Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangri-La

Statue of the 33rd Tibetan King, Songtsen Gampo (617-650 AD)

Millions of Buddhist monks have been killed, imprisoned, tortured, or driven into exile by the Communist Chinese since the 1950s in a deliberate, systematic destruction of a culture and a religion. The pacifist Buddhist monks are about as innocent and noble as victims can be; the Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama is perceived to be equally wonderful, kind, and heroic. Few are unfamiliar with the boy-king’s narrow escape in 1959 from the Chinese into India, where he still governs in exile and continues to preach non-violence. He is one of the most universally respected religious figures in the second half of the twentieth century.

This peace-loving image of Tibetan Buddhism sometimes may not be matched by reality, however. In fact, some observers suspect that internal conflicts – called by some a feud – resulted in the recent assassination of Tibetan leaders in India by Buddhists holding a different point of view*. Understanding these conflicts and how they might have led to assassination requires some history of Tibetan Buddhism.

History behind the Conflict: Gods and Tantra

A fundamental Buddhist principle is that all phenomena, including people, lack an inherent “self”. We are possessive, greedy, hateful, angry, worried, and frightened because we think we have a self with needs, desires, and rights that must be honored and satisfied. Buddhists say we are deluded about this self. Our clinging to the idea is the cause of all of our problems and the reason we are reincarnated to lives of suffering over and over again. When we stop clinging to the notion of self, we can advance spiritually and eventually attain nirvana, an extinction of all craving that affords blissful release.

Such a principle should, it seems, preclude belief in any kind of deity, since belief would imply that a deity has independent existence and a self. As Buddhism came into contact with indigenous religions, however, it found ways to incorporate local pantheons of gods into, and subordinate to, Buddhism. This is especially true in Tibet, where the form of Buddhism over which the Dalai Lama presides draws heavily upon the customs and beliefs of Tibet’s native animistic and shamanistic Bon religion.

The Bon religion divides the world into three realms: Heaven, consisting of gods and demigods; Earth, consisting of Humans and Animals; and the Underworld, consisting of Hungry Ghosts and Demons. Bon shamans invited possession by these spirits in order to access their powers. Buddhism brought the tantric doctrines to Tibet from north India. Buddhist tantric practices involve the development of subtle powers of energy and mind to accelerate spiritual development. These practices were as attractive to Bon shamans as they were to Buddhists.

State-sponsored Buddhism began in the seventh century C.E., when warlord and Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo married a Nepalese princess, promising her father that he would become a Buddhist. He also married a Buddhist Chinese princess. When an outbreak of smallpox occurred, the Bon interpreted it as a sign from the gods that Buddhism was bad for Tibet and forced the King to expel all Indian teachers and many of their Tibetan followers from the country. In the eighth century, an attempt was made to reintroduce Buddhism with the aid of Shantarakshita, a great Indian teacher.


The Potala Palace in Red Hill, Lhasa

Shantarakshita came and taught at a palace on the Red Hill in Lhasa. When lightning struck the palace during a violent storm, the Bon again declared that the Tibetan gods had been angered and demanded the expulsion of Shantarakshita. Shantarakshita later was asked to come back but is said to have replied that the forces of evil in Tibet were too strong and had to be exorcized. He recommended that Tibet solicit the services of a famous tantric monk Padmasambhava, known in Tibet as Lopon Rinpoche (Norbu, 148-49).

Lopon Rinpoche traveled throughout Tibet for fifty years, exorcizing demons and, it is said, forcing them to work for Tibet, incorporating much of the native pantheon of gods and beliefs into a Buddhist framework. Many of the deities were brought into the Buddhist fold as different aspects of the same deity. Thus, the Buddha or gods may manifest in a variety of forms, in a way roughly similar to Christianity’s god manifesting as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


135 Feet tall statue of Padmasambhava in Namchi, Sikkim, India.

How is this behavior reconciled with the Buddhist doctrine that nothing has an inherent self? Since the world as we experience it is a product of our minds, under Buddhist theory, the gods and hungry ghosts can be thought of in the same way – not having a self, but existing as phenomena of the mind. They are therefore no less real than anything else we experience; and in the Buddhist framework, they are subordinate to Buddha whatever their nature. Tibetan Buddhists to the present day pray to gods and utilize oracles, just like the Bon, and believe the unseen world is populated with all sorts of powers and forces that must be reckoned with, even though they are phenomena of mind without an inherent self. In a way, this view could be compared with Christian belief in devils, angels, intervention of saints, and god as a Trinity. This is the first fact necessary to understand the background of the current conflict.

The second fact is that the practice of tantra has been a recurring issue in Tibetan Buddhism. As described above, it was the tantric monk Padmasambhava who exorcized Tibet of its demons and paved the way for the establishment of Buddhism. The form of Buddhism that took hold popularly was heavily influenced by tantra and the native Tibetan deities. In the eleventh century C.E., another Indian teacher, Atisha, came to Tibet and taught Buddhist doctrine free of tantric elements, reinterpreting tantra in a symbolic and philosophical manner, and advising that only two of the four tantric initiations be utilized. It is said by Thubten Jigme Norbu, a former Tibetan monk and brother of the current Dalai Lama, that Atisha tried to strike a balance between Buddhist scripture and popular tantric practices. The resulting resistance caused Tibetan Buddhism to break into separate schools – the Kadampa, which followed Atisha’s views; the Kagyupa and Sakyapa, which wanted to retain more of the traditional Tibetan deities; and the Nyingmapa, or Old Sect, which did not care at all for Atisha’s reforms and followed tantric-influenced practices associated with Padmasambhava. Norbu says that the Bon of today in Tibet consider themselves closer to the Nyingmapa than to any other Buddhist sect.


Lama Tsongkhapa

In the fifteenth century, the monastic reformer, Tsongkhapa, continued the reforms begun by Atisha – establishing the Gelugpa school, founding the important monasteries of Ganden, Sera, and Drepung, emphasizing pure Buddhist teachings and the practice of virtue – but did not attempt to subvert or reform the older Tibetan Buddhist sects, all of whom coexisted with the Gelugpa and the native Bon.

The heads of the Gelugpa school were known as Dalai Lama and were believed each to be the reincarnation of his predecessor. Upon the death of a Dalai Lama, a search is made among children in Tibet for his reincarnation. Oracles and prophecies suggest areas to search and candidates to be tested and screened, often with reference to their ability to recognize acquaintances or belongings of the previous Dalai Lama. In this way, the head of the Gelugpa school reincarnates repeatedly to serve as Dalai Lama. The present Dalai Lama is the fourteenth in succession.

Editor’s note: The Dalai Lama is the temporal and spiritual head of all Tibet but not the head of any particular school. However, he is a Gelugpa practitioner. The head of the Gelugpa school is known as the Gaden Tripa, also known as the throne holder of Tsongkhapa. The Gaden Tri position is earned, not identified via incarnations. Thus even the humblest monk can rise to become head of the Gelugpa school. The Gaden Tripa is the supreme head of the Gelugpa tradition and it is interesting to note that earlier in 2010, the 101st Gaden Tripa, who has recently retired, publicly acknowledged that he practices Dorje Shugden and has moved his ladrang to Shar Gaden.

Gelugpa Ascendance and Death of the Great Fifth’s Rival

Keeping the foregoing in mind, we turn our attention to events in seventeenth-century Tibet. In 1642 C.E., the Dalai Lama, head of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, acquired authority over a politically divided Tibet. The “Great Fifth,” as he is known in Tibet, was shrewd in his dealings with the Chinese, the Mongols, and with his Tibetans. He consolidated power through an alliance with Mongol leader Gushri Khan, who defeated the strongest secular leader in Tibet, the King of Tsang, who was a member of the Nyingmapa order. At the time the Great Fifth gained power, there were both secular and sectarian rivalries. In addition to various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the old Bon religion was reviving its bid for supremacy in Tibet. Rather than use his power to crush the Nyingma sect, which he easily could have done through his alliance with the Mongols, the Great Fifth deliberately incorporated Nyingmapa teachings and practices into his ecclesiastical court (Norbu, 248-49). Some Gelugpa purists objected.

As the secular and spiritual leader of all of Tibet, a Dalai Lama would have to maintain good relations with all sects. Yet, given that the Nyingma sect was closer to the Tantra, whose excessive influence Gelugpa’s founder thought was detrimental to Buddhism, allegiance to Nyingma could have been a basis for legitimate concern or a rallying point for political opponents of the Great Fifth. Furthermore, his attraction to Nyingma may have been more than political expediency, as it is said that Padmasambhava, the Indian tantric master who had exorcized the demons from Tibet, appeared to the Great Fifth in dreams and visions (Batchelor, 62).

In any event, it is alleged that the conflict between the Great Fifth and the Gelugpa purists led to the suicide or murder of the Great Fifth’s rival, Drakpa Gyaltsen. Gyaltsen had been one of the candidates considered for selection as the Fifth Dalai Lama, so in a sense this rivalry had existed since childhood. One story says that Drakpa Gyaltsen defeated the Dalai Lama in debate and was found dead the next day with a ceremonial scarf stuffed down his throat. The spirit of Gyaltsen was said to have returned and brought with it calamities upon the Tibetan state. After magicians and lamas failed to exorcise the wrathful spirit, the leaders of the Gelug sect asked the spirit to become a protector. It “agreed.” Those who had opposed the Dalai Lama’s involvement with the Nyingma sect recognized the spirit, called Dorje Shugden, as the reincarnation of Gyaltsen (Lopez, 68).


Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen

One of Dorje Shugden’s functions is said to be to protect the purity of the Gelugpa teachings from pollution by Nyingma doctrines. However, the following statement also is attributed to the Fifth Dalai Lama: “The so-called Drakpa Gyaltsen pretends to be a sublime being. But since this interfering spirit and creature of distorted prayers is harming everything, both dharma and sentient beings, do not support, protect or give him shelter, but grind him to dust.”

The practice of propitiating Shugden and regarding him as a manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjushri (i.e., a Buddha) continues among some Tibetan Buddhist monks and laypersons to the present day. For some of these practitioners, Dorje Shugden is the primary focus of their practice and, through the thirty-two deities of his mandala (different manifestations of the same deity), is said to embody various qualities and provide all kinds of help to those who take refuge in him. According to information appearing on a pro-Shugden website referenced at the end of this article, Dorje Shugden manifests in many different aspects – peaceful, wrathful, layperson, monk, even nonhuman. Dorje Shugden also is said to have manifested prior to the seventeenth century dispute with the Fifth Dalai Lama, incarnating in the person of certain great monks and lamas extending all the way back to the time of Buddha. However, Dorje Shugden first made his appearance in Tibet’s history as the reincarnated spirit of Drakpa Gyaltsen.

Dorje Shugden practices have been the subject of controversy in the past. At the beginning of this century, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had to forbid Pabongka Rinpoche, the most influential Gelugpa lama of the time, to invoke the deity on the grounds that it was destroying Buddhism (Batchelor, 63)

Editor’s note: see this article on the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s stance

The ban was ineffective and the practice was passed on to Pabongka’s disciples. Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism without Beliefs (Tricycle/Riverhead), points out that the Dorje Shugden dispute has erupted throughout Tibetan history every time a politically effective Dalai Lama has held office.

Dorje Shugden Returns

dorje shugden

Dorje Shugden

The conflict began to resurface this century when, in 1973, a lama published an account of various illnesses, tortures, and deaths allegedly inflicted as punishment by Dorje Shugden upon Gelugpas who practiced Nyingma teachings. This account was alleged to have been received orally from Trijang Rinpoche, one of the Dalai Lama’s tutors and a former disciple of Pabongka, the lama whom the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had forbidden to propitiate Dorje Shugden (Batchelor, 63).

The present Dalai Lama, who himself has engaged in some Nyingma practices, condemned the publication and in 1976, upon advice of the Nechung oracle, began discouraging the practice of propitiating Dorje Shugden – although he himself had, up to that point, been in the habit of offering daily prayers to Dorje Shugden. Of the six categories of beings in Tibetan Buddhism, the current Dalai Lama’s brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, places Shugden in the “hungry ghost” category, a status comparable to Western notions of evil spirits that haunt or possess people. By 1996, the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying: “It has become fairly clear that (Shugden) is a spirit of the dark forces.” He announced that he would give no tantric initiations to those who had not renounced Shugden. It also is alleged by the Shugden camp that supporters of the Dalai Lama’s position destroyed statues of individual Shugden worshippers.

This is a big deal because some Tibetans have entrusted their lives to Dorje Shugden through initiation ceremonies, believing him to be a bodhisattva, or manifestation of Buddha. Imagine the uproar in the Catholic Church if the pope were to declare prayers to Mary a form of Satan worship to have a sense of how disturbed some Tibetans might be by these pronouncements. According to Shugden supporters, there were protests by Tibetan monks in India following the Dalai Lama’s statements. In the West, the Dalai Lama was picketed in London in 1996 and accused of suppressing freedom of religion. A few days later, a statement was issued by the Tibetan government-in-exile strictly forbidding departments and monasteries under government control from propitiating Shugden. In February of 1997, three anti-Shugden Tibetan Buddhist monks, including the Dalai Lama’s close friend and confidante, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso (the principal of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics), were brutally murdered in Dharamsala, India, the Tibetan capital in exile. It is alleged that monks loyal to Dorje Shugden did the killing.

The Murder

The killing is said to have been ritualistic. Newsweek reported that the three members of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle were stabbed fifteen to twenty times each in a bedroom just a few hundred yards from the Dalai Lama’s residence. Robbery was eliminated as a motive because cash and gilded Buddhist statues had been left at the blood-splattered scene. Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar and author of Inner Revolution (Riverhead Books, 1998) and an old friend of the Dalai Lama’s, has been quoted as saying that he believes Shugden activists are behind the murders. No one has been arrested and the suspects are believed to be in Tibet.

Shugden organizations deny any involvement; however, a report appearing in the Indian press claims that Indian police traced a call the escaped killers made to a pro-Shugden organization in New Delhi. Seven months prior to the killing, a threatening letter, the full text of which can be viewed on the official web site of the Tibetan government-in-exile, allegedly was sent under the seal of the Dorje Shugden Charitable and Religious Society to “… the morally degenerated Lobsang Gyatso, who is a disgrace to the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics….[We] came to Dharamsala three times. In which nunnery were you hiding then?… Instead of writing warped compositions, you should come down to Delhi (the locale of Shugden sect headquarters) with courage and meet us like the louse meets the thumbnails. However, if your guilty conscience does not afford you the courage to come down, give us a date and we will come to you. Make your decisions” (The Official Web Site of the Tibetan Government-in-exile: Subsequent to the killing, fourteen persons in the Dalai Lama’s entourage also claim to have received death threats.

The Shugden organization denies any involvement in the murders or threats. They also claim that the letter quoted above does not constitute a threat and that the phrase about lice and thumbnails is a common Tibetan idiom for determining the truth or falsity of a matter.

Editor’s note: See here for Geshe Helmut Gassner’s statement on this.

On a pro-Shugden website it is alleged that threats have been made against Shugden activists by anti-Shugden groups. They also suggest that the murders could have been committed by people within the Dharamsala compound, alleging reports that evidence was tampered with and that a sack filled with several hundred thousand dollars in cash was “missing.” The detention of various Shugden personnel for questioning and attempts to extradite the suspects through Interpol indicate that the police have focused upon Shugden activists.

Buddhist Fundamentalists?

The Shugden sect is popular with Tibetans obsessed with doctrinal purity. Robert Thurman has compared them to the Taliban, Muslim fighters in Afghanistan.

Editor’s note: Yet Thurman requested twice for the Shugden Empowerment but was rejected

The press in the West has seized upon the occult, wrathful aspect of Dorje Shugden, describing the deity as a sword-wielding god sometimes wearing necklaces of human heads. The heads are supposed, however, to be symbols of conquered vices and transgressions.

The deity is said to ride a snow lion, symbolizing the four fearlessnesses of Buddha. The mongoose on his arm indicates his power to grant wealth on those who rely upon him. He has a third eye in his forehead, symbolizing omniscience, and his wrathfulness shows his power to destroy ignorance and obstacles (Dorje Shugden Coalition website).

The Shugden movement is organized around Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a Gelugpa monk who founded The New Kadampa Tradition in 1991 and set himself up as head of it in London. (As described earlier, Kadampa was the order founded by eleventh-century reformer Atisha.) Kelsang’s uncle is the medium for Dorje Shugden. Kelsang describes the NKT as “pure Gelugpas,” and the organization appears to have targeted Westerners for recruitment. The NKT (or one of its associated organizations) led demonstrations against the Dalai Lama in London and then later in New York. Kelsang is challenging the Dalai Lama’s moral authority on the international stage.

Spokespeople for the Dalai Lama say that the tradition of Shugden is notoriously sectarian, disruptive of harmony in the Tibetan community, and on many occasions during the past 360 years has denigrated other authentic Tibetan traditions. “It has been an active force of fundamentalist antagonism, intolerance and fear. Shugden advocates taught that any practitioner who engaged in practices from other Buddhist traditions would face misfortune or even death.” (The Official Website of the Tibetan Government-in-exile:

The Dalai Lama said on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday that he was in a dangerous period in his life. He reportedly declared that Dorje Shugden is a threat to his own life and to the cause of Tibet. That he has made statements that Shugden is aligned with dark forces and refused to initiate Shugden followers into tantric practices suggests that the Dalai Lama fears assassination as well as occult harm from the Shugden sect.** Although he has not said so, his followers reportedly believe that, on an occult level, the hungry ghost Dorje Shugden is seeking revenge for his own brutal murder back in the seventeenth century (Max, 1997).

The NKT present themselves as attempting to exercise religious freedom in the face of oppression by the Dalai Lama. People in the West, especially America, are likely to be receptive to such claims, whether true or not, because of Western values and history that emphasize religious diversity. On the other hand, the followers of the Dalai Lama would argue that he has a duty to discourage spirit-worshipping practices contrary to the fundamentals of Buddhism. In an interview in Tricycle, Kelsang has challenged the Dalai Lama to state publicly what evidence he has that Dorje Shugden is an evil spirit who is harming Tibetan independence and threatening his life. He argues that what Shugden followers choose to believe harms no one else. Kelsang even denies that Dorje Shugden harms Nyingma practitioners and calls such beliefs superstitions (Donald S. Lopez, Jr., “Two Sides of the Same God,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 7, no. 3 [Spring 1998]: 76). Nevertheless, a text entitled “Praise to Dorje-Shugden” (quoted by the lama whose 1973 account of calamities and punishments befalling Nyingma practitioners provoked condemnation from the Dalai Lama) suggests some animus.

“Praise to you, violent god of the Yellow Hat teachings, Who reduces to particles of dust Great beings, high officials, and ordinary people Who pollute and corrupt the Gelugpa doctrine” [excerpted from "Praise to Dorje Shugden," quoted by Stephen Batchelor in "Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and Times of Dorje Shugden," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 7, no. 3 [Spring 1998]: 60).

The Dalai Lama’s people call NKT a “cult,” and the British press has described it as Britain’s biggest, richest, and fastest growing religious sect. Since 1991, it has grown to over two hundred centers in England and about fifty in Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere in Europe. NKT’s goal is to be the biggest umbrella Buddhist organization in the West. There is said to be a lot of pressure for members to give money. According to British press reports, supporters are told that donations will “create enormous merits” in future lives. Interest-free “loans” from members are also being used to fund expansion. There appear to be associated organizations, such as the Shugden Supporters Community and the Dorje Shugden Coalition, controlled or peopled by NKT members, through which many of the denunciations of the Dalai Lama are issued.

Kelsang has a reputation as a brilliant teacher of Buddhism and had built up a following prior to setting up NKT. Sixteen of his books on Buddhism have been published in English, two of them bestsellers in England. An article in the British press says that Kelsang tells his followers he believes Buddhism in Tibet is dead because of the Chinese occupation and that it has already died in India. If he is right, that leaves the West as the future of Tibetan Buddhism.

Is Kelsang personally ambitious? The British press reports that some of his former students who are disillusioned with NKT insist that he is an honest, well-intentioned person of integrity. Some speculate that his followers may be using him, or that he fails to appreciate the geopolitical consequences of some of what he says and does.

Some former followers suggest that those around him create an atmosphere that promotes Kelsang as “the Third Buddha,” come to establish Buddhism in the West, the first and second Buddhas having been respectively Buddha himself and Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. A story in the British press reports that followers are told that Kelsang is all-knowing and all-powerful, answers prayers, does not need to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom, and has to put rocks in the pockets of his robe to keep from levitating during meditation. Kelsang, in response to such stories, describes himself as “nobody special.” It is not uncommon for Western devotees of eastern gurus to make extraordinary, exaggerated claims with or without a nod and a wink from the teacher.

Communist Chinese-Connection or Exploitation?

An Indian newspaper published reports that the murderers immediately crossed over to Tibet after the murders and were safely escorted to their villages by the Chinese army. The Chinese, who destroyed so many temples and killed so many monks, reportedly are restoring Shugden temples in occupied Tibet. A report allegedly appearing in the Chinese official journal, China’s Tibet, no. 6, 1996, which can be viewed at the website of the Tibetan government-in-exile, repeatedly refers to Dorje Shugden as the holy spirit and guardian of Tibetan Buddhism and denounces the Dalai Lama as a religious hypocrite. Whether the Chinese Communists are behind the murders or are simply taking advantage of a situation to undermine the Dalai Lama is hard to say.

Shugden activists deny opponents’ claims that they receive funds from the Chinese government and claim they support an independent Tibet. Nevertheless, NKT’s apparently systematic campaign against the Dalai Lama is considered by some to be an attempt to damage the whole sustainability of the exile community. The Dorje Shugden Coalition website refers to a story, attributed to The Indian Express in Chandigarh, reporting allegations that the Tibetan government-in-exile hides the known previous records of many Tibetan refugees and manipulates facts about Tibetan refugees involved in crimes to conceal their guilt. Is the point of including the article to show the murders could likely have been committed by one of these “hidden” criminals, or simply to malign the Tibetan government-in-exile? Similarly, included in the Shugden Coalition website is a quote from an interview with the Dalai Lama which appeared in Mother Jones, December 1997, stating that to save a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, “it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated.”

Presumably, this quote is to suggest to the website reader that the Dalai Lama, feeling himself endangered, could justify ordering the murder of his enemies or at least is not the pacifist we think he is. If one looks up the article and reads the quote in context, the Dalai Lama is talking about a hypothetical saving of the last person on earth having knowledge of Buddhism – not himself – and asserts that he left Tibet in 1959 [Editor: So that Tibetans would not kill to protect him. Since Tibetans in exile are guests of the Indian government, information suggesting that they or Tibetan government-in-exile is potentially dangerous or disruptive threatens that guest relationship. If the Tibetan exile community were no longer welcome in India, Communist China's interests would be well-served, but that does not prove that the Shugden Coalition intends that result.

What's So Bad about Nyingma?

Since Dorje Shugden is supposed to prevent Nyingma teachings from polluting the Gelugpa order, why is Nyingma so "bad"? Nyingma represents the oldest Buddhist system in Tibet, tracing its origin back to the Royal Dynastic Period (617-845 C.E.) and to Padmasambhava, the legendary Indian tantric master who exorcized Tibet's demons at the end of the eighth century.

Padmasambhava is said to have brought "Distant Lineage of the Transmitted Precepts" - the doctrines, rituals, and meditative practices transmitted from master to disciple since the eighth century - and the "Close Lineage of the Treasures." The latter are supposed to be revelations buried by Padmasambhava, either physically in the Tibetan earth or psychically in the minds of his reincarnating disciples (Davidson, 102). As described previously, many of the major reforms in Tibetan Buddhism, including those of the founder of the Gelugpa school, attempted to redact or purify the tantric and animistic aspects of early Tibetan Buddhism to make them more consistent with the underlying principles of Buddhism. Nyingma remains closer to the original, unreformed version of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to Stephen Batchelor, director of the New Sharpham College in Devon, England, and author of Buddhism without Beliefs (Tricycle/Riverhead), Nyingma teaches Dzogchen, the direct and sudden pointing out by a realized teacher of the experience of the natural or authentic state of mind beyond conceptions. This state of mind is an innate, self-cognizant, self-existing awareness underlying both samsara (illusion) and nirvana. The idea of a self-existing awareness, of course, raises the thorny question of "self."

Hindu Vedantists, similar to what is implied by Dzogchen, teach that there is a real self, what Westerners might call God, that is self-existing, though everything else, including our separate lives until we attain self-realization, is illusory. Buddha broke from Hindu thought by teaching that neither the gods nor any phenomena have an inherent self. The Gelugpa purists' view (the purity of which Dorje Shugden is bound to protect) considers Dzogchen a delusive clinging to a type of self-existence and a backsliding to Hindu ideas that Buddhism was supposed to refute. Nyingmas might reply by characterizing Gelugpa purists as nihilists. Batchelor says the dispute is not academic hair-splitting to those involved but the struggle for truth in which the salvation of sentient beings hangs in the balance. Thus, different views on esoteric philosophical questions with important, they believe, practical consequences fortify each side's position.

Precedent exists in otherwise heterodox Tibetan Buddhism for suppressing wrong views regarding the existence of a self. The Fifth Dalai Lama, after consolidating his power in the seventeenth century, proscribed teachings of the Jonangpa school, which taught that emptiness, an idea important to understanding that all phenomena are without a self, implied the existence of a transcendent absolute reality (Batchelor, 65). Jonangpa monasteries were taken over by Gelugpa monks. If the Great Fifth had done the same to the Nyingmas, perhaps the Dorje Shugden schism never would have arisen.

[Editor’s note: There is no proof of animosity of the Gelugpa to the Nyingmapas. Lineage Lamas like H.H. Pabongka Rinpoche and H.H. Trijang Rinpoche were often invited to teach at Nyingmpa monasteries and were well-received. In addition, HH Penor Rinpoche, a renowned Nyingma master, sheltered Shugden practitioners in his own ladrang when the ban created much hardship for the Shugdenpas. Dorje Shugden is not a sectarian practice.]

Why Is Dorje Shugden So Important?

If Shugden purists object to Nyingma tendencies toward acknowledging a self-existing reality, why do they cling so strongly to Dorje Shugden? Does that change Buddhism to Shugdenism and make Shugden a self-existing reality and those who take refuge in Shugden part of a sectarian cult? As Buddhism syncretized with the native Bon religion, an important distinction between Buddhists and Bon practitioners was that Buddhists supposedly understood that the gods, although real in the sense that anything is real, were just mind, without inherent existence. To what degree can one become attached to or take refuge in deity protectors without in fact attributing to that deity an inherently existing self? Even worse, in the view of the Dalai Lama, would be to take refuge in a “hungry ghost.”

How does any of this deity worshipping, or the factors of emotion, politics, and tradition underlying it, really square with the tenets of Buddhism? The two sides would give different answers to those questions. Both sides see Dorje Shugden as a “real” entity, whether an aspect of the Buddha or a hungry ghost, and as real as any one of us – not just a form of worship or technique of meditation.

* See David Van Biema, “Monks vs. Monks; Devotees of a Ferocious Buddhist Deity Are Seeking to Put a Dent in the Dalai Lama’s Aura of Sainthood,” Time, May 11, 1998, 70 (1); The Christian Science Monitor; John Zubrzycki, special to The Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 1998. These articles, as well as a series appearing in the spring 1998 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, describe what Tricycle calls “Tibet’s ‘unmentionable’ Feud.”

** In a statement appearing on the Tibetan government-in-exile’s website, however, it is explained that the danger to His Holiness is not that he will be attacked by an evil spirit but that the bond between the Dalai Lama and his people will be broken.


Batchelor, Stephen. “Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and Times of Dorje Shugden.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 7, no. 3 (Spring 1998).

Bunting, Madeleine. “Shadow Boxing on the Path to Nirvana.” The Guardian, London, July 6, 1996.

Clifton, Tony. “Did an Obscure Tibetan Sect Murder Three Monks Close to the Dalai Lama?” Newsweek, April 28, 1997.

Dorje Shugden Coalition Website, URL

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. “Two Sides of the Same God.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 7, no. 3 (Spring 1998).

Max, Arthur. “Dalai Lama Fighting Ghost in Religious Dispute.” Seattle Times, August 21, 1997.

Norbu, Thubten Jigme, and Colin M. Turnbull. Tibet. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.

Davidson, Ronald M. Review of The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Parabola 18, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 102(3).

Official Website of the Tibetan Government-in-exile, URL

Simms, Laura. “Compassion’s Flower: An Interview with Orgyen Kusum Lingpa.” Parabola 22, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 20(8).

“Two More Shugden Activists Identified as Murderers.” The Tribune, Indian English-language daily, Chandigarh edition, November 29, 1997.

Van Biema, David. “Monks vs. Monks; Devotees of a Ferocious Buddhist Deity Are Seeking to Put a Dent in the Dalai Lama’s Aura of Sainthood.” Time, May 11, 1998.

MIKE WILSON, a member of the Society for Utopian Studies, is a lawyer and long-time student of religion and spiritual disciplines.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning


(Editor’s Note: This link appears to have been removed from the mentioned website)

Please support this website by making a donation.
Your contribution goes towards supporting
our work to spread Dorje Shugden across the world.

Related Topics: , , ,

Share this article
4 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. There are two issues involved in this great conflict and deep schism.
    One is the perception that the pro Shugden camp believes strongly that Tibetan Buddhism be practiced in the pure unadulterated form resulting from Lama Tsongkhapa’s reforms and with an emphasis on moral virtues as Tsongkhapa had insisted; and consequently,this camp is inflexible and does not entertain or tolerate the ‘non-purist’ practitioners who incorporate other traditional beliefs in practice.
    The second issue is the conflicting view of Shugden as a Boddhisattva and compassionate Dharma Protector or as a hungry ghost.
    With regard to the first issue, my view is that if Lama Tsongkhapa himself, as well as great ‘purist’ Gelugpa practitioners after him(also Shugden practitioners), have always shown great understanding and practiced compassion towards other ‘non-purist’ practitioners and other lineage practitioners, then I see there to be no issue at all.In fact, Tsongkhapa himself sought out and had gurus from the other lineages too. All Tibetan lineages have generally lived and performed their practices in peaceful coexistence all this while.
    In the case of Dorje Shugden(the second issue), those who view him as a Boddhisattva and enlightened Dharma protector, see him as fiercely and compassionately protecting the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa and especially Nargajuna’s Middle View on Emptiness.Those who strongly support him see his compassion in a big way,as a fierce guardian of precious teachings which can be easily lost in these degenerate times, to the detriment of all sentient beings.They also know his compassion as their personal guardian in living their daily lives the dharma way.
    Those, who perceive him as a hungry ghost, cite cases of his purportedly wreaking harm and destruction amongst those who do not believe in him.
    In the spirit of compassion which is the heart of Buddhism, such a serious conflict, with such tremendous disastrous consequences, should be resolved quickly by spiritual leaders. Yet one wonders whether such a conflict is the result of causes which had interdependently arisen previously. For there would not have been this experience/happening if there were no karma for it to happen.

  2. It was alleged that the conflict between the 5th Dalai Lama and his rival Drakpa Gyaltsen has led to the murder of Drakpa Gyaltsen as he was one of the candidates to be selected as the Dalai Lama. But was killed and found dead with a scarf stuffed down his throat. It was said that the Spirit of Drakpa Gyaltsen then returned and caused havoc and calamities. Everything was done to excorcise the Spirit but was not successful. The Gelupa Leaders then asked the Spirit to become the Protector. The spirit agreed and he became Dorje Shugden which the Nyingmas and those who believed in the Spirit being the reincarnation of Drakpa Gyaltsen is Dorje Shugden.

  3. Interesting article. What comes to mind is the difficulty for the Buddha Dharma to take roots in a new land. In this case, it was from India to Tibet when Dharma faced with so much obstacles from Bon practitioners. Every calamity seems to be blamed on Tibetan Buddhism.

    How interesting and similar that during the passing of Tulku Drapga Gyeltsen and him manifesting as Dharmapala Dorje Shugden, there was an earthquake. It was pronounced by the 5th Dalai Lama that Dorje Shugden was an evil spirit, of which later he regretted and realised that Dorje Shugden is an enlightened being.

    Are ghosts then ghosts or gods? Are evil spirits then evil or enlightened beings?

    Trust in the lineage lamas like Trijang Rinpoche, Zong Rinpoche, Gangchen Rinpoche and many others as they cannot be wrong. We do not have the clairvoyance nor attainments therefore how can we tell what is what and who is who.

  4. The complication hides the very simple fact that it doesn’t matter what people believe as long as they do no harm. Even the Dalai Lama doesn’t mind what anyone else in the world believes except people who venerate Dorje Shugden. Surely this should ring alarm bells in any reasonable people’s minds that the purpose of opposing one deity or spirit in all the world, and specifically one within his own culture, must be local and political.

Submit your comment

Please enter your name

Please enter a valid email address

Please enter your message

Show More
Show More

(Allowed file types: jpg, jpeg, gif, png, maximum file size: 10MB each)

You can now upload MP4 videos to the comments section. "Choose File" -> click "Upload" then wait while your video is processed. Then copy the link and paste it into the message box. Your video will appear after you submit your comment.
Maximum size is 64MB

Contemplate This

.…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.

Dorje Shugden and Dalai Lama – Spreading Dharma Together | Terms of Use | Disclaimer

© 2024 | All Rights Reserved
Total views:10,630,868