The Shugden Dispute

In my last post I wrote about current issues within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). As promised, to fill out my attitude to the NKT I am posting an article I wrote in 1996 in the second issue of Dharma Lifemagazine, just as the dispute over Dorje Shugden was breaking out into the open.

Much has happened since then and an enormous amount has been written, especially online: this Wikipedia entry is a starting point if you want to find out more, and the contribution of the scholar George Dreyfuss is especially informative. But be warned! The dispute has caused much bad feeling, most dramatically in allegations about the murder of a leading Tibetan critic of the Dorje Shugden practice.

In general, I think this article still hold good. Having reflected further on the subject over the years I have concluded that it is impossible for outsiders to take sides in this dispute: it would mean adjudicating on a dispute concerning the spirit world. That leaves the case for freedom of religious expression, which I think holds as a general principle regardless of the beliefs concerned and whether I like or agree with them.



Enemies and Protectors

Dorje Shugden lives in a palace surrounded by a wild sea of blood. It is filled with mounds of destroyed beings and the air is thick with the smell of human flesh. Shugden himself is dark red in colour, fierce like a savage spirit, and his mouth is bottomless like the sky. He is adorned with snakes, bones and a garland of freshly severed heads. He sends forth flames, winds and rain-clouds against opposing forces and, his followers believe, he encloses all evil-doers, vow breakers and obstacle-creating demons within a gigantic wall.

Wrathful figures like Shugden abound in Tibetan Buddhism within which they are believed to have a more than symbolic existence. To understand their role one has to look deep into Tibetan Buddhism’s shamanistic dimension – with its oracles, portents and spirits.

All reality in this perspective, is created by the mind, but if you believe in spirits they are real, and the Tibetans certainly do believe in them. There are many classes of spirits and some of them are considered very powerful. However, while some have been converted to the Dharma others are malevolent.

But how do you know which are which? The answer is that you ask a high Lama or a monk with shamanistic powers. But what if the lamas disagree? And what if those disagreements coincide with sectarian rivalries on a more mundane level?

Dorje Shugden is at the heart of just such a dispute in the Tibetan Buddhist community, between those who see him as an Enlightened protector and those, led by the Dalai Lama, who see him as an evil spirit.

In June this dispute finally boiled over into the UK media as a group called the Shugden Supporters Community (SSC) mounted demonstrations against the Dalai Lama outside the Office of Tibet. They sent out a press release which was headed ‘Dalai Lama persecutes his own people. Tibetan people in China have more religious freedom than Tibetan people in India’. It is widely expected that they will mount further demonstrations at the time of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the UK in July.

The issues involved are complex and arcane, and feelings have been running high. The dispute has pointed up several sensitive areas: the sectarian divisions within Tibetan Buddhism and the role of the Dalai Lama in these divisions; criticisms of the Tibetan government-in-exile; the difficulties posed by Westerners’ involvement in Tibetan Buddhism; and the deep-seated divisions among British Tibetan Buddhists. But for these very reasons, now that the issue has emerged it is important to attempt to clarify what is involved.

Dorje Shugden is considered by his followers to be a dharmapala or Enlightened protector and an emanation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. These followers are mainly members of the Gelugpa school (although they have also included some Sakyapas), and they consider Shugden a special protector for the Gelugpas. He is therefore associated with the political power the Gelugpas had in independent Tibet.

According to the legend, Shugden is the reincarnation of a Lama who was a rival of the Fifth Dalai Lama and died as a result of their conflict. Then, it is said, he became a hostile spirit, but was eventually ‘tamed’, so that he was a protective force and hence an emanation of the Bodhisattva.

But there have always been those who maintain that Shugden was not properly subdued and is a worldly rather than an Enlightened protector. Propitiating such a figure is held to bring wealth and power, but it is also considered extremely dangerous. Shugden is associated by his opponents with Gelugpa sectarianism and said to be opposed to other deities, particularly the state protectors, Nechung and Palden Lhamo. In that case, to follow his cult would be tantamount to devil-worship.

The Dalai Lama’s principal teacher, Trijang Rimpoche, was an ardent devotee of Dorje Shugden and he brought up his pupil to worship the deity. However, in 1976 the Dalai Lama made it known that he had concluded on the basis of divinations that Shugden was a worldly spirit who was indeed engaged in conflict, in the spirit realm with the other protectors. In this he followed the Thirteenth Dalai Lama who had tried to suppress the Shugden practice. The present Dalai Lama stopped doing the practice himself and in the following years he asked others to stop.

Initiation into a practice such as this implies a solemn commitment including a promise to perform it every day for the rest of one’s life. In the case of a protector, the consequences of breaching this commitment are believed to include bad fortune and ill health as well as a rebirth in a hell realm. It would also mean breaching the relationship with the teacher who gave the initiation.

he Dalai Lama said he would personally accept the karmic consequences of other people stopping the Shugden practice, meaning that he would do battle with Shugden in the spirit realm to prevent him from causing harm. None the less many Lamas continued as private practitioners and the Dalai Lama’s advice was widely ignored.

In March this year the Dalai Lama changed his tone. Whereas before he had been critical of the practice, he now became insistent that it should be stopped forthwith. Failure to do so, he suggested, was tantamount to treason. Shugden was harming his health and Shugden’s conflict with the other protectors was a reason for the Tibetans’ failure to regain independence. ‘Shugden’, he stated, was ‘a spirit of the dark forces’.

Representatives from the Tibetan-Government in exile travelled to the refugee communities across India to try to ensure the ban was enforced and refugee organisations instructed their members to comply.

It is in relation to the way the ban is being enforced that the charges of abuse of religious freedom have been made. Much emotional pressure has clearly been applied. The Dalai Lama argued ‘everyone is free to say “If the cause of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s life are undermined so be it… We will not change our tradition of propitiating (Shugden).”

‘But this means he is asking people to choose between himself and the Tibetan mainstream on one side, and Shugden and the injunctions of their personal teacher on the other. The SSC, comparing these events with the Spanish Inquisition, have said that unrepentant Shugden devotees have been ‘purged’ from government posts and Tibetan organisations, and even ostracised from the refugee community.

These are serious accusations and a concerted attempt to suppress the Shugden cult is clearly underway. The SSC have won the opening rounds of their media war against the Dalai Lama by using a western language of human rights, while the Dalai Lama’s language is heard as medieval superstition. Their charges are yet not proven, and westerners should keep an open mind until there is conclusive evidence.

This will be hard for followers of the Dalai Lama, as it raises the possibility, which they may find hard to countenance, that he has acted unskilfully. The tone of his statements is plainly exasperated. At such times Buddhists should recall the Buddha’s advice that his disciples should not follow blindly, but should ‘test my words as you test gold.’

However, as so often in Tibetan affairs, there are also other more political issues involved. ‘The Shugden schism,’ remarked seasoned commentator Stephen Batchelor, ‘reveals the cultic, shadowy side of a society breaking apart from within.’ Shugden is associated a faction which asserts Gelugpa supremacy and with their sometimes virulent opposition to the Nygmapa sect.

According to Rigdzen Shikpo (Mike Hookham) the full Shugden sadhana invokes Shugden against named Nygmapa figures. In the 1940s the ardent Shugdenite, Pabonkha Rimpoche, is reported to have led an anti-Nygmapa campaign including the destruction of Padmasambhava images.

In a persuasive article in Tibetan Review Gareth Sparham argues that ‘Shugden is a political symbol’ representing a faction which wants to maintain monastic political dominance, and a ‘fundamentalist version of Tibetan Buddhism as a state religion’ which excludes the other schools, who are considered ‘heterodox’. However, in exile the Dalai Lama has sought to represent the Tibetans as a whole and to allow diversity. Although his actions against Shugden seem to have been authoritarian, his supporters claim that his aim is to counter another intolerant faction.

If this is the case, at this stage his actions would appear to have been counter-productive. The reaction in the west, at least, has been angry and hostile and the Dalai Lama’s reputation is undoubtedly suffering. But this too has a context. His western critics in the SSC are closely associated with the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT).

Indeed, Robbie Barnet of the Tibet Information Network describes SSC as ‘an NKT cover organisation’. NKT, based at the Manjushri institute in Cumbria, is of the most successful Tibetan Buddhist movements in the west, and the Shugden sadhana is one of its ‘essential practices’. Devotion to him is central to the NKT tradition which, furthermore, teaches a highly conservative form of Gelugpa doctrine and is associated with the Shugden faction in India.

In 1983 NKT split acrimoniously from the broader Gelugpa tradition in a dispute arising from its leaders’ desire for autonomy. The split was not over Shugden, but it followed the same fault line and NKT has subsequently, ‘been out of communion’ with the Dalai Lama. Much ill-feeling in the Tibetan Buddhist world has resulted but until now neither side has spoken out publicly.

That all changed with the formation of SSC whose attack has extended to virulent personal criticism of the Dalai Lama. In an extraordinary hyperbole, their open letter to the Dalai Lama says ‘Your behaviour is the worst example in Buddhist history.’ They accuse him of causing a schism which for Buddhist is a heinous crime on a par with matricide. Given the literal nature of their own Buddhism, according to which a true Lama’s actions are necessarily skilful, they suggest that he is not, in fact, the true Dalai Lama and is himself a malevolent force.

While it is possible that SSC’s charges of violations of human rights have some justification, their own language is so intemperate that it is highly unskilful in itself. One can understand their sense of grievance at the suppression of a beloved deity, their perplexity at the arcane reasoning with which it has been justified, and their concern that it will make NKT’s teaching work harder. But the nature of their attack seems entirely out of proportion to the evidence they have presented and quite un-Buddhistic. It amounts to a personal attack and appears to be a concerted attempt to destroy the Dalai Lama’s reputation.

As a non-Tibetan Buddhist researching these issues I have found myself perplexed by the literalism of both sides. Believing literally in spirits, in the infallibility of Lamas, and the inviolability of religious vows leave neither side any flexibility with which they can seek to understand the other’s position. And yet these are problems inherent in some Tibetan Buddhist approaches. The most notable absence from the whole affair is the key Buddhist virtue of tolerance of others who hold differing opinions.



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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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