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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel VI: Interpreting Buddhism in the West, 9:30 -12:30

An Analysis of Western Involvement in the Dorje Shugden Controversy

Jeannine Chandler, Siena College

For centuries, Tibetan Buddhists have witnessed the unfolding of a controversy regarding the status and worship of Dorje Shugden, a wrathful protector deity in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. Shugden is known for his power and success in protecting members of the Gelug tradition and for punishing those adherents who mix the practices and teachings of the Tibetan schools. Since 1996, the Dalai Lama has proscribed Shugden practice amongst Tibetan Buddhists, citing Shugden’s troubled past and sectarian tendencies. In consideration of Tibetan Buddhism’s globalization, his restrictions on Shugden worship have confused and angered a number of Tibetan Buddhists around the world, both Tibetans and non-Tibetans. The Dalai Lama’s proscription of the deity’s worship and the alleged persecution of Shugden worshippers in exile communities have drawn criticism of his roles as a politician and a religious leader. The debate over the status and worship of protector deity Dorje Shugden has highlighted issues in Tibetan Buddhism relating to the guru-disciple relationship, the authenticity of lineage, and authority amongst the schools in exile and in the West.

Tibetan lamas who have settled in the West have taken sides in the Shugden debate, and subsequently influenced the perspectives of their Western students. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (of which Shugden worship is a central component), has led his Western students in the crusade against the persecution of Shugden worshippers. The injection of Western attitudes, views and values into the Shugden affair has further facilitated the transformation of the dispute. The different cultural context of liberal Western society has added a new dimension to the debate, as each side has co-opted Western “foot soldiers” and used Western rhetoric to gain supporters for its point-of-view. Western confusion regarding the position of the lama in Tibetan Buddhism has exacerbated the Shugden conflict. Shugden-worshipers have organized and initiated protests against the Dalai Lama’s decree throughout Europe and North America. The cult-like devotion to Kelsang Gyatso by his disciples and the protests against the Dalai Lama expose the ambiguity that surrounds the guru-disciple relationship in Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The Shugden conflict provides evidence that, despite a surface commitment to ecumenicism in the overall exile Tibetan community, sectarian consciousness has actually become entrenched amongst Tibetan Buddhists in the West.

The globalization of Tibetan Buddhism has also influenced the forms and forums of the Shugden controversy. Westerners have perpetuated the conflict, specifically via inflammatory rhetoric on the Internet. Debates over topics such as the deity’s status and the position of the Dalai Lama in the dispute have appeared on myriad websites, blogs and discussion boards. These online polemics and international demonstrations have intensified the Shugden conflict. Western involvement has thus complicated and prolonged a centuries-old Tibetan religious dispute.

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