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The Dorje Shugden Controversy

Destroying Tibetan Buddhism in Order to Save It?


I have hesitated to weigh in on the Shugden controversy because I practice Zen Buddhism, and the Shugden controversy involves aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that are mystifying even to other Buddhists. But the continuing demonstrations against His Holiness the Dalai Lama need to be explained, so I will do the best I can.

Dorje Shugden is an iconic character from Tibetan mythology. Much of Tibetan iconography features deities and heavenly beings representing the dharma or an energy or function of enlightenment, such as compassion. In tantric Buddhist practice (which is not limited to Tibetan Buddhism), meditation, chants, and other practices that focus on these iconic characters cause the energy or function they represent to arise in the practitioner and become manifest. Thus, these beings are best understood as archetypes.

The Tibetan Distinction

Tibetan Buddhism, with its elaborate schema of who is a consort, reincarnation or wrathful manifestation of whom, does seem to see the iconic characters as a bit more real and solid than do other Buddhists. And this seems out of keeping with Buddhism's non-theistic nature.

As Mike Wilson explains in this very insightful essay, “ Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangra-La - internal conflicts in Tibetan Buddhist sect,” the Tibetans consider all phenomena to be creations of mind. This is a teaching based on a philosophy called Yogacara, and it is found in many schools of Mahayana Buddhism, not just Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetans reason that if people and other phenomena are creations of mind, and gods and demons are also creations of mind, then the gods and demons are no more or less real than fish, birds and people. Thus, the heavenly beings are not just archetypes, but "real," although empty of inherent existence. This interpretation is, I believe, unique to Tibetan Buddhism.

Who Is Dorje Shugden?

Dorje Shugden is a dharmapala, or dharma protector, who entered Tibetan mythology about three centuries ago. There are various explanations of exactly who he is, but his devotees consider him to be an emanation of Manjusri Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.

See "The Battle of Sixth Avenue" for historical background on Dorje Shugden and the sect that supports him.

See the Western Shugden Society for more explanation from the perspective of Shugden followers.

Why Is This a Big Deal?

In "The Shuk-Den Affair: Origins of a Controversy," academic Georges Dreyfus details the origins and development of the Shugden mythology, and why His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to object to it in the mid-1970s. To violently encapsulate a very complicated story, the Shugden controversy has deep roots in an old dispute about the authority of the Dalai Lama. Shugden veneration also has a history of stirring up staunchly sectarian, even fundamentalist, passions among its followers, setting schools of Tibetan Buddhism against each other.

On several occasions, His Holiness has stated these reasons for discouraging Shugden veneration:

  • Shugden worship encourages sectarian enmity. His Holiness wants to promote non-sectarianism and tolerance among the four major schools and various sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Loyalty to Shugden is counterproductive to this goal.
  • Shugden worship is not Buddhism. This is obviously true. Buddhism is not a spirit-worship religion.
  • Shugden worship is bad for Tibet. Among other things, it is alleged that the Shugden cult, which goes about protesting the Dalai Lama wherever he speaks publicly, is being supported by the government of China.

Mike Wilson's “ Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangra-La - internal conflicts in Tibetan Buddhist sect,” is helpful for understanding the Shugden controversy.


According to Mike Wilson, cited above, Shugden devotees are most likely responsible for the ritualistic murders of three anti-Shugden clerics in Dharamsala in 1997. At the same time, the Shugden sect perpetually complains that it is the victim of religious discrimination, because the Dalai Lama does not permit observance of Shugden devotion.

The answer for the Shugden followers is obvious -- declare independence from all Tibetan Buddhist institutions and start your own sect. There is probably some reason why this isn't an acceptable solution for them, but I don't know what that reason would be.


Shugden followers will complain that this article presents a one-sided view. Well, yes, it does, and that one side is that Buddhism is not a spirit worship religion. At a time when Buddhism is still being introduced to the West, it is damaging to all schools of Buddhism to be confused with spirit worship.

Tibetan Buddhism is being systematically flushed out of Tibet by the government of China. As Tibetan Buddhism scatters, disembodied, around the globe, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is struggling to maintain some cohesion and integrity within it. The Shugden controversy clearly is weakening that effort.

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