Correcting misinformation spread by the anti-Dalai Lama Protesters

Are Shugden Monks “Refugees”?

Serpom Shugden monastery, South India

Serpom Shugden monastery, South India

New Kadampa Tradition ‘ front organizations’ the Western Shugden Society and the International Shugden Community repeatedly claim that, “In February 2008, as a direct result of the Dalai Lama’s demands, 900 Buddhist monks were made homeless.” However, despite the fact that a small percentage of the exiled Tibetan monastic population did indeed leave their monasteries at this time, this claim is a distortion of the facts.

To start with, the Dalai Lama has never issued any ‘demands’. This use of language, along with the allegation that he has ‘banned’ the practice of Dolgyal Shugden, are  tactics aimed at  inflaming public opinion against him and reducing his credibility in the eyes of the world, coincidentally in perfect tandem with the Chinese Government campaign to do exactly the same.

The Dalai Lama has neither banned the practice, nor has he issued any ‘demands’. Examining his words, one finds that he has only ever advised against the practice, leaving individuals to make their own decision as to whether they continue or not. Moreover, one discovers he has even gone so far as to ensure that Shugden devotees are now accommodated in their own brand new, purpose-built Shugden monasteries where they continue to propitiate the deity, as is their wish.

Giving advice in this way is entirely in keeping with  his role as a spiritual teacher.Nevertheless, subsequent to his advising against Shugden practice, the Chinese Government and exiled Tibetan Shugden devotees both realized the potential the issue held in terms of its ability to cause division and disharmony within the exiled monastic community, a disharmony which could then be blamed on the Dalai  Lama’s supposed ‘demands’.

Thus it was that in the early 2000s, when monks in Chinese-controlled Tibet applied for government permission to travel to India to study in the great monastic institutions there, one of the questions they were all asked by Chinese authorities was whether they worshiped Dolgyal Shugden. A 2005 paper by Hillman on monastic politics in Tibet noted that, of 12 monks who applied for permission to travel and received it, the 11 who declared themselves Shugden worshipers received it.

The divisive influence of these monks soon began to be felt and it was not long before the issue gave rise to tension and divisions, even outright violence in the exiled monasteries.

Attempting to counter this and in direct response to the Chinese Government’ s disruptive tactics, the monastic authorities themselves, not the Dalai Lama, made membership of their communities conditional on prospective members willingness to declare in writing that they did not worship Shugden. When one considers this was a measured response to a Chinese policy of deliberately causing disharmony in the exiled monasteries, a policy having severe detrimental consequences for their members, this was arguably an appropriate and proportionate countermeasure on their part.

Nevertheless, the measure only prevented the influx of such divisive forces from Tibet, purposely sent by the Chinese Government. It did not put an end to the deliberate campaign of disruption instigated by followers of Shugden, of both high and low status,  already resident in the Exile Government funded, Gelug monasteries of India.

Thus it was that as a direct consequence of the monastic authorities’ countermeasure, the disruptive activities of Shugden followers already presiding in these monasteries began to escalate.  Students at Sera Mey reported that in 2007  for  example, the annual, year-end revenue distribution was carried out during a lengthy Shugden ceremony. Thus, those who wished to remain faithful to the Dalai Lama and follow his advice by not attending the ceremony were forced to forego a significant sum, amounting to thousands of rupees,  despite their having worked just as hard for the monastery as their pro-Shugden counterparts. Furthermore, monks were compelled by pro-Shugden monastic seniors to attend communal ceremonies after which a Shugden prayer was recited; those monks who, as a consequence, chose not to attend were disciplined or fined for not doing so.  When by force they did attend, those averse to Shugden  sat silently during the prayer’s recitation. The house senior and his disciplinarian then printed out the prayer, placing it into the laps of each of  those who refused to recite; the monks nevertheless remained silent.

When Settlement Officer Phurbu Sither responded to these activities by distributing copies of the Dalai Lama’s advice on Shugden, he and his wife were brutally beaten with weapons by a gang of masked men; subsequent independent investigations revealed that the attacks were perpetrated by pro-Shugden monks of Pomra Khangtsen.

Gradually the situation became more and more tense. It was clear that, eventually, something had to give.

Settlement Officer Phurbu Sither and his wife’s injuries after their beating at the hands of Shugden devotees for distributing written copies of the Dalai Lama’s advice on Shugden worship.

These aggressive tactics soon led to demonstrations by the  other monks against Shugden worshippers  being allowed to remain in CTA-funded monasteries. Ultimately, the monastic authorities realized that something had to be done and thus it was that in late 2008, on the basis of monastic discipline procedures [Vinaya] and with the advice of the Dalai Lama, it was decided the best way forward would be to implement a referendum on the issue. The Dalai Lama himself vowed that, in the event of a 60-40% result in favor of Shugden worshippers, he would abide by such an outcome and would never mention the Shugden issue again.

Monks in South India demand the departure of disruptive Shugden practitioners from their monasteries. The banner reads ‘6000 monks can’t attend sojong [confession ceremony] due to 6 Shugden followers. Is this fair?’ Photo© TibetInfoNet

Sadly, discord is nothing new to monastic communities and over the last two and a half thousand years a number of methods of diplomatically resolving disputes have evolved within the Buddha’s monastic codes of the ‘Vinaya’. The method chosen to resolve this particular dispute was the so-called ‘stick referendum’, or Kang Mang Gi Shi Wa, ‘Resolution by Majority’, one of seven ways of pacifying disagreements within the Sangha community according to Vinaya rules.

This method is not a recent Tibetan procedure As well as in the Tibetan Vinaya,  references to it can be found in the Theravadin Vinaya Pitaka under Sattadhikarana Samatha and  in the Agahatapatiminaya in the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali canon. Thus, in the monastic codes of the two dominant traditions of Buddhism extant in the world today, the so-called ‘hinayana’ and ‘mahayana’, the ‘stick referendum’ is considered the proper and democratic procedure for resolving disputes and has been so for 2500 years.

It is of the utmost import to here note that the decision to employ the stick method was made, not by the Dalai Lama as his critics would have us believe, but by the monastic authorities themselves. This decision was taken in response, not to any decision to divide the monastic community on the part of the Dalai Lama, but rather by the monastic authorities themselves  as a means of bringing to an end the disruption and disharmony  arising from the deliberately divisive, covert and overt campaigning of Shugden devotees within their monasteries.

As a consequence of the referendum, the vast majority of monks in the three main Gelug monasteries in India (Ganden, Sera, Drepung) decided that, if Shugden monks wished to continue their worship, they should do so elsewhere; those who wished to stay were told they would have to give up Shugden practice as a pre-condition.

Shugden campaigners have portrayed this as criminal, oppressive behavior by the Dalai Lama but, in light of the initial provocations of the Chinese Government mandated, Shugden pseudo-monks, these were merely considered responses by the monastic community; the Dalai Lama’s role was merely advisory. In fact, in Buddhist monastic communities this is the way that things have always been done.Indeed, common to most democratic processes and conflict resolution procedures in the world is the idea that, in such a situation, a vote is taken and its outcome then accepted and respected by both sides. If a community decides for instance, that based on a majority vote, you cannot smoke on its property, then those who wish to continue to smoke agree either to leave or to give up smoking, unless they can find another way that accords with the majority decision.This is quite normal procedure in any community.

Significantly, those monks who chose to leave were given a fair, in some cases disproportionately large share of the funds, housing and property that  belonged to the whole  monastic community of which they were formerly part and, after a direct request from the Dalai Lama, the Exile Government [CTA] even gave land originally donated and  designated by the Indian Government for refugee usage, for the specific use of the Shugden monks. These now dwell on those lands, in well-funded monasteries, with numerous, well-equipped, modern amenities, purposely built specifically for them.

In one rare case, of the 600 monks dwelling in one of the monastic hostelries at Ganden Shartse, the very birthplace of the controversy and thus a long-standing Shugden stronghold, 500 voted to continue propitiating Shugden. As a result,  the existing monastic buildings were given over to them, and the 100 non-Shugden, Dalai Lama-loyal monks had to leave. The pro-Shugden monks were even loaned money by the Dalai Lama to build new buildings, while the Dalai Lama’s students helped organize a tour of the US for them so that they could begin to repay the loan.

At no point during this transitional phase were any monks  made homeless and all of those who chose to associate themselves with the breakaway group were accommodated throughout, either in CTA funded monasteries or, in the cases of a small minority, with their own families or  friends. At no point were any pro Shugden monks asked to leave, nor have those who allege that some were made homeless provided a single piece of evidence to support their claim.(One online propaganda video produced by Shugden supporters which purportedly showed an impoverished, homeless Tibetan monk actually featured footage of a young Burmese novice [Shugden is unheard of in Burma], as anyone with even a basic knowledge of  the various forms of Buddhist monastic robe could clearly see.)

According to one pro-Shugden site:

“Shar Gaden and Serpom monasteries, [were] established for the sole purpose of preserving and upholding Dorje Shugden’s lineage and practices. Both monasteries are open and thriving, and their activities encompass the full range of monastic programs including Geshe degrees, initiations and oral transmissions, international tours, Buddhist festivals and celebrations.

These two eminent monasteries are and will continue to be an educational base for high Lamas such as Domo Geshe Rinpoche and other future lamas to come [sic]. They are learning centers, hubs from which Dorje Shugden’s lineage is practiced and transmitted, and where Guru Devotion [sic] is strong and powerful.”

The lands on which these monasteries were built then, were provided by the Central Tibetan Administration at the  specific request of the Dalai Lama, following their inhabitants being compelled to leave their original monasteries after voting of their own free will in a long-established democratic process instigated by the monastic authorities. All of these monks were properly accommodated throughout this period then took up residence in new, well-funded and purpose-built monasteries, where they now freely propitiate Shugden.

All of these facts demonstrate the deliberate distortions of the NKT ‘front organizations’ propaganda, which states “In February 2008, as a direct result of the Dalai Lama’s demands, 900 Buddhist monks were made homeless”


Another collection of 'homeless' monks outside their purpose built monastery, Shar Gaden.
The shugden worshipping monks of Shar Gaden monastery posing in front of their newly built monastery on land given to them by the Tibetan Exile Government after they chose to move out of the existing monastery
[This article was inspired by and reproduces some of the content of one which originally appeared at We would like to express our gratitude to that site’s proprietor for raising this important issue.]
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