Dorje Shugden is a deity that most in Tibetan Studies would prefer to avoid discussing. Proponents and opponents of his worship have clashed for well over a century, with sometime tragic consequences. In his blog post on Tricycle the week before the last, Jeff Watt offered an invaluable historical perspective to the issue, writing that the art-historical record gives ample evidence that Dorje Shugden became a major deity in the Geluk tradition only in the late 19th century.

The collected biographies on the Treasury of Lives confirm this. Although Dorje Shugden seems to have spread somewhat in Mongolia during the early 19th century, and Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (1800–1866) encountered the deity in the Samye region during the same period, three Tibetan men who lived at the turn of the 20th century appear to have done the most to promote Dorje Shugden practice as it is known today.

All legends surrounding Dorje Shugden look back to a popular lama of the 17th century named Drakpa Gyeltsen (1619–1656). Born in Tolung to a noble family, he led as a candidate for recognition as the reincarnation of the 4th Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (1589–1615). After his rival Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (1617–1682) was selected as the 5th Dalai Lama, however, their mutual teacher, the 4th Panchen Lama, Lobzang Chokyi Gyeltsen (1570–1662), identified him as the rebirth of 15th Ganden Tripa, Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa (1478–1554), himself a reincarnation of Duldzin Drakpa Gyeltsen (1374–1434), a close disciple of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419).

Drakpa Gyeltsen was reportedly as popular as the young Dalai Lama, whose supporters resented the Ganden Tripa’s ascent within the sect. In 1656 Drakpa Gyeltsen was found dead—possibly murdered, possibly from suicide. Some say that Drakpa Gyeltsen was at that point a fully realized buddha, and that he immediately returned as an embodiment of Manjushri named Dorje Shugden. Others claim that his spirit, which was subjugated as a protector deity named Dorje Shugden, perpetrated a series of calamities—diseases, deaths, and crop failures—following his death.

Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo
Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo

Around 250 years later, three lamas—the 6th (or 4th) Takpu Rinpoche (1876–1935), his student Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo (1878–1941), and his student the 3rd Trijang, Lobzang Yeshe Tendzin Gyatso (1901–1981)—took this minor deity and promoted him to a major protector of the Geluk tradition. The three lamas came of age during a time of great innovation and intersectarian exchange in eastern Tibet commonly referred to as the Rime Period, by which the Geluk tradition was certainly effected—for good or for ill depends on whom one asks. 

Takpu Rinpoche, the senior of the three, was born in the Naksho region of Kham and studied at Drepung Monastery from the age 12. He likely received his first exposure to Shugden at an event hosted by the 9th Demo Rinpoche (1855–1900) at Tengyeling Palace in Lhasa. Takpu Rinpoche is said to have there seen a ring of fire around the parapet of the building. His teacher, Lhotrul Ngawang Kyenrab Tenpai Wangchuk, interpreted the vision as a sign of Shugden’s displeasure at the Geluk hierarch’s associating with Nyingma lamas, a large number of whom were in attendance. Not long afterward, the 9th Demo was arrested for his role in an assassination attempt against the 13th Dalai Lama in which he enlisted the services of a Nyingma practitioner. The Demo died in custody.  

After a short visit to his homeland, Takpu Rinpoche returned to Lhasa and settled for a time at Chubzang Hermitage above Sera Monastery. Either there or while still in Kham (at the request of his disciple Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo), he had an extensive vision in which he traveled to the Tushita Pure Land. In the vision he saw both Tsongkhapa, who is said to reside there, and Duldzin Drakpa Gyeltsen, who gave him the complete cycle of instructions regarding Dorje Shugden practice. He then transmitted this cycle of teachings and practices to Pabongkha and his other disciples.

Trijang Rinpoche
Trijang Rinpoche

Pabongkha was one of the most influential Geluk lamas of the 20th century. He was a teacher to many, including the 13th Dalai Lama. He is remembered by some as a fierce sectarian, but those who knew him described a gentle and open man, and one finds in his writings expressions of respect for all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 1930s Pabongkha stayed at Chamdo Jampaling, a major Geluk monastery in Kham. While there he gave teachings—including those on Shugden—to the monastery’s many young incarnate lamas, such as the 10th Pakpa Lha and the 7th Zhiwa Lha. Chamdo remains a center for Shugden practice to this day.

Pabongkha was a main teacher to the 3rd Trijang Rinpoche, who became such a widely sought-after teacher that it is safe to say that most living Geluk teachers have received teachings or empowerments from either Trijang or one of his immediate students. Recognized as the reincarnation of the Second Trijang (Lobzang Tsultrim Pelden) as a young child, he was brought to Lhasa in 1904 and installed at the Chubzang Hermitage, where he was tutored by Pabongkha. Although his youth was marked by poverty, he was able to continue his studies at Ganden Monastery and receive the Geshe Lharampa degree—the highest academic degree in the Geluk tradition. He went on to study tantra and receive more advanced teachings from Pabongkha back at Chubzang.

Starting in his 20s, Trijang Rinpoche traveled widely across Tibet and even into India, teaching to hundreds. He was made tutor to the current Dalai Lama in 1941. He was also a prolific author: his collected works, published in New Delhi between 1978 an 1985, consists of eight volumes. The fifth volume is comprised entirely of ritual texts associated with Dorje Shugden that Pabongkha asked him to complete. Trijang Rinpoche has not spoken publicly about his Shugden practice following the current Dalai Lama’s restrictions on the practice beginning in the late 1970s.

Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing.

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