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While waiting in the rain for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to arrive for his public lecture in Rotterdam this year, alongside the long rows of Tibetans holding ceremonial katas and singing mantras, a louder and visibly much better organized group was catching the attention of visitors through banners, flyers and slogans shouted over a sound reinforcement device. This group was by and large formed by members of the New Kadampa tradition, also known as ‘the Shugden followers’, who since the mid 70’s have made a visible presence at more events such as the one I have witnessed.

The followers of Dorje Shugden started protesting in the summer of 1996, as the Dalai Lama was visiting England. They complain about religious discrimination, the suppression of religious dissent within the Tibetan community and the persecution of those who practice the protector Dorje Shugden, the latter a matter of religious freedom. This was in response to the Dalai Lama’s repeated public stance against the practice of Shugden. The Dalai Lama’s reasons to ‘ban’ this practice were that it encourages sectarianism, that being essentially a form of spirit worship it has nothing to do with Buddhism and because this practice on the whole is not beneficial for the Tibetan community. This post discusses the dynamics of divergent opinions that lie at the core of the ‘Shugden affair’ and critically contributes to the contextualization of this controversy in global terms.

The root of the conflict centers on interpretative questions about religious practice and institutionalization (Dreyfus 1998). Dorje Shugden has the status of Dharma protector or dharmapala in Tibetan Buddhism. The history of Shugden is interwoven with that of one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa, and with the institution of the Dalai Lamas, who are also part of (but are not ‘head’ of, as often erroneously stated) the same Gelugpa school. The 5th Damai Lama is thought to be causally related to the very existence of Shugden: the premature death of Drakba Gyeltsen, who as a boy was not chosen as the reincarnation of the 4th Dalai Lama, transformed the latter into a spirit seeking revenge (Dreyfus 1998). This spirit was incorporated into the colourful pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism and has become especially important for what is considered a fundamentalist lineage within the Gelugpa school (Hilton, 2000). The practice and propitiation of Shugden are especially associated with Pabongka (1878-1941) and his claims of Gelugpa supremacy above the other Tibetan Buddhist schools. He was trying to uphold Gelugpa purity as a countermeasure to the then already popular Rime movement that emphasized an eclectic religious approach based on practices predominantly attributed to the Nyingmapa school (Lohrer 2009). However, the tension between this dharmapala and his followers resurfaced when the 13th Dalai Lama restricted the worship of Shugden. Only after the 13th Dalai Lama’s death in 1933 could Pabongka promote freely the practice of Shugden in order to revive the Gelug monastic order (Lohrer 2009). Pabongka’s disciple, Trijang Rinpoche (1901-1983) one of the main teachers of the present Dalai Lama, passed on the Shugden practice to him and most of the Gelugpa establishment as a ‘mainstream practice’ (Dreyfus, 1998). However, the present Dalai Lama took personal distance from this after 1975 and started to publicly advise against it after discovering its historical background. From 2008 onwards, through a referendum, Shugden devotees were separated from the rest of the Gelugpa establishment and were allocated land to build their own monasteries.

These steps have been interpreted by Shugden followers as a ban and form the basis of their claims of discrimination on the basis of ‘religion’.

However, if we follow this historical overview we can see that the apparently religious part of the controversy is tightly interwoven with its political part, which concerns the struggle of power within a religious group (fundamentalist towards modernist Gelugpas) and in relationship to other groups (Gelugpas as related to other Tibetan Buddhism schools). The core of this tension is the position and authority of the Dalai Lamas and the character of Tibetan national identity, in which Buddhism presently plays a central role. These two being interrelated, the relationship between ‘religion’ as an expression of private autonomy and its performance as ‘a symbol of national unity holds considerable potential for conflict for the institution of the Dalai Lama’ (Kollmar-Paulenz, 2009). The Dalai Lama’s preference for promoting Tibetan Buddhism in general instead of promoting the Gelugpa school can be seen as a form of betrayal by the latter (Hilton, 2000). Furthermore, the present Dalai Lama is a person with many roles: he is simultaneously a ‘simple Buddhist monk’ as he loves to talk about himself, the reincarnation of Chenrezig – the bodhisattva of compassion – a Nobel peace laureate, an internationally renown advocate of the Tibetan cause and a person who until quite recently has held important positions in the Tibetan Government in Exile. Although there is no contradiction between these different roles, there is certainly tension arising at some junctures.

However, neither the tension between the different roles of the Dalai Lama, nor the unusual balance between religion and politics in the Tibetan context form the core of the Shugden controversy. Rather it is the new global context that makes the issue explosive. It is not historical tensions which feed controversies such as the ‘Shugden Affair’ rather it is the context of western values, which are taken over at a fast pace through a growing global community and a wide and opinionated and interested public, which now co-define what is truly Tibetan, who has authority and which are the worthy problems in the Tibetan community. ‘The Shugden dispute represents a battleground of views on what is meant by religious and cultural freedom’, but a dispute framed in western terms. The present Buddhist modernism, to use the words of Dreyfus, has greatly transformed both the content and the form of Tibetan Buddhism and is not an expression of its ‘timeless essence’ (Dreyfus, 2005). In this specific case the modernization of faith meant taking distance from ‘spirit-worship’ as to better portray Buddhism as a religion based on reason, contemplation and experience, having a strongly ethical basis, a non-violent approach and being a valuable resource for social action. This modernization allows forms of religious administration and institutionalization to be ethicalized through the use of elements such as lack of discrimination, equal opportunity, religious freedom, but also invites critique through the same avenues. The translation of Tibetan ideas in ‘modern’ terms make possible a distinction between cultural expressions and the essence of Buddhism, but also ensures the loss of unique cultural and religious characteristics. Maybe it is also worth mentioning here that although many Shugden followers are Tibetans, many more are westerners with a good sense of how to catch the attention of the public and media, but maybe with a less thorough understanding of the real issues at stake.