Praise to you, fierce god of the Yellow Hat teachings, who reduces to particles of dust great beings, high officials, and ordinary people who pollute and corrupt the Gelukpa doctrine.
– From “Praise to Dorje Shugden,” quoted by Zemey Rinpoche (1927-1996)
When questioned about allegations that Shugden is a harmful, controversial and destructive force, NKT Shugden worshipers have invariably responded by portraying propitiation of the spirit as “… a simple prayer … to develop pure minds of faith, love and compassion … like the Lord’s Prayer” Elsewhere they have claimed the worship of Shugden is “…a harmlesss spiritual practice, comparable to the worship of St Francis in Christianity.”
Examining the history of the spirit however, we find that from its birth right down to the present day, the worship of Shugden has often been condemned by responsible Gelukpa leaders, but has been the cause of sporadic but serious, internecine conflict within the Gelukpa order, intermittently over the course of the last 350 years.
The death of Dragpa Gyaltsen and the birth of Shugden
One legend surrounding the birth of Shugden suggests he took birth after the premature death of the lama Dragpa Gyaltsen [1619-1656] as a result of his vow to return as a ferocious spirit to wreak his revenge on those who had failed to elevate him to a similar rank to his former fellow student, the Fifth Dalai Lama, whose followers some allege may have brought about his demise. Right from the start then, the deity has been associated with premature death and malicious intent.
Soon after Gyaltsen’s death and his supposed rebirth as the wraithe king, misfortunes such as earthquakes, deaths, and famines occurred in Central Tibet, misfortunes which both supporters and opponents of the spirit attributed to Shugden Dolgyal (king demon from Dol).
Trijang Rinpoche, close student of the founder of the current cult of Shugden worship and guru to NKT founder Kelsang Gyatso, wrote : “The relics [remains of the body] that had not been consumed by the cremation fire were placed …. inside a set of all of the eight types of stupas, all made of silver. But …. those coming to pay their respects could not remain because of the clatter and pounding, voices, and sounds of being squeezed, that arose from within them.‟ And the Fifth Dalai Lama himself….“began to hear noises such as that of stones falling on the roof, noises which became so loud that he could not eat his meals without monks blowing large horns on the roof of his residence.‟ Simultaneously, an epidemic broke out among the laity and several monks from the Dalai Lama’s own monastery died. All of these calamities and sinister portents were attributed by both sides to Shugden.
Unsurprisingly, in response to these, the ‘Great Fifth’ wrote a prayer to his protecting deities asking them to intercede: “…. this interfering spirit and creature of distorted prayers is harming everything – both the Dharma Teaching and sentient beings ….‟
Shugden over the next two centuries
History and legend suggest Shugden was finally driven out of Lhasa and then arrived at the Sakya monastery of Samye, approximately 150 kilometres south-east of the capital. The year was 1722. The mere presence of the demon however caused numerous disturbances and so a visionary Sakya Lama, Sonam Rinchen, is said to have negotiated with him, offering to feed him once daily, via a ritual cake (torma) offering ceremony. In exchange, the demon vowed to desist from killing and harming the innocent, a promise which the deity’s supporters admit, even sometimes enthuse, that he was ultimately to break.
Over the next two centuries worship of the deity occasionally flared up among the more conservative elements within the Gelukpa order, only to to bring about calamity, then suppression by the abbots and learned reincarnations. The biography of Changkya Rolpai Dorje for instance tells us, “in the past some Ganden Throne Holders propitiated Dolgyal [Shugden] and experienced misfortunes, consequently Tri Chen Dorje Chang (Trichen Ngawang Chokden 1677-1751, Head of the Gelugpa Tradition) dismantled Dolgyal’s image and shrine and banished it from the monastery.” And moreover, “The monastic hostels also experienced many misfortunes and this led to the end of such practice and became a contributory factor in the purification of the monastery and the place.” As Andrew Brown of the Independent observed in 1996, such repeated calamitous occurrences are “Not quite the home life of St Francis of Assisi.”
In the biography of Yongzin Yeshe Gyaltsen (1713-1793), tutor to the eighth Dalai Lama, Jampel Gyatso (1758-1804), he is quoted as saying, “…the new Dharma protector (Shugden) is the source of the ruin of Tashi Lhunpo…. if (the monastery) starts introducing the propitiation of some harmful spirit, it will be a great source of inauspiciousness. (Therefore,) everyone should be extremely cautious about it.”
Subsequently, in the fire-rat year (1876), Panchen Tenpay Wangchuk (1855-1882), the Eighth Panchen Lama, composed the code of rules for Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, which stated “Recently, it seems some cases of invoking ghosts (through mediums) within the compound of the monastery have taken place. In future…summoning different kinds of spirits to enter into mediums will be prohibited….Propitiating and taking refuge in evil spirits and ghosts like Dolgyal, that are wandering hungry spirits, contradicts the fundamental precepts of taking refuge in the Three Jewels, which is what distinguishes a Buddhist. Therefore, such practices should be given up.”
Thus, having been outlawed by Ngawang Chokden in the mid seventeen hundreds, Dolgyal remained a source of both misfortune and considerable controversy within the Gelukpa tradition until the latter half of the nineteenth century when, due to its re-emergence, the eighth Panchen Lama felt it necessary to issue further edicts concerning the practice of what one-after-another high ranking Gelug teacher clearly considered to be ̳spirit propitiation. When one considers that Shugden propitiation was again considered controversial during the reign of the Thirteenth and that it has continued to be a contentious issue during the reign of the Fourteenth, throughout the twentieth and early twenty first centuries, the reality is that Shugden worship has been a divisive issue in the Gelukpa on and off for all of the three and a half centuries since its inception.
Shugden in the twentieth century
The conflict with the Shugden’s supporters again came to a head during the reign of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso [1876-1933], as a result of the activities of Pabongka Rinpoche [1878-1941], a highly charismatic teacher with fundamentalist leanings, whose following among Gelukpas was perhaps only eclipsed by that of the Dalai Lama himself.
Against the wishes of the Thirteenth, and without any scriptural justification, Pabongka promoted Shugden as an enlightened deity whose worship should form a central element of Gelukpa practice, an idiosyncratic view which persists in the spiritual curriculum of Kelsang Gyatso’s New Kadampa.
While the decision to change the status of the protector was innovative, the change of role of said deity was positively disturbing, for its function was not simply to support the Geluk practitioner in his practice. Rather, the deity was now charged with bringing misfortune upon, and even destroying, the enemies of Tsong Khapa‘s noble tradition.
Among Pabongka’s Collected Works we find the following, oxymoronic invocation:
“Now [I] exhort to violent actions Shukden, who is the main war-god of Dzong-ka-ba’s tradition and its holders, the angry spirit, the Slayer of Yama…. In particular it is time to free [a Tibetan scriptural euphemism meaning ‘kill’] in one moment the enemies of Dzong-ka-ba’s tradition. Protector, set up [your] fierce actions without [letting] your previous commitments dissipate. Quickly engage in fierce actions without relaxing your loving promises.”
Elsewhere, describing Shugden’s function, Pabongka wrote:
“(Shugden) is extremely important for holding Dzong-ka-ba’s tradition without mixing and corrupting [it] with confusions, due to the great violence and swift force of his actions, which fall like lightning to punish harshly all those beings who have damaged the Yellow Hat Tradition…. this protector of the doctrine, this witness, manifests his own form or a variety of unbearable manifestations of terrifying and frightening wrathful and fierce appearances.
Due to that, a variety of events, …. have taken place: some people become unhinged and mad, some have a heart attack and suddenly die, some [see] through a variety of inauspicious signs [their] wealth, accumulated possessions and descendants disappear without leaving any trace, like a pond whose feeding river has ceased, whereas some [find it] difficult to achieve anything in successive lifetimes.”
Unsurprisingly, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was extremely unhappy with Pabongka’s proselytizing and a letter from Pabongka to the Thirteenth demonstrates that, on at least two occasions, the latter wrote to the former rebuking him for spreading the practice of Shugden.
In response, Pabongka wrote: ‘I want to say from the depths of my heart that it is only due to my being confused by ignorance and not that I have knowingly entered an unwholesome path and led others onto the same path.’ And “…It was entirely my mistake and I have absolutely nothing to say (to defend it). It will be my endeavour in the future to take the meaning of your instructions earnestly to heart and I ask your forgiveness for whatever mistakes I have made…”
In reply, the Thirteenth clearly accused Pabongka of being a liar:
“The Great Nechung Choegyal who from the very beginning was commanded and entrusted to protect and guard this monastery, expressed his displeasure to the Drepung Lachi several times, saying that (due to propitiating Shugden) the degeneration of the Buddha’s Dharma Teaching has been speeded up. This is the source of his displeasure. I feel that your seeking the support of a wrathful worldly spirit (to secure benefits) in this life specifically contradicts the precept of taking refuge. Therefore, your statement, ‘I want to say from the depths of my heart that it is only due to my being confused by ignorance and not that I have knowingly entered an unwholesome path and led others onto the same path,’ is contradictory.”
Realizing the Dalai Lama had seen right through him, Pabongka wrote a humble response, along with a ‘sincere’ promise which he ultimately did not keep:
“I have propitiated Shugden until now because my old mother told me that Shugden is the deity of my maternal lineage. I wish to inform you that henceforth, with intense regret (for my past actions) and restraining my faults (in the future), I will never again propitiate (Shugden) or make daily offerings and supporting prayers and that I will wholeheartedly keep this commitment in the core of my heart. Whatever mistakes I have committed until now, …, I request you, the supreme protector,… patiently to forgive me.”
It is possible that, had he lived, through a combination of popularity and political adroitness, the Thirteenth may have brought the cult of Shugden under control and perhaps even have stamped it out. But in 1933, at the somewhat premature age of 57, Thubten Gyatso died.
Popular belief following the Thirteenth’s death held that he had chosen to die prematurely in order that his subsequent incarnation could be sufficiently mature as to be able to cope with the predicted impending Chinese influx.
With the Thirteenth dead, and despite his repeated promises, expressed ̳from “the core of his heart”, Pabongka wasted little time before re-asserting his relationship with Shugden. Pabongka now began to declare publicly that “Apart from the doctrine of Manjughosha Tsongkhapa alone, the views of all Sakyas, Kagyus, Nyingmas and so on are erroneous.”
During one visit to Kham in 1938, Pabongka struck up a relationship with Zangmar Toden, regent of the young Dagyab Rinpoche (b.1940); Zangmar had been a follower of the Nyingma in his early life but, having met Pabongka while he was visiting Chamdo in eastern Tibet, converted and became a strict Gelugpa. Beyer, author of The Cult of Tara, takes up the story.
“Zangmar had fallen under the spell of this new and impressive personality… But many eastern Tibetans remember him with loathing as the great persecutor of the ‘ancient’ sect, devoting himself to the destruction throughout Kham of images of the Precious Guru (Padmasambhava) and the burning of ‘ancient’ books and paintings. Pabongka sent his new disciple back to take charge of the Gelug monastery in Dragyab; Zangmar, with the zeal of the convert, carried with him only his master’s sectarianism and implemented only his policy of destruction. He tried to force the monks of Kajegon … to perform the Gelug rituals, and when they obstinately continued to refuse he called in the government police on a trumped-up charge of treason. They raided Kajegon, broke its images, made a fire of its books and paintings, and beat its monks with sticks. The head monk, who carried with him by chance that day our image of Tara, tried to stop them; while one policeman threatened him with a stick, another shot him in the back.”
Eventually, the problems in East Tibet spread south and the situation became so dire that the non-sectarian master Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (1893-1959) was forced to write to the prominent Geluk master Jigme Damcho Gyatso (1898-1947), requesting his intercession:
“Some of the followers of Ven. Phabongkha Dechen Nyingpo Rinpoche engaged in heated argument over the systems of philosophical tenets of the new and the ancient traditions. They engaged in many mistaken activities such as destroying images of Padmasambhava and other peaceful and wrathful deities. They said that reciting the mantra of the Vajra Guru is of no value and would destroy the Padma Kathang (by burning it or throwing it into rivers.)
Similarly, they asserted that turning Mani prayer wheels, observing weekly prayers for the deceased, and so forth are of no purpose and so placed many on the path of wrong view. They held Gyalpo Shugden as the supreme refuge and the embodiment of all the Three Jewels. Many monks from minor monasteries in the southern area, claiming to be possessed by Shugden, ran madly in all directions destroying the three symbols of enlightenment (images, scriptures and stupas) and so forth. Displaying many such faults they greatly harmed the teachings of the second conqueror, Je Tsongkhapa. Therefore, if you were to compose an advisory letter for everyone’s benefit and were to publish it and distribute it throughout the three provinces of U, Tsang and Kham, it would greatly contribute to counteracting such disturbances to the teaching.”
The Lhasa administration was ultimately forced to act and sent a delegation to the Gelukpa Shitam monastery near Chamdo, after a group of monks from that monastery who claimed to be possessed by Shugden broke down and smashed the doors of the main Chamdo temple. Under interrogation, they confessed that on their way there, they had also entered a Nyingma monastery and destroyed a 30 foot image of Padmasambhava. The worship of Shugden at Shitam was subsequently banned. The application of sanctions however, came too late and eventually Pabongka‘s new vision of the deity spread via his disciples throughout Kham, Tsang in the south, and, of course, in central Tibet. Pabongka died in 1941 at the age of 63 and so was unable to continue his personal campaign against the Nyingma, Kagyu and Bon schools. Nevertheless, the seeds were sown and his influence has persisted right down to the present day, in the post-diaspora world of Tibetan Buddhism, nowadays primarily due to the activities of Kelsang Gyatso and his New Kadampa Tradition.
Having considered the issue of Shugden worship in the post diaspora world and reaching the conclusion that propitiation of the deity was detrimental to both the Tibetan cause and to Tibetan Buddhism, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama first considered speaking out against it in the early 1970s. This brought about the next important event in the Shugden controversy, the publication of Zimey Rinpoche‘s Yellow Book in 1975.
Zimey Losang Palden (1927-1996) was a devout Shugden devotee, a popular teacher and a close disciple of Kelsang Gyatso’s teacher, Trijang Rinpoche; Trijang, in turn, had been one of Pabongka’s closest students. The Dalai Lama had spoken privately to Trijang about his concerns over Shugden. While in conversation, Trijang Rinpoche acquiesced and promised to comply with whatever decision the Dalai Lama made, his student Zimey Rinpoche started a fire storm by writing the Yellow Book.
The book itself was a collection of stories from Pabongka and Trijang Rinpoches that the latter had passed on to Zimey; the stories recounted the gruesome details of the premature deaths and misfortunes of 23 high Gelukpa lamas and government officials who had incurred the wrath of the deity after practicing a mixture of teachings from the Gelukpa and Nyingma traditions. The decision to include government officials in the text was a highly political one which could be interpreted as a warning to Gelukpa politicos that those who mixed their teachings with Nyingma ones risked their fortunes and even their lives.
The story of one lama, Tehor Zigyab Rinpoche, is typical of the Yellow Book‘s content. Zigyab was a devotee of Shugden who had received Nyingma teachings and then decided to practice them. The book tells us: “On several occasions, Dorje Shugden asked him not to study and meditate on Nyingma teachings and told him that, if he did not heed the deity’s advice, the Rinpoche would suffer many hardships and it could even shorten his life span. But Zigyab Rinpoche did not pay any attention. One day Dorje Shugden was greatly annoyed and told the Rinpoche that, “I may not pierce you with my deadly claws, but if I do, I will not be able to take them out.”
Zigyab disregarded Shugden’s threats. As a result “…he became very ill and a day later he passed away. If Zigyab Rinpoche had not practiced Nyingma teachings and remained a proper practitioner of the pure gold-like Gelugpa tradition, he could have had a long life and his meritorious deeds could have spread far and wide.” Along with its attribution of the grisly deaths of a number of other Gelugpa followers to the deity, the book also claimed that it was Shugden‘s retribution that led to a great flood at Gyantse in Shigatse in 1954, a flood which almost completely destroyed the town and killed thousands of innocent people and animals.
The publication caused immediate divisions to arise in the Tibetan exile community, divisions that ultimately led to the Dalai Lama to advise others to abandon the practice, as had the Fifth and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas before him. The repercussions from this continue to manifest in the present in the form of NKT followers’ demonstrations against the Dalai Lama.
These demonstrations bring us full circle back to the function of this paper which was to establish whether Shugden worship is “… a simple prayer … to develop pure minds of faith, love and compassion … like the Lord’s Prayer” ,” …a harmless spiritual practice, comparable to the worship of St Francis in Christianity.”
The historical facts set out above, facts of which the majority of Kelsang Gyatso’s followers would have no knowledge, demonstrate categorically that this has never been the case. Far from it, the worship of Shugden, after having been born of bad blood, remained repeatedly controversial throughout its history. Far from being “a harmless spiritual practice”, “… a simple prayer … to develop pure minds of faith, love and compassion …“, the function of Shugden has, throughout its history, been to inspire conflict and fear, sickness, madness and death. For those who follow him, Shugden promises wealth, success and power, but ultimately it seems that his followers end up crazed in the pursuit of power; far from being protected, the Gelukpa order suffers greatly as a result.
One cannot but suspect that this is why the truth remains hidden from the majority of Kelsang Gyatso’s disciples for, if they were to learn that Shugden is actually a vengeful, bloodthirsty spirit, an ethereal bully who threatens and terrifies people into submission while appealing to the worldly whims of others in order to gain their confidence, how many of these unwitting innocents would still beg the spirit’s intercession? How many would remain outside the Dalai Lama’s teachings, drowning out his noble, melodious words by screaming “liar” and “hypocrite,” and misperceiving his honest and compassionate activities as the actions of a “dictator,” etc.?