The short answer to this important question, fundamental to the entire Shugden discussion, is that in reality, there is no such human rights issue.
Nevertheless, the New Kadampa Tradition’s various ‘front organizations’ have repeatedly attempted to portray it as such. In 1996, NKT followers took part in an organized letter writing campaign to the UK Government’s Home Office, asking the Home Secretary to revoke the Dalai Lama’s visa on the basis of his supposedly brutal ‘human rights record’. In that same year, the same group attempted to procure the support of Amnesty International and, latterly in a different guise, the High Court in Delhi. On each occasion, claims of alleged religious persecution were investigated thoroughly and on each the same conclusion, that there was insufficient evidence to support such claims, was reached.
Despite independent bodies repeatedly reaching this same conclusion however, all of the demonstrations against the Dalai Lama organized by NKT followers and all of the propaganda that precedes them continue to have at their nucleus the claim that the Dalai Lama has restricted the human right to freedom of worship of four and a half million practitioners of Shugden worship worldwide.
These circumstances give rise to two important questions: is there a human rights issue here and, if not, why do NKT Shugden worshipers repeatedly portray it as such?
There is No Ban on Shugden Worship
Despite the centrality of this assertion to NKT Shugden followers’ arguments, no evidence of any legally enforced ban exists nor has the Dalai Lama ever issued one, nor even used the term.
This is not to say that a tiny minority of enthusiastic Tibetan devotees of the Dalai Lama have not acted inappropriately towards those in the exile community who publicly attack and defame the Dalai Lama. Such persons certainly have occasionally acted in this way, in a manner that even the Dalai Lama himself finds repugnant; indeed such harsh behavior deserves the condemnation of all. Most importantly, it should be noted that what provokes those Tibetans who act in this vigilante fashion, more often than not, are the repeated verbal attacks and ongoing PR campaign against the Dalai Lama, and not whether or not a person chooses to perform a particular ritual practice in the privacy of their own home.
The point is that the Dalai Lama himself has NEVER instructed anyone to behave in such a way nor has he ever condoned such behavior, nor has he ever imposed a ‘ban’. All he has ever done is advise others, in accord with his own experience, that Dolgyal or Shugden propitiation is harmful to one’s Buddhist practice. Invariably, whenever His Holiness speaks on this issue, his words are punctuated by the same phrase: “This is the advice I have given. It is up to you whether or not you follow it.”
The reason NKT followers, journalists and the public might labor under the misconception that there IS a ban is because of repeated, deliberate mistranslations of terms such as ‘advise against’, ‘determine not to’, or ‘restrain’ by Shugden supporters’ translators of the Dalai Lama’s speeches. Whenever the Dalai Lama uses such phrases, these so called ‘ translators’ deliberately mistranslate them as ‘ban’. As His Holiness has repeatedly stated however, “I never use that word”. Since the majority of Western Buddhists [including NKT followers] and journalists do not speak or read Tibetan, this deliberate deception invariably goes unnoticed.
Clearly, anti-Dalai Lama protestors utilize this deception for two principal reasons: to garner the public and media’s support for their political campaign, and to turn public opinion against the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama’s Advice Affects Few Buddhists
NKT Shugden followers turned Shugden Society anti-Dalai-lama protestors regularly claim that the Dalai Lama’s advice against the Shugden cult affects four and a half million practitioners world wide. This figure is sheer fantasy. There have NEVER been anywhere near four and a half million Shugden propitiants, either in pre-invasion Tibet or in the post diaspora, Tibetan Buddhist world.
It is estimated when Chinese troops invaded Tibet, the population numbered six million. One NKT representative suggested that 30% of the population were followers of the Gelug sect, equaling 1.8 million; among these, Shugden propitiation was overwhelmingly the domain of Gelug monastics. It is estimated that 1 in 6 Tibetans at this time were monastics, the Gelukpa monk percentage then equaling 300,000. Of these, only a minority were involved with the Shugden cult. Whatever the number of this minority, it is clear that in pre-invasion Tibet, Shugden propitiants numbered nowhere near 4 and a half million.
In the post-diaspora Tibetan Buddhist world, the Dalai Lama’s advice applies only to three small groups: monastics dwelling in Tibetan Government financed, Gelug monasteries; Tibetan Government employees; and tantric disciples of His Holiness. All other Shugden practitioners worldwide, from New York to Beijing, are completely free to propitiate the deity.
With regard to the first group potentially affected by the Dalai Lama’s advice, in 2008 His Holiness proposed a referendum on Shugden worship in all monasteries affected. As a result of this free, democratic vote conducted in accord with principles set out in ancient Buddhist monastic codes, the overwhelming majority voted against the practice.
Of course, the CTA or the Dalai Lama could have imposed an authoritarian ‘ban’ on Shugden devotees living in Gelug monasteries. However, this decision was left to the monasteries themselves to decide; monks and nuns were given the democratic right to choose freely who they wished to associate with. The majority took advantage of this freedom and decided they did not wish to practice Shugden nor to be associated with, by force of circumstance, those who worshiped Shugden and opposed the Dalai Lama. The tiny remainder of those who wished to continue Shugden worship then set up their own independent, surprisingly well financed monasteries, where they nowadays freely propitiate Shugden. Even the few devotees who might remain in Government monasteries are permitted to continue to propitiate the deity privately, since restrictions apply only to public ceremonies. In a few cases, where the majority in a particular “college” of the monastic university chose to retain the Shugden practice, the Shugden monks kept the original college buildings, and the non-Shugden monks had to move out and construct new quarters.
Among CTA employees, whose shared goal has always been the emancipation of the millions of Tibetans in the grip of Chinese authorities in Tibet, it seems highly unlikely that any would choose to propitiate a deity the Dalai Lama has suggested is “attempting to deliver Tibet into the hands of the Chinese”. It seems equally unlikely that any would ally themselves with a deity whose practice is increasingly used as a Chinese propaganda tool to turn world opinion against their leader, the Dalai Lama. In fact, in a speech to the Kashag in mid 2014, the Desung Kalon reported that “no CTA employee worships Dolgyal”.
As far as tantric disciples are concerned, all tantric initiations end with the following promise on the part of the student: “As the master instructs, so shall I endeavour.” This promise demonstrates the underlying spirit of the entire Tibetan Buddhist tantric path, insofar as success in the practice is said to depend entirely on accepting the advice of one’s teacher and following it without deviation.
Within such a context of total reliance, it again seems highly unlikely that any of the Dalai Lama’s tantric students would question or choose not to follow his advice. Since His Holiness has clearly indicated that Shugden worship is detrimental to the individual as well as to Tibetan society, the possibility of any of his tantric students choosing not to follow his instruction or indeed of any Shugden devotee wishing to cultivate a tantric relationship with him lies completely outside the realm of logic. Neither would existing devotees not follow willingly his instructions, nor would prospective devotees enter into such a relationship if they felt unable to follow said advice.
Beyond these three small groups, Shugden worshipers across the world, in Tibet [where Shugden worship is promoted by the Chinese authorities and indeed receives disproportionately large amounts of government funding], Nepal, India and SE Asia, all of the deity’s propitiants freely practice Shugden worship. Again, in the West, Shugden worshipers are subject to no restrictions whatsoever and Shugden propitiation is freely practiced.
Why then, is this exaggeration of the number of Shugden followers perpetuated? Once again, Shugden followers utilize this clear deception for the same two reasons: to garner the public and the media’s support for their political campaign, and to turn public opinion against the Dalai Lama.
The Shugden Cult Has Restricted the Religious Freedom of Ecumenical Gelugpas from its Inception
Shugden followers have compared Dolgyal to St Francis of Assisi and his propitiation to the Lord’s Prayer; Shugden worship is purportedly “a simple prayer for developing love and compassion”.
In truth, the worship of this worldly spirit has always had the function of inciting extremism and fear, and the cult has worked very specifically to restrict the freedom of worship of open-minded Gelugpa order followers and to impose an imagined “Gelugpa orthodoxy” upon the members of other orders. All of these facts are exceptionally well-documented, even in the cult’s own texts.
Regarding this cross-cultural confusion surrounding the Shugden issue, John Makransky, an American professor of Buddhism and Comparative Theology at Boston College wrote:
“A stunning recent example of this: some Tibetan monks who now introduce Westerners to practices centered on a native Tibetan deity, without informing them that one of its primary functions has been to assert hegemony over rival sects. The current Dalai Lama, seeking to combat the ancient, virulent sectarianisms operative in such quarters, has strongly discouraged the worship of the “protector” deity known as Dorje Shugden, because one of its functions has been to force conformity to the the Gelugpa sect (with which the Dalai Lama himself is most closely associated) and to assert power over competing sects. Western followers of a few Gelugpa monks who worship that deity, lacking any critical awareness of its sectarian functions in Tibet, have recently followed the Dalai Lama to his speaking engagements to protest his strong stance (for non-sectarianism) in the name of their “religious freedom” to promulgate, now in the West, an embodiment of Tibetan sectarianism. If it were not so harmful to persons and traditions, this would surely be one of the funniest examples of the cross-cultural confusion that lack of critical reflection continues to create.”
In short, the cult of Shugden is a form of militant fundamentalism, and it is to the Dalai Lama’s credit that he courageously opposes extremism on the part of members of his own religious order.
Why do Shugden Followers Appeal to the Human Rights Agenda?
According to investigative journalist Raimondo Bultrini, Tibetan religious leaders such as Kelsang Gyatso who openly continue to promote Shugden worship among their unknowing followers, are being politically pragmatic in unfurling the human rights banner, being,
“…well aware that open support for the Peking regime could make their cause of spreading the worship of the spirit unpopular. Thus the text which condenses their thought feigns impartiality and attributes the links between China and the Shugdenites to the Dalai Lama’s errors. The appeal to ‘freedom of worship’ launched during the Western Shugden Society’s demonstrations is part of a precise strategy aimed at capturing the imagination of western readers who know next to nothing of the historical and religious implications surrounding the cult.”
It is hoped that, in the future, journalists and the public alike will take the time to investigate the history of this fundamentalist cult, especially before allowing themselves to be misinformed into furthering the Chinese-backed defamation campaign against the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner widely recognized as the twenty first century’s successor to the great Indian human rights campaigner and saint, Mahatma Gandhi.