May 23, 2013

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Controversial Art, Part 1 - Dorje Shugden

Jeff Watt

Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this "Himalayan Buddhist Art 101" series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

Controversial Art, Part 1: Dorje Shugden

There are several different qualities that can make a piece of art controversial. Sometimes it's the content of the image itself which is deemed offensive, and other times it might be what is symbolized, the medium, or the intention of the work. Many of the subjects depicted in Himalayan and Tibetan-style art have controversial elements, but few can generate the heated emotions and fear conjured by the mere mention of the name Dorje Shugden. Despite this, artistic depictions of the deity have rarely if ever been talked about or studied. Art, as it turns out, provides a unique perspective into a highly charged conflict.

The religious and political controversy involves the very nature of Dorje Shugden. Some religious groups believe that he is a beneficent deity and an emanation of either Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara. Others believe him to be a harmful and dangerous ghost that should no longer have a place in the Buddhist pantheon.

Looking at the chronology of artworks with Dorje Shugden is really the most interesting approach. There are, however, very few examples of painting or sculpture. The vast majority of works depicting Dorje Shugden were created in the 20th century. Only three paintings have been identified that can be dated to the 18th and 19th centuries, and they depict the Sakya form of the deity seated atop a black horse. Furthermore, all three examples only depict the deity as a minor figure—never the central subject of the composition.

There are two common versions of Shugden iconography depicting a monk figure wearing a gold riding hat, seated atop either a black horse or a lion. The black horse has been traditional for the Sakya tradition since as far back as the 18th century. The figure seated atop a lion, on the other hand, is standard for the Gelug tradition, and likely dates to the mid- to late 19th century.

We can track the importance of Dorje Shugden in the Gelug tradition by consulting refuge paintings, a style of painting that the Gelug has led since the 17th century. The intention of such paintings is to depict the essential sources of Buddhist refuge, lineage teachers, deities and protectors. Refuge field paintings have also come to represent sectarian identification, with paintings from different schools selectively depicting only their specific lineage teachers, unique meditational deities, and special protector deities. After surveying over 67 Gelug refuge field paintings on Himalayan Art Resources primarily dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, I found that not one of those paintings depicts the figure of Dorje Shugden.

Although Dorje Shugden has been around since the writing of a ritual text by Morchen Kunga Lhundrub (1654–1728) in the 17th century, the deity remained a very minor protector figure in the Sakya school. Based on the lack of Dorje Shugden art in the Gelug school prior to the end of the 19th century, we can assume that the deity was not popular within that tradition until then.

Continue to Part 2: The Svastika

Sakya Tridzin, Wangdu Nyingpo - Dorje Shugden detail. 19th century. Sakya lineage. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Private collection.

Worldly Protector Dorje Shugden. Tibet, 1900–1959. Gelug lineage. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Private collection.

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Beth_T's picture

No matter their view, I find this use of 'the Buddhist Taliban' offensive. The person who first used it should have bit their tongue.

Dolgyal's picture

Beth, I suggest you read the Newsweek article 'Murder in a Monastery': this will give you the origin of the offensive epithet and more.

Wisdom Moon's picture

This is a most unfortunate and inaccurate article. It was Professor Robert Thurman's calumny. It's not right for anyone to discriminate against another because of their beliefs and this is even more sad if that person is a Buddhist, and especially someone as eminent as Thurman. It's completely against the Buddha's teachings.

Professor Thurman in common with many of the other followers of the Dalai Lama has lied about the nature of Dorje Shugden practice. There has been a huge campaign of discrimination and ostracism against the followers of this Deity and a huge schism has been created for political purposes. It's not true that Shugden practitioners are responsible for murder - Venerable Lobsang Gyatso had many enemies amongst the Tibetan guerrillas because of his outspoken attitudes. More information about this can be found here

Dolgyal's picture

The attempt to allay blame and transfer it onto the Chushi Gangruk organisation by the Swiss cultist Helmut is spurious. The fact remains that Interpol has an outstanding red warrant on specific cultists who fled after the triple murders to Chatreng in Chinese occupied Tibet, home of the previous Trijang Rinpoche, by the way. The Himachal Pradesh police still consider the cultists wanted for murder.
Otherwise one ought to be careful whom one labels a liar, libel cases can be quite effective as NKT know only too well.

Dolgyal's picture

The recent quote below from the Wisdom Moon/Lineageholder, who fancies himself a monk, just validates the characterization of the dolgyal cult as the 'the Buddhist Taliban.'

"I have no hatred for the Dalai Lama. I did at one time, but now I that I see his legacy is one of destruction and failure, I feel sorry for him. I feel glad that he has been a conduit for many people to find the Dharma but this doesn't begin the counterbalance the massive destruction that his actions have caused and continue to cause, and will likely cause, for many generations. People here talk about lifting the ban but that will never happen because there is no reason for the DL to do so. Action needs to be taken to protect our spiritual lineage for future generations and, notwithstanding the great contribution of the people who operate this website, it will not be enough for as long as the Dalai Lama's credibility is stronger than this website's voice. People need to receive information about the truth of the Dalai Lama's actions."

From a security point of view fanatics like Wisdom Moon need to be scrutinized very closely.

Wisdom Moon's picture

Thank you, it's very brave of you to post an article on Dorje Shugden considering the strong feelings that this Protector evokes. There is an excellent website that gives a comprehensive history of Dorje Shugden practice in the Sakya and Gelugpa schools, you can find it by Googling 'Dorje Shugden History'. As the above post shows, there is a lot of negative information about the practice - the Dorje Shugden history website is very scholarly and simply gives the facts about the Gurus who relied on this practice and their view of Dorje Shugden. It's very interesting.