When one thinks of Tibetan Buddhism, one doesn’t think of bitter disputes about doctrine spanning centuries. Conflict over one god in particular has created a rift between his followers and purists, and this schism has followed Buddhism abroad, quietly growing in scope.
Welcome back to part 2 of Leaving the Sangha: On Dorje Shugden, the Dharma protector of the New Kadampa Tradition. The Dalai Lama banned the Dorje Shugden practice, creating a rift between Tibetan Buddhism and the New Kadampa Tradition. Initially I saw this as a grave injustice, but over time found out for myself how Shugden is connected to unhealthy, extreme practices. I shall present a basic history of Dorje Shugden’s practice, and tell my story as a Kadampa and how the Dorje Shugden practice impacted my own life, from becoming ordained to the time I found myself in the middle of a riot in Manhattan.
Among the NKT’s controversies, the Dorje Shugden issue takes center stage. The Shugden issue is a Gelug issue, involving this particular one of Tibetan Buddhism’s four traditions. (The NKT fall under this Gelug umbrella too, but rebranded itself to set them apart.) To understand the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, we have to quickly mention Je Tsongkhapa, the school’s founder. He was renowned as a scholar and teacher, leading a religious reformation, writing out an elaborate, comprehensive essay on all the stages of the path to enlightenment, establishing a massive monastic system, and synthesizing many practices in such a way that it gave birth to Tibetan Buddhism’s fourth school, the Gelugpas. Conflict broke out between these new Yellow Hat Gelugpas, and the Red Hats, which consisted of the three older schools: the Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma. The Gelugs secured political dominance of Tibet with the aid of Gushri Khan and his horde, establishing the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, who ruled the land from Potala Palace.
Shugden emerged later in the 19th century as a latter day protector of the Gelugpa lineage’s purity; namely, to prevent mixing with other traditions. The ecumenical Rime movement began around this time, a novel movement praising the old schools’ contributions to Tibetan Buddhism, and trying to uncover and restore their lost scriptures. There’s definitely a connection between the beginning of Rime and Shugden as a Dharma Protector. Pabongkhapa became the deity’s main proponent in the 1930s, calling upon Shugden to protect the Gelug doctrine from pollution from the Kagyus, Sakyas, and Nyingma, other Buddhist traditions which were beginning to cross-pollinate views through the ecumenical Rime movement. Shugden practice was curtailed, but it persisted, especially under Trijang Rinpoche, the elder tutor of both Kelsang Gyatso and the 14th Dalai Lama. He was taught the practice and even practiced the puja himself for some time.
Lore says that in life, Shugden was a monk and practitioner who vowed to protect Tsongkhapa’s lineage, becoming Dorje Shugden in death. His round yellow hat and flaming wreath symbolize a touchstone for Gelugpa purity. Many today say that he can cause harm to those who get in his way. In the 19th century and long before, war broke out between the Gelug Yellow Hats and the everyone-else Red Hats. However since the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama’s office has taken up the Tibetan standard and use his status to preserve Tibetan culture, keeping the Gelug responsibilities secondary.
Dorje Shugden practice continued quietly but after Trijang Rinpoche’s passing, this practice was curtailed, believed to be harmful to the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama’s life. Shugden practitioners were turned away from his teachings. For the most part, the ban was complied with and people simply took new protectors. This is the reason that many Tibetan Buddhists, Shugden is more demon than deity. To other Buddhists, the snarling face of Dorje Shugden and the politics around his worship seem arcane, if not ridiculous. Thus many western Buddhist groups simply avoid the NKT and other Shugden followers because of the tendency for inflammatory rhetoric.
Outside of the Dalai Lama’s sphere of influence, the New Kadampa Tradition flouted this ban, holding protests along the Dalai Lama’s European lecture circuit, crying out loud chants such as Dalai Lama, Stop Lying and Dalai Lama, Give Religious Freedom. This first round of protests got a fair deal of confused media attention, but petered out. Another round of protests occurred in the late ’00s, seemingly out of nowhere, but in actuality it began at the urging of Kelsang Gyatso. I recall this movement’s resurrection — I was there for a portion of it and can testify to my experience and recollections from this bizarre sectarian spat. Definitely wasn’t the post-college excursion you’d expect…
Meditation became a part of my life when I was 17. When I first started attending my local NKT outlet, Odiyana Meditation Center, I went explicitly for the meditation to help deal with stress and bullying. I loved the community but didn’t want to believe in any hocus pocus. All I wanted to do was make earnest spiritual progress, visiting my area teacher with more and more reverence. Unwittingly I signed myself as a Buddhist hanger-on. Not even a month in, I am encouraged to try the Dorje Shugden practice Heart Jewel, but manage to resist this pressure for several years.
I began Heart Jewel practice in college, concluding my day’s studies with an earnest attempt to attempt a daily practice. Senior year in particular — when the question of my future gripped me, career, family, everything — I was thirsty for refuge and tried it out more. Eventually it gave me comfort, and I found warmth in Tsongkhapa, but the Shugden stuff remained a quick afterword at the time. My visits to the Buddhist center on weekends were increasingly marked by injunctions to respect Dorje Shugden’s power, if not to fear it.
I finished undergraduate school and then began studying teaching in 2007, right when a new entity known as the Western Shugden Society circulated a text filled with fierce denouncements — A Great Deception: The Ruling Lamas’ Policies. This text contains incredibly strong denouncements and recriminations against the Dalai Lama, calling him a secret Muslim and a dictator the likes of Hitler or Mussolini. The WSS was a shell organization founded by NKT leadership to protect the NKT brand from negative press. Heart Jewel seemed to be pulling me into a whole other world.
College studies had just concluded when a circuit of demonstrations against the Dalai Lama were being planned throughout the Northeastern US. Strongly urged by my teacher to go for “boatloads of merit,” I told my parents I was going to a meditation retreat, and drove out to the Kadampa temple in Glen Spey, where I stayed in a tent between protests. We followed the Dalai Lama to Lehigh University where a brief argument with Robert Thurman broke out, we packed into buses and rode out to Wisconsin, breaking down and getting stranded a night in rural Pennsylvania at one point, marched through downtown Philadelphia chanting “Dalai Lama Stop Lying” and “Give Religious Freedom” incessantly, waving on inflammatory signs printed in red and black. We slept on mats and cots and air mattresses. However the craziest experience happened when we converged on Manhattan.
The Dalai Lama was giving a teaching about the Four Noble Truths in Radio City Music Hall — an event much-anticipated by Tibetan Buddhists and the Western Shugden Society alike. Across the street from the venue, we were allotted a small area surrounded by those small metal barricades which seemed to be everywhere in the city. The NYPD hovered nearby, vigilance, having a few horse-mounted officers just in case. The standard New Yorker did not seem interested in the literature, just walking by at full speed. The up one or two who did stop did not understand our argument, thinking it too arcane. I swallowed this like gum stuck in my mind years to come.
Then the teaching ended, and a huge crowd suddenly filled the Avenue of Americas, surrounding the small pen of Shugden protesters. Suddenly a Tibetan counter-protest arose, counting perhaps two or three hundred; they called us demon followers, cultists, and agents of China. This last accusation was the main theme of the signs that they spontaneously produced. Our side didn’t relent, and our chanting grew louder as well, filled with righteous indignation. The Tibetans waved dollar-bills at us, goading us to take the money; the women lifted up their traditional aprons and flapped them at us, the ultimate Tibetan insult.
Objects began raining down upon us, mostly empty plastic bottles, but then they began throwing coins and I saw a glass bottle fall near the street in front of me and shatter. Panic started to fill my mind; I was ad hoc assigned the task of security. The police officers protecting us were alarmed, taken aback by the numbers; they did not prepare for this. They rushed about on horseback down the Avenue of the Americas, keeping the counter-protesters back as they gradually drew inward throwing all the change in their pockets. A helicopter appeared and just hovered overhead. I thought I was in a nightmare.
More police show up, bringing our school bus transport through the now-barricaded street, and stopping it right in the middle of it all. The door opened and people ran in, trying to remember all their things. “Leave them! Get on the bus! Get on the bus!” shouted the cops over the noise, shepherding us all onto the bus overcapacity and sent us out of the block to elsewhere in the city, anywhere really, where we could stop. Almost immediately justifications spiritual proclamations came from the ordained in the back, “Dorje Shugden surely protected us there! Wow! Aren’t you happy you did your Heart Jewel?” Laughter followed, the inner ideology spontaneously reacting to the very real danger we narrowly escaped. Shell-shocked, scared, and disturbed, the justifications put me back at ease, and discouraged me from bugging out and running back home like my gut told me to.
One conversation which we had on the sidewalk with a follower of the Dalai Lama was the most telling: he was following his spiritual guide, just as we Kadampas were. On both sides, we were engaged in the same practice, but roaring at each other over who was right about the Shugden controversy. It seemed like if the entire situation was deescalated, that both sides would quickly become the best of friends. But the gurus had their views, we were obligated to follow and carry on this curious conflict. In the back of my mind, a gap of cognitive dissonance began: why are Buddhist leaders fomenting conflict, when it could easily be put aside? Gyatso claims such great wisdom and attainment, but unleashes his followers like hungry, self-righteous dogs — and behavior isn’t perfect on the other side of the fence either. The greatest actual attainment would be dropping the whole damn schism and moving on with life.
No doubt following the Shugden caravan around the US led me to move back to Connecticut to study with the NKT. One year later, I was an ordained monk with a new name: Kelsang Longku. Making prayers to Guru and Protector, I dedicated my life to spiritual practice, completely committed to the flourishing of the NKT. There was promise to bring meaning, perhaps dispel some darkness of depression, and maybe even purify the karma of my juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. However, the high-demand, little-reward lifestyle was incredibly taxing, and when I was finally halted and disabled by this arthritis, I had time to stop and think. It didn’t seem my hard work afforded me the protection I’d hoped for, not even peace, just stress and worry about delusion. Luckily, this crucible opened a door for me; a door of personal liberation.
In the next installment, I will discuss ordination in the NKT, how I became a Kadampa monk, how I left, extracted myself from the situation and deprogrammed, in addition to the global empire NKT leadership being aggressively built on the backs of their young followers.