How the Dalai Lama’s Political Failures Led to His Ban on Dorje Shugden Practice

In March 1996, the Dalai Lama shocked the Tibetan communities and the wider international Buddhist community by taking the unprecedented step of imposing a ban on the practice of Dorje Shugden, blaming this very popular, centuries-old religious practice for his failure to achieve political independence for Tibet, but without giving any valid reasons. He was acting, he said, on the advice of the Nechung oracle, the spirit medium that regularly advises him on matters of state, and in letters sent by his Private Office in March 1996 to the abbots of the Tibetan monasteries in South India, the Dalai Lama gave two reasons for imposing the ban:

‘… government oracles point towards there being a danger to the health of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as to the cause of Tibet, due to the worship of Shugden. Banning this is also the conclusion reached by His Holiness after years of observation.’244

Then, as Dr. Ursula Bernis reported: ‘Immediately government offices promulgated this advice, stated in no uncertain terms by the Dalai Lama, and turned it into a full-fledged ban.’245 Shortly afterwards the Kashag formalised the ban in a written statement:

‘The essence of His Holiness’ advice is this: “Propitiating Dolgyal does great harm to the cause of Tibet. It also imperils the life of the Dalai Lama. Therefore, it is totally inappropriate for the great monasteries of the Gelug tradition, the Upper and Lower Tantric Monasteries and all other affiliated monasteries which are national institutions ever to propitiate Dolgyal …’’ ’246

In this way, the Dalai Lama singled out practitioners of Dorje Shugden as state enemies accounting for the failure of his policy to achieve an independent Tibet, and as targets for the wave of frustration and disillusionment arising from the catastrophic collapse of popular hope in ‘the cause of Tibet’ that he had artificially maintained for years. From this point of view, the ban against the practice of Dorje Shugden is a smokescreen to obscure the Dalai Lama’s own political failure; a device designed to divert the anger of the Tibetan people at being no nearer returning to Tibet after 50 years, by creating an ‘enemy within’ against whom this anger can be directed.

In 2009, the Tibetan exile government began saying that the Dorje Shugden issue is not even religious, but entirely political. Samdhong Tulku is quoted as saying: ‘… it is not a question of religion; it falls under the situation of politics only’, claiming that Shugden practitioners are tools being used by the Chinese government.247

For centuries Buddhists have viewed Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being who functions as one of the principal protectors of the Gelugpa Tradition. How the practice of Dorje Shugden could have the remotest connection to the achievement of Tibetan independence or to the state of the Dalai Lama’s health has never been explained. Nevertheless, as there is no objective closer to the heart of the vast majority of Tibetans than ‘the cause of Tibet’ (equated in their minds with a free, independent Tibet) and because of the careful nurturing of the Dalai Lama’s image as the focus of the Tibetan people’s aspirations, the new ban was vigorously implemented. In the McCarthyite witch-hunt that followed and which continues to the present day, Tibetan society has been divided against itself at every level.