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Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangra-La.

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Subject: Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangra-La. (internal conflicts in Tibetan Buddhist sect)

Mike Wilson

Cross Currents
Vol.49 No.1
Spring 1999

COPYRIGHT 1999 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life
            Millions of Buddhist monks have been killed, imprisoned, tortured,
            or driven into exile by the Communist Chinese since the 1950s in a
            deliberate, systematic destruction of a culture and a religion. The
            pacifist Buddhist monks are about as innocent and noble as victims
            can be; the Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama is perceived to be
            equally wonderful, kind, and heroic. Few are unfamiliar with the
            boy-king's narrow escape in 1959 from the Chinese into India, where
            he still governs in exile and continues to preach nonviolence. He is
            one of the most universally respected religious figures in the
            second half of the twentieth century.
            This peace-loving image of Tibetan Buddhism sometimes may not be
            matched by reality, however. In fact, some observers suspect that
            internal conflicts - called by some a feud - resulted in the recent
            assassination of Tibetan leaders in India by Buddhists holding a
            different point of view.(*) Understanding these conflicts and how
            they might have led to assassination requires some history of
            Tibetan Buddhism.

            History behind the Conflict: Gods and Tantra

            A fundamental Buddhist principle is that all phenomena, including
            people, lack an inherent "self." We are possessive, greedy, hateful,
            angry, worried, and frightened because we think we have a self with
            needs, desires, and rights that must be honored and satisfied.
            Buddhists say we are deluded about this self. Our clinging to the
            idea is the cause of all of our problems and the reason we are
            reincarnated to lives of suffering over and over again. When we stop
            clinging to the notion of self, we can advance spiritually and
            eventually attain nirvana, an extinction of all craving that affords
            blissful release.

            Such a principle should, it seems, preclude belief in any kind of
            deity, since belief would imply that a deity has independent
            existence and a self. As Buddhism came into contact with indigenous
            religions, however, it found ways to incorporate local pantheons of
            gods into, and subordinate to, Buddhism. This is especially true in
            Tibet, where the form of Buddhism over which the Dalai Lama presides
            draws heavily upon the customs and beliefs of Tibet's native
            animistic and shamanistic Bon religion.

            The Bon religion divides the world into three realms: Heaven,
            consisting of gods and demigods; Earth, consisting of Humans and
            Animals; and the Underworld, consisting of Hungry Ghosts and Demons.
            Bon shamans invited possession by these spirits in order to access
            their powers. Buddhism brought to Tibet from north India the
            doctrines of tantricism. Buddhist tantric practices involve the
            development of subtle powers of energy and mind to accelerate
            spiritual development. These practices were as attractive to Bon
            shamans as they were to Buddhists.

            State-sponsored Buddhism began in the seventh century C.E., when
            warlord and Tibetan King Srontsan Gampo married a Nepalese princess,
            promising her father that he would become a Buddhist. He also
            married a Buddhist Chinese princess. When an outbreak of smallpox
            occurred, the Bon interpreted it as a sign from the gods that
            Buddhism was bad for Tibet and forced the King to expel all Indian
            teachers and many of their Tibetan followers from the country. In
            the eighth century, an attempt was made to reintroduce Buddhism with
            the aid of Shantirakshita, a great Indian teacher. Shantirakshita
            came and taught at a palace on the Red Hill in Lhasa. When lightning
            struck the palace during a violent storm, the Bon again declared the
            Tibetan gods had been angered and demanded the expulsion of
            Shantirakshita. Shantirakshita later was asked to come back but is
            said to have replied that the forces of evil in Tibet were too
            strong and had to be exorcized. He recommended that Tibet solicit
            the services of a famous tantric monk Padmasabhava, known in Tibet
            as Lopon Rinpoche (Norbu, 148-49).

            Lopon Rinpoche traveled throughout Tibet for fifty years, exorcizing
            demons and, it is said, forcing them to work for Tibet,
            incorporating much of the native pantheon of gods and beliefs into a
            Buddhist framework. Many of the deities were brought into the
            Buddhist fold as different aspects of the same deity. Thus, the
            Buddha or gods may manifest in a variety of forms, in a way roughly
            similar to Christianity's god manifesting as Father, Son, and Holy

            How is this behavior reconciled with the Buddhist doctrine that
            nothing has an inherent self? Since the world as we experience it is
            a product of our minds, under Buddhist theory, the gods and hungry
            ghosts can be thought of in the same way - not having a self, but
            existing as phenomena of mind. They are therefore no less real than
            anything else we experience; and in the Buddhist framework, they are
            subordinate to Buddha whatever their nature. Tibetan Buddhists to
            the present day pray to gods and utilize oracles, just like the Bon,
            and believe the unseen world is populated with all sorts of powers
            and forces that must be reckoned with, even though they are
            phenomena of mind without an inherent self. In a way, this view
            could be compared with Christian belief in devils, angels,
            intervention of saints, and god as a Trinity. This is the first fact
            necessary to understand the background of the current conflict.

            The second fact is that the practice of tantricism has been a
            recurring issue in Tibetan Buddhism. As described above, it was
            tantric monk Padmasabhava who exorcized Tibet of its demons and
            paved the way for the establishment of Buddhism. The form of
            Buddhism that took hold popularly was heavily influenced by tantra
            and the native Tibetan deities. In the eleventh century C.E.,
            another Indian teacher, Atisha, came to Tibet and taught Buddhist
            doctrine free of tantric elements, reinterpreting tantra in a
            symbolic and philosophical manner, and advising that only two of the
            four tantric initiations be utilized. It is said by Thugmen Jigma
            Norbu, a former Tibetan monk and brother of the current Dalai Lama,
            that Atisha tried to strike a balance between Buddhist scripture and
            popular tantric practices. The resulting resistance caused Tibetan
            Buddhism to break into separate schools - the Kadampa, which
            followed Atisha's views; the Kargyupa and Sakyapa, which wanted to
            retain more of the traditional Tibetan deities; and the Nyingmapa,
            or Old Sect, which did not care at all for Atisha's reforms and
            followed tantric-influenced practices associated with Padmasabhava.
            Norbu says that the Bon of today in Tibet consider themselves closer
            to the Nyingmapa than to any other Buddhist sect.

            In the fifteenth century, the monastic reformer, Tsongkhapa,
            continued the reforms begun by Atisha - establishing the Gelugpa
            school, founding the important monasteries of Ganden, Sera, and
            Drepung, emphasizing pure Buddhist teachings and the practice of
            virtue - but did not attempt to subvert or reform the older Tibetan
            Buddhist sects, all of whom coexisted with the Gelugpa and the
            native Bon.

            The heads of the Gelugpa school were known as Dalai Lama and were
            believed each to be the reincarnation of his predecessor. Upon the
            death of a Dalai Lama, a search is made among children in Tibet for
            his reincarnation. Oracles and prophecies suggest areas to search
            and candidates to be tested and screened, often with reference to
            their ability to recognize acquaintances or belongings of the
            previous Dalai Lama. In this way, the head of the Gelugpa school
            reincarnates repeatedly to serve as Dalai Lama. The present Dalai
            Lama is the fourteenth in succession.

            Gelugpa Ascendance and Death of the Great Fifth's Rival

            Keeping the foregoing in mind, we turn our attention to events in
            seventeenth-century Tibet. In 1642 C.E., the Dalai Lama, head of the
            Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, acquired authority over a
            politically divided Tibet. The "Great Fifth," as he is known in
            Tibet, was shrewd in his dealings with the Chinese, the Mongols, and
            with his Tibetans. He consolidated power through an alliance with
            Mongol leader Gushri Khan, who defeated the strongest secular leader
            in Tibet, King of Tsang, a member of the Nyingmapa order. At the
            time the Great Fifth gained power there were both secular and
            sectarian rivalries. In addition to various schools of Tibetan
            Buddhism, the old Bon religion was reviving its bid for supremacy in
            Tibet. Rather than use his power to crush the Nyingma sect, which he
            easily could have done through his alliance with the Mongols, the
            Great Fifth deliberately incorporated Nyingmapa teachings and
            practices into his ecclesiastical court (Norbu, 248-49). Some
            Gelugpa purists objected.

            As the secular and spiritual leader of all of Tibet, a Dalai Lama
            would have to maintain good relations with all sects. Yet, given
            that the Nyingma sect was closer to the tantricism whose excessive
            influence Gelugpa's founder thought was detrimental to Buddhism,
            allegiance to Nyingma could have been a basis for legitimate concern
            or a rallying point for political opponents of the Great Fifth.
            Furthermore, his attraction to Nyingma may have been more than
            political expediency, as it is said that Padmasabhava, the Indian
            tantric who had exorcized the demons from Tibet, appeared to the
            Great Fifth in dreams and visions (Batchelor, 62).

            In any event, it is alleged that the conflict between the Great
            Fifth and the Gelugpa purists led to the suicide or murder of the
            Great Fifth's rival, Drakpa Gyaltsen. Gyaltsen had been one of the
            candidates considered for selection as the Fifth Dalai Lama, so in a
            sense this rivalry had existed since childhood. One story says that
            Drakpa Gyaltsen defeated the Dalai Lama in debate and was found dead
            the next day with a ceremonial scarf stuffed down his throat. The
            spirit of Gyaltsen was said to have returned and brought with it
            calamities upon the Tibetan state. After magicians and lamas failed
            to exorcise the wrathful spirit, the leaders of the Gulag sect asked
            the spirit to become a protector. It "agreed." Those who had opposed
            the Dalai Lama's involvement with the Nyingma sect recognized the
            spirit, called Dorje Shugden, as the reincarnation of Gyaltsen
            (Lopez, 68).

            One of Dorje Shugden's functions is said to be to protect the purity
            of the Gelugpa teachings from pollution by Nyingma doctrines.
            However, the following statement also is attributed to the Fifth
            Dalai Lama: "The so-called Drakpa Gyaltsen pretends to be a sublime
            being. But since this interfering spirit and creature of distorted
            prayers is harming everything, both dharma and sentient beings, do
            not support, protect or give him shelter, but grind him to dust."

            The practice of propitiating Shugden and regarding him as a
            manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjushri (i.e., a buddha)
            continues among some Tibetan Buddhist monks and laypersons to the
            present day. For some of these practitioners, Dorje Shugden is the
            primary focus of their practice and, through the thirty-two deities
            of his mandala (different manifestations of the same deity), is said
            to embody various qualities and provide all kinds of help to those
            who take refuge in him. According to information appearing on a
            pro-Shugden website referenced at the end of this article, Dorje
            Shugden manifests in many different aspects - peaceful, wrathful,
            layperson, monk, even nonhuman. Dorje Shugden also is said to have
            manifested prior to the seventeenth century dispute with the Fifth
            Dalai Lama, incarnating in the person of certain great monks and
            lamas extending all the way back to the time of Buddha. However,
            Dorje Shugden first made his appearance in Tibet's history as the
            reincarnated spirit of Drakpa Gyaltsen.

            The Dorje Shugden practices have been the subject of controversy in
            the past. At the beginning of this century, the Thirteenth Dalai
            Lama had to forbid Pabongka Rinpoche, the most influential Gelugpa
            lama of the time, to invoke the deity on the grounds that it was
            destroying Buddhism (Batchelor, 63). The ban was ineffective and the
            practice was passed on to Pabongka's disciples. Stephen Batchelor,
            author of Buddhism without Beliefs (Tricycle/Riverhead), points out
            that the Dorje Shugden dispute has erupted throughout Tibetan
            history every time a politically effective Dalai Lama has held

            Dorje Shugden Returns

            The conflict began to resurface this century when, in 1973, a lama
            published an account of various illnesses, tortures, and deaths
            allegedly inflicted as punishment by Dorje upon Gelugpas who
            practiced Nyingma teachings. This account was alleged to have been
            received orally from Trijan Rinpoche, one of the Dalai Lama's tutors
            and a former disciple of Pabongka, the lama whom the Thirteenth
            Dalai Lama had forbidden to propitiate Dorje Shugden (Batchelor,

            The present Dalai Lama, who himself has engaged in some Nyingma
            practices, condemned the publication and in 1976, upon advice of the
            Nechung oracle, began discouraging the practice of propitiating
            Dorje - although he himself had, up to that point, been in the habit
            of offering daily prayers to Dorje Shugden. Of the six categories of
            beings in Tibetan Buddhism, the current Dalai Lama's brother,
            Thubten Jigme Norbu, places Shugden in the "hungry ghost" category,
            a status comparable to Western notions of evil spirits that haunt or
            possess people. By 1996, the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying: "It
            has become fairly clear that (Shugden) is a spirit of the dark
            forces." He announced that he would give no tantric initiations to
            those who had not renounced Shugden. It also is alleged by the
            Shugden camp that supporters of the Dalai Lama's position destroyed
            statues of individual Shugden worshipers.

            This is a big deal because some Tibetans have entrusted their lives
            to Dorje through initiation ceremonies, believing him to be a
            bodhisattva, or manifestation of Buddha. Imagine the uproar in the
            Catholic Church if the pope were to declare prayers to Mary a form
            of Satanworship to have a sense of how disturbed some Tibetans might
            be by these pronouncements. According to Shugden supporters, there
            were protests by Tibetan monks in India following the Dalai Lama's
            statements. In the West, the Dalai Lama was picketed in London in
            1996 and accused of suppressing freedom of religion. A few days
            later, a statement was issued by the Tibetan government-in-exile
            strictly forbidding departments and monasteries under government
            control from propitiating Shugden. In February of 1997, three
            anti-Shugden Tibetan Buddhist monks, including the Dalai Lama's
            close friend and confidant, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso (the
            principal of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics), were brutally
            murdered in Dharamsala, India, the Tibetan capital in exile. It is
            alleged that monks loyal to Dorje Shugden did the killing.

            The Murder

            The killing is said to have been ritualistic. Newsweek reported that
            the three members of the Dalai Lama's inner circle were stabbed
            fifteen to twenty times each in a bedroom just a few hundred yards
            from the Dalai Lama's residence. Robbery was eliminated as a motive
            because cash and gilded Buddhist statues had been left at the
            blood-splattered scene. Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar and
            author of Inner Revolution (Riverhead Books, 1998) and an old friend
            of the Dalai Lama's, has been quoted as saying that he believes
            Shugden activists are behind the murders. No one has been arrested
            and the suspects are believed to be in Tibet.

            Shugden organizations deny any involvement; however, a report
            appearing in the Indian press claims that Indian police traced a
            call the escaped killers made to a pro-Shugden organization in New
            Delhi. Seven months prior to the killing, a threatening letter, the
            full text of which can be viewed on the official web site of the
            Tibetan government-in-exile, allegedly was sent under the seal of
            the Dorje Shugden Charitable and Religious Society to "... the
            morally degenerated Lobsang Gyatso, who is a disgrace to the
            Institute of Buddhist Dialectics....[We] came to Dharamsala three
            times. In which nunnery were you hiding then?... Instead of writing
            warped compositions, you should come down to Delhi (the locale of
            Shugden sect headquarters) with courage and meet us like the louse
            meets the thumb nails. However, if your guilty conscience does not
            afford you the courage to come down, give us a date and we will come
            to you. Make your decisions" (The Official Web Site of the Tibetan
            Government-in-exile: Subsequent to the
            killing, fourteen persons in the Dalai Lama's entourage also claim
            to have received death threats.

            The Shugden organization denies any involvement in the murders or
            threats. They also claim that the letter quoted above does not
            constitute a threat and that the phrase about lice and thumb nails
            is a common Tibetan idiom for determining the truth or falsity of a
            matter. On a pro-Shugden website it is alleged that threats have
            been made against Shugden activists by anti-Shugden groups. They
            also suggest that the murders could have been committed by people
            within the Dharamsala compound, alleging reports that evidence was
            tampered with and that a sack filled with several hundred thousand
            dollars in cash was "missing." The detention of various Shugden
            personnel for questioning and attempts to extradite the suspects
            through Interpol indicate that the police have focused upon Shugden

            Buddhist Fundamentalists?

            The Shugden sect is popular with Tibetans obsessed with doctrinal
            purity. Robert Thurman has compared them to the Taliban, Muslim
            fighters in Afghanistan. The press in the West has seized upon the
            occult, wrathful aspect of Dorje Shugden, describing the deity as a
            sword-wielding god sometimes wearing necklaces of human heads. The

            heads are supposed, however, to be symbols of conquered vices and

            The deity is said to ride a snow lion, symbolizing the four
            fearlessnesses of Buddha. The mongoose on his arm indicates his
            power to grant wealth on those who rely upon him. He has a third eye
            in his forehead, symbolizing omniscience, and his wrathfulness shows
            his power to destroy ignorance and obstacles (Dorje Shugden
            Coalition website).

            The Shugden movement is organized around Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a
            Gelugpa monk who founded The New Kadampa Tradition in 1991 and set
            himself up as head of it in London. (As described earlier, Kadampa
            was the order founded by eleventh-century reformer Atisha.)
            Kelsang's uncle is the medium for Dorje Shugden. Kelsang describes
            the NKT as "pure Gelugpas," and the organization appears to have
            targeted Westerners for recruitment. The NKT (or one of its
            associated organizations) led demonstrations against the Dalai Lama
            in London and then later in New York. Kelsang is challenging the
            Dalai Lama's moral authority on the international stage.

            Spokespeople for the Dalai Lama say that the tradition of Shugden is
            notoriously sectarian, disruptive of harmony in the Tibetan
            community, and on many occasions during the past 360 years has
            denigrated other authentic Tibetan traditions. "It has been an
            active force of fundamentalist antagonism, intolerance and fear.
            Shugden advocates taught that any practitioner who engaged in
            practices from other Buddhist traditions would face misfortune or
            even death" [The Official Web Site of the Tibetan
            Government-in-exile: The Dalai Lama said on
            the occasion of his sixtieth birthday that he was in a dangerous
            period in his life. He reportedly declared that Dorje Shugden is a
            threat to his own life and to the cause of Tibet. That he has made
            statements that Shugden is aligned with dark forces and refused to
            initiate Shugden followers into tantric practices suggests that the
            Dalai Lama fears assassination as well as occult harm from the
            Shugden sect.(*) Although the he has not said so, his followers
            reportedly believe that, on an occult level, the hungry ghost Dorje
            Shugden is seeking revenge for his own brutal murder back in the
            seventeenth century (Max, 1997).

            The NKT present themselves as attempting to exercise religious
            freedom in the face of oppression by the Dalai Lama. People in the
            West, especially America, are likely to be receptive to such claims,
            whether true or not, because of Western values and history that
            emphasize religious diversity. On the other hand, the followers of
            the Dalai Lama would argue that he has a duty to discourage
            spirit-worshiping practices contrary to the fundamentals of
            Buddhism. In an interview in Tricycle, Kelsang has challenged the
            Dalai Lama to state publicly what evidence he has that Dorje Shugden
            is an evil spirit who is harming Tibetan independence and
            threatening his life. He argues that what Shugden followers choose
            to believe harms no one else. Kelsang even denies that Dorje Shugden
            harms Nyingma practitioners and calls such beliefs superstitions
            (Donald S. Lopez, Jr., "Two Sides of the Same God," Tricycle: The
            Buddhist Review 7, no. 3 [Spring 1998]: 76). Nevertheless, a text
            entitled "Praise to Dorje-Shugden" (quoted by the lama whose 1973
            account of calamities and punishments befalling Nyingma
            practitioners provoked condemnation from the Dalai Lama) suggests
            some animus. "Praise to you, violent god of the Yellow Hat
            teachings, Who reduces to particles of dust Great beings, high
            officials, and ordinary people Who pollute and corrupt the Gelugpa
            doctrine" [excerpted from "Praise to Dorje Shugden," quoted by
            Stephen Batchelor in "Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and
            Times of Dorje Shugden," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 7, no. 3
            [Spring 1998]: 60).

            The Dalai Lama's people call NKT a "cult," and the British press has
            described it as Britain's biggest, richest, and fastest growing
            religious sect. Since 1991, it has grown to over two hundred centers
            in England and about fifty in Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico,
            the United States, and elsewhere in Europe. NKT's goal is to be the
            biggest umbrella Buddhist organization in the West. There is said to
            be a lot of pressure for members to give money. According to British
            press reports, supporters are told that donations will "create
            enormous merits" in future lives. Interest-free "loans" from members
            are also being used to fund expansion. There appear to be associated
            organizations, such as the Shugden Supporters Community and the
            Dorje Shugden Coalition, controlled or peopled by NKT members,
            through which many of the denunciations of the Dalai Lama are

            Kelsang has a reputation as a brilliant teacher of Buddhism and had
            built up a following prior to setting up NKT. Sixteen of his books
            on Buddhism have been published in English, two of them bestsellers
            in England. An article in the British press says that Kelsang tells
            his followers he believes Buddhism in Tibet is dead because of the
            Chinese occupation and that it has already died in India. If he is
            right, that leaves the West as the future of Tibetan Buddhism.
            Is Kelsang personally ambitious? The British press reports that some
            of his former students who are disillusioned with NKT insist that he
            is an honest, well-intentioned person of integrity. Some speculate
            that his followers may be using him, or that he fails to appreciate
            the geopolitical consequences of some of what he says and does.

            Some former followers suggest that those around him create an
            atmosphere that promotes Kelsang as "the Third Buddha," come to
            establish Buddhism in the West, the first and second Buddhas having
            been respectively Buddha himself and Tsongkhapa, founder of the
            Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. A story in the British press
            reports that followers are told that Kelsang is all-knowing and
            all-powerful, answers prayers, does not need to sleep, eat, or go to
            the bathroom, and has to put rocks in the pockets of his robe to
            keep from levitating during meditation. Kelsang, in response to such
            stories, describes himself as "nobody special." It is not uncommon
            for Western devotees of eastern gurus to make extraordinary,
            exaggerated claims with or without a nod and a wink from the

            Communist Chinese-Connection or Exploitation?

            An Indian newspaper published reports that the murderers immediately
            crossed over to Tibet after the murders and were safely escorted to
            their villages by the Chinese army. The Chinese, who destroyed so
            many temples and killed so many monks, reportedly are restoring
            Shugden temples in occupied Tibet. A report allegedly appearing in
            the Chinese official journal, China's Tibet, no. 6, 1996, which can
            be viewed at the website of the Tibetan government-in-exile,
            repeatedly refers to Dorje Shugden as the holy spirit and guardian
            of Tibetan Buddhism and denounces the Dalai Lama as a religious
            hypocrite. Whether the Chinese Communists are behind the murders or
            are simply taking advantage of a situation to undermine the Dalai
            Lama is hard to say.

            Shugden activists deny opponents' claims that they receive funds
            from the Chinese government and claim they support an independent
            Tibet. Nevertheless, NKT's apparently systematic campaign against
            the Dalai Lama is considered by some to be an attempt to damage the
            whole sustainability of the exile community. The Dorje Shugden
            Coalition web site refers to a story, attributed to The Indian
            Express in Chandigarh, reporting allegations that the Tibetan
            government-in-exile hides the known previous records of many Tibetan
            refugees and manipulates facts about Tibetan refugees involved in
            crimes to conceal their guilt. Is the point of including the article
            to show the murders could likely have been committed by one of these
            "hidden" criminals, or simply to malign the Tibetan
            government-in-exile? Similarly, included in the Shugden Coalition
            website is a quote from an interview with the Dalai Lama which
            appeared in Mother Jones, December 1997, stating that to save a
            person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose hope of
            keeping its Buddhist way of life, "it might be justified for one or
            10 enemies to be eliminated." Presumably, this quote is to suggest
            to the web site reader that the Dalai Lama, feeling himself
            endangered, could justify ordering the murder of his enemies or at
            least is not the pacifist we think he is. If one looks up the
            article and reads the quote in context, the Dalai Lama is talking
            about a hypothetical saving of the last person on earth having
            knowledge of Buddhism - not himself - and asserts that he left Tibet
            in 1959 so that Tibetans would not kill to protect him. Since
            Tibetans in exile are guests of the Indian government, information
            suggesting that they or Tibetan government-in-exile is potentially
            dangerous or disruptive threatens that guest relationship. If the
            Tibetan exile community were no longer welcome in India, Communist
            China's interests would be well-served, but that does not prove that
            the Shugden Coalition intends that result.

            What's So Bad about Nyingma?

            Since Dorje Shugden is supposed to prevent Nyingma teachings from
            polluting the Gelugpa order, why is Nyingma so "bad"? Nyingma
            represents the oldest Buddhist system in Tibet, tracing its origin
            back to the Royal Dynastic Period (617-845 C.E.) and to
            Padmasabhava, the legendary Indian tantric master who exorcized
            Tibet's demons at the end of the eighth century. Padmasabhava is
            said to have brought "Distant Lineage of the Transmitted Precepts" -
            the doctrines, rituals, and meditative practices transmitted from
            master to disciple since the eighth century - and the "Close Lineage
            of the Treasures." The latter are supposed to be revelations buried
            by Padmasabhava, either physically in the Tibetan earth or
            psychically in the minds of his reincarnating disciples (Davidson,
            102). As described previously, many of the major reforms in Tibetan
            Buddhism, including those of the founder of the Gelugpa school,
            attempted to redact or purify the tantric and animistic aspects of
            early Tibetan Buddhism to make them more consistent with the
            underlying principles of Buddhism. Nyingma remains closer to the
            original, unreformed version of Tibetan Buddhism.

            According to Stephen Batchelor, director of the New Sharpham College
            in Devon, England, and author of Buddhism without Beliefs
            (Tricycle/Riverhead), Nyingma teaches Dzogchen, the direct and
            sudden pointing out by a realized teacher of the experience of the
            natural or authentic state of mind beyond conceptions. This state of
            mind is an innate, self-cognizant, self-existing awareness
            underlying both samsara (illusion) and nirvana. The idea of a
            self-existing awareness, of course, raises the thorny question of

            Hindu Vedantists, similar to what is implied by Dzogchen, teach that
            there is a real sell what Westerners might call God, that is
            self-existing, though everything else, including our separate lives
            until we attain self-realization, is illusory. Buddha broke from
            Hindu thought by teaching that neither the gods nor any phenomena
            have an inherent self. The Gelugpa purists' view (the purity of
            which Dorje Shugden is bound to protect) considers Dzogchen a
            delusive clinging to a type of self-existence and a backsliding to
            Hindu ideas that Buddhism was supposed to refute. Nyingmas might
            reply by characterizing Gelugpa purists as nihilists. Batchelor says
            the dispute is not academic hair-splitting to those involved but the
            struggle for truth in which the salvation of sentient beings hangs
            in the balance. Thus, different views on esoteric philosophical
            questions with important, they believe, practical consequences
            fortify each side's position.

            Precedent exists in otherwise heterodoxic Tibetan Buddhism for
            suppressing wrong views regarding the existence of a self. The Fifth
            Dalai Lama, after consolidating his power in the seventeenth
            century, proscribed teachings of the Jonangpa school, which taught
            that emptiness, an idea important to understanding that all
            phenomena are without a self, implied the existence of a
            transcendent absolute reality (Batchelor, 65). Jonangpa monasteries
            were taken over by Gelugpa monks. If the Great Fifth had done the
            same to the Nyingmas, perhaps the Dorje Shugden schism never would
            have arisen.

            Why Is Dorje Shugden So Important?

            If Shugden purists object to Nyingma tendencies toward acknowledging
            a self-existing reality, why do they cling so strongly to Dorje
            Shugden? Does that change Buddhism to Shugdenism and make Shugden a
            self-existing reality and those who take refuge in Shugden part of a
            sectarian cult? As Buddhism syncretized with the native Bon
            religion, an important distinction between Buddhists and Bon
            practitioners was that Buddhists supposedly understood that the
            gods, although real in the sense that anything is real, were just
            mind, without inherent existence. To what degree can one become
            attached to or take refuge in deity protectors without in fact
            attributing to that deity an inherently existing self? Even worse,
            in the view of the Dalai Lama, would be to take refuge in a "hungry

            How does any of this deity-worshiping, or the factors of emotion,
            politics, and tradition underlying it, really square with the tenets
            of Buddhism? The two sides would give different answers to those
            questions. Both sides see Dorje Shugden as a "real" entity, whether
            an aspect of the Buddha or a hungry ghost, and as real as any one of
            us - not just a form of worship or technique of meditation.

            * See David Van Biema, "Monks vs. Monks; Devotees of a Ferocious
            Buddhist Deity Are Seeking to Put a Dent in the Dalai Lama's Aura of
            Sainthood," Time, May 11, 1998, 70(1); The Christian Science
            Monitor; John Zubrzycki, special to The Christian Science Monitor,
            May 18, 1998. These articles, as well as a series appearing in the
            spring 1998 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, describe what
            Tricycle calls "Tibet's 'unmentionable' Feud."

            * In a statement appearing on the Tibetan government-in-exile's
            website, however, it is explained that the danger to His Holiness is
            not that he will be attacked by an evil spirit but that the bond
            between the Dalai Lama and his people will be broken.


            Batchelor, Stephen. "Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and Times
            of Dorje Shugden." Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 7, no. 3 (Spring

            Bunting, Madeleine. "Shadow Boxing on the Path to Nirvana." The
            Guardian, London, July 6, 1996.

            Clifton, Tony. "Did an Obscure Tibetan Sect Murder Three Monks Close
            to the Dalai Lama?" Newsweek, April 28, 1997.

            Dorje Shugden Coalition Website, URL

            Lopez, Donald S., Jr. "Two Sides of the Same God." Tricycle: The
            Buddhist Review 7, no. 3 (Spring 1998).

            Max, Arthur. "Dalai Lama Fighting Ghost in Religious Dispute."
            Seattle Times, August 21, 1997.

            Norbu, Thubten Jigme, and Colin M. Turnbull. Tibet. London: Chatto &
            Windus, 1969.

            Davidson, Ronald M. Review of The Nyingma School of Tibetan
            Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Parabola 18, no. 1 (Spring
            1993): 102(3).

            Official Website of the Tibetan Government-in-exile, URL

            Simms, Laura. "Compassion's Flower: An Interview with Orgyen Kusum
            Lingpa." Parabola 22, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 20(8).

            "Two More Shugden Activists Identified as Murderers." The Tribune,
            Indian English-language daily, Chandigarh edition, November 29,

            Van Biema, David. "Monks vs. Monks; Devotees of a Ferocious Buddhist
            Deity Are Seeking to Put a Dent in the Dalai Lama's Aura of
            Sainthood." Time, May 11, 1998.

            MIKE WILSON, a member of the Society for Utopian Studies, is a
            lawyer and long-time student of religion and spiritual disciplines.


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