Dalai Lama Admits He Was Wrong About Dorje Shugden

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By: Shashi Kei

It is now 25 years since religious persecution of Dorje Shugden believers began, spearheaded by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). The fallout of the Dalai Lama and CTA’s religious ban significantly shaped Tibetan lives and forcibly altered the Tibetan Buddhist terrain globally over the last quarter of a century. Millions of lives were placed in jeopardy, the sanctity of Lama Tsongkhapa’s lineage was hurled into confusion and countless spiritual paths were derailed. And that is not counting the impact this rift has made on the collective Tibetan cause.

But now His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has admitted that he was wrong and made it clear that this mistreatment of Shugden Buddhists is to stop.


After the flop, now the flip

The CTA’s religious persecution of Shugden Buddhists started in 1996 and intensified in 2008. Dorje Shugden practitioners were classified as “enemies of the State”; “anti-Dalai Lama”; “anti-Dharma”; “Chinese spies/sympathizers; “demon worshippers” and other similar characterizations.

Yet, the CTA’s propaganda and persecutions failed to completely root out the practice of Dorje Shugden. It was after all, a well-regarded practice, central to the Gelug lineage. Even the 14th Dalai Lama had revered this deity, as did his past incarnations, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, the 11th Dalai Lama and the most respected teachers of the 20th century.

A period of relative quiet followed as Shugden Buddhists were driven underground and out of the CTA’s reach. And then the Dalai Lama did a turnaround.

The Dalai Lama addressed tens of thousands in his live teaching, during which he announced that mistreatment of Shugden Buddhists is to stop.

During the Dalai Lama’s Saka Dawa teaching on May 26 this year, he unexpectedly drew attention to the Dorje Shugden issue, a highly sensitive subject that has been a major fault line for violent conflicts. But this time, the Dalai Lama’s message was a contradiction of a stance that he and the CTA had mandated.

Quoting passages from the Bodhisattvacharyavatara (The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) the Dalai Lama said that regardless of how anyone felt about Dorje Shugden and his practice, any animosity towards the deity was patently wrong. The Tibetan god-king inferred that it is against the code of a Bodhisattva to feel any anger towards the Protector. And in addition, he said it is our own anger and mental defilements that we should examine instead of directing our resentment towards others.


VIDEO: Dalai Lama says Dorje Shugden is an object of compassion (May 26, 2021)

But that wasn’t all.

One week later on June 2, 2021, during another teaching on Je Tsongkhapa’s Destiny Fulfilled (Tog jö dün leg ma), the Dalai Lama, for the first time since he imposed a ban on the practice of Dorje Shugden, admitted that it was a mistake to have discriminated against Dorje Shugden.

This is a very different language and tone to that which the Tibetan leadership employed when they wilfully acted to incite hatred against Dorje Shugden and adherents of his practice. As a result, it was regarded as ‘un-Tibetan’ and ‘un-Buddhist’ if you were not hostile to Shugden Buddhists. So government officials and ambitious monks made it a point to grandstand their contempt of this sacred practice as hating Dorje Shugden became a rapid career path in Tibetan political and monastic quarters.


VIDEO: Dalai Lama says its wrong to reject Dorje Shugden (June 2, 2021)


Skilfully undoing a mistake

The Dalai Lama’s reversal of attitude towards Dorje Shugden is not entirely new. In January 2020, after almost 24 years of labelling Dorje Shugden as an enemy of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama signalled a softening of heart towards the Protector. While in the past the Dalai Lama had categorically forbidden the practice of Dorje Shugden under any circumstances, on that occasion, he actually endorsed the worship of Dorje Shugden but only as a birth deity or a land deity.

It was terminology but in effect, what the Dalai Lama said destroyed the CTA’s justification for denying Shugden Buddhists their constitutional right to freedom of religion. The old justification was that the practice of Dorje Shugden [in any form] threatened the Dalai Lama’s life and caused the failure of Tibetan efforts to regain their country.

Dorje Shugden lamas and monks were treated as criminals to be hunted down and harassed.

Still, the ban on Dorje Shugden practice persisted on its very dangerous and damaging course.

Damaging because it undermined the Tibetan Constitution that guaranteed, amongst other things, religious freedom. Damaging because it undermined the sanctity of Tibetan Buddhism by making a mockery of four centuries of old masters and sages who had upheld the Dorje Shugden practice, including H.H. Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo and H.H. Trijang Dorje Chang. Damaging because it splintered an already small and weak community of people at a time when they should be harmonized in focused efforts to regain their country. Damaging because it created an irreparable schism within the Tibetan monastic community, a split which played out globally wherever there were Tibetan Buddhist adherents. Damaging because it went against the most basic Buddhist principles.


Buddha or demon?

For the last 25 years, debates raged between Shugden Buddhists who regard Dorje Shugden as an emanation of the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri and those who oppose the practice. Detractors argued that the deity was a demon who arose from the death of a monk with broken vows.

Many were caught up in an intriguing web of arguments haphazardly weaved by pseudo-intellectuals, self-proclaimed Tibetan Buddhist experts and sycophants failing to see a real or complete picture.

In fact, it is simple enough a subject.

From the perspective of a constitutional democracy which the CTA claims to be, its persecution of Shugden Buddhists is unlawful and a breach of human rights. Simply put, it is not the business of a democratic government to decide which religion is legitimate and which is not. It is the business of the government to guarantee the freedom of religion which the CTA failed to do.

All Shugden worshippers were denied livelihood. Even the monks were not spared. Pictured here is the infamous ‘yellow stick’ incident where monks were forced to break with their practice of Dorje Shugden or be expelled.

And now, from the perspective of the Buddhist religion, the Dalai Lama has made it clear that whoever Dorje Shugden is, should not be of concern if you are a true practitioner of the Buddhadharma. In fact as the Dalai Lama pointed out, in the practice of Bodhicitta, there is even an obligation to regard all beings as ‘important guests’.

The argument is even simpler when approached from the perspective of common sense. If one does not believe in the sacredness of Dorje Shugden, then one can simply choose not to pray to the deity. It is this simple logic that has kept the world with its myriad religions and beliefs in a relatively peaceful state.

There has never been any proper justification to persecute Shugden Buddhists at all. So, those who took up arms against Dorje Shugden on the basis of ‘because the Dalai Lama said so’, should now stop their bullying of Shugden Buddhists, because the Dalai Lama has indeed said so.


Is this the end of the Shugden ban?

Sadly, it is unlikely to be the case.

Even today after the Dalai Lama has clearly said that it is wrong to discriminate against Dorje Shugden, the CTA’s official website still carries a section dedicated to stoking hatred against Dorje Shugden people. Click to enlarge.

The CTA’s absurd reasoning and conduct in support of an unlawful religious ban has made it a laughing stock amongst educated Tibetans and global political observers. They see that behind the CTA’s democratic and progressive facade is an out-of-date administration that still resorts to fables and superstitions instead of applying common sense when it comes to governance.

While it was the Dalai Lama who initiated the ban on the Dorje Shugden practice, the unrest served the CTA officials well. It has been far easier to keep fanning hatred against Dorje Shugden than to attend to urgent business such as providing adequately for a depleting Tibetan exile population or seeking to engage China in meaningful dialogue. That would have been a wiser strategy than for the CTA to avail themselves as pawns in attempts to curb China’s rise. Unfortunately, provoking anti-Shugden sentiment, antagonizing China and engaging in political skulduggery with Penpa Tsering were Lobsang Sangay’s predominant duties during his tenure as President of the CTA.

The CTA made it a policy to promote animosity towards Dorje Shugden and it was given equal if not more weight than the Tibetan Cause. However, when the Dalai Lama endorsed the practice of Dorje Shugden as a birth deity or land deity, the CTA felt pressured to remove this prominent link. Click to enlarge.

However, when the Dalai Lama endorsed the practice of Dorje Shugden as a birth deity or land deity, the CTA came under pressure to remove a prominent banner on their official website. That banner led to a page dedicated to encouraging the Tibetan people, government offices, local businesses and supporters of the Tibetan cause to keep up the witch hunt against Shugden Buddhists. That page is still present today although not as conspicuous now. And bullying of Shugden Buddhists continues to persist globally with supporters thinking that such behavior is sanctioned by the Dalai Lama.

Whether the CTA removes that toxic anti-Shugden page altogether is now an important barometer of how much they truly revere the Dalai Lama. It would be a contradiction for the Dalai Lama to counsel compassion towards Dorje Shugden followers while the CTA surreptitiously continues to encourage ongoing persecution.

How well will the CTA and the Tibetan people take to this new directive on Dorje Shugden by the Dalai Lama? It’s difficult to tell. A worrying hint is in the way the Tibetan translator completely omitted the part of the Dalai Lama’s teaching when he said:

I have enforced a ban concerning Shugden. But when I reflect on [Shantideva's first verse] now, he is simply someone to be loved, someone with whom we should unconditionally practice loving kindness and compassion. If I distance myself from him giving some tiny reasons like “he is someone who harms the teachings”; most likely this is a mistake.

It is a serious omission because non-Tibetan speakers would have missed the part where the Dalai Lama clearly alluded that the ban on Dorje Shugden was a mistake. 
The question is, was it a wilful omission?


VIDEO: The English translator omitted the Dalai Lama’s advice on Dorje Shugden (June 2, 2021)

With the Tibetan leadership and their coterie, anything is possible and we have seen time and time again how crafty and manipulative they can be. One apt example of this is taking place right now.

Even as the Dalai Lama preaches compassion for all sentient beings including Dorje Shugden followers, the CTA has refused assistance to Shugden monasteries to procure badly-needed COVID vaccines for the monks. So, behind all the compassion rhetoric, nothing much has changed at all. The CTA just got better and more subtle in their persecution of those they label to be enemies. And this is happening at a time when world governments have seen the necessity to put all differences aside to tackle a pandemic that threatens all humanity. But not the CTA.


So what now?

The Dalai Lama’s intention to end the Shugden conflict is clear. He chose Saka Dawa to state his new stance on the Shugden issue. It was an occasion where the Dalai Lama knew he would be speaking to the very people who could put into effect an end to this poisoned chapter of modern Tibetan Buddhist history — the Gaden Tripa, the Sharpa Choje and other senior monks and government officials. And to be sure his message was clearly received, the Dalai Lama repeated his intention to end Shugden persecutions in his June 2, 2021 teachings, this time acknowledging that it was wrong to have discriminated against Dorje Shugden.

During the teachings, the Dalai Lama addressed eminent masters including (from top left, clockwise): His Holiness Gaden Tri Rinpoche Lobsang Tenzin, H.E. Sharpa Choje Rinpoche Lobsang Dorje, H.E. Gyuto Khenpo Gangkar Rinpoche and H.E. Jampa Choje Gosog Rinpoche Ngawang Sungrab Gelek

Understandably it is difficult for the Tibetan leadership to abruptly reverse a religious ban that they cannot afford to openly acknowledge. And it would require some time to turn a collective psyche that has been cultivated over a quarter of a century. But clearly the Dalai Lama’s advice is exactly to do just that. And all Tibetans, Shugden and non-Shugden people alike, have always held the Dalai Lama close to their hearts.

So perhaps the wisest thing for everyone to do, regardless of which side of the now-defunct divide they stand on, is to move forward. Those who have been victims of this dark period in Tibetan exile history need not keep reliving the past, and those who have felt obliged to carry the heavy burden of hating fellow Tibetan Buddhists because of “tiny reasons” (as the Dalai Lama put it) can finally drop this taxing load.

The new CTA President Penpa Tsering now has a golden opportunity to formally wipe out an ugly mistake and bring the people together again. It would be a serious misstep for Penpa Tsering to follow his predecessor’s fatal legacy of human rights breaches. After all, the dark period of CTA politics when one’s political survival necessitated toeing the line on the Shugden issue is now over.

We hope, for the sake of all Tibetan people and all Tibetan Buddhists, that the Dalai Lama’s words are heeded. In remembering the Dalai Lama’s recent teachings, may all beings be invited as precious guests to Sugatahood and may we act to ensure temporal happiness for all sentient beings.


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16 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I don’t agree with your conclusions on this matter.
    I read this as the Dalai Lama still rejecting Dorje Shugden.
    He is stating we should stop hateful speech and actions against him and his followers and in steady show compassion to the idiot followers of Dorje Shugden.
    We must be forgiving of these poor fools that follow Dorje Shugden. The Dalai Lama is just pulling another con game with words.
    Show me were he now condones the practice of Dorje Shugden and his followers. “HE DOES NOT”.
    Sorry but I don’t agree with you.

  2. The way this situation unfolded has baffled me… The mistreatment Mt of others goes against everything that I have been taught since I met the Dharma in 1974 and His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1976. He is my Root Guru,and the most incredible human being I have ever met. I am so happy to hear from him in this matter. Hopefully this will inspire loving kindness which is what the teachings are all about, instead of mistreatment of others. Om Mani Padme Hum. Let’s be humble and kind💕

  3. I am so happy to hear this news. I been to many teachings and events of Dorje Shugden practitioners and they always show me such a good example. I was very unhappy with what has happened and although samsara is deceptive by nature at least between Buddhist practitioners now there is hope that we can restore harmony and have respect between each other. How wonderful news!!

  4. I think the Dalai Lama still has far to go to repair all the damage that has been done.

    As it is now, many still do not take what the Dalai Lama has said above, as having regretted his ban on Dorje Shugden.

    I hope to see the Dalai Lama practise what he preaches in the form of the Four Opponent Powers, to fully repair all the horrible karma that he has created. He still has the time to do all that and I hope for the benefit of the Dharma, he does.


  5. A quote by the writer of this article in a previous post.

    While in the past the Dalai Lama had categorically forbidden the practice of Dorje Shugden under any circumstances, on that occasion, he actually endorsed the worship of Dorje Shugden BUT ONLY AS A BIRTH DEITY OR A LAND DEITY.




    • Which is the correct stance, calling a demon a Buddha does not make it less demonic.

  6. 🙏Everything in nature is “self appearing” of its true essence. HH.DL has the very wisedom of 21.century by seeing the issue as it is, nothing more and nothing less. 🙏🙏🙏.

  7. It is high time to solve this 25 years old religious problem and Lobsang Sangay failed to do it in his whole ten years and now HH Dalai Lama has to do it all by himself without the help of CTA.
    To bring the dragging Ume Lam Policy effectively across Beijing,the very first pre-condition is to clear this religious disharmony among the Tibetans.Otherwise there will be the greatest risk in “transporting” this religious disharmony into China-Tibet.This would be then a worst disaster for China.🔃🔃

  8. I am not sure what the Dalai Lama meant when he referred to Dorije Shugden as a birth deity or a land deity. Does he mean to say Dorije Shugden is a samsara god?

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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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