A Spirit of the XVII Secolo
by Raimondo Bultrini
When clouds, with thunder, wind and hail suddenly disturbed the Master’s teaching on the morning of the last day of the August Retreat at Merigar a number of people immediately connected the fury of the elements with the wrath of the Gyalpos on account of his direct and precise allusions to their evil nature.
“Strange, the weather forecast said nothing about this …” Rinpoche quipped. And since those who follow the Dzogchen teachings do not take refuge in strange beings but instead in the true teachings of the Dharma, symbolically all of us participating in the retreat were forced to seek refuge inside the gompa – the ship of samsara – while an electrician sorted out the problems with the sound system.
So, the Gyalpos. An ordinary reader who knows nothing about such things, picking up the Merigar Letter, would certainly be surprised to read about spirits, mysterious entities who control or can control even climatic conditions. In ancient Tibet, and still today (I personally attended a rite at a Nyingmapa monastery in Dharamsala which was followed by a shower) it is common practice in several gompas to invoke rain. And just to connect this anecdote with a case and a personage that might directly relate to the story I am about to recount, one of the Lamas celebrated for their ability to ‘evoke rain’ was Pabongka Rinpoche, a prelate of the Gelugpa school who lived at the start of the last century. Pabongka, who used to be summoned by Dalai Lama XIII to this end, to places suffering from drought, was in fact the main propagator in the modern era of the cult of Gyalpo (or Dorje) Shugden.
When Dalai Lama XIII sent him a formal letter asking why he repeatedly disobeyed his order not to give the transmission of the initiation of the spirit of this Gyalpo (see Rinpoche’s teachings concerning this class of beings), Pabongka answered that he had received the transmission for the worship of this being from his mother’s family. Nevertheless, at least formally he apologised to the Dalai Lama and offered the traditional white kata with some precious coins.
The importance of Pabongka in the story we are discussing is tied mainly, but not only, to the fact that it was he who transmitted the practice of Gyalpo Shugden to his young student Trijang Rinpoche, who in the 1950s in his turn transmitted it to the present Dalai Lama XIV, whose junior Tutor he was.
At that time His Holiness was little more than a child, and all around he could feel the anxiety of the high Lamas, government officials and dignitaries on receiving the dramatic news from the eastern front, in particular from Derge, where the advancing Chinese army was carrying out ferocious massacres of the civilian population (Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s own family suffered through these events and subsequently his father and a brother died in a prison camp).
Those who know history, know that in that situation at the Potala, with the support of the state oracles, in particular the Nechung oracle, the decision was taken to bring forward the official investiture and assign temporal power to the Dalai Lama, even though the seventeen-year-old Tenzin Gyatso did not feel ready for such responsibility. In due course events necessitated the flight and subsequent escape of the Dalai Lama and a considerable retinue to the Indian border (this occurred some years before his eventual exile in 1959). In Yatung monastery (as narrated by His Holiness himself in his long account of his experiences with Gyalpo Shugden recounted at the end of the 70s at Dharamsala) on the advice of his junior Tutor Trijang Rinpoche and with the help of the abbot of the local monks, the young Dalai Lama started consulting the Shugden medium because, he explained, the Nechung and Gadong oracles had remained in Lhasa.
The answers he obtained from the divinations seemed reasonable, or at least that is how they were presented to him, and slowly His Holiness started to trust this spirit, who since his childhood had been presented to him as an enlightened being and special protector of the Gelugpa school. Unaware of the spirit’s secret history, in which by tradition he was an enemy of the lineage of the Dalai Lamas, His Holiness started to invoke him in his daily practice, and a number of political decisions – although this has never been explicitly stated by the Dalai Lama – in those years may have been influenced by the divinations of the Shugden medium.
The relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Gyalpo (which however never reached the stage of ‘life entrustment’ or taking refuge) lasted many more years and the followers of this spirit still maintain that the choice to flee taken in March 1959, traditionally attributed to the counsel of the State Oracle, was in fact due to Shugden. In any case, it was still many years before His Holiness freed himself of the conditioning by this spirit imposed by the constant presence at his side of Trijang Rinpoche (his senior tutor Ling Rinpoche was never particularly tied to this cult which nonetheless involved dozens of high lamas of the Gelugpa school).
Trijang was a religious figure of great worldly prestige and practically all the lamas of the Gelugpa school of his time had received teachings, and obviously also the Shugden initiation, from him. The main ones among these lamas were Song Rinpoche (when this lama came to Italy many years ago the advertisements said that seeing his photo was enough for attaining enlightenment), Geshe Rabten, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. Except for Song Rinpoche, who died long ago, they all subsequently gave up this practice on the Dalai Lama’s request.
Lama Yeshe in particular can be deemed a posthumous victim of the indirect consequences of this cult, because after his death the centre he founded in England, one of the first and most important of the Gelugpa schools in the West, was literally expropriated by an ambitious Geshe (the brother of the Shugden spirit medium) called Kelsang Gyatso, who turned it into his own personal fiefdom, and thanks to the powers of this spirit that temporarily grants worldly riches and power, it became one of the monasteries most highly attended by westerners with branches in the United States and other parts of the world. Kelsang Gyatso can also be considered a kind of leader of the world cult of Shugden, in open and at times rowdy opposition to the Dalai Lama (he organised a protest sit-in during His Holiness’ visit to London in 1996). Since the end of the 70s His Holiness has been asking the most important Gelugpa lamas and abbots to stop this practice, and after long reflection, in the 90s, extended his request to all followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
His Holiness cited a long series of reasons based on his own personal experience, factors of a fundamentally mystical nature such as dreams, signs and divinations, but also bitter reflections on the concrete consequences on his role as spiritual leader in exile and on his relations with the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism engendered by his connection with the ‘harmful spirit’. As this is a matter that still today is the cause of personal suffering for His Holiness, this article is certainly not sufficient to clarify all the aspects of a complex issue whose origin may hark back to the time of Dalai Lama the 5th (my book on this subject will be published shortly). However, I believe it is necessary for readers to have some general knowledge of the reasons why, for some time Chögyal Namkhai Norbu has been insisting on the importance of failing to appreciate the danger inherent in such cults.
As already mentioned, Shugden is traditionally deemed a kind of guardian or protector of the Gelugpa school, and at this stage one could raise the objection that Dzogchen too has more than one protector, led by the dakini Ekajati. But apart from the different consideration regarding the nature of these beings (Ekajati being a manifestation of the Enlightened Sambhogakaya beings while Shugden is a worldly spirit of uncertain origin and motivation for acting) this Gyalpo has traditionally been invoked by orthodox Gelugpas in the past and the fundamentalists in our days, in open antagonism against the other Tibetan Buddhist schools.
The main reason why the Dalai Lama decided to disclose in public his reservations regarding this cult, which he himself had practised for many years lies in the publication of a booklet called the Yellow Book of Shugden penned by a geshe called Zemey Rinpoche, under the inspiration of Trijang Rinpoche, with anecdotes and stories about Gelugpa personages, also important ones, of the last century, including the former regent Reting Rinpoche, who discovered the present Dalai Lama, and who according to the author were the victims of Shugden’s wrath for having engaged in practices of other schools, in particular Nyingmapa and Dzogchen.
The book circulated as an open secret, and provoked the actual desertion by many monks and nuns of an important offering ceremony to Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, founder of the Nyingmapa school and a Dzogchen practitioner) that the Dalai Lama wanted to hold for the first time, in public at Dharamsala, for the Tibetan new year. Also the placing of a statue of Padmasambhava in the main temple at Namgyal some years after the forced exile, provoked hostility and threatening letters, as His Holiness informed me personally during an interview at Dharamsala.
I think these elements are just enough to enable readers to understand the gravity and the nature of the conflict created by the cult of this being whose followers, including a lama living in Milan whom Chögyal Namkhai Norbu named directly during his teaching at Merigar, consider a compassionate Buddha to whom to make offerings and in whom to take refuge. But above all, worthy of consideration is the fact that, unlike the followers of this Gyalpo, no Dzogchenpa or non-sectarian Gelugpa has ever thought of using Ekajati or Palden Lhamo as an antagonist of other faiths or beliefs.
It is necessary also to reflect on what the development of such a sectarian cult has meant and continues to mean for the Dalai Lama and for all the Tibetans in exile (and also for the Tibetans in occupied Tibet, for whom the repercussions of this matter are many and of more than secondary import).
Over the years, after his flight from Tibet, His Holiness has found himself in the situation of having to represent, far from his country and his people, the spirit of unity of a people suffering in its struggle against an overwhelming powerful nation which, at least during the most fanatical phase of the Cultural Revolution, ruined monasteries and temples, murdering lamas and devout followers of the Dharma. During his exile in Dharamsala but also earlier, while in the refugee camps, Trijang’s lama disciples continued to spread the cult of this so-called Gelugpa ‘protector’ the followers of all the other schools, who equally poor and ailing due to the different climate and other hardships, were living in communal hovels piled one on top of the other; there were no longer as in the Tibet of old, great distances between monasteries to hamper contacts between lamas and monks of different traditions. And above all, there no longer existed the power that the Gelugpa school, founded by Tsongkhapa in the fifteenth century, had been accruing overtime, starting from the Great Fifth Dalai Lama who in 1647 obtained from the Mongols temporal power over all Tibet from Lhasa to Qinhai and from Mount Kailash to the border with Sichuan and Yunnan.
It is perhaps no accident that this conflict started at that time, when according to the autobiography of Dalai Lama the 5th another prelate (Dragpa Gyaltsen, 1622–1651) who was challenging his authority and had ‘broken the samaya’ that linked them as Dharma practitioners and as teacher and disciple, died in mysterious circumstances in his Drepung residence. He may have been strangled with a white kata (as the Shugden followers today maintain) or he may have died due to an infectious disease; in any case according to the Great Fifth he was the victim ‘of a demon’ that ‘had total dominion over him’ and which the Dalai Lama himself had been unable to vanquish in spite of his attempts to save his rival.
Whatever the truth of the story, it is certainly difficult to reconstruct its inner dynamics so many centuries after the fact, and in the absence of impartial documentation (Trijang Rinpoche wrote that he was killed by the Regent of Dalai Lama the 5th who was jealous of the growing popularity of Dragpa Gyaltsen and of Drepung with the Mongols). The spirit of this high lama with strong psychic powers was probably transformed, as happens to those who die in anger, as Rinpoche himself has stated, into a wandering harmful Gyalpo. But on account of his powers as a former tantric practitioner not even the many pujas performed by Dalai Lama the 5th himself and by the greatest Nyingmapa and Dzogchen masters of the time (of whom Dalai Lama the 5th was a disciple) were able to pacify and eliminate his negative influence.
According to the different versions of Tibetan mystical history, Dragpa Gyaltsen’s la transformed into Gyalpo Shugden was first received into the monastery of a Sakyapa lama who made it into a secondary ‘protector’ (nowadays His Holiness Sakya Trizin maintains that among the practitioners of his school there are no followers of this cult) and then in subsequent centuries came to be venerated as a realised deity and Dharma guardian by some Gelugpa lamas.
However, it was at the time of Pabongka (and to a lesser extent his teacher Thapu Rinpoche) that the cult erupted among the higher Gelugpa hierarchs against the wish – as we have seen – of the XIII Dalai Lama, who died prophesying the impending tragedy for the Tibetan clergy and people. Both before and after the Chinese invasion throughout Tibet, and especially in east Tibet, where the Nyingmapa presence was still predominant, numerous statues of Padmasambhava were destroyed and lamas and monks of other traditions humiliated and attacked by hordes of Gelugpa fundamentalists instigated by the teachings of Pabongka and his lama disciples. In this way they intended to assert the dominion of the so-called ‘pure tradition’ of lama Tsongkhapa, which according to them had been neglected and abandoned in favour of offensive tantric practices, and especially for the ‘termas’ or hidden treasures that many Gelugpas, alongside the Nyingmapa and Dzogchen practitioners, made great use of.
With hindsight, the current Tibetan spiritual leader could be censured over his lack of clarity with regard to a cult whose dangers had been well known by his predecessor as well as other Dalai Lamas of the past, and His Holiness has often humbly acknowledged this. But practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are well aware of the relationship between master and disciple and of the nature of the samaya pledge, the promise to act in common for the benefit of beings in samsara. The young Dalai Lama had neither the experience, nor the knowledge, necessary to challenge his teacher Trijang over the value of a cult which has subsequently revealed itself as not only of scant benefit for the Gelugpa school itself (it certainly did not save them from their historical defeat and subsequent suffering) but also harmful for the many beings instigated by such a sectarian view to perpetrate actual physical violence.
Many people know about the triple murder committed at Dharamsala on 4 February 1997. A learned scholar, very close to His Holiness, the Venerable Lobsang Gyatso, Director of the Dialectics School of Dharamsala (who attended the Conference on Tibetan Language at Merigar organised by the Shang Shung Institute) was stabbed to death together with two young monks who were his students and translators in a small flat a stone’s throw from His Holiness’ residence in exile at Dharamsala.
The brutality of the crime generated great shock and alarm among the Tibetan community in exile: they already were burdened by divisions, continuous tension and threats since the appeal by the Dalai Lama not to practise the cult of the Gyalpo spirit in public, and for its practitioners to limit such practice to their own private sphere.
Police documents I saw during my long journalistic investigation of this case, show that on diverse occasions, and in particular one, the leaders of the Dorje Shugden Charitable Society of New York instigated not only divisions within the Tibetan community, but also between Tibetans and Indians in Dharamsala culminating in another murder of which a young Tibetan was accused (but who then was found innocent).
The investigations of Kangra District Superintendent Rajiv Singh concluded that a few days before the murder, the killers of Geshe Lobsang and of the two monks had attempted to follow his car on his return from Hong Kong as he journeyed to Dharamsala. During the pursuit their taxi broke down and from an STD phone booth (where every call is recorded) in Ambala city, the assassins telephoned the personal number of the geshe who at the time was General Secretary of the pro-Shugden Association in Delhi. However, even though witnesses and a great amount of documented evidence were presented (the taxi driver, a hotelier who recognised photos of the accused and the rucksack pulled by the lama from the hands of his murderers who had to leave it behind at the scene of the crime) the Indian judiciary caved in before a plethora of Delhi lawyers hired with fees that were certainly far in excess of the apparent means of Buddhist monks in exile in the poor Majnu-Ka-Tilla quarter of Delhi.
As a reporter I was deeply struck by events of which I knew no historical or political precedents of such consequence. Nevertheless, at least certain spiritual aspects had already been made clear by our Master as long ago as 1989 (see the transcript of a teaching on the guardians given in Wales in 1989). And more recently he sought with difficulty to alert the Italian Buddhist community that was divided over the problem of accepting the membership of Gyalpo lamas and practitioners in Italy.
I wrote some articles for newspapers, which elicited a certain amount of response that spurred me to continuer my research in greater depth. I spoke about it with His Holiness in person when he visited Italy in 1997, when he invited me to Dharamsala to collect the documentation I needed. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu himself counselled me and helped me with some invaluable advice and information on many spiritual and historical features.
However, as a journalist with thirty years experience I thought it best not to limit myself to the reflections of two personages, even as eminent as His Holiness and Rinpoche, who might be deemed as partial as they are both perfectly in accord on this issue. Therefore, I went to interview numerous exponents of the cult, including Lama Ganchen in Milan (deemed by Norbu Rinpoche as the ‘number two’ in the world, evidently after Kelsang Gyatso) and a certain ‘His Holiness Lama Kundeling’ (as he was introduced to me by an English disciple) living in Asia, whom I met in Ganchen’s centre in Milan on his return from the United States, where he had taken part in, and in his own words promoted, some protest demonstrations during the visit of the Dalai Lama.
The very fact of the meeting between the two lamas at the Milan centre was proof of an international link between members of the cult. And while the Dalai Lama has only asked disciples not to attend his teachings and initiations if they practise the Gyalpo, the slogans and literature I was handed asked the Dalai Lama to ‘respect the religious rights’ of the Shugden practitioners under the aegis of a newly constituted ‘Dorje Shugden International Coalition’. The booklets of the Coalition list several lamas and geshes from all over the world, including one famous teacher who however had his name erased once he was informed about the organisation.
Obviously the list included members of the association in Delhi who were under investigation for the triple murder, which led the Indian police to bring Interpol into play in relation to any eventual international connections including Italy and England.
When I went to meet the leaders of the Shugden Charitable and Religious Society organisation at their headquarters in Majnu-Ka-Tilla, they spoke to me at length about their relations with the other cult practitioners throughout the world. Alongside a division within the British community itself, geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who lives in a lavish castle in Yorkshire, has decided also to send a letter breaking with all the other devotees of the spirit who still maintain relations of formal respect towards the Dalai Lama.
However, without doubt, the most remarkable episode concerns the decision by the young reincarnation of Trijang Rinpoche to leave the Centre in Switzerland where he had remained for years under the ‘protection’ of his lama-tutor. In a dramatic letter and in an interview on the Tibetan radio station in Dharamsala, he announced his abandonment of his monastic robes in order to become ‘an ordinary person’. Shocked by a series of still murky events, the gravest of which was the attempted murder of his former personal assistant by members of the cult, the young Trijang explained he had no intention of becoming a banner or symbol of the pro-Shugden movement (albeit continuing to do its practice) against the Dalai Lama, who was his disciple in his previous incarnation.
A comment I deem worthy for concluding these notes, written with the hope of making a little clearer an issue about which our Master has for some time asked us to reflect. The dark days the world is currently traversing due to religious fundamentalism seem in fact to find a dramatically congruent echo in Tibetan Buddhism, whose professed aim is the development of compassion and bodhicitta for the benefit of all beings. But if there were no evil there would be no need for good, and as our Master says the best thing is to know how to protect and preserve the good against the rising wave of fanaticism, in whatever philosophy or creed it presents itself. ■
Engl. Transl. by Andrew Lukianowicz
© Merigar, Dzogchen Community Italy, 2005
With kind permission from Merigar.
Header image: Majnu-Ka-Tilla Tibetan Camp in Delhi, India..