China’s Involvement in the Dorje Shugden Controversy

Though the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) said different times that China uses Shugden as a political means to split the Tibetan Community—e.g. by favouring monks practising Shugden or by supporting especially Tibetan monasteries in Tibet where Shugden is worshipped—it is rather hard to find written evidence on this. There is some mentioning here and there, e.g. BBC Dalai Lama ‘behind Lhasa unrest’ but not too much.

It was reported to me by a Western monk who lived in Sera Je Monastery, India, and who speaks fluently colloquial Tibetan that monks in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug  monasteries in India strongly assume that the Chinese secret service is sponsoring Shugden pujas in the Gelug monasteries to provoke more schism and quarrel. A Tibetan doctor reported to me that Kundeling Rinpoche (‘Nga-Lama’), who has close ties to China and a lot of sympathy for China’s presence in Tibet (see France 24 TV), offered money to local Indian people nearby the Sera Monastic Seat if they start protests against ‘the Dalai Lama’s religious intolerance’. However, the Indians refused to do this, stating that it is better to have good long-term relations with the monasteries than accepting short term benefit by getting some money.

A while ago someone gave me a copy of Ben Hillman’s paper MONASTIC POLITICS AND THE LOCAL STATE IN CHINA: AUTHORITY AND AUTONOMY IN AN ETHNICALLY TIBETAN PREFECTURE published in The China Journal, No. 54, July 2005. Until yesterday I found no time to have a look into it.

The article by Hillman investigates the origins of a conflict and the changing nature of relations between a local Tibetan Buddhist monastery and the local government since the revival of religious institutions in the 1980s. While Hillman’s analysis touches upon a number of themes in contemporary Chinese politics and society, this post focuses exclusively on what he says with respect to Dorje Shugden.

Here two quotes from his work:

While tensions between khangtsens and the monastery elite can best be understood as a competition over resources, internal conflicts are often expressed in theological terms. Monastic elites invoked differences in belief and doctrine to gain leverage in their factional struggles. Ever since the late seventeenth century, the khangtsens have been divided into two factions, one of which advocates, and the other of which opposes, worship of the controversial Tibetan deity Dorje Shugden. [26] (p.37)

[26] Shugden is sometimes also transliterated as “Shungden” and is known to Tibetans by various names including “Jiachen” and “Derge”.

[…]

Under the leadership of senior lamas, S monastery divided more clearly into pro- and anti-Shugden factions. Three khangtsens favored the continued worship of Shugden, while eight were opposed, but the combined population of the three khangtsens was larger than the eight. The repercussions of this dispute extend beyond the monastery walls into sensitive domains of national politics. The Dalai Lama had opposed Shugden worship because its exclusivity frustrated his efforts at forging a pan-Tibetan identity,[29] but the Shugden controversy provides the Chinese government with an opportunity to launch a counterattack. Government spokespeople have claimed that, unlike in the Tibetan communities in exile under the rule of the Dalai Lama who have been forbidden to worship Shugden, Shugden worshipers in China can enjoy genuine freedom of religious practice.[30]

According to one senior lama from Sichuan, the Chinese government naturally allies itself with the Shugden supporters, not just to undermine the Dalai Lama, but because most Shugden worshippers come from Eastern Tibet, from areas that were only ever loosely under Lhasa’s jurisdiction and are today integrated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan.[31] Monks who had traveled across these areas note that the central government has allocated a disproportionate amount of funds since 1996 to pro-Shugden monasteries to assist them with construction and renovations.[32] Evidence of local government favoritism toward the pro-Shugden faction began to emerge at S Monastery in 2003 when monks applied for permission to undertake studies in India. Despite equal numbers of applications from all khangtsens, of the 12 monks who were issued travel documents, only one was from an anti-Shugden khangtsen. Similarly, in 2004, one of the monastery’s smallest and (previously) poorest khangtsens began to build an elaborate new prayer room and residence for its handful of members. Financial support had been obtained from Beijing through a network of pro-Shugden lamas with access to officials at the highest level.[33] (p. 38)

[30] See, for example, Vol. 7, (o. 6 of the magazine China’s Tibet, in which an article by Wei. She ridicules the Dalai Lama’s religious intolerance of an “innocent guardian of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine”.
[31] Interview August, 2004, and Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, pp. 196-200.
[32] Examples are the Kumbum and Labrang monasteries. See “Holiday Resort”, The Economist, 13 April 1996, p. 32.
[33] Interviews with monks, August 2004 and April 2005.

Another document showing far more detailed the involvement of China in the Shugden controversy can be found in investigative journalist Raimondo Bultrini’sIL DEMONE E IL DALAI LAMA’ (2008).

Here two quotes:

But one morning, in my electronic mail, I found an item from World Tibetan News. It was an extract from a newspaper article reporting the first conference of pro-Shugden associations in Asia. There were two hundred participants and it was held in the Conference Room of a big hotel in Delhi, and hosted by the Chinese embassy.

I could not be sure the report was true, but it showed that the large numbers of practitioners of the cult in the East did not depend solely on the initiatives of Kelsang Gyatso’s NKT. I took the opportunity to write to the Director of Security for the government in exile in Dharamsala. He wrote back a few days later, attaching some confidential information on Ganchen Tulku and ‘Nga Lama’ Kundeling. In March 1998, shortly after we met, these two men of religion were in Katmandu in Nepal, with other Shugden followers and a member of the Communist Party of the Autonomous Region of Tibet, Gungthang Ngodup, who had come especially from Lhasa. A few days afterwards – wrote Ngodup from Dharamsala – an adviser from the Chinese embassy in Nepal, one ‘Mr. Wang’,[164] visited Ganchen’s house. As far as he could make out, the discussion revolved around the same subject, the type of collaboration between the Shugden followers and the Chinese authorities and possible financial help.

In December of the same year – as reported by The Indian Express and The Tribune – the Under-Secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Delhi, Zhao Hongang, went to the monastery of Ganden in India, accompanied by a devotee from Bylakuppe, Thupten Kungsang and by a monk who had arrived from Sera Mey. In July 1999, in Katmandu once more, other meetings were held between pro-Shugden activists and Chinese representatives. This time, ‘Mr. Wang’ was met by Chimi Tsering and other directors of the Delhi ‘Shugden Society’, Lobsang Gyaltsen, Konchok Gyaltsen, Gelek Gyatso, and Soepa Tokhmey, the society’s treasurer. After the final meeting a letter was drafted to be presented to the United Front Department of the Communist Party to ask for help against those discriminating against Shugden practitioners in India.

[164] Now deceased

[…]

The men of Dharamsala’s security forces continued to receive information on the continual ‘pilgrimages’ made by the cult’s leaders to Chinese-occupied Tibet. The list of them included, from 1998 onwards: a lama based in Taiwan and Singapore, Serkong Tritul, who was the guru of one of the alleged Dharamsala murderers: Yongya Tulku, the secretary of the Delhi Shugden Society; Phari Phuntsok, a lama resident in Katmandu; Dragon Rinpoche, Vice–President of the Nepalese Shugden society; Basundara Lhakpa, Chatreng Thinley and Chatreng Topgyal. The latter three were received in Lhasa as official delegation from the authorities of the TAR (autonomous region of Tibet).

The ever closer links between the cult members and the Chinese authorities were not ‘invented’ by Dharamsala’s counter-espionage team. In his long activist history, Kundeling Lama, the leader of the International Coalition who had met Ganchen in Milan, wrote, ‘In the winter (of 2001) I took the bold step to visit Beijing in the hope of reaching out to the 11th Panchen Lama and other prominent Buddhist leaders.[168] (…) In April 2002, once again, I visited Beijing to apprise the Buddhist leaders and the authorities of the threats being faced by Shugden devotees within Tibet’.

This odd request from a Tibetan for China to support the cult seems to have been granted, at least by the national media which published several articles on the subject. On February 27, 2003, with money offered by the Chinese embassy in Katmandu, a bi-monthly review was started, called Times of Democracy, to which a reporter from the Wen Hui Daily of Shanghai contributed. Even the building that housed the offices of the journal and the headquarters of the Nepalese Shugden Society were paid for by the embassy, which contributed 700 thousand rupees, around 6500 euros.

[168] The Directors of the Chinese Buddhist Association are members of the Party directly linked to the United Front Department.

See also

Updates 2014

Updates 2015

Update June 2016

Comments

  1. Lineageholder says:

    Firstly, I don’t see why China should be criticised for allowing religious freedom. If the Dalai Lama really practised what he teaches, he would allow it too.

    Secondly, it’s equally wrong for China to favour Dorje Shugden practitioners as it is for the Dalai Lama to discriminate against them. There should be equanimity for all religious practitioners, how much more so for Buddhist ones?

    It suits Dharamsala’s purpose to draw a link between Dorje Shugden and China so that makes me suspicious. Where’s the evidence? This just sounds like a lot of rumours and hearsay to me. The WSS would not take money from China; if the lamas you mention are doing so this is the height of stupidity because they’re harming their own cause by playing politics.

  2. What would the big deal be if the Chinese allow Dorje Shugden practitioners their religious freedom? If the Dalai Lama stopped playing politics and allowed everyone equal rights, there would not be this big mess in the first place. All he has to do is rescind his ban and all the monastics and lay Buddhists in China and India would be so relieved.

  3. @LH & Coqui.

    The PRC leadership is not much interested in religious freedom but they are very interested to undermine the Tibetan unity and the activities of the Dalai Lama by promoting a rather sectarian practice.

    For having an image of the Dalai Lama or for expressing one’s opinion against the Chinese oppression, PRC sentence Tibetans to jail but for practising Shugden Tibetans get money and support – this is a very interesting type of ‘religious freedom’ ;-)

    For the sake of these politics of creating factions among the Tibetans and to increase tension and disunity the PRC exploits the Shugden issue, and famous Shugden lamas are directly or indirectly supporting these PRC policies.

    The problem is not the Dalai Lama but how very conservative Gelug people have used and interpreted Shugden worship to establish Gelug supremacy and tried to repress or to put down other Buddhist schools. Famous Gelug lamas have abused Shugden worship to oppress religious freedom by warning strongly that Shugden will kill or punish violently those people who practice also Buddhist teachings from other Buddhist schools, like Nyingma school. Actually, restricting Shugden worship can be seen as a means to restore religious freedom because it is Shugden who will punish wrathfully those practitioners who wish to practice teachings also from non-Gelug schools, hence this very practice is actually ‘oppressing religious freedom’. No Shugden, no problem to practice holy Dharma from all Buddhist schools ;-)

    People in India can practice Shugden privately or in the Shugden monasteries. I think, there is nothing wrong in putting restrictions on a sectarian practice which is perceived as functioning mainly to harm people and the harmony between the traditions.

    No matter how much people (ab)use the word ‘religious freedom’ restrictions or prohibitions of certain practices are not necessarily wrong, e.g. like in the case of forbidding animal sacrifices or drugs. Why not putting restrictions on a practice and banning it from the monasteries—a decision made by the abbots and by majority vote—which punishes those who wish to practice the Dharma also from other schools? Things are not always black and white.

  4. Carol McQuire says:

    Tenpel,

    Thank you so much for publishing this academic information. And for your sensible coherent replies.

    Your work is very inspiring,

    Carol

  5. MatthewTan says:

    tenpel says:

    “…restrictions or prohibitions of certain practices are not necessarily wrong, e.g. like in the case of forbidding animal sacrifices or drugs. ”

    Yes, thank you. It is not wrong for China to ban the worship of Dalai Lama then, who supports the 1959 violent insurrection and celebrate it every year, and who received CIA money to wage guerilla warfare in China’s Tibet.

    The Dalai Lama and people like you must be feeling more and more lonley with the de-election of His Holi Darling Nancy Pelosi and Russ Feingold in the current mid-term US congressional elections. Good karma for him, for inciting the Lhasa riots. Hope he spends the rest of his time preparing for an eventful re-incarnation, hopefully within China. Otherwise, some his people will follow have to satisfied with their conditions in India.

  6. Me was reported by a Western monk ? What is Me was reported? Sorry ignoramus.

    Also what does this part mean [164] Now deceased?

    • Thanks Eli.

      Is this is bad English to say: “Me was reported by a Western monk who lived in Sera Je Monastery”?

      What I meant is that a Western monk who lived in Sera and is very familiar with that place told me that the monks at Sera are convinced that the Shugden pujas were sponsored by the Chinese in order to split the community. When those Shugden pujas were performed, he said, the monks attending them got more donations (money) than when going to other pujas, the money for these donation was assumed to come from the Chinese. (In that context he also told that the monks organizing the Shugden pujas were rather aggressively convincing other monks to attend these.)

      In case you have a suggestion how I could rephrase this sentence please let me know, I am not a native English speaker and my German grammar mixes easily into my sentences…

      The footnote “[164] Now deceased” refers to Mr. Wang who died.

    • Ok, got it, this is a bad grammar/English. I changed “Me was reported by a Western monk …” to “It was reported to me by a Western monk who lived in Sera Je Monastery”

      • This more than confirms the CCP being fully involved in the dhogyal controversy.
        Hillman’s article reveals CCP favouring the pro dhogyal khamtsens -ofcourse

        I haven’t looked at the dhogyal website in a long long time but checked out the link provided below by Tenpel.
        Sure enough the dhogyalpas proudly talk of the CCP sponsored visit of one top dhogyal lama to

        • continued…….
          to Rabten Choeling Geneva. The photos show other high dhogyal lamas – but NGA LAMA kundeling is missing.
          Incidentally Rabten choeling is where one of the 1st batch of Western students ( Batchelor, Dr Alan Wallace etc) studied Buddhism – written Tibetan language and all. Only one from their batch remains I believe.
          So this is the website that is getting the Sem Tulku in trouble. Never heard of him before ; but he sounds like a bully.

  7. The (controversial) DorjeShugden.com site proudly proclaims that they have received money from the Chinese government to teach Dharma in Switzerland:
    http://www.dorjeshugden.com/all-articles/news/the-first-lama-that-china-sent-abroad/

    • Carol McQuire says:

      Is there an alternative reincarnation of Geshe Rabten or is the only one there, with these Shugden Lamas? Thanks!

      • An alternative one, funny. This tells a lot about this system ;-)
        As far as I know there is only one Tulku of him who is under Gonsar Rinpoche in Switzerland (or was it at least).

        • Carol McQuire says:

          So, I wonder how appropriate it would be to read Geshe Rabten’s books now…if the Tulku gets up to strange things, then…? ;)

          • Geshe Rabten is considered by everybody as a great lama and teacher. He was also the teacher of Allen Wallace as far as I understood it.
            I think to read his books is perfectly fine. What ever a later tulku does, Tibetans just don’t pay attention if a tulku doesn’t sort out well in the next incarnation (if the tulku is the incarnation at all of that previous person!) … I wouldn’t bother and I see Geshe Rabten as a great teacher. He was very strict with himself but allowed his Western monks to listen to music in order that they relax ;-) He mentioned specifically Bob Dylan in that context in a Vinaya commentary ;-)

            I don’t know much about the person who is identified as the tulku of Geshe Rabten …

            • Carol McQuire says:

              Thank you very much for clarifying this.

            • john6747 says:

              I presume Carol means ‘by strange things’ she is referring to the Tulku, Gonsar Rinpoche receiving the Chinese sponsored Shugdens in Switzerland.
              I found this at http://dorjeshugden.com/articles/GesheRabtenRinpoche.pdf
              If Geshe Rabten did say as quoted, it would not be surprising for the Tulku to follow suit.
              Of course, the quote would need verification.

              • Of course, the quote would need verification.

                This is the key point with pro Shugden claims. What I learned from them when I followed them for 6 1/2 years turned out to be mainly hot air and a bunch of distorted claims that don’t have much substance (if at all) in reality.

                • 77 YR OLD IMPRISONED FOR ADVISING AGAINST SHUGDEN

                  An elderly Tibetan man has been ordered jailed by Chinese authorities for advising a group of Tibetan students to abide by the Dalai Lama’s call not to participate in a controversial form of worship deemed “divisive” by the exiled spiritual leader, sources said.

                  Jamyang Tsering, 77, was handed a one-and-a-half year term in early December by a court in Dzogang (in Chinese, Zuogong) county in the Chamdo (Changdu) prefecture of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, a local source told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

                  “He is currently being held in the Dzogang detention center pending transfer to a jail in Chamdo,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

                  “His relatives are worried about his health, which is said to be not good,” the source said, adding that Tsering suffers from abdominal disorders, diabetes, and high blood pressure, among other ailments.

                  “He himself says he has done nothing wrong and has no regrets. His only concern is for his wife, who is 86 and was left behind in [the regional capital] Lhasa after he was detained,” he said.

                  Tsering, a native of Chamdo, was taken into custody in early June after encouraging a group of Chamdo-area students visiting Lhasa to follow the wishes and guidance of the Dalai Lama and to always “hold to their pride in being Tibetan,” the source said.

                  “He had also advised as many people as possible in local gatherings not to worship Shugden,” a Tibetan “protector” deity whose rituals have been denounced by the Dalai Lama as divisive and sectarian, he said.

                  Chinese police frequently investigate and arrest Tibetans deemed to have responded to the policy directives of the India-based Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a dangerous separatist bent on “splitting” Tibet from Chinese control.

                  ‘Religious differences’

                  Earlier this year, a young Tibetan stabbed himself to death when police attempted to detain him in Chamdo’s Markham (Mangkang) county over the destruction of a Shugden statue six years ago, sources told RFA in an earlier report.

                  Tashi Tsering, a 28-year-old layman, had joined together with at least eight monks of Chamdo’s Khenpaluk monastery in 2008 to destroy the statue of the deity after the Dalai Lama urged Tibetans to abandon its worship, one source said.

                  When the Dalai Lama in 2008 publicly criticized Shugden worship as damaging to harmony among Tibetans, Khenpaluk monastery was the first religious establishment in the area to ban the practice, the source said.

                  “Some monks of Khenpaluk then volunteered to dismantle the statue,” which had been installed by a private sponsor, he said.

                  Chamdo police in April issued a set of regulations including a ban on “creating differences” among religious believers and using language that appeared to be “aimed primarily at opponents or critics of the Shugden practice,” Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett told RFA in an e-mail on Friday.

                  “From the perspective of the Chinese, they have a responsibility to prevent violence and conflict over this, as with any other contentious issue among Tibetans,” Barnett said.

                  “However, the Chinese authorities have published numerous statements attacking the Dalai Lama on the Shugden issue both in Tibet and internationally,” he said.

                  “So they are widely perceived within Tibet as favoring the pro-Shugden side in this dispute.”

                  Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.

                  http://www.rfa.org/tibetan/sargyur/sentenced-to-worship-shugden-12112014144139.html#.VIqBA4-cZy4.facebook

  8. I added a link to an South China Morning Post (SCMP) article which demonstrates more links between Shugden adherents and the PRC. Based on the SCMP’s claim of a “ban” of Shugden worship by the Dalai Lama (for a differentiated view see the related posts on this blog that discuss the use of the term ban and the interview with Robert Barnett) the SCMP article sides with Shugden practitioners, wrongly insinuating that it would lie in the hands of the Dalai Lama ‘to lift the ban’ but this is not really correct, does not reflect reality and it is also misleading. However, the article is all in all well informed and rather balanced.

    For a summery of the criticism against the SCMP see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_China_Morning_Post#Alleged_pro-Beijing_bias_and_censorship

Trackbacks

  1. […] this book Bultrini shows the different players and their different involvements, including that of the Chinese authorities and the Dharamsala’s counter-espionage, the New Kadampa Tradition’s/Kelsang Gyatso’s involvements as well as that of  Lama […]

  2. […] Tibetans – this strategy fits perfectly into China’s divide-and-rule policy. Read more stories that follow the money to […]

  3. […] Front work Department has connections and supports Lama Gangchen and India-based Shugden groups and uses the Shugden issue to create schism among Tibetans. Also investigative journalist Raimundo Bultrini has shown that […]

  4. […] established what other sources had already established, that China backs Shugden groups in India and Tibet, but Reuters did not establish that China backs […]

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