Open Letter to some Followers of the New Kadampa Tradition
by Gavin Kilty
Your dispute with the Dalai Lama over Dorjé Shugden, is one that, I believe, has arisen from a lack of information, a lack of investigation, and an unquestioning acceptance of misinformation, all of which makes it difficult to take a reasonable position. Therefore, I would ask you to take a little time to read and consider what is written below. If, after doing that, you find nothing to change your mind, then fine. If, however, you discover something that challenges your position on this issue, then please take it on board.
I think you have conflated events that took place in the 1970s and 80s with the present status of Shugden devotees to produce a distorted perception of the present Dalai Lama. Although everyone agrees the origins of this matter can be found in the 17th century during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, and that conflict had also surfaced during the time of the 13th Dalai Lama, the source of the present troubles can be found during the 1970s in India, in the Tibetan refugee community in Dharamshala and the monasteries in the south. Events at that time caused the 14th Dalai Lama to take the course of action that he did.
The Yellow Book
You have probably heard of the Yellow Book, published in 1973 by Zemey Rinpoché, who was a disciple of Trijang Rinpoché. It contains oral accounts, given by Trijang Rinpoché, of the punishments and murder of several lamas and officials who had adopted some practices of the Nyingma tradition. The relevant parts of this book are readily available on the internet and downloadable as a pdf. In it, the “punishments” take the form of sickness and accidents that befall the victim. These are attributed to the workings of Shugden who had deemed that these persons had strayed from the true path laid down by Je Tsongkhapa.
The book was available in Dharamshala in the early 70s, and was read by many in the community. Whether you attempt to mitigate the events described in the book by designating them as interpretable, and therefore are not to be taken literally, or by determining them to be events you cannot pass judgement on because they are the actions of a higher being, there can be no doubt of the effect the book had on the Tibetan refugee community. Whether it was the intent of Zemey Rinpoché to make the book widely available and to sow fear in the hearts of the people, I cannot say, but it certainly had that effect. as can be understood from the following account. Sometime later in 1975 the Dalai Lama organized a Great Offering (bümtsok) to Guru Rinpoché, Padma Sambhava, in the main Thekchen Chöling temple in Dharamshala. The reason for such an offering was because Padma Sambhava has a special bond with all Tibetan people regardless of sect or tradition, and in these times of exile unity among the Tibetan people is so essential. To his surprise very few people, especially the nuns, turned up. Questioning his officials as to why, he was told of the existence of the Yellow Book, and that it had scared people away, in fear that they too would be punished for attending a ceremony dedicated to the founder of the Nyingma tradition.
The Dalai Lama describes how devastated he was on hearing this. This book struck at the very heart of his lifelong mission to keep Tibet and Tibetans free from the plague of sectarianism. The accounts of punishments meted out to those Gelukpas who branched out to adopt certain Nyingma practices plunged a dagger into the spirit of unity that existed among the religious traditions of Tibet, when their land was being occupied by hostile Chinese forces.
The Dalai Lama received other indications that something was displeasing the protectors Nechung and Palden Lhamo. These also concerned Dorjé Shugden and were mainly received through the medium of oracles. The cumulative effect of these indications was to propel the Dalai Lama into an investigation of Dorjé Shugden, who he himself had relied upon in times of crisis. The results of this investigation have been documented elsewhere, and you are probably aware of them, so I will not write of them here, although I will refer to them later.
He subsequently took it upon himself to ask those within the Geluk monastic community, especially the abbots, lamas and tulkus, to cease relying upon this protector and if that was not possible, not to attend his teachings as long as they were still propitiating Shugden. You are all aware of these restrictions, and we are all aware of your reactions to them. We are both aware of the responses from the Tibetan community on both sides of the conflict, and we can look at those later. You call the Dalai Lama’s actions a ban, others would not go that far.
The motivation of the Dalai Lama
Putting aside for a moment how you would designate the actions of the Dalai Lama, I would ask you to consider the motivation or reason behind them. He has made clear again and again that the continuing unity of the Tibetan people, in the form of a complete lack of prejudice or bias to one spiritual tradition over another, or a hostile sectarianism that looks down upon another tradition, is the greater good that he strives for. His investigation of the history of Shugden and its actions led him to the conclusion that its propitiation was inimical to that goal. It was for these reasons he took the actions he did. He was reluctant to but felt he had a responsibility to do so.
These are the reasons as he has stated them. It seems that you do not accept that this is the motivation for his actions. If you did, you would have to accept that these were for the greater good of Tibet in this troubled period of her history. However, your protests and your denunciation of him as a dictator, and even a “false Dalai Lama” suggest that you think he must have another motive for what he has done. My question to you, therefore, is, what is this motive? I have not heard from you any clear account of what you think it is. Maybe I am not listening, but it is hard to hear above all the noise.
If you think he is deliberately setting out to deceive others, or “lying,” as you say, then tell us what you believe is the truth. Apart from the reasons he has stated, what other purpose would he have in asking so many of his followers to give up a practice that their own lamas practiced, knowing full well the pain it was going to cause them? Why would he submit the findings of his investigations to his own lama, Trijang Rinpoché, a great lama who has written practices and praises of Shugden?
Is it because he wants more power for himself? As Dalai Lama he has all the power he wants. Everybody bows to him. Until recently he was the undoubted leader of the Tibetan people. In these days of exile the lay and monastic community turned to him even more than they did to previous Dalai Lamas. If he wanted power, why would he have voluntarily given up the title of political leader? Moreover, restricting the practice of this protector in no way accrues any more power to him.
Is it because he wants to appease and curry favour with the Nyingma tradition, as some have suggested? Why would he want to do that? It is true that once the Yellow Book came to his attention, he felt he had to act. What reasonable and caring leader of any nation or community would not act to protect a section of their society that was being intimidated by some wrathful being and by fundamentalist and puritanical members of another part of the community? Of course he had to act to put their minds at ease, but this was not some sycophantic attempt to get them on his side.
He cites a letter sent by the Nyingma master, Khyentsé Chökyi Lodrö, to the great Geluk scholar, Alak Jikmé Damchö, in the first part of the 20th century in Tibet, in which Chökyi Lodrö describes hostile actions carried out by some followers of Phabongkha Rinpoché in southern Tibet, that include destroying images of Padma Sambhava, belittling the recitation of his mantra, burning or throwing in rivers a well-known book on the life of Padma Sambhava. In the letter he said that these people held Gyalpo Shugden as the embodiment of the Three Jewels, but in reality they were damaging the great legacy of the second Buddha, Je Tsongkhapa. He asked Jikmé Damchö to compose a letter highlighting these misdeeds and publish it throughout to Tibet to put an end to such acts. Why wouldn’t anyone try to stop these actions?
Has the Dalai Lama taken these actions because he simply wants to copy the 5th and 13th Dalai lamas who also acted against Shugden? In my long observation of this Dalai Lama I don’t think he is the type of person who wants to copy anyone. However, as the fourteenth incarnation in the long line of Dalai Lamas he certainly wants to take the responsibility of his position seriously, and has often said he wants to live up to his great predecessors. Therefore, he took it seriously when in his research into the actions of Shugden he discovered that the 5th Dalai Lama had taken forceful steps to negate the powerful spirit Dölgyal, whom he had declared was the perfidious spirit rebirth of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen. (It is true that Trijang Rinpoché has written that Drakpa Gyaltsen was a highly realised being, and could not possibly be reborn as a spirit, but more of that later.) He also discovered that the 13th Dalai Lama had placed restrictions on the practice of Shugden, including writing to Phabongkha Rinpoché and asking him to cease the practice, which he promised to do.
Therefore, having investigated the actions of these previous Dalai Lamas, and seen that they had a sound basis, then as the fourteenth Dalai Lama he has carried on that fight, but nowhere can it be proven that he has pursued this matter in a spirit of vengeance against Shugden practitioners or attachment to the institution of the Dalai Lama.
If none of these motivations can be pinned on the Dalai Lama, then what is his motivation for taking the actions that he did? He has stated his reasons. You must state yours. You accuse him of lying and being dictatorial. This suggests that you are not merely disagreeing with his course of actions, which would be perfectly acceptable, but that you suspect he has impure motives behind his actions. In which case you blacken his character with accusations of being false, and by publishing lurid and unpleasant cartoons of him, which does nothing to further your cause but only cheapens it.
These are excessive steps. It is perfectly possible to disagree with one thing a person has done without condemning the whole person. For example, Samdong Rinpoché, the former elected leader of the Tibetan government in exile said that he often disagreed with the Dalai Lama on certain political issues, but that when he took initiation from him, he saw him as Avalokiteśvara. The previous Ling Rinpoché said that he always saw Phabongkha Rinpoché as a perfect Buddha, but when Phabongkha was talking about Dorjé Shugden, he felt some unease. Even the Dalai Lama himself said that he had the utmost respect for Trijang Rinpoché, and regarded him as his root guru, but felt that he was wrong on the Shugden issue. (I know that you have used this to portray the Dalai Lama as someone who has broken his guru devotion vows, but more on this later).
Therefore, my question to you is, why cannot you simply disagree with the Dalai Lama’s course of action regarding Shugden without engaging in a character assassination of him? Anyone of average intelligence and an open mind who studies the behaviour and words of the Dalai Lama over a prolonged length of time cannot fail to see that he is an honourable man and a decent human being. This is borne out by the millions of human beings of all faiths and races all over the world. Are they all wrong? Was the Nobel Peace Prize committee wrong? Is Bishop Tutu wrong in his admiration of him? There are those, of course, who seek to paint him as some kind of demon. The Chinese regime are almost pathological in their attempts to defame him, but then they have an agenda that determines their stance. Do you have an agenda?
Moreover, the Dalai Lama is a monk, and by all accounts a very good monk. His observance of the lesser monastic vows is stricter than that of many other Tibetan monks. To tell a lie is not a lesser vow but one of the serious downfalls of a monk. If he is strict in his observance of the lesser vows why would he break one of the major vows? You call him a liar, and by doing so, you accuse him of breaking a major monastic vow. That does not make sense.
The effects of the Dalai Lama’s restrictions in the Tibetan community
You complain that followers of Dorjé Shugden in the Tibetan community have suffered discrimination from those who support the Dalai Lama, and that they have been asked not to enter shops and other public places in the Tibetan settlements and monastic centres. It may be that some of the Dalai Lama’s followers have reacted to his statements and actions regarding Shugden by restricting access to Shugden practitioners in their establishments. However, if these actions spill over into superstitious discrimination and prejudice against Shugden followers, then this is excessive and does nothing to cement community relations. Certainly, if there has been any violence used against Shugden followers, that is to be condemned.
Moreover, in my opinion and in that of many others, the Central Tibetan Administration’s handling of this affair has not always been skilful. They may have been excessive in their attempts to counter the protests. Their publication of a list of leaders of the Shugden movement within the Tibetan community, along with photos and personal information, could well be seen as inflammatory and counter-prodcutive.
You say that the Dalai Lama’s actions and those of the Tibetan community have restricted your rights and curtail your religious freedoms. However, I would like to ask you to consider the curtailing of religious freedom perpetuated by this protector of yours. How can the frightening and violent retributions ascribed to Dorjé Shugden in the Yellow Book be anything other than summary judgements on those who dared to exercise their religious freedom to practice beyond the Geluk tradition? The fear that the accounts of his actions engendered in those nuns mentioned previously is a direct opponent to the freedom to worship as one chooses. If a member of the Geluk tradition wants to follow practices of the Nyingma or any other tradition, but they are prevented by the fear that should they do so, they might suffer some horrendous punishment by this protector, how is that not a restriction of their religious freedom?
On the other hand, you, as well-off westerners living in democratic societies, and even Tibetans living in exile in India and abroad, can every day engage in Dorjé Shugden practices without the fear of a midnight knock on the door, or being struck down by some pestilence or dreadful accident brought on by a supernatural force. So where is the restriction?
You speak of and condemn, quite rightly, violent actions perpetrated by the Tibetan community on Shugden followers, but say nothing of the violent actions described in the Yellow Book.
Then there is the murder of the senior monk and principal of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, Venerable Losang Gyatso, in 1997. He was stabbed sixteen times in a room outside the institute while assisting two young monks in the transcribing of a text called In Praise of Dependent Origination, a great work by Je Tsongkhapa, the master whose tradition you want to uphold and preserve. The murderers had come up from Delhi to commit this act. Later the Indian police produced evidence to link the murders with followers of Shugden. The murder was committed near Tibetan New Year, and a little later, a letter appeared stating words to the effect of, “We have sent you three pieces of meat for New Year. There will be more, if you want.”
What is more disgusting than this? Do you want to be associated with such dreadful crimes? Gen Losang Gyatso was an outspoken critic of Dorjé Shugden and he paid for it with his life. Later, one western follower of NKT remarked, “Well, he was an arrogant monk.” So that’s alright then. He deserved to die! Losang Gyatso was my teacher. I was a student at the IBD for eight years, and it was because of his kindness that I was allowed to study there. I think I knew him better than some distant NKT follower.
Who is Drakpa Gyaltsen?
The legitimacy of Dorjé Shugden as a non-worldly, enlightened protector masquerading as a worldly being depends upon understanding the nature of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen. Trijang Rinpoché asserts that the young incarnation that was declared to be the rebirth of Sönam Gelek Palsang, was an enlightened being, who in the past had incarnated as the Mahāsiddha Virupa, the Kashmiri pandit Śākya Śrī, the great scholar Butön Rinpoché, and the Geluk master Panchen Sönam Drakpa. The Dalai Lama cites the 5th Dalai Lama who says that Drakpa Gyaltsen was a false tulku who had gained the recognition he did through the efforts of his mother.
Trijang Rinpoché writes that because of his enlightened status there is no way Drakpa Gyaltsen could have been reborn as a malicious spirit. (Trijang Rinpoché was writing this, probably in Tibet, before the trouble flared up in Dharamshala, but it indicates that the controversy was brewing even then) The 5th Dalai Lama writes, in the 17th century, that when the false tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen died he took birth as a malicious spirit.
Therefore, both sides agree that Dorjé Shugden began at this time. It is his nature that forms the basis of the disagreement. Is he a spirit or a manifestation of Mañjuśrī? Historical facts are difficult to ascertain, and that is even more the case in Tibetan history. Therefore, isn’t it possible that this whole affair rests upon the veracity of, or at least the interpretation of, historical events? You have gone to great lengths to produce a detailed thesis on why the Dalai Lama is a false incarnation. Have you done the same to prove that Drakpa Gyaltsen was a genuine incarnation? If not, why not?
If you are content to take the word of Trijang Rinpoché that Drakpa Gyaltsen was a genuine incarnation, why are you not content to take the word of many great lamas, including Trijang Rinpoché, who assert that the present Dalai Lama is the true incarnation of the 13th? Is it that you want the Dalai Lama to be a false incarnation because that is the only way you can have a legitimate basis for your accusations?
However much research you do to prove that the present Dalai Lama is a false incarnation, just as much can be produced to prove the opposite. I have not done exhaustive research into this matter but exposure to the Dalai Lama over many years, listening to his words, and observing his behaviour has led me to believe that here is someone who truly practices the Dharma, who keeps his vows, who has the welfare of others at heart, who has studied well and is wise in scripture, and who is not narrow minded or sectarian, but willing and happy to engage in all religious and non-religious traditions throughout the world.
You say that he has broken his sacred bond with his guru, Trijang Rinpoché, by declaring Shugden to be spirit and by saying that he thinks Trijang Rinpoché was mistaken in his regarding Shugden as a manifestation of Mañjuśrī. It is true that he has disagreed with his guru, but it was not done from anger, attachment or ignorance. He loved Trijang Rinpoché and had nothing but respect for him. This was indicated in dreams he had, and by the fact that he presented the findings of his research to Trijang Rinpoché before taking any action. It was not done from ignorance because he had carried out meticulous research before coming to any conclusion.
It is permissible to disagree with your guru if you genuinely and honestly believe his actions are mistaken. This was the case here. Merely disagreeing with your guru is not necessarily a breach of the precepts of guru devotion, as mentioned previously. If it were, then you would have to say that your own guru, Kalsang Gyatso, breached his precepts when he disagreed with the Dalai Lama. Every loyal Tibetan monk, nun and layperson regards His Holiness the Dalai Lama as their guru.
From what I have written, clearly I am not writing from a non-aligned position that belongs to neither camp. I have lived in Dharamshala for many years, and in that time I have listened to many teachings from the Dalai Lama. I was also a student of Venerable Losang Gyatso, brutally murdered by Shugden sympathisers. However, I have tried to write the above in the spirit of seeking some understanding, and ultimately resolution to this conflict. I think this is the best way forward. I hope you do too.