'The Shugden Issue Used to be Just a Religious One'

A commentary by Tsering Woeser
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Woeser in an undated photo.
Woeser in an undated photo.

Author Tsering Woeser uses her blog "Invisible Tibet," together with poetry, historical research, and social media platforms, to give voice to millions of ethnic Tibetans who are denied freedom of expression. In a recent commentary for RFA's Mandarin Service, she talks about the politicization of a centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist dispute by the ruling Chinese Communist Party:

On Dec. 21, 2015, Reuters ran an article by three of their most experienced journalists titled "China co-opts a Buddhist sect in global effort to smear Dalai Lama."

"A Reuters investigation has found that the religious sect behind the protests has the backing of the Communist Party. The group has emerged as an instrument in Beijing’s long campaign to undermine support for the Dalai Lama," the article said.

The name of this Buddhist sect is Dorje Shugden, shortened to Shugden.

Problems first began to emerge with Shugden in the 17th and 18th centuries, but weren't spoken about publicly until the 1990s.

The Dalai Lama, based on many years of observation and more importantly on Buddhist teaching, has said that if monks and believers wish to be true followers of his Gelugpa sect, they should give up the worship of spirits like Shugden and base their practice on Buddhist doctrine.

The problem of Shugden has lasted for 300-400 years, and through five incarnations of the Dalai Lama.

However, a more detailed examination of the issue would mean investigating experiences which are often only accessible to meditators who have worked through certain practices in sequence. The very precise words used to describe such experiences are frequently misunderstood by a lot of people.

But it's not just about spirits: religious belief is in itself a very personal thing.

There is no question that human beings have worshipped all manner of spirits, gods, animal and plant totems through history.

But if you call yourself a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, and you rely on deities and spirits rather than Buddhist doctrine; if you see them as more important than the Buddha himself, then there's a problem.

Even more importantly, adherents of Shugden practice are the fundamentalists of the Gelugpa sect, because they recognize only the Gelugpa school as the true form of Buddhism. They are intolerant, and reject the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya and any other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, seeing them as inauthentic.

The Dalai Lama doesn't want to see infighting between the schools lead to the fragmentation of Tibetan Buddhism, and sees the fundamentalism of the Shugden followers as religious intolerance.

Monks in the pay of China

In indicating that followers of the Gelugpa school should drop their Shugden practice, he is effectively handing over greater religious freedom to believers. It is effectively a negation of something negative that yields a positive.

He also makes the point that Shugden practice doesn't really constitute a religious belief. Tibetan Buddhism has its wellsprings in the teachings transmitted by Nalanda monastery, or university [c. 400 B.C.-1200], and it would be sad and terrible if its rich teachings were to be reduced to the worship of a deity and the protection of a single soul [rather than the salvation of all sentient beings].

That's why the Dalai Lama has acted to set the Gelugpa school to rights. This is the first major reform to Tibetan Buddhism since that of the Tsongkhapa [1357–1419].

Unlike today, Tibet was entirely under self-rule back in the day of the Tsongkhapa, and he was only able to bring in his sweeping reforms and restore Buddhism to its original state because religious affairs were the province of religious people. His reforms ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity.

The Shugden issue used to be just a religious one, and one confined to the Gelugpa school at that, although the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools were deeply alienated by the desire of Shugden followers to suppress all of the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and despised Shugden as a symbol of evil.

But other forces had to get involved, both overtly and covertly, turning the Dalai Lama's reforms into a tug-of-war, and making what should have been a religious matter political.

As the Reuters report put it: "A leaked internal Communist Party document shows that China is intervening in the dispute. The party document, issued to officials [in 2014], said the Shugden issue is 'an important front in our struggle with the Dalai clique'."

What about the Tibetan view? One Tibetan intellectual told me: "There are many good things about Tibetans as a people, and many weaknesses, which include narrow-minded contentiousness and the endless internecine bickering of religious sects. This even goes on among Tibetans in exile ... And they can be greedy too. Some of these followers of Shugden see him as a lifelong cash cow."

He's right. Some people get their livelihood from Shugden; some have got rich from him or been promoted to higher office because of him.

As the Reuters report said, China paid senior Shugden monks to plan and coordinate the activities of the sect’s followers overseas, controlled and funded by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s ideological unit, the United Front Work Department.

For a lot of people, Shugden isn't about religious belief any more; he's their bread and butter.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Comments (13)
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from NYC

Hi Anonymous Reader,
I’m a Buddhist and have been living in NYC for over a decade. I’ve heard about this dorje shugden issue and has been following the news. My view is that this issue has become political only when the Dalai Lama’s people or namely CTA has created so much problems to the shugden practitioners. I’ve personally seen these practitioners have to suffer and the torture extend to their families. this is extremely inhumane. I thought Dalai Lama’s motto is to promote Inner peace and outer calm? However his people are doing the opposite? Why create so much segregation and disharmony among own people?

In addition, I think you should not make any baseless accusation to Ms. Foo and her choice of religion and her work place Kechara House. It’s absolutely unnecessary and unfair to her. She is here just to voice her opinion but not finger pointing, however, you as anonymous reader, should not ATTACK her just because she is vocal and protective of her faith. Be careful with your words as well when u’re trying to degrade an established centre or organisation.

May 24, 2016 11:34 PM


from NY

Reuters exposed that the Int'l Shugden organization was largely funded by the Chinese Government. After that exposure, the Shugden shut down & issued a statement it was no longer organizing any protests against the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama has no army or police force. There are only about 140,000 Tibetans in exile & 6 million in occupied Tibet. The CCP has 80 million members & the PLA has over 1 million soldiers. The only weapon we Tibetans have against Chinese colonialism is the truth but that is what the CCP fears the most.

Mar 25, 2016 12:34 PM

Anonymous Reader

This article as been targeted for attack by the fake Buddhist organization called Kechara House; which is funded by the Chinese Government to attack Tibetans and hijack Buddhism through propaganda and wrong information.

Tibetans are not Chinese property. Religion is not Chinese property.

Mar 18, 2016 01:24 PM

Abby Foo

Voicing out different views is an act of attacking? Giving opinion that you disagree with is an act of attacking? What era we are living in?

How about some of the comments here calling Dorje Shugden as Dolgyal which is a name to put down someone's belief? How about some of the comments here accussing Dorje Shugden practitioners as spies and receiving money from China? ARE ALL THESE NOT ATTACK? Only Dorje Shugden practitioners are bad and evil, and when they voice out their views and opinions, they are like terrorist attacking people? This is very wrong and very unfair.

Mar 19, 2016 03:39 AM

Anonymous Reader

Abby Foo works for Kechara House.
Kechara House has no supporters or students in Malaysia that aren't ultimately being paid by China. Their businesses are always empty. Their buildings are always empty, except for people that occassionally wander in thinking it is a real Buddhist center or who are paid. where is the money coming from Abby Foo? How is it that you are being paid?

Why is it that you always dodge the question instead of just saying "Kechara House isn't laundering or accepting money from the Chinese government"?

Maybe you learned your lesson from lying to people by saying Tsem and Kechara House don't practice shugden?

Maybe you realize that once you've lied to enough people about accepting money from China then proof will be placed online so everyone can see how horrible and deceptive you are?

Just wait Abby Foo. This is just a repeat of the exposure of KH spreading shugden. They make hints online to get people talking, they let you write lies everywhere, and then they provide undeniable proof, that they have had for years, online so people will know just how horrible and deceptive you are.

You keep getting caught in the same trap because you've been lead to believe no one has proof.

After the funding is exposed with proof, Kechara House will be gone like the ISC. And by then you will have no future career, just like the people Kechara House smeared.

And then the tables will be completely reversed by the truth. The people whose careers were ruined by lies from KH will be vindicated and recieve job offers, and you will be without a job or friends.

That is how powerful the truth is, and how damaging it is to lie.

Mar 28, 2016 07:57 PM

Abby Foo

Do you know what deceptive really is?

Here we see what real deception is:

1. Whoever "attacking" me personally and my spiritual home Kechara, you should be opened with who you are since you heavily criticize my "deception". I am being honest with my belief, my practice, my identity, my Guru and my spiritual home...and to people who keep saying I am deceptive, how honest you are then?

2. When you label Shugden people as China spies/chinese dogs/taking money from China... Where is the proves of Kechara is taking money from China? And do you realized when you make such label to Shugden people/me/Kechara? It is when we ask you what is wrong with holding the lineage Gurus' lineage teachings? What is wrong in keeping promises to your own Guru? What is wrong in choosing whatever I wish to believe and follow?

You know clearly you can't say "no" to all my questions above as a "rational" person, you know the bottom line is eveyone has religious freedom that people are given the rights to choose their belief without being insulted and punished because we all have our own rights. But there is always one way to attack, that is saying Shugden people are being paid by China, which is quite provoking in order to get more supports for your point of view after knowing you can't deny my religious freedom. But you know what, no offence, I am more than welcome to see your proves to Kechara is getting money from China because of we do Dorje Shugden. If not you are just being deceptive I am sorry to say.

3. Being deceptive is you only choose what your deceptive mind wants to see - that Kechara is "empty". I have been working in Kechara for many years and I witness how many people coming in and leaving(as usual) but I witness also how majority peoe have stay and grow into a beautiful person and how our works grow. The very reason you are attacking Kechara is because you think that Kechara is big and influential enough to make impact to people. If Kechara stands for just "empty" buildings, then you will not be "annoyed" by our "Shugden propaganda" and you will just leave Kechara alone to do our little Shugden pujas, right?

[This comment has been edited by RFA Editorial staff per our Terms of Use]

May 02, 2016 09:36 AM

Mel T

Dear Karma,

You refer to Shukden as a gyalpo spirit but the 14th Dalai Lama wrote a praise to this deity referring to him as a being with the wisdom, compassion and power of all Buddhas and arising from a number of pure lands. In other words, the Dalai Lama regarded Shukden as an enlightened being.

The Dalai Lama worshipped this deity for 40 years and then condemned the same deity for 40 years. How do we know if he is right then or now. For sure this flip-flop is confusing and if the Dalai Lama is indeed a Buddha as Tibetans worship him as, then why the uncertainly and the complete reversal of position on the same deity? I do not know Chenrezi to be to flaky.

If you are quoting Trijang Rinpoche as an authority on this deity, Trijang Rinpoche also clearly stated that Shukden is Manjushri. So why are you cherry picking bits to suit your argument?

Which Dalai Lama version should I believe anyway?

[This comment has been edited by RFA Editorial staff per our Terms of Use]

Mar 14, 2016 09:40 AM


from Delhi

Dogyal(Shugden) practice, like all mundane protector worship, was political from the start. This particular protector was especially praised for stopping Gelugpas from taking teachings from other traditions (to counter the political threat from the Rime movement) and to stop non-Gelugpas taking political office. Trijang Rinpoche, among others, specifically said dogyal kills people that fall into either group.
The depiction of dogyal as an evil spirit is also entirely typical of all mundane protectors. (I feel your complete ignorance of Tibetan culture may be showing.) Dogyal is a damsri spirit (vow breaker) and a gyalpo spirit. Trijang Rinpoche describes it as both of those.
"Instead of wisely counseling all parties to understand each others practice and belief..." You seriously think the Dalai Lama would have to ask someone to understand what dogyal worship was about? He was a student of Trijang Rinpoche and got the teachings straight from the horse's mouth. I think he understands this protector practice way better than you do.

Mar 11, 2016 03:02 PM

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