This brief explanation of Shugden’s nature and origins owes much to an article in Tricycle magazine in Spring 1998, and even more so a piece that first appeared at info-buddhism.com. The content appears by kind consent of the author. The whole article has been lightly edited and supplemented for the sake of brevity.
“Dorje Shugden (Wylie: rdo-rje shugs-ldan), “Powerful thunderbolt”; also known as Dol-rgyal) is a relatively recent, but very controversial, deity within the complex pantheons of Himalayan Buddhism. There exist different accounts and claims of Dolgyal Dorje Shugden’s nature and origins.
According to Kay:
“Whilst there is a consensus that this protector practice originated in the seventeenth century, there is much disagreement about the nature and status of Dorje Shugden, the events that led to his appearance in the religious landscape of Tibet, and the subsequent development of his cult.”
There are two dominant views:
- One view, held by the majority of Tibetan Buddhists, which holds that Dorje Shugden is a ‘jig rten pa’i srung ma, a worldly protector.
- The opposing view held by present-day Shugden worshippers that Shugden is a ‘jig rten las ‘das pa’i srung ma , an enlightened being.
“One view holds that Dorje Shugden is a ‘jig rten las ‘das pa’i srung ma (an enlightened being) and that….., he assumed a series of human incarnations before manifesting himself as a Dharma-protector during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. According to this view, the Fifth Dalai Lama initially mistook Dorje Shugden for a harmful and vengeful spirit of a tulku of Drepung monastery called Dragpa Gyaltsen…. murdered by the Tibetan government because of the threat posed by his widespread popularity and influence. After a number of failed attempts to subdue this worldly spirit by enlisting the help of a high-ranking Nyingma lama, the Great Fifth realized that Dorje Shugden was in reality an enlightened being and began henceforth to praise him as a Buddha.
Proponents of this view maintain that the deity has been worshiped as a Buddha ever since, and that he is now the chief guardian deity of the Gelug Tradition. These proponents claim, furthermore that the Sakya tradition also recognises and worships Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being. The main representative of this view in recent years has been Geshe Kelsang Gyatso who, like many other popular Gelug lamas stands firmly within the lineage-tradition of the highly influential Phabongkha Rinpoche and his disciple Trijang Rinpoche.”
“Opposing this Position is a view which holds that Dorje Shugden is actually a ‘jig rten pa’i srung ma (a worldly protector) whose relatively short lifespan of only a few centuries and inauspicious circumstances of origin make him a highly inappropriate object of such exalted veneration and refuge. This view agrees with the former that Dorje Shugden entered the Tibetan religious landscape following the death of tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen, a rival to the Great Fifth and his government. According to this view, however, the deity initially came into existence as a demonic and vengeance-seeking spirit, causing many calamities and disasters for his former enemies before being pacified and reconciled to the Gelug school as a protector of its teachings and interests. Supporters of this view reject the pretensions made by devotees of Dorje Shugden, with respect to his status and importance, as recent innovations probably originating during the time of Pabongkha Rinpoche and reflecting his particularly exclusive and sectarian agenda. The present Dalai Lama is the [current] main proponent of this position and he is widely supported in it by representatives of the Gelug and non-Gelug traditions.”
“Scholarly discussions of the various legends behind the emergence of the Dorje Shugden cult can be found in Nebesky-Wojkowitz , Chime Radha Rinpoche, and Mumford. All of these accounts narrate the latter of the two positions, in which the deity is defined as a worldly protector. The fact that these scholars reveal no awareness of an alternative view suggests that the position which defines Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being is both a marginal viewpoint and one of recent provenance.
Although proponents of the view that Dorje Shugden is an enlightened being claim that the Sakya tradition also recognise and worship Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being, HH Sakya Trizin, the present head of the Sakya tradition, states that while some Sakyas worshipped Shugden as a lower deity, Shugden was never part of the Sakya institutions. Lama Jampa Thaye, an English teacher in both the Sakya and the Kagyu traditions and founder of the Dechen Community, maintains that “The Sakyas generally have been ambivalent about Shugden […] The usual Sakya view about Shugden is that he is controlled by a particular Mahakala, the Mahakala known as Four-Faced Mahakala. So he is a ‘jig rten pai srung ma, a worldly deity, or demon, who is no harm to the Sakya tradition because he is under the influence of this particular Mahakala.”
Then there are lamas who regard Dorje Shugden as a destructive and malevolent (or demonic) force, like Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche, former head of the Nyingma school, and Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche. The latter is head of 25 monasteries in Bhutan and holds the view that people who practice Shugden “will get a lot of money, a lot of disciples, and a lot of problems.”
The historical origins of Shugden are unclear. The majority of scriptural documents on him did not appear until the 19th century. Some references to Shugden are found in the biography of the 5th Dalai Lama, so there is some agreement that the origins of Shugden stem from that time. However, the claim of Shugden followers that the 5th Dalai Lama wrote a praise on Dorje Shugden lacks historical evidence: there is no historical record of such a praise neither in the biography of the 5th Dalai Lama nor elsewhere. Pabongkha Rinpoche, a Gelug Lama of the 20th century, who received this practice from his root guru, is attributed with spreading reliance on Dorje Shugden [as an enlightened being] widely within the Gelug tradition during the 1930s and 1940s, and in this way, what was a formerly marginal practice became a central element of the Gelug tradition’s practice.
This issue has a long history of controversy and involves not only the Fourteenth Dalai Lama but also the Thirteenth and the Fifth Dalai Lamas. An extensive paper exists on the origin and history in the form of The Shuk-Den Affair: Origins of a Controversy by Prof. George Dreyfus.
According to Mills, Shugden is “… the spirit of a murdered Gelukpa lama who had opposed the Fifth Dalai Lama both in debate and in politics, Shugden is said to have laid waste to Central Tibet until, according to one account, his power forced the Tibetan Government of the Fifth Dalai Lama to seek reconciliation, and accept him as one of the protector deities (Tib. choskyong) of the Gelukpa order.”
According to Dreyfus “When asked to explain the origin of the practice of Dorje Shukden, his followers point to a rather obscure and bloody episode of Tibetan history, the premature death of Truku Drakba Gyeltsen (sprul sku grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1618-1655). Drak-ba Gyel-tsen was an important Gelug lama who was a rival of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngak-wang Lo-sang Gya-tso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682)”.
He further suggests,
“….the events surrounding Drak-ba Gyel-tsen’s death must be understood in relation to its historical context, the political events surrounding the emergence of the Dalai Lama institution as a centralizing power during the second half of the seventeenth century. The rule of this monarch seems to have been particularly resented by some elements in the Ge-luk tradition. It is quite probable that Drak-ba Gyel-tsen was seen after his death as a victim of the Dalai Lama’s power and hence became a symbol of opposition.”
Key figures in the modern popularization of Dorje Shugden are Pabongkha Rinpoche (1878-1944), a charismatic Khampa lama who seems to have been the first historical Gelugpa figure to promote Shugden worship as a major element of Gelugpa practice; and Trijang Rinpoche (1901-1981), a Ganden lama who was one of the tutors of the present Dalai Lama [as well as to NKT founder Kelsang Gyatso]. Pabongkha Rinpoche put great emphasis on spreading this practice and thus made the practice quite popular in the Gelug tradition. The Life-Entrusting (Sogde) practice was seen by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama as going against the Buddhist principles of refuge (Triratna), and he therefore scolded Pabongkha Rinpoche for popularising it.
Pabongkha Rinpoche stated in a letter to the 13th Dalai Lama, that this was a fault on his part. He excused himself for having acted against the Buddhist refuge pledges [in particular, the promise not to take refuge in worldly gods], explaining that the deity (lha) Shugden played a special role at the time of his birth, and he promised to stop worshipping Shugden and to avoid to perform the rituals regarding that deity. However after the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, he began to spread the practice even more than previously.
Initially, Shugden was seen by Pabongkha Rinpoche as a worldly deity controlled by tantric power; it is not clear when and how the view that he was an enlightened being first appeared. He established a line of arguments suggesting that Shugden had a very close connection to practitioners of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition and was now their powerful protector, able to bestow blessings and create appropriate conditions for Dharma realizations to flourish. To do this he established the idea that the original three protectors of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition had gone to their pure lands and that Gelug adepts should now follow Shugden.
Dreyfus wrote in his paper “The Shugden Affair”:
“Pabongkha suggests that he is the protector of the Gelug tradition, replacing the protectors appointed by Tsongkhapa himself…. According to this story, the Dharma-king has left this world to retire in the pure land of Tushita having entrusted the protection of the Gelug tradition to Shugden. Thus, Shugden has become the main Gelug protector.”…
“Though Pabongkha was not particularly important by rank, he exercised a considerable influence through his very popular public teachings and his charismatic personality. Elder monks often mention the enchanting quality of his voice and the transformative power of his teachings. Pabongkha was also well served by his disciples, particularly the very gifted and versatile Trijang Rinpoche (khri byang rin po che, 1901-1983), a charismatic figure in his own right who became the present Dalai Lama’s tutor and exercised considerable influence over the Lhasa higher classes and the monastic elites of the three main Gelug monasteries around Lhasa.
Another influential disciple was Tog-den La-ma (rtogs ldan bla ma), a stridently Gelug lama very active in disseminating Pabongkha’s teachings in Khams. Because of his own charisma and the qualities and influence of his disciples, Pabongkha had an enormous influence on the Gelug tradition that cannot be ignored in explaining the present conflict. He created a new understanding of the Gelug tradition focused on three elements: Vajrayogini as the main meditational deity (yi dam), Shugden as the protector, and Pabongkha as the guru.”
“Where Pabongkha was innovative was in making formerly secondary teachings widespread and central to the Gelug tradition and claiming that they represented the essence of Tsongkhapa’s teaching. This pattern, which is typical of a revival movement and also holds true for Pabongkha’s wide diffusion, particularly at the end of his life, of the practice of Dorje Shugden as the central protector of the Gelug tradition. Whereas previously Shugden seems to have been a relatively minor protector in the Gelug tradition, Pabongkha made him into one of the main protectors of the tradition. In this way, he founded a new and distinct way of conceiving the teachings of the Gelug tradition that is central to the Shugden Affair.”
“The conflict and refutations of this debate cannot be understood fully without recognizing the complex historical, religious, social, scientific, and cultural background to the issue and the struggle between reformers, conservatives, and traditionalists in Tibet.”
Nevertheless, it is an unarguable fact that historical record and academic research both overwhelmingly demonstrate that, for the greater proportion of its existence, the majority of Buddhists in Tibet viewed Shugden as an earthly deity, or even worse, an evil spirit. The minority view, which portrayed Shugden as an all powerful enlightened deity central to Gelug meditational practices only gained prominence at the beginning of the 20th century, and this due to the direct influence of the sectarian Gelug lama Pabongkha. This rise to prominence occurred despite the specific instruction of Thubten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, an instruction which Pabongkha ultimately disobeyed after promising under pressure never to publicly promote the deity again.