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Book Review - Dolgyal Shugden

Published in the International Journal of Cultic Studies, 2015, from the International Cultic Studies Association. IJCS is a refereed annual journal that publishes scholarly research on cultic phenomena across a range of disciplines and professions with a view of making research results available to researchers, practitioners, and policy makers across the world. IJCSseeks to advance the understanding of cultic phenomena in their relationship to individuals, families, and society, notably in their psychological, social, legal, educational, religious, and cultural dimensions.

Book available here, posted comments are a looking glass into the NKT cult. Many pages of the book are viewable withoug purchase. Education is a good thing.

The review...

"Dolgyal Shugden: A History is an anonymously penned report about the Tibetan deity or “demon” Shugden, its cult, and the cult’s effect on the perceptions, politics, and culture of Tibet. The cult or “new religion” in question has been centered in the United Kingdom since 1991 under the name New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), established by Kelsang Gyatso. The NKT has its base in the former Manjushri Institute, “a large Buddhist college situated at Conishead Priory in England from 1976 until its dissolution in 1991” (Manjushri Institute).

The book’s stated goal is “to clarify the ignorance and misconceptions surrounding gyalpo Shugden and his relationship with the Dalai Lamas of Tibet.” Readers will learn how, far from being widely worshiped, historical evidence shows Shugden received minimal attention, first within just two, then only one of the four main Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and then within the provenance of an influential but politically motivated, highly sectarian lama whose practice deviated significantly from his forbears.

For the past three centuries, Shugden was regarded as “one of the violent gods” of the Nyingma or Geluk tradition of the Yellow Hat teachings headed by Dalai Lamas.

The book offers a thorough context for this controversial worship of a demon, which is the original designation for Shugden, who has wrathful and protector sides similar to Shiva or Kali of Vedic mythology. A recent news release not in the book regards a statement by the current 14th Dalai Lama to a German newspaper that he would not “reincarnate” in China, and that also means in Tibet under current political realities. The 14th Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959 in protest of China’s forceful and often brutal domination of Tibet. In typical Communist doublespeak, the Chinese authority demands that the present Dalai Lama follow Tibetan tradition, in which for the past several hundred years Dalai and Panchen Lamas have been reborn in Tibet, and all this in the name of “freedom of religion.” The 14th Dalai Lama points out that the Chinese named their own Panchen Lama child, whom China controls in protest of Panchen Lama devotees.

In 1995, after the Dalai Lama named a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, China put that boy under house arrest and installed another in his place. (Reuters Edition UK, 2014) The book rigorously dismisses the NKT cult claim that Shugden worship “is a simple prayer … to develop pure minds of faith, love, and compassion.”

The book alleges that devotees published details boasting of the spirit’s involvement in the bloody and wretched deaths of dozens of genuine, non-sectarian Buddhists … and implicated in the brutal murder of three Tibetan monks in India.

The authors compare the NKT and its authoritarian, “charismatic” leader to the behavior of infamous cults, including “Moonies” or followers of Sun Yung Moon, who also used his power politically to manipulate governments. NKT exaggerates its influence as inclusive of “4,000,000” supporters, whereas the data unearthed by the authors sets devotees at around “30,000.” The NKT has successfully sold its “traditional” and charitable Buddhist image to gain financial advantage of public funds in the United Kingdom. The NKT has had a “bogus” front group called Freedom Foundation. NKT claims no formal connection to the political Western Shugden Society, yet most activists in WSS are NKT members.

The book’s authors claim to have uncovered evidence of NKT and its leader conspiring with Chinese Communist authorities, “each of whom are equally intent on promoting Shugden worship so as to undermine the reputation of the Dalai Lama.” The Dalai Lama in 1996 instituted prohibitions against Shugden worship, which was established within Buddhist tradition sometime after 1655 CE. Unnamed Chinese officials attended a Shugden oracle session in 2004. An oracle approved by the Chinese “played corporeal host to (Shugden) for a time.” It appears that Chinese atheists view Shugden as one of the pantheon of Chinese deities, thus absorbing a religious side of Tibet into China, as well.

Shugden means “powerful thunderbolt,” and the spirit is believed to be that of a learned monk, Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen (1619–1655), who was a candidate as a child to become the 5th Dalai Lama. Instead, he was chosen to be the 3rd incarnation of the Panchen Lama. A rivalry developed between devotees of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama—a complicated story about whether Tulku Drakpa committed suicide or was murdered—but the result was the appearance of Shugden through an oracle with attendant signs and wonders that threatened the Dalai Lama faction.

Shugden worship bases its reality on what oracles do, similar to modern New Age mediums who channel a spirit, god, or angel, and to Pentecostal evangelists who “prophecy” while possessed by the Holy Spirit of Christianity.

Lopez writes (p. 188): “The source of the difficulty (threatening signs and wonders) was identified, and a series of lamas and magicians were called in to exorcise the wrathful spirit.” The exorcists failed. A compromise was reached, the Dalai Lama’s Geluk sect or faction “propitiated” the demon through rituals and offerings, the demon agreed to desist from harm, and since then, more than three centuries ago, Shugden has been a “protector” of Geluk monks and monasteries (a kind of St. Michael the Archangel for Buddhists).

The Dalai Lamas including the 14th continue this tradition of consulting a spirit—the primary one for a Dalai Lama is the Nechung oracle, not Shugden. The Dalai Lama is on slippery ground here, as the authors of Dolgyal Shugden point out. He is essentially bucking three centuries of traditional acceptance of Shugden by aspects of his Geluk sect. Rivals among the NKT also are quick to point this out. However, according to the book, the NKT has no ground to claim that Shugden is an established Bodhisattva, or enlightened being. That myth is perpetrated only by the Shugden cult. Deities or demons such as Shugden have no enlightened status in the tradition despite having special qualities—sort of like Catholic saints who specialize in healing, chastity, protection, or finding lost things, yet who are in no way equal to God. In fact, Shugden shrines were already being dismantled in the 1700s and later because, the book says, many lamas noted that Shugden was “evil” and mischievous and anything but an enlightened spirit.

The NKT however, continues to propagate, training “teachers” in the naïve West, teachers who claim to have achieved some kind of enlightened status based on having passed courses in the General Program (GP), the Foundation Program (FP), and the Teacher Training Program (TTP) designed by NKT. The GP begins with a “transmission” of the tradition by a brief reading of one of the leader’s books. The GP is similar to teaching and initiation rituals of other hybrid new religions such as Transcendental Meditation with its watered-down version of Vedic tradition and success at making a business or franchise out of Eastern religion for Western consumption. The GP is the “McDonaldization” of Tibetan Buddhism, a term the authors borrow from sociologist George Ritzer (1995), in which religious experience becomes quantifiable, controlled, and predictable. The authors of Shugden: A History add that NKT devotees involved in the Western Shugden Society (WSS) as the political arm of NKT may be unwitting pawns in a political game, an ongoing power grab for control of the Tibetan homeland."