Summary of the State of Shugden Scholarship

by Christopher Paul Bell, University of Virginia

Despite the controversy and media attention that has surrounded Dorje Shugden for the last few decades, the academic study of this deity is still very nascent.  There are only a handful of scholarly articles and book chapters that discuss this matter in any detail, but a sustained, coherent study has yet to be undertaken by serious scholars.

Perhaps the two most influential scholarly works that provide an in-depth discussion of Dorje Shugden are the chapters on the deity and his oracle in Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz’s “Oracles and Demons of Tibet” (1956) and Georges Dreyfus’s article “The Shuk-den Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel” published in the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (1998). Related to this is the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a pro-Shugden organization that is often brought up in connection with Dorje Shugden today.  The only prolonged study of this group has been the section on them within David Kay’s “Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain” (2004).

Of the three, Dreyfus’s article has been the most foundational and influential, having been cited by nearly ever work of scholarship to discuss Dorje Shugden or the NKT since, including Kay’s book.  However, while Dreyfus’s article articulates well the parameters of Dorje Shugden’s history and the contemporary controversy, there are a number of flaws in its historical methodology.  Lindsay McCune’s master’s thesis, “Tales of Intrigue from Tibet’s Holy City: The Historical Underpinnings of a Modern Buddhist Crisis” (2007) critiques Dreyfus’s historical narrative and concludes that—with regards to the 17th-century history concerning Drakpa Gyeltsen—there is very little historical evidence to support his claims.

Within the last year, an individual named Trinley Kalsang has published a website called “Dorje Shugden History” (, which examines in great detail a number of significant Tibetan ritual and historical texts focused on Dorje Shugden, translating pertinent portions of these texts and disproving a number of Dreyfus’s claims in the process.  While Trinley Kalsang is not a Buddhist scholar trained in the academy, his work on this site is scholarly in orientation, since it relies on primary materials to support claims and buttresses them with many trusted and scholarly secondary materials.

Very few other scholarly works have advanced the discourse on Dorje Shugden as much as these have; the majority tend to reiterate previous claims in support of their broader arguments.  Ultimately, what this reliance on a handful of popular sources (i.e., Dreyfus, Kay) suggests is a need to return to basics and critically examine all aspects of the Shugden narrative as it is currently understood.

Here are some recommended directions for future research:

  1. Examine the relationship between Dorje Shugden and Dholgyal, as there is still no satisfactory explanation of how or why these two deities came to be considered synonymous;
  2. Uncover the relationship between the Fifth Dalai Lama and Drakpa Gyeltsen using multiple primary textual sources;
  3. Explore the evolution of the “Pabongkha narrative” as propounded by Dreyfus and others, especially since it appears to have been popular prior to Dreyfus (i.e., Tenpai Gyaltsan Dhongthog’s “Earth Shaking Thunder of True Word”);
  4. Examine the NKT as an organization separate from Dorje Shugden’s history; Kay’s book is a fair start, but more work needs to be done;
  5. Examine Dorje Shugden’s ritual evolution and history in Tibet; Trinley Kalsang’s site is an excellent start, though much more work still needs to be done, especially in ascertaining Dorje Shugden’s geographical, institutional, and sectarian distribution (Stan Mumford’s discussion of Shugden in his book, “Himalayan Dialogue,” is an excellent place to begin examining sectarian parameters); and
  6. a rigorous and thorough anthropological examination of the state of Shugden practice in Tibet and in exile still needs to be done; there’s been no academic work done in this regard, and it’s in many respects a pressing matter due to the constantly shifting cultural and political circumstances.