Are they Buddhists? PART I

The controversial issue of Shugden/Dolgyal might appear like a small issue, but it isn’t as it concerns the very fundamental of all Buddhist practices. Buddhism is not a simple religion with a simple philosophy and practice. The idea behind the practice of every religion is to seek happiness and eliminate sufferings, and so the question of the sources of our sufferings and the concept of a creator or its absence really matter to every being who desire to be happy, for now and forever. The Buddhist approach which consists of all ranges of views and paths is fundamentally based on the acceptance of the three jewels as the only refuge: the Buddha is the ultimate guide; the real refuge is Dharma while Sangha is the ultimate support to look up to when transcending on the paths to liberation. Although there are different interpretations of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and different ways of taking refuge in them, at the core of every Buddhist practice and vow is the refuge in the three jewels that determines whether your practice is a Buddhist practice and whether you are a Buddhist or not. Critically speaking, unless and until you have the refuge mind within you, unlike other religious traditions, nobody is a born Buddhist from the beginning. Having said that, those who think they are Buddhist must look within to check if they have the indispensable refuge precept in them or not, instead of dwelling peacefully in the thought of being Buddhist even as the painful reality — to which they might remain oblivious for the rest of their lives — is the complete opposite.

Shugden fanatics such as Tsem Tulku, Kelsang Gyatso, Gangchen Lama and others like them — who received various teachings, vows and empowerment from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama — have all chosen to take refuge in a spirit whose antagonism against the Institute of the Dalai Lama had led to its birth as a perilous spirit. Basically, there are two divergent views on the actual nature of the spirit: while one side maintains that the spirit is a divine being who has arisen as a protector, the other believes that there is more evidence to prove its viciousness than sacredness. Whichever people might choose to believe in, an undeniable fact still remains that even the foremost proponents of Shugden, such as Kyabje Phabongkha and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, have maintained that the spirit has taken the form of a worldly wrathful-being. Thus, as long as our capability to see its real nature is absent within us, we have to treat the spirit as a worldly being since it appears as worldly.

Shugden has never been mentioned in any authentic Tantra of Buddha Shakyamuni or any of the Indian masters. Its practice within the Sakya tradition, which initially adopted the spirit, was only limited to the practice of a worldly protector. Since its inception until now, Dolgyal has never been accepted properly by any of Tibet’s four Buddhist schools. Last year, the International Geluk Conference held in Dharamsala, led by Geluk’s three hierarchical heads with participants from all around the world, unanimously passed a resolution which declared that the contemporary Shugdenpas do not belong to the Geluk School. Beside the Shugden fanatics’ manner of practicing a controversial spirit in the name of Buddhism and Geluk’s unique feature, and beyond their hyperbolic and hypercritical blusters against His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there are other reasons for the Geluk conference to come to such a decision. One is in regards to the refuge precept, the indispensable criterion that defines and qualifies a practitioner as a Buddhist. This is one of the most important reasons why His Holiness was against the overt propitiation of Dolgyal in the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries and elsewhere. If you look at the talks of His Holiness on Dolgyal during his teachings, almost all of them were spoken in connection with the refuge precept.

Generally, the actual propitiation of any protector by any realized masters would involve his/her arising into a tantric deity to enslave protectors or spirits, binding them to pledges and setting them on tasks. If Kyabje Phabongkha and Trijang Rinpoche were qualified tantric masters, then they would have surely done their propitiation of Shugden in the same manner in which past Buddhist yogis had propitiated their protectors. Thus, the question of seeking refuge in Shugden or any other worldly deity does not arise for a spiritually accomplished master such as these two, whatever their ultimate thought on Shugden’s real nature might be. The real question is, ‘how do contemporary Shugden fanatics propitiate Dolgyal’?

With Kelsang Gyatso elevating Shugden/Dolgyal to the status of a tantric deity and Tsem building in his Kechara Centre in Malaysia a statue of Dolgyal that towers above Buddha Shakyamuni’s image, undeniably, Shugden fanatics like them have proven beyond doubt that they hold Dolgyal in the highest of esteem: with such conspicuous flaunting of devotion towards their Buddha Shugden, there is no need of further proof to establish their refuge in Shugden/Dolgyal.  Shugden followers are known as Buddhist around the world and they pretend as if they have the refuge precepts of a Buddhist. However, by choosing a controversial spirit over His Holiness the Dalai Lama who bestowed them with the three kinds of kindness, Tsem Tullku, Kelsang Gyatso, Gangchen Lama and many like them made it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that they have sought refuge in Shugden.

Kelsang Gyatso received the 2nd Kalachakra Empowerment and the 5th Dalai Lama’s Lamrim ‘Instructions from the Mouth of the Gentle One[Jamphel Shelung] from His Holiness at the Norbulingka Palace in Tibet in 1956. The present Jangtse Choeje Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tenzin of Sera Jey Tsangpa Khangtsen remembers sitting next to Kelsang Gyatso at that teaching. It is also very clear that for seventeen years while he was in India from 1960 until 1977, he received many teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave his lengthiest teaching on Tsongkhapa’s ‘Graduated Steps of Path to Enlightenment’ for two months at Dharamsala in 1969, Kelsang Gyatso attended the whole teaching and received the Bodhichitta vows and the White Tara Initiation at the conclusion. Gen Lamrimpa Jamphel Tenzin, a hermit who wrote two books against the practice of Dolgyal, states in his second book that he was next to Kelsang Gyatso during that teaching. When, at the request of Geshe Lhundrup Soepa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave the Kalachakra Empowerment at Deer Park in Madison in 1987, Kelsang Gyatso also went there to receive the teachings. Thus, His Holiness is definitely a lama who bestowed the three kinds of kindness on him. Other Shugden bigwigs are no exception as they too had earlier accepted His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as their lama and received numerous teachings from him before their own bigotry and narrowed mentality got over their commitments; thus, they all abandoned their lama to embrace Dolgyal/Shugden. For this reason, no sensible person could ever deny that these Shugden fanatics take refuge in their Buddha Shugden.

Even if we were to accept that Shugden is a Buddha, he appears as worldly and this fact is confirmed even by the writings of Kyabje Phabongkha and Trijang Rinpoche. Hence, for taking refuge in what appears as a worldly deity, contemporary Shugden lamas and their students have abandoned their ‘refuge precepts [absolute refuge in the three jewels]’ to the point of complete defeat. In other word, because of their dual refuge, they are no more Buddhist, even if they have not forsaken refuge in the three jewels.

In the commentary to Geshe Potowa’s ‘Heap of Precious Jewels’, Tsunpa Sherab Dorji says:

Riding on Two means this: nowadays, among those who are considered capable, as evidence that they do not fully trust the three jewels, most of them propitiate a worldly deity by calling it a protector. Those from Dakyab would say this:

‘In this life, we rely on Pehar [Nechung], and in the future [lives], we would rely on the three jewels.’

Doing like this is a sign that they do not trust the three jewels, which is dangerous in the future. Like a person riding on two horses, this is hopeless. There is nothing wrong in offering ritual cakes to the worldly deities for the purpose of setting them on tasks, or out of compassion. However, by accepting them as refuge objects or by relying on them [whole heartedly], if you offer them ritual cakes, your refuge will be forsaken.”  

Although the ‘Commentary to the Eulogy of Dolgyal’ by Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche speaks of Nechung as being a completely enlightenment being, as it has the appearance of a worldly deity, seeking refuge in Nechung would also forsake our refuge in the three jewels. Whatever their true nature might be, both Nechung and Dolgyal come through mediums and appear to possess delusions. So, both of them should be treated as worldly deities. Surprisingly, although their only source for believing in Shugden as a Buddha are the works of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche, turning a blind eye to their acceptance of Nechung as the manifestation of the five aspects of Buddha, refers to Nechung as a worldly protector and Shugden a trans-worldly protector.

All of the four major schools of Buddhism of Tibet accept that Nechung is the manifestation of the five aspects of Buddhas as has been accepted by many past masters such as Guru Padmasambhava, the Great 5th Dalai Lama and so forth. However, based on our ordinary appearance, Nechung is only treated as a worldly protector by all the four schools of Tibet. Whatever Nechung’s real nature might be, as his ordinary appearance is undeniable, no realised master would recommend anyone to seek refuge in Nechung as this would strip them off their refuge in the three jewels. Sadly, Shugden fanatics simply cling to claims in the writings of Kyabje Phabongkha and Trijang Rinpoche, which are based on Shugden’s own statements when he came into trance, and not on their years of thorough investigation or impeccable experience. Ideally, even though such claims need to be verified through their sources in authentic Tantra, or be confirmed by Shugden’s legacy, they have turned a blind eye to the fact that there isn’t any source in any reliable tantric text [by Buddha Shakyamuni or other Indian masters] to confirm their claims, and that the legacy of Shugden as provided in the works of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Zemey Rinpoche only prove Dolgyal’s viciousness by highlighting his persecution of eminent masters and high ranking officials for embracing Nyingma practices.

In his ‘Excellent Illumination of the Intents of the Buddha’, Sakya Pandita [1182-1251] says:

‘The refuge mind is not forsaken merely by prostrating, making offerings and giving ritual cakes to the [worldly] protectors and the ten directional protectors. However, by taking refuge in them, it is destroyed.’

In his ‘Graduated Steps of Path to Enlightenment’, Tsongkhapa says:

‘Although there are different ways of determining whether someone is a Buddhist or not, Atisha and Shantipa accepted that the refuge mind is the one that distinguishes Buddhists from Non-Buddhists.’

Tsongkhapa further states:

‘Without abandoning refuge in the three jewels, taking a second refuge in another three, such as in another guide, who are inconsistent with them [the three jewels] is also against the vow of not seeking another refuge, and shows one’s lack of confidence in the refuge [the three jewels]; thus, this is an actual abandonment of refuge [in the three jewels].’  

This is not without any source for in the ‘Sutra of Transcending Beyond Sorrow’, the Buddha says:

‘The one who seeks refuge in the three [jewels]

Is called a proper upasika.

[Upasika literally means ‘being inclined towards virtue/liberation’];

He/she should never seek refuge in another god.’

In Kyabje Phabongkha’s ‘Liberation in the Palm of Hand’, he says:

‘Some, who claim to be practitioners or scholars, when they are desperate, or in order to gather followers, or in order to appeal to others, have no doubt about practicing Bon and other barbaric traditions. As they have accepted dual refuge, they have abandoned their refuge, and are therefore excluded from the midst of Buddhists.’

Kyabje Phabongkha also states thus:

‘Nowadays, when some bikshus come across difficulties and are desperate, they go towards cairns of worldly deities and offer prostrations with such humility; this is an act of disgracing the practitioners by dragging their feet, and as I have pointed this out earlier, if you have dual refuge, the refuge precepts within you will be destroyed, and you will be ousted from the midst of Buddhists.’

Therefore, all the vows and empowerment that contemporary Shugden Lamas have given, and everything that they have given to their students after completely submitting themselves to Shugden cannot be considered Buddhist teachings as none of them have the foundation of absolute refuge in the three jewels. If none of them are Buddhist, then how would any religious commitments as enshrined in the Buddhist scriptures apply to those converts who consider these non-Buddhists as their teachers or lamas?

In Tsongkhapa’s ‘Graduated Steps of Path to Enlightenment’, he says:

“Therefore, at the beginning, to be included among Buddhists, one has to wholeheartedly accept the three jewels as the guide and so forth, and if this is missing, whatever virtuous actions are committed, those will not be included within Buddhism. It is the foundation of all vows; in the ‘Commentary of Abhidharma’, it says:

‘Seeking refuge is the door for the proper acceptance of all the vows.’  

In the ‘Seventy Stanzas of Refuge’, it says thus:

‘For the three upasikas [lay practitioners, novice and fully ordained]

Taking refuge in the three [jewels]

Is the root of all the eight vows [eight kinds of self-liberation vows]’.”  

In ‘Liberation in the Palm of Hand’, Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche also says this:

‘For the acceptance of any of the three vows [self liberation, bodhisattva and tantric], refuge [in the three jewels] is the foundation to start with, and without it, they do not grow: just as the earth is the foundation for building houses and for the growth of crops, plants and forests, so is refuge [in the three jewels] the basis for the generation of all the vows.’

Thus, the commitments to the Dharma teacher as expounded in the lamrim and tantric teachings can only apply to a Buddhist teacher whom you have accepted as your teacher and who has bestowed you with teachings; ideally he or she should be someone who has at least one fourth of the qualifications required. As every Buddhist teaching, empowerment and vow have the absolute refuge in the three jewels as the foundation to begin with, if they are not Buddhist from the time they took refuge in Shugden, since then, how could their students have received any real vows or empowerments from them when the very foundation of refuge for such vows and empowerment is absent within them?

to be continued…

The Editor
Write to us at

↑ Back To Top ↑