Correcting misinformation spread by the anti-Dalai Lama Protesters

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

Jens-Uwe Hartmann

The following is a short paper by Prof. Dr. Jens-Uwe Hartmann. Hartmann was Professor of Tibetan Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin from 1995 to 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 the 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.

In 1997, Professor Hartmann’s advice was sought by journalists producing a somewhat distorted and sensationalist piece on the Dolgyal issue for German TV. Without presenting all the facts, the journalists created a rather one-sided presentation, one which, as is the case with much current journalism regarding the Shugden issue, failed to investigate adequately the history and nature of the sectarian conflict. The programmers also failed to recognize that they had allowed themselves, albeit unwittingly, to be used as a mouthpiece for the dissemination of Chinese anti Dalai Lama propaganda.

As a result, Chinese-backed anti-Dalai Lama campaigners have repeatedly utilised the original program as evidence to support their cause, in particular, the media-distorted opinions of Professor Hartmann. Here, he presents his current understanding of the Dolgyal issue and its implications, while at the same time distancing himself from the dishonest misrepresentations of his views that occurred in both the original program and in subsequent pro Shugden propaganda.


For several centuries, Tibetan Buddhism has been repeatedly shaken by confrontation, at the center of which stands a so-called protector deity, called Dorje Shugden. A few decades ago, this conflict again surfaced in the exile community in India, but it remained for the time largely an internal Tibetan matter, solely because the 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 drawn in Western followers as well. Normally, a dispute about the cult practice of a protector deity in Tibetan Buddhism would remain alien and puzzling, however the Shugden issue has had the ability to polarize groups to an excessive degree. In the West, this dispute feeds on the fact that the followers of Dorje Shugden have found their declared enemy in the personage 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 to the forefront of this dispute; it is connected with the issue of Human Rights with which one can rouse heightened emotion in the West. As such, there are virtually no more visits of the Dalai Lama to 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 to Frankfurt, and the International Shugden Community will certainly be present again during the next visit to the West. Therefore, it is once more time to bring to mind  the conflict and, above all, it’s background.

Dalai Lama / Shugden Proteste Frankfurt

Demonstration in Frankfurt, May 15 2014 © Tsewang Norbu

A Protector Deity Can Be a Troublemaker

Among the many features of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition are the so-called ‘protector’ deities. Such deities are not a Tibetan accretion, but were already known in 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, 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 towards 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, protector deities play an important role in the religious world view and religious practice of Tibetan Buddhists.

One such protector deity is Dorje Shugden (rDo-rje shugs-ldan) or Dolgyal (Dol-rgyal, pronounced Dölgyel).According to my impression, When the conflict over the cult practice of this protector deity again flared up in the exile community in India,  it was initially deliberately concealed from Western followers. I remember how, in the 70s I was given an off-the-record, very cautious, whispered hint about it, with the clear expectation that I would keep this information to myself.

Wider publicity concerning this problem in Germany came 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 personage, he was first introduced as the world’s most highly respected Nobel Peace Laureate. In light of the Shugden conflict, it was then intended to demonstrate that an entirely different person lay behind this façade, namely one who, together with the Tibetan government-in-exile, uncompromisingly suppressed the religious freedom of his countrymen. In this context, a mysterious murder case that had shaken the exile community in the beginning of 1997 was cited. At that time, Geshe Losang Gyatso, a resident of Dharamsala and a close confidante and supporter of the Dalai Lama, and his two students had been murdered. (Editor’s note: See the detailed study of this triple murder, and the arrest warrants issued by Interpol at request of Indian police for two Shugden monks who escaped back into China after the murder, The Dalai Lama and the King Demon, by R. Bultrini)

Dalai Lama Panorama Shugden

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

Moreover it should be noted that usually, the strong interests of power politics lie behind most ostensibly religious conflicts, something no different among Tibetans than anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, in the case of such conflicts, there is never a clear distinction between just and unjust, between the side of good and the side of evil. Rather, more often than not, a web of interactions leads to both sides becoming entangled in it. This finding may be unwelcome because it robs us of the opportunity to take a clear stand for the side of “good”, but it is probably a necessary prerequisite in understanding the conflict and to the meting out of fair justice to all the parties concerned.

“It is apparent … 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.”

The Historical Background

Who is this ominous Dorje Shugden? As is generally known, there are four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism. Each of these schools has its own protector deities. Almost exclusively, Shugden acts as such a protector deity for the Gelug School (and to a much lesser extent, for the Sakyapas). This cult originated relatively late and goes back to a political power struggle 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 circulated that Dragpa Gyaltsen had already taken an oath that he would becomes a protective deity of the Gelugpa School and that, for the fulfilment of this vow, he had to die. According to one version, he committed suicide by thrusting a khatak [silk scarf] into his mouth and suffocating himself to death; according to another version he did not take this khatak into his mouth in so voluntarily a fashion. 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 there in the form of a vengeance-seeking demon. After many unsuccessful attempts, it was finally possible to pacify this spirit. As is usually the case in Tibetan Buddhism, he was bound by an oath henceforth, to act as a protector deity.

Regardless of the historical accuracy of these details, it is apparent from this story 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. In the past, these elements have led to repeated conflicts between the followers and opponents of Shugden in the Gelug School.

Similar conflicts have occurred between the Gelugpas and followers of other schools, particularly the Nyingmapas. In Tibet, such a conflict last flared up at the beginning of the last century, when Phabongkhapa (1878–1941), an important Gelugpa Lama, spent 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 indisputable, was both politically and religiously, a definite 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. In the later context, it was with Phabongkhapa that the Shugden cult entered the dangerous area of assuming sectarian traits, with the aim of placing the teachings of the Gelug School above all other Buddhist traditions in Tibet.

A further antagonism was rooted in the genesis of the issue at this time, namely that between Shugden and Pehar, another protector deity. Pehar manifests as the traditional Tibetan state oracle of Nechung Monastery. Although he is seen as a protector deity of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the oracle itself nevertheless belongs to the Nyingmapa School. The Tibetan government, however, was dominated for some three hundred years either by circles belonging directly to the Gelugpa School or those who were closely associated with it. Fundamentally, this Gelugpa dominance of political power has not changed in exile. Since Shugden manifests through its own oracle, his followers today want the Nechung oracle removed and replaced by him, thus adding 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 protector deity for Tibetan Buddhism in its entirety, but that the followers of other schools reject it, some even vehemently, is of the utmost importance in understanding the dilemma in which the Dalai Lama today finds himself. Also, the Dalai Lama is counted among the ranks of the Gelugpas; if he is now trying to subjugate  this cult or even bring it to an end, rather than exclusively favoring his own school in the style of a party politician, his intentions can be accordingly interpreted as indicating that he considers the balance between the different schools to be of supreme import, and even that he is ready to pay a high price of massive conflict within his own school for the sake of this. 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 rule out 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 protector 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 one 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 led by 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, you then understand that every serious practitioner can have qualms when it comes to simply giving up the 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 finds himself in an inevitable conflict of loyalties, which one sees among Gelugpa monks and which has given rise to all different types of solution. The open renunciation of the Dalai Lama is one such solution, as is adopting 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 for it to be suppressed in the same way by own people.”

The Political Context

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

There is no foreseeable solution to the conflict. Not only will this 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 conflict cannot be resolved now, it will continue to strain the relationship between factions within the Gelug and other schools. Unlike in the 70s, when the conflict first flared up among the Tibetans in exile in India and was an internal Tibetan matter,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 rulers 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 a bad light in the West and to divide his followers.

Furthermore, it 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 Chinese interests. It has been noted that every religious conflict inevitably has a strong ‘power politics’ component. 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.

Especially against this background, the posters and slogan chanting of the protesters appear in an entirely new light. Slogans such as “Dalai Lama – Stop Lying” and “False Dalai Lama” seem strangely propagandistic – to we older ones, the term “Agitprop” quite naturally returns to mind – and one finds it difficult not to ask, as an almost natural 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 felt afterwards that I had been misused. Up to the present, I am still being mentioned time and again in connection with the show, and frequently most viewers do not remember my words, but rather my association with that show in which the Dalai Lama was attacked in a perfidious way. Therefore, I would like to go on record once again that I strongly and emphatically reject this attack on him, both as a person and as an academic.