Why the Dalai Lama Rejects Shugden
(by Gareth Sparham | Tibetan Review | June 1996)

If it is usually said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, in this case it is a case of a fool rushing in on angels uninvited, because I propose to explain the political ramifications of the controversy over the angel (Tibetans would call him protector) Shugden. It is a controversy which has very much to do with the leadership of the Dalai Lama and also with differing visions of what an independent Tibet will look like. The controversy, as it is now playing itself out, has nothing at all to do with the Dalai Lama's infringement on the right of individuals to religious freedom (this is what some contributors to a discussion about Shugden on the Internet have recently argued) and everything to do with support for a secular vision of a future Tibet. In essence, as I shall try to show, the argument over which angel one is supposed to worship is, among Tibetans, an argument over whether a future Tibet should be a fundamentalist religious state or whether it should be a secular state in which no single religious dogma is privileged over others.

First, though a brief digression into the story of Shugden to let readers know exactly who we are talking about. Who, exactly, is this angel in the Tibetan pantheon? A cursory investigation of the primary literature reveals two main opinions about where the angel comes from. Both of these opinions originate in the seventeenth century when the Gelugpa sect in general, and the Dalai Lamas in particular, were becoming the major power in Tibet. According to one opinion the angel is the embodiment of the spirit of one of the two ancient centres of power in Drepung, the biggest of the Gelugpa monasteries. Old records show that there were two centres of power in Drepung: the so-called lower chamber associated with the Dalai Lamas-to-be, and the upper chamber associated with the descendants of Sonam Drakpa, an illustrious teacher who died in 1554. According to one opinion, Drakpa Gyaltsen, the third incarnation of Sonam Drakpa, died a violent death in the 1650s while antagonistic to the Fifth Dalai Lama, and his spirit came forth in the form of the angel Shugden. A second opinion is that the angel arose not as an embodiment of the spirit of Drakpa Gyaltsen, but rather as an embodiment of the spirit of Sonam Chomphel (died 1657), a supporter of the Fifth Dalai Lama. In the intrigues and wars of the seventeenth century which brought the Gelugpa school to power in a loose federation with powerful families associated with the Nyingmapa sect, etc. Sonam Chomphel was a champion of the interests of the Gelugpa school. As an embodiment of his spirit, therefore, these people say Shugden is a unique Gelugpa protector.

For reasons that are unclear to me, the propitiation of the angel Shugden became quite popular as part of the religious life of many Tibetans at the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly amongst aristocrats in Lhasa and in the big Gelugpa monasteries. Whether this was in response to the attempts of the Fifth Dalai Lama to partially modernize Tibetan society is unclear. In practical terms, however, it meant that many of the refugees arriving in India after 1959 had the propitiation of Shugden as part of their spiritual practice. Understandably, in the face of the horrible attempts of the Chinese to eradicate Tibetan identity by denying them the right to freely practice their religion in their own country, these Tibetan refugees carried on in exile propitiating the angel Shugden, as well as with many other aspects of their varied and rich religious lives.

And so might the propitiation of the angel Shugden have remained, except that the present Dalai Lama, beginning at the end of the 1970s, began insisting that he did not like the practice of propitiation of Shugden being in any way associated with his person, that those who wished to be known to others as associated with his person could not at the same time propitiate this particular angel publicly, or even secretly if they wished to be his religious disciples, and that one could not be an authentic supporter of the government-in-exile of which he is the head if one insisted on associating oneself with the propitiation of this angel. Since the person of the Dalai Lama is so important for Tibetans, this insistence that the propitiation of Shugden be divorced totally and utterly from him caused many people great spiritual anguish, all the more so because many had been taught the Shugden propitiation practice in earlier years by the saintly junior tutor of the Dalai Lama himself, and understood themselves to be pleasing the Dalai Lama by doing what his teacher had said to do.

It is in light of these developments, then, that some contributors to the Internet (apparently Western students of a Tibetan teacher from Sera monastery living in England called Geshe Kelsang Gyatso) have said that the Dalai Lama is interfering with their right to freely practice their chosen religion. In bald terms, their criticism of the Dalai Lama is that he wants to stamp out a particular religious practice because of a belief in the superiority of his own values. It is an important criticism and it deserves to be taken seriously, not because it has any truth in it (it is a criticism devoid of any validity whatsoever), but because there should be no suspicion that because the Dalai Lama is a powerful Tibetan, perhaps the world's most famous Buddhist and a very popular man, therefore, his actions should not be open to the same scrutiny as any other person's. That having been said, it is surely preposterous to accuse the Dalai Lama (a man who has always preached religious tolerance) of wanting to stamp out any religious practice, particularly a Tibetan one. The accusation itself, I would suggest, results from the same religious intolerance and obscurantism that the Dalai Lama associates with the Shugden symbol and from which he is taking such pains to dissociate himself.

It seems to me that it is only possible to understand the present controversy about Shugden, inside and outside Tibet, in political terms. Although originally, no doubt, in the old world of Tibet primarily a religious figure, Shugden is today a political symbol representing for Tibetans the aspirations of an emerging political party which looks back to a golden age when the rule of Tibet was invested in the Gaden Phodrang. I say "emerging political party" because a party system is yet to fully develop amongst Tibetans. This emerging political party is wedded to the idea that the final arbiters of Tibet's destiny should be monks, that the future government of a free Tibet should uphold its own particular version of a religious truth taught (they say absurdly) by Tsongkhapa, that the future government of Tibet should fund particular monasteries and ceremonies and support a curriculum of monastic education in opposition to modern secular education, and in particular, that it should champion a fundamentalist version of Tibetan Buddhism as a state religion in which the dogmas of the Nyingmapa, Kagyudpa and Sakyapa schools are heterodox and discredited. In this sense, it is a religious fundamentalist party which wants to make its religious dogma into the sole political ideology acceptable to the state, and, like fundamentalist parties everywhere, it is intolerant of any suggestion that its own is simply one in a variety of truths.

It is the pressing need to clearly and unequivocally let it be seen that he and his government-in-exile will support and defend equally the right of all Tibetans to follow whatever religious tradition or practice that they wish that lies behind the Dalai Lama's insistence that those who want to be associated with the Tibetan government in exile publicly distance themselves from the propitiation of the angel Shugden. With the gradual emergence of a party-like system amongst Tibetans (something, incidentally, which the Dalai Lama has always tried to foster, even at the expense of that power that presently attaches to the institution of the Dalai Lamas) the angel Shugden has become more and more the symbol of a fundamentalist party that excludes religious pluralism. It is because of this that the Dalai Lama has more and more felt the need to insist that his "party" reject it, in particular, because of the immediate reality that those who are in the Dalai Lama's "party" are, to all intents and purposes, the present Tibetan civil service in exile. Caught in a dilemma, where the only language for political discourse presently intelligible to ordinary Tibetan people is a religious language, he has to say he opposes a religious practice in order to say clearly that he wants to guarantee all Tibetans an equal right to religious freedom and political equality in a future Tibet.

A question which needs to be asked, though, is whether the Dalai Lama has over-reacted. The natural constituency of the fundamentalist party that has taken Shugden as its symbol is amongst religious obscurantists in the Gelugpa school, after all, and the reality is that over the last forty years, like other Tibetan religious groups, its monasteries have been gutted, its leaders killed and its influence on the Chinese administration now operating inside Tibet minimal or non-existent. And as an outside observer of the Tibetan scene, one cannot but look on the destruction of even Tibetan fundamentalism, unpleasant though it may be, without feeling sadness for those who are struggling in the face of such overwhelming odds to retain something of their old values and life. But caught as he is in the very centre of Tibet's political life, the Dalai Lama cannot treat it as just a minor issue. Divisive tendencies are always a danger amongst Tibetans (hardly surprising given the nature of the mountainous country where inhabitants of each valley and region feel a strong sense of regional identity) and the emerging fundamentalist party that has taken the angel Shugden as its symbol threatens to become a rallying point for disaffected regional leaders. Even more destructively, it seems to be drawing dispirited Tibetans faced with the absence of any signs that a viable compromise with the forces of the Chinese occupation will ever be reached back into superstitious belief.

There is in Tibetan a hierarchical language to describe the myriad members of the Buddhist pantheon. This language, which has great complexity, describes many ranks of the buddhas, bodhisatvas, gods, demons, goblins, and so on almost without end. It is the particular feature of this language that it retains the primary status of universal symbols of good (the Buddhist symbols which transcend just Tibet) while at the same time empowering and giving true religious value to the symbols of personal or group idiosyncratic worship. It is features of the propitiation ritual of the angel Shugden that the angel himself, because of the way he must be propitiated, moves up from the lower ranks and comes to be approached with a level of devotion usually reserved for only the very highest symbols. Since, like most of the lower ranking members of the Buddhist pantheon, the angel Shugden has most often been propitiated for less than the most noble purposes, in particular nowadays it appears out of the belief that propitiating him will make one richer, the danger of rank superstitious nonsense being elevated to the highest level becomes apparent. And when the object of such superstitious belief becomes tied up with hopes for Tibetan freedom, not only does the possibility of freedom recede further into the distance, the dissemination of the wider Buddhist heritage which so many Tibetans see as the whole purpose of regaining Tibet is made impossible as well.

To sum up, then, the Dalai Lama's rejection of the Shugden propitiation is not part of an attempt to stamp out a religious practice that does not accord with his own beliefs. He rejects it in order to ensure that his exile government is fair and is seen to be fair, to ensure that he be clearly seen to represent the widest constituency amongst Tibetans so that in the long term he will ensure that his own reputation as a fair and honest leader remains strong amongst the Tibetan population at large.

Friends of Tibet (INDIA)
Friends of Tibet (INDIA), PO Box 16674, Bombay 400050