The Predicament of Evil: The Case of Dorje Shukden

Georges B. Dreyfus
Department of Religions
Williams College


Weak and strong concepts of evil

In dealing with the problem of evil in Tibetan Buddhism and its relation to the controversial deity Gyelchen Dorje Shukden (rgyal chen rdo rje shugs Idan), it may be helpful to start by gaining a minimum of clarity about what is meant here by evil. There is a way in which the term evil can be used as an equivalent of bad to characterize a morally reprehensible action. In Tibetan Buddhist terms, such an action is described as non-virtuous (mi dge ba), a moral fault (sdig pa)¹ and a bad action (bya ba ngan pa). Such an action is evil in what we could call the weak sense of the term.² But there is also a much stronger sense in which the term is used, for, more often than not, this word does not just describe an action or even express a qualified moral judgment, but rather gives voice to the much stronger condemnation of an action as representing a radical threat, an otherness that is too utterly frightening to be dealt with in usual ways. In this stronger sense, the more banal moral failings such as lying, cheating or insulting others do not qualify as evil. Only actions that are thought especially loathsome, particularly those that are taken to be threatening to the self, do. Few people in this country would hesitate in characterizing the 9/11 attack in this way, though many would not show the same readiness when discussing the killing of tens of thousands of civilians through aerial bombardments.³

It is clear that this distinction between weak and strong concepts of evil is artificial. It is not the case that there are two distinct notions whose use can be marked apart. Nevertheless, it becomes possible to make analytic distinctions among various uses of these terms when we stop thinking about good and evil as intrinsic properties of actions and consider them as polar opposites that we deploy when faced with particularly problematic events. In such circumstances, we use these evaluative categories to form judgments about events and decide about a course of action. But in doing so, we also create new problems. For when we use these categories, we are easily tempted into holding tightly to them, reifying them and putting a great deal of explanatory weight on them. We make a radical separation between good and bad, reifying evil into some kind of autonomous external force bent on bringing harm. In this perspective, extraordinary harmful events such as diseases, catastrophes and premature deaths are not the result of natural processes but come to be seen as the works of dark forces.

It is in this strong, reified and polarized sense that I will use this term here and ask the question of the place of evil in the Tibetan Buddhist universe and its relation to a particular deity. It is often assumed that the use of a highly reified concept of external evil is alien to the spirit of Buddhism, a tradition based on the rejection of such overly dualistic and polarized notions. David Loy expresses well this normative view when he says,

For Buddhism, evil, like everything else, has no essence or substance of its own; it is a product of impermanent causes and conditions. Buddhism places less emphasis on the concept of evil than on its roots: three causes of evil, also known as the three poisons—greed, ill-will and delusion.

For Loy, and for many other Buddhist thinkers, the use of the concept of evil as referring to an external realm of dark forces opposed to the good is deeply problematic. Buddhism emphasizes the fact that what makes an action bad is not the intrinsic nature of its author but his or her lack of understanding. In this perspective, bad actions arise from ignorance, greed and ill-will, not from the deeper nature of individuals, who are seen as remaining uncorrupted in their nature and hence as having the possibility of freeing themselves entirely from these defilements. Thus, bad actions, however morally regrettable they may be, do not qualify as evil in the radical sense of the term. Rather, they are mistakes that will lead their authors to temporary, though profound, sufferings, and the agents who commit such deeds are to be seen with compassion rather than castigated as fallen or corrupted.

This normative view of evil is well enshrined in the tradition, going back to its starting point, the enlightenment of the Buddha and his struggle with the personification of evil, Māra. It is out of this struggle with the Evil One, the representation of all what is bad and dangerous in the Buddhist universe, that the Buddha’s enlightenment arises. This struggle is well known and does not need to detain us here. What should be clear, however, is that Māra’s story confirms the normative view sketched above. Māra, who attempts to prevent the Bodhisattva from reaching enlightenment, fails miserably and is presented more as an object of compassion than a veritably fearsome being. As Ling shows, most of the relevant passages do not present the struggle between the Bodhisattva and Māra as a real confrontation but as a dismissal. Māra is recognized for what it is, deflated and dismissed as powerless and pitiful. Buddhists are further advised to adopt the same attitude, viewing the difficulties of life less as brought about by radically negative forces and more as resulting from the internal delusions that cloud our judgment and thus lead us to suffering.

This is not to say that Buddhist traditions deny the reality of external evil forces. On the contrary, the existence of such forces has broad acceptance within the classical normative tradition, but the role of these forces is usually downplayed. It is the internal poisons mentioned above that are the real dangers, not the external beings, however fearsome they may appear at first sight. Māra’s story confirms this view, for the power of Māra depends on the failure of the person to recognize temptation for what it is. Once the Bodhisattva recognizes that Māra’s three daughters are just the manifestations of the three poisons, Māra fades away, leaving the Bodhisattva triumphant. Hence, at the end of the day, Māra is less an autonomous external force in the universe than the foil whose subjugation reveals the greatness of the Buddha.

This scenario of the taming of evil forces as a means of glorifying the Buddha and emphasizing his power to overcome radical polarities is repeated in a number of later scriptures. Ronald Davidson has depicted the role that the myth of the subjugation of Maheśvara plays in the establishment of the legitimacy of several tantric traditions. For example, the Tattvasaṃgraha presents the subjugation of the god Shiva (maheśvara) as one of the important actions inaugurating the mandala of the Buddha Vairocana. Shiva is first shown as defiant, asserting his own power and supremacy, but he is quickly tamed by Vajrapāṇi, who shows him what power is really about. Finally, Vairocana takes pity on the god, and, after renaming him, allows him to enter the mandala and receive the consecration that will open his way to enlightenment. Similar stories appear in connection with various tantric deities, particularly in connection to Cakrasaṃvara, which is presented as emanating extremely fierce Herukas to tame Shiva.

And yet, there is much more to say concerning the role of evil in Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. The tradition that sees evil as being in need of being deconstructed rather than struggled against represents only one take on the question. This normative view has to be seriously modified once one leaves the rarefied doctrinal domain and inspects Tibetan Buddhism on the ground. One then sees that the strong notion of evil is far from being irrelevant, for there are a number of practices and deities that seem to pertain to this notion, both at the elite and the popular levels. In this essay, I focus on one of these deities, the controversial deity Gyelchen Dorje Shukden, and its relation to evil. I argue that the strong notion of evil as being a realm of dark forces persistently opposed to the good is highly relevant to understanding the role of this deity, despite its problematic status in normative terms. I also examine the relation that this deity seems to have with the forces of evil, showing how this deity, which is in charge of protecting its followers from evil, seems to be contaminated by the very forces that it was meant to prevent. This contagion illustrates what I call here the predicament of evil. Once one enters the dark realm, that is, once one radically polarizes the situation and invokes the presence of some radically evil other, it becomes hard to extricate oneself from the polarization and avoid being caught by what one is seeking to overcome. Tibetan Buddhist thinkers have not failed to notice this problem. In the last section of this essay I examine the ways in which they have attempted to account for the deity’s violence and solve the predicament that this creates. I conclude that these attempts have unfortunately failed, particularly in the case of the controversy surrounding Dorje Shukden, which continues to agitate the Tibetan community with little hope of immediate solution.

Evil and the role of dharma protectors

One may first wonder about the relation of Shukden to the notion of evil. This was in fact my first reaction when I was asked to discuss this topic. Why speak of evil in relation to Shukden? It is true that some of Shukden followers have been accused of committing a triple murder in February 1997 in Dharamsala. The murder was particularly gruesome, being made to resemble a ritual sacrifice. Its presumed authors, who were designated as such by the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation, the Indian equivalent of the FBI) on the basis of strong forensic evidence but who have fled to Tibet, were known to be highly dedicated to this deity. Hence, it is not unreasonable to assume that this gruesome murder was committed by some in the name of this deity in order to punish the victim, the late Lobzang Gyatso, who had been one of its most forceful critics. But even if this were true, it would not be enough to establish a meaningful connection between Shukden and a robust notion of evil. Followers of various divinities are well known for committing all kind of exaction but we usually do not take this to be sufficient ground to warrant such a connection.

Traditional statue of Dorje Shugden

Statue of Dorje Shukden / Dolgyal.

Another possible but equally unsatisfactory way of connecting Shukden to evil is via its gruesome iconographic representation. Shukden is indeed depicted as a fearsome deity, holding in his right hand a sword dripping with blood and in his left hand the heart torn out from the chest of its enemies. But this seems hardly enough to connect our deity to the notion of evil, for many tantric deities are surrounded by such violent symbols. This was in fact the mistake of earlier Orientalists, who when confronted with Tibetan Buddhism in general and its pantheon in particular, concluded that this tradition was nothing but a form of devil worship. One of the chief exponent of this view was L. Waddel, who dismisses the Tibetan pantheon, as being "peopled by a bizarre crowd of aboriginal gods and hydra-headed demons, who are almost jostled off the stage by their still more numerous Buddhist rivals and counterfeits.”¹⁰ For Waddell, as for many after him, Tibetan Buddhism is a degeneration of early Buddhism in which rituals played little role. This originally pure tradition gradually changed, becoming heavily ritualized and loaded with superstitions. For Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism is the ultimate stage in this degenerative process. Tibetans have moved so far from the original model that they not only have incredibly elaborate forms of ritual but even engage in devil worship. Speaking of MahSkala, an important protective deity whose role will be examined below, Waddell says, “The demon-kings, however, are the favorite ones. They are repulsive monsters of the type of the Hindu Śiva. These morbid creations of the later Tantrism may be considered a sort of fiendish metamorphoses of the supernatural Buddhas. Each of these popular demon-kings ... has a consort, who is even more malignant than her spouse."¹¹ For Waddell, the iconography of many Tibetan deities reflects an obvious connection with demonology that extends not only to protective deities but to the entire realm of wrathful tantric deities (khro bo). For him, it is the very nature of tantra as a form of degeneration that is revealed by the grotesque and frightening features through which these deities are represented.

It is clear that this view has by now been thoroughly exposed as reflecting more the Victorian preoccupation of its author rather than the realities of Tibetan Buddhism.¹² Tantra is not a degenerate form of Buddhism but the result of an evolution of a complex and multi-faceted tradition. The wrathful representations of various deities are not the mark of a demonic cult, but, more often than not, the sign of the Buddha’s ability to transcend evil, as in the story of Māra. Hence, the question remains: what is the connection of Shukden with evil? To answer we need to pay closer attention to the nature of the deity. Shukden belongs to an unusual type of deity, that of the dharma protector (chos skyong srung ma). As its name indicates, this type of deity is in charge of protecting the Buddhist tradition and its followers. But this raises several questions. How does the deity protect its followers? And, perhaps more importantly, against whom?

The usual answer is that such a deity protects its followers from the obstacles (gegs) that can harm them. These obstacles can be diseases or accidents. For example, it is not unusual to invoke such a deity during the rituals performed to cure people from some sickness. Such a deity can also be invoked in case of more extraordinary events. For example, many older Shukden followers who escaped from Tibet confided to me that they were convinced that their escape from Tibet was due to the intervention of the deity. As support they would cite various close calls and difficult circumstances which they overcame by imploring their protective deity. But this form of assistance is not the only kind of protection provided by these deities. For the obstacles are often not just tragic circumstances but can be actual beings, who are thought to be harming the deity’s followers and preventing them from reaching their goals. These beings can be other human beings, whose actions, magical or not, are taken to harm the deity’s followers, or they can be nonhuman beings, many of whom are thought to be particularly prone to harm humans.

Such beliefs are not unusual in the type of peasant society that was premodem Tibet. In such societies, people tend to think that their life, property, and happiness are threatened by external agents bent on harming them. These ill-intentioned agents can be humans, jealous neighbors trying to settle old scores, relatives envious of one’s successes, or unrelated people acting out of pure malice or bent on creating harm out of spite. But these agents can also be non-humans, ghosts, spirits, ghouls, mountain gods, lake gods, snake-spirits, rock spirits, etc. that are thought to surround humans and can at times represent a significant danger.

In pre-modern Tibet, the latter type of evil seems to have been more important than the former. Although attacks from sorcerers or sorceresses were not unknown and the envy of neighbors was feared,¹³ the most often cited forms of harm seems to have come from the multiplicity of external entities that inhabit the Tibetan landscape.¹⁴ Some of these entities are not necessarily evil but nevertheless represented a significant danger. For example, the snake-spirits (glu, identified with the Indian nāga), who reside in sources, lakes and trees, are thought to be very possessive and react to the pollution of the natural entities they inhabit. Similarly, the lords of the soil (sa bdag), the local spirits who own the place, can get very angry when their domain is tampered with. But there are other entities that are much more malicious, directly corresponding to the polarized and reified notion of evil discussed here. They are the beings who are bent on harming gratuitously humans, even when they are not offended. The devils (bdud, that is, māra) are negative spirits, which, having opposed during several lifetimes the positive forces of Buddhism, create trouble for its practitioners. There are also the red-spirits (tsan), the spirits of monks, who have fallen from their monastic commitments and have died prematurely. Finally, last but not least, there are the king-spirits (rgyal po), the spirits of evil kings or important religious teachers who have died after breaking their pledges. They are considered extremely dangerous because they are the spirits of powerful people whose death has disrupted the normal course of events.¹⁵

Protecting their followers from this kind of harm is one of the main tasks of protective deities, which are described as deities having taken a special oath of protecting Buddhist practitioners against the attacks of human or non-human enemies. Often such an oath is extracted by a tantric adept, who forces the deities to abandon their evil ways, convert them to Buddhism and entrust them the protection of the Buddhist tradition and its followers. Hence, these deities are called dharma protectors, i.e., the protector of the Buddhist doctrine. They are in charge of protecting Buddhists against potential enemies, the “obstacles” we mentioned above. These evil agents are also described as the “enemies of Buddhism” (bstan dgra) since they attack the followers of Buddhism. They are the other whose attack is greatly feared and against which the self and group define their identity.

The role of protective deities, however, is not simply to provide a reassuring source of comfort or even a focus of identity. They are supposed to take their task very seriously, offering highly effective protections to their followers, who rely on them. The question is then: how can they accomplish this task? This is where the relation between protectors and evil becomes entangled, for protectors are not just beatific figures who dispel evil through their compassion, like the Buddha did with Māra. Such a peaceful approach is commendable and normatively central to the tradition, but it is not necessarily the most immediate and effective way to protect oneself. There are other more immediate ways to do this, and this is precisely what the protectors are meant to provide, an active and effective guard. The protectors do this by dealing offensively with the evil forces, destroying them and forcefully transforming them into beneficial agents.

The stories associated with Mahākala illustrate quite clearly the role of protective deities as violent defenders of the Buddhist tradition. In some stories, Mahākala is presented as protecting Buddhists against the attacks of their Hindu adversaries. In other narratives, the deity is introduced as a manifestation of Cakrasaṃvara as well as a powerful deity born out of the union of the great gods Shiva and his partner, Umā Devī. The deity is sent to eliminate the evil forces that have taken control of the earth. It enters into a frenzy of violence, piercing the devils with the trident that it had stolen from them, decapitating the king of the evil forces and killing many other devils. The deity’s victory is finalized by taking the wife of the king of the devils as partner and the other female devils as servants. The deity then revives all the killed devils and makes them take an oath to abandon their harmful ways and protect the Buddhist teaching.¹⁶

Monastery Samye 1938, Tibet expedition

Monastery Samye, 1938, Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet.

A similar scenario of the conversion of problematic deities into beneficent protective forces is found in one of the foundational myths of Tibet as a Buddhist country, the saga of Padmasambhava.¹⁷ The tantric adept is described as coming to Tibet at the end of the eighth century at the invitation of the emperor Trisong Detsen (khri srong sde btsan) to subdue the local gods, who had attempted to prevent the construction of Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Padmasambhava tamed these local gods through his ritual powers, converting them to Buddhism. He also bound them to an oath, putting them in charge of protecting Buddhist practitioners from potential harm. In this way, he enabled the construction of Samye by the emperor, a metaphor for the transformation of Tibet from a land “beyond the pale” (mtha’ ‘khob) into a Buddhist country of high civilization.¹⁸

The nature and role of protectors are clearly revealed by these narratives. Protectors are violent deities, who are in charge of opposing the forces of evil, the threatening others. In opposing these forces, protectors tend to act like them, using the kind of violent actions that these entities deploy against humans. Thus, the relation of protectors with the forces of evil is not just oppositional, it is also mimetic, and this is not lacking in serious difficulties, as we will see shortly in the case of Shukden. Finally, it is also clear that the practice of protectors presupposes a particular view of the world as permeated by magical forces. This universe is peopled by a multitude of invisible but real entities such as ghosts, local spirits, mountain and lake gods, snake-spirits, etc. The experience of living in such a living universe is a mode of experience of the world that many Tibetans still hold to be self-evident.¹⁹

The role of Shukden

The problematic nature of this entanglement is in evidence in the case of our deity, Gyelchen Dorje Shukden. Its very name, “Great Magical King Spirit Endowed with the Adamantine Force,” shows quite clearly its relation to evil forces, in this case the king-spirits, one of the most dangerous among the various types of malicious spirits mentioned above, as illustrated by the founding myth of the Shukden cult as understood by its followers.

When asked to explain the origin of the practice of Dorje Shukden, its followers point to a rather obscure and bloody episode of Tibetan history, the premature death of Trulku Drakba Gyeltsen (sprul sku grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1618-1655). Drakba Gyeltsen was an important Geluk²⁰ lama who was a rival of the Fifth Dalai-Lama, Ngakwang Losang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682).²¹ The details of this rivalry are rather obscure and do not need to detain us, since I have discussed them elsewhere.²² But what is clear is that in 1655 Drakba Gyeltsen suddenly died. The exact conditions of his death are controversial and shrouded in legends, but the important point is that his death seems to have been perceived to relate to his rivalry with the Fifth Dalai-Lama. It was also taken to have been violent and hence the kind of death that leads people to take rebirth as dangerous spirits. According to standard Indian and Tibetan cultural assumptions, a person who is killed often becomes a ghost and seeks revenge.²³ Such a spirit is considered all the more dangerous when the person has religious knowledge, which is said to explain the particular power of Drakba Gyeltsen’s spirit. This is not just one among many protectors but a particularly dangerous one, the vengeful ghost of a powerful person who died violently and hence prematurely.

According to the Shukden legend, Drakba Gyeltsen manifested himself as a gyelpo, i.e., the dangerous king-spirit of a religious figure bent on extracting revenge against those involved in his death. Since he had been a virtuous lama, however, Drakba Gyeltsen turned his anger from a personal revenge to a nobler task, the protection of the Geluk tradition by punishing those who were tempted to detract from its doctrinal purity by mixing it with the teachings of other Tibetan Buddhist traditions, particularly those of the Nyingma school.²⁴ The first manifestation of this wrathful mission was the destruction of Drakba Gyeltsen’s own estate and the haunting of his silver mausoleum, which became animated by a buzzing noise before being thrown away in the waters of the Kyichu. But the real target was the Fifth Dalai-Lama, less because of his connection to Drakba Gyeltsen’s death than because of his practice of Nyingma teachings. The Fifth Dalai-Lama began to encounter various difficulties and troubling signs. Frightened by these wrathful manifestations, he decided to pacify this spirit by establishing its cult at Dol where a small temple was built to pacify the deity.²⁵

This striking story is less an historical rendering of troubling events than the founding myth of a religious practice.²⁶ As such, however, it is highly significant, reflecting a number of important political, religious and cultural themes. For our purpose, it will be sufficient to underline Shukden’s nature as the king-spirit of a powerful religious figure killed prematurely. This origin marks Shukden as a particularly powerful and effective spirit. This is not a high benevolent and impotent god, but a deity directly involved in the very dark violence that it is supposed to protect its followers from. This power is reinforced by the fact that Shukden is the spirit of a religiously powerful religious figure, somebody who, according to Tibetan standard cultural assumptions, has strong religious powers, particularly in relation to taming the forces of evil mentioned above. This origin marks Shukden as a highly ambivalent figure, born in violence and in charge of using this violence against the enemies of its followers. Shukden’s troubling character is well illustrated by some of the other stories surrounding this deity.

Particularly significant are the stories of two prominent Geluk figures who are presented by Shukden’s followers as falling prey to the deity’s vengeful activity. The Fifth Penchen Lama, Lobzang Palden (blo bzang dpal Idan chos kyi grags pa, 1853-1882), is described as incurring Shukden’s wrath because he adopts Nyingma practices. Despite the repeated warnings of the protector, Lobzang Palden refuses to mend his ways and persists in his practice. After an unsuccessful ritual self-defense, which backfires, Lobzang Palden dies at the age of twenty-nine. Another equally troubling story is that of the preceding reincarnation of Zigyab Rinboche (gzigs rgyab rin po che), a Geluk lama from Trehor, who studies and practices Nyingma teachings. Later he decides to receive one of its central teachings, Jamgon Kongtrul’s (‘jam mgon kong sprul, 1813-1899) Rin chen gter mdzod. According to the story, Shukden warns Zigyab against this course of action but the lama refuses to heed the protector’s advice. In short order, he falls sick and dies without having been able to listen to the teachings.

The meaning of these stories, which are found in the texts written by some of the prominent followers of the deity,²⁷ is as clear as it is troubling. Geluk practitioners should not even listen to the teachings of other Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Any attempt to do so will be taken as a betrayal of the tradition and punished accordingly by the deity, whose very nature as a king-spirit guarantees particularly swift retribution. Moreover, Shukden is not just bent on sectarian violence; he is also extremely vengeful, propelling the victims toward a particularly gruesome death. Some of the victims die mad, whereas others perish while their “wealth, accumulated possessions and descendants disappear without leaving any trace.”²⁸ This sectarian violence shows the particular character of Shukden as a protector and its problematic relation to evil.

The deity is in charge of protecting its followers from evil but in doing so, it mimics and reproduces the very evil that it is supposed to protect from. This is why the deity is thought to be effective, but this is also why its actions are at times particularly troubling. For when Shukden enacts its violence to protect the Geluk tradition, it becomes unclear on which side this violence is. Is it a force for the good, or is it a force that is out of control, killing several virtuous religious figures? In the last two stories, the two lamas who are killed by Shukden are not depicted as bad characters who deserve their fate but as renowned practitioners who remain carelessly unmindful of the vengeful nature of the deity. Thus, the point of these two stories is not that Shukden will take care of bad people but that the deity is so dangerous that even virtuous though careless practitioners are at risk. So, if you are a member of the Geluk tradition, watch out and stop being interested in the teachings of other traditions, otherwise we cannot guarantee your safety, however virtuous you may be!

This highly sectarian message has been the source of a sustained and at times violent controversy among Tibetans. The source of this controversy, which I have explored elsewhere,²⁹ is easy to understand when one considers the troubling character of the deity’s actions. For if the deity is in charge of visiting retribution on those interested in the Nyingma tradition, then it is quite likely that those who do so feel threatened. This is precisely what has happened. The Dalai-Lama, who relies on the Nyingma tradition for many of the rituals that he requires (despite his greater affiliation with the Geluk school) has felt targeted by the cult of the deity. After all, who was the deity’s first target, according to the founding myth of the Shukden cult, if not the Fifth Dalai-Lama? For various reasons I cannot enter into here, the present Dalai-Lama has tended to take this sectarian message very seriously and has tried to restrict the cult as much as possible among his followers. The controversy, which started in the 1970s, has continued unabated, going through various highly unfortunate episodes such as the triple murder mentioned above.

These developments also illustrate the particularly troubling relation with evil that a protective deity such as Shukden has. These deities are in charge of protecting their followers from evil by using evil. But evil is not so easy to manipulate. It tends to contaminates those who enter into its orbit, even when they are supposed to fight against it. In her famous work, Les mots, la mort, les sorts, Jeanne Favret-Saada describes the persistence of sorcery practices among peasants in the West of France in the 1970s.³⁰ She shows how many peasants are still routinely engaged in acts of sorcery and counter-sorcery, despite the ridicule heaped on these practices by the dominant Enlightenment discourse. The peasants whom Saada examines are keenly aware of this ridicule and hide their involvement. Nevertheless, when they face misfortunes such as the repeated deaths of cattle or the persistence of unexplained diseases, they have recourse to supernatural explanations. In their own terms, they are “caught” by evil, meaning that they fall prey to the magical attacks of some of ill intentioned neighbors. The only way out is to have recourse to another sorcerer, who will deliver them by casting a counter-spell on the first sorcerer. A magical fight may ensue between the two sorcerers and the patient may be cured only when the first sorcerer is defeated and dies or leaves town. Thus entering into the domain of evil is a very serious matter, which concerns not just those caught in the cycle of magical and counter-magical actions, but extends even to those who open themselves to these sorcery narratives. The very fact of listening and giving credence to these stories is a sign that one has been caught, that one has entered in a dark cycle in which evil can only be countered by equally problematic counter-evil, as claimed by Saada’s informants.

The same infectious character seems to be at work in the case of our deity. Shukden’s violence is not limited to the destruction of evil forces but engulfs deserving though careless practitioners, who are harmed by the deity in its endeavor to protect the Geluk tradition. This harm is not a retribution for bad actions but is the result of the failure on the part of the two lamas to comprehend the problematic nature of the deity. The deity is born from evil, and it uses evil to accomplish its mission, but in the process, its violence tends to get out of control, harming those who are not careful. As Saada’s peasants put it, once evil is unleashed, it “catches” people, even if they are animated by the best intentions. This is why many of Saada’s informants are so reluctant to talk about the sorcery stories they have heard. They realize that once one enters into the realm of radical polarities, it is hard to get out unscathed.

Mundane and supramundane protectors

The violent nature of Shukden’s actions is not, however, without serious normative problems, since it takes place within a tradition in which violence is considered the first and foremost moral evil. Destroying the life of any being, even a demonic spirit bent on harming humans, is considered an extremely grave moral offense. How then can Buddhists reconcile their reliance on protectors, who use violence, with their very real commitment to the moral norms of their tradition?

Responding to such a question is not an easy task and would require a much more rigorous analysis than is possible here. Let us first notice, however, that the richness of Tibetan Buddhism offers considerable resources for answering this question in normative terms. For example, the bodhisattva ideal,³¹ which is at the center of the Tibetan tradition, allows a certain use of violence, use that would have been impossible in the earlier tradition. In some of the Mahāyāna Sūtras, the bodhisattva, who is completely devoted to others’ welfare, is allowed the use violence since this violence is entirely deployed for the benefit of others. The locus classicus of this doctrine is the story of the Buddha, who in a previous birth killed the evil captain of a ship who was about to murder his five hundred passengers. Seeing the dreadful consequences that this would have had for the killer himself, the bodhisattva took upon himself the negative karma and killed the evil captain.³²

This use of skillful means for the sake of helping others is further amplified in the tantric tradition where the adept is given a large array of ritual means to achieve this goal. These practices are of various types, ranging from the peaceful (zhi ba) rituals intended to appease obstacles to the much more problematic violent (drag po) rituals that forcefully tackle them.³³ The latter kind is particularly problematic since it seems to violate the basic moral imperative of the tradition. But here again, the bodhisattva ideal and the doctrine of skillful means allow the integration of this type of ritual action within the normative tradition. Violent rituals can be deployed as skillful means by the bodhisattva provided that he or she performs them for the sake of others and not for his or her own benefit. Moreover, the bodhisattva must be able to control the result of the violence ritually unleashed. Within the framework of tantric practice, this means that the he or she uses rituals to kill the person but also that he or she has to be able to revive them, as Mahākala did with the forces of evil, or at least to ensure the victim’s favorable rebirth.

It is within this context that the practice of propitiating protectors has to be understood. Practitioners deal with the protector within the context of their tantric practice. This integration is, however, far from smoothing out all the problems and leaves out a number of questions. First, there are questions about the qualities required for such a practice. If only the bodhisattva who is able to control the long term effects of the ritual is able to unleash such violence, then it would seem that very few people would qualify for this kind of practice. After all, who could seriously make the claim of having such abilities outside of a few saintly figures? Second, there are also questions about the nature of the deities involved in these rituals. It is here that a crucial normative distinction has to be made between two types of deity.

Some of the deities involved in ritual violence, particularly some of the protectors, are supra-mundane deities (‘jig rten las ‘da pa’i lha). They are considered as highly realized bodhisattvas or buddhas who have taken the particular task of protecting their followers. This is the case of Mahākala and of the Great Goddess (dpal Idan lha mo, belden lhamo, the Tibetan equivalent of Mahā-devī), who are considered wrathful manifestations of the very peaceful Avalokiteshvara. Other protectors such as Shukden and Nechung are considered mundane (‘jig rten pa’i lha).³⁴ They may be powerful spirits but remain prisoners of the realm of cyclic existence. Hence, they can become dangerous, especially when they feel offended. As worldly entities, these gods are profoundly different from the tantric deities (yi dam), who are enlightened and hence freed from the polarities of the world.

This normative distinction between mundane and supra-mundane gods is very important, but is not without several problems. As Buddhists, Tibetans take refuge only in the Triple Gem, namely, the Buddha (the teacher compared to a wise doctor), the Dharma (his teaching compared to the actual medicine), and the Sangha (the community of realized practitioners),³⁵ and are not supposed to take refuge in any other principle. This does not mean that Buddhists cannot deal with worldly gods but that they cannot worship them. They may propitiate them, asking their help, but cannot entrust their spiritual welfare to them. This distinction is not, however, always easy to make or keep. Propitiation of worldly gods often shades into feelings of reverence and devotion. Buddhist virtuosi are very attentive to mark this difference, but because they are part of Tibetan culture, they feel the pull and power of worldly gods. They also know, however, that as Buddhist practitioners they cannot go too far in their devotion. Ordinary monks and lay people find themselves in an even more difficult position. They know that they cannot take refuge in these gods, but they feel at their mercy, and are, therefore, tempted to be a little more devoted to them than they should be.

There is also the particular problem raised by the reliance on violent deities. Even if we grant that Buddhists can propitiate worldly deities for the sake of acquiring wealth, getting cured, etc., it would seem that it is entirely a different matter to require the violent intervention of such a deity. If these deities are enlightened, one can trust them to act within the norms of the tradition. But what about worldly protectors? They cannot be trusted to act with such restraint, since it is their very nature not to be bound by such norms. Thus, it would seem that ordinary Tibetan Buddhists, who are clearly not able to satisfy the highly ethical standards demanded by the tradition for the use of violence, should find it difficult to request the violent intervention of such worldly protectors and should limit themselves to the help of enlightened deities. But this limitation would greatly diminish the usefulness of the pantheon, raising the usual problem of the high gods, who may be admirable but too elevated to be of much use in situations where less elevated actions are required. In Buddhist terms, the supramundane protectors are too enlightened to be always useful. As enlightened beings, they unleash their violence only when they consider that the threatening others, the enemies of Buddhism, represent a threat according to the ethical norms of the tradition, as the Bodhisattva did when he killed the evil captain. This kind of violence is strictly motivated by compassion and hence it is impartial, aiming at benefiting the beings who are its target. But this kind of violence is not always very useful since it cannot be used for one’s personal advantage or even protection. In the story, the Bodhisattva kills the evil captain not just to protect the five hundred passengers but also to prevent the perpetrator from harming himself.

Quite different is the violence of mundane deities, for it involves beings who are not considered equanimous but are thought to have quasi-human emotions. Since these deities experience these emotions, they are seen as partial and can be enrolled in actions performed on behalf of the person or the group who propitiates them. But this usefulness is in obvious tension with the norms of the tradition, which forbids the use of violence for worldly purpose. Hence, there seems to be a tension within the pantheon of protectors that cannot be easily solved. Either the protector is too high (supramundane), and then it is not useful, or the protector is too low (mundane), and then its use is hardly "kosher.” Thus the recourse to protectors is far from solving all questions, though it does provide Tibetan Buddhists with various ways to deal with egregious harmful situations. Violence can be used, but only in certain well delimited circumstances. Outside of those, the practitioners may be in danger of breaking fundamental moral norms.

The tradition has been quite aware of this deep-seated tension and has attempted to find ways to mitigate the problem. Some supramundane deities are coupled with worldly deities, which function as their retinue, performing some of the more unseemly actions without compromising the enlightened integrity of the main deity. This is the case of the Great Goddess, which is surrounded by various ferocious female deities (the ma mo, the Tibetan equivalents of the Indian mātrika). These deities are particularly vicious. They are often held to be responsible for sickness and other sudden calamities, but their wrath can also be used by followers of the Great Goddess. Similarly, Mahākala is surrounded by a retinue of evil forces that have been converted to the protection of Buddhism but remain dangerous. Hence, an appeal to such a deity can be an effective way to deal with some enemies, particularly non-human ones.

The other way to deal with the problem is to elevate a particular worldly protector within the pantheon. This elevation is not, however, free of problems, for if the deity is elevated too much, it may become useless. Hence, the elevation should be mitigated. In the case of Shukden, most of its followers speak of the deity as being enlightened in nature but worldly in appearance.³⁶ In this way, the worldliness and hence usefulness of the deity is preserved while strengthening its normative status. But this solution is not without its own problems. For what does it mean to say that a deity is enlightened in nature but not in appearance? Does it mean that the deity is enlightened and hence a proper object of refuge? Some of the most extreme followers of Shukden have taken this road, arguing that this deity is a Buddha on par with all the other Buddhas.³⁷ Others have denounced this departure from the traditional depiction of the deity. How can a deity who is bent on performing the kind of actions that Shukden is well known to perform be enlightened? Is this deity not a king-spirit, as its name and myth of origin indicate?

Finally, the rise within the pantheon of a deity such as Shukden is bound to create trouble in a society where Buddhism plays such a significant role. Protectors are not just individual deities but also concern communities. Each tradition, monastery, local group or family has its own protector to whom members of the group, individually and collectively, can turn for direct help. For example, the monastic seat of Drepung has its own protectors, the Great Goddess and Pehar, which are also the gods propitiated by the Dalai-Lama and his government.³⁸

Shukden, on the other hand, is the god of another group, those who hold that the Geluk tradition is superior to the other traditions and who insist on maintaining a strict separation. This is the task assigned Shukden, to take care of those who are tempted by other Buddhist traditions such as the Nyingma. But this task cannot but create strong reactions among the groups targeted by Shukden in its zeal to keep the purity of the Geluk tradition. We now understand some of the reasons why the propitiation of a protector such as Shukden can be so troubling, leading to bitter conflicts between groups, which feel threatened in their very existence. Here again, we appreciate the point repeatedly made by Saada’s peasants when they claim that it is hard to escape evil once one is caught. And yet, it is difficult for most people, who live in and are caught by the world of polarities, to avoid having to enter in contact with this dark realm, however great the problems that this creates.  ■


¹ This term is often rendered as sin. Here I have chosen not to use this term to avoid some of its Christian connotations, such as the idea of fallen condition of humans.

² This distinction is made by David Parkin in his introduction to The Anthropology of Evil (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 9-13.

³ My goal here is not to establish a moral equivalence between these actions but to draw the attention of my readers to the connection between evil and self, a particularly important point within the “Buddhist/structuralist perspective” that I have adopted here. I also want to make it clear that although the particular forms of evil I am exploring here concern mostly people living in pre-modern societies (with some exceptions, as we will see), the predicament created by the excessive polarization involved in the idea of radical evil also concerns those living in a modern industrialized society.

David R. Loy, The Great Awakening (Boston: Wisdom, 2003), 106.

For an exposition of such a normative view, see Masao Abe, “The Problem of Evil in Christianity and Buddhism,” in Paul O. Ingram and Frederick J. Streng, Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1986), 139-54.

The only exception is the doctrine of the Icchantika which was held by a few thinkers in India but had no noticeable influence in Tibet. The Icchantikas are beings who are so depraved that they are precluded from any possibility of spiritual progress. See Liu, Ming-Wood, “The Problem of Icchantika in the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra,” Journal of International Association of Buddhist Studies 7, no. 1 (1984): 57-81. For a few reflections on the lack of theodicy in the narrow sense of the word in Indian traditions, see Margeret Chattarjee, “Some Indian Strands of Thought Relating to the Problem of Evil,” in Purushottama Bilimoria and J. N. Mohanty, Relativism, Suffering and Beyond (New Delhi:Oxford University Press, 1997), 319-35.

Trevor O. Ling, Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962), 50.

Ronald Davidson, “Reflections on the Maheśvara Subjugation Myth: Indie Materials, Sa-skya-pa Apologetics, and the Birth of Heruka,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14(1990): 197-235.

Davidson, “Reflections on the Maheśvara Subjugation Myth,” 200-202.

¹⁰ L. A. Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism (1895; New York: Dover, 1972), 324.

¹¹ Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism, 362.

¹² For a study of some aspects of the Western approaches to the study of tantras, see Hugh B. Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). For a discussion of the role of Waddell in the Western reception of Tibetan Buddhism, see Donald S. Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri La (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

¹³ See, for example, Sherry B. Ortner, Sherpas Through Their Rituals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

¹⁴ Tibetans speak of eight classes of gods and spirits (lha srin sde brgyad). See Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shaman (Washington: Smithsonian, 1993), 161-163.

¹⁵ Phillipe Cornu, Tibetan Astrology (Boston: Shambala, 1997), 250-51.

¹⁶ Lelung Zhayba’i Dorje, Dam can Bstan Srung gi Rnam Thar (Beijing: People’s Press, 2003), 38-41.

¹⁷ Historically, Padmasambhava appears to have been a relatively minor tantric practitioner, who gave some tantric teachings but whose practices provoked the displeasure of the court. See Samten Karmay, The Great Perfection (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 6; Anne-Marie Blondeau, “Le lHa-‘dre Bka’-thang,” in Etudes Tibétaines Dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1971), 29-126 and “Analyses of the biographies of Padmasambhava according to Tibetan tradition: classification of sources,” in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, ed. Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1980), 45-52.

¹⁸ Those are the self-descriptions used by Tibetans to describe their conversion to Buddhism. See Matthew T. Kapstein, “Remarks on the Mani bKa’-‘bum and the Cult of Avalokiteśvara in Tibet,” in Tibetan Buddhism; Reason and Revelation, ed. Steven D. Goodman and Ronald M. Davidson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 79-94, and Janet Gyatso, “Down with the Demoness,” in Feminine Ground, ed. Jan Willis (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1987), 33.

¹⁹ The belief in such a universe is often described as animism in the classical anthropological literature, where it is viewed as an irrational and primitive superstition. Such a view fails to see that our modern way of seeing the world is no more natural than animism. Philippe Descola quite helpfully distinguishes three ways in which the human-nature relation can be conceptualized: animism, totemism, and naturalism. All three modes of relation are not given but constructed. Once they are acquired, presumably early in life, they become deeply ingrained and do not seem to change significantly later. “Constructing Natures,” in Nature and Society, ed. P. Descola and G. Palsson (London: Routledge, 1996), 82-102, 87-88.

²⁰ The Geluk (dge lugs) tradition is the latest among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded at the beginning of the fifteenth century by Tsong Khapa and later became politically and religiously dominant, enthroning its leading figure, the Dalai-Lama, the religious and temporal leader of Tibet.

²¹ Pa-bong-ka, “Supplement to the Explanation of the Preliminaries of the Life Entrusting (Ritual] (rgyal chen srog gtad gyi sngon ‘gro bshad pa‘i mtshams sbyor kha bskong),” in Collected Works, vol. 7 (New Delhi: Chopel Legdan, 1973), 520.

²² Georges Dreyfus, “The Shuk-den Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel,” Journal of International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 2 (1999): 227-70.

²³ See Rene De Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet (The Hague: Mouton, 1956).

²⁴ The Nyingma (rnying ma) tradition represents the oldest strata of Buddhist thought and practice in Tibet. It claims to go back to the early empire when Buddhism was brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava and others great teachers.

²⁵ Pa-bong-ka, “Supplement,” 517-32,520.

²⁶ For an analysis of the historical events contained in this story, see my essay, “The Shuk-den Affair.”

²⁷ See, for instance, Dzemay Rinboche, Account of the Protective Deity Dor-je Shuk-den, Chief Guardian of the Ge-luk Sect, and of the Punishments meted out to Religious and Lay Leaders who incurred His Wrath (mthu dan stobs kyis che ba‘i bstan bsrung chen po rdo rje shugs Idan rtsal gyi byung ba brjod pa pha rgod bla ma‘i xhal gyi bdud rtsi‘i chu khur brtsegs zhing ‘jigs rung glog zhags ‘gyu ba‘i sprin nag ‘khrugs pa‘i nga ro) (Delhi: n.p., 1973), 6-9. (The English title is given according to Library of Congress catalogue; henceforth referred to as The Yellow Book.) This text consists of a series of stories which the author had heard informally from his teacher Trijang, one of the main Geluk teachers of his generation as well as one of the two tutors of the present Dalai-Lama. For more on this, again see “The Shuk-den Affair.”

²⁸ Pa-bong-ka, “Collection of [Rituals] concerning the Circle of Offerings, The Special Offering of Drinks, [and] the Exhortation to Action of the Powerful Protectors of Buddhism and [the propitiation of] Wealth Gods and Spirit (mthu ldan bstan srung khag gi ‘phrin las bskul gser skyems tshogs mchod sogs dang/gnod sbyin nor lha’ skor ‘ga’ zhig phogs gcig tu bkod pa),” Collected Works, vol. 7 (New Delhi: Chopel Legdan, 1973), 469.

²⁹ See "The Shuk-den Affair."

³⁰ Jeanne Favret-Saada, Les Mots, la Mort, les Sorts (Paris: Gallimard, 1977).

³¹ The bodhisattva is the being who seeks to attain the ultimate perfection of buddhahood for the sake of liberating all sentient beings.

³² Garma C.C. Chang, A Treasury of Mahāyāna Sūtras (Delhi: Motilal, 1991), 452-465.

³³ For a discussion of the four types of rituals, see Ferdinand D. Lessing and Alex Wayman, Introduction to the Buddhist Tantric Systems (Delhi: Weiser, 1980), 201.

³⁴ gNas chung, alias Pehar, is the deity appointed by Padmasambhava as the main guardian of Buddhism in Tibet. It is also the protector of the Dalai-Lama and his government, as well as one of the main protectors of the monastery of Drepung.

³⁵ The monastic order is the Sangha only inasmuch as it is a symbolic representation of the true Sangha.

³⁶ Trijang Rinpoche, “The Music that Rejoices the Ocean of Pledge Bound, Being an Account of the Amazing Three Secrets [of Body, Speech and Mind] of Great Magical Dharma Spirit Endowed with the Adamantine Force, The Supreme Manifested Deity Protecting the Ge-den Tradition (dge ldan bstan bsrung ba‘i lha mchog sprul pa‘i chos rgyal chen po rdo rje shugs ldan rtsal gyi gsang gsum rmad du byung ba‘i rtogs pa brjod pa‘i gtam du bya ba dam can can rgya mtsho dgyes pa‘i rol mo),” in Collected Works, vol. 5 (Delhi: Guru Deva, 1978), 8.

³⁷ Kelsang Gyatso’s Western New Kadampa Tradition seems to be unique among Shukden followers in going as far as to claim that this deity is fully enlightened and hence must be considered a proper object of refuge and worshiped as such. See Kelsang Gyatso, Jewel Heart (London: Tharpa, 1991).

³⁸ G. Lodrö, “‘Bras spungs chos’ byung,” in Geschichte der Kloster Universität Drepung (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1974), 332-35.


GEORGES DREYFUS was a Tibetan Buddhist monk for more than fifteen years and became the first Westerner to receive the degree of Geshe [Lha rampa], the highest degree of Tibetan monastic universities. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 1991 and since then has been teaching Buddhism in the Department of Religions at Williams College, Mass. His publications include: The Svatantrika-Prasangika Distinction: What Difference does a Difference make? (in collaboration with Sara McClintock), The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: the Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, and Recognizing Reality: Dharmakirti’s Philosophy and its Tibetan Interpretations.

This essay “The Predicament of Evil: The Case of Dorje Shukden” (2011) by Georges Dreyfus was published in Deliver Us From Evil, pp. 57-74, Editor(s): M. David Eckel, Bradley L. Herling, Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion.

Offered with kind permission from the author.

Header image: Traditional statue of Dorje Shukden

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