Dorje Shugden — the divisive one

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What saddens me is that so many strong minds are preoccupied with defending or attacking an invisible spirit rather than honing the skeptical empiricism to which the Buddha dedicated his life.

The Dorje Shugden affair that emerged in the 1970s has brought division and strife to the Tibetan Buddhist community; sadly, murder too. This dispute over an invisible god illustrates the archaic nature of Tibetan Buddhism and is reminiscent of medieval Christianity, when religion, myth, politics, superstition and ethics were entwined under the banner of ‘faith.’

Some people have suggested that I’ve taken sides on this issue; I haven’t. I long ago admitted that my belief in invisible gods was insincere and, though I remain infinitely grateful to my old Tibetan teachers, I no longer identify with Tibetan Buddhism. I’m now just a student of the historical Buddha.

The Dorje Shugden practices are tantric rituals typical of Tibetan Buddhism and cannot be entered into without rites of initiation. Those so inducted are obliged thereafter to consider the initiating lama equivilant to the god itself. Having been asked by the Dalai Lama to cease this practice, Dorje Shugden initiates who remained loyal to their commitments were subsequently ostracized. This caused untold confusion and stress. Add to conflicting loyalties the fear of tantric hell (exponentially worse than conventional hell), and one begins to understand how unbearable this situation has been for many Tibetans and some Westerners. Today, the Tibetan community is split. The founding monastery of the Gelugpa sect in which this schism was hatched, Ganden Namgyal Ling, is today divided internally by a gateless wall.

Taking sides bears social as well as religious consequences. Lifelong teachers and students are estranged. Access to such powerful institutions as the Dalai Lama’s office is barred to Shugden followers. The great monasteries of Sera, and Drepung in South India – centres of the Gelugpa sect at the centre of the division – are split. Explicit signs forbid Shugden followers entry into a variety of monastic and lay institutions, even shops and restaurants.

The bigger tragedy, of course, is that so many strong minds are preoccupied with defending or attacking an invisible spirit rather than honing the skeptical empiricism to which the Buddha dedicated his life.

The Dividing Wall of Ganden Namgyal Ling


The following is from an early draft of The Novice.

Dorje Shugden (also known as Gyalchen Shugden or Dolgyal) is one of many dharma protectors – worldly gods supposedly tamed and converted to the cause of Tibetan Buddhism by tantric yogis. It’s said that some protectors subsequently become practitioners themselves and advance on the path to Buddhahood. While some Tibetans believe Shugden to be an enlightened being, others consider him a danger to their tradition. (See Controversy, right.) Dharma protectors are a characteristic feature of Tibetan Buddhism and are an inheritance from the pre-Buddhist Bön, an animistic religion that presumably grew out of the shamanistic practices of an even earlier society.

 

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