Dorje Shugden and Vajrayana


  • SA: Dreyfus, Georges (1998). The Shuk-den Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (JIABS), 21. 2, 227-270.
  • BB1: Guru Deva Rinpoche, ed. (1984). 'Jam mgon Bstan srung rgyal chen Rdo rje shugs ldan rtsal gyi be bum: the collected rituals for performing all tasks through the propitiation of the great protective deity of Tsong-kha-pa, Manjusri reembodied, Rdo-rje-sugs-ldan. New Delhi.
  • CDI: von Brück, Michael (2001). Canonicity and Divine Interference in Dalmia, V., Malinar, A., and Christof, M. (2001). Charisma and Canon: Essays on the Religious History of the Indian Subcontinent. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • LCN: blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma (2000). 10 volume collected works of Tukwan Lobzang Chokyi Nyima (1737-1802). Lhasa: zhol par khang gsar pa.
  • 5DL: ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (1991-1995). Collected Works of the Vth Dalai Lama. Gangtok: Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology.
  • 14DL: Gyatso, Tenzin. Concerning Dholgyal with Reference to the Views of Past Masters and other Related Matters. Downloaded 3/5/2010 from

Dorje Shugden has been singled out and labeled problematic by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and many Western scholars. However, are many of the objections raised based on differences from other Vajrayana practices and Vajrayana views? Has development of this practice and its practitioners been mischaracterized?

Discussing these matters is technically not appropriate given the secrecy of the subject involved. However, many of these matters have been discussed in publications earlier, and this discussion is only for the purpose of clarifying wrong assertions already published. This will not go into the specifics in any more detail than needed, and readers will need to look into the primary sources on their own to gather more background knowledge or to verify what is being asserted.

Qualifications to Propitiate Shugden

Dreyfus claims that “propitiation of Shuk-den requires a ceremony called ‘life entrusting’ (srog gtad)” (SA, 266), but this is completely wrong. This can be proven historically and by citing specific passages in rituals. There are many types of rituals to protectors in varying length. Shorter rituals comprise of requests for activity ('phrin bcol), while longer rituals typically are referred to fulfillment (bskang ba) and include a number of elements common to most protectors such as invocation, confession, offering golden libation, etc. Most fulfillment rituals usually require the practitioner to have a Highest Yoga Tantra empowerment (dbang) in order to properly execute the ritual, whether the ritual mentions it explicitly or not.

In nearly all fulfillment rituals to Shugden, there is no indication of a life entrustment (srog gtad) needed as a prerequisite. For example, Sakya rituals do not indicate anything regarding life entrustment. Also, earlier Gelug rituals including those by Sera Je Dragri Gyatso Thaye (BB1, 261-297), Nyungne Lama Yeshe Zangpo (BB1, 319-359), Sera Tantric College Abbot Namkha Tenkyong (BB1, 371-383) and Dagpo Kelsang Khedrup (BB1, 385-415) make no mention of life entrustment to perform the ritual. The introduction to the ritual by Serkong Dorje Chang (BB1, 507-551) mentions the necessity to have obtained a ripening initiation of a yidam. It also states it is excellent to have received the uncommon life entrustment initiation (rje gnang srog gtad thun mong ma yin pa) of Dorje Shugden according to the writings of Rinchen Wangyal, but it is not necessary.

In particular, according to Pabongkha Rinpoche’s own well-known fulfillment rituals, life entrustment is not required. Pabongkha Rinpoche wrote his long ritual The Melodious Drum (BB1, 659-715) in approximately 1924 according to the colophon. In the introduction of this ritual it says that the requirement for this is having entered Vajrabhairava’s mandala and abiding in the general and specific commitments (BB1, 666). Pabongkha Rinpoche wrote quite a number of works on Shugden, yet this is a commonly performed ritual in monasteries and by individuals, usually on a monthly basis.

There is no binding commitment for an individual to perform The Melodious Drum ritual unless one has life entrustment lineage or some other personal instruction from one’s lama. Life entrustment is like any initiation, in that it is up to the individual to decide if they want to partake and abide by the commitments before requesting it. Thus the propitiation of Shugden, ie. the performance of The Melodious Drum or the other rituals listed above, does not require life entrustment, as these are two separate things. Rather, receiving life entrustment requires the performance of The Melodious Drum. Stating otherwise is just symptomatic of how detractors of the Shugden practice misrepresent it in order to characterize Shugden practitioners as being victims of abject commitment handed down from so-called Gelug fundamentalists rather than wanting to do the rituals according to their own free will and wishes.

Life Entrustment

A complete and historical understanding of life entrustment, or srog gtad, would be welcome in order to properly consider something so-often mentioned but rarely understood. In any case, many detractors of Shugden utter the words “life entrustment” as if it was a grave matter somehow distinguished from the rest of Vajrayana Buddhism. However, the term is overly mysterious when considered out of the context of having considerable knowledge of Vajrayana Buddhism. Upon examination, life entrustment can be found for many other protectors. And life entrustment is not unlike many other subsequent permission initiations (rje gnang) given for yidams, with a few exceptions noted.

The exact origin of life entrustment seems to be unknown, and it is also possible that the term came to be popular at a certain time and was used in place of initiation (rje gang). It would appear that “life entrustment” (srog gtad) and “life empowerment” (srog dbang) are used interchangeably. Although life entrustment is similar to a subsequent permission initiation (rje gnang), it would appear the term life entrustment is never used in relation to yidams. Life entrustment does not entail self-generation, and it appears there is a lack of recognition of this fact by Von Brück. This is possibly the root of confusion of Von Brück’s investigation of this matter:

The meditational practice regarding these yidams is identification with the deity, which is possible through complete surrender or the 'life-entrustment' of body, speech and mind by special initiation. (CDI, 335).

Describing identification with a yidam, self-generation or deity yoga, as life-entrustment is a misappropriation of the term life entrustment considered here. Self-generation and life entrustment cannot be assumed to be the same thing, the former term is used to describe this identification with the deity in practice while the latter term is used in the initiation process only. Usage of the term surrender is also non-technical within the context of Vajrayana, and it is not relevant within the context of initiation or subsequent deity yoga itself.

In any case, one can find life entrustment rituals in the 17th century by the Fifth Dalai Lama for the protector Dorje Barwa Tsel. Dreyfus claims that “It does not appear that these ceremonies are practiced in the case of protectors such as Ne-chung, but I have not been able to obtain clear information on this point.” (SA, 266). However, a life entrustment ritual for Nechung can be found in the collected works of Thuken Dharmavajra (1737-1802, bka' srung rgyal po sku lnga'i srog gtad bya tshul ches gsal ba). By the 19th century, life entrustments can be found in some Gelug masters’ collected works. In the collected works of Changlung Pandita (1770-1845), one finds a life entrustment to the Five Warriors connected with the Hayagriva Most Secret Form (rta mgrin yang gsang). The collected works of Gendun Dargye has a life entrustment ritual for Setrabchen per the instructions of his teacher Gomang Tenpa Choepel (1840-1907/1908). Life entrustment rituals for various protectors can be found in the collected works of Rongchen Kirti Lobsang Trinley (1849-1904), including Setrabchen and Dorje Shugden. In particular, as mentioned earlier, there existed a different life entrustment for Dorje Shugden written down by Rinchen Wangyal (1741-1812) of Sera Monastery.

Life entrustment rituals can be found in other traditions as well. This includes the works of Jamgon Kongtrul who has life entrustments connected to Tsiu Marpo (Gnod sbying ya ba rkya bdun), Four Face Mahakala (ye shes mgon po gdong bzhi pa'i srog gtad), and other protectors. Life entrustments can be found to other protectors such as Ekajati and Maning Mahakala.

Some may get the impression that life entrustment initiation is complete surrender to a protector; however, upon examining several initiation rituals, this is certainly not the case. Rather, what is found closely resembles permission initiations (rje gnang) related to yidams. This is case for the Fifth Dalai Lama’s life entrustment initiation for Dorje Barwa Tsel (lha chen rdo rje 'bar ba rtsal gyi srog gtad kyi rje gnang mu thi la'i 'phreng ba bzhugs so: 5DL, vol.22 pages 857-868). This particular initiation includes blessings of aspects of the protector through the medium of a torma. Also, in this initiation these five blessings are followed by a command (bka' bsgo) to the protector to protect the initiate from harm and demons, to perform activities on behalf of the initiate, and to increase the prosperity, merit, and Dharma activities of the initiate.

Initiations in general may entail the initiate abiding by certain commitments (dam tshig) after receiving the initiation. This is a common feature of Vajrayana Buddhism. In some cases, this means daily recitation of a sadhana. With protectors it may entail that monthly fulfillment or torma rituals be observed, which is less time consuming in comparison to a daily sadhana. For example, the life entrustment to the Five Warriors related to Hayagriva by Changlung Pandita states that one should offer tormas (mchod gtor) on a monthly basis.

Von Brück claims that a controversy with the Shugden life entrustment has to do with his ontological status, i.e. whether he is a worldly deity or not. He claims that life entrustment would be appropriate only if Shugden is transworldly and not worldly (CDI, 341). However, such a dispute would have been a long standing issue with the some of the other protectors listed above. In particular, in the conclusion of Thuken Dharmavajra’s life entrustment to the Five Kings we find the statement “Although you are beyond the world you assume a worldly form.” (LCN, vol. 7 page 790). This matches Pabongkha Rinpoche’s ontological view of Shugden, so there is nothing new that Pabongkha Rinpoche introduced that would cause a valid objection to having a life entrustment.

Von Brück also claims that Shugden is not mentioned in a particular Tagphu initiation manual, and because of this it means that Shugden is not from a high class of deities:

In his 'Initiation texts for the practice of the visionary teachings' which he had received from Losang Choekyi Wangchuk (blo bzang chos kyi dbang phyug), there are teachings on Amitayus, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani, Tara and the Guru Yoga, and there is no mention of Shugden because the text deals with high Tantric initiations. That Shugden is not mentioned in this context suggests that he considers the deity not among this high class of deities. (CDI, 339).

However, this argument is a complete fallacy on the part of Von Brück because the initiation manual is for 13 visions of an earlier incarnation of Tagphu, Losang Choekyi Wangchuk (1765-1792), and it was a later incarnation of Tagphu, Jampel Tenpai Ngodrup (1876-1935), who was Pabongkha Rinpoche’s master. This initiation manual is specific only to Losang Choekyi Wangchuk’s visions. The later Tagphu incarnation received these initiations of his earlier incarnation and propagated these to Pabongkha Rinpoche. Pabongkha Rinpoche never claimed that the earlier Tagphu—Losang Choekyi Wangchuk—had had a vision of Shugden, rather it was the later Tagphu—Jampel Tenpai Ngodrup—who did so, at the request of Pabongkha Rinpoche. Therefore, the fact that Shugden is not mentioned in the initiation manual is not because of his ontological status, rather Shugden was simply not included in the set of visions of the earlier Tagphu incarnation.

In summary, life entrustment initiation to a protector resembles a subsequent permission initiation (rje gnang) to a yidam, with the exception of self-generation (as protectors are not yidams). It would appear that there is no reason or known historical case to raise the issue of a controversy in relation to life entrustment as von Brück does. We find life entrustments in the Gelug tradition for several centuries. In particular, Nechung is considered ultimately enlightened taking a worldly form, which is the same view of Dorje Shugden posited by Pabongkha Rinpoche, Serkong Dorje Chang and other masters. It is not clear if there was a controversy related to a Nechung life entrustment or not, but it would not be a fair exception to single Dorje Shugden out. Moreover, we find that an earlier eminent master preceding Pabongkha Rinpoche, Serkong Dorje Chang, did raise the subject of Dorje Shugden life entrustment and actually recommended it. It would appear that an issue with life entrustment was raised only due to bias against Pabongkha Rinpoche.

Considering within Vajrayana in General

Critics of the Shugden practice characterize practitioners as having extreme devotion or being fundamentalists, and due to such a faulty attitude they are unreasonably refusing to give up their practice. Dreyfus states it is clear that this practice fosters a very strong loyalty to the deity and by extension to the group that the deity represents (SA, 266). However, the same basic beliefs and rules apply for this practice as other Vajrayana practices.

It is well-known that an essential belief in Vajrayana culture is keeping one’s vows (sdom pa) and commitments (dam tshig), which can be demonstrated in many texts. Je Tsongkhapa’s summarized verses on the path (yon tan gzhi gyur ma) says:

Then the foundation for the two attainments,
Is keeping the pure vows (sdom pa) and commitments (dam tshig),
Having found unfeigned conviction in this,
Bless me to keep them at the cost of my life.

This prayer is recited daily by many followers of the Gelug tradition. It says it is better to die than to give up one’s vows and commitments. Are we to assume that Je Tsongkhapa himself was a fundamentalist because he states that one’s vows and commitments are more important than one’s very own life? From this we can judge that it is a mainstream belief for Gelug Vajrayana practitioners to shudder at the possibility of giving up their commitments for any practice, especially when no good reason has been given. Therefore, devotion to Dorje Shugden is not necessarily based on what Dreyfus calls extreme devotion to Gelug figureheads Pabongkha Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche (SA, 267), but adherence to a long standing principles of Vajrayana.

But such a system is also very reasonable as it encourages disciples to be very careful about what they want to practice before requesting initiation. Thus it is a voluntary system of commitment at the individual level. Dreyfus claims that Pabongkha Rinpoche promoted Dorje Shugden aggressively as a Gelug protector (SA, 254). However, requests and bestowals of this initiation have been logged in Pabongkha and Trijang Rinpoche’s biographies. Like other Vajrayana initiations, it is for the disciples to make the request. Moreover, Pabongkha Rinpoche wrote that it was Dorje Shugden himself through the oracle that requested him to create life entrustment and the lengthy fulfillment ritual, The Melodious Drum, it was not part of his agenda to coerce disciples.

There is also a charge that this practice fosters loyalty, but this is another consideration within Vajrayana in general. An important vow is not to slander Vajra siblings (rdo rje spun grogs). Vajra sibling entails a special relationship and includes anyone who has received initiation from the same master as oneself. Moreover, there is little to indicate that life entrustment was requested by particular regions or groups and thus separating and characterizing them as such. Masters representing different institutions and regions appear to have received it. Life entrustment aside, it is known that particular monasteries instituted rituals to Dorje Shugden, however, such is the case with other protectors who have been assigned functions in particular monasteries. Rather, ironically it would appear the institution of the ban on Shugden starting in 1978 precipitated any surge in loyalty, as groups formed to assert and identify themselves as strongholds of the practice in order to resist the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Dalai Lama.

Also one should consider why some are so interested in convincing those who are doing this practice to relinquish it, especially when they have only given a very weak case to discredit the practice itself. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama in particular has made a crusade out of encouraging practitioners to abandon this practice, even those with a commitment to it established in life entrustment (14DL):

The way to relate to it and the meaning of a worldly spirit’s ‘life entrustment’ (srog-gtad) is that the worldly spirit puts its life at the yogi’s command and the yogi controls the worldly spirit. It is not that the yogi put his life at the command of the worldly spirit. Look at how Gyalchen practitioners behave these days. They say, “I have received the ‘life entrustment’” and act like as if they have given their entire body, speech and mind over to a worldly spirit. They say with great fear, “If I break (my commitment to perform) the monthly propitiation ceremony to him, he will harm me.” They have got things totally out of perspective.

This is a typical mischaracterization of Dorje Shugden practitioners having life entrustment meant to portray their commitment as being abject, and he even suggests those who have received life entrustment do not even understand the nature of it. It also suggests that the only reason that people are not giving up the practice is that they have a commitment; however, this is false in two respects. First is that they do not agree with the reasons being put forth to give up the practice. Second, many (arguably most) practitioners are not bound by commitment anyways, but practice according to their ability and leisure. One must look at the reality of the situation: the actual reason Dorje Shugden practitioners have fear in regards to their commitments is because of the undue social pressure the Dalai Lama has created to coerce them into such a course of action. This has even escalated into them not being able to associate with those who have sworn an oath denouncing the practice and its practitioners.


A strong attempt has been made by detractors of the Dorje Shugden practice to characterize it as abnormal or deviant from Vajrayana—such as labeling practitioners as the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism. However, upon examination it is in accordance with the principles of Vajrayana. Many objections have been raised to this practice by not examining its similarities to other practices and the general Vajrayana system. Additional misunderstanding is caused by not properly checking the biographies of the founders of this practice and the colophons of the rituals that describe important details. Critics have shown through their lack of knowledge that they are not fit to properly critique the practice of Shugden.

In comparison, the crusade to stamp out Dorje Shugden practice is unprecedented in Tibetan history. That a religious leader would go so far in his speeches and actions to force people to relinquish their commitments or wishes to practice according to their ability has no parallel. This is a fundamental violation of Vajrayana culture. In the 14th century, Je Tsongkhapa wrote that commitments should be kept at the cost of one’s life; however, with the exception of the Chinese invasion starting in 1951, Tibetan history seems sparse with actual situations where this extreme level of adherence would have been necessary to uphold one’s commitments. Ironically, Je Tsongkhapa must have been referring to future situations such as these that such life-risking measures must be followed to maintain their commitments.