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