Elsewhere it has been reported that NKT senior and ISC spokesperson Len Foley has taken to falsely claiming that Shugden worshippers are dying for their beliefs, despite there being no evidence whatsoever to support such an inflammatory claim. On the other hand, even according to Shugden devotees own propaganda, over the past three centuries the spirit has been complicit in the premature deaths of dozens of Buddhists of the Gelug sect, non-sectarians who attempted to exercise their right to religious freedom by studying the teachings of other sects. Most recently, in 1997 and with the seeming support of the Chinese government, Shugden worshippers brutally murdered an outspoken critic of the spirit’s worship, along with his two young students.
Now, a prominent Tibetan critic of Shugden worship has died in Chinese custody, where he was kept on the basis of what many consider to have been fabricated charges.
Lithang Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist leader from Garze in Sichuan, was arrested in April 2002 after being accused of involvement in a bomb attack on the central square of Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu. In December of that year he was sentenced to death, with the sentence being commuted to life imprisonment after overseas human rights groups protested that the case against him was seriously flawed, that he did not receive a fair trial, and that he was mistreated in detention. In short, it seemed clear that the charges were trumped up, a ploy to once and for all remove the Rinpoche from the religious and political landscape within Tibet.
Delek had been a critic of the occupying Chinese regime for many years, reportedly acting as an advocate for environmental conservation in the face of indiscriminate logging and mining projects.
Less widely reported, though perhaps more significant, was Tenzin Delek’s staunch opposition to Shugden worship, an opposition which some believe was a significant factor in his arrest and imprisonment.
According to the February 2004 edition of Human Rights Watch, Chinese authorities equated Tenzin Delek’s open support for the Dalai Lama’s stance on Shugden worship with opposition to the regime’s policies. By 2012, this view was enshrined in legislation and a 77 year old man was imprisoned for a year and a half for advising a group of Tibetan students to abide by the Dalai Lama’s call not to participate in Shugden worship. Months earlier, police issued regulations including a ban on “anyone using the protector ‘Gyalchen Shugden’ to create differences among the believing masses”; not long afterwards, another 60 year old man charged with the same crime was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
While in 1979 no such legislation existed, it is clear that Chinese authorities had recognized the potential of the Shugden issue to divide and rule the Tibetan people and it was at the same time that Tenzin Delek began speaking out against the practice. In 1987 in Lithang, he preached openly against Shugden worship to monks, laymen and village elders. The practice had been promoted at the local monastery there and Delek vowed not to set foot in the monastery again until it ceased. As a result, a number of Lithang monks left and in 1999, several from the same monastery who were known to oppose the practice were briefly detained. Eventually, Shugden worship ceased there and a major ceremony attended by monks from far and wide was held to commemorate the change.
Not long afterwards, Delek was arrested. Among other things to which he allegedly confessed during his reportedly brutal interrogations was planting a bomb in close proximity to a prominent Shugden worshipping monk. Ultimately, as we have seen he was sentenced to death, with the sentence commuted to life after appeals from overseas human rights bodies, including the UN.
Importantly, as well as being sentenced for the above, explosion related charges, Tenzin Delek had been previously charged with “interfering with people’s right to believe as they choose by preaching against Dorje Shugden worship, and preaching harmful concepts.” This would appear to have been one of the real reasons behind his arrest and imprisonment.
Tenzin Delek died on 12 July 2015 in Chengdu. Despite calls for the release of his body in order to determine the cause of death and carry out traditional funeral rites Chinese authorities cremated the body without an autopsy; one resulting protest was met by China’s security forces opening fire, injuring several Tibetans.
Why Chinese authorities should wish to conceal the cause of his death by destroying the ‘evidence’ is a question that only they can answer. However, it seems clear that, while he was purportedly incarcerated for his part in a crime, one of the real reasons he was imprisoned was because he stood in the way of the Chinese regime’s now official policy of promoting Shugden worship in monasteries throughout Tibet, in their ongoing campaign to undermine the Dalai Lama and turn the Tibetan people against him.
In 2003, in a covert recording made in Dartsedo Detention Centre, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche told Radio Free Asia: “I have always been sincere and devoted to the interests and well-being of Tibetan people. That is the real reason why the Chinese do not like me and framed me. That is why they are going to take my precious life even though I am innocent.”