Header image header image 2  

Who is Shugden, Part 3

Other essays on this web site explore the history and controversy of NKT's mascot deity, Shugden.

Attempting to find the basis for NKT's fervor is challenging. Many others have tried over the last 2 decades to locate a beneficial rationale for NKT's primal urge to protect a wrathful spirit here to harm those opposing NKT (NKT's Gyatso sees himself as the only living being carrying the exclusionist 'lineage' of Pabongkha (1878-1941). The following authors have noted:


Praise to you, violent god of the Yellow Hat teachings, Who reduces to particles of dust Great beings, high officials, and ordinary people Who pollute and corrupt the Gelugpa doctrine. (From “Praise to Dorje Shugden,” quoted by Zemey Rinpoche (1927-1996))

The so-called Drakpa Gyaltsen pretends to be a sublime being. But since this interfering spirit and creature of distorted prayers Is harming everything, both dharma and sentient beings, Do not support, protect or give him shelter, but grind him to dust. (The Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682); Drakpa Gyaltsen was the Fifth Dalai Lama's rival. Dorje Shugden is considered to be Drakpa Gyaltsen's reincarnation, resurrected to oppose the involvement of Gelugpa monks with Nyingma teachings)

Although the Fifth Dalai Lama was a Gelugpa monk, as head of state he carried not only the mantle of Tsongkhapa’s reformed Buddhist order but also that of a thousand years of Tibetan history. Throughout his life the Fifth Dalai Lama maintained a strong allegiance to the Nyingma school and a mystical rapport with its founder, Padmasambhava, who appeared to him in dreams and visions. The Fifth Dalai Lama’s assumption of this long and complex historical identity would not have sat easily with the ambitions of a Gelugpa hierarchy intent on creating a buddhocratic state founded explicitly on the teachings of Tsongkhapa. It seems that this conflict led to the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s rival Drakpa Gyaltsen, shortly after the Dalai Lama’s return from a state visit to China (suggesting the possibility of a palace revolt during his prolonged absence). Thereafter, Dorje Shugden was recognized by those Gelugpas who opposed the Dalai Lama’s involvement with the Nyingma school as the reincarnation of Drakpa Gyaltsen, who had assumed the form of a wrathful protector of the purity of Tsongkhapa’s teachings. After the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682, the controversy between these factions of the Gelugpa school slips into the shadows, and we hear only occasional references to Dorje Shugden for the next two hundred years. (Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and Times of Dorje Shugden, Stephen Batchelor, 'Tricycle: The Buddhist Review' 1998)

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama came to power at the age of nineteen in 1895. Having survived an assassination attempt (his former regent had concealed deadly mantras in the Dalai Lamas boots), he found himself charged with the daunting task of leading Tibet into a rapidly changing world. He proved an able leader who sought to introduce a modest program of reform, only to be thwarted by aristocrats and senior lamas. He was also a keen practitioner of Nyingma teachings. He had several teachers from the Nyingma school, practiced with them in the Potala Palace, and wrote commentaries to the Nyingma texts by his predecessor, the Fifth Dalai Lama. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s openness to the Nyingmapa was in marked contrast to that of Pabongka Rinpoche, the most influential Gelugpa lama of the time, whose authority rivaled that of the Dalai Lama. Pabongka inherited the practice of Dorje Shugden from his mother’s family, and as a young man also received transmissions from Nyingma lamas. After a serious illness he became convinced that the disease was a sign from Shugden to stop practicing Nyingma teachings, which he did. Although he promoted the practice of Shugden, he was ordered by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to stop invoking the deity on the grounds that it was destroying Buddhism. Pabongka then promised “in the core of my heart” never to propitiate Shugden again. He evidently changed his mind, though, and subsequently passed the practice on to his disciples. In 1973, a senior Gelugpa lama called Zemey Rinpoche published an account of Dorje Shugden that he had received orally from his teacher (and the Dalai Lama's tutor) Trijang Rinpoche. This text recounts in detail the various calamities that have befallen monks and laypeople of the Gelugpa tradition who have practiced Nyingma teachings. In each case, the illness, torture or death incurred is claimed to be the result of having displeased Dorje Shugden. Each time a Dalai Lama has come to hold effective political office, a controversy has erupted around Dorje Shugden. A similar pattern has repeated itself during the rules of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas. (Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and Times of Dorje Shugden, Stephen Batchelor, 'Tricycle: The Buddhist Review' 1998)

One can understand why the Dalai Lamas would tolerate and even embrace Nyingma views in order to honor the historical heritage of Tibet, to affirm unity among the diverse communities of the Tibetan nation, even to be true to their own spiritual intuitions, But however justified such a position might be in personal or political terms, it should not obscure the real and potentially divisive philosophical and doctrinal differences that exist between the Nyingma and Gelugpa ideologies. The Nyingma teaching of Dzogchen regards awareness (Tib., rig pa) as the innate self-cognizant foundation of both samsara and nirvana. Rig pa is the intrinsic, uncontrived nature of mind, which a Dzogchen master is capable of directly pointing out to his students. For the Nyingmapa, Dzogchen represents the very apogee of what the Buddha taught, whereas Tsongkhapa’s view of emptiness as just a negation of inherent existence, implying no transcendent reality, verges on nihilism. For the Gelugpas, Dzogchen succumbs to the opposite extreme: that of delusively clinging to something permanent and self-existent as the basis of reality. They see Dzogchen as a return to the Hindu ideas that Buddhists resisted in India, and a residue of the Ch’an (Zen) doctrine of Hva-shang Mahayana, proscribed at the time of the early kings. Moreover, some Kagyu and Nyingma teachers of the Rime (“impartial”) revival movement in eastern Tibet in the nineteenth century even began to promote a synthesis between the forbidden Jonangpa philosophy and the practice of Dzogchen. For the followers of Shugden this is not an obscure metaphysical disagreement, but a life-and-death struggle for truth in which the destiny of all sentient beings is at stake. The bodhisattva vow, taken by every Tibetan Buddhist, is a commitment to lead all beings to the end of anguish and the realization of buddhahood. Following Tsongkhapa, the Gelugpas maintain that the only way to achieve this is to understand non-conceptually that nothing whatsoever inherently exists. Any residue, however subtle, of an attachment to inherent existence works against the bodhisattva’s aim and perpetuates the very anguish he or she seeks to dispel. (Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and Times of Dorje Shugden, Stephen Batchelor, 'Tricycle: The Buddhist Review' 1998)

On the night of February 4, 1997, a prominent Tibetan monk and two of his disciples were butchered to death near Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama’s capital-in-exile. The reportedly ritualistic violence inflicted on Geshe Losang Gyatso, the seventy-year-old principal of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and two young monks in their twenties was immediately identified in the press as a “cult murder” and the cult identified as the “Shugdens.” There is no mention of such a cult or sect in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, but there is a deity named Shugden, or more fully, Dorje Shugden, the “Powerful Thunderbolt,” a wrathful deity who seems to have originated in the seventeenth century, and who has been at the heart of a controversy in the Tibetan refugee community for the last twenty years. (Two Sides of the Same God, Donald Lopez, 'Tricycle: The Buddhist Review' 1998)

The controversy has remained largely unknown to Westerners, but it reached public attention in the summer of 1996, when the disciples of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso of the New Kadampa Tradition picketed the Dalai Lama in London, accusing him of restricting their religious freedom. The point of contention is the worship of Dorje Shugden, which the Dalai Lama has asked his followers to abandon. According to myth, he (Shugden) is the spirit of a learned and virtuous Gelug monk of the seventeenth century. This monk, Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen (1619-1655), had been one of the candidates considered for selection as the Fifth Dalai Lama. Another child was chosen, however, and Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen was subsequently named as the incarnation of another prominent lama of the Gelug sect. All this occurred before the Fifth Dalai Lama became temporal ruler of Tibet in 1642. Thus, during their youth, the Dalai Lama was an important - but not the most important - Gelug tulku, and lived not in the Potala (which had not yet been constructed), but in Drepung monastery in a place called the Lower House, while Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen lived in the so-called Upper House. There seems to have been rivalry between the Fifth Dalai Lama and Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen, or at least rivalry between their followers. As the story goes, one day Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen defeated the Dalai Lama in debate. Shortly thereafter he was found dead, with a ceremonial scarf stuffed down his throat. He had either been murdered or committed suicide. One of Shugden’s particular functions has been to protect the Gelugpa sect from the influence of the Nyingma. According to some accounts, he is said to punish those who attempt to practice a mixture of the two. The worship of Shugden underwent a revival in the first decades of this century, led by the famous Gelugpa monk Pabongka, (1878-1943). Pabongka was the guru of many of the most important Gelug monks of this century, including, most prominently, Trijang Rinpoche (1901-1981) of Ganden monastery, the junior tutor of the current Dalai Lama and thus one of the two most important Gelug monks in the refugee community. Trijang Rinpoche was a strong proponent of Shugden and the current Dalai Lama himself included prayers for Shugden in his nightly practice for many years. (Two Sides of the Same God, Donald Lopez, 'Tricycle: The Buddhist Review' 1998)

He (Shugden) is said to have willed himself to become a sort of vengeful ghost so that he could haunt his foes. In particular, the stories reveal that his “spirit” was especially fond of antagonizing the Dalai Lama. The deceitful trickery of the angry spirit was, however, eventually quelled by means of a series of rituals resulting in his being given the name Dorjé Shukden, “Powerful Thunderbolt.” He also became associated with the Sakya deity, Dölgyel. Thenceforth, he gained notoriety as a fierce protector who guarded the Geluk teachings against pollution, especially of the Nyingma sort. This deity is known for his particularly fierce treatment of those Gelukpa practitioners whose spiritual routines he considers impure. Even his staunchest supporters proudly acknowledge the ferocity with which he punishes the enemies of the Dharma. (Tales of Intrigue from Tibet's Holy City: The Historical Underpinnings of a Modern Buddhist Crisis, Lidsay McCune)

It was not until the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries that Shukden worship truly began to flourish. The success of this movement is credited in large part to a Gelukpa monk from Sera Mé college called Pabongkha (1878-1941). For his part, Pabongkha saw fit to adjust Tsongkhapa’s specifications. He created an entirely new schematization of the Gelukpa tradition, in which Vajrayogini was the main meditational deity, Shukden the protector, and Pabongkha the guru. This is a particularly pioneering schematization because it differs significantly from Tsongkhapa’s original vision. Like Tsongkhapa, Pabongkha had been educated in the teachings of several schools, particularly in those of the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyü. In his youth, however, he communicated with Dorjé Shukden, by way of a spirit medium and received a message assuring him of success in all his endeavors if he practiced only pure Gelukpa Buddhism. This then became Pabongkha’s primary modus operandi. He spent the rest of his life promulgating what he believed to be the purest form of Gelukpa Buddhism. (Tales of Intrigue from Tibet's Holy City: The Historical Underpinnings of a Modern Buddhist Crisis, Lidsay McCune)

Inferior though they in some ways may have been, the mundane deities were and still are believed to be more efficacious in day-to-day protection than those gods and goddesses of the supramundane variety. Because these beings have not transcended the world, they are able to temporarily possess the bodies of humans. Thus they are able to become visible to beings inhabiting the mundane realm, offering advice and protection. The ability to manifest in the form of an oracle is a unique quality of the worldly deities.57 There are many such oracles in Tibetan Buddhism, including Nechung and the Shukden oracle. The efficacy of these deities in the mundane world is often explained as the product of their actually inhabiting it rather than abiding in some distant pure realm. Because of their precarious temperament, these deities may easily be lured away from their protective duties and enlisted in dark tasks. In fact, while protection is their primary responsibility, they are also quite adept at other of the so-called four mundane activities. These activities—generally listed as pacifying (zhi), increasing (rgyas), subjugating (dbang), and destroying (drag)—are variously applied toward what might be perceived as benevolent, selfish, or even vengeful ends. The protectors, and particularly the tsen, are often invoked “to subjugate three kinds of enemies: enemies of religion in general, a specific person who wishes to harm the religious community, or obstacles which interfere with religious practice.” Traditionally, it is said that these beings do this, not by committing the “subjugation” themselves, but rather by causing various fatal maladies or by inciting an individual or group who is not involved in the ritual to murder the enemy. Because of their propensity for anger and their aptitude in the art of annihilation, it is often thought that protective deities must be regarded with a certain amount of heedfulness. And indeed, their temperaments are volatile, but within the domain of their efficacy—that is this world—these deities exercise considerable (though not supreme) authority. (Tales of Intrigue from Tibet's Holy City: The Historical Underpinnings of a Modern Buddhist Crisis, Lidsay McCune)

In 1973, three years before the Dalai Lama made his public condemnation of Shukden, a senior Gelukpa monk named Dzemé Trulku Lozang Penden (1927-1996) published an account of Dorjé Shukden called “Oral Transmission of the Intelligent Father” (Pha rgod bla ma’i zhal lung). In recent times, this text has simply become known as the “Yellow Book.” In it, Dzemé Trülku details various acts of retribution perpetrated by the deity against those monks and laymen who have offended him. One example of this is the case of Fifth Paṇchen Lama, who Dzemé Rinpoché claims incurred Shukden’s wrath by adopting Nyingma practices. The author attributes these anecdotes to the oral teachings of his and the Dalai Lama’s tutor Trijang Rinpoché (1901-1981), the “intelligent father” of the text’s title. Many of the monks and laymen mentioned as victims of Shukden’s wrath were Gelukpa practitioners who “tainted” their practice by adding to it various rituals of the Nyingma variety. Three years later, having abandoned his own propitiatory practices, the Dalai Lama announced his disapproval of the deity. Naturally, there are many Shukden proponents who claim that he made his disavowal out of fear of incurring the deity’s wrath. And there has indeed been some concern among his followers for the well-being of the Dalai Lama following his denunciation and subsequent ban of Shukden worship. (Tales of Intrigue from Tibet's Holy City: The Historical Underpinnings of a Modern Buddhist Crisis, Lidsay McCune)

We see that the NKT appears to be asserting itself as a purer form of Gelukpa Buddhism. Kelsang Gyamtso was born in Tibet in 1932 and presently resides, as do many of his disciples, in England. Like the Dalai Lama and Dzemé Trülku, Gyamtso was a student of Trijang Rinpoché. For this reason, Shukden practice had always been an important aspect of his spiritual routine; therefore, when the Dalai Lama censured the deity, Gyamtso refused to conform to what he perceived as an unreasonable denunciation of a transcendental being. Indeed, for members of the NKT, Shukden worship is a central component of their daily practice. Because of this, Kelsang Gyamtso and his disciples have openly accused the Dalai Lama of religious intolerance. In 1996, the group picketed the Dalai Lama’s visit to London, but as Lopez reports, “the demonstrations were a public relations disaster for the NKT.” This is primarily because, “the NKT’s allegiance to Shugden appeared to Westerners to be an aberration on the landscape of the Tibetan Diaspora rather than an issue at the center of Tibetan national identity.” (Tales of Intrigue from Tibet's Holy City: The Historical Underpinnings of a Modern Buddhist Crisis, Lidsay McCune)

The charges that Gyatso has levelled against the Dalai Lama are grossly oversimplified and the very fact that the NKT has never mobilised itself for anything apart from the Shugden issue is testimony to their sectarian nature. What is more, many new NKT members are drawn to Gyatso's centers because they have been personally inspired by the Dalai Lama. They then find themselves ignorantly sitting in a supposed Gelug school with no pictures of the Dalai Lama, no other books on offer apart from Gyatso's and no idea that Gyatso is attacking His Holiness so viciously. Gyatso ordered that the long life offerings that used to be present in some of his books be removed. He clearly does not want His Holiness to have a long life anymore. Most lay NKT members are lied to by omission and they do NOT know about the issue unless they find out for themselves - and when they do, many of them leave, like myself. This demonstrates a lack of courage and integrity on Gyatsos behalf - he knows full well he would lose most of the NKT membership if his hidden agenda were announced in class. Gyatso is putting the NKT at grave risk of being labelled a cult. Scholars and Theologians are beginning to come to this view as the reference to Prof Thurman indicated. If this happens, it will be an absolute tragedy as his dharma teachings are most excellent - it is a shame that he hides his agenda from lay NKT - you won't find a reference to the Shugden controversy on the websites of any NKT schools? Why not? Surely if Gyatso has nothing to hide or fear he would ask lay members to join the protests, to make them more effective and better attended? But no. Casual visitors to NKT centers would baulk at the very concept. (Internet blogger)

The real issue here is not worship of a particular deity. This is a power struggle within Tibetan Buddhism. The Dorje Shugden cult has existed for nearly 400 years, and its purpose from the beginning has been to undermine the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama in order to impose more rigidly sectarian practices within the Gelug school. Just about a century ago, the 13th Dalai Lama banned the sect because it threatened to tear Tibetan Buddhism apart *then*. The current Dalai Lama as a young man was introduced to Dorje Shugden practices by one of his teachers, but in the mid-1970s the sect published a book that threatened horrible and painful death for anyone who dared stray from the sect's rigid ideas of practice. His Holiness was shocked and dropped Dorje Shugden from his own practices. The gulf has grown wider since; Dorje Shugden culties just love to start some kind of trouble and then play the victim if anyone reacts. That's the game they were playing outside Radio City; they goaded people into attacking them, then made videos of the attacks and released them on the web to show how persecuted they are. It is shocking to me that anyone calling himself a Buddhist would willfully cause this sort of trouble at a time when the future of Tibetan Buddhism is threatened. The Dorje Shugden cult is perfectly free to set up its own institutions and practice Buddhism any way they want; they don't need anyone's permission. They should just do that and stop trying to destroy the rest of Tibetan Buddhism. (Internet blogger)


Editor's Note:
References are available on this web site's Read More page.

Two interesting images from 'Tricycle: The Buddhist Review' in 1998:
Deity or Demon: The Controversy over Tibet's Dorje Shugden
Principle Players in the Dorje Shugden Debate

From this same issue of Tricycle, interviews are published with Thubten Jigme Norbu (The Dalai Lama's brother) and Kelsang Gyatso (head of NKT, main protector of Shugden, and lead protestor against The Dalai Lama). Both discuss the Shugden quagmire, which has worsened substantially since these interviews. Notably, Gyatso misleads the interviewer by claiming that NKT is pure Gelugpa. In fact, Gyatso abandoned Tibetan Buddhism about 20 years ago because he sees Tibetan Buddhism as degenerate, and he and his clergy routinely claim that they are not a form of Tibetan Buddhism. Gyatso formed a new and independent religion headquartered in England called NKT, or misleadingly New Kadampa Tradition, copying much but not all of the monastic and liturgical legacies of Tibetan Buddhism and promoting a sacreligiously modified form of Tsongkhapa's New Kadampa school of Tibetan Buddhism that focuses worship on the demon god Shugden and claims preposterously that Shugden and Tsongkhapa are the same person. Gyatso's interview repetitively negates the truth. Gyatso, suffering extreme dilusion, markets himself as the 3rd Buddha and the only living Buddha on earth. Gyatso widened his protest targets in May 2008 to include a few individual Buddhists and other respected Tibetan Lamas in addition to The Dalai Lama.




Shugden history is needlessly vague and poorly documented lore, dating back at best a few hundred years during which time documentary tools have been readily available but conveniently neglected as if to prohibit scholarly consideration

Shugden is almost entirely an oral tradition arising from dreams and nightmares

Shugden is a myth created by a power hungry cultish sect to sacrilegiously rationalize harm to living beings at the hands of a Buddha

NKT's protection of Shugden and its use of Shugden against The Dalai Lama is anti-Buddhist

Shugden worship, perpetuation and defense arises out of ego worship, perpetuation and defense, NOT compassion; thusly, NKT attacks The Dalai Lama - the human incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara

NKT treats Buddhism as an ala carte menu - choosing only what it likes, only a small portion of the Vinaya vows, and adding its special spicy condimint, Shugden.