The Illegal Ban on an Authentic Buddhist Practice

By the time the 14th Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959, Dorje Shugden had already been practiced for over three centuries and there was no doubt of it being a mainstream protector practice of the Gelugpas. The Dalai Lama himself had been a practitioner of the deity as had been his tutors, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. Although there have been attempts to distort historical truth, Dorje Shugden was in fact the deity that the Dalai Lama had trusted completely and whose advice he had followed strictly in making his escape from Tibet. This was not folklore but a truth attested to by those who had accompanied the Dalai Lama on his escape.

And yet by the late 1970’s, things began to change and what started as a very subtle and unexplained turn of sentiment by the Dalai Lama towards the deity gradually worsened and became one of the most grievous conflicts to ever hit the Tibetan people and practicing Buddhists around the world. Not long after the Dalai Lama’s flight away from the clutches of Chinese hands, he had composed a beautiful prayer to Dorje Shugden and amongst words, praise and adoration, had enthroned “…you, O Deity [Dorje Shugden], as the supreme Collected nature of all Gurus and Protective Deities”. And yet on 13 July 1978, the Dalai Lama claimed that his relationship with the deity was a mistake.

In March 1996 the Dalai Lama decreed an official ban on the worship of Dorje Shugden declaring that the practice of Shugden endangers his life and jeopardizes the Tibetan people’s fight to regain their independence. By his influence over the government, instruments of the State, both the Cabinet and Parliament were leveraged to enforce the ban and in addition, the Tibetan community in exile were incited to become enforcers, seeking out Shugden practitioners as a means of coercing them into abandoning their religious belief or face retribution by the church, state and community.

In the following months, a number of campaigns were initiated by the Tibetan government in exile (Central Tibetan Administration, the CTA) and other Tibetan Non-Government-Organizations (NGO’s) to carry out the Dalai Lama’s wishes. These were essentially witch-hunts which involved the use of force, menacing letters and threats to Shugden monks and lay-practitioners, forced signature campaigns and house-to-house searches.

On June 6 1996, the Tibetan Parliament in exile passed an 8-point resolution legitimizing the ban on the worship of Shugden. Point 8 of the said resolutions states:

In sum, the departments, their branches and subsidiaries, monasteries and their branches that are functioning under the administrative control of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile should be strictly instructed, in accordance with the rules and regulations, not to indulge in the propitiation of Shugden.

We would like to clarify that if individual citizens propitiate Shugden, it will harm the common interest of Tibet, the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and strengthen the spirits that are against the religion. This can be quite clearly and authentically established through texts and logic.

Having said this, it is up to individuals themselves to decide as they like. We cannot force anyone to do anything against his or her wish. However, we would like to emphatically plead to the Shugden-worshippers that they should stop taking tantric initiations and teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps being aware that they were breaching human rights provisions within their own Constitution (Article 12, see below) the CTA referred to the ban as “advice” but within the same resolution, point 6 clearly stated that Shugden worship was forbidden:

In forbidding the propitiation of Shugden, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is following the intention of the guru lineage, including that of his two tutors.

Not only was the CTA not protecting the rights of its own people provided for by the Constitution, it was also misleading the people by making the statement that the Dalai Lama was following the intentions of the lineage masters including the Dalai Lama’s tutors. The lineage masters were upholders of the pure Gelugpa tradition which include the worship of Dorje Shugden as a key Dharma protector. What is more, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche who was the junior tutor of the Dalai Lama was a Dorje Shugden stalwart without any doubt.

Bearing in mind that the Tibetan government in exile did not possess a law enforcement agency, the Dalai Lama kept up the pressure on Shugden worshippers by continuing to incite social coercion, often violent, with devastating results. For instance, in August 1996, a group known as “The Secret Society of Eliminators of The External and Internal Enemies of Tibet” announced its death threat against two young reincarnations of high Lamas who rely on Dorje Shugden, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Song Rinpoche. An extract reads:

Anyone who goes against the policy of the government must be singled out, opposed and given the death penalty… As for the reincarnations of Trijang and Song Rinpoche, if they do not stop practising Dholgyal (Shugden) and continue to contradict with the words of H.H. the Dalai Lama, not only will we not be able to respect them, but their life and activities will suffer destruction. This is our first warning.

The CTA went even further. On 18 September 1997, the Department of Security published a list of 10 prominent opponents of the Dalai Lama’s ban against Dorje Shugden. They were labelled the 10 most hated enemies of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The information provided names, addresses, occupations, photographs, and defamatory allegations against those on the list. This information was widely distributed in the Tibetan settlements, as well as posted on walls.

Advertisements in newspapers were sponsored to spur the Tibetan community into action against Shugden practitioners. For instance, Tibetan newspapers such as She-Ja and Bokyi Dhubab carried instructions that everyone who resisted the Dalai Lama must be treated ruthlessly by all means, including violence. Tashi Wangdu, President of the Tibetan Regional Council, who was responsible for the advertisements confidently stated when asked, that his actions were completely in accord with the wishes of the CTA and the Dalai Lama.

In September 1997, the CTA again passed another resolution on the Shugden issue but this time they inflamed the unknowing Tibetan people even further by accusing Shugden practitioners to be agents of the enemy-China. Point 7 of the resolution states:

The Chinese government’s politically-motivated support to a handful of Shugden activists and their disinformation campaigns in Tibet and outside world should be challenged effectively.

Not even members of the monastic community were spared. The Shugden ban persisted from 1996 onwards but in 2008 the Dalai Lama drove the ban right into the heart of Tibetan Buddhism – into the monasteries themselves, determined to split the remaining Shugden worshippers from the rest of the community, even their monastic brethren. Monks were made to swear against their own deity and those who refused faced expulsion. Eventually Shugden monks had no choice but to split en-masse from the rest.

What undoubtedly made the situation worse for Shugden worshippers was the fact that they venerated the Dalai Lama as well, both as their king and directly or indirectly, their Guru. Many old monks lamented that they would have preferred death than to have to make a choice.

Whether intended or not, the Dalai Lama’s sudden and unexplained stance on an ancient deity he himself had praised as had lineage masters over the centuries, followed by the heave of government pressure and community tension, plagued an already weak nation of stateless people and riddled them with even more suffering. The impact on the Tibetan community was enormous as by the turn of the century, the Gelugaps made up the majority of Tibetan society.

The damage done to the physical body of Gelugpa society was obvious but what was even more lethal was the blow to the Tibetan people’s confidence in their own religion and for more ardent practitioners and scholars of the Dharma, their [once thought of] comprehension of the Buddha’s teachings. The accusations levied at Dorje Shugden went against all logic and wisdom as contained in the Tibetan Buddhist epistemology. The Dalai Lama had [gradually] declared this emanation of a Buddha to be nothing more than a lowly village ghost and pitched the people’s disbelief in his claim as the reason for why the Tibetan people were not yet able to return to their homeland. And this is to say nothing about the mutilation that was inflicted on the process of democracy that the Dalai Lama had ‘gifted’ to his beloved people in the eyes of the people of the world. If the spate of self-immolations that broke out within the Tibetan community was any indication, it was a sign that the Tibetan people had finally given up hope.

And as for justifications for the religious ban? There were none that did not go against commonsense and even less that did not breach basic principles of Tibetan Buddhism held sacrosanct over the ages. The people were told that:

  1. Dorje Shugden was merely a demon. But that would mean that an entire lineage of high Gelugpa masters including Panchen Lamas, Dalai Lamas, Ganden Tripas and learned Geshes were all wrong. And seeing that all of these masters were recognized as reincarnations and/or emanations of enlightened Buddhas, it infers that Buddhahood is still yet another infallible state. The pursuit of Enlightenment therefore is delusional;
  2. That the greatest Gelugpa sages of the modern era such as Pabongka Rinpoche, Trijang Rinpoche, Domo Geshe Rinpoche and others were all mistaken about Dorje Shugden. Essentially this meant that the roots of the lineage itself are rotten;
  3. That since the practice was demonic, it was anti-Dharma and therefore there was no likelihood for a Shugden practitioner to secure a good rebirth. But at the same time, the tulkus of Shugden-practicing lamas were also being recognized and enthroned which throws into doubt the authenticity and legitimacy of the tulku system that was a foundation of the continuity of the purity of the lineage.

What is even more alarming than those charges against the Shugdenpa’s god is the fact that despite the gravity of the issue and the impact it had on the Tibetan people, there were no explanations whatsoever nor were there any dialogues with Shugden worshippers. It was nothing short of a diktat from what seemed like a medieval despotic ruler who at his whim declared a religious practice to be illegal. When in its investigation of the ban, Al Jazeera News asked one of the Tibetan government’s
Members of Parliament
, Tsultrim Tenzin, whether there had been any parliamentary debate about Dorje Shugden, he replied that there had been no debate simply because there was no opposition, adding

We do not have any doubt about Dalai Lama’s decisions. We do not think he is a human being. He’s a supreme human being and he is god, he is Avalokiteshvara.

In fact, just questioning the Dalai Lama’s unilateral decision became a crime but seeing that there were no provisions in Tibetan law to deal with such a ‘crime’ (simply because there are no laws that could uphold such a breach of a person’s basic rights), the punishment was left to the imagination of the Tibetan community to exact on Shugden worshippers. Very quickly the Shugden issue ceased being a question of theosophy and mutated into a question of whether one wishes harm on their beloved god-king or not? Amongst the Tibetans, nothing fans fanaticism more than the thought that the Dalai Lama’s life could be in danger and in the absence of authentic grounds to ban a religion, the Dalai Lama played the ‘loyalty to a sacred authority’ card and exerted so much social pressure on Shugden worshipers.

As the largest lineage in Tibetan Buddhism continued to disintegrate in the Shugden-ban maelstrom, the rest of the world watched on the presumption that this was an internal religious quarrel which was best sorted out by insiders and here is where a critical point has been missed. The Shugden issue may be a spiritual debate, but the ban and concerted effort by the Dalai Lama and his government to forcibly stop Shugden worshippers from engaging in their belief is a clear case of breach of the Shugden people’s human rights. Regardless of how the Dalai Lama feels about Dorje Shugden, he cannot abuse his power and the instruments of the State, especially that which has been declared to the world as being a democratic state that has sought and received much material support from the countries of the free world in its ‘fight for freedom’. The Tibetan Constitution itself guarantees that, not to mention the Indian Constitution, which as refugees the CTA are obliged to abide by, and The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.

At its most base level, the ban on the Dorje Shugden practice is an outright breach against the Tibetan Constitution. Article 12 of the Tibetan Constitution guarantees that:

  1. All religious denominations are equal before the law.
  2. Every Tibetan shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The right includes freedom to openly believe, practice, worship and observe any religion either alone or in community with others.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs and to deal with any matter relating to religious or charitable purpose either alone or in community with others shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

And this is not to mention how Shugden worshippers have been stripped of their voting rights and how in June 1997, without due process, the Tibetan Constitution was amended to preclude the selection of Shugden worshippers into the Judiciary. The amended section for the appointment of judges to the Tibetan Supreme Court now reads,

The chief justice and two other justices of the Supreme Court, in addition to being a Tibetan national, should not be a devotee of Gyalchen Shugden and in a court of law… need not be referred to.

In the world history of human rights abuse, this must be the most neglected and has been allowed to persist while the world ironically celebrates the status of the perpetrator as an icon of peace, tolerance and freedom.

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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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