The Dalai Lama and the Shugden Cult: What Is at Stake in This Conflict?

Jens-Uwe Hartmann
Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich
Institute of Indology and Tibetology

Dec. 2014

For several centuries, Tibetan Buddhism is being repeatedly shaken by confrontation, in the center of which stands a so-called protective deity, namely Dorje Shugden. A few decades ago this conflict surfaced once more in the exile community in India, but it remained for the time being largely an internal Tibetan matter, only because relevant writings of the pro and con factions were published exclusively in Tibetan.

Since 1997, however, this conflict has increasingly attracted worldwide attention, and it has now pulled in Western followers as well. Normally, a dispute about the cult practice of a protective deity in Tibetan Buddhism would remain alien and puzzling, however the Shugden issue has the ability to polarize groups to a high degree. In the West, this dispute feeds on the fact that the followers of Dorje Shugden have found their declared enemy in the person of the Dalai Lama. This enables them to generate media attention and effective public appeal. If a spiritual figure of such prominence as the Dalai Lama is accused of religious suppression, one can be sure of public interest.

In addition, the sensitive term “religious freedom” is moved into the forefront of this dispute; it is connected with the issue of Human Rights, and with this, one can rouse high emotion in the West. As such, there is virtually no visit of the Dalai Lama in the West at which a larger or smaller group of Western Shugden followers does not demonstrate with chants, posters and leaflets against the Dalai Lama and calls for religious freedom for the members of their cult. This was observed during the recent visit in Frankfurt, and the International Shugden Community will certainly again be present during the next visit to the West. Therefore, it is time to bring to mind once again the conflict and, above all, it’s background.

A Protective Deity Can Be a Troublemaker

Among the many features of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition are the so-called protective deities. Such deities are no Tibetan fabrication, but were already known from Indian Buddhism. However, it was only in Tibet that they gained a special importance, which can at least partially be explained by its fusion with elements of pre-Buddhist religious ideas. According to this view, the world is populated by all sorts of supernatural beings which are very important in Tibet.

Such beings are usually attributed with an ambivalent nature: they can be sympathetic to people, but they can also act in a hostile manner toward them. There are accounts of how even the Buddha himself converted such beings and placed them as protectors in the service of his teaching and his followers. Tibetan Buddhism also follows this model. Therefore, protective deities play an important role in the religious world view and in the religious practice of Tibetan Buddhists.

Such a protective deity is Dorje Shugden (rDo-rje shugs-ldan) or Dolgyal (Dol-rgyal, pronounced Dölgyel). When the conflict over the cult practice of this protector deity flared up again in the exile community in India, it was my impression that it was at first deliberately kept away from the Western followers. I remember how in the seventies I was given, off the record, a very cautious hint about it in whispers, with the clear expectation that I would keep this information to myself.

A wider publicity of this problem in Germany was brought to the fore in a report on Tibet by Panorama-Magazine of ARD (First National TV Channel) on November 20, 1997. The target of the program was the Dalai Lama. He was attacked for his stance in the conflict over Dorje Shugden. To illuminate the “contradictory” nature of his person, he was first introduced as the world's highly respected Nobel Peace Laureate. In light of the Shugden conflict, it was intended to show that an entirely different person lies behind this façade, namely that, together with the Tibetan government-in-exile, he uncompromisingly suppresses the religious freedom of his countrymen. In this context, a mysterious murder case was mentioned that had shaken the exile community in the beginning of 1997. At that time, Geshe Losang Gyatsho, a resident of Dharamsala and a close confidant and supporter of the Dalai Lama, and his two students were murdered.

Dalai Lama Panorama Shugden

In principle, two things should be noted: First, religious clashes in Tibet have a long tradition. Second, in these conflicts, despite all transfigurations of Tibet in the West, it was not always the case that only mental weapons were used. There have also been murders in the history of Tibet that were religiously and politically motivated. That Tibetans regard this as a real part of their culture becomes clear from the fact that they have apparently no problem in seeing a religiously motivated act in the aforementioned murder of the Geshe, although the actual background of this crime to my knowledge has not yet been fully established.

Moreover, it should be noted that usually the tangible interests of power politics lie behind most ostensibly religious conflicts. This is no different among the Tibetans than anywhere else in the world. Moreover, in such cases there never is a clear distinction between just and unjust, between the side of good and the side of evil in such conflicts. Rather, more often it is a web of interactions that leads to both sides becoming entangled by it. This finding might be vexatious, because it robs us of the possibility to clearly take a stand for the side of “good”, but it is probably a necessary prerequisite in understanding the conflict and to meting out fair justice to all the parties concerned.

The Historical Background

Who is that ominous Dorje Shugden? As is generally known, there are four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism. Each of these schools has its own protective deities. Shugden acts as such a protective deity almost exclusively for the Gelugpa School (and to a much lesser extent, for the Sakyapas). This cult originated relatively late and goes back to a struggle of power politics between the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) and his rival, Dragpa Gyaltsen (Grags-pa rgyal-mtshan), another important Gelugpa scholar, and his followers.

The Fifth Dalai Lama, who was never squeamish in dealing with his opponents, succeeded in having the dispute decided in his favor, whereby Dragpa Gyaltsen died. A story was put into circulation that Dragpa Gyaltsen had already taken an oath in a previous life to become in the future a protective deity of the Gelugpa School, and for the fulfillment of this vow he had to die. According to one version, he committed suicide by thrusting a khatak [silk scarf] in his mouth and suffocated to death; according to another version he did not take this khatak into his mouth so voluntarily. After Dragpa Gyaltsen’s death, frequent unfortunate events occurred that affected the whole of Central Tibet, particularly the government and even the Dalai Lama. Soon it was realized that the deceased had continued to work here in the form of a vengeance-seeking demon. After several futile attempts, it finally succeeded to pacify this spirit. As is usually the case in Tibetan Buddhism, he was bound by an oath henceforth to act as a protective deity.

Regardless of the historical accuracy of the details, it is apparent from the genesis of the issue at that time that two essential elements accompany the Shugden cult to this day, namely a potential aggressiveness and a latent opposition to the Tibetan government and to the person of the Dalai Lama. These elements have led in the past to repeated conflicts between the followers and opponents of Shugden in the Gelugpa School.

Similar conflicts have occurred between the Gelugpas and followers of other schools, particularly the Nyingmapas. In Tibet, such a conflict flared up last in the beginning of the last century, when Phabongkhapa (1878–1941), an important Gelugpa Lama, spent some time in Kham (Eastern Tibet). There, he persecuted groups of Nyingmapas and was apparently involved in the destruction of at least one monastery. That Lama, whose merits in other areas are quite undisputable, was both politically and religiously a militant representative for the Gelugpa cause and simultaneously a staunch follower of Dorje Shugden. Most of today's followers of this deity trace their meditation practice directly back to that Lama or his chief disciples. At the latest, it was with Phabongkhapa that the Shugden cult came into the dangerous grounds of assuming sectarian traits, with the aim of placing the teachings of the Gelugpa School over all other Buddhist traditions in Tibet.

There was a further antagonism rooted in the genesis of the issue at that time, namely between Shugden and Pehar, a further protective deity. Pehar manifests itself in the traditional Tibetan state oracle of Nechung Monastery. Although he is seen as a protective deity of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, nevertheless the oracle itself belongs to the Nyingmapa School. The Tibetan government, however, was dominated for some three hundred years by circles belonging directly to the Gelugpa School or who were closely associated with it. This Gelugpa dominance of political power has fundamentally not changed in exile. Since Shugden has its own oracle, his followers today want to see the Nechung oracle removed and replaced by him, and this adds another problem area to the current conflict.

“If [the Dalai Lama] is now trying to push back this cult or even bring it to an end, his intentions accordingly can be interpreted as that he considers the balance between the different schools as a supreme good …”

The Dilemma of the Dalai Lama

Not all Gelugpa monks are followers of Dorje Shugden, and not all Shugden followers are militant. The connection with this protective deity carries with it, however, a constant potential for conflict, both within the Gelugpas and between the Gelugpas and the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that Shugden is definitely not a protective deity for Tibetan Buddhism in its entirety, but that the followers of other schools reject it, and some even vehemently, is of the utmost importance in understanding the dilemma in which the Dalai Lama finds himself today.

The Dalai Lama also regards himself belonging to the Gelugpas; if he is now trying to push back this cult or even bring it to an end, his intentions accordingly can be interpreted as that he considers the balance between the different schools as a supreme good, rather than exclusively favoring his own school in the style of a party politician, and that he is even ready to pay for this a high price of massive conflict within his own school. Only by doing so would he be able to fulfill his stated claim to be the Dalai Lama of all Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly emphasized how much he feels committed to the Rime movement, a tradition that emphasizes the trans-sectarian commonality of all the various branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Shugden followers ignore such point of view completely. This brings up another interesting point: Both pro and con factions work with modern media. They are present on the internet, and each of the two sides is keen to portray its own point of view as the only correct one. For this purpose, they employ an air of European-style enlightenment, but work simultaneously with abridged presentations and simply leave aside important aspects.

Also problematical is how the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama are trying to carry out measures to persuade the followers of Shugden to abandon their protective deity. For example, when petition lists go around in the great Gelugpa monasteries in India to confirm their monks’ renunciation of Shugden, this is, according to Western understanding, a kind of ideological spying, which can by no means be endorsed. Equally problematic is the restriction of Shugden followers from taking part in certain important religious events of the Dalai Lama. Both enforce decisions that are publicly visible and which result in exclusion and even ostracism in the case of refusal. It must be remembered that the regular practice of a tantric meditation deity cannot be relinquished arbitrarily, if the practitioner takes seriously the commitments he or she has made.

Shugden followers have received its practice from their respective lamas, their spiritual teachers. The personal teacher in Mahayana Buddhism, and even more so in Tantrayana, occupies a special rank: he is seen as identical with the Buddha. When you take this into consideration, then you understand that every serious practitioner can have qualms when it comes to simply giving up such instructions of his teacher, even if it is at the behest of the Dalai Lama. This is the general attitude that is independent of his association with one particular school or which meditation deities he follows. Therefore, if he is forced to decide either to follow the wishes of the Dalai Lama or to continue to practice the teachings received from his own teacher, he gets into an inevitable conflict of loyalties, which one sees among Gelugpa monks and which has led to all sorts of  solutions. The open renunciation of the Dalai Lama is one such solution, as is picking up the argument of suppressed religious freedom in line with the pattern, “We did not go into exile because of the suppression of our religion by the Chinese only to get it suppressed in the same way by our own people.”

The Political Context

Whatever stand one might take towards the measures adopted by the official circles in Dharamsala, the claim that religious freedom is being suppressed is exaggerated and, when coming from the mouth of exile Tibetans, it seems almost ridiculous when you compare it to the form of religious suppression that is going on every day in Tibet. No Dalai Lama has real dogmatic authority, and the options for the current Dalai Lama to take political measures are so limited, because of his situation of being in exile, that this leaves him essentially only with those above-mentioned attempts to establish group solidarity with his authority and to bring “deviants” to the fore in this way and isolate them.

There is no foreseeable solution to the conflict. This will not only cause worry to the sympathizers of the Dalai Lama, but it also threatens to split the Gelugpa School and, given the prevailing polarization and radicalization of the positions, one cannot rule out further violence. If this cannot be resolved now, it will continue to strain the relationship between factions within the Gelugpas and other schools. Unlike in the seventies, when the conflict first flared up among the Tibetans in exile in India, it was an internal Tibetan matter, but now it has reached the West. Here, it can be exploited in a media-effective way. This not only affects the reputation of the Dalai Lama, but will also harm the overall Tibetan cause.

When you hear that the occupying Chinese authorities in Tibet are officially endorsing and massively promoting the Shugden cult in recent times, then all concerned parties should be alerted. Nothing could make it clearer that the explosive force of the conflict has not remained hidden to the eyes of today’s masters in Tibet and that they have discovered this as a convenient means to bring the Dalai Lama, their stated principal adversary in the struggle for genuine autonomy for Tibet, into bad light in the West and to split his followers.

Furthermore, it also does not shed a favorable light on the protesters in the West today. Their personal motivations may well be noble, but it is evident that they ultimately do great service to the Chinese interests. It was noted that every religious conflict has inevitably a strong component of power politics. If one recalls the massive pressure that is being exerted by the Chinese authorities upon Western governments and government officials whenever they feel tempted to officially receive the Dalai Lama, the classic question of Cui bono (“who benefits from this”) comes to mind.

Against this background, the posters and slogan chanting of the protesters appear entirely in a new light. Slogans such as “Dalai Lama - Stop Lying” and “False Dalai Lama” seem strangely propagandistic – to us older ones the term “Agitprop” quite naturally comes back to mind – and one has difficulty not to ask, almost as a reflex, the ugly question of funding.

To conclude, I will add one more remark on the aforementioned Panorama program. I was interviewed there as an academic, but not on Dorje Shugden. Although I still stand by all my previous statements, I have felt afterwards that I have been misused. Until today, I am still being mentioned time and again in connection with the show, and frequently most viewers do not remember my words, but my association with a show in which the Dalai Lama was attacked in a perfidious way. Therefore, I would like to put on record once again that I strongly and emphatically reject this attack as a person and as an academic.


Jens-Uwe Hartmann

Prof. Dr. Jens-Uwe Hartmann was Professor of Tibetan Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin from 1995-1999. Since 1999 he has been Professor of Indology and Tibetology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich. His main focus is the study and research of Buddhist literature of India. During the first visit of the Dalai Lama to Europe in 1973, he was involved in the organization of the program in Munich.

© Tibet und Buddhismus & Jens-Uwe Hartmann

This article was published in Tibet und Buddhismus No. 3/2014, pp. 40–44.

Translated from German into English by Tsewang Norbu. The translation is approved by the author.

Offered with kind permission from the publisher & author.

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