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Tibetan Buddhists regard these gods, whether of the unawakened or awakened variety, as conscious, autonomous beings, every bit as real as you or I. The Dalai Lama, who so successfully presents Buddhism in the Western media as rational, pragmatic and compatible with modern psychology and science, appears to believe in the power of these gods. In a statement issued in English by the Tibetan government in exile in 1996, he is quoted from a speech to an audience of Tibetans as saying: “It has become fairly clear that Dolgyal (i.e., Shugden) is a spirit of the dark forces.”
The Dalai Lama is not speaking here as a modern religious leader trying to persuade some of his superstitious flock to relinquish an outdated worldview. He is engaged in an emotive debate about whether a particular god is a powerful but deluded sentient being or a buddha who has assumed the form of a god. Such is the perceived power of Dorje Shugden that both Gelugpas who invoke him and Nyingmapas who fear him will not even let his name pass their lips This atmosphere of secrecy and implicit danger serves to affirm for Tibetan Buddhists their view of an invisible polytheistic reality intersecting with the human world.
Although this worldview may be unfamiliar, it is not intrinsically stranger than that of Christians and other religious believers who currently lack the exotic prestige Tibetan lamas have for Westerners. The main difference between it and other religious worldviews is that Buddhists, at least in theory, know all these gods to be empty of any inherent reality. Everything, they would say, is merely an appearance as ephemeral and insubstantial as a dream. Such statements have led some in the West to assume that the gods of Tibetan Buddhism are no more than archetypal symbols: they perform a psychological function in the process of spiritual transformation, but only the naive would say they represent beings independent of the practitioner’s own mind. Yet however persuasive this kind of Jungian interpretation may be, it is not how most Tibetan lamas understand the world they inhabit.
For gods to be empty of inherent existence does not mean that they cannot be autonomous beings capable of making choices and existing in their own heavenly realms. In this sense they are no different from humans, who are likewise empty but perfectly capable of making decisions and living their own unique and fallible lives. The doctrine of emptiness only teaches us to see ourselves and the world in a way that frees us from the reification and egoism that generate anguish. To say the world is empty neither affirms nor denies the claims of any cosmological theory, be it that of ancient India or modern astrophysics.
To establish an authentic Buddhist state on the basis of this vision, however, requires ensuring that a correct view of emptiness be upheld by those in power. Such responsibility would be a necessary outcome of the bodhisattva’s compassionate resolve. For that reason, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s government proscribed the teachings of the Jonangpa school, which taught that emptiness implied a transcendent absolute reality that inherently exists. Texts of the Jonangpa school were confiscated and its monasteries turned over to the Gelugpa, to be run by Gelugpa monks. It seems other factions in the Gelugpa order would have liked to have taken similar measures against the Nyingma school.
One can understand why the Dalai Lamas would tolerate and even embrace Nyingma views in order to honor the historical heritage of Tibet, to affirm unity among the diverse communities of the Tibetan nation, even to be true to their own spiritual intuitions, But however justified such a position might be in personal or political terms, it should not obscure the real and potentially divisive philosophical and doctrinal differences that exist between the Nyingma and Gelugpa ideologies.
The Nyingma teaching of Dzogchen regards awareness (Tib., rig pa) as the innate self-cognizant foundation of both samsara and nirvana. Rig pa is the intrinsic, uncontrived nature of mind, which a Dzogchen master is capable of directly pointing out to his students. For the Nyingmapa, Dzogchen represents the very apogee of what the Buddha taught, whereas Tsongkhapa’s view of emptiness as just a negation of inherent existence, implying no transcendent reality, verges on nihilism.
For the Gelugpas, Dzogchen succumbs to the opposite extreme: that of delusively clinging to something permanent and self-existent as the basis of reality. They see Dzogchen as a return to the Hindu ideas that Buddhists resisted in India, and a residue of the Ch’an (Zen) doctrine of Hva-shang Mahayana, proscribed at the time of the early kings. Moreover, some Kagyu and Nyingma teachers of the Rime (“impartial”) revival movement in eastern Tibet in the nineteenth century even began to promote a synthesis between the forbidden Jonangpa philosophy and the practice of Dzogchen.
For the followers of Shugden this is not an obscure metaphysical disagreement, but a life-and-death struggle for truth in which the destiny of all sentient beings is at stake. The bodhisattva vow, taken by every Tibetan Buddhist, is a commitment to lead all beings to the end of anguish and the realization of buddhahood. Following Tsongkhapa, the Gelugpas maintain that the only way to achieve this is to understand non-conceptually that nothing whatsoever inherently exists. Any residue, however subtle, of an attachment to inherent existence works against the bodhisattva’s aim and perpetuates the very anguish he or she seeks to dispel.
Moreover, protectors such as Dorje Shugden exert an enormous power over the minds of Tibetan Buddhists - be they erudite lamas, simple Bhutanese peasants or educated Westerners. While lamas teach that taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha is the only protection a Buddhist requires, they invariably supplement this with initiations into and practices of a range of protector gods. After all, the Land of Snows could be a harsh and frightening place. Tibetans lived in an awesome, sparsely inhabited landscape with a fierce climate, psychically populated by numerous spirits, demons and gods. The very survival of communities required a powerful sense of family, tribal and religious loyalty. In a psychoanalytical sense, Dorje Shugden could be seen as the personification of a specific set of fears and loyalties in the form of a god. But for Tibetan Buddhists he is not just a metaphor. He is a real, living god/buddha whose displeasure can wreak havoc on human beings.
At a certain point in their practice, those who rely on Dorje Shugden will ritually “entrust their lives” (Tib., srog gtad) to him. This is not a step taken lightly. Until 1976, the current Dalai Lama offered daily prayers to Shugden, but was never initiated. On the advice of the Nechung oracle, which decreed Shugden a divisive force in Tibetan unity, he began to warn against the deity’s worship. When he requests people to renounce Shugden, the Dalai Lama challenges a deeply felt loyalty and raises the possibility of frightful retribution. “Nothing will happen,” he has had to reassure Tibetans. “I will face the challenge. . . . No harm will befall you.”
Although some Gelugpas have heeded his advice, others have not. Those loyal to Dorje Shugden could well believe that the misfortunes to have befallen the institution of the Dalai Lama, even the tragedy of Tibet in the twentieth century, arise from a failure to heed the advice of their protector who “reduces to particles of dust great beings, high officials, and ordinary people who pollute and corrupt the Gelugpa doctrine.” For the Dalai Lama to denounce Dorje Shugden may confirm for them that he is simply part of the problem.
Speaking of the British monarchy more than a hundred years ago, Walter Bagehot warned of “letting daylight into magic.” This is happening in Tibet today as the media peer into events which formerly only a handful of lamas and their advisors would have been privy to. The obscure wrangling and intrigue surrounding the reincarnations of the Karmapa and the Panchen Lama are disseminated through newspapers, Web sites, television, and radio within hours of having taken place, while grisly murders in Dharamsala promptly lead to Dorje Shugden’s dissection in he pages of Newsweek. The Dalai Lama in particular has used the media to great effect, but the fascination he has both drawn upon and stimulated now threatens to turn the magic of Tibet into mere spectacle.
If we strip away the exotic veneer of this Tibetan Buddhist dispute, we are confronted with questions that concern the very nature of the dharma and its practice. In the West we are fond of portraying Buddhism as a tolerant, rational, non-dogmatic and open-minded tradition. But how much is this the result of liberal Western(ized) intellectuals seeking to construct an image of Buddhism that simply confirms their own prejudices and desires?
Historically, Buddhists everywhere have tended not to exhibit the pluralist, postmodern values we might imagine them to possess. All Buddhist traditions make claims to truth, and when those claims have contradicted one another, then passionate, prolonged, even violent disputes have ensued. All the more so is this the case in the polytheistic buddhocracy of Tibet, where a very human dispute between different doctrinal camps has also inevitably been a struggle among the gods. Each side has invoked its own invisible beings for blessing and protection, summoned its own oracles for guidance from them, and been convinced that it was acting out of compassion for the welfare of all beings. Tibetan lamas take their disputes seriously not merely because of short-term political gain. Many of them act out of deep and sincere passion for what they hold to be true.
Yet history also teaches us that Buddhism possesses a remarkable capacity to reimagine itself in response to the challenges posed by new historical and cultural situations. Its protean forms are testimony to the survival of a way of life that has traveled throughout Asia and is now taking its tentative first steps in America and Europe. If it is to survive, it will have to find a way of preserving the heartfelt, single-minded commitment at its core within multicultural societies that reject the totalizing and potentially repressive demands of any single claim to truth.
Stephen Batchelor is a contributing editor to Tricycle and the director of the New Sharpham College in Devon, England. His latest book is Buddhism Without Beliefs (Tricycle/Riverhead).
Image 1: je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), depicted in an 18th-century Mongolian brass statue, founded the Gelugpa order. Photo © John Bigelow Taylor/Courtesy of Folkens Museum Etnografiska, Stockholm.
Image 2: The Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) maintained a strong allegiance to the Nyingma school. Photo © John Bigelow Taylor/Seventeenth-century Tibetan bronze courtesy of Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.
Image 3: The Thirteenth Dalai Lama ordered his disciples to stop worshiping Dorje Shugden. Photo by F. Williamson from Portrait of a Dalai Lama used by permission of Wisdom Publications, Inc.