Dorje Shugden and Religious Freedom: Notes on a Conflict

Jens-Uwe Hartmann
Professor of Tibetan Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin

Dec. 1997

In a report on Tibet on November 20, 1997 in the Panorama program (of German National TV Channel 1), the Dalai Lama was criticized for his stance in the conflict over the protective deity Dorje Shugden (rDo-rje shugs-ldan). The occasion for the broadcast was the latest Hollywood film on Heinrich Harrer’s stay in Tibet and the Tibet image conveyed in that film; and the presentation was characterized by a desire to scrutinize the “Tibet Myth” and especially the “Dalai Lama Myth” in relation to the reality and to reveal the discrepancies. To illuminate the contradictory nature of the person of the Dalai Lama, he was first introduced as the world's highly respected Nobel Peace Laureate, and then behind this façade show, in light of the Shugden conflict, as being an entirely different person, namely that, together with the Tibetan government-in-exile, he uncompromisingly suppresses the religious freedom of his countrymen.

Dalai Lama Panorama Shugden

The show drew its effect from the skillfully constructed contrast. That this approach was mainly aimed to rouse emotion in the viewers, and less on informing critically and emotion-free is a common feature nowadays for all such television magazines and tells something about the general information culture even within the Public Broadcasting Services. However, another thing was the tendentious handling of facts, which was aimed at creating as sensational an impact as possible. Although the editors of the program knew the facts and had the background information, the inclusion of these would have necessitated a much more positive view of the Dalai Lama and, as such, they were left aside in order not to jeopardize the “emotion targeting” effect. This is unfair sensationalist journalism.

As I now know from numerous conversations with viewers, there were misunderstandings not only because of the one-sidedness of the report, but also because of the blurred depiction of individual facts. As such, the viewers got the impression that the murder of Geshe Losang Gyatsho and his two students in Dharamsala earlier this year had been perpetrated by the pro-Dalai Lama faction, as they did not clearly express in the report that the Geshe was a close confidant of the Dalai Lama supporting his position in the Shugden conflict.

Therefore, some words on this conflict, as far as this can ever be comprehended at all, are apparently overdue. In principle, it should be noted that religious clashes in Tibet have a long tradition and that in these conflicts, despite all transfigurations of Tibet in the West, it was not always the case that only mental weapons were used. There have also been killings in Tibet that were religiously and politically motivated. That Tibetans regard this as real part of their culture becomes clear from the fact that they have apparently no problem in seeing a religiously motivated act in the aforementioned murder of the Geshe, although the actual background of this crime to my knowledge has not yet been fully established. Furthermore, it should be noted that usually strong interests of power politics lie behind most ostensibly religious conflicts, as is also the case in the West. To better understand this phenomenon, we do not need to transpose ourselves to the medieval periods of our history; it is sufficient to take a look at Northern Ireland today. What we see there teaches us that there is a third [possibility besides black and white], namely that there never is a clear distinction between just and unjust, between the side of good and the side of evil in such conflicts. Rather, more often it is a web of interactions that leads to both sides becoming entangled by it. This finding might be vexatious, because such situations robs us the possibility to clearly take a stand for the side of “good”, but it is probably a necessary prerequisite to meting out fair justice to all the parties concerned. As we cannot expect it to be any different, all these aspects also play a role in the dispute over Dorje Shugden.

Who is that ominous Dorje Shugden? As generally known, there are four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism. Each of these schools has its own protective deities. Shugden acts as such a protective deity almost exclusively for the Gelugpa School (and to a much lesser extent, for the Sakyapas). This cult originated relatively late and goes back to a struggle of power politics between the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) and his rival, Dagpa Gyeltsen (Grags-pa rgyal-mtshan), another important Gelugpa scholar, and his followers. The Fifth Dalai Lama, who was never squeamish in dealing with his opponents, succeeded in having the dispute decided in his favor, whereby Dagpa Gyeltsen died. A story was put into circulation that Dagpa Gyeltsen had already taken an oath in a previous life to become in future a protective deity of the Gelugpa School, and for the fulfillment of this vow he had to die. According to one version, he committed suicide by thrusting a khatak in his mouth and suffocated to death; according to other version he did not take this khatak into his mouth so voluntarily. After Dagpa Gyeltsen’s death, frequent unfortunate events occurred that affected the whole of Central Tibet, particularly the government and even the Dalai Lama. Soon it was realized that the deceased had continued to work here in the form of a vengeance-seeking demon. After several unsuccessful attempts, it finally succeeded to pacify this spirit. As is usually the case in Tibetan Buddhism, he was bound by an oath henceforth to act as a protective deity.

Regardless of the historical accuracy of the details, it is apparent from the genesis of the issue at that time that two essential elements accompany the Shugden cult to this day, namely a potential aggressiveness and a latent opposition to the (Tibetan) government and to the person of the Dalai Lama. These elements have led in the past to repeated conflicts between the followers and opponents of Shugden in the Gelugpa School. Similar conflicts have occurred between the Gelugpas and followers of other schools, particularly the Nyingmapas. In Tibet, such a conflict flared up last in the beginning of our century, as Phabongkhapa (1878–1941), an important Gelugpa Lama, spent some time in Kham (Eastern Tibet), where he persecuted groups of Nyingmapas and was apparently involved in the destruction of at least one monastery. That Lama, whose merits in other areas are quite undisputable, was both politically and religiously a militant representative for the Gelugpa cause and simultaneously a staunch follower of Dorje Shugden. Most of today’s followers of this deity trace their meditation practice directly back to that Lama or his chief disciples. At the latest, it was with Phabongkhapa that the Shugden cult came in the danger of assuming sectarian traits with the aim of placing the teachings of the Gelugpa School over all the other Buddhist traditions in Tibet.

There was a further antagonism rooted in the genesis of the issue, namely between Shugden and Pehar, the protective deity that manifests itself as the traditional Tibetan state oracle of Nechung Monastery. Pehar is indeed seen as a protective deity of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but the oracle itself belongs to the Nyingmapa School. The government, however, was dominated for some three hundred years by circles belonging directly to the Gelugpa School or who were closely associated with it. This Gelugpa dominance of political power has fundamentally not changed in exile. Since Shugden has its own oracle, his followers today want to see the Nechung oracle removed and replaced by him, and this adds another problem area to the current conflict.

Not all Gelugpa monks are followers of Dorje Shugden, and not all Shugden followers are militant; but the connection with this protective deity has a constant potential for conflicts, both within the Gelugpas and between the Gelugpas and the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that Shugden is definitely not a protective deity for Tibetan Buddhism in its entirety, but that the followers of other schools reject it, and some even vehemently, is of the utmost importance in understanding the dilemma in which the Dalai Lama finds himself today. However, this aspect was never mentioned in the Panorama program, not even with a single word. The Dalai Lama himself is part of the Gelugpas; if he is now trying to push back this cult or even bring it to an end, his intentions accordingly must be interpreted completely differently than they have been presented in the Panorama report. You can then, in fact, understand that he considers the balance between the different schools as a supreme good, rather than exclusively favoring his own school in the style of a party politician, and that he is even ready to pay for this a high price of massive conflict within his own school. Only by doing so is he able to fulfill his stated claim to be the Dalai Lama of all Tibetans.

Although the editors were aware of this aspect, it was completely disregarded in the Panorama program. To mention it would have made the report far less sensational, and the point of fairness in a presentation obviously had to take second place behind the point of showmanship of rousing the emotion of the viewers.

Also problematical is how the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama are currently trying to carry out measures to persuade the followers of Shugden to abandon their protective deity. For example, when petition lists go around in the great Gelugpa monasteries in India to confirm their abandonment of Shugden, this is a kind of ideological spying, which can by no means be endorsed. Equally problematic is the restriction of Shugden followers from taking part in certain important religious events of the Dalai Lama. Both enforce decisions that are publicly visible and resulting in exclusion and even ostracism in the case of refusal.

It must be remembered that the regular practice of a tantric meditation deity cannot be relinquished arbitrarily, if the practitioner takes seriously the commitments he or she has made. Shugden followers have received its practice from their respective lamas, their spiritual teachers. The personal teacher in Mahayana Buddhism, and even more so in Tantrayana, occupies a special rank; he is seen as identical with the Buddha. When you take this into consideration, then you understand that every serious monk must have qualms when it comes to simply giving up such instructions of his teacher, and even if it is at the behest of the Dalai Lama. This is the general attitude that is independent of his association with one particular school or which meditation deities he follows. In addition, the interruption or even abandonment of tantric commitments is considered to be potentially dangerous to the physical and mental health of the practitioners. Therefore, if he is forced to decide either to follow the wishes of the Dalai Lama or to continue to practice the teachings received from his own teacher, he gets into an inevitable conflict of loyalties, which one currently sees among Gelugpa monks and which has led to all sorts of solutions. The open renunciation of the Dalai Lama is one such solution, as is picking up the argument of suppressed religious freedom in line with the pattern, “We did not go into exile because of the suppression of our religion by the Chinese only to get it suppressed in the same way by our own people.”

Whatever stand one might take towards the measures adopted by the official circles in Dharamsala, the claim that religious freedom is being suppressed is exaggerated, and when coming from the mouth of exile Tibetans it seems almost ridiculous when you compare it to the form of suppression that is going on every day in Tibet. No Dalai Lama has real dogmatic authority, and the options for the current Dalai Lama to take political measures are so limited, because of his situation of being in exile, that this leaves him essentially only with those above-mentioned attempts to establish group solidarity with his authority and to bring "deviants" to the fore in this way and isolate them

I am extremely concerned with the outbreak of the current conflict. This threatens to split the Gelugpa School and, given the increasing polarization and radicalization of the positions, one cannot rule out further violence. If this cannot be resolved now, it will continue to strain the relationship between factions within the Gelugpas and other schools. Unlike in the seventies, when the conflict first flared up among the Tibetans in exile in India, it was an internal Tibetan matter, now it has reached the West. Here, as has already happened in the Panorama report, it will be cannibalized by the media in every possible way. This will not only affect the reputation of the Dalai Lama, but will also harm the overall Tibetan cause

When you hear that the occupying Chinese authorities in Tibet are officially promoting the Shugden cult in recent times then all concerned parties need to think twice. Nothing could make it clearer that the explosive force of the conflict has not remained hidden to the eyes of today’s masters in Tibet and that they have discovered this as a convenient means to bring the Dalai Lama, their stated principal adversary in the struggle for genuine autonomy for Tibet, into bad light in the West and to split his followers. Despite a brief mention of this issue at the end of the program, in the final analysis the Panorama report served these Chinese interests.

I was interviewed for the show, but not on Dorje Shugden. Although I stand by all my statements, I feel that I have been misused, because in the minds of most viewers not my words, but my association with the show is being remembered, in which the Dalai Lama was attacked in a way that I, as a human and academic, can only emphatically reject.


Jens-Uwe Hartmann

Prof. Dr. Jens-Uwe Hartmann was Professor of Tibetan Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin from 1995-1999. Since 1999 he has been Professor of Indology and Tibetology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich. His main focus is the study and research of Buddhist literature of India. During the first visit of the Dalai Lama to Europe in 1973, he was involved in the organization of the program in Munich.

© Tibet Forum & Jens-Uwe Hartmann

This article was published in “Tibet-Forum” No. 3/1997, Year of Issue 16, Page 6 to 8; A Magazine of the Association of Tibetans in Germany.

Translated from German into English by Tsewang Norbu in August 2014. The translation is approved by the author.

Offered with kind permission from the publisher & author.

Header image left: Protests against the Dalai Lama by New Kadampa Tradition via Shugden Supporters Community (SSC) in Berlin, Tempodrom, 8 June 1998.

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