“There are two ways of lying. One, not telling the truth and the other, making up statistics.”
Josefina Vázquez Mota, Latin American Politician
Shugden supporters frequently claim that the supposed “ban” imposed by the Dalai Lama affects “millions” of the deity’s followers. A recent article at dorjeshugden.com, for example claimed, “Every single day, four million Dorje Shugden practitioners are subjected to vulgarities, and threats of violence and harm by Tibetans who, since 1996, have been consistently misinformed, alarmed and provoked by their leadership.” This figure of four million is a central motif of the pro-Shugden partisan propaganda campaign.
While such a figure is of little import to many, for Buddhists on both sides of the debate, it is important that the veracity of the four million figure be established. Rather than leave such a task to those open to allegations of bias, it is perhaps best to leave it to journalists and academics who have investigated the issue from a starting position of impartiality.
THE VIEW OF THE INDEPENDENT MEDIA AND ACADEMICS
In 1996, in response to NKT member and “Shugden Supporter Community’s” spokesperson Steven Lane that “four million people followed the deity” Andrew Brown of ‘The Independent’ wrote:
“The figure of four million worshippers of Shugden was preposterous. There are only about six million Tibetans in the world at most, of whom less than half are members of the Gelugpa order (Steven Lane estimated 30 per cent), where the veneration of Shugden is concentrated. Even among the Gelugpa, only monks can be initiated into the cult of Shugden, and only a minority of those actually are. Most of the experts I talked to thought that about 100,000 people at most could be affected by the Dalai Lama’s ban.”
Elsewhere, journalist Peter Unwin wrote:
“The figure of four million worshippers is gross exaggeration, experts estimating the figure to actually be around 100,000 or less than 2% of the Tibetan population, a large proportion of whom abandoned propitiation of the deity after the Dalai Lamas pronouncements.”From the academic perspective, Professor Paul Williams, of Bristol University’s Centre for Buddhist Studies opined: “I would think the figure of four million adherents which has been mentioned to be very much over-exagerrated, and I am not sure how that calculation has been made” and, with regard to “the figure of four million supporters, I would….be inclined to be rather sceptical of such reports coming from the Shugden Supporters Committee.”
SO WHO IS AFFECTED?
It is essential that one bear in mind that this figure of 100,000 people put forward by academics represents an estimate of the total number of Shugden practitioners potentially affected worldwide; it is not an estimate of the actual number affected. To ascertain how many of these actually are affected by the restrictions, we must first exclude all devotees of the deity living in Chinese-controlled Tibet. There, worship of the deity is actively promoted among the lay population as well as in the ever-increasing number of Government-funded Shugden monasteries being established.In Tibet then, no one is affected; everyone is able to practice the deity freely and without restriction.
This leaves us with those Tibetans living in the exiled community [a 2009 census numbered these at 128,000] of whom approximately 12,500 live in Central Tibetan Administration [CTA] funded monasteries. The Dalai Lama’s restrictions apply solely to 1] those monastics dwelling in said CTA funded monasteries, 2] CTA employees, and 3] Buddhists wishing to take the Dalai Lama as their tantric master. Apart from these three very specific groups, everyone else in the exiled community is free to propitiate the deity. Furthermore, under the restrictions, even those living in CTA-funded monasteries were given the freedom to practice privately; the restrictions apply only to group, monastic ceremonies and practices.
As Peter Unwin observed, when the restrictions were first announced and because of their deep faith in the Dalai Lama, the vast majority of exiled Tibetans immediately renounced the practice. Applying Steven Lane of the NKT’s estimate of 30% of the population being followers of the Gelug, approximately 35,000 members of the exile community would have been potentially affected by the restrictions. Taking away the 12,500 monastics living in CTA monasteries [leaving 22,500 laypersons], even if we employ an exaggerated estimate of 20% of the remainder refusing to accept the restrictions, this would leave only 4,500 lay Tibetans potentially affected.
In the exiled monastic communities, where 12,500 monks and nuns are similarly potentially affected, the deity’s ordained devotees recently made the decision to set up their own, independent and well-funded monasteries, Shar Gaden and Pompora. There they now remain, freely pursuing the practice. Bolstered by the knowledge that there now exist such communities, very few ordained Shugden practitioners have chosen to remain in CTA sponsored monasteries. In short, in the current exiled monastic community, the overwhelming majority of those who wish to propitiate the deity, be they layperson, monk or nun, are now completely free to do so.
This leaves us with Western adherents of the faith. Amongst these, those followers of the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu sects do not propitiate Shugden; it is only amongst those who choose to follow the Gelug where any conflict might remain. Amongst these ‘Western Gelugpas’, there are two discernible groups. Those who side with the Dalai Lama and those who do not. Since those who follow the Dalai Lama clearly have no wish to propitiate the deity, the restrictions do not affect them. Of those who oppose the Dalai Lama, all are currently entirely free to propitiate the deity; the overwhelming majority of these now do so, primarily in the context of the NKT.
In summary, no Westerners are affected by the Dalai Lama’s restrictions; followers of the Dalai Lama happily accord with his instruction, while. those who choose not to follow the Dalai Lama’s advice freely propitiate the deity.
THE ACTUAL FIGURE: 30,000?
So, if within Tibet, all are free to practice the deity, while the number affected in the lay and monastic exile community and among Westerners amounts to only a few thousand, how many Buddhists are really affected by the restrictions? When the editorial team behind the Dolgyal Shugden Research Society’s publication, Dolgyal Shugden: A History, consulted a number of the world’s leading Tibetan Buddhist academics, the team concluded that the restrictions affected a maximum of 30,000 people worldwide. Having considered the analysis above , the reader is free to decide for himself whether even this is an accurate appraisal.
Whatever the precise figure might be, it is clear that the estimate of four million is, as Professor Paul Williams observed, “very much over-exagerrated”. Considering all of the evidence above, it would seem that even a conservative estimate of 30,000 is excessive.
This begs the question as to why Shugden followers continue to spout forth their clearly excessive estimate of four million. Why, in light of well informed academic opinion and readily available demographic statistics clearly demonstrating the ludicrousness of their estimate do they continue to perpetuate such a myth?
There can be only one answer to this question. As with the deliberate mistranslation of the term ‘restriction’ to convince an unknowng public that the Dalai Lama has ‘banned’ the propitiation of Shugden, the disingenuous and excessive estimate of four million practitioners worldwide represents an attempt to dupe an unknowing public into supporting their cause; a cause which purports to be the preservation of the religious freedom of “millions” but which actually consists of deliberately undermining the reputation of the Dalai Lama on the world stage. In return for this persistent and deliberate undermining of his reputation, Chinese Government authorities in Tibet actively fund and promote the worship of Shugden. Clearly the hope is that one day, the Dalai Lama’s supporters within Tibet will be minoritized and that Shugden worship will come to represent the new face of Chinese, State controlled ‘Tibetan’ Buddhism within Tibet and, perhaps beyond.