, women are said to have certain advantages. Dorje Shugden is a dharma protector with both peaceful and wrathful forms, and some of the highest practices of Tantra are performed in his image.
Most Southern Buddhists of Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka might consider tantra an abomination — quite unrelated to the teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, the man who became Buddha some twenty-six centuries ago.
Dorje Shugden came to unusual prominence in the last two decades of the twentieth century following the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s pronouncement that he is a “spirit of the dark forces.” The Tibetan community in exile is profoundly split on this issue, and some monks and teachers have severed all links to their spiritual bases in Tibet and India.
In particular, one Geshé Kelsang Gyatso, formerly from Sera Monastic University, now expelled, has masterminded a widely successful Tibetan Buddhist cult, centred in Britain but now extending throughout the world, that grows year by year in force and resources. A war of words and hearts has been unleashed.
Foul murder has been committed and even Westerners are taking sides. The Dorje Shugden controversy has all the makings of an internecine war, and the office of the Dalai Lama has already been weakened, though only within the confines of Tibetan Buddhism. Although this story created a minor stir in the Western press in the 1990s, it is in no way eclipsing the rapidly rising star of the Dalai Lama as the world’s most famous Buddhist monk, an international superstar and a Nobel laureate.
For more insightful stories about the inner workings of Tibetan Buddhism, read The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned, by Stephen Schettini.