6 Theories as to Why the Dalai Lama Imposed the Ban on Dorje Shugden

The Dalai Lama is loved and revered as both a god and a king by the Tibetan people

The propitiation of Dorje Shugden can be traced as far back as 400 years ago. And in that time, Dorje Shugden was revered as an enlightened Dharma Protector who is in fact the emanation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. This view of the Protector was held by virtually all Gelug high monastic establishments including, at one point in time, the 14th Dalai Lama himself. Historical accounts confirm that it was the oracle of Dorje Shugden whom those closest to the Dalai Lama trusted and consulted in 1959 to seek divine intervention to assist the Tibetan God-King’s escape from Tibet.

However, this all suddenly changed without much explanation. In 1996, the Dalai Lama went from worshipping and praising the deity Dorje Shugden to publicly renouncing and condemning it as a demonic practice. Turning against Dorje Shugden, the Dalai Lama began repeatedly calling for the cessation of the Dorje Shugden practice, primarily citing that it harms his life and the Tibetan cause.

In swift response to the Dalai Lama’s new negative sentiments, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Dalai Lama’s loyal supporters undertook drastic measures and employed very questionable and persecutory tactics as a means to stamp out the Dorje Shugden practice. Essentially, the Tibetan leadership’s purposeful opposition of a religion is an infringement on the freedom and rights of the Shugden practitioners, not to mention a blatant breach of the Tibetan Constitution.

The Parliament and Cabinet of the Tibetan government-in-exile even went as far as passing resolutions effectively decreeing the worship of a Tibetan deity, a criminal act. As a result, those who steadfastly believed in Dorje Shugden, ordained and lay practitioners alike, were singled out, marginalized, refused public service and jobs, denied voting rights and systematically discriminated within the Tibetan exile communities. Hence, the start of the Dorje Shugden controversy that continues to plague the Tibetan people and Tibetan Buddhism to date.

Many cannot understand why the Dalai Lama, an established icon of peace, harmony, compassion and tolerance, would act in complete contrast to all the values he appears to stand for. Over time, one insubstantial reason after another was advanced to explain the ban but when tested against established Buddhist doctrines and also secular logic, they were easily debunked.

The ban is now 20 years old and much damage has been inflicted on both sides of the divide. Still, no viable justifications or plausible explanations that have withstood the test of reason have been given for the Dalai Lama’s violent move against an ancient religious tradition.

In this article, we will look at some theories that are frequently raised to explain the Dalai Lama’s perpetuation of the ban against the Dorje Shugden practice.


1. The Dalai Lama genuinely believes that the Dorje Shugden practice is just spirit worship and it harms his life

The Dalai Lama asserts that Dorje Shugden is not enlightened and is merely a spirit. Hence, stopping the propitiation of Dorje Shugden is necessary to prevent Tibetan Buddhism from “degenerating into a form of spirit worship”. Ironically, if one agrees with this theory, one inevitably is not only undermining the enlightened status of the Dalai Lama but also the power of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. If we believe the Dalai Lama’s statement, we are actually agreeing that the Dalai Lama, supposedly an emanation of Chenrezig, the embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas, is powerless against a mere spirit. Also, if that is indeed the case, why bother taking refuge in the Buddhas?

In addition, many are perplexed that the Dalai Lama has gone on record stating that all high lamas who believe in Dorje Shugden, including his own guru, H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, are wrong without providing solid evidence to substantiate such statements. Their concern takes into account that;

  1. In Tibetan Buddhism, lineage is very important as it ensures the authenticity of the teachings. Therefore, such serious assertions cannot be made lightly without strong justifications. If any teaching by a teacher or Guru can be negated by mere allegations, it will throw the whole system of belief and teachings into question, not to mention the legitimacy of the lineage that survives on the basis of a teacher passing the lineages pure and intact to the next generation of qualified student-masters.
  2. Furthermore, the Guru in Tibetan Buddhism is viewed as the Buddha and central to practice, especially for Tantric practice, without which the training cannot yield positive results. Thus, by rejecting Dorje Shugden in such a high-handed manner, the Dalai Lama has also severed his allegiance to his Guru, which sets a dangerous precedent that calls into question the very foundation of the practice, leading to the degeneration of Vajrayana Buddhism.


2. The Dalai Lama genuinely believes he has to consolidate power and to do that it is necessary to destroy old customs like the Dorje Shugden practice

This theory stems from the fact that for most Tibetans, religion is the foundation of their lives. Therefore, reverence towards their respective lineage teachers is paramount. This would also mean that the Dalai Lama was never in complete control over the Tibetan population. It is said that in exile, those close to the Dalai Lama saw either an opportunity or the necessity to consolidate power and therefore the various religious sects had to be forged into a single entity under the Dalai Lama’s lordship.

However, the great Gelug lamas were in the way and as long as they were around, they would continue to command the hearts and minds of the people. Over time, as the Dalai Lama’s consolidation plans stalled, the Dalai Lama came to view them as a threat to his political ambitions, and hence their preeminence had to be brought down and traditions that upheld their significance, abolished. However, it would be difficult for the Dalai Lama to attack these lamas directly as many were his teachers and teachers of other notable Tibetan people. And so the Dalai Lama commenced hostilities against Dorje Shugden whose lineage is synonymous with the high lamas whose power the Dalai Lama wanted to subvert.

Many have questioned the Dalai Lama’s motives in wanting to unite all Tibetans, considering that it is the ban itself that has and continues to split the Tibetan community. Some have even ventured that the Dorje Shugden ban is another attempt by the Dalai Lama to wield greater control over the masses for less than honorable reasons. The Dorje Shugden ban appears to be a repeat of the Dalai Lama’s divide-and-conquer tactics previously used in the Karmapa controversy, where the Dalai Lama overstepped boundaries and traditions and interfered in the succession process of the Karma Kagyu school that resulted in two rival Karmapas and a rift within the sect that persists even today.


3. The ban is the Dalai Lama’s weapon and bargaining chip with China

The Sino-Tibetan conflict is the classic David and Goliath story. In facing China, the new global super-power, the Dalai Lama has no military or financial power to speak of and seems to be totally helpless. However, the Dalai Lama does command the affection and loyalty of 6 million Tibetans inside what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), who hang on the Tibetan God-King’s every word.

China on the other hand wields tremendous economic power and has the largest army in the world. But there is one thing that China fears above all, which is inchoate unrest from its many ethnic tribes that may be triggered by the discontent of 6 million fevered Tibetans.

According to this theory, in imposing the ban the Dalai Lama had hoped to create a headache for the Chinese government. Of the 6 million Tibetans in TAR, approximately 70% belong to the Gelug lineage and of that, most would have been Dorje Shugden worshippers given the widespread influence of Shugden lamas such as H.H. Pabongka Rinpoche and H.H. Trijang Rinpoche.

The Dalai Lama’s decree for all ‘loyal’ Tibetan people to abandon their faith and teachers is a calculated move to prove to the Chinese authorities that he still wields the power to spark riots that will then become the catalyst for ethnic uprising against the ethnic tribe overlords. The Chinese regard the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist and this is exactly what they fear – that the Dalai Lama would ‘weaponize’ the Buddhist religion and turn it against the Chinese.

By imposing the Shugden ban, the Dalai Lama creates latent unrest amongst 6 million Tibetans in China, a serious headache for the Chinese


4. Dorje Shugden is a convenient scapegoat

This theory revolves around the fact that on many occasions, the Tibetan leaders had promised the Tibetan people that they would soon return to their homeland. In addition, many people around the world had contributed funds and effort believing in the Tibetan cause for liberation. In fact, over the 50-year period since entering exile, the Tibetan leadership has done very little to advance the Tibetan dream or provide a future for the loyal Tibetans who had followed the Dalai Lama into exile.

To deflect the blame away from themselves, the Tibetan leaders used Dorje Shugden as a convenient scapegoat. By pointing the finger at Dorje Shugden practitioners, the Tibetan leadership has been quite successful at diverting the majority of the Tibetans’ attention away from their incompetence and failures, thus enabling them to escape accountability for their actions. It has also directed the frustrations and angst of the people towards Dorje Shugden practitioners instead of the Tibetan leadership, acting like a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” for the Tibetan leadership.

However, it is no longer just the Tibetan people who are getting restless but also a global community of supporters who have donated countless millions towards the Tibetan cause. The “Get Out of Jail Free Card” no longer works as the majority of this group of people have no qualms about questioning the Tibetan leadership, if they see such need to do so. United States Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Maura Moynihan (daughter of United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan) are but two of a number who are beginning to take the Tibetan leadership to task for their failures and misrepresentations to the public.

Imposing the ban against Dorje Shugden takes attention away from the Tibetan leadership’s failures


5. The Dalai Lama is not who people think he is

Generally, the mere mention of the Dalai Lama conjures up the image of a humble monk, the embodiment of Buddhist values, an icon of peace in these degenerate times. Yet, many are finding it difficult to reconcile such persona of the Dalai Lama with his extreme position in respect of the Dorje Shugden ban. On a spiritual level,

  1. The imposition of the ban has forced many people (who are under the reign and control of the Dalai Lama) into breaking their samaya with their (other) spiritual teachers, which is in fact spiritual suicide especially for those who have been initiated into higher practices. This not only destroys their spiritual life now, but endangers the happiness of their countless future lives.
  2. With the ban, the Dalai Lama has created a schism in the Sangha, which is one of the Five Heinous Crimes of immediate retribution. It is said that anyone who commits such an action will go straight to Avici Hell at the end of that life, which is why it is called an action of ‘immediate retribution’.
  3. By triggering and perpetuating the ban, thus resulting in much harm, pain and suffering to Dorje Shugden practitioners, the Dalai Lama is clearly acting contrary to Lord Buddha’s teachings and breaking a whole host of Root Bodhisattva vows in the process.

Who is the Dalai Lama really?

Hence the premise of this theory, as why would a Sangha relentlessly perpetuate the Dorje Shugden ban when the resulting spiritual damage is so foreseeably enormous?

On a secular scale, the Dalai Lama’s insistence on the Dorje Shugden ban despite the obvious severe consequences and harm towards Dorje Shugden practitioners runs afoul of his calls at international platforms for universal peace, harmony and compassion. It is hypocritical that the Dalai Lama continues to espouse his views about religious harmony, democracy and compassion for all whilst continuously ignoring the plight, pain and suffering of Dorje Shugden practitioners despite clearly being aware of them.


6. It is part of the Dalai Lama’s “bigger” plan

Some believe the Dorje Shugden ban is actually part of the Dalai Lama’s bigger plan of spreading the Dorje Shugden practice. This stems from the fact that the imposition of the ban by the Dalai Lama has resulted in much attention on the Dorje Shugden practice, with many being exposed to and becoming aware of the existence of this Protector. It has culminated to a situation where any mention of the Dalai Lama is always followed by the mention of the Dorje Shugden controversy. Hence, according to this theory, the ban is said to have in essence led to the widespread fame of Dorje Shugden.

The Dalai Lama practiced Dorje Shugden for over 40 years of his life

In addition, the Dalai Lama’s ban has served to separate the wheat from the chaff. Through the ban, real practitioners who have steadfastly kept their vows and promises to their Gurus at all costs are clearly distinguishable from those who readily abandon their practices and integrity in exchange for benefits. It has also caused many to really examine the state of their own practice and the value of the Dorje Shugden practice. Such exercise has even led to many becoming more resolved to practice and even to defend the lineage accordingly.

Some have sought to discredit this theory by dismissing it as merely idealistic views of those who try too hard to find justifications for the Dalai Lama’s conflicting actions. However, regardless of whether one agrees with this theory or not, looking at the situation at hand, it would appear that such result bears striking similarities to actions of the great awakened Mahasiddhas of the past who similarly conducted themselves in a manner that appeared to contradict the Dharma but much later was revealed to be their unconventional ways to ultimately benefit Buddhist practitioners.

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  1. The cracks in Tibetan society are starting to show, and it is now coming to the attention of local Indians who have all but identified the Tibetan leadership as the source of the divisions. According to this author, disunity amongst the Tibetans is now creating problems for Indian law enforcement agencies, and this disunity may culminate in young Tibetans holding silent grudges against their host country. It is incredible that after six decades of generosity from India, Indians are now facing the very real possibility Tibetans can be ungrateful towards India. The Tibetan leadership totally failed to impart positive values upon their exiled community, like gratitude for those kindest to them and the need to repay these kindnesses with real, tangible results. It’s also very unlikely that the Tibetan leadership will now start to do this, after six decades of failing to do so. Indians need to realise this, and see that there is no benefit for their nation to align themselves with the Tibetan leadership, and there never will be.
    Tibetan disunity not in India’s interest
    John S. Shilshi
    Updated: August 7, 2018, 11:00 AM
    India is home to the Dalai Lama and an estimated 120,000 Tibetan refugees. Though this humanitarian gesture on India’s part comes at the cost of risking New Delhi’s relations with China, India has never wavered in ensuring that Tibetans live with dignity and respect. Notified settlements across the country were made available so that they can live as independently as possible and practice Tibetan religion and culture. They are also allowed to establish centres of higher learning in Tibetan Buddhism. As a result, several reputed Buddhist institutes came up in Karnataka, and in the Indian Himalayan belt. In what may be termed as a gesture well reciprocated, and because of the respect and influence His Holiness the Dalai Lama commands, the Tibetan diaspora also lived as a peaceful community, rarely creating problems for India’s law enforcement agencies.
    The situation, however, changed from 2000 onwards when unity amongst Tibetans suffered some setback due to developments like the Karmapa succession controversy and the controversy over worshiping of Dorje Shugden. In a unique case of politics getting the better of religion, two senior monks of the Karma kargyue sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Tai Situ Rinpoche and late Shamar Rinpoche, developed serious differences after the demise of Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, in 1981. This animosity ultimately led to emergence of two 17th Karmapa candidates in the early nineties. While Tai Situ Rinpoche identified and recognised UghyanThinley Dorje, late Shamar Rinpoche anointed Thinley Thaye Dorje as his Karmapa candidate. Enthronement of their respective protégés at the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, the supreme seat of the Karma Kargue linage, being their primary objective, both started indulging in activities monks normally are expected to, and bitterness spewed against each other.
    The bitter rivalry assumed a new dimension when UghyenThinley Dorje suddenly appeared in India in January 2000. The competition became fiercer and hectic political lobbying, never known in the history of Tibetan Buddhism on Indian soil, became common place. Apart from pulling strings at their disposal in Sikkim as well as in the power corridors of New Delhi, these senior monks spat against each other with allegations and counter allegations, widening the gaps between their supporters. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, choosing to favour one of the candidates—a decision many Tibet watchers felt was ill-timed—had also limited possible scope of rapprochement. Hence, the Karma Kargyue followers are now vertically divided, while the camps are dragged into a long drawn legal battle.
    Another development that unfortunately split the Tibetans is the controversy over Shugden worshipping, which again is an internal matter of the Gelugpa sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs. It erupted as a result of the Dalai Lama urging Tibetans to refrain from worshiping Dorje Shugden, a deity believed to be a protector, according to Tibetan legend. Shugden practitioners, who felt offended by the call, describe it as an attack on freedom of religion, a right, which Dalai Lama himself tirelessly fought for. On the other hand, die hard Dalai Lama followers perceived the questioning of the decision as one challenging the wisdom of the Dalai Lama and mounted massive pressure on Dorje Shugden practitioners to relent, with some even demolishing the statues of the deity. The rivalry ultimately led to split in two Gelug monasteries in Karnataka, and Serpom and Shar Garden monasteries in Bylakupe and Mundgod respectively came under the control of Shugden followers. The bitterness associated with the split is exemplified by the fact that till today, members of these monasteries are treated as some sort of outcasts by the others. Thus, for the first time, the Tibetan diaspora in India gave birth to sections opposed to the Dalai Lama, with spillover effects in Tibet and elsewhere.
    For India, with a fragile internal security profile, a divided Tibetan population on its soil is not good news. It has several long-term implications. It is common knowledge that China considers Dalai Lama as a secessionist, one plotting to divide their country. The latter’s claim of “all that Tibetans were asking for, was a status of genuine autonomy within the Constitution of the Peoples’ Republic of China”, had fallen into deaf ears. China also considers him as someone who plays to the Indian tune to tickle China. Therefore, at a time when China has successfully shrunk the Dalai Lama’s space internationally, India continuing to extend the usual space for him is viewed as complicity. Sharp reaction from China when he was allowed to visit Arunachal Pradesh in April 2017, is a recent example. Such being the delicate nature of India-China relations on matters and issues concerning Tibetans, India can hardly afford to ignore the division within the diaspora. Past experience of dubious elements from Tibet having succeeded in infiltrating the Central Tibetan Administration, including the security wing, should be a warning.
    It is also time India understands the reason behind Tibetans seeking Indian passports, despite an existing arrangement for issue of Identity Certificates, which is passport equivalent. Some had even successfully taken recourse to legal remedy on the issue, and left the government of India red-faced. These changing moods should not be viewed as desires by Tibetans to become Indian citizens. They are triggered by the pathetic state of affairs associated with issuing of Identity Certificates, where delays in most cases are anything between six months to one year. Early streamlining of the process will drastically reduce their desire to hold Indian passport. It will also remove the wrongly perceived notion among some educated Tibetan youth, that the cumbersome process was a ploy by India to confine them in this country. While India should not shy from requesting the Dalai Lama to use his good offices to end all differences within the community in the interest of India’s internal security, it will also be necessary to ensure that young Tibetans do not nurse a silent grudge against the very country they called their second home.

  2. Although the Dalai Lama has offered an apology, the Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) still expressed their disappointment over his controversial comment on Nehru, the Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC). Dalai Lama called Nehru self-centred.

    The Congress said Dalai Lama being a foreigner should shun and refrain from interfering in the internal as well as external affairs of India.

    Dalai Lama should abstain from imparting controversial information to students: Arunachal Congress
    Dalai Lama should know that a spiritual leader like him is shouldering great expectation: APCC
    | DAMIEN LEPCHA | ITANAGAR | August 12, 2018 9:58 pm
    disappointment over the recent statement made by Tibetan Spiritual Leader the 14th Dalai Lama in which he called Jawaharlal Nehru, the former Prime Minister of India as “self-centered” and the one responsible for parting India and Pakistan.
    “Although Dalai Lama expressed regret over his controversial comment, the APCC is extremely thwarted by it. A Tibetan spiritual leader calling names to an Indian leader who sweated most to keep him and his followers safe from Chinese aggression is simply not acceptable. Today, India is home to lakhs of Tibetan refugees who are living in 37 settlements and 70 scattered communities across different states of India,” APCC vice-president Minkir Lollen said in a statement on Sunday.
    “Dalai Lama may have forgotten that India provided a beam of light and hope to Tibetans remaining in Chinese-dominated Tibet and in the neighbouring Chinese provinces politically cut off from the Tibetan heart land. All these happened only because India has great leaders like Gandhi and Nehru who took the responsibility of social burden to shelter thousands of persecuted Tibetans then in 1959,” Lollen added.
    Minkir said Dalai Lama should know that a spiritual leader like him is shouldering great expectation, hope and trust of millions on record and the same are watching his contribution towards the mankind.
    “In such circumstances, Dalai Lama should abstain from imparting partial and controversial information to the students who are the torch bearer of the nation,” the Congress said.
    Further stating that the statement of the spiritual leader could be a politically motivated one and made with an effort to approach Prime Minister Narendra Modi for survival of his continuation in the country, the Congress said Dalai Lama being a foreigner should shun and refrain from interfering in the internal as well as external affairs of India.

  3. The reasons given by the CTA to ban and invalidate Dorje Shugden are ridiculous. They said Dorje Shugden is an evil spirit therefore things from Dorje Shugden followers are polluted and impure. If that is the case, many Gelug teachings are not valid anymore. Why? Because many Gelug lamas, DS or non-DS lamas got their teachings from Pabongka Rinpoche or students of Pabongka Rinpoche.

    The Dalai Lama is not consistent on Dorje Shugden issue. On one hand, he said no one should practice Dorje Shugden but he said it is ok for Trijang Rinpoche to practice it. How come? Why is there an exception?

    If by practising Dorje Shugden will cause the the practitioner take rebirth in the three lower realms, how come all the DS lamas take rebirth in a human form again? How come the Dalai Lama recognise their incarnation? Is the Dalai Lama telling lie when he said if we practice Dorje Shugden we will take rebirth in the three lower realms?

  4. I don’t think practising Dorje Shugden will shorten the Dalai Lama’s life. The Dalai Lama is the emanation of Chenrezig, he does not have the karma to be harmed. He was diagnosed with cancer but he recovered. He is in fact one of the longest living Dalai Lama. Many previous Dalai Lamas passed away quite young and there was no mention of being harmed by Dorje Shugden.

    It is ridiculous to say a deity practice will shorten someone’s life. How about people who practise voodoos, whose life will they shorten? If we believe in karma, the cause and effect, then we will know unless we have created the cause, otherwise we will not get the result.

    Sometimes higher beings might say something that is not true. This is not to lie to us but to make us examine and make a conclusion ourselves. Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching has never been a blind faith, he asked us to experience it or to examine it before we make a conclusion. We are not asked to believe everything the Buddha say, we are told to examine and conclude.

  5. Dorje Shugden ban does not make sense at all. It does not bring benefits to the Tibetan community but it is breaking the already small Tibetan community apart. Without harmony and unity, it is hard for the Tibetans to move on or progress. That is why after 60 years, the Tibetans are still struggling in India. They are not sure what will happen to them, whether they will be able to free Tibet or if they will remain as refugees for the rest of their lives. If the Tibetans are clever, they should know it is impossible to free Tibet as China is getting stronger everyday. They should really consider to go back to Tibet. After all, Tibet is where they belong to.

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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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