Did the 13th Dalai Lama Ban Dorje Shugden?
Fortunately, there is no quick, definitive ‘yes or no’ answer, for the quest for an answer itself is far more revealing. The allegation that the 13th Dalai Lama was an opponent of Dorje Shugden, his oracle and his propitiation is well-known as it has been put forward in recent decades by the 14th Dalai Lama and even Western scholars such as Georges Dreyfus. There are several avenues through which this allegation of opposition is made which will be explored. This account is an attempt to unravel these claims and see if there is any substance residing inside of them. It is not intended to discredit Nechung and his oracles nor the 13th Dalai Lama himself, but rather show how the historical narrative has been distorted in recent decades.
The Alleged Ban of the Oracle
First, there is a claim that 13th Dalai Lama restricted the Dorje Shugden oracle. Dreyfus says, “The practice of Dol-gyal or Shuk-den also surfaced as an issue during the rule of the 13th Dalai Lama, who put restrictions on the oracle for Shuk-den but did not prohibit his activities completely.” However, no references are given to back this particular claim. Yet, this is not surprising as there is no known verifiable historical evidence backing this up. Instead, upon examining the 13th Dalai Lama’s banning of oracles, we find the Nechung Oracle involved in well-known events during a fragile period in Tibet’s geopolitical history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Sir Charles Bell (1870-1945) wrote a biography of the 13th Dalai Lama called Portrait of the Dalai Lama, first published in 1944. This was one of the earliest glimpses into the life and nature of the Dalai Lama and his institution. The 13th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1910, the same year that Pabongkha Rinpoche received the Golden Dharmas and Seventeen Expressions of Four Face Mahakala initiations from the Sakya Throne Holder Dragshul Trinley Rinchen (page 286). Bell met the 13th Dalai Lama when he was exiled in India and later visited Tibet in 1920. Many of the foibles of the Nechung oracle are covered in Chapter 58 The Honourable Field that mainly describes the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. In this chapter, we find a recollection of the British invasion of Tibet:
Later on, it was noticed that the prophecies issuing through the prophet of the Nechung Oracle were wrong and harmful. At the time of the British military expedition to Lhasa in the Wood Dragon year , he gave out that the Tibetan Government should send soldiers against the British, but that the soldiers should not fire their rifles; this is what happened at Guru.
As a result, the Tibetans suffered a devastating military defeat at the hands of Colonel Younghusband. In response to this, Bell notes that the oracle was dismissed from duty:
That prophet had been dismissed after the British expedition, but two or three years ago the Precious Protector [the 13th DL] reinstated him, allowing the deity to come again inside him.
Regarding the claim that the 13th Dalai Lama banned the Dorje Shugden oracle, what years was this alleged ban in place? In regards to the Nechung oracle, very specific information can be given to these questions like these based on publications current with that era, such as Sir Charles Bell’s biography and Frederick Spencer Chapman’s Lhasa: the Holy City, published in 1938. However, with regard to the alleged ban on the Dorje Shugden oracle, there are no specifics available, which brings the veracity of the claim into question.
To the contrary of an alleged ban, several instances of the Dorje Shugden oracle have been documented during the time of the 13th Dalai Lama. The most important instance of the Dorje Shugden oracle is advice given and followed by the 13th Dalai Lama himself! This is found in the biography of the Thirteen Dalai Lama called 'phags pa 'jigs rten dbang phyug gi rnam sprul rim byon gyi 'khrungs rabs deb ther nor bu'i 'phreng ba bzhugs so, page 620. In here it states that in 1922 the Dorje Shugden oracle gave a vajra prophecy in the presence of Domo Geshe Rinpoche. It stated that Lower Mongolia (smad hor) was rising, and as a method to reverse this the east and west stupas in Tibet should be repaired. The western stupa was recognized as being the Potala itself, and the eastern stupa was recognized as the Ganden Serdong or the Golden Stupa containing the relics of Je Tsongkhapa. The biography explains repairs made to these.
Joseph Rock described a public oracle invocation of Dorje Shugden in Eastern Tibet in the late 1920s in Sungmas, the Living Oracles of the Tibetan Church, (National Geographic, 68: 475-486). This also challenges the claim made by Dreyfus that the oracle was only allowed in fixed locations, such as Dromo and Trode Khangsar. Also, Dreyfus’ claim is practically tantamount to saying the oracle was not banned, because Dromo and Trode Khangsar were the dwellings of the most important oracles of the time, with the exception of Panglung Oracle, which we know was active at least in Kham according to Joseph Rock.
So again, in what years was there an alleged restriction on the Dorje Shugden oracle? Another possibility is that the 13th Dalai Lama had banned all oracles for a period, but that would not single out Dorje Shugden as faulty. If that is true, it is inconsequential in invalidating Dorje Shugden. However unlikely it is, it can be stated that if there was ban on Dorje Shugden Oracle by the 13th Dalai Lama, very little is known about the actual nature of it. If it was existent, it was not even followed by the 13th Dalai Lama himself, and the oracles’ activities continued unabated anyways. This is in comparison to the well-documented ban on Nechung, which seems to get very little mention by the 14th Dalai Lama and his supporters.
The Alleged Ban of Propitiation
Second, there is a claim that 13th Dalai Lama restricted the propitiation of Dorje Shugden, in particular through personally restricting the activities of Pabongkha Rinpoche. Dreyfus states, “Finally the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and his government applied pressure on Pa-bong-ka to desist from propitiating Shuk-den... According to his biographer, Pa-bong-ka promised not to propitiate Shuk-den any more.” This references Lob-zang Dor-je, Biography of Pha bong kha (pa bong kha pa bde chen snying po dpal bzang po’i rnam par thar pa, folio 471.a-.b. However, this not actually found in presently obtainable publications of Pabongkha Rinpoche’s biography. The Dalai Lama’s website refers to Nyimo Publisher Palden as the edition that contains this correspondence between Pabongkha Rinpoche and the 13th Dalai Lama, yet no information on this publisher or publication can be found. Consequently, the edition containing this correspondence is not available for verification, which makes its authenticity highly questionable and most likely a fabrication.
In addition, the surrounding context and actual contents of this letter also leads one to question its authentic character. First, there is no year assigned to this alleged correspondence, so how does one compare it to relative events in that time and their respective biographies? Second, Pabongkha Rinpoche’s biography is chronological, and he outlived the 13th Dalai Lama by approximately eight years. The alleged correspondence is on a high folio number, being 471, while the two-volume biography published in India is a total of 563 folios in comparison. Third, in this letter Pabongkha Rinpoche states that he propitiated Shugden because “my old mother told me that Shugden is the deity of my maternal lineage.” However, this is not stated in the relevant parts of his biography. In any case, whether it is true or not, the actual value of this correspondence becomes even more lessened when considering Pabongkha Rinpoche composed most of his works on Dorje Shugden while the 13th Dalai Lama was in the latter years of his life, during that short, remaining spell of full sovereignty over Tibet.
In Pabongkha Rinpoche’s biography, it states that in the iron bird year (1921) that since earlier times Dorje Shugden was inseparable from Pabongkha Rinpoche, like the shadow of a body. Several times earlier, Dorje Shugden entered a human medium to request Pabongkha Rinpoche to write a new life entrustment ritual, of which he finally relented and wrote one according to his own experience (page 375). Next, in the wood ox year (1925) per Dorje Shugden’s own repeated requests to Pabongkha Rinpoche, he started writing the extensive fulfillment and restoring ritual The Melodious Drum of Victory in All Directions (page 418). Thus, we know that it was not merely his mother that led Pabongkha Rinpoche to propitiate him, but instead it was Dorje Shugden himself. In addition, reliance on Dorje Shugden at that time was not completely alien, especially in Sera Monastery. He relied on direct and lineage masters, especially from Sera Monastery, who also relied on Dorje Shugden such as Sera Tantric College Abbot Tenzin Tsondru, Dragri Dorje Chang, Trichen Tenpa Rabgye, and Trehor Khangsar Rinpoche.
In the iron horse year (1930), he wrote the middling-length fulfillment ritual (page 496). The 13th Dalai Lama passed away in 1933. Thus, Pabongkha Rinpoche had over a full decade overlapping with the lifespan the 13th Dalai Lama’s life to leisurely compose these rituals. Does it still sound like he was working under cover in fear of the Dalai Lama’s rebuke? If so, what year this did alleged restriction go into place?
The Controversy Regarding the Death of the 13th Dalai Lama
In the early writings about the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, there is no mention of Dorje Shugden being involved; yet modern polemicists had to get their digs in to distract the original story. In particular, the 13th Dalai Lama passed away on December 17, 1933 after a short illness. Bell took interest in this matter and wrote:
It appeared that the Precious Protector had gone to the Field on the last day of the tenth Tibetan month, corresponding with the middle of December. The day of the week was Sunday. According to Tibetan ideas, if a man dies on a Sunday or a Tuesday, it is an evil omen. People say, “He died on a stormy day.”
He relates stories circulating around from Lhasa about the cause of the sudden sickness:
He has told me about the medium of the Nechung Oracle giving the Precious Protector medicine which injured him.
Perhaps they were more than rumors, as Bell writes about seven months later he visited Tibet. In particular, he visited the son of a steward of one family who had been working in close contact with the Dalai Lama during the last two years of his life. Bell writes a detailed account of the clerk, which in short describes how the illness started with a small cough the first day, yet by the evening of the second day the Dalai Lama skipped his usual soup, which resulted in a summoning of the servants. Next Bell writes:
At about 11 p.m. the Precious Protector ordered the medium of the Oracle of Nechung, whom Kunpel La had hastily summoned, to worship the goddess, name Palhajok, whose image is in the Temple in Lhasa. The medium had come at once in a great hurry; he had not even stopped to put on his robes before coming.
The same night, between 1 and 2 a.m., the medium gave the Precious Protector some medicine in the form of a powder. When the medium came out, Champa La, the Presence’s regular doctor, said to the medium, ‘You have made a mistake in the medicine’ (Men di norra nangzha). So soon after this the medium gave the Presence another powder in accordance with what Champa La prescribed. During all this time the Presence uttered no word.
Then, on the next day in the evening, he passed away. In addition to Sir Charles Bell’s biography, Melvin Goldstein’s History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951 also covers this matter, followed by a more detailed analysis of preceding and subsequent events (from page 141):
On this occasion, the Nechung oracle said that the Dalai Lama should take a medicine known as “the seventeen heroes for subduing colds” (chamjom pawo chupdun) and himself prepared the medicine in a cup with water. Most respondents report that the Dalai Lama refused the dose and that the state oracle had literally to pour it into his mouth. The Dalai Lama’s condition immediately deteriorated, and by noon he was unconscious. He never said another word.
In any case, without a coroner present it would be difficult to determine if the medicine, whether right or wrong, was an actual factor in the death of the Dalai Lama, or if simply was not effective enough to cure his illness. Nevertheless, in addition to the earlier bad military advice, the perception of medical maltreatment in the involvement of the death of the Dalai Lama was probably enough for those who depended on him as reliable oracle to seek some answers, not to mention quell the rumors among the devotees of the Dalai Lama. When matters seemed like they could not get more strange or superstitious, the scapegoat for the faults of the Nechung oracle came back to the incident with the black magic attack on the 13th Dalai Lama decades earlier by Demo Rinpoche, a very bizarre and intriguing story by itself. And then it gets even more sketchy.
Nechung’s Follies, Nyagtru’s Revenge
Omitted so far from this essay is Bell’s account of a scapegoat for the Nechung oracle’s mistaken actions and advice. First, it is necessary to understand a rather unfortunate political intrigue earlier in the life of the 13th Dalai Lama that has been recounted in various books; the account also has been active orally with older monks and lamas. Although it could be dismissed as superstition, any Tibetan history book of that era would be incomplete without it. Melvin Goldstein’s History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951 (pages 42-43) summarizes this incident, this account being more sympathetic to Demo Rimpoche’s motivation than others:
No sooner had the 13th Dalai Lama become the ruler of Tibet than Demo Rimpoche, the regent of the 13th Dalai Lama’s minority, attempted to regain power by killing him through Buddhist black magic. It appears that after Demo Rimpoche relinquished power to the 13th Dalai Lama, his enemies began to exact revenge on him by harming his supporters and friends. Helpless to protect them, the ex-regent and his brother and manager, Norbu Tsering, became increasingly frustrated and bitter. Norbu Tsering enlisted the help of a lama known as Nyagtru, from Nyarong in Eastern Tibet, who used the deity Shinje Tsheda in his black magic rites and ultimately prepared a particularly powerful mantra which consisted of the figure of a man with outstretched arms and legs. Surrounding this figure were various written mantras, and inside its body the words Thubten Gyatso and chiwa were written: Thubten Gyatso was the personal name of the 13th Dalai Lama, and chiwa was his birth year. This black mantra was put inside the sole of a beautiful pair of new boots which Demo Rinpoche sent as a gift to Sogya, another Khamba lama who had achieved a high level of spiritual development through the diety Shinje Tsheda and whose own spiritual development, it was believed would synergistically increase the power of the black magic and end the Dalai Lama’s life.
But this plot was perhaps successfully foiled by the Nechung Oracle, per Goldstein:
The official version of the incident reports that the state oracle, Nechung, prophesied that the Dalai Lama’s life was in danger and that the boots recently given to a Sogya Lama should be investigated. Sogya was summoned and he confirmed that he had received the boots; he added that the boots were strange, for when he put them on his nose started to bleed. The boots were immediately sent for and taken apart in front of everybody, and the mantra was found in the inner sole. It appears more likely, however, that Sogya Lama discovered the plot and informed the Dalai Lama or his officials and that Nechung then opened the soles and found the black magic mantra.
Goldstein’s account states that as a result Demo Rimpoche, Norbu Tsering, Nyagtru and others were arrested. Demo Rimpoche died while under house arrest, while Nyagtru and Norbu Tsering died later or were perhaps killed. Sir Charles Bell relates the same previous story in brief, but continues where the previous account ends. In particular, he writes that Nyagtru’s death was indeed violent (page 437):
The tulku was arrested, put in prison, and given many severe floggings with the usual leather thongs on his bare skin, so that his flesh hung in strips after each flogging. But he was a Lama of great learning and ability, and he used to meditate on ‘the void.’ So it was noticed that during each flogging, severe though it was, he uttered no exclamation of pain, not even the smallest sound. And what was still more remarkable, by the next day his flesh had entirely healed.
And, per Bell’s account, the monk escapes this situation through suicide. Yet another source states that he died after vivisection at the hands of his captors:
At length, however, angry in this treatment, the Nyarong tulku asked the warder in charge of him for a small knife to cut a lump out of his boot. The warder gave it. When the lama went to pay a call of nature, he used the opportunity to cut his throat. The warder rushed up to seize him, so the lama jumped out of the window of his cell, which was two floors above the ground. The fall killed him.
Although Nyagtru dies here, the import of the story is only beginning. Bell continues:
Passing from this life thus, in anger at the treatment he had received, he reincarnated as a devil, and being of great learning and ability, as a powerful devil. So a high lama of eastern Tibet was engaged to catch the tulku’s mind, put it in the ground, and build a choten over it. This was done; the choten was strongly built, and the necessary articles - religious books and the like were placed inside of it. But a day or two afterwards a great vertical crack was seen in the choten. There had been no earthquake or thunderstorm, and it was clear that the devil was one of great power, and so the mind was able to crack the choten and escape through it.
And this “devil,” according to Bell’s account was responsible for interfering with the Nechung Oracle:
This and other evil counsels were not the true utterances of the Oracle, but were put into the mind of the prophet by this evil. And it was this devil who instigated the prophet to give this deadly medicine.
I first heard of Nyagtru’s tale from an old Shugden lama. Given its superstitious nature, I was naturally skeptical about it. Yet upon seeing this in Bell’s account, written not long after Dalai Lama’s death, it legitimized its historical provenance, whether it is actually true or not. Finally, regarding the so-called devil Nyagtru, Bell states, “This is the only instance which I heard that a tulku had been reborn as a devil.” The implications of this statement are great, namely that if the 13th Dalai Lama considered Dorje Shugden as a demon or devil—as the 14th Dalai Lama suggests he did—then certainly the 13th would have recounted to Bell the allegation of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen also having been reborn as a devil.
In this attempt to ultimately draw a conclusion to this question, not only does an investigation reveal the claims that the 13th Dalai Lama banned or restricted Dorje Shugden to be highly unlikely, but it also reveals an attempt to spin doctor well-known foibles with the Nechung oracle during the time of the 13th Dalai Lama. This rewriting of history since the 1970s tries to sweep these controversies out of the court of the Nechung oracle and cast the net of doubt instead onto Dorje Shugden. Interestingly, the Tibetan word rnam rtog has several meanings including superstition and conceptualization, perhaps this is more than a coincidence. Therefore, one should consider if all of these intrigues and foibles are the product of human imputations, having little to do with the time-honored deities such as Nechung. And history repeats itself, so if I may be excused to indulge in a bit of rnam rtog, it would appear that Nyagtru, Nechung oracle’s interloper, is still quite active.