Western Shugden Society

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Western Shugden Society
Abbreviation WSS
Formation 2008
Type community or confederation
Purpose/focus Freedom of religion
Website www.westernshugdensociety.org

The Western Shugden Society (or WSS) is a campaigning group which claims to have "no leader nor registered office"[1] established in 2008 to protest against what they call the 14th Dalai Lama's "ban"[2][3][4][5] of the practice of Dorje Shugden within the Tibetan exile community.[6]

However, Robert Thurman insists that there is no "ban" of Shugden worship, stating:

The worship of their chosen deity was not "banned" by the Dalai Lama, since he has no authority to "ban" what Tibetan Buddhists practice. "Banning" and "excommunicating" are not Tibetan Buddhist procedures.[7]

The 14th Dalai Lama himself said in 2008, that he never used the word "ban", and "restricting a form of practice that restricts others’ religious freedom is actually a protection of religious freedom. So in other words, negation of a negation is an affirmation."[8] When talking to the Western media, the Dalai Lama stated that "he had not advocated a ban, but he had stopped the worship of the spirit because it was not Buddhist in nature."[9] The CTA explained in 2007 that Shugden worshipers that come from Tibet, who wish to continue to practice Shugden cannot enroll into Gelug monasteries due to "the Charter of the Monastic Discipline of the Gelugpa Sect which categorically forfeit the enrollment of the monks who continue to propitiate Shugden in all Gelupga monasteries and Kashag’s directive in support of the Charter. However, Kashag’s directive does not involve those who wish to join schools in exile community."[10]

According to Robert Thurman, the "United Front Work Department" of the People's Republic of China, "the agency in charge of dealing with China's "minority nationalities," sees the cult as a potential wedge they hope to drive between the Dalai Lama and his people and between him and world opinion. They therefore fund the leaders of the cult in Tibet, Mongolia, India and the West, and provide them the means to carry on their expensive propaganda campaigns."[7]

Dorje Shugden is a Dharma Protector deity that is "associated primarily with the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, although there have been some adherents from within the Sakya school."[11] The WSS state that they are an organized community of Dorje Shugden practitioners from around the world, with no leader and no registered office. Critics have suggested that the WSS is not a legitimate organization, but rather an effort by the Chinese government to discredit the Dalai Lama.[citation needed]


WSS demonstrators in Old Market Square, Nottingham, England.

In 1996 the Dalai Lama openly advised against the propitiation of Dorje Shugden "in the interest of Buddhism and the Tibetan national cause."[12] This was reported in the New Internationalist as a ban.[13] A statement in September 1996 from, Ven. Lobsang Nyima Rinpoche, the Head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism referred to it as a "ban",[14] as did a Tibetan Youth Congress resolution in 1997.[15]

In a speech made at a Tibetan University in Southern India January 2008, the Dalai Lama said:

Recently monasteries have fearlessly expelled Shugden monks where needed. I fully support their actions. I praise them. If monasteries find taking action hard, tell them the Dalai Lama is responsible for this."[16]

The Tibetan Government in Exile is enforcing this ban in national institutions:

In sum, the departments, their branches and subsidiaries, monasteries and their branches that are functioning under the administrative control of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile should be strictly instructed, in accordance with the rules and regulations, not to indulge in the propitiation of Shugden.[17]

However, in May 2008, the Office of Tibet in London claimed that, rather than banning the prayer, the Dalai Lama is advising against it, adding that those who choose to ignore his advice cannot expect to attend his teachings. They also state that he considers Dorje Shugden a fierce spirit who can be used to curse others. Devotion to this spirit is seen by the Dalai Lama as encouraging sectarianism, harming the prospects for Tibetan autonomy and, indeed, the Dalai Lama’s own longevity.[18][19]

The WSS claim that the Dalai Lama and the TGIE have not responded to any of their attempts to dialogue on the subject and supporters say that the TGIE have simply discredited the opposition.[20] Tsultrim Tenzin, MP in the Tibetan Government in Exile, when asked if the Tibetan Parliament debated the Dorje Shugden issue replied:

There was no argument. If there was some opposition, then there will be some argument, but there is no opposition. We do not have any doubt about the Dalai Lama's decisions. We do not think he is a human being. He is a supreme human being, and he is god, he is Avalokiteshvara, he has no interest [in] himself, he always thinks of others. Everybody is happy. Our system is everybody is happy. There is democracy, full democracy. Everyone can experience whatever he likes.[21]

Identity card for those who have taken an oath not to associate with Shugden practitioners

The WSS also claims that about one third of the Tibetan population, including hundreds of previous Tibetan Buddhist teachers, used to rely on Dorje Shugden. They state that the Dalai Lama abandoned the practice of Dorje Shugden in the 1970s and that in 1996 he and the Tibetan Government in Exile imposed social obstacles on those not willing to follow his lead, resulting in access to various jobs, positions, schools, and monasteries in the Tibetan community in exile becoming impossible without publicly renouncing Dorje Shugden, while those who showed support for him were rewarded with key positions and visits by the Dalai Lama.[citation needed]

The WSS further states that on 9 January 2008 the Dalai Lama instigated public swearings in monastic universities in South India, and now throughout the world. They claim that this is aimed at making social life impossible for anyone not renouncing Dorje Shugden and that it has created social segregation with those who refuse to renounce Shugden being publicly denounced as "unclean", "traitors to the Tibetan cause" and enemies of the Dalai Lama. They state that without the new yellow identity card which has been introduced, it is not possible "to attend common Prayer Halls, to buy goods in shops, to obtain visa’s for travelling and families are being torn apart." The WSS maintain that this is ostracising Shugden practitioners and religious apartheid, while the Dalai Lama teaches in the West about religious freedom and tolerance.[22]

Application for an identity card - Gaden Jangtse monastery.

Shugden practitioners have also been subjected to violence. Most recently, Radio Free Asia reported on October 2, 2008 that Tibetan monks been "handed jail terms ranging from four to nine years in connection with several explosions in Markham county, Chamdo, during Tibetan protests earlier this year", including "one at the residence of a Tibetan who worships Shugden, a controversial deity espoused by Beijing but regarded with suspicion by those loyal to the Dalai Lama."[23]

As a result of this situation, some Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, such as Dagom Tensung Ling and Gaden Samdrupling, Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries in the United States set up by Kyabje Dagom Rinpoche, have separated from the Dalai Lama. According to Geshe Kuten Lama, a teacher at Gaden Samdrupling:[24]

There was one primary reason why we established our monastery: to preserve our lineage. The hardship is because the Dalai Lama took our religious freedom, our human rights. But it is very hard for us ordinary persons to explain to the world because he is so powerful and famous and our words are not too important.

The first protests by Dorje Shugden practitioners in the West were organised by the Dorje Shugden Coalition (DSC). For instance, in May 1998, 130 DSC protestors demonstrated as the Dalai Lama visited Manhattan in the United States. The DSC said they would continue to follow the Dalai Lama on his tour of the United States until he gave them the religious freedom they said they were being denied.[25] The DSC campaign lasted for two years from 1996 until October 1998. At that time, the main sponsoring organization, the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and its leader Geshe Kelsang Gyatso confirmed that they had stopped all involvement in the campaigning.[26] In 1996 there had been other groups associated with the NKT such as the Shugden Supporters Community and the Freedom Foundation.[27]


According to its website the WSS is an ad hoc coalition of Dorje Shugden practitioners from many different countries. Its aims are fourfold:[28]

  1. To give freedom to practice Dorje Shugden to whoever wishes to rely upon this Deity.
  2. To stop completely the discrimination between Shugden people and non-Shugden practitioners.
  3. To allow all Shugden monks and nuns who have been expelled from their monasteries and nunneries to return to their monasteries and nunneries where they should receive the same material and spiritual rights as the non-Shugden practitioners.
  4. That the Dalai Lama tell in writing to the Tibetan community throughout the world that they should practically apply the above three points.

The WSS states four reasons for protesting, using four slogans:[29]

  1. "Dalai Lama, Give Religious Freedom" - The WSS claim the ban interefers with religious freedom.
  2. "Dalai Lama, Stop Lying" - The WSS accuse the Dalai Lama of lying for a number of reasons.
  3. "Hypocrisy" - The WSS claim that the Dalai Lama is a hypocrite, inflicting human rights abuses while lecturing on human rights and religious freedom.
  4. "Ostracism" - The WSS claim that the ban is creating untouchables within the Tibetan community.

The WSS website[30] offers little information about the structure or size of the group. All group membership entails is to be sympathetic to the aims of the WSS.

The WSS states that it is independent of any other groups.[30] Protesters representing the WSS at demonstrations in 2008 were principally Western Buddhists and Tibetans living in the West, affiliated with various groups who practice Dorje Shugden including the NKT and others such as students from Dagom Tensung Ling and Gaden Samdrupling, Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries in the United States.[24] Some of the people who took part in these demonstrations were ordained monks and nuns, both Western and Tibetan.


The WSS demonstrates in non-violent, peaceful protests stating that all such protests will end when the Dalai Lama lifts his ban, or at least when he accepts Shugden practitioners' invitation to dialogue, which has been in place since 1996.[12]

WSS demonstrators in Philadelphia, United States.

Following the expulsion of the first six monks, all Dorje Shugden practitioners, from Sera monastery in Bylakuppe, Mysore, South India, the WSS wrote to the monastery on 9 April 2008 stating that the expulsion was based on wrong and false reasons. They said that unless the monastery reversed the expulsions by 22 April they would "immediately organise worldwide public demonstrations directly against the Dalai Lama whenever he visits any country." Although the letter came from the WSS, they requested the monastery reply to the Dorje Shugden Devotees Society in Majnu Ka Tila, Delhi.[31] On 12 April they wrote to the Dalai Lama with their fourfold aims, also giving him until 22 April to respond, and again care of the Dorje Shugden Devotees Society.[28]


Ten years after the original DSC campaign ended, and following no response to the two WSS letters, demonstrations began under the WSS umbrella in Hamilton, Madison County, United States on 22 April 2008 and since then several thousand people from a number of countries have taken part.[citation needed] They chant two slogans, "Dalai Lama, Stop Lying" and "Dalai Lama, Give Religious Freedom,"[32] calling the protests "Shugden Protests, a Journey in Compassion." Protestors chant in English as well as the language of the country they are in (such as German), and also with some protestors being Tibetan, in the Tibetan language.[30][33]

Between 22 April and 17 August 2008 the WSS has protested outside twelve locations where the Dalai Lama was giving talks in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and France. The BBC reported that there were 500 protesters at the demonstration on 28 May 2008 outside the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, England, where the Dalai Lama had been invited to speak to the Dominican monks of Blackfriars.[34]

At the start of the Dalai Lama's visit to Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that there were a total of 50 demonstrators on 11 June at the Sydney Olympic Park in Sydney as he held a meditation course for about 5,000 followers at the Acer Arena.[35] As the Dalai Lama spoke to a crowd of about 5,000 at the Stabler Arena, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the United States on 13 July, about 300 protestors stood outside chanting slogans.[32]

At the demonstration outside Radio City Hall in New York City on 17 July, chaotic scenes surrounded the protest as police, including mounted police, had to separate the WSS protestors, said to number about 200-300 and the Dalai Lama supporters who numbered several thousand to avoid a possible clash, with some of the Dalai Lama supporters approaching the WSS protestors, as they left a lecture by the Dalai Lama.[36] Hundreds of the Dalai Lama supporters shouted "Long live the Dalai Lama" toward the protestors and waved currency notes to make the point that they believed demonstrators were paid Chinese agents. The WSS deny this and request proof. Some of the Dalai Lama supporters also spat at the demonstrators and threw things.[37] Eventually the police had to close down The Avenue of the Americas for about twenty minutes to escort the protestors away from the scene. One protestor claimed that the 50 police officers who were there urged the protesters to leave the scene for their own safety, as they could not protect them.[24]

WSS press speaker, Kelsang Pema, who had flown from England for the demonstration, referred to the Dalai Lama as the "Hollywood Monk" and claimed that he "pretends he doesn't speak English to avoid getting into any discussion of serious issues." She also denied that the group had been paid by the Chinese government. "We get no money from the Chinese. They can check our organization. We’re clean."[38] She also called him a hypocrite and compared the treatment of Dorje Shugden practitioners to the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany, saying it is[36]

reminiscent of 1930s Germany where the Jews received a star as the victim. Here if you follow the Dalai Lama's views you get an identification card. If you don't follow his view, you have no identification card. Without it you can’t buy food in shops, you can’t get visas for travelling, you can’t get medicines in hospitals, people are having their homes burned, thousands upon thousands of monks are homeless.

The Dalai Lama had been asked about the protest during his talk. He said that he used to follow the same practice, but that he had given it up because it was intolerant of other Buddhist teachings, adding, "This is just spirit worship. After I read more about it, I realized my mistake and dropped my practice. I think 99% of Tibetans follow my practice. Some small portion worship this spirit. I am committed to freedom of speech, freedom of talk. So I say to them, enjoy freedom of talk." He also argued that two past Dalai Lamas had restricted the practice, and that he was following tradition. The WSS asserts that he has for more than a decade "been fostering a campaign of intimidation, humiliation, and ostracism" against practitioners of Dorje Shugden.[39] They also argue that even if the worship of Dorje Shugden has now become a minority religion due, ironically, to the actions of the Dalai Lama, it is still correct to protect the religious freedom of minorities.

'A Great Deception'[edit]

The Western Shugden Society has published a book entitled A Great Deception - The Ruling Lamas' Policies (Western Shugden Society, 2009 ISBN 978-0-9563918-0-3) in which they claim to expose the mixing of religion and politics (called 'lama policy') by the Fifth, Thirteen and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas and the negative consequences of this for Dorje Shugden practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists in general, and others. The stated aims of the book are fourfold:[40]

  • To liberate millions of innocent practitioners of the Buddhist Deity Dorje Shugden and their families from suffering
  • To restore peace and harmony between Shugden and non-Shugden practitioners
  • To re-establish the common spiritual activities of Shugden and non-Shugden practitioners
  • To free Buddhism from political pollution

The book will be generally available from January 2010.

Other activities[edit]

The WSS has been appealing to the general public through the media, including interviews on radio and television such as an interview on ABC Radio National in Australia on 11 June 2008[41] and television also in Australia[42] to investigate what they claim are social injustices being carried out against Dorje Shugden practitioners within the Tibetan exile community and elsewhere.

The group have also set up an account on the video sharing website YouTube to promote the activities of the WSS including WSS-made video coverage. The WSS are also using political means to further their campaign. A House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Human Rights report in July 2008 contained a letter from Kelsang Pema under her lay name, calling for help to gain freedom from religious discrimination and which confirmed that the WSS would be seeking help from each member of the United Nations Council, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the President of the United States, the President of France, the President of Russia and the President of the People's Republic of China.[43] The WSS have also set up an online petition to the Dalai Lama, asking him to give religious freedom.

A decade ago, in 1997, at the height of the Dorje Shugden controversy, Robert Thurman claimed: "It would not be unfair to call Shugdens the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism," referring to the Muslim extremists of Afghanistan.[44] This characterization was repeated in other newspapers in 2002 when reporting about death threats against the 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, northern India, which were blamed on the Dorje Shugden practitioners.[45][46] In September 2008, the Western Shugden Society wrote an open letter,[47] challenging Thurman to justify his 10-year-old claim: "You should show your evidence publicly through the internet before 25 October 2008. If your evidence does not appear by this date then we will conclude that you have lied publicly and are misleading people." As of November 2009, there has been no response by Thurman on his website.[48]

Western Shugden Society and the New Kadampa Tradition[edit]

WSS demonstrators marching past Philadelphia City Hall, Philadelphia, United States. At the front are Kelsang Pema of the NKT and three Tibetan monks.

There have been claims that the WSS is organised and run by the NKT.[citation needed] However, during the 2008 International Spring Festival the Spiritual Director of the NKT, Kelsang Gyatso, explained that in order for the NKT itself to be a part of the WSS, the board of Directors would have had to vote on it.[49] A vote, though, never took place as the NKT itself states that it is not directly participating in the activities of the WSS. Individual Dorje Shugden practitioners from the NKT have joined the WSS in their capacity as Dorje Shugden practitioners. Any involvement by the NKT directly in the politics of Dorje Shugden would represent a u-turn, after Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said in an open letter in 2002:[26]

However in October 1998 we decided to completely stop being involved in this Shugden issue because we realized that in reality this is a Tibetan political problem and not the problem of Buddhism in general or the NKT. We made our decision public at this time -- everyone knows the NKT and myself completely stopped being involved in this Shugden issue at all levels.

The WSS does not deny that prominent NKT students have taken part in the demonstrations in their capacity as concerned Dorje Shugden practitioners. Both the NKT and the WSS state that no NKT funds have been used to fund the activities of the WSS, but that WSS activities have been funded by donations from both Westerners and Tibetans, with some, they claim but by no means all, from individual NKT practitioners acting in their private capacity.[50] Also, whilst many of the demonstrators are NKT members, some have come from other Tibetan Buddhist groups in the West such as Dagom Tensung Ling and Gaden Samdrupling in the United States.[24]

Perception of the protests by others within the Buddhist community[edit]

Following the demonstrations in Sydney, Australia, the Australian Sangha Association (ASA) issued an official statement in which they said that "Noisy public demonstrations such as these are not appropriate behaviour for monks and nuns and brought Buddhism in the country into disrepute". They added that they recognized there is a difference of opinion with the Dalai Lama on various issues, and that it is the right of NKT and WSS members to disagree with the Dalai Lama's opinions, but that their disagreement should be expressed in a peaceful, respectful and reasonable manner. On 11 August 2008, the WSS responded to the ASA stating that the WSS protests were peaceful and giving several examples from the 1990s and the present-day where Dalai Lama supporters were not peaceful in attacking Shugden protestors.[51]

Response to the protests by third parties[edit]

Time Magazine reported on July 19, 2008:

Experts seem to think that there is something to the Shugden allegations. "There is considerable anecdotal evidence to support what they say," Stephen Batchelor, co-founder of the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry, wrote in an email to TIME, although, he adds, "I have yet to see any hard evidence." Wrote Donald Lopez of the University of Michigan, "Buddhist monks who apply for an Identity Certificates must also submit a letter form their abbot. I was told that there may have been cases in which, contrary to the policy of the Government-in-Exile, monks who worship Shugden have not been provided with such a letter."[52]

Tibet scholar Robert Barnett of Columbia University opposes how he was quoted by Time magazine's correspondent David van Biema. He states that he made very clear to him that "ID cards are not given out by the exile administration, but by the Indian authorities".[53] According to Barnett:

I also made it clear that the Western Shugden group's allegations are problematic: they are akin to attacking the Pope because some lay Catholics somewhere abuse non-believers or heretics. The Western Shugden Group is severely lacking in credibility, since its form of spirit-worship is heterodox, provocative and highly sectarian in Buddhist terms and so more than likely to be banned from mainstream monasteries – while its claimed concerns about cases of discrimination in India should be addressed by working within the Tibetan community instead of opportunistically attacking the Dalai Lama in order to provoke misinformed publicity for their sect.”[53]

John Makransky about the cross-cultural confusion in the Dorje Shugden issue:

A stunning recent example of this: some Tibetan monks who now introduce Westerners to practices centred on a native Tibetan deity, without informing them that one of its primary functions has been to assert hegemony over rival sects! The current Dalai Lama, seeking to combat the ancient, virulent sectarianisms operative in such quarters, has strongly discouraged the worship of the “protector” deity known as Dorje Shugden, because one of its functions has been to force conformity to the dGe lugs pa sect (with which the Dalai Lama himself is most closely associated) and to assert power over competing sects. Western followers of a few dGe lugs pa monks who worship that deity, lacking any critical awareness of its sectarian functions in Tibet, have recently followed the Dalai Lama to his speaking engagements to protest his strong stance (for non-sectarianism) in the name of their “religious freedom” to promulgate, now in the West, an embodiment of Tibetan sectarianism. If it were not so harmful to persons and traditions, this would surely be one of the funniest examples of the cross-cultural confusion that lack of critical reflection continues to create.[54]

Claims about 4 million Shugden followers made in reports by France 24[55] and Al Jazeera[56] were rejected by scholars as "very much overexagerrated"[11] and as "untrue".[7] Journalist Andy Brown comments:

"There are only about six million Tibetans in the world at most, of whom less than half are members of the Gelugpa order (Steven Lane estimated 30 per cent), where the veneration of Shugden is concentrated. Even among the Gelugpa, only monks can be initiated into the cult of Shugden, and only a minority of those actually are. Most of the experts I talked to thought that about 100,000 people at most could be affected by the Dalai Lama’s ban."[57]

Other groups protesting for Dorje Shugden[edit]

In May 2008, a similar demonstration was held in India, although not by the WSS. The founder of Kundeling Monastery, Lobsang Yeshe, who lives in South India, has filed a complaint against the Dalai Lama at the Indian High Court on the grounds of religious persecution. The prosecuting lawyer, Shree Sanjay Jain, says:

It is certainly a case of religious discrimination in the sense that if within your sect of religion you say that this particular deity ought not to be worshipped, and those persons who are willing to worship him you are trying to excommunicate them from the main stream of Buddhism, then it is discrimination of the worst kind.[58]

The Tibetan Government in Exile accuse Lobsang Yeshe of being paid by the Chinese and state that he has visited China at least twice. He however denies working for the Chinese, but does confirm that he has Chinese friends and he praises the Chinese "for what they are doing in Tibet", claiming that if Tibetans who followed Dorje Shugden had to live under the Dalai Lama in Tibet, they "would have possibly been crucified."[59] He has also made similar comparisons to that of the WSS about the treatment of Dorje Shugden practitioners and the treatment of Jews in 1930s Germany as well as religious apartheid.[60]

The Dorje Shugden Devotee's Charitable & Religious Society (DSDCRS) based in the Tibetan settlement of Majnu Ka Tila, Delhi, India have presented appeals to the Dalai Lama,[61] The DSDCRS also held a Press Conference on 29 April 2008 in New Delhi to publicly express their concerns about perceived persecution by the Tibetan exile community.[60]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

Official website[edit]

Western Shugden Society Book 'A Great Deception'[edit]

Supporting websites[edit]

Other Dorje Shugden groups[edit]