New Kadampa / Shugden followers protest Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize

Last week the Dalai Lama made a three-day visit to Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize 25 years ago for his ongoing nonviolent stance toward China, which took over Tibet between 1951 and 1959. And while thousands of well-wishers turned out to greet the Dalai Lama, a small band of protesters were also on hand, asking for the prize to be revoked.

The protesters were, by and large, members of the New Kadampa Tradition, a break-away group from the Dalai Lama’s Geluk tradition. Such splits and new traditions are not unheard of in Tibetan Buddhism, which has never had any formal and fixed hierarchy. Even the commonly held division of “4 schools of Tibetan Buddhism” is just a convenient designation, masking a vastly more complex doctrinal and historical reality. Part of that historical reality has been the need for Tibetan Buddhists in exile to work more cooperatively together and one impediment to this, according to the Dalai Lama and others, is Dorje Shugden.

Dorje Shugden (aka Dolgyal Shugden)

Dorje Shugden is a controversial ‘protector deity’ for the Geluk tradition. On the surface that is benign enough, and there are similar protector deities still accepted in that and other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, as Georges Dreyfus, a preeminent scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, notes:

“There is, however, another element that must be examined in order to understand the troublesome nature of the practice of Shuk-den, namely, the sectarian stance that it reflects. This is where the story of Drak-ba Gyel-tsen becomes relevant again. For Pa-bong-ka, particularly at the end of his life, one of the main functions of Gyel-chen Dor-je Shuk-den as Ge-luk protector is the use of violent means (the adamantine force) to protect the Ge-luk tradition. Pa-bong-ka quite explicitly states:

Now [I] exhort to violent actions Shuk-den, who is the main war-god of Dzong-ka-ba’s tradition and its holders, the angry spirit, the Slayer of Yama (i.e., Yamantaka or Manjushri in his wrathful form)….In particular it is time [for you] to free (i.e., kill) in one moment the enemies of Dzong-ka-ba’s tradition. Protector, set up [your] violent actions without [letting] your previous commitments dissipate. Quickly engage in violent actions without relaxing your loving promises. Quickly accomplish [these] requests and entrusted actions without leaving them aside (or without acting impartially). Quickly accomplish [these] actions [that I] entrust [to you], for I do not have any other source of hope. [40]

This passage clearly presents the goal of the propitiation of Shuk-den as the protection of the Ge-luk tradition through violent means, even including the killing of its enemies.

Thus, in 1997, the Tibetan Parliament in Exile passed a resolution discouraging the worship of Shugden and encouraging greater education on its demerit in the context of building greater Tibetan unity in exile.  Since then, those who have insisted on Shugden worship have continued their efforts for what they consider a matter of religious freedom.

The following is their account from last week’s visit and protests:

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Robert Thurman, another leading scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, responded to the planned protests in the Huffington Post, writing in part that:

The worship of their chosen deity was not “banned” by the Dalai Lama, since he has no authority to “ban” what Tibetan Buddhists practice. “Banning” and “excommunicating” are not Tibetan Buddhist procedures.

The whole fuss would have died down long ago except for the fact that the “hard-line” operatives of the “United Front Work Department” of the People’s Republic of China, the agency in charge of dealing with China’s “minority nationalities,” sees the cult as a potential wedge they hope to drive between the Dalai Lama and his people and between him and world opinion.

Whatever one believes about the reality of fierce angels or demons, it is clear that the leaders of the Dolgyal Shugden cult have done nothing over the last 30 years but cause trouble, both to their own followers and to the unity of the Tibetan people, both in exile and in Tibet. It has benefited no one except those misguided operatives in the Chinese government who wish to destroy Tibetan Buddhist culture, in order to assimilate systematically deracinated Tibetans into becoming second class Chinese citizens, and thus, through such a policy of crushing the identities and even lives of the “minority nationality” Tibetans, to secure forever their claim to the vast territories and resources of the Tibetan plateau.

And so the fuss does go on. Oddly enough, many within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) themselves are only vaguely aware of this controversy or others within that tradition. A post I put up three years ago pointing out the New Kadampa Survivors group still gets a number of “thank you” and “I had no idea….” responses. Help spread the word. Buddhists, both inside and out of the NKT need to understand the history of Shugden and his role in Tibetan Buddhist practice and politics.

This 1998 BBC documentary provides good background to the Shugden controversy and the NKT:

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  • Mick

    Hi Torin, I (Tenpel) have to apologize, because I was thinking your criticism of the term cult refers to the phrase the “Shugden cult” but now it dawns to my mind that you referred to this sentence: “The NKT can be described typologically as a cult on the basis of its organisational form, its excessive group pressure and blind obedience to its founder. The organisation’s extreme fanaticism and aggressive missionary drive are typical cult features too.”

    Ok, I understand you criticism. However, for me this usage of the term “cult” is perfectly fine because its sums the issue of a group that has an extremely damaging structure similar to Scientology. I am not against using such a term in that context. As the post above points out there is a self help forum of damaged people by the group that that has more than 1,200 members. This is really unique to any Buddhist group and the forum was created to help people to overcome the damage from the group.

  • Mick

    Chogma, there is no general “ban”. The problem with Shugden is that it was used against other religious traditions and that Nyingma and Kagyue fear and condemn that practice as sectarian and damaging. Shugden also punishes those who dare to study texts from other traditions, especially Nyingma school. In that way this very practice oppresses religious freedom. Shugden kills those who dare to even touch Nyingma texts, he makes them sick etc. This was told by Trijang Rinpoche himself and written down by his student Zimey Rinpoche in the Yellow Book:

    The Dalai Lama aimed to democratise the Tibetan government in exile but Nyingmapas refused to partake in the government work because they said they cannot work with people whose practice (Shugden) is attacking and damaging them. Subsequently a rule had to be applied that government official cannot do that practice because they have to work for the whole of the people and not just a sectarian elite group.

    People like you from the NKT lack knowledge of Tibetan history and the events that led to the controversy. You are led astray by misleading information and a wrong image that NKT spreads among its followers and the media. I was once similar misinformed and led astray but there is a way to get a broader understanding that is really based on facts and not misrepresentations.

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    I’m still trying to grok how someone who “worships a deity” can call themselves a follower of the Buddha Dharma.

    • George Costanza

      The worship of deities is standard in the Tibetan tradition. The Dalai Lama himself offers homage to a variety of both enlightened and unenlightened beings in celestial realms, including Mahakala, Palden Lhamo, and Nechung. Enlightened beings are believed in the Tibetan tradition (as well as the Mahayana tradition as a whole) to take birth in celestial realms, from which their devotees can appeal to them for spiritual merit and assistance.

      Likewise unenlightened beings born into the realm of the gods or spirits, are believed to sometimes be converted to Buddhism via the efforts of a powerful spiritual master, or a celestial Buddha/Bodhisattva. The Nechung deity I mentioned above, is one such unenlightened God, who has been converted to Buddhism, and is now believed to offers assistance to the Tibetan clergy via oracle. If I’m not mistaken the Dalai Lama credits Nechung with giving him the route with which he used to escape to India, during the communist takeover of Tibet.

  • Steve Rogers

    I have practised Dorje Shugden as part of my regular Kadampa Buddhist practice for 12 years. It is completely within Buddhism and there is no question whatever that Geshe Kelsang teaches 100% love and compassion for all beings without exception. He is very strict about this. In fact his teachings are fundamentally identical to all other Tibetan Buddhist lamas and he has had close friendships with many other teachers, Christian as well as Buddhist.

    Please don’t believe these horrible slanders without meeting a Kadampa Buddhist for yourself and find out what we are like. The worst you could say about Kadampas is that we’re ordinary – but we do put real effort into being kind and peaceful and would never find it acceptable to ostracise anyone. I welcome all kinds of people into my life and my home. I enjoy chatting with my local Jehovah’s Witness visitor, whose beliefs are in some ways spectacularly different from mine but we recognise each other as caring about goodness and not greed. I vouch for all I have said here on my honour.

    This ban is political! It was created to weaken the Gelugpa as part of unifying the Tibetan churches whether they like it or not. This may be a good or a bad thing, but it is not religious freedom – it is the exercise of kingship and should be called by its name.

  • Tenpel

    Hi Justin, I couldn’t find how to contact you. Here is a new interview with Robert Barnett (Columbia University) – an often quoted expert of contemporary Tibetan politics and Tibet – about the Shugden controversy, the protests, their claims, the role and power of the Dalai Lama and the role of the CTA & Kashag:

    • justinwhitaker

      Many thanks for this, Tenpel. This is an excellent and well-balanced discussion of the issue and I hope participants from both sides read it.

      • Mick

        Thank you Justin for your time, reading it and the feedback. I also hope that both sides read it. Best Tenpel/Mick