Shugs Ldan (Shugden)

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SHUGS LDAN . In modern times, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dge lugs (Geluk) school in particular, has been agitated by an intense dispute concerning a controversial deity, Rdo rje shugs ldan (Dorje Shugden). Some of the questions raised by this dispute are common to many Buddhist traditions, where the integration of local deities within a normative Buddhist framework is often delicate. This dispute also raises more particular questions concerning competing conceptions of the Dge lugs tradition.

Buddhists understand themselves to be bound by taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sagha. As such they are not supposed to worship other deities. But this restriction creates difficultiesparticularly, but not only, for those involved in the world. What are they to do with the deities who have, they believe, a large influence on their welfare, health, and prosperity? The standard answer has been that Buddhists may propitiate these lesser mundane deities (asking them respectfully for help) but may not entrust them with their long-term spiritual welfare, an attitude they can adopt only toward supramundane beings, buddhas, bodhisattvas, or arhats. This normative line, however, is often blurred in practice, where respectful propitiation shades into worship. As a result some of the most popular mundane deities have tended to rise toward the supramundane status, at times leading to protracted conflicts.

Tibetan Buddhism has had to deal extensively with such problems. One of the ways various deities (often but not always the indigenous non-Buddhist gods and goddesses) have been integrated in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon is through the notion of dharma protector, a deity who has taken an oath to protect the Buddhist teachings. This type of deity, already known in India, has often been used in Tibet to integrate local deities into the Buddhist pantheon. Based on the model of Padmasamabhava's activities, many of the local gods are understood to be bound by an oath to protect the dharma and are propitiated as such. But this activity has also tended to elevate the status of these gods, leading to controversies. This scenario is quite clear in the case of Shugs ldan.

Shugs ldan's Dge lugs followers claim that their tradition goes back to a rather obscure and bloody episode of Tibetan history, the violent death of Grags pa rgyal mtshan (Drakba Gyeltsen; 16181655), an important Dge lugs lama rival of the fifth Dalai Lama (16171682). Because of his premature death, Grags pa rgyal mtshan is said to have transformed into a wrathful spirit bent on the protection of the doctrinal purity of the Dge lugs tradition. He is also said to have been particularly irked at the Dge lugs lamas, such as the fifth Dalai Lama, who studied and practiced the teachings of other traditions. It is even suggested that the deaths of several of these less orthodox lamas can be attributed to this spirit.

As often occurs, however, historical realities are somewhat different. It was only during the early part of the twentieth century that the systematic connection between Shugs ldan and Grags pa rgyal mtshan appears to have been clearly established. This seems to have been due to Pabongka (18781941), a charismatic teacher who spearheaded a revival movement within the Dge lugs tradition, a movement in part motivated by the success of the nonsectarian revival among the other schools. The connection with Grags pa rgyal mtshan seems to have been a way for Pabongka to justify the adoption of Shugs ldan, originally a non-Dge lugs deity, as the main protector of his movement. In this way Pabongka created a new understanding of the Dge lugs tradition focused on three elements: Vajrayogini as the main meditational deity, Shugs ldan as the protector, and Pabongka as the gūru. Pabongka's vision was also strongly exclusivist. Not only was the Dge lugs tradition considered supreme, its followers were warned of dire consequences in case they had any interest in other traditions. Shugs ldan would take care of them, as illustrated by the story of several eclectic Dge lugs lamas who died prematurely at Shugs ldan's hands.

Shugs ldan appears to have originally been a local deity associated with a small pond in Dol, an area near the junction of the Zangbo and Yarlung Valleys. This deity seems to have been adopted first by the Sagya tradition, where he was considered a minor and yet powerful protector who could be dangerous. He appeared in the Dge lugs tradition as early as the first half of the eighteenth century, when he was propitiated by several important lamas, but they do not seem to have made any connection with Grags pa rgyal mtshan. Moreover, there was no claim for Shugs ldan to be anything but a minor worldly protector used for his power to help in matters of wealth, disease, and protection from spirits. This changed with Pabongka, who made him into one of the main protectors of the tradition. Pabongka's disciple Trijang (19011983), the fourteenth Dalai Lama's charismatic teacher, stressed this practice among his disciples and pushed the glorification of Shugs ldan even further, insisting that this deity is ultimately a fully enlightened buddha who merely appears as a mundane deity.

The novelty of this deity and his exclusive character could not but irritate some Dge lugs teachers, particularly the Dalai Lamas, who have often presented their rule as inclusive of other schools. There was already some tension between Pabongka and the thirteenth Dalai Lama, but the conflict came to the fore only in the 1970s, when the fourteenth Dalai Lama started to make pronouncements against this deity and the accompanying practice. The Dalai Lama seems to have been particularly irritated by a small book about Shugs ldan published by Dzemay, a learned Dge lugs lama. But the main source of opposition seems to have been the Dalai Lama's perception that the Shugs ldan practice undermined the ritual basis legitimizing his rule.

The Dalai Lama institution is not just political. It also rests on an elaborate ritual system that is not limited to Dge lugs practices but includes the deities of other schools, particularly those associated with the early Tibetan Empire. Hence, this ritual system has close ties with the Rnying ma (Nyingma), the Buddhist school most closely associated with the early Empire. This link is particularly visible in the role played in this ritual system by Padmasambhava and by Dorje drakden (Nechung), a Tibetan god who is said to protect the Dalai Lama and his government. The propitiation of Shugs ldan threatened this eclectic system. By presenting Shugs ldan as an exclusive deity in charge of visiting retribution upon those Dge lugs pa who have adopted practices from other traditions, the cult of Shugs ldan undermines the ritual system underlying the Dalai Lama institution as conceived by the present incumbent (the fourteenth Dalai Lama).

Shugs ldan's followers would protest that their practice is primarily not directed at anyone in particular but stems from their religious commitments, particularly their devotion to their teachers Pabongka and Trijang. Nevertheless, the threatening tone of this tradition and its divisiveness are hard to ignore.


Dreyfus, Georges. "The Shuk-den Affair: Origins of a Controversy." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 2 (1998): 227270.

Mumford, Stan. Himalayan Dialogue. Madison, Wis., 1989.

Nebesky-Wojkowitz, René de. Oracles and Demons of Tibet. The Hague, 1956.

Georges Dreyfus (2005)