Religious Fundamentalism in Buddhism

The protests of the Western Shugden Society (WSS) / New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and Kundeling Lama’s[1] lawsuit against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile[1], India, invite reflection on the issue of fundamentalism in Buddhism.

Fundamentalism is a term which may be a battlefield for different interpretations as the terms “cult” or “religious freedom” can be said to be.

The editors of the Wikipedia article on Fundamentalism came to agreement to offer this definition:

Fundamentalism refers to a “deep and totalistic commitment” to a belief in, and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), away from doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.[2][3][4][5]

The term fundamentalism was originally coined to describe a narrowly defined set of beliefs that developed into a movement within the Protestant community of the United States in the early part of the 20th century, and that had its roots in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of that time. Until 1950, there was no entry for fundamentalism in the Oxford English Dictionary;[6] the derivative fundamentalist was added only in its second 1989 edition.[7]

The term fundamentalist has since been generalized to mean strong adherence to any set of beliefs in the face of criticism or unpopularity, but has by and large retained religious connotations.[7] The collective use of the term fundamentalist to describe non-Christian movements has offended some Christians who desire to retain the original definition.

Fundamentalism is often used as a pejorative term, particularly when combined with other epithets (as in the phrase “Muslim fundamentalists” and “right-wing fundamentalists”).[8][9] Richard Dawkins used the term to characterise religious advocates as clinging to a stubborn, entrenched position that defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence.[10]

Regarding doctrinal beliefs or fundamentalist concepts which appear to underlie the Dorje Shugden controversy, the article Western Shugden Society – unlocked has already offered a short analysis. Whatever point of view or understanding is followed, a radical and narrow minded attitude and clinging to specific concepts can be posited to form the basis for the ongoing dispute.

The issue of religious fundamentalism has been addressed also in an interview with the Dalai Lama by journalist Raimundo Bultrini. In this interview H.H. the Dalai Lama addressed the Shugden controversy indirectly:

HH. “But if we analyse the problem we can see that the limits of the fundamentalists lie in their inability to tolerate even the idea of dialogue, there is proof in their attempts to be invisible when they carry out their actions. Among the Imans there are different interpretations of the Koran but the final understanding is left to the individual. This is why there are extremists and black sheep, as there are in any religion”.

RB. Even in Buddhism?
HH. “Certainly even in Buddhism. In 1997 a group claiming to be from my same religious school were strongly suspected of having killed a lama who was very dear to me, the director of the School of Tibetan Dialectics in Dharamsala, and two monks, translators who were playing an important role in interpreting with the Chinese. These same people have beaten up and threatened other Tibetans in the name of their vision, which I would define as Buddhist integralism. They consider a certain protecting spirit, that I used to pray to and that I now distrust to be as important as the Buddha himself. In order to assert this, they went on to damage those round them instead of respecting them and understanding them, in line with the teachings of the man who spread the principles of universal compassion five centuries before Jesus Christ. From this point of view our experience is no different from that of Christianity, or of Hinduism”.

The overwhelming missionary media campaign by the Western Shugden Society, and also four recent articles[11] for “The Faith Column” in New Statesman were written by a close follower of the controversial Kundeling lama[1]. These actions have provoked different activities of Buddhists, e.g. the publication of the site Buddhism under assault, and an endless debate in different forums and news outlets.

The section of the Wikipedia article on Fundamentalism regarding Buddhism has been repeatedly deleted – probably by followers of the NKT – however the quotes and material are based on reliable sources and the section is balanced. It states (or stated):


H.H. the Dalai Lama has agreed that extremists and fundamentalists also exist in Buddhism,[12] arguing that fundamentalists are not even able to pick up the idea of a possible dialogue.[12]

The Japanese Nichiren sect of Buddhism, which believes that other forms of Buddhism are heretical, is also sometimes labelled fundamentalist. However, Nichiren Buddhism contains influences from Shintō and a strongly nationalistic streak.

At the height of the Dorje Shugden Controversy Robert Thurman claimed: “It would not be unfair to call Shugdens the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism” referring to the Muslim extremists of Afghanistan, who believe in swift and brutal justice.[13] A statement which was rejected by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (aka NKT), arguing: “This really is a false accusation against innocent people. We have never done anything wrong. We simply practise our own religion, as passed down through many generations.”[14]

David N. Kay argued in his doctoral research that the NKT fit into the criteria of Robert Lifton’s definition of the fundamentalist self.[15] Inken Prohl stated: “Kay’s argument shows that, due to the NKT’s homogenous organisational structure, its attempts to establish a uniformity of belief and practice within the organization, and an emphasis on following one tradition coupled with a critical attitude toward other traditions, the NKT fits into Lifton’s category of “fundamentalism”. Kay describes how struggles for control of NKT’s institutional sites and NKT’s repressed memory of its institutional conflicts both contribute to NKT’s later ‘fundamentalist’ identity.”[16] However Prohl states also: “Although this observation presents a convincing and challenging observation of a mechanism at work in Buddhist organizations in the West, I would hesitate to characterize, as Kay does, such organisations as ‘fundamentalist’ due to the vague and, at the same time, extremely political implications of this term.”[16]

A monk sent these thoughts about fundamentalism in Buddhism to the Editorial staff of New Statesman:

»The scourge of fundamentalism is not merely a problem in the monotheistic faiths based on the god of Abraham. As with other world faiths, Buddhism has had in its fold members who believe unequivocally that they hold the ultimate truth, and that their detractors are dangerously mistaken and must be corrected. It is out of the energy of such fundamentalism that Dorje Shugden was promoted from Dolgyal, the spirit of Dol – a minor regional guardian; to a fully enlightened Buddha-protector by the conservative establishment within the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Gelugpa tradition’s beginnings are the teachings of Lama Tzongkhapa, the ultimate non-sectarian lama, who based his writings on a combination of Indian treatises, Mahayana Sutras, and teachings he received from masters of the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu traditions. His approach was essentially non-sectarian and firmly rooted in a close adherence to the Indian texts.

How strange then, that those who claim they are “protecting the purity” of Tsongkhapa’s teachings from the non-sectarian approach of the Dalai Lama, have taken up as the banner of their cause, Dorje Shugden, a deity of dubious origins. Not found in any of the classical Indian texts which Tzongkhapa taught his followers should be the ultimate authority, or in any of the extensive writings of Tsongkhapa himself, Shugden in fact is a worldly deity who has become the banner of the fundamentalists.

Pabongkha Rinpoche, the root guru of Trijiang Rinpoche and founding lama of the Shugden movement, never gave clear reasons why he felt Shugden was a Buddha. The 13th Dalai Lama questioned his reliance on such a mundane protector, and in a letter responding to the Dalai Lama asking that he stop Shugden worship, Pabongkha promised to do so, and said that his reason for Shugden propitiation was because “my mother told me that Shugden is the deity of my maternal lineage.”

Despite this promise, after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, Pabongkha once again began the transmission of Shugden practice to his students. Without scriptural references or historical precedents, his students believed Shugden to be a Buddha based on their faith in Pabongkhapa alone. Georges Dreyfus, noted Buddhist scholar, says:Pa-bong-ka suggests that he (Shugden) is the protector of the Ge-luk tradition, replacing the protectors appointed by Tzongkhapa (Gelug’s founder) himself.

In modern times, Shugden became the enforcer of the purity of Gelugpa doctrine. Zemey Tulku released a document called the “Yellow Book“. This book outlines stories of misfortunes that befall Gelug Shugden devotees who read and practice the texts of the other Tibetan lineages, especially the Nyingma tradition. Those who “mix” traditions are seen as enemies of the lineage, as can be seen from this excerpt from a propitiation ritual included in Zemey’s book:

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 Geluk doctrine.

Thus, Shugden’s purpose is clear and well-known in both Gelug and non-Gelug circles. It is for this reason that high Kagyu Lamas such as Tai Situpa Rinpochey say they “utter Shugden’s name with fear” and the late head of the Nyingma tradition, Minling Trichen Rinpoche, referred to Shugden as a “ghost”. The head of the Sakya tradition, His Holiness Sakya Trizin, says that while some in his lineage made offerings to Shugden, he was always regarded as a mundane protector on the lowest level of the pantheon.

Due to this widespread fear and the sectarian flavour it gave modern Gelug practice, the Dalai Lama began speaking about the dangers of Shugden at his teaching events, eventually requesting Shugden devotees not to take teachings and initiations from him. The majority of Gelugpas understood and followed his reasoning, because it was after all based on the teachings of the fountainhead of the Gelugpa tradition, Lama Tzongkhapa.

Those most loyal to Pabongkha’s lineage, however, resisted, stepping up Shugden worship in monasteries, commissioning new statues, and printing Shugden texts that were dutifully thrust into the laps of monks in their houses who had doubts about the practice. Then, Lobsang Gyatso, head of the dialectics institute in Dharamsala, an opponent of Shugden who had written voluminously on the subject along with two attendants, was murdered in his home. Interpol eventually released arrest warrants for two chief suspects in his murder, confirmed by Indian police to be Shugden activists who subsequently fled to Chinese controlled Tibet. The suspects were never apprehended, and so never went to trial.

It was after this murder that HH Dalai Lama began to speak more actively against Shugden, including in a meeting with the abbots of all the major Gelug monasteries. As promotion of the deity continued, in 2007, the Dalai Lama recommended the matter be put to a vote. In all three Gelug monastic universities; Sera; Drepung and Ganden, the Shugden opponents won by a landslide. In the tradition of the original spirit of monastic law, vote sticks were drawn. In the spirit of the majority (on which monastic law is based, according to the Vinaya scriptures of early Buddhism), it was decided those who practiced Shugden could no longer participate in the monastic rituals. This was all done according to Buddhist law, with many precedents including votes held during schisms for various reasons in many other Buddhist countries such as Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The Shugden activists refused to leave, so all monks were asked to take an oath to abandon Shugden and all those who refused were turned away from public pujas and debates. In effect, they were banished from monastery functions for not following monastic principles- rule of majority and abiding by vote results, common procedures in all Buddhist monastic communities. Rather than being banished from monastery grounds, however, Shugden worshipers were allowed to keep all their residential buildings and temples, essentially becoming a separate community within the monastery.

Without an understanding of the basics of monastic law and the Tibetan history of Shugden practice, it is easy to misunderstand this controversy. However, when one digs a little deeper, the picture becomes far more complex, and far less incriminating (for the Buddhist monastic communities) than Shugden activists would have us believe.

Sincerely, […], Buddhist Monk«

(The name of the monk is kept private due to threats he received. His teacher was threatened with death many times.)

In general one can say, according to Buddhist understanding, fundamentalism – “a ‘deep and totalistic commitment’ to a belief” – is based on ignorance and clinging. The ignorance in that context is mainly referring to a lack of knowledge, therefore offering more knowledge about the disputed issue and its related vocabulary (concepts) can help for those open to differentiate their understanding to overcome fundamentalism. That’s why more understanding about Buddhism – especially the rectification of terms like devotion, faith, belief, Guru or root Guru, Breach of Guru Devotion, reliance to a Guru, seeing the teacher as a Buddha and so on – and the disputed issue – in this context the Shugden Controversy – could help some individuals to overcome fundamentalist attitudes.

However such a process of refining one’s understanding is impossible if one lacks the defining characteristics of a proper student of the Mahayana or prefers to read only texts written by their own school of thought. Sadly, NKT has a totally self-referential system and students are discouraged to read non-NKT Dharma-books, because this could confuse them and they could lose “faith”. NKT literature lacks a lot of Buddhist teachings and was written only by one author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, which makes followers completely dependent on his views and thoughts.

Statements by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso which probably invite a narrow-minded perspective and blind faith include:

“Experience shows that realizations come from deep, unchanging faith, and that this faith comes as a result of following one tradition purely – relying upon one Teacher, practising only his teachings, and following his Dharma Protector. If we mix traditions many obstacles arise and it takes a long time for us to attain realizations.”[17]

According to Geshe Kelsang spiritual success is based on

“unwavering faith and confidence” and “it is essential to eliminate those doubts that interfere with the development of pure faith.”[18] Faith he explains is “a naturally virtuous mind that functions mainly to oppose the perception of faults in its observed object.”[19] “In particular, our ability to rely completely upon our spiritual guide depends upon having faith based on conviction that our spiritual guide is a buddha.”[20] and “We should be like a wise blind person who relies totally upon one trusted guide instead of attempting to follow a number of people at once.”[21]

Regarding sectarianism he states:

“It is mixing different religious traditions that causes sectarianism”[22] , and he discourages the reader of doing so, stating “studying non-religious subjects is less of an obstacle to our spiritual progress than studying religions of different traditions.”[22] “The practices taught by one teacher will differ from those taught by another, and if we try to combine them we will become confused, develop doubts, and lose direction.”[23] “The ugly, unfortunate result of not understanding pure Dharma and of following misleading teachings that pretend to be pure Dharma is sectarianism. This is one of the greatest hindrances to the flourishing of Dharma, especially in the West. Anything that gives rise to such an evil, destructive mind should be eliminated as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.”[24]

Je Tsongkhapa explains the defining characteristics of a student of the Mahayana in this way:

The defining characteristics of the student who relies upon the teacher

Aryadeva states in his Four Hundred Stanzas (Catuh-sataka):

“It is said that one who is non-partisan, intelligent, and diligent
Is a vessel for listening to the teachings.
The good qualities of the instructor do not appear otherwise
Nor do those of fellow listeners.”

Aryadeva says that one who is endowed with the three qualities is suitable to listen to the teachings. He also says that if you have all these qualities, the good qualities of one who instructs you in the teachings will appear as good qualities, not as faults. In addition, he says that to such a fully qualified person the good qualities of fellow listeners will also appear as good qualities and not as faults.

It is stated in Candrakirti’s commentary that if you, the listener, do not have all these defining characteristics of a suitable recipient of the teachings, then the influence of your own faults will cause even an extremely pure teacher who instructs you in the teachings to appear to have faults. Furthermore, you will consider the faults of the one who explains the teachings to be good qualities. Therefore, although you might find a teacher who has all the defining characteristics, it may be difficult to recognize their presence.

Thus, it is necessary for the disciple to have these three characteristics in their entirety in order to recognize that the teacher has all the defining characteristics and in order then to rely on that teacher.

With respect to these three characteristics, “nonpartisan” means not to take sides. If you are partisan, you will be obstructed by your bias and will not recognize good qualities. Because of this, you will not discover the meaning of good teachings. As Bhavaviveka states in his Heart of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka-hrdaya):

“Through taking sides the mind is distressed, Whereby you will never know peace.”

“Taking sides” is to have attachment for your own religious system and hostility toward others’. Look for it in your own mind and then discard it, for it says in the Bodhisattva Vows of Liberation (Bodhi-sattva-pratimoksa):

“After giving up your own assertions, respect and abide in the texts of the abbot and master.”

Question: Is just that one characteristic enough?
Reply: Though non-partisan, if you do not have the mental force to distinguish between correct paths of good explanation and counterfeit paths of false explanation, you are not fit to listen to the teachings. Therefore, you must have the intelligence that understands both of these. By this account you will give up what is unproductive, and then adopt what is productive.

Question: Are just these two enough?
Reply: Though having both of these, if, like a drawing of a person who is listening to the teachings, you are inactive, you are not fit to listen to the teachings. Therefore, you must have great diligence. Candrakirti’s commentary says “After adding the three qualities of the student to the two qualities of being focused and having respect for the teaching and its instructor, there are a total of five qualities.”

Then, these five qualities can be reduced to four:
(1) striving very diligently at the teaching,
(2) focusing the mind well when listening to the teaching,
(3) having great respect for the teaching and its instructor, and
(4) discarding bad explanations and retaining good explanations.

Having intelligence is the favourable condition that gives rise to these. Being non-partisan gets rid of the unfavourable condition of taking sides.

Investigate whether these attributes that make you suitable to be led by a guru are complete; if they are complete, cultivate delight. If they are incomplete, you must make an effort to obtain the causes that will complete them before your next life. Therefore, know these qualities of a listener. If you do not know their defining characteristics, you will not engage in an investigation to see whether they are complete, and will thereby ruin your great purpose.

(Lam Rim Chen Mo, p 75ff, Snow Lion Publications)

Buddhism is much about common sense and seeing things as they are. Students are encouraged to think for themselves and the Buddha and his genuine successors have repeatedly pointed out to not accept claims which contradict common sense or the spirit of the Dharma teachings. A genuine follower should have the ability to discriminate between what is constructive, what is not constructive and he should base his judgement on an unbiased investigation rather then following traditions.

Clash of Concepts

Because a main argument in the conflict on the side of the Shugden followers is that their Gurus, e.g. Pabongkha Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche, revealed the Shugden practice and gave commitments for it, then, one has to follow it. Alternatively the Shugden opponents in the Gelug school cite Buddha in the Kalama Sutra and Je Tsongkhapa, the Gelug founder, who said one should not follow “if it is an improper and irreligious command”, which is based on the following from the Vinaya Sutra: “If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.”[25] Shugden opponents refer to the sectarian nature of the Shugden practice which is seen by them as a contradiction to Buddhist ethics and one can also sum up the conflict as the religious scientist Michael von Brück (LM University, Munich) has done:

“We can conclude that the present controversy reveals the contradiction between the imperative of critically establishing the validity of (one’s own) opinions and the obedience towards the Lama (Guru)”[26]

Alexander Berzin pointed out as the central elements of the present conflict:

There are commitments on the levels of friendship, allegiance, loyalty, and bondings, both from student to teacher as well as from the student to their group. These life-long commitments are established through tantric empowerments. With respect to this there is a significant difference between Shugden followers and (almost) all other Tibetan Buddhists: followers of the ‘Shugden cult’, who receive the initiation, are told that this ‘protector’ or this ‘practice’ may never be given up again. However, according to an old instruction of the master Ashvaghosha, it’s the case that one may end the teacher-student-relationship even when having received an empowerment. There can be different reasons for ending such a relationship: if one has failed to sufficiently investigate one’s teacher beforehand or if one has critically distanced oneself from him and his methods. It’s said, that one may then respectfully distance oneself from such a teacher but that one should avoid speaking harsh words about him and his practice.[27]

Is there a Solution?

In general as previously stated, fundamentalism is based on non-knowledge so offering more understanding is suggested as one way to address fundamentalism. However, as long as a more narrow-minded person can refuse to broaden their understanding or to relax their views, and because one cannot force others to think about their point of view, this method has limitations.

Dialogue with fundamentalists is almost impossible. A Hindu master puts it this way: “It is impossible to discuss with a fundamentalist, without becoming a fundamentalist yourself.”

Fundamentalism is a challenging issue for each society, religion and mankind. Because the difficulties of fundamentalism lie in the mind and a mind can not be changed by force there seems to be only the challenging solution H.H. the Dalai Lama suggests in the interview by Raimundo Bultrini:

RB. What can the West or westerners do in a concrete way at this point?
HH. “Listen. Listen to their complaints and their reasons. They are unhappy and we should share their unhappiness.”
RB. Your Holiness, you have to admit that is a bit difficult.

[1] Tactics of Shugden Activists (perspective of the TGIE), Kundeling Tagtsa Jetung Rimpoche (perspective of Kundeling lama), Sowing dissent and undermining the Dalai Lama (perspective of TibetInfoNet), Vested interest group up in arms against the Dalai Lama (perspective of World Tibet Network News), The Dalai Lama’s demon (perspectives of France 24 TV), Writ Against the Dalai Lama

[2] Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. “Fundamentalism”, Global Policy Forum (with “consultative status at the UN”), May 2000, Accessed 14-05-2008.

[3] “Fundamentalism”, Accessed 14-05-2008.

[4] Google define:fundamentalism

[5] Marsden, George M. “Fundamentalism and American Culture”, Oxford University Press US (1980/rev.2006)

[6] Giddens, Anthony (1994). Beyond left and right: the future of radical politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 6. ISBN 0-8047-2451-2. OCLC 32371646.

[7] Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1989

[8] Harris, Harriet (2008). Fundamentalism and Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-953253-2. OCLC 182663241.

[9] Boer, Roland (2005). “Fundamentalism”. New keywords: a revised vocabulary of culture and society. Ed. Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, Meaghan Morris and Raymond Williams. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 134–137. ISBN 0-631-22568-4. OCLC 230674627 57357498. Retrieved on 2008-07-27.

[10] Dawkins, Richard (2006-10-02). The God Delusion. Bantam Press. ISBN 978-0593055489.

[11] Meindert Groter: Why did the Dalai Lama ban Dorje Shugden?, Will the Dalai Lama return to Tibet?, The deity banned by Dalai Lama, Are the Dalai Lama’s critics backed by China?

[12] a b Tibet und Buddhismus, No. 79, April/2006, page 14

[13] Newsweek, April 28 1997,

[14] Reply to Newsweek, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 1997,

[15] Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation by David N. Kay, London and New York, p 110, ISBN 0-415-29765-6

[16] a b Inken Prohl, Free University of Berlin, Book Review on “Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain…”

[17] Kelsang Gyatso: Great Treasury of Merit: A Commentary to the Practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide, 1992, p 31

[18] Kelsang Gyatso: Understanding the Mind, 1993, p 75

[19] Kelsang Gyatso: Joyful Path of Good Fortune, 1990, p 107

[20] Kelsang Gyatso: Joyful Path of Good Fortune, 1990, p 106

[21] Kelsang Gyatso: Guide to Dakini Land: The Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Buddha Vajrayogini, 1996: p 18

[22] Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding the Mind, 1993, p 167

[23] Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding the Mind, 1993, p 166

[24] Kelsang Gyatso, Clear Light of Bliss, 1982, p 154

[25] The Fulfillment of All Hopes: Guru Devotion in Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-153-X, page 64

[26] Michael von Brück: Religion und Politik im Tibetischen Buddhismus. Kösel Verlag, München 1999, ISBN 3-466-20445-3, page 209, 210

[27] Austria Buddhist magazine “Ursache und Wirkung”, July 2006, page 73