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WHO IS SHUGDEN?

Who can say? Tibetan history is a sometimes-enigmatic sometimes-legendary story. It is rarely a historical account of actual documented events. Instead, Tibetan history virtually defies historical analysis because of its especially complex weave of perceptions, politics, personalities, religious zeal, religious rivalries, spiritual ‘realizations’, dreams, oracle pronouncements, competing interpretations of Buddhism, intrigue, search for self rule and mystery – all responding to and influencing worldly forces outside of Tibet on Tibet, the land of snow (e.g., Mongol lords, Chinese dynasties and the communist Chinese Government since the 1950s).

In contrast to Western history (e.g., the discovery of America and the realization that the world is not flat in the 1400s – about the time of Tsongkhapa in Tibet), Tibetan history is more a religious evolutional revelation subject to various spiritual interpretations, insights and dreams. Accordingly, Shugden identification is unavoidably mired in myth, inspiration and debate, a few hundred years of which seem as far from resolution as ever.

NKT considers Shugden to be a dharma protector, or dharmapola, whose purpose is to reduce obstacles to attaining spiritual realizations. According to NKT (a self described non-Tibetan form of Buddhism, principle architect of the Shugden controversy since 1996 and most militant Shugden worshipers) Shugden is an emanation of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). (Tsongkhapa, who was an especially prolific author, reformer and tantric practitioner, is credited with revitalizing Tibetan Buddhism with the ‘New Kadampa’ school and relied upon Kalupa as his dharmapola.) NKT also sees Shugden as an emanation of the bodhisattva Manjushri, as a Buddha, and, based on NKT’s intensifying Shugden worship, as NKT’s most important deity.

On a more historical, though still mysterious, level Shugden began as a disciple of Tsongkhapa, named Duldzin Dragpa Gyaltsan, who reincarnated as Ngatrul Dragpa Gyaltsen (1619-1654), a contemporary of and competitor with Ngawang Losang Gyatso, who was chosen as the 5th Dalai Lama over Duldzin Dragpa Gyeltsan (who was compensated by being named the 3rd incarnation of Penchen Snam Dragpa). Nevertheless, they remained rivals of competing ‘estates’, even after the 5th Dalai Lama became ruler of Tibet in 1642.

In 1654, shortly after a debate with the 5th Dalai Lama, Duldzin Dragpa Gyeltsan was found dead. The debate victory scarf awarded him by the 5th Dalai Lama was found stuffed down his throat. Some claim he was murdered. Some claim he volunteered to be killed in order to become a wrathful protector of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. (In Indian and Tibetan traditions a person who is killed becomes a ghost seeking revenge.) It is generally considered that his death was violent and related to his hostile rivalry with the 5th Dalai Lama. (see Footnote below)

It is said that Duldzin Dragpa Gyeltsan manifested himself after his death as a dangerous red spirit appearing as a monk who haunted his mausoleum and scared Gelug monks with unsettling noises. For these reasons the 5th Dalai Lama presumed that Duldzin Dragpa Gyeltsan reincarnated not as a worldly figure but as a wrathful spirit (as has NKT). To pacify this spirit the 5th Dalai Lama built a temple for him and established a practice of appeasement, calling it Gyelchen Dorje Shugden propitiation, and entrusting the matter to the Sakya school. Despite the offerings the reports of harm credited to Duldzin Dragpa Gyeltsan did not stop and the 5th Dalai Lama attempted to burn the Duldzin Dragpa Gyeltsan spirit with a fire ritual.

Though neither historically validated nor documenting Buddha-hood, Shugdenites claim that the 5th Dalai Lama, after denouncing Shugden at least most of his life, wrote the following prayer for Shugden:

"Though unmoving from the sphere of primordial spontaneity, With wrathful turbulent power, swifter than lighting, Endowed with heroic courage to judge good and bad, I invite you with faith, please come to this place! Robes of a monk, crown adorned with golden lacquer hat, Right hand holds ornate club, left holds a human heart, Riding various mounts such as nagas and garudas, Who subdues the mamo's of the charnel grounds, praise to you! Samaya substances, offerings and torma, outer, inner and secret, Favorite visual offerings and various objects are arranged. Although, previously, due to slight rising of selfishness, having not prevented my severe views, I reveal and confess! Now respectfully praising with body, speech, and mind, For us, the masters, disciples, benefactors and entourages, Provide the good and avert the bad! Bring increase like the waxing moon in spiritual and temporal realms! Moreover, swiftly accomplishing all wishes, According to our prayers, bestow the supreme effortlessly! And like the jewel that bestows all wishes, Always protect us with the Three Jewels!"

A prayer of praise or a prayer against further demonic deeds? Authored by the 5th Dalai Lama? Incredibly, to countless internet bloggers this 'prayer' is the proof that Shugden is a Buddha.

Since Shugden has not reincarnated as a living being his spirit reveals itself through oracles, dreams and visions. While Shugden worship had been relatively trivial for a couple hundred years, Pabongka (1878-1941) brought it to prominence. Famous for his charismatic oratory and dreams Pobongkha effectively transformed the Gelug school by his focusing on Vajrayogini as a tantric meditational deity (rather than the historical tantric deities Guhyasamaja and Chakrasamvara), Shugden as a protector (rather than Kalupa and others) and Pobonkga as the guru. The 13th Dalai Lama protested Pobankga’s emphasis on Shugden, inducing Pobankga’s promise to scale back his spread of sectarian Shugden worship; however, upon the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, Pobankga resumed his Shugden practices and intensified his development of sectarianism, promoting Shugden as the Gelug’s primary dharma protector and the Shugden-worshiping sect within the Gelug school as the superior way. Shugden worship came to rationalize retribution against other schools and any one working toward non-sectarianism.

Nevertheless, Pobonkga’s elevation of Shugden worship did not directly threaten the Dalai Lama system or authority and was not ‘banned’. Notably, an especially charismatic disciple of Pobankga, Trijang Rinpoche, became a junior tutor of the current Dalai Lama (14th). Trijang evolved Shugden into a Buddha. (Trijang is root guru of NKT’s Gyatso)

The current Dalai Lama reassessed Shugden in the 1970s. Clarifying the 5th and 13th Dalai Lamas’ issues with Shugden, the 14th Dalai Lama terminated the Shugden practices he was trained to follow by Trijang. A book published in 1975, The Yellow Book, may have synergized with the 14th Dalai Lama’s own research into Shugden. The Yellow Book presented several violent acts and premature deaths credited to Shugden’s wrath against anyone exploring non-sectarianism or any sect beyond the Shugden-worshiping sect within the Gelug school.

At the expense of and contrary to the tenets of Buddhism the non-Tibetan ‘religious’ sect NKT is using Shugden worship as a political ‘wedge’ issue against The Dalai Lama, beginning in 1996 and escalating in 2008. NKT has redefined The Dalai Lama’s advice against Shugden worship into a ban intentionally harming (purportedly, but without possibility) millions of Tibetan and Indian Buddhists. NKT has aligned with the communist Chinese Government against The Dalai Lama and protests against The Dalai Lama everywhere he speaks about compassion and Tibetan autonomy.

In stark contradiction to reality, compassion, tolerance and the holy essence of Buddhism NKT scolds The Dalai Lama – an esteemed spiritual leader and leader of the Tibetan people in exile in India since 1959 - to stop the lies and to stop religious persecution. The Dalai Lama seeks to harmonize the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. NKT seeks to fractionate it.

An informative news broadcast in France August 8, 2008, boasted as support for their cause by Shugdenites, capsulates the Shugden controversy. Shugdenites consider their Shugden worship a religion and they are pleased, "appreciative" actually, with their political ties with China, accepting that the Tibetan people are now Chinese. They blame the killing and destruction by the Chinese during the 1950s on The Dalai Lama's concern with Shugden (although The Dalai Lama did not arrive at this concern untill he 1970s) and prefer the relative calm now under the authoritarian repressive rule of the Chinese government, which has outlawed public Buddhist practices. According to a leading Shugdenite, "If we had to live with him (The Dalai Lama), we could have possibly been crucified." The news cast covers the brutal murders of 3 monks loyal to to The Dalai Lama by Shugdenites. (to watch the news broadcast, click here)

If Tibetan and Indian Buddhist monasteries wish to refrain from Shugden spirit worship, are they not free to do so? Is it religious freedom for a minority of ordained clergy to worship spirits not condoned by the monastery where these Shugden worshipers have been ordained and live? In analogy, must all religions include the practices of all other religions or otherwise be called liars and opponents to religious freedom? Why don’t Shugden worshipers simply begin their own religious sect? Oh wait, they have. NKT. However, especially since NKT has broken away from all other religions, why should NKT force any other religion into its political fight and its esteem of the wrath of Shugden? Who died and left NKT in charge of religious freedom?

Who is Shugden? How much of or what in the Shugden myth or legend is true? I do not know. I do know that leaders of religious traditions have the right to worship as they please, including NKT (although I am deeply concerned about the harm NKT is causing its clergy and to Buddhism in general). I know that living Buddha's teachings is billions of times more important than Shugden worshiping. Even if The Dalai Lama, Sera Monastery and hundreds of millions of Buddhists around the world are wrong about Shugden, NKT is not right in its political hate speech against Tibetan Lamas, most notably The Dalai Lama and Tibetan people questioning NKT in its scandalous promotion of Shugden worship and its forced insertion into Tibetan Buddhism (NKT calls the Tibetan people defending their country from NKT protests a mob necessitating evacuation of NKT monks and nuns to safety).

Since NKT has removed itself from Tibetan Buddhism why do they grasp Shugden so tightly? Is their motivation religious, or is it political? NKT would would far better practice Buddha's teachings by presenting an example of the beauty of Buddhism rather than its distorted ugliness as it seeks to interfere in Tibetan government and religion.

As a westerner I wonder why Buddha’s teachings need protectors, or at least the kind of protection so desperately argued by NKT. I wonder why the purportedly powerful Shugden is so impotent. I wonder why, if Shugden is a Buddha as NKT contends, he doesn’t tell anyone anything, e.g., how to succeed against his detractors in far less hateful ways. I wonder why Gyatso does not realize that he will never be a Dalai Lama or a Lama of any kind. I wonder why NKT does not practice Buddhism, compassion, love and tolerance (nowhere on its westernshugdensociety website can such pictures be found; instead, they depict pictures like that below). Rather than protest Buddhists why doesn’t NKT protest serious human suffering? Better yet, why doesn’t NKT do something about it (e.g., take their busses, signs, public relations operations, clergy and apparently large financial resources to Dafur or fight AIDS or cancer or poverty or crime)?

Footnote
Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz researched captivating details of Tibetan oracles and dharmapolas in the 1950s, including intensive collaboration with many officials and clergy, perhaps most notably including 3 incarnate Lamas and witnessing Shugden invocations and possessions of an established Tibetan oracle (see Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities). There are 2 classes of dharmapolas: high ranking deities who have passed beyond the 6 spheres of existence and those who reside within the spheres inhabited by living beings (known as dregs pa, or the 'haughty ones', because of their fierce demeanor). Shugden resides in the latter category to protect certain Gelug and Sakya doctrines from detrimental inflences from the Nyingma school. This latter category speaks to living beings through oracles who act as their mouthpieces. Shugden died through suicide. A medium, or oracle, for Shugden produces the gurgling sound of a man in the agony of suffocation. Shugden bears the title dgra lha, or enemy god, a title given to deities who protect their worshipers against enemies and help them increase their property. From the book:

"At the time of the fifth Dalai Lama...some of the other incarnate lamas and even the Tibetan Government became jealous of his (Shugden's) life. The priest (Shugden), however, with the help of the supernatural powers he had acquired, was ablt to foil all attempts on his life. At last, weary of the incessant intrigues and complots, (Shugden) decided to leave the world voluntarily...the lama suffocated himself by stuffing a ceremonial scarf into his mouth...Seeing the sign (predicted by Shugden upon his creamation), the disciple fell on his knees and implored the spirit of his teacher not to retire from this world, but to stay and take revenge on his enemies. Soon after this event great calamities befell the provinces of Central Tibet. Diseases raged in towns and villages, which killed people and animals. The Tibetan Government suffered misfortunes repeatedly and even the Dalai Lama was not spared...Astrologers and oracles soon discovered that a vengeance-seeking spirit was the cause of all this trouble...The heavenly abode in which (Shugden) is believed to dwell...is filled with various destroyed beings....There are countless springs overflowing with red and white poison...Human corpses - mummified, fresh, and in decomposition - are lying scattered around. Waves of blood and fat billow tremendously...Inside the palace, corpses of men and carcasses of horses are spread out, and the blood of men and horses streams together forming a lake. Human skins and hides of tigers are stretched into curtains...A great number of various objects and substances is offered to (Shugden) at the time of his worship: heart-blood in which yellow-red bubbles rise one after the other, quivering flowers made out of the organas of the five senses...The strong smelling liquid consisting of brain, blood, and bile, the heep of food composed of the organs of the five senses, hearts, meat, and bone..."

No wonder The Dalai Lama raises concerns with Shugden, specifically that Shugden worship poses the danger of Tibetan Buddhism degenerating into cult-like spirit worship, presents obstacles to non-sectarianism and threatens the well-being of Tibetan society (see).

Jealous Shugden worshipers have wanted to tarnish, overthrow or harm Dalai Lamas for over 350 years - particularly the 5th and 14th - apparently beginning when the carnate Shugden lost his race for supremacy in 1642 when the Mogols named the 5th Dalai Lama the leader of Tibet (note: the retroactively named first Dalai Lama was a direct disciple of Tshongkhapa (1357-1419) just as the purported prior incarnation of Shugden; did Shugden's jealousy of Dalai Lamas begin then?). It appears that Shugden has yet to be linked with verifiable beneficial deeds, preferring to stir troubles as described by Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz's and many other accounts of Shugden, including now via the wrath of NKT in protection of Shugden against NKT's perceived-but-dilusional threats from Tibetan Lamas, the Tibetan people and NKT's professional and lay critics. Why does NKT's idol require protection? Will NKT Shugdenites act upon their threats of bodily harm of its critics (described elsewhere on this web site and suggested in the self portrait photographs below and on the home page of this web site)?

(editors note: this essay has been shortened and its dozens of references not included here, though the most important of which appear on the Read More page, with the permission of the author)

mouse over photo

are we safe

Editor's Note:
Sample information from a sampling of neutral academic researchers about Shugden worship:

1. Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz (Prof. at the University of Bern, Swiss) refers to the main propagator of that practice, Pabongkha Rinpoche, as a "religious fundamentalist".

2. Martin Mills (Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion, University of Aberdeen), stated “in defence of the deity’s efficacy as a protector, [the Yellow Book by Zemey Rinpoche] named 23 government officials and high lamas that had been assassinated using the deity’s powers."

3. Anthropologist Stanley Mumford stated Dorje Shugden is “extremely popular, but held in awe and feared among Tibetans because he is highly punitive.”

4. Prof. Goeffrey Samuel Samuel (Director of Cardiff Humanities Research Institute) stated Pabongkha Rinpoche was a "strict purist and conservative", who "adopted an attitude of sectarian intolerance" and "instituted a campaign to convert non-Gelug gompa (monasteries) in Kham to the Gelugpa school, by force where necessary."

5. David Kay stated "...and in response to the Rimé movement (ris med) that had originated and was flowering in that region, Pabongkha Rinpoche (a Gelug agent of the Tibetan government) and his disciples employed repressive measures against non-Gelug sects. Religious artefacts associated with Padmasambhava — who is revered as a 'second Buddha' by Nyingma practitioners — were destroyed, and non-Gelug, and particularly Nyingma, monasteries were forcibly converted to the Gelug position. A key element of Pabongkha Rinpoche's outlook was the cult of the protective deity Dorje Shugden, which he married to the idea of Gelug exclusivism and employed against other traditions as well as against those within the Gelug who had eclectic tendencies."

6. George Dreyfus (Professor, Williams College) quotes Pabongka Rinpoche from an introduction to the text of the empowerment required to propitiate Shugden:

"[This protector of the doctrine] is extremely important for holding Dzong-ka-ba's tradition without mixing and corrupting [it] with confusions due to the great violence and the speed of the force of his actions, which fall like lightning to punish violently all those beings who have wronged the Yellow Hat Tradition, whether they are high or low. [This protector is also particularly significant with respect to the fact that] many from our own side, monks or lay people, high or low, are not content with Dzong-ka-ba's tradition, which is like pure gold, [and] have mixed and corrupted [this tradition with ] the mistaken views and practices from other schools, which are tenet systems that are reputed to be incredibly profound and amazingly fast but are [in reality] mistakes among mistakes, faulty, dangerous and misleading paths. In regard to this situation, this protector of the doctrine, this witness, manifests his own form or a variety of unbearable manifestations of terrifying and frightening wrathful and fierce appearances. Due to that, a variety of events, some of them having happened or happening, some of which have been heard or seen, seem to have taken place: some people become unhinged and mad, some have a heart attack and suddenly die, some [see] through a variety of inauspicious signs [their] wealth, accumulated possessions and descendants disappear without leaving any trace, like a pond whose feeding river has ceased, whereas some [find it] difficult to achieve anything in successive lifetimes."

7. David Kay states that Trijang Rinpoche (1900-1981), one of Pabongkha Rinpoche's famous disciples, had a more moderate view on other traditions than Pabongkha, nevertheless "he continued to regard the deity (Dorje Shugden) as a severe and violent punisher of inclusively orientated Gelug practitioners."

Shugden followers have one researcher who seems to support their view, Ursula Bernis. Her work is neither published by any academic publisher nor is it accepted among scientists. No research on that subject uses her work as a source.