The Dorje Shugden – Dalai Lama Conflict (PART 1: HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THE EVENTS OF 1996 )

(extracted from research of Ursula Bernis)


Continuing the work of his predecessors?

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has said on many occasions Numerous times to Tibetans. For example, “I have come to be counted among the line of the Fifth Dalai Lama. I feel a definite karmic connection with my predecessor. It is my mandate to complete what was in practice during the Fifth Dalai Lama and my predecessor. This is my responsibility.” In public, March 21, 1996, Dharamsala, quoted by the Kashag in an announcement of May 22, 1996. He also stated this in many Western interviews, most recently on CNN, Jan. 3, 1999, 10:30 pm EST; and “This much I can say. Through previous lives I do believe there is some special connection between my being and the Tibetan nation. My spiritual work and the freedom of Tibet are inextricably linked. And I feel, with some confidence, some connection with previous Dalai Lamas, particularly the Fifth and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas.” Fourteenth Dalai Lama in, The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey through the Outer Reaches of Belief, by Mitch Brown, Bloomsbury: New York and London, 1998, p.122. that he considers himself particularly close to the Fifth Dalai Lama and to the Thirteenth and that he will complete what his predecessors started. Specifically, he has referred to a ban (bkag.sdom) he claims the Fifth and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas have imposed on Dorje Shugden as justification for asking Buddhists to stop this practice now and for proclaiming so widely his oracles’ “prophesies” concerning the danger to his life and the cause of Tibet allegedly coming from Dorje Shugden. Since the Fourteenth Dalai Lama identifies himself so closely specifically with these two of his predecessors, I will start out with some relevant points concerning this historical identity.

A Conflict from the Start

In explanation of their anti-Dorje Shugden activities, Tibetans like to give as a reason that Dorje Shugden was surrounded by conflict from the very beginning. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama himself refers to a “conflict between the [Fifth] Dalai Lama and Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen,” with reference to the autobiography of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his Secret Visions, quoted in the Kashag Announcement of May 22, 1996. He also refers to conflict between deities from that time in a public teaching on March 10, 1996, Dharamsala.

The beginning was in 1654 or 1656. Some texts, Gene Smith, for example, cite 1654, others in 1656, Yamaguchi based on the autobiography of the Fifth Dalai Lama and Jamyang Shepa (Tibetan Chronological Tables of ‘Jam-dbyangs bzad-pa and Sum-pa mkhan-po, translated by Alaka Chattopadhyaya, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies Sarnath, Varanasi, 1993, p. 237.) The discrepancy arises not only from the usual difficulties of establishing correct dates in the Tibetan historical context (for these difficulties and some corrections of earlier chronologies see Chattopadhyaya in the introduction to the Tibetan Chronological Tables) but also from the different interpretations of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s subsequent incarnation(s) of which there are several versions. This has caused some confusion exacerbated by mistaking historical references and time with religious accounts, as so often happens in the domain of Tibetan history. See, for example, Dreyfus: “The Shuk-den Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel.

Differing Opinions on the Incarnation

Scholars disagree about the historical origin of Dorje Shugden From the beginning the continuity of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen was obscured by official sources, because he is believed to have been assassinated. “Again, in the fifteenth year of the term Regent Sonam Chophel, also known as Sonam Rabten, in the Fire-Monkey year of the 11th Sexagenary Cycle, in 1656, the reincarnate Lama of Drepung Zimkhang Ghongma known as Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen, was unjustly assassinated out of jealousy by stuffing a silk scarf into his throat. Immediately thereafter, [the deceased] transformed into a malevolent force known as Dhol Gyalpo, creating great havoc upon those of Ganden Potang [the estate of the Dalai Lamas at Drepung Monastery of which Sonam Chophel, the Regent believed to be responsible for Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen's death, was the main administrator during the Fifth Dalai Lama's time as well as the name for the government founded by him].

When this continued time and again, following order of the Dalai Lama, the Sakya Dagchen [ruling head of the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism] Sonam Rinchen brought Dhol Gyalpo under covenant, becoming what is known as Dorje Shugden who is nowadays propitiated as protector deity by most of the patrons and masters on the Gelug side.” Dujom Rinpoche: Crystal Mirror: A Short and Lucid History of Tibet, the Land of Snows, (gangs.cen bod.chen.po’i rgyal.rabs bsdus gsal.du dvangs.shel ‘phrul.gyi me.long bzhugs), a text completed in 1961 but not published until 1978 for censorial reasons involving the exile government in Dharamsala. The place of publication of this text was withheld, page 373 or folio 508. This account is of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen having turned into a worldly spirit, something which is not accepted by those who rely on him as a Dharmapala.

The historian Sumpa Khenbo denies that Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen could have turned into such a spirit, “That the particular Tibetan king is the incarnation of gZim.khang [resident of the Upper House, i.e. Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen] as said by Grags.rgyan is nothing but a biased statement.” (Tibetan Chronological Tables, p. 248) Desi Sangye Gyatso, the Regent of Tibet after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1682-1703) wrote that Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen was first a candidate for the incarnation of the fourth Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, and that “later he became impure.” This was the “official” government’s version, perhaps an attempt to justify why they did not look for the incarnation of such a highly evolved, famous Lama. It is not tenable from a religious point of view for someone like Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen to have “become impure,” if indeed this Lama was as highly realized as reported by religious people not involved in politics.

In 1657, when the Regent Sonam Choephel, who is believed to have killed Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen, died, there was talk for the first time of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen having arisen as a rgyal.po spirit, a class of beings considered very dangerous because they are the result of monks who have broken their vows. Other learned Tibetans have argued that Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen was highly realized and could not have taken rebirth as such a spirit. (See, for example, Pabongka Rinpoche in the introduction to the Sumpa Khenbo (1704-1788) writes that Sonam Choephel (Regent from 1641-1657 when he died), “Due to much devotion to dGe-lugs he assumed the role of the protector of the religion and the savior of the dGe-lugs-pa as per popular belief. I think this is true.” (Tibetan Chronological Tables, p. 238). Dreyfus claims this is an ironic remark. However, there is no indication why it should be interpreted this way. Regent Sonam Choephel would by current standards be called a Gelugpa zealot in the sense that he focused on the worldly supremacy of Gelugpa power in his aid to the Fifth Dalai Lama and the warfare accomplishing this aim, with his family engaging in “one of those frequent and unrewarding campaigns the Dge-lugs-pa regime thought necessary to undertake against Bhutan as the bastion of the older sects.” (Richardson: High Peaks, Pure Earth, p. 450). His death was kept secret for a year and perhaps he haunted those who had participated in the assassination.

Tulku Dragpa Gyeltsen the Chinese Emperor

One version of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s story is that he reincarnated as a Chinese Emperor. The belief among Tibetans is that Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen did, but not immediately. He took birth as the Ching Emperor Qianlong (ascended throne in 1736), active during the time of the seventh and eighth Dalai Lamas and who was patron and disciple to the great Tibetan scholar Changya Rolpa’i Dorje. This belief might be based on a prediction the first Panchen Lama Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen made to his young disciple, Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen, that in future he would be born in the land of Manjushri (Tibet was considered the land of Avalokiteshvara and China the land of Manjushri) in order to benefit a great number of beings, when there was no Dharma in that land and that he would light the torch of Dharma there which will blaze forever. Quoted in ‘jam.mgon bstan.sung rgyal.chen rdo.rje shugs.ldan rtsal kyi be.bum, Vol. 1, Guru Deva Losang Tenzin, Delhi, 1983, p. 17.

Tulku Dragpa Gyeltsen the Dharmapala

The version believed by religious Gelugpas who rely on Dorje Shugden as Dharmapala is that after his death Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen went to the heavenly realms of the devas and emanated from there as the Dharmapala Dorje Shugden. (See, for example, …..verse from kangso) After the remains of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen were cremated the smoke went straight up into the sky, a sign that the deceased was taking rebirth in the heavenly realms. However, Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s main attendant got disturbed and prayed to his ascending master not to leave matters without clarification and without revealing the truth of the shameful acts against him. According to oral history, a shaft of the smoke separated and went horizontally towards Lhasa and the Potala Palace while the main column continued to move straight up skyward.

As in many Tibetan incarnation stories historical time inconsistencies are not explained. They do not have to fit a historical chronology since Buddhists believe that enlightened beings can go to many different worlds even simultaneously to aid others. Almost all incarnation lineages have huge gaps in historical time and are usually not stated in chronological order.

Particularly since Buddhists who rely on Dorje Shugden as a Dharmapala see him in the nature of Manjushri, the action of taming and bringing under oath, which is necessary only of worldly spirits, does not apply to Dorje Shugden. Hence, the importance of a historical dates fades under this account.

Unreliable Religious Accounts about Reincarnations

Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen himself wrote poetic verses mentioning that in future he will incarnate everywhere, not only in Tibet (stated in the introduction to the be.bum). A more recent scholar, one of this century, Kachen Sopala from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, claims that Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen reincarnated in the incarnation line of Ngari Tulkus. The present Ngari Rinpoche is the brother of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. as a protector largely because religious accounts in Tibetan Buddhism often do not follow historical time. As already mentioned, it is beyond the scope of this book to give a detailed historical analysis of this period. Since the Tibetan belief system is unique and historical knowledge mixed with religious presuppositions Consider, for example, the unusual type of power exercised by the highest political authority of a country to forbid a Buddhist master from reincarnating in a particular lineage, “…the Dalai Lama forbade any further reincarnation of that line [Zhwa-dmar-pa of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism now believed to incarnate in Situ Rinpoche, High Peaks, Pure Earth, FN #6, p. 359] and also confiscated the Zhwa-dmar-pa’s property, including the monastery of Yangs-pa-can, which was conveyed to the Dge-lugs-pa monastery of Kun-bde-gling….” ibid., p. 358, probably in 1793 difficult for us to unravel, some points about religion need to be mentioned here. As is widely known, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Tibetans claim to be able to trace incarnation lines across life times. They instituted this belief in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on a large scale, The Panchen incarnations of Tashi Lhunpo; the Dalai Lamas (‘bras-spungs gzims-khang óg-ma lineage); the Panchen Sönam Dragpa incarnations (‘bras-sprungs gzims-khang gong-ma lineage); dben-sa sprul-sku (Tsang); skyid-shod zhabs-drung (Bhutan’s incarnations of Padma Karpo); khalkha rje-btsun dam-pa (Mongolia’s highest official incarnation), for example. See Introduction by E. Gene Smith to The Autobiography of the First Panchen Lama blos-bzang-chos-kyi-rgyal-mthsan, pp. 11-12 first as a system to extend social influence, then to absorb older religious lineages and their supporting families, Ibid, p. 3; for example, “The rebirth of the First Dalai Lama as the son of Grub-chen Kun-dga-rgyal-mtshan resulted in the end of a hereditary line of Shangs-pa Bka’-brguyd-pa lamas. This process continued until recent times; the 6th Dalai Lama brought the Dge-lugs-pa considerable leverage with his branch of the Gnyos, the descendants of Padma-gling-pa, the chief lamas of the Mtsho-sna area.” ibid., p. 4 and then for political legitimation starting in 1642 when the Fifth Dalai Lama established the Ganden Potang government. It is reverse reasoning to claim that the process using lines of incarnation to legitimate political power, which resulted in the institution of Dalai Lama that unifies religion and politics, was sanctified by Tsong Khapa just because one of his disciples, Gendundup, was posthumously called the first Dalai Lama, as does Gareth Sparham in his introduction to The Fulfillment of All Hopes, a text by Je Tsong Khapa he translated. The institution of Dalai Lama was created in 1642 and Je Tsong Khapa passed away in 1419. In other words, it was the Dalai Lamas who appealed to the religious authority of Tsong Khapa to help establish their own power. It was a turbulent time culturally and politically and full of conflict. See, for example, Tibetan Nation, chapter 5 The Fifth Dalai Lama actively participated Including violent rituals, in 1641, for example, “The Dalai Lama sees in his vision that a large human head with a macabre face rises in front of the offerings on the altar; it opens its mouth wide, and numerous human heads fall into it like grains into a bag. The Dalai Lama remarks that this vision is a sign of success concerning the objective of the rite which is the victory of Gushri Khan and his forces over the King of Tsang in 1642.” Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, p. 15, but it is not until 1653, after his return from China that “… he perceives that he has in fact become Guru drag-dmar [a wrathful aspect of Padmasambhava, p. 54] and is so big that his head reaches the heavens. Due to the accomplishment of his meditation, he makes the remark that he has gained some confidence in performing a ‘violent rite’…” p. 18. in helping the Mongolian armies defeat the forces of the King of Tsang who had openly discriminated against and persecuted Gelugpas. Tibetan Nation, chapter 5; Introduction to TAOTFPL, p. 3; Tibetan Chronological Tables, p. 221: an entry for 1618 by Jamyang Shepa reads “Se-ra and ‘Bras-spungs gling were destroyed in the seventh Hor month,” and by Sumpa Khenbo, “The army of gTsang destroyed the monasteries of Se-ra and ‘Bras-spung and murdered many a thousand.” There was violent conflict at the inception of the Dalai Lama’s political institution and the Ganden Potang government. Yet Tibetans do not, on those grounds, deny its legitimacy today, even after the loss of their country. The doctrine of non-violence currently associated with Tibet was championed first in exile in India, although “violent rites” continue to be performed. In 1995, for example, against Dorje Shugden in the presence of the Dalai Lama; and many government sponsored exorcism rituals during 1996/7 in the Tibetan settlements in South India as well as Nepal, according to eye witnesses.

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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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