For a doofy guy decked out in a wool cardigan and sleeveless vest, Tenzin Phuntsok was a surprisingly smooth operator.
I spoke with the young politician on a recent trip to Dharamsala, India, the political and spiritual epicenter of the Tibetan diaspora, sometimes known as Little Lhasa, after the Tibetan capital. I was hoping he could help me understand the growing threat of discord in the Tibetan exile community. As the general secretary of the National Democratic Party of Tibet, Phuntsok believes in Tibetan independence rather than autonomy under China, setting him apart from the mainstream. But as I grilled him one morning over a cup of thick, milky tea, asking about every political faction and religious minority I could think of, he brushed off any notion of strife with a smile. For all their differences, he said, most Tibetans are devoted to unity—he's even willing to accept autonomy as a step toward independence.
But he lost his composure briefly when I brought up Dorje Shugden, a vengeful spirit with a small but persistent following. As I asked about the politically active Tibetan Buddhists who venerate the spirit, Phuntsok launched into a diatribe: "Following Dorje Shugden is not a religion," he said. "It is like following a dog."
The next time you're in a Tibetan temple or at a Free Tibet rally anywhere in the world, find a monk or official and mention Dorje Shugden yourself. You'll probably get a similar reaction. I did every time I brought the spirit up over the next few months in India and America.
In the past two decades, this group, disconnected from the mainstream by an obscure theological disagreement, has been a vocal critic of the Dalai Lama, becoming the bogeyman of the Tibetan movement and its supporters worldwide.
In 2008 and 2014, members of the Western Shugden Society and the International Shugden Community, an organization of Westerners and Tibetans who follow the spirit, scored headlines by crashing events in America featuring the Dalai Lama. Picketers chanted, "Dalai Lama, stop lying!" and accused the world's favorite monk of running an oppressive theocracy. Their bids at attention have gotten downright kooky, like when they recruited Brazilian chanteuse Deborah Blando to sing "Dalai Lama Lament," whose lines include: "Your precious guru, your holy lama, / Gave Dorje Shugden, protector of the Dharma, / But through your lies, you see him as a Mara, / Cause his students mental pain and trauma."
It isn't all awkward songs, however. In 1997, Indian police implicated Shugden followers in the murder of three members of the Dalai Lama's inner circle. Pro-Shugden attackers, they say, burst into the monastery of anti-Shugden monk and Dalai Lama confidant Lobsang Gyatso and stabbed him and his two students, Lobsang Ngawang and Ngawang Latto, 15 to 20 times each.
Kelsang Gyatso, the monk behind the modern Shugden movement, denies any connection between his followers and the murder. But the incident led Robert Thurman—Columbia University professor, longtime Dalai Lama associate, and Uma Thurman's father—to label the group the Tibetan Buddhist Taliban. Many Tibetans feel a deep paranoia about the sect, suspecting, with limited evidence, that it may be planning an assassination or collaborating with the Chinese.
"If you look at [people's] faces," Phuntsok told me in an exasperated tone, "we don't know whether they are following Dorje Shugden or not. There may be people inside the Tibetan government and other organizations following him secretly. We just don't know."
Such speculation lies thick on the ground in Dharamsala, the stronghold of the Tibetan movement. It spreads and takes root easily—in part because, for all the talk about Dorje Shugden, you'd be hard-pressed to find a group of his followers there to dispute it.
It can be hard to get a straight answer about what Shugden followers believe or how this whole fucking mess got started in the first place, especially in mainstream Tibetan strongholds, where the sect is scarce. The only thing that really sets them apart from other Tibetan Buddhists is their veneration of Shugden. While many Tibetan Buddhists believe in celestial beings that can help or hinder religious practice, not everyone agrees which are good or bad.
Devotees maintain that Shugden arose to protect the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gelugpa is one of five schools separated by differences in the interpretation of technical terms or modes of monastic organization so minute that outsiders often can't spot them. As Tibet was once theocratic, with each school like a political party controlling chunks of territory, monks often squabbled over these details. Shugden supposedly helped the Gelugpa avoid contamination by other schools' practices and defended their position as the most powerful.
Despite being the official head of the Gelugpa (and ruler of the Gelugpa and other citizens in a wide swath of Tibet), in the 1930s the previous Dalai Lama campaigned for unity among the schools, promoting the mixing of theologies to create a more integrated Tibetan Buddhist identity. So the sectarian Shugdenites got suppressed. And while the Gelugpa remained the most populous school, a few monks bristled at their leader's lack of theological purity and their own lack of political favor.
The current Dalai Lama has continued to strive for unity ever since a diverse group of Tibetans were cast into exile in the 60s. But this has put him at odds with a resurgent call for purity by a small group of former Gelupga monks who say their protector, Shugden, will rain vengeance on those who mix with other traditions.
Gelugpa monk Kelsang Gyatso split from the mainstream in 1991, forming the pro-Shugden New Kadampa Tradition. Though he claimed it would be tolerant of other schools and open to non-Tibetans, he refused to mix with other sects. Things turned ugly in 1996, when the Dalai Lama publicly declared that he opposed veneration of Dorje Shugden. The triple homicide happened a year later—a fitting act for a spirit of retribution.
"It's completely normal for any religious leader to say, 'I think your understanding of this religious practice is wrong,'" said Robert Barnett, a Columbia University scholar of Tibetan politics. "But then Tibetans in the exile community around him began to impose a ban on all members of the Shugden community, whether they were followers of the Dalai Lama or not."
The Dalai Lama's office acknowledges that some Tibetans do discriminate against Shugden followers—frequently by denying known devotees access to shops or refusing to do business with them—but it condemns this and denies its role in encouraging such actions. Barnett thinks they're not taking enough responsibility for how people interpret the Dalai Lama's words.
Gyatso himself only took umbrage with all of this until 1998, when he pulled the NKT out of the fray. But other Shugden groups popped up, often with NKT ties, to lead a bitter campaign against the Dalai Lama as a suppressor of human rights, impure monk, and all-around bad dude.
Prominent scholars like Barnett say that the entire sect (Thurman calls it a cult), including the many Westerners who've joined up, is a training camp for bitter anti–Dalai Lama activists. "It's not unusual that a new… quasi-Buddhist cult emerges and a lot of Westerners join it," Barnett told me. "But what is really worrying is that [Shugden followers] also take on the idea that they should become activists to take on the Dalai Lama."
Figuring out how many Shugdenites are politicized is difficult, since we don't know how many exist. Some say most of the adherents are Westerners, while others insist that most are in Tibet. Estimates range from a few thousand to more than a million acolytes across the globe.
As I tried to track down Shugden communities in Dharamsala, all my house visits and cold calls and interviews came up with bupkis. This didn't speak much to their prominence in the exile community. Still, I thought I could get a feel for whether Barnett was right about the Shugden groups radicalizing Westerners into anti–Dalai Lama foot soldiers by visiting one of the NKT's hundreds of international centers. One of these, the Kadampa Meditation Center, is in New York City. In a nondescript building a block from the 1 train in Chelsea, Manhattan's Shugdenite center hosts a monthly "Melodious Drum" puja, or devotional offering, that is open to the public. I decided to gatecrash the ceremony.
To sell a wrathful protector to a Western audience, I thought, the NKT might try to downplay Shugden's ferocity. Apparently not. In the mural, he rides a dragon, engulfed in flames, his three eyes glaring and his teeth bared, brandishing a curved sword over his head.
In front of the icons sat about a hundred folding chairs and cushions, only a third of which were occupied. Those gathered were mostly upper middle class and overwhelmingly white. Some of them wore artfully homespun clothes. Others had clearly just arrived from the office, ready for a three-and-a-half-hour evening chant to the fierce guardian of an arcane lineage. The offerings made to Shugden weren't simple foods, but Theo chocolate and blue corn chips, probably bought at Dean & DeLuca. I'm fairly certain the ceremonial tea was apple juice.
Most of these attendees had found the center by happenstance, without full knowledge of the disputes surrounding it, or even of other Tibetan Buddhist traditions—a referral from a yoga teacher here, a random Google search there.
That makes sense. Since the late 2000s, the NKT has billed itself as "Modern Buddhism." They claim to be global, rather than Tibetan, Buddhists, open to all peoples and levels of devotion, and their advertising sidesteps their old beef with the Dalai Lama. They say they're simply devotees of the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa. As Tsongkhapa happens to be the first Gelugpa master, that's a sneaky way of claiming purity without getting into all the theological bile with newbies. More important, their promo materials rarely mention Shugden, if at all.
Yet the "Melodious Drum" prayer was a 98-page chant to the spirit, requesting his aid with honorifics like "his wrathful smile" and "trumpets of thighbones" and "offerings of flesh and alcohol."
The chant was mellow. Speakers piped in new age flute music with serene male and female vocals to lead it, and the effort to fit esoteric prose into a set meter was almost comic. But I still wondered why no one seemed to question spending an entire evening begging for forgiveness—and material wealth—from a wrathful spirit obsessed with his followers' doctrinal purity.
Maybe the critics are right and the NKT is a cult luring people in with easy messages, only to turn them into anti–Dalai Lama protesters. It's suspicious that the centers almost exclusively focus on and sell books by Gyatso and stress the spiritual good of donating to the NKT. (Some wonder whether unsuspecting hippies may be subsidizing the anti–Dalai Lama movement.) Groups like New Kadampa Survivors—whose leader the NKT claims is mentally unstable—insist on the cult classification.
But that's the paranoid interpretation. The NKT is purist, so it's natural for followers to teach Gyatso alone. They're also among the most approachable Buddhists. A three-and-a-half-hour chant can be a mind-and-body-numbing ordeal, but the NKT lets people jiggle, shift, and come and go. The prayer was mostly in English, making it theoretically comprehensible to all. And beyond requesting the aid of a protector spirit—not so unusual for people born in a Judeo-Christian milieu—most of what the NKT teaches is basic Buddhism: suffering, nirvana, and all that jazz.
Fervent devotion to anything, from Dorje Shugden to Jesus Christ, can look creepy as hell from the outside. Some devotees may dive into vitriolic activism. But most schmoes at NKT centers around the world don't go down that road. It's just a meditation tradition they fell into and found helpful. And Shugden and his demonic murals are an innocuous part of that.
I do understand Phuntsok's concerns, which are widespread among his people. The future of Tibet, and especially Tibetans in exile, depends on maintaining social cohesion and global goodwill. When Shugden followers, Tibetan and Western alike, attack the Tibetan Buddhist mainstream, no matter how just their criticisms are, they hammer at the Dalai Lama's saintly image and chip away at Tibetan unity. Shugdenites' promotion of purity—and indeed their very existence—is seen as a threat to the all-inclusive universalism that's played a big role in bringing the exiles together since the 1960s.
Still, I wonder whether the fear of Shugdenism in Dharamsala might be a scapegoat for general anxieties about Tibetan unity and the crawling independence movement. Even if Phuntsok is right and following this spirit is like worshiping a "dog," Shugden's bark is probably worse than his bite.