A New Book: Understanding the Case Against Shukden: The History of a Contested Tibetan Practice

A new book on Shugden, or Dölgyal, Understanding the Case Against Shukden: The History of a Contested Tibetan Practice, has been published. Three authoritative Gelug organizations—the Association of Gelug Masters, the Gelug International Foundation, and the Association for the Preservation of Gelug Monasticism—collaborated to produce a Tibetan work of which this is an English translation, translated by Gavin Kilty.

To give you a well informed concise background on the complex Shugden controversy and this book, we asked the translator if he kindly agrees, to post his excellent preface to the book and the Shugden controversy here on the blog. Gavin Kilty kindly agreed, so here it is.

Translator’s Preface 

Tibetan religious culture likely houses more protectors, or guardians, than any other religion. The pre-Buddhist Bön faith that flourished before the eighth century was well stocked with local deities and nature spirits to which supplications were made for protection, conducive circumstances, and so on. Some of these deities survived the Buddhist incursion, and even when they didn’t, the tendency to rely upon such spirits prevailed in the Tibetan culture. The great Indian tantric master Padmasambhava came to Tibet in the eighth century and proceeded to tame many local, unruly spirits, and made them pledge to work for Buddhism and the common good. But the pantheon of protector spirits in Tibet is not solely indigenous. The colonization of Tibet with Buddhist teachings brought from India a millennium ago also introduced Dharma protectors and other divine beings of Indic origin into Tibet.

Over time, as fledgling Buddhist traditions began to establish themselves all over Tibet, and sects divided and divided again and new monasteries sprang up, they each adopted their own protectors. The result was a bewildering array of nonhuman guardians, some differing only by the number of arms, faces, implements, or color. In one book on Tibetan Buddhist deities, I count fifty-eight different forms of the protector Mahākāla alone. Later many propitiatory rites and invocations of these spirits appeared, many of which Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé (1813–99) includes in his renowned Precious Treasure Collection (Rinchen Terzö).

But what are these nonhuman beings and what is their purpose? As suggested above, some were spirits abiding in a specific locality and going about their business, occasionally making mischief, when a powerful tantric adepts appeared and forced them to pledge themselves to assist practitioners, protect the teachings, and clear away obstacles. Other protectors are themselves spiritually advanced beings who from their own volition work to provide assistance to genuine practitioners. Some are even said to be emanations of enlightened beings. A small subset are human practitioners in previous lives who vowed to be reborn as protectors of the teachings.

Some protectors are associated with specific tantras and some with specific practices. Six-Armed Mahākāla is said to be an emanation of the enlightened deity of compassion and as such is relied upon by those meditating upon the altruistic mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta). Some are wrathful. Some are seers and announce their predictions via oracles. Nechung, the protector for the Tibetan government, is one of these. Some help with mundane considerations, such as the continuation of personal prosperity, the maintenance of health, and so on.

All this assistance afforded by these beings begs a question. A Buddhist practitioner who sincerely goes for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and abides by the ethical precepts is protected from hindrances in this life, the intermediate state, and the next life. Why rely upon these beings when refuge grants protection? What need do Buddhists have for protectors? The answer is that protectors act on behalf of practitioners to help them attain spiritual goals and aims. Protection from sufferings and the obstacles of life is the goal of going for refuge to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and this goal is facilitated by reliance upon protectors. The protectors themselves are not the refuge.

The renowned Tibetan Buddhist master Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) says that there are many oath-bound protectors found in the tantras and the Indian texts, all dedicating themselves to removing hindrances. However, reliance upon them should be in tune with the three scopes of practice described in the stages of the path to enlightenment literature. He says that practitioners focused on the lowest level of practice, for example, contemplates the transience of life together with the unfailing process of karma that determines the nature of the rebirth they will take after death. Protection from a miserable rebirth is afforded by going to refuge to the Three Jewels and following the ethical precepts. For such a person, the main practice is to distinguish virtuous acts from nonvirtuous acts, and to develop the former and reduce the latter. Tsongkhapa recommends to those pursuing this path reliance on the protector Dharmarāja, who is said to be like a king (rāja) or judge who is able to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, or like a mirror that clearly reveals the karmic effects of our actions. In these way, Dharmarāja helps the practitioner accomplish their spiritual goal of attaining refuge.

Seeking the assistance of protectors does not necessarily involve some advanced tantric rite performed in order to harm another. It is said that advanced practitioners “use protectors like servants,” in so much as they can order them about. The less advanced rely upon them as aids to their practice. There is a protector ritual in Tibetan Buddhism called a life-entrustment rite. While this may be seen as entrusting the protector to carry out the tasks allotted to them, some in Tibet have understood it to mean completely handing over one’s life to their protector, effectively placing it in their hands. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has condemned this and said it is the protectors who entrust themselves to us and not the other way around.

There is a saying in Tibet: “Where the Dharma is deep, so the hindrances run deep,” and it is to deal with these hindrances that protectors come into their own. However, with so many protectors volunteering their services within the Tibetan pantheon, and because many of them are not free of their own worldly bondage, it is conceivable that not all will hold the best interests of the practitioner and the spiritual traditions at heart. It is the contention of the compilers of this work that Shukden, or Dölgyal, is one such being.

A Golden Key of Scripture and Reasoning

This book is a translation of a 2013 Tibetan work entitled A Golden Key of Scripture and Reasoning Clarifying the Reality of Dölgyal: Distinguishing the Good from the Bad and Truth from Lies (Dol rgyal gyi dngos yod gnas tshul rab gsal legs nyes bden rdzun rnam ’byed lung rigs gser gyi lde mig). Dölgyal refers to Dorjé Shukden, a nonhuman entity variously called a “religious protector,” “a worldly spirit,” or “a ghost,” according to perspective.

The origins of this book lie in the issue of Shukden that has surfaced in the Tibetan religious community periodically over the past four hundred years, beginning from the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Losang Gyatso (1617–82). The nature of Shukden is a bone of contention. To some he is a fierce but loyal protector of the Tibetan Geluk tradition, or more specifically a guardian of the doctrine of Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa, founder of the Geluk. To others he is a violent, worldly protector, useful for destroying hindrances and obstructions to religious goals, and to some, including the present Dalai Lama, he is nothing more than a ghost, a reincarnated product of perverted prayers.

For many years, Shukden was propitiated by individuals within the Sakya and Geluk traditions. There was never much ritualistic propitiation in monastic assemblies, and consequently the practice remained low-key. It was only when the charismatic Geluk lama Phabongkha Rinpoché (1878–1941) enthusiastically adopted Shukden as the exclusive protector and guardian of Tsongkhapa’s legacy in the form of the Geluk tradition that his name and practice became widespread. This attracted the criticism of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso (1876–1933), who attempted to put a stop to it.

Later in the 1960s, Tibetan religious and secular communities in exile in India were busy rebuilding their society as refugees, and it seems that the controversial nature of Shukden had slipped the collective memory. This was owing to the cultural destruction caused by the Chinese Communist invasion and occupation in the 1950s, and also because Tibetan history is patchily recorded and not well studied. This changed in the 1970s when certain events, recorded in the book, resulted in the Fourteenth Dalai Lama researching the history of Shukden and ultimately denouncing him as a threat to the unity of the Tibetan people in exile in precarious times, when their very identity was threatened.

Over the next two decades the controversy rumbled and, at times, erupted unpleasantly. Most Geluk monks at that time had received teachings from either Phabongkha Rinpoché or his illustrious disciple Trijang Rinpoché (1980–81) and therefore were actively propitiating Shukden. His Holiness stated publically that those who wanted to attend his teachings should give up the Shukden practice. There arose a polarized division between those who supported the stance of the Dalai Lama and a minority who felt he was restricting the freedom to worship as they pleased.

The issue received attention in Western countries and in China. Organized and disruptive protests against the Dalai Lama were held by Shukden supporters whenever he traveled abroad, and it became evident that the Chinese regime was attempting to use the controversy to its advantage both in Tibet and in India.

Finally, in 2008, the Dalai Lama decided that matters had come to a head and suggested that the six main Geluk monasteries in exile hold a referendum to decide once and for all the Geluk approach to Shukden and his followers and that he would be bound by the outcome. The result of the referendum was overwhelmingly in favor of excluding Shukden and his followers. This decree was written into Geluk monastic law and became the official position on Shukden and its practice.

Because of this referendum and because of the many books written in Tibetan that were appearing at that time on the issue of Shukden, some well researched, some not, the Geluk hierarchy believed it was time to produce a definitive account of the history of Shukden, its practices, and its followers. To that end, three authoritative Geluk organizations—the Association of Geluk Masters, the Geluk International Foundation, and the Association for the Preservation of Geluk Monasticism—collaborated to produce the Tibetan work of which this is a translation.

This work is not an inquiry that begins from a neutral stance, only to arrive at firm conclusions after comprehensive research and a review of the evidence. The compiler and publisher of this book are from the Geluk tradition, whose official position, verified by the referendum, is one of complete support for the present Dalai Lama. It is therefore a presentation of the case against Shukden being a genuine protector for the Geluk tradition. Though it marshals extensive research, reasoning, and citations, the aim of the book is clear from the outset.

Although it was expressly hoped that a translation into English would be made for Westerners, who were relatively uninformed on the reality of the Shukden issue, the Tibetan edition is clearly aimed at a Tibetan audience. The Tibetan text carries a polemical tone not uncommon in Tibetan works where criticism and argument form the basic motive for the composition. It disparages opponents and praises its own side. The monastic debate courtyard is often witness to enthusiastic and animated argument, often resulting in the exultation of forcing the opponent into contradiction.

However, it was felt that such passion would not enhance Western appraisal of the arguments in this book and might even serve as a distraction. Therefore we have toned down the rhetorical elements—the excessive praise and the invective. Such editing has not altered the arguments presented in the book. The compilers have been informed of this editing.