The Centrality of the Practice in the Geluk during the 20th Century

Particularly in the early days of exile, a number of claims were made about the centrality of the practice of Dorje Shugden in Geluk practice, in particular, that the deity was the main protector of the Geluk.

This claim seems to be strongly linked to a doctrine connected with the 19th and 20th century charismatic Geluk teacher Phabongkha Rinpoche Dechen Nyingpo, and quite possibly his main teacher Tagphu Dorje Chang who emphasised “one lama, one personal meditation deity, and one protector” as being the essence of Geluk practice. It will therefore be looked at in that context.

One Protector

Quite clearly, as the Geluk tradition was founded by Je Tsongkhapa in the early 15th century and the non-canonical protector deity Dorje Shugden did not manifest until 1657, that deity’s practice could not have been the main protector practice of the Geluk for the first 250 years of the tradition.

The main protectors of the tradition until then, and the plural is important here, seem to have been the following:

  • The canonical supramundane protector Karmaraja, locatable in the Yamantaka tantra cycle of the ‘father’ subdivision of the peerless yoga tantras and within that in the practices of Vajrabhairava;
  • The canonical supramundane protector Six-Armed Mahakala, locatable in the ‘Vajra Tent’ tantra text in the Heruka cycle of the ‘mother’ subdivision of the peerless yoga tantra division;
  • The canonical supramundane deity Vaishravana in the aspect of riding a lion and holding an umbrella in his right hand and a jewel spitting mongoose in his left.
  • Later, but still before the appearance of the deity Dorje Shugden, the canonical supramundane deity Palden Lhamo Magzor Gyalmo became a protector of the Geluk. A clear date for this has not yet been established but may well turn out to be after the vision of the 2nd Dalai Lama, where Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava instructed him to take Palden Lhamo as a personal protector. Certainly by the late 17th and early 18th century, her practice was well established across the Geluk. What is important to note here is that all these are supramundane and that they are shared in common with the other Sarma traditions of Sakya and Kagyu.

None is exclusive to the Geluk. From the surviving collected writings of great teachers in the Geluk tradition, there is documentary evidence of continued interest in the practice of all these deities as dharma protectors right up until the present day.

Some of them also have functions as institutional protectors. For example, Palden Lhamo is the chief protector deity for Ganden Jangtse college and the practice of Palden Lhamo is a chief practice of the protector chapel for Drepung Lhachi, i.e. the totality of that monastery.

Apart from a few, often oblique references criticising the practice by certain lamas, the first surviving documentary evidence we have of the widespread worship of Dorje Shugden in the Geluk comes from the first half of the 20th century and seems due to the activities of Phabongkha Rinpoche Dechen Nyingpo.

The 3rd Trijang Rinpoche was collating material in his Labrang before exile, and managed to reconstitute some of his collection in exile, where he wrote quite extensively on the practice of Dorje Shugden. It may be that in the library of his Labrang in Ganden there are original dateable documents from before Phabongkhapa.

Much of the 3rd Trijang’s interesting work on Dorje Shugden is the collation of oral tradition around the practice of the deity. The weight of evidence so far available suggests that the practice of Dorje Shugden as either a worldly oath-bound protector or as an emanation of a fully enlightened being was mainly a private protector practice, with few institutions in the Geluk monasteries doing this as a regular practice.

One obvious example until very recently was the Bomra regional house of Sera Mey college. There were Dorje Shugden shrines in both Sera and Ganden monasteries in old Tibet and in exile, it seems that a three dimensional model of his mandala house had been built at Ganden.

But such is the loss of documentation due to the ravages of the cultural revolution that it is not at all clear how long Dorje Shugden shrines had been established in those monasteries in old Tibet or how well patronised they were in terms of numbers. Both clearly had wealthy sponsors but that does not necessarily equate to numbers.

The evidence that the practice of Dorje Shugden was the main protector of the Geluk simply does not stack up. It seems that for the Geluk as a whole and as an institution, the three then four canonical supramundane deities from the early days have remained the main dharma protectors of the tradition.

One Personal Deity

The one personal deity claimed as central for the Geluk is the practice of the aspect of Vajrayogini that comes through Naropa, known as ‘Naro Khacho’. The practice of Vajrayogini cannot be accessed except through an initiation into a Heruka deity.

Nowadays in Tibetan Buddhism, this seems mainly to be through the system of the five deity Heruka mandala in the tradition of Tilbupa. Looking at the tantra masters in the prayers to the lineage masters of this Vajrayogini lineage produced in the 19th and 20th centuries before coming into exile, Je Tsongkhapa is noticeable by his absence and it would seem that the practice came into the Geluk from the Sakya not through Tsongkhapa.

The issue of who does and who does not get included in lineage prayers is in itself a topic of great interest as until recently it was extremely unlikely that any given tantra practitioner of note really only had one master in the practice. 

More likely he would have studied different aspects of the practice and received different transmissions and oral instructions connected with the practice from a number of tantra masters. This scattering of transmission lineages between teachers is often deliberate, being one way to ensure that transmissions are not severed by untimely death of the only holder.

If we look at the surviving documentary evidence of Tsonghapa’s collected works, it would seem that Je Tsongkhapa had a deep interest in the 32 deity Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja tantra system, the 13 deity Vajrabhairava system and the 62 deity Heruka Cakrasamvara system and made these three practices the core of Geluk tantra practice.

Again the plural is significant. It was of these three mandalas that Tsongkhapa had three dimensional models made in a special temple in Ganden, the seat of his tradition. It is these three practices that constitute the core of the ritual training in the two surviving tantra colleges of Gyu Toh and Gyu Med and constituted the core of the tradition at Sey Gyu dratsang at Sey in the Tsang province of old Tibet.

The transmission lineage of this last practice has been badly damaged and it is not clear whether it can be reestablished fully either in exile or in Tibet. But the other two tantric colleges have been successfully reestablished and continue to ensure the survival of these key tantra practices within the Geluk.

In the Geluk it is the recitation of these practices by the tantric monks from these two colleges that is considered the best way to consecrate a temple. Of the three tantras traditionally Guhyasamaja is held as the main practice, Vajrabhairava as a preliminary and obstacle removing practice and the 62 deity Chakrasamvara as an enhancing practice.

Vajrayogini in the form of Naro Khacho is a branch practice off the Cakrasamvara cycle of practices. The tradition holds that if the number of core tantric practices of Je Tsongkhapa is taken as four then the practice of Kalacakra should be taken as the fourth. If it expanded to five then the practice of Mahacakra Guhya(ka)adipati should be added as the fifth.

Again the weight of the evidence seems to show that Naro Khacho Vajrayogini never was the core or sole tantric practice of the Geluk, though much admired and taken up by some individuals as their main personal meditational deity. It seems that from very early on, the main or core personal meditation deity practices of the Geluk were 32 deity Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja, 13 deity Vajrabhairava and 62 deity Heruka Cakrasamvara.

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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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