Geshe Lhundup Sopa and Dolgyal

By Editor,

Like A Waking DreamGeshe Lhundup Sopa was a respected Geshe from Sera Jey Monastery who went to US in 1962 and later became a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He passed away on 28th Aug. 2014. Before his death, he had narrated his life story to Paul Donnelly who helped him to write his biography, Like a Waking Dream. The biography was published by Wisdom Publications and printed in the United States in 2012. Since his migration to the United States, Geshela had truly worked hard to teach Buddhism in the west; his life story since his early days in Tibet until his final ones in America is recounted in his biography. I am sure he will continue to inspire many for a long time. Geshela’s western students would have welcomed his biography with all eagerness and this book would surely hold a special place in their hearts.

His intention of writing his own story had been sincere and he would not have anticipated anyone misusing his biography to meet their own end. However, this exactly has happened. Kay Beswich from wrote a lengthy reflection on the chapter on Kyabje Phabongkha, often twisting words to support her claims and drawing her own crooked conclusions from whatever would slightly appear as being in her favour. Such cunning misinterpretations will neither succeed in luring those on the side of His Holiness in embracing Dolgyal by accepting him as a Geluk protector, nor will it help them in winning the support and sympathy of the general mass. Although writing a clarification rebuking Kay’s futile interpretations will not help people of her kind to see the facts critically, however, without a proper response, it may appear to some less informed ones that deep down Geshe Lhundup Sopa was not in favour of His Holiness’ opposition to Dolgyal’s practice as an integral part of Buddhism or Tsongkhapa’s tradition. Ideally, even though the duty to respond rests on the shoulder of his biographer Paul Donnelly, or Geshela’s other students such as Sharpa Tulku, Khamlung Tulku and the Deer Park members, it appears that none of them seem to notice that what was written in good spirit has now become a tool for those with crooked mind and belief. On top of the confusions that such misinterpretations could create in the minds of naïve western Buddhists, Geshe Sopa’s reputation in the Buddhist world seem to be dropping. Therefore, in order to clarify things truthfully lest naïve and vulnerable ones get swayed easily, I am writing this response.

Geshela’s effort in his book by speaking for Kyabje Phabongkha was genuine. Since Phabongkha was no doubt a holder of many lineages and a great master, Geshela felt that highlighting Kyabje Phabongkha’s contribution — at a time when people seem to remember him more for his association with Dolgyal than for his teachings of Lamrim and Chakrasamvara Tantra — was vital. For this reason, he spoke about Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche and tried to clarify that Kyabje Phabongkha’s writings on Dolgyal were not meant to criticise other traditions, but were written with a good intention to highlight the unique features of Tsongkhapa’s tradition. How far Kyabje Phabongkha succeeded in this and how skilful were his means in executing his wishes to preserve the tradition of Tsongkhapa need more time and analysis and I will not comment on them here. However, it is quite clear that Geshe Sopa’s biography has lost its lustre due to the carelessness of those who worked on it, although in the absence of the parts being misused by Dolgyal fanatics, it would have been an exceptional story of a simple monk scholar’s journey into two different kinds of world, one a backward nation that has lost its independence, and the other the most prosperous nation on this earth.

The current controversy over the issue of Dolgyal’s practice has been politically twisted by China which, because of their common resentment against His Holiness the Dalai Lama, openly declared support for Dolgyal worshippers. For China, Dolgyal fanatic’s dissatisfactions with the Dalai Lama and CTA could be easily used in their favour to pursue their own political agenda by luring those foolish Tibetans with easy money, which is far better for them than employing any Chinese to do the needful. In the Tibetan society His Holiness Dalai Lama stands out as the greatest force behind the Tibetan struggle against the Chinese rule and the highest religious authority to whom Tibetans pledge complete loyalty and devotion. Hence, Dolgyal fanatics’ opposition to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sincere advice against the practice of Dolgyal and their collaboration with PRC led to them being rejected by the majority of the Tibetans. Who is to be blame for their seclusion?

Those who are vehemently opposed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s position on Dolgyal cite sources from the works of Kyabje Phabongkha and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche as the reason that holds their belief in Dolgyal. They have been creating an impression that they are the true holder of the lineages of Kyabje Phabongkha and Trijang Rinpoche and that the essence of the legacies of these two masters is the practice of Dolgyal. Their collaboration with PRC and open defamation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the name of continuing the legacy of Kyabje Phabongkha and Trijang Rinpoche whom they hail as the apostles of Dolgyal’s practice only helped in disgracing the image of these two lamas in the communities that follow the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Geshe Lhundup Sopa’s inclusion of a chapter on Kyabje Phabongkha in his book seemed to be aimed at undoing the damage to the latter’s reputation and restoring him the respect that he duly deserves for his genuine contributions to Dharma: it was definitely not to support the latter’s stance on Dolgyal.

If he agreed with the position of Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche, then Geshela must have practised Dolgyal at a time when His Holiness was not strongly against the practice. However, those at Sera Jey Tsangpa Khangtsen from where Geshela graduated maintain that they have no idea that he was connected with the Shugden practice. His most famous student Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, the incumbent Jangtse Choeje Rinpoche, has written critically against the practice of Shugden and in support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When those at Geshela’s Dharma centre Deer Park were consulted, they all confirmed that Geshela did not practise Dolgyal. An interesting incidence that clearly demonstrated Geshe’s position on Dolgyal happened in 1978 when he invited Kyabje Zong Rinpoche to teach at Deer Park: Geshe Sopa was present in all of Zong Rinpoche’s teachings except on the day he gave the life-entrusting initiation of Dolgyal. On that day, noticing Geshela’s absence, Zong Rinpoche waited for him for a while and then sent someone to remind him to come for the teaching. Geshela sent his reply that it was not as if he had forgotten to attend the teaching, but because he did not wish to receive it. In those days, just like Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche did, Zong Rinpoche would also give Shugden’s initiation without being requested, although traditionally teachings are not given without being requested three times. Zong Rinpoche had a way of promoting the practice of Dolgyal by giving the life-entrusting initiation freely and this exactly happened during his visit to Deer Park. There are senior members at Deer Park who would confirm this. Those who are interested can write to them to confirm this story.

As far as Kyabje Phabongkha and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche are concerned, apart from disagreeing with their position on Dolgyal, nobody sensible in the Tibetan society has rejected their other legacies and teachings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself holds these two teachers highly by addressing them as the custodian of Lamrim and Chakrasamvara teachings. The lineages of teachings coming through these two great masters are very much alive in the Tibetan society. It is only a minor portion of their legacies that has remained controversial and over which His Holiness and his supporters disagree. Antagonism between the Geluk and other traditions heightened in Tibet because of Kyabje Phabongkha’s rampant introduction of Dolgyal’s practice which was ruthlessly disseminated by some of his students. The controversy over Dolgyal in exile has its root in Kyabje Phabongkha’s role of proliferating Dolgyal whose practice was later strengthened and disseminated by his students. Trijang Rinpoche’s work on Dolgyal’s history as well as Zemey Rinpoche’s ‘Nectars from the Mouth of My Heroic Fatherly Lama’ cite many eminent lamas and high ranking officials in Tibet who were executed by Dolgyal for embracing the Nyingma tradition. This is what Dolgyal fanatics strongly believe in and the reason for the antagonism against the Geluk tradition by the Nyingmapas.

Initially, Kyabje Phaongkha Rinpoche [1878-1841] did not even have the privilege of a senior reincarnation at Sera Mey Monastery. Apart from his qualification as a remarkable lama, another reason for his rise in prominence and popularity was the support of His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama who even accorded him the honour of teaching in place of the Gaden Trinpa at Meru Chichoe. However, in the later part of his life, due to Kyabje Phabongkha’s promotion of Dolgyal, His Holiness reprimanded him and restricted his teaching activities until the end of His Holiness’ own life. Sadly, after the demise of the 13th Dalai Lama until his own, for around 7 years Kyabje Phabongkha rampantly spread the practice of Dolgyal wherever he went. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was born in 1935 and at the time of Kyabje Phabongkha’s demise in 1941, His Holiness was only six years old. Many of those who had received teachings from Kyabje Phabongkha in this period might have received Dolgyal’s practice.

Thus, although Geshe Sopa’s statement that most of the monks at Sera Mey in Tibet had Shugden’s practice may have some truth in it, it was only during Geshela’s own student’s days at Sera that this practice became popular. Historically, this is the beginning of association with Dolgyal in the major seats of the Geluk School. Until then, since Dakchen Sonam Rinchen’s [1704-1741] acceptance of Dolgyal in 1721, he remained in some Sakya monasteries where he was only accorded the status of a king spirit. Kyabje Phabongkha’s lineage of Dolgyal was carried on by Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche [1901-1981] and Zong Rinpoche [1905-1984] who further spread the practice in exile until His Holiness started speaking against Dolgyal in 1978.

If Kyabje Phabongkha was a teacher of teachers, so was His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama, Trichen Ngawang Chogden, Changkya Rolpai Dorji, Thuwuken Chokyi Nyima, Yongzin Yeshi Gyaltsen, His Holiness the 8th Panchen Lama Tenpai Wangchuk, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and yet all of them opposed the practice of Dolgyal. Thus, whether or not the practice of Dolgyal is proper should not be based merely on who practised or opposed Dolgyal, but on historical sources and scriptural validation. If we trace Dolgyal’s history up until the death of Tulku Dakpa Gyaltsen, whom they believe willingly arose as Dorje Shugden and we assert was born as a spirit who came to be called Dolgyal, only the second version, which is also the position of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, has concrete historical basis in the writings of the Great 5th Dalai Lama, Chogyal Terdaklingpa, Dorjedak Rinzin Tulku and Desi Sangye Gyatso. All of them lived around the same time as Tulku Dakpa Gyaltsen and confirmed in their works that Tulku Dakpa Gyaltsen was born as a perilious spirit after his untimely death. The version that contemporary Shugden fanatics cling on to is only based on hearsays which were compiled by recent masters such as Dakpo Kelsang Khedrup, Sogpo Lobsang Tamdin, Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. All these lamas were definitely good scholars and writers, but it appears none of them cared to look for sources in history when writing about Dolgyal. Until the time of these lamas who were all contemporaries, there wasn’t any Geluk master before them who wrote highly of Dolgyal. On the contrary, legendary Geluk lamas before them such as Trichen Ngawang Chokden, the tutor of the 7th Dalai Lama, Yongzin Yeshi Gyaltsen, the tutor of the 8th Dalai Lama, Phurchok Ngawang Jampa and others had forbidden the practice of Dolgyal.

Geshe Lhundup Sopa had studied at Sera Jey Monastery and Kyabje Phabongkha from Sera Mey did not teach him his lessons on a daily basis. However, he had received Lamrim and other more formal teachings from Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche. Geshela remained a loyal student to all his teachers throughout his life, and had never turned against the advice of His Holiness Dalai Lama. Due the sincere devotion with which he had kept his relation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness trusted the content of Geshela’s biography and wrote a forward to it. His Holiness’s forward is by no means an endorsement of the part on Dolgyal in the biography because he does not favour the practice of Dolgyal. The forward to the biography is more of an encouragement to the readers to appreciate the achievements of Geshela and how he had represented the Tibetan culture in the west. In the forward by His Holiness, it says:

‘It is my hope that this engaging account of Geshe Lhundup Sopa’s exemplary life will allow interested readers to deepen their understanding and appreciation of what he has achieved, as well as of the value of Tibetan monastic education’.

Thus, Key Beswich’s hasty conclusion by using His Holiness’ forward and some extracts from the biography only speaks of how biased and incapable people of her kind are in contemplating such issues and drawing distorted conclusions.

As for the usage of the term ‘an exclusively Geluk Dharma protector’ in the biography to refer to Dolgyal, it is not a term Geshela would have used but only an act of carelessness on the part of his biographer who failed to assess the implication of calling Dolgyal with such an honourable title. Geluk’s exclusive Dharma protectors are Mahakala, Dharma Raja and Vaishravana, who had all pledged in front of Tsongkhapa to protect his teachings. Dolgyal came to be associated with the Geluk tradition only during the time of Dakpa Kelsang Khedrup and Kyabje Phabongkha, and no one before them had ever called Dolgyal with this honourable title. Dolgyal is his real name: Dol stands for Dol Chumi Karmo in Lhoka region where he took shelter after becoming a spirit, and Gyalpo is a common Tibetan term for spirits with some power. It is his real name and not any derogatory term. Until the beginning of the 20th century since 1656 when Tulku Dakpa Gyaltsen died, for around 270 years Dolgyal had remained unaccepted by all Geluk monasteries in U-Tsang, especially by Sera, Drepung and Gaden. In Kham and Amdo region, it was never heard of before Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche and Drayab Tokden Rinpoche spread the practice there. Due to the sectarian nature of Dolgyal’s practice, many statues of Guru Padmasambhava and Nyingmapa texts were forcefully thrown into rivers while many Nyingma monasteries were harassed or converted into Geluk; it is this and not jealousy, that led to the antagonism of other traditions against Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche and the Geluk tradition. This is recorded in the biography of Ala Jigme Dhamchoe Gyatso [1898-1946], a renowned lama from Amdo who lived around the same time as Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche. The biography was written by his student Ala Tseten Shabdrung [1910-1985]. Please read the section ‘Dolgyal practitioners’ collaboration with PRC’ on this website for more details.

Paul Donnelly has not been skilful in choosing his words while writing on such a controversial issue and he definitely had some lapse in understanding Geshela’s English. In the editor’s preface, he confesses:

‘Geshela’s spoken English can be a bit difficult to understand for those unaccustomed to it. This necessitated a rather significant amount of participation on my part in the formation of the final narrative, and I hope I have accurately recorded the story of Geshe Sopa’s story’.

Not forgetting to compliment Paul Donnelly for the hard work that he had done in bringing out Geshe’s biography, I wish he had been more careful when including such a controversial topic in the biography. On the first page of his preface, he writes:

‘In 1950, when he [Geshe Sopa] was twenty seven years old, he was chosen to be one of the examiners of His Holiness when the latter sat for his geshe examination’.

In the forward to the book, His Holiness writes: ‘During my final geshe examination in Lhasa, he was one of several very able students chosen to challenge me in debate’.

Geshe Sopa was only a debate partner during His Holiness’s geshe examination and not an examiner. Paul Donnelly uses the same term examiner in the chapter ‘Debating the Dalai Lama’ in the biography. An examiner is supposed to be someone senior in experience, class and learning. The abbots of the three seats, the two hierarchal heads next to the Gaden Tripa, the Gaden Tripa and His Holiness’ tutors formed the committee of examiners for his geshe examination. On page 206, for the term Sungchorawa, he uses Sungchora which doesn’t mean anything in Tibetan; Sungchorawa means teaching courtyard. Paul Donnelly should learn to use his terms carefully if he wants his works to be accepted seriously. It is very clear from his own admission and evidence in the biography that there were communication gaps that he had to fill in, and I do not totally blame him for the lapses.

One noteworthy thing is that Kay Beswich’s article based on Geshela’s biography appeared on on 3rd October, 2014. Geshe Lhundup Sopa passed away on 28th Aug, 2014. The biography was printed in 2012. At the time of posting Kay’s article on their website, Geshela was no more to defend himself and all his students were in mourning and observing the 49 days of prayer for their beloved master. What a cunning timing! It truly suits them well.

I hope my small contribution in clarifying misconceptions about Geshela’s position on Dolgyal will be a relief for many who have always held him in high regards.


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