A comment to Tsem Tulku’s post, “The 14th Dalai Lama’s prayer to Dorje Shugden”

Tsem Tulku Kechara

Retain your reverence and admiration for the person, but subject the writing to thorough critical analysis. – A Tibetan saying

Someone sent me a link to a post by Tsem Tulku, The 14th Dalai Lama’s prayer to Dorje Shugden. I wrote a comment to the post because it is based on so many misunderstandings. I was thinking a comment could help Tsem Tulku and his students, NKT or ex-NKT followers, as well as Shugden pas who seem too cling too much to a literal interpretation of the teachings to reconsider, broaden or differentiate their understanding. I copy and paste the comment below. I made also some small corrections. The whole comment to Tsem Tulku’s post is based on a reply I wrote in December 2006 to NKT editors on Wikipedia.


Dear Tsem Tulku,
someone sent me the link to this post and I feel compelled to respond to it. Please forgive me if it hurts your feelings. This is not my intention. My intention is to correct the underlying misunderstandings of the post and to give the discussion a broader and saner perspective.

I think you make it too hard for yourself and others (you mislead yourself and others) by assuming that all the masters – including HH the Dalai Lama – are totally enlightened (omniscient) and therefore can’t make errors. This is typical Tibetan Dharma propaganda and there is no proof whatsoever for such claims. By claiming totally enlightened status for the Dalai Lama or your lineage lamas you ascribe to them an infallibility they highly likely don’t/didn’t possess. These recognised Tulkus or high lamas are most often mainly highly gifted people with immense good karma and dedication to Dharma practice, their lineages and sentient beings. Of course they might have also certain high realisations but this doesn’t make them free of errors. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very clear about this and he openly admits his own errors as the great Indian Pandit Atisha has admitted openly his own errors. Similar to as Atisha rejected the false view on emptiness by his most precious guru, Serlingpa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama rejects the false view on Shugden by one of his his most precious gurus, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. It would be good to become more realistic and to see masters as sentient beings who can make also errors otherwise you make one knot after the other in your and your students’ minds and nobody is really helped by claims that don’t match reality or that distort reality and confuse the mind.

It would be a first step to reality to accept that masters can err. That’s why also Je Tsongkhapa wrote in his commentary on the tantric vows that if your master gives an “improper and irreligious command” don’t follow it. Tsongkhapa quotes the Vinaya Sutra: “If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.” Also the writings on Sutra and Tantra by Tsongkhapa make clear that tantric masters can err and can even go astray. A student must be able to see such faults and to respond wisely to it. By claiming in the literal sense total enlightened status to the gurus you construe them to be unfailing and you go against the scriptures and what past masters like Atisha or Tsongkhapa did. Tsongkhapa distanced himself from Ven. Rendawa’s Madhyamaka view and he rejected Rendawa’s view that the Kalachakra is not authentic. When Atisha was criticised by his most important master, Serlingpa, about his Madhyamaka view, Atisha answered to Serlingpa (who followed Chittamatra school): Whatever you say: I will not give up my view and the more you talk about your Chittamatra view the more clearly I see that my Madhyamaka view is correct. – To see your master as totally enlightened is a tantric training and is not meant to be understood in the literal sense. As you can see the most important Lamas of the Gelug school, Atisha and Tsongkhapa, found faults in their teachers’ views.

If you have really respect for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, why don’t you read his comments and think about their meanings? For instance in his commentary about the Heart Sutra, The Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom, His Holiness gives the following interesting perspective which is worthwhile to reflect:


HeartSutraEarlier we observed that one of the principal features of the Buddha’s teachings is that they were spoken to accord with the varying spiritual and mental needs and dispositions of the listeners. The tenets of the various schools can similarly be viewed as fulfilling these diverse needs. We have just seen how the Mind-only School distinguishes definitive from provisional teachings, and in fact each school has its own criteria for determining whether a teaching of the Buddha is definitive or provisional. In each case, the process is similar: first, one uses analysis to determine the Buddha’s ultimate intention in making a particular statement; second, one determines the Buddha’s contextual rationale for making a particular statement; and third, one demonstrates the logical inconsistency, if any, that arises when the particular statement is taken literally. The need for such an approach is found in the Buddha’s own sutras. There is a verse in which Buddha urges his followers to take his words as they might accept from a jeweler a metal that appears to be gold: only after seeing that the metal does not tarnish when burned, can be easily cut, and can be polished to a bright shine should the metal be accepted as gold. Thus, the Buddha gives us his permission to critically examine even his own teachings. Buddha suggests we make a thorough inquiry into the truth of his words and verify them for ourselves, and only then “accept them, but not out of reverenced”. Taking direction from statements such as these, ancient Indian monastic universities, such as Nalanda, developed a tradition whereby students would critically subject their own teachers’ scholastic work to analysis. Such critical analysis was seen in no way to go against the great admiration and reverence the students had for their teachers. The famous Indian master Vasubandhu, for example, had a disciple known as Vimuktisena, who was said to excel Vasubandhu in his understanding of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. He questioned Vasubandhu’s Mind-only interpretation and instead developed his own understanding of the sutras in accord with the Middle Way School. An example of this in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is Alak Damchoe Tsang, who was one of the disciples of the great nineteenth-century Nyingma master Ju Mipham. Although Alak Damchoe Tsang had tremendous admiration and reverence for his teacher, he voiced his objections to some of Miphams writings. Once a student of Alak Damchoe Tsang is said to have asked if it was appropriate to critically object to the writings of his own teacher. Alak Damchoe Tsang’s immediate response was, “If one’s great teacher says things that are not correct, one must take even ones lama to task!” There is a Tibetan saying, “Retain your reverence and admiration for the person, but subject the writing to thorough critical analysis.” This demonstrates a healthy attitude and illustrates the Buddhist tradition known as the approach of the four reliances:

Do not rely merely on the person, but on the words;
Do not rely merely on the words, but on their meaning;
Do not rely merely on the provisional meaning, but on the definitive meaning; and
Do not rely merely on intellectual understanding, but on direct experience.

As I said already, this is in line with what Atisha and Tsongkhapa did: they corrected the views of their own beloved teachers and corrected errors and misunderstandings.

However Atisha was nevertheless grateful to Serlingpa and honoured him as his most important master. Similarly His Holiness has still deepest respect for Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. He said this and also demonstrated his deep respect different times. He has also explicit auspicious dreams of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche which indicate his deeply felt devotion.

There are other examples were masters corrected or refuted or rejected the views of their masters, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states:

Therefore, Arya Vimuktisena, whose teacher was Vasubhandu, saw that Vasubhandu’s manner of explanation of the Abhisamayalankara had been more affected by his own personal bias towards a particular position than being a true reflection of the author’s ultimate intent. He therefore composed a commentary refuting that view, displacing it with a Madhyamaka interpretation. Now was this a case of a corruption of the spiritual guide – disciple relationship on Arya Vimuktisena’s part or of him showing disrespect for Vasubhandu? It was neither of these things.

Then we could look at accounts of the relationship between Jowo Je Atisha and his teacher Serlingpa. Serlingpa was the teacher who Atisha himself accredited as the one who helped him most in his quest to generate bodhicitta. In this area, he was like his root Lama. Despite this, on the philosophical level they were at variance. Serlingpa held the Cittamatra view. Accounts have it that Serlingpa congratulated Atisha for his practise of bodhicitta, whilst informing him that as far as his philosophical view was concerned he was incorrect. Atisha said though that Serlingpa’s instructions only served to boost his confidence in the correctness of the middle way view.

Likewise, we have the case of Dharmakirti. Vasubhandu had many students, one of whom was Dignaga. He was said to have been the one who surpassed even his own master in terms of his understanding of Pramana. Dignaga then had a disciple called Ishvarasena. He in turn had Dharmakirti as a student. Dharmakirti heard explanation of Dignaga’s Pramanasamuccaya text from Ishvarasena, but rejected Ishvarasena’s interpretation. He then incorporated Ishvarasena’s views as the objects of attack in sections of his Pramanavarttika. Thus, when it comes to helping to clarify the doctrine, creating, and rectifying mistakes, even one’s own teacher may come under criticism. One can see it in terms of one’s teacher having given certain instructions directed at a few specific individuals (when there is a need to give a different message). Whilst this might generally work though, it would be difficult to square in the above-mentioned case of Vasubhandu. At least in the way that Haribhadra has put it, it sounds as though it was Vasubhandu’s own bias (as opposed to consideration of any particular disciple) that led him to interpret things in the way that he did. Anyway, whether the original reasons for certain interpretations were due to individual students, other considerations or plain misunderstanding, it may prove necessary for later individuals to clarify things. Rectifying, clarifying and the like are generally accepted approaches for the learned and completely in step with the correct general approach to the teachings. This is way to proceed and help to guard against decline. (see Gelug Conference)

Another example you’ll find here:

Based on his realization, Tsongkhapa revised completely the understanding of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka teachings on voidness and related topics that the teachers and learned masters of his day had held. In this regard, he was a radical reformer with the courage to go beyond current beliefs when he found them inadequate.

Tsongkhapa always based his reforms strictly on logic and scriptural references. When he established his own view as the deepest meaning of the great Indian texts, he was not committing a breach of his close bond and relationship with his teachers. Seeing our spiritual teachers as Buddhas does not mean that we can not go beyond them in our realizations. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II explained this with the following example.

To make a cake, we need to put together many ingredients – flour, butter, milk, eggs, and so on. Our teachers show us how to make a cake and bake a few for us. They may be very delicious and we may enjoy them greatly. Due to our teachers’ kindness, we now know how to make a cake. This does not mean that we cannot make some changes, add some different ingredients, and bake cakes that are even more delicious than those our teachers made. In doing so, we are not being disrespectful toward our teachers. If the teachers are really qualified, they will rejoice in our improvement on the recipe and enjoy the new cakes with us. (see A Short Biography of Tsongkhapa by Dr. Alex Berzin)

(Just as a note: the incarnation of your master Kyabje Zong Rinpoche does NOT practice Shugden and he has abandoned that practice.)

I wish you and your students all the best,