Theological Implications of the Dalai Lama’s Religious Ban

In analyzing the Dalai Lama’s Dorje Shugden ban, it is easy enough to see how restricting a person from expressing his religious beliefs is a breach of his human rights. However, even as news about the ban acknowledges how it impinges on various ‘freedom of religion’ provisions in the constitutions of a long list of democratic countries and the United Nations Charter, it fails to recognize how the ban impacts on the very theology of Tibetan Buddhism.

Shugden worshippers are quite regularly described as belonging to an ‘extreme religious fundamentalist sect’. But in truth, what makes it seem fundamentalist is the Shugden practitioner’s steadfastness in observing a precept that is fundamental to the successful practice of the Vajrayana path. The said precept is not uniquely Shugden, but deemed critical to virtually all schools under the Tibetan Buddhist banner, i.e. the great importance of keeping one’s vows and commitments to the teacher.

By Western values that are heavily influenced by Christian principles, such loyalty may be regarded as cultish thinking or fanaticism that immediately carries negative connotations. However, the mistake is to assume that a practitioner’s devotion to his teacher is based on the teacher’s charisma and unique cult personality. It is not.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the taking and holding of sets of vows are prerequisites to a successful practice and it is normal for a practitioner on his quest for enlightenment to take refuge vows; and as he progresses in spiritual maturity, the bodhisattva vows and eventually tantric vows. These vows are designed to cultivate a certain attitude in the practitioner and to foster an enlightened view to life and all phenomena. It is in keeping these vows that the practitioner avoids pitfalls that would reverse his training and cause him to stray from a carefully guided path that ends in liberation of the mind. The teacher, then, is the manifestation of one who has successfully traversed the journey and becomes the focus of the practitioner’s efforts.

Seeing the teacher as the ultimate human example of Buddhahood again is not a Shugden invention. In fact, the highest Tibetan lamas from both sides of the Shugden controversy agree to this important view of the teacher.

Lama Zopa, once a Shugden practitioner and now an outspoken Shugden critic says this of the spiritual teacher:

Earlier I mentioned a little about taking refuge in the guru having established the understanding that the essence of the guru is Buddha. The previous Kagyu lamas practiced thus:

Whatever actions are done by the qualified, precious guru — all are good; and whatever actions are done are all of quality.

Even if the act of being a butcher or killing human beings is done, it is meaningful and good. It is definite that sentient beings are guided with compassion.

And again:

As a disciple, one must regard one’s guru as an enlightened being. Even if the guru does not regard himself as an enlightened being and claims that you, as his disciple, gain Buddhahood before him, you must still show respect and pay homage to your guru.

Lama Zopa (right) who gave up his commitments to his guru, Lama Yeshe, to be on the right side of the Dalai Lama’s politics

If the teacher is to be regarded as the Buddha, then to follow the teacher is to agree to obey the Buddha’s instructions along the guided path. The Tibetan term for a practitioner’s promise and commitment to follow a particular set of instructions embodied in the teacher is known as ‘samaya’. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a student is advised to study his potential teacher carefully but once he takes even the basic refuge vows and regards the teacher as his root guru, that samaya is established and has to be protected.

The most widely accepted principles of samaya define a ‘root’ samaya as that, which if violated, would eliminate all values from the spiritual practice. ‘Branch’ samaya is defined as any, which if defiled, would impair the benefit of practice. And the most grievous root samaya that a practitioner can violate is the vows and commitments to his teacher, seen as the Buddha.

If the student has received ‘sogtae’ (life entrustment) or tantric initiations then it becomes even more imperative that the vows be strictly observed. A practitioner, having taken higher vows, is cautioned of the ‘Fourteen Root Downfalls’, the first of which is to dishonor the teacher. (Read more about the Root commitments of a serious Buddhist practitioner)

A painting of Milarepa, one of Tibet’s famous Yogis and a central historical figure of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. His story is often used to depict the importance of devotion to one’s teacher, emphasizing that all spiritual attainments arise from obeying one’s guru. Loyalty to one’s teacher is not uniquely practiced by Shugden Buddhists, but it is a core element in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

All Tibetan Buddhist schools agree that committing any of the root downfalls creates the causes for a rebirth in ‘vajra hell’. Therefore, if a practitioner who has taken vows with his root teacher were to abandon him and breach his commitments to practices given by the teacher, he condemns himself to the lowest rebirth – the complete opposite to his purpose of practicing Buddhism. However, in imposing the ban on the worship of Dorje Shugden, thus requiring the practitioner to denounce his teacher and the holy practices given to him, this is precisely what the Dalai Lama expects all Shugden Buddhists to do!

The Dalai Lama’s actions forces the Shugden Buddhist to choose between condemning himself to vajra hell or risk being labeled a traitor of the Tibetan people, a worshipper of a ‘Chinese ghost’ and an enemy of the Dalai Lama wishing him and the Tibetan people ill.

The simple truth is, in refusing to abide by the Dalai Lama’s religious ban for which no logical or real scriptural reasons have been provided, Shugden Buddhists are not opposing the Dalai Lama but simply avoiding the defilement of a spiritual code central to the Tibetan Buddhist practice, which ironically the Dalai Lama is thought to be upholding. In truth then, the Shugden controversy cannot be framed as the Dalai Lama versus the Shugden cult. Instead, it should be correctly understood as the diktat of a politically-motivated theocrat versus the pure and proper practice of Shugden Buddhists according to a 360-year-old tradition.

Seen in the proper light, there is little that can be said in defense of the Dalai Lama’s actions. If the Dalai Lama were to argue that one could break vows without any karmic repercussions, it would mean all refuge, Bodhisattva and tantric vows are superficial. However, the Dalai Lama tells all Tibetans that not agreeing to abide by his religious ban is tantamount to breaking samaya with him and would harm his life. So clearly, the Dalai Lama acknowledges that breaking samaya is harmful.

But while that is correct in principle, it is not in application because the Dalai Lama is not the guru to most Shugden Buddhists, and so their keeping of their vows to their own root gurus have no bearing on the Dalai Lama. This is just more proof of how religion is abused to support political objectives. However, if Shugden Buddhists were to abide by an illegal ban with no canonical basis, then they harm their correct practice, they harm themselves and jeopardize their samaya with their Shugden root gurus which is central to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

Even if we were to set aside spiritual doctrines, common decency dictates that learning from a guru or spiritual teacher “should not be the same as killing a deer, extracting its musk and then discarding its body.”

Even after attaining enlightenment, one must continue to honor one’s guru for without him realization is simply impossible.

That too is a quote by Lama Zopa who, despite understanding the great importance of samaya, sacrificed his devotion to Lama Yeshe in order to fall on the right side of the Dalai Lama.

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  1. This is an interesting point of discussion and review. This also explains why so many Shugden practitioners persevere through all the torture whilst keeping their DS practice. It has been drummed into them the hell repercussions of breaking samaya with their root Guru; better to live in hell whilst alive then to be stuck in the vajra hell after death !

  2. It is true that the vows are the fundamentals of the practice, the root of it being the object that the vows are promised to and that would be the Guru and the 3 Jewels. Hence, by breaking the vows, all relationship or samaya is broken with the Guru and the 3 Jewels and “punishment” of karma are certain to be experience unless it is mended and purified with the Guru. And if the Guru is dead, it has to be mended with a minimum of 4 Sangha members of the lineage. I shudder that the Dalai Lama take it so lightly the breaking of the vows and samaya of students to their Guru. I never heard him address the issue in any way, which is sad.

  3. What an excellent explanation of just how outrageous this ban really is, the equivalent of secret police bugging the confessional, insisting on obedience where there should not even be knowledge. A matter of conscience, privacy and freedom.

  4. Not so comfortable with the usage of Shugden Buddhist? Shouldn’t the words Tibetan Buddhist suffice besides when the ban goes I doubt this term is required anymore?

    @Sunitta I really liked what you wrote, better hell on earth than vajra hell.

  5. Perhaps the dalai lama hopes he can use his authority to force people to stop the practices of Dorje Shugden. By doing so those people would have broken their samaya with their own guru. And those people might just run to the dalai lama hoping he may take them in as his students. If this is not the intention then I wonder why the dala lama is making those people break their samaya with their guru. Why, indeed.

  6. How aptly put by the author “Shugden worshippers are quite regularly described as belonging to an ‘extreme religious fundamentalist sect’. But in truth, what makes it seem fundamentalist is the Shugden practitioner’s steadfastness in observing a precept that is fundamental to the successful practice of the Vajrayana path.”

    Well if following the path as set out by Lord Buddha and the various lineage Gurus, this is fundamentalist, then I must be labeled a fundamentalist. Why is it that in this day and age, following the Dharma has become something negative. Why should we follow the Dalai Lama when is not our Guru, simply because he is the temporal head of Tibet? Well….I am not Tibetan so i do not need to follow him. I’ve i am to follow the advice or instructions of anybody it will be my own gurus and none others, as it says in the various scriptures.

  7. Dear Dalai Lama,

    Since you started the cruel ban against the 350 year Dorje Shugden practice, how has it benefit your Tibetan society and Buddhism in the world? Things have become worse and most educated Tibetans can see this. They don’t speak out not because they don’t see your ban as wrong, but you instill fear in them and not respect. It is like fear of a dictator. I am sorry to say so. Everyone is divided. There is no harmony. Before your ban there was more harmony and unity.

    By enacting the ban, you split the monasteries, split so many families, split regions in Tibet apart, split your disciples from you, split your own gurus from you, split Tibetan Buddhism apart. You have created so much disharmony.

    It is not democratic what you have done to ban a religion within your community. You always talk of tolerance and acceptance and democracy and yet you do not accept and tolerate something different from your beliefs. When people practice Dorje Shugden you ostracize them, ban them from seeing you, ban them from using Tibetan facilities. You know you have done that. There are videos that capture your speech and prove this point. You even had people expelled from monasteries just because they practice Dorje Shugden. Some of the monks you expelled have been in the monastery for over 40 years. Many older monks shed tears because of this.

    Many young educated Tibetans lost confidence in you as they saw the damage the Dorje Shugden ban created and they lose hope. Many have become free thinkers. They reject what you have done. So many people in the west left Buddhism because of the confusion you created with this ban against Dorje Shugden which is immoral.

    You could of had millions of people who practice Dorje Shugden to support, love and follow you, but you scared them away. They are hurt and very disappointed. They loved you and respected you deeply before the ban. It has been 60 years and you have failed to get Tibet back. Your biggest failure is not getting Tibet back after 57 years in exile. Now you are begging China to allow you to return to Tibet to the disappointment of thousands of people who fought for a free Tibet believing in you. So many self-immolated for a free Tibet and now you want Tibet to be a part of China with no referendum from Tibetans. Just like a dictator, you decide on your own. It was your government and you that lost Tibet in the first place. Your policies and style of doing things do not benefit Tibet and Buddhism. You have been the sole ruler of Tibet your whole life and you still have not gotten our country of Tibet back for us. Our families and us are separated. Yet you create more pain by creating a ban to further divide people. Please have compassion.

    No other Buddhist leader has banned or condemned any religion except for you. It looks very bad. You are a Nobel laureate and this is not fitting of a laureate. You should unite people and not separate them by religious differences.

    You said Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not do right to the Rohingya people in Myanmar due to religious differences, but you are doing the same thing to the Shugden Buddhists within your own society. There is a parallel in this. You separate the Shugden Buddhists from the others in Tibetan society.

    You have lost so many people who would have loved and supported you. You have lost so much support around the world. The Shugden Buddhists who love you number in the millions. When you are fast losing support from governments and private people, it will not do you well to lose more.

    After you are passed away in the future, the rift you created between the Dorje Shugden and non-Dorje Shugden people will remain for a while and that will be your legacy. Disharmony. You will be remembered for this. Not as a hero but a disharmony creator.

    Dorje Shugden will spread and further grow, but you will be no more as you are a human. No one wishes you bad and in fact we hope you have a long and healthy life, but we have lost so much hope and have so much despair because of you. All the hundreds of Dorje Shugden lamas, tulkus and geshes are maturing and there are hundreds of Dorje Shugden monasteries in Tibet who will not give up Dorje Shugden. You have made a mistake. These hundreds of teachers and teachers to be will spread Dorje Shugden further in the future.

    The gurus that gave us Dorje Shugden as a spiritual practice and you have called these holy gurus wrong and they are mistaken in giving us Dorje Shugden. How can you insult our gurus whom we respect so much? If they can be wrong, then you can be wrong. Then all gurus can be wrong. So no one needs to listen to any guru? You have created this trend. It is not healthy. Your own gurus practiced Dorje Shugden their whole lives. Your own gurus were exemplary and highly learned.

    Dalai Lama you have created so much pain with this ban against so many people due to religion. You are ageing fast. Are you going to do anything about it or stay stubborn, hard and un-moving. You show a smile and preach peace and harmony wherever you go. But will you do the same to your own people? Please rectify the wrong you have done. Please before it is too late. You can create harmony again or you can pass away in the future with this legacy of peace. May you live long and think carefully and admit what was a mistake in having this unethical ban against Dorje Shugden religion.

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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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