‘A lesson for the Dalai Lama’?



An interesting article has appeared in OpenDemocracy titled ‘A lesson for the Dalai Lama’ by Johannes Nugroho. It summarises and analysis some of the issues in Tibetan Buddhism about the so-called Dorje Shugden controversy.

Dorje Shugden is a Tibetan Buddhist deity which is meant to protect members of the Gelugpa school. From 1978, the Dalai Lama (who is a Gelugpa), began to outlaw the use of Dorje Shugden as a protector of the purity of the Gelugpa school against influence from other Tibetan schools of Buddhism, particularly Nyingma teachings.

There are interesting themes to be noted in this controversy. As Nugroho suggests:

Many supporters of the Dalai Lama have also voiced their opinion that the NKT [the UK-based New Kadampa Tradition founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso who advocates the use of Dorje Shugden] does not qualify as Tibetan Buddhist practice, implying that it is heretical. However, the concept of heresy itself goes against the core of Buddhist teaching which is far from being doctrinal in nature.

I’m not sure that the notion of heresy is as much of an aberration in Buddhist history as Nugroho seems to think and I would have much to say about the nature of Buddhist doctrines. However his points are well made. His main idea is that there intricate cultural patterns at work within Tibetan Buddhism and that Western liberal converts often disguise and blur some of these cultural intricacies. However, he takes these arguments further:

There is undeniably a great difference in cultural values between Tibetan Buddhists who grew up within their community in India and the western converts who were raised with liberal western values. But this is no longer the end of the story.

The lesson for the Dalai Lama that Nugroho proposes is the following:

There is no doubt that the conflict over Dorje Shugden will continue to haunt the Dalai Lama, unless he somehow reconciles himself with the Shugden followers.

Twenty five years on after his Nobel Prize, he must also realize the world has changed, and so has Tibetan Buddhism. From a faith being practiced by a remote land-locked nation, it has become a fast growing religion in the west, as well as a model of tolerance.

Further, with the advances in technology and the internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the Tibetan and the global audiences, and to try and approach them differently.


2 thoughts on “‘A lesson for the Dalai Lama’?

  1. Thanks for pointing this out, Paul.

    I agree with Nughoro that some sort of reconciliation is needed and wrote along those lines in June (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/americanbuddhist/2014/06/the-shudgen-cult-dalai-lama-protests-race-and-genocide.html).

    Right now, however, both sides seem to be moving away from rather than toward one another. This seems like an area where academics, presumably outside either camp, can do a great service to both and to the broader community by laying out the merits and faults of both. At the Shugden controversy conference I went to in London in August,* Martin Mills really did an outstanding job of this as an anthropologist who has spent time on the ground in a Geluk monastery dealing with the issue. He and Nathan Hill did a great job and I’d love to see more from both, as well as from other scholars, on this issue. A lot of the cultural patterns that you mention are bubbling up to the surface and it’ll be up to the Dalai Lama and others to decide on whether they maintain them (such as the use of oracles) or downplay or abandon them (such as the strong sectarian disputes) in order to maintain their relevance in the 21st century.


  2. Thanks Justin – some great information and ideas there. And of course, you attended the conference in August. I must follow-up on some of the papers from that. As you will understand my interest in this comes from the notion of heretical views, and possible heretical actions and teachings apparent in this controversy.

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