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Dorje Shugden, also known as Dolgyal and as Gyalchen Shugden, is an entity associated with the Gelug school, the newest of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Dorje Shugden is variously looked upon as a gyalpo, a mundane minor protector, a mundane major protector, an enlightened major protector whose outward appearance is that of a gyalpo or an enlightened major protector whose outward appearance is enlightened.
The Dorje Shugden controversy arose within all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Gelug school itself, regarding Dorje Shugden's nature, status of enlightenment, differences from traditional Gelug teachings, replacement of traditional Gelug protectors, sectarian functions, and actions by western adherents of the New Kadampa Tradition.
Dorje Shugden, also known as Dolgyal, was a "gyalpo" "angry and vengeful spirit" of South Tibet, which was subsequently adopted as a "minor protector" of the Gelug school, the newest of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, headed by the Dalai Lamas (although nominally the Ganden Tripas). Dreyfus says "Shuk-den was nothing but a minor Ge-luk protector before the 1930s when Pa-bong-ka started to promote him aggressively as the main Ge-luk protector." Dreyfus states "the propitiation of Shukden as a Geluk protector is not an ancestral tradition, but a relatively recent invention of tradition associated with the revival movement within the Geluk spearheaded by Pabongkha."
Pabongka transformed Dorje Shugden's "marginal practice into a central element of the Ge-luk tradition," thus "replacing the protectors appointed by Dzong-ka-ba himself" and "replacing the traditional supra-mundane protectors of the Ge-luk tradition." This change is reflected in artwork, since there is "lack of Dorje Shugden art in the Gelug school prior to the end of the 19th century."
Pabongka fashioned Shugden as a violent protector of the Gelug school, who is employed against other traditions. Shugden was a key element in Phabongkha's persecution of the Rimé movement. Within the Gelug school itself, Pabongka constructed Shugden as replacing the traditional Gelug protectors Pehar, Nechung, Palden Lhamo, Mahakala, Vaisravana and Kalarupa, who was appointed by Tsongkhapa.
Geshe Kelsang takes the elevation of Dorje Shugden’s ontological status another step further, emphasising that the deity is enlightened in both essence and appearance.—
Kay quotes Kelsang Gyatso's interpretation of Shugden's appearance:
Some people believe that Dorje Shugdan is an emanation of Manjushri who shows the aspect of a worldly being, but this is incorrect. Even Dorje Shugdan’s form reveals the complete stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra, and such qualities are not possessed by the forms of worldly beings.—
Pabongka referred to Shugden as Dol-gyel:
The wooden implements (i.e., crate) having been thrown in the water, the pond of Dol became whitish. After abiding there, he became known for a while as (Dol-gyel).—
Iconography and symbolism
The entry for Dorje Shugden in Frederick Bunce's encyclopedia of Buddhist entities describes Dorje Shugden's appearance as follows:
Face: one, fearsome, bared fangs, three bloodshot eyes, orange flame sprouts from eyebrows and facial hair, yellow brown hair stands on end, from his nostrils issue rain clouds with violent lightning; arms/hands: two, right hand holds flaming sword (khadga, ral-gri), left hand holds skull-cup (kapala, thod-pa) filled with the organs of the five senses, hearts, brains, and blood, in the crook of his left arm rests a mongoose (ichneumon or nakula, nehu-li) and golden goad/hook (ankusha, lcags-kyu); body: bejeweled, elephant skin upper garment, loin cloth of tiger skin; legs: two; ornaments: five-skull crown, wristlets, anklets, necklace, garland of fifty freshly severed heads, tiger or elephant skin as a body covering and apron of carved human bones; color: dark red; vahana: carpet of human skins on one hundred thousand thunderbolts (vajra, rdo-rje) on the back of a garuda-like bird (khyung); companion: include Zhi-ba'i-rgyal-chen, rGyas-pa'i-rgyal-chen, dBang-'dus-rgyal-chen, Drag-po'i-rgyal-chen.—
In regards to Dorje Shugden's "fearsome disguise" praised above, Ursula Bernis explains that this wrathful appearance is considered by practitioners to be "merely an external show to help those who are threatened or fearful." Von Brück describes Dorje Shugden's appearance as follows:
His character is fierce and violent and he destroys all enemies. Animals are sacrificed to him symbolically. His abode is full of skeletons and human skulls, weapons surround him and the blood of men and horses form a lake. His body has a dark-red colour and his facial expressions are similar to the well-known descriptions of rakshasas. However, all these attributes are not unique, they are more or less stereotypes for dharma-protectors in general.—
One of the characteristics of the iconography of Dorje Shugden is the central figure surrounded by four cardinal emanations. According to Nebresky-Wojkowitz:
- "In the East resides the 'body emanation' (sku'i sprul pa) Zhi ba'i rgyal chen, white with a mild expression" (Vairochana Shugden)
- "In the South dwells 'emanation of excellence' (yon tan gyi sprul pa) rGyas pa'i chen." (Ratna Shugden)
- "In the West dwells 'emanation of speech' (gsung gi sprul pa) dBang 'dus rgyal chen, of white colour, having a slightly wild expression." (Pema Shugden)
- "In the North resides the 'emanation of karma' ('phrin gyi sprul pa) Drag po'i rgyal chen. His body is of a green colour, and he is in a ferocious mood." (Karma Shugden) 
Control under Vajrabhairava
In Phabongkhapa's text, Shugden is to be controlled by Vajrabhairava. As von Brück explains:
The yidam and Shugden are kept apart, and the dharmapāla is to be controlled. The master transfers the power to control Shugden to the disciple, and this is common practice.—
von Brück provides a translation of Phabongkhapa's text which states:
....the disciples visualize themselves as the yidam Vajrabhairava and as such invoke and control Shugden. The dharmapāla Shugden is presented to the disciples as the one who abides by their commands.—
Kay notes the presence of the oracle of Shugden conflicts with Kelsang Gyatso's portrayal of Shugden as a Buddha, since Buddhas do not have oracles. Kay states:
the oracle may have been marginalised by Geshe Kelsang because his presence raised a doctrinal ambiguity for the NKT. According to traditional Tibetan teachings, none of the high-ranking supramundane protective deities ‘would condescend to interfere with more or less mundane affairs by speaking through the mouth of a medium’ (NebeskyWojkowitz 1956: 409). The notion of oracular divination may thus have been problematised for Geshe Kelsang in light of his portrayal of Dorje Shugden as a fully enlightened being.—
According to Nebesky-Wojkowitz, "The best-known of the prophetic seers who act as the mouthpiece of Dorje Shugden lives at a shrine in Lhasa called sPro bde khang gsar Trode Khangsar (rgyal khang) or sPro khang bde chen lcog. This is one of the few Tibetan oracle-priests who is not allowed to marry. In a house close to this shrine stays also one of the most renowned mediums of Kha che dmar po."
According to Joseph Rock there were two main Dorje Shugden oracles: Panglung Choje and Trode Khangsar Choje. Joseph Rock witnessed and documented a public invocation of the Panglung oracle in Kham (Eastern Tibet) in 1928. At this time the oracle took a sword of Mongolian steel and twisted into many loops. Choyang Duldzin Kuten Lama was the Dorje Shugden oracle for many years.
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- The Shugden affair: Origins of a Controversy (Part I) by Geshe Georges Dreyfus, retrieved Feb. 16, 2014. "For Pa-bong-ka, particularly at the end of his life, one of the main functions of Gyel-chen Dor-je Shuk-den as Ge-luk protector is the use of violent means (the adamantine force) to protect the Ge-luk tradition...This passage clearly presents the goal of the propitiation of Shuk-den as the protection of the Ge-luk tradition through violent means, even including the killing of its enemies...Pa-bong-ka takes the references to eliminating the enemies of the Ge-luk tradition as more than stylistic conventions or usual ritual incantations. It may concern the elimination of actual people by the protector."
- Kay, D. N. (2004). Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, development and adaptation. RoutledgeCurzon critical studies in Buddhism. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p.43."As the Gelug agent of the Tibetan government in Kham (Khams) (Eastern Tibet), and in response to the Rimed movement that had originated and was flowering in that region, Phabongkha Rinpoche and his disciples employed repressive measures against non-Gelug sects. Religious artefacts associated with Padmasambhava – who is revered as a ‘second Buddha’ by Nyingma practitioners – were destroyed, and non-Gelug, and particularly Nyingma, monasteries were forcibly converted to the Gelug position. A key element of Phabongkha Rinpoche’s outlook was the cult of the protective deity Dorje Shugden, which he married to the idea of Gelug exclusivism and employed against other traditions as well as against those within the Gelug who had eclectic tendencies." p.47. "His teaching tour of Kham in 1938 was a seminal phase, leading to a hardening of his exclusivism and the adoption of a militantly sectarian stance. In reaction to the flourishing Rimed movement and the perceived decline of Gelug monasteries in that region, Phabongkha and his disciples spearheaded a revival movement, promoting the supremacy of the Gelug as the only pure tradition. He now regarded the inclusivism of Gelug monks who practised according to the teachings of other schools as a threat to the integrity of the Gelug tradition, and he aggressively opposed the influence of other traditions, particularly the Nyingma, whose teachings were deemed mistaken and deceptive. A key element of Phabongkha’s revival movement was the practice of relying upon Dorje Shugden, the main function of the deity now being presented as ‘the protection of the Ge-luk tradition through violent means, even including the killing of its enemies’."
- Kay, David (2004). Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 48. "It seems that during the 1940s, supporters of Phabongkha began to proclaim the fulfilment of this tradition and to maintain that the Tibetan government should turn its allegiance away from Pehar, the state protector, to Dorje Shugden."
- Kay, David (2004). Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 48. "Phabongkha’s claim that Dorje Shugden had now replaced the traditional supramundane protectors of the Gelug tradition such as Mahakala, Vaisravana and, most specifically, Kalarupa (‘the Dharma-King’), the main protector of the Gelug who, it is believed, was bound to an oath by Tsong Khapa himself."
- The Shugden affair: Origins of a Controversy (Part I) by Geshe Georges Dreyfus, retrieved Feb. 16, 2014. "These descriptions have been controversial. Traditionally, the Ge-luk tradition has been protected by the Dharma-king (dam can chos rgyal), the supra-mundane deity bound to an oath given to Dzong-ka-ba, the founder of the tradition. The tradition also speaks of three main protectors adapted to the three scopes of practice described in the Stages of the Path (skyes bu gsum gyi srung ma): Mahakala for the person of great scope, Vaibravala for the person of middling scope, and the Dharma-king for the person of small scope. By describing Shuk-den as "the protector of the tradition of the victorious lord Manjushri," Pa-bong-ka suggests that he is the protector of the Ge-luk tradition, replacing the protectors appointed by Dzong-ka-ba himself. This impression is confirmed by one of the stories that Shuk-den's partisans use to justify their claim. According to this story, the Dharma-king has left this world to retire in the pure land of Tushita having entrusted the protection of the Ge-luk tradition to Shuk-den. Thus, Shuk-den has become the main Ge-luk protector replacing the traditional supra-mundane protectors of the Ge-luk tradition, indeed a spectacular promotion in the pantheon of the tradition."
- Bultrini, Raimondo. The Dalai Lama and the King Demon. Tibet House 2013. Phabongka said "I shall perform purification and promise with all my heart that in the future I will avoid propitiating, praying to, and making daily offerings to Shugden. I admit to all the errors I have made, disturbing Nechung and contradicting the principle of the refuge, and I beg you, in your great heartfelt compassion, to forgive me and purify my actions."
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