John Vincent Bellezza
Welcome to another issue of Flight of the Khyung, the monthly newsletter that flies highest to bring you a wide range of Himalayan issues of both historical and contemporary significance. There is no shortage of interesting and colorful subjects to choose from, and I can always dip into the annals of my many adventures in the Himalaya as well. This month we shall focus on a Tibetan Buddhist religious issue of critical importance.
The Shukden Problem Revisited
Recently, I was approached by journalists working for French and Arabic TV. They wanted information on a highly controversial and sensitive subject concerning Tibetan religion and society. These TV reporters are doing an in-depth feature piece on the fallout surrounding the worship of a notorious spirit by certain Tibetan Buddhists. In addition to an interview on camera, I prepared a written statement for the TV crew, and this forms the basis of the following essay. I have opted to compose this essay as if I was an informed insider (rather than the non-Tibetan scholar I am) in order to give it added weight and poignancy.
In the mid-17th century CE, there was a lama of much learning and fame named Drakpa Gyaltsen (Grags-pa rGyal-mtshan). He was a leading monk at Lhasa’s Drepung monastery. Tragically, Drakpa Gyalsten was a deeply troubled man and finally after many intrigues he took his own life. The spiritual liberation of this deceased individual’s consciousness proved problematic, not least of all because his followers wanted to use him as an instrument of revenge against their enemies. As a result, the consciousness of Drakpa Gyalsten was transformed into a malevolent spirit known as Shukden (Shugs-ldan).*
Shukden is a spirit bound to the world, one that was created through the practice of necromancy (conjuring the dead). According to the ethos of Tibetan Buddhism, all sentient beings are to be regarded with great compassion. The deceased ought to be guided either to a better rebirth or to enlightenment depending on the disposition of their karma (the law of cause and effect). To encourage a deeply tormented spirit to remain in the worldly sphere creates much distress for it on both subtle and gross levels. To cause such harm is ethically incorrect in Tibetan Buddhism. Those who engage in such practices for their own ends also endure much suffering due to the debilitating nature of their activities. In other words, necromantic practices fundamentally harm both the dead and the living. And this is true despite the short-term material gains that accrue to those who carry them out. In Buddhism, as in all other major world religions, necromancy is proscribed precisely because of its pernicious influences.
Shukden is infamous for its ability to bring material gain to its followers and destruction to their enemies. This malicious ghost is especially known for its extreme possessiveness, vengefulness and ire. These qualities make it attractive to spiritually flawed persons mired in mundane activities, as their wishes can be quickly and ruthlessly realized. For these reasons, Shukden became a popular object of propitiation among certain adherents of the Gelukpa sect. These followers claim that Shukden is a high level Buddhist protector (Choekyong) or even an incarnation of the Buddha. However, for most Tibetan Buddhists this view of its divinity is simply unacceptable.
A study of Tibetan eschatological scriptures shows that those deceased who are lost between rebirths are in desperate need of rehabilitation and liberation, bar none. They are considered pitiable beings floundering in a murky limbo, and make unreliable and menacing allies. It is not surprising then that over the last 300 years, devotion to Shukden has proven highly antagonistic to the interests of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to debasing Buddhist doctrines and morality, this ghost has been the cause of much sectarian ill-will and tension.
The 70% of Tibetans who belong to sects other than the Gelukpa (Nyingma, Sakyapa, Kagyudpa, etc.) are deeply opposed to Shukden because of the extreme proprietary nature and spiteful personality of this aggressive spirit. The majority of Tibetans have been calling upon those Gelukpa who use Shukden to give up their attachment to it. Until recently, however, their pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears. Fortunately, the present-day Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, acutely aware of the wishes and aspirations of the Tibetan people, has done much to put an end to Shukden worship. This has won him much admiration and respect among the great majority of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has unambiguously instructed all Tibetan Buddhists who follow him to foreswear Shukden, and most have heeded his call. Sadly, some have not, and this sorcerer’s associate continues to cause very serious problems in Tibetan society. This is all the more appalling because it is the Gelukpa who pride themselves with having the most refined doctrines and the strictest discipline among the various Tibetan sects.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the bond between a spiritual master and his disciples is known as samaya. In order that this spiritual bond remains true and strong, it is necessary that disciples fully implement the instructions of their spiritual masters. Failure to do so can create many psychological and physical difficulties for disciples. In matters of vital importance, the dishonoring of the spiritual bond can even harm a religious master. That is why the Shukden worship is potentially detrimental to the Dalai Lama and to all those who are dedicated to authentic Buddhist values and ideals.**
According to Bon, the other major religion of Tibet, Shukden belongs to the shindre (gshin-’dre) class of demons, those deceased persons who are marooned in the intermediate state between death and rebirth, bringing much misery to themselves and discord to the living. In pre-Buddhist times, the Bon religion possessed highly effective ritual methods for containing and liberating the infernal shindre demons. Unfortunately, many of these ancient religious systems have broken down with time and the dominance of Buddhism. In matters of practical concern, the Indian funerary traditions of Buddhism have not proven as effective as those of the old Bon religion, which remained vibrant to around 800 CE.
The disintegration of the Bon religious legacy over the last 1000 years has led to a host of practical difficulties regarding death and dieing. This is particularly borne out in the cultural phenomenon known as rolang (ro-lang), whereby corpses become reanimated and go on to terrorize the living. Despite their best attempts, the Tibetan Buddhists could never eradicate the rolang phenomenon. Another unintended consequence of the suppression of the old Bon traditions was the rise of a class of demons known as mishi tsankye (mi-shi btsan-skyes). This involves the transformation of those who died violently into wrathful spirits. Many of these problematic spirits have been brought under a religious oath (dam-can) and inducted into the pantheon of the various Lamaist sects. Such practices can be traced to the 11th century CE Kagyudpa and Sakyapa sects. For example, it was the Taklung Kagyud who selected the spirit of a deceased individual to be their triad of chief protective gods (bDud-btsan, g.Ya’-dmar and dGe-bsnyen). At least in this particular case, the motivation for doing so was the furtherance of Buddhist traditions, and not crass worldly gain. Nevertheless, historically speaking, such ecclesiastic customs opened the door to degenerate practices involving necromancy to spread. Even the Bonpo succumbed to such decadence, enlisting the ghosts of deceased persons such as Changtsan (Byang-btsan) into their pantheon.
Under the Gelukpa sect the practice of necromancy gained much popularity, as its adherents increasingly neglected legitimate Buddhist protective deities (such as the mountain and lake spirits, warrior gods and Buddhist Choekyong divinities). Intoxicated by the power of the shindre demons, some Gelukpa have made systematic and sustained attempts to harbor and exploit them. This in a nutshell is the cultural historical background to the current Shukden problem.
For three centuries, the propitiation of Shukden and analogous entities has grievously harmed the Tibetan people and religions. Many of the catastrophic events afflicting Tibet over the last 60 years can be partially attributed to necromancy and the consequent degradation of authentic forms of Buddhism (leading to manifold negative impacts on Tibetan society). Unless necromancy is halted once and for all, it will continue to eat away at what remains of Tibet’s glorious spiritual heritage. In the long run it could even possibly lead to the demise of Tibetan Buddhism.
In the service of kindness and compassion, it is of the utmost importance that Shukden and all the other wretched spirits that are kept enthralled in the world are spiritually liberated. This should be done in order that the deep sufferings of the ghosts and the sufferings they engender in others be brought to an end. This is the correct and only positive course of action that can be taken. In the meantime, those who foreswear Shukden should be afforded the spiritual protection of bona fide lamas. Then the religious practices of the contrite can be rehabilitated to reflect the qualities of unalloyed wisdom and compassion. The teachings of the Buddha demand no less.
Of course in any democratic society that cherishes religious freedom, no attempt whatsoever should be made to use physical force against Shukden supporters. Rather they should be discredited and branded for what they are: members of a renegade cult. Gradually through the use of intellectual persuasion, peer pressure and ostracism the apostasy itself and the social ills that stem from it can be fully eradicated.
* According to an article entitled “Why the Dalai Lama rejects Shugden”, by Gareth Sparham (appeared in the Tibetan Review, June 1996), rather than Drakpa Gyalsten, it is possible that a Gelukpa lama named Sonam Choephel (died 1657) was the suicidal victim that gave rise to Shukden. In his article, Sparham notes that Drakpa Gyalsten represented a faction at Drepung monastery that was in competition with the Fifth Dalai Lama for ecclesiastic influence, while Sonam Choephel was part of a Drepung faction allied to the Fifth Dalai Lama.
** The shenanigans of a certain Tibetan well-known proponent of Shukden in the UK was the topic of two well researched articles that appeared in The Guardian newspaper (July 6, 1996) entitled “Smear campaign sparks safety fears over the Dalai Lama’s UK visit” and “Shadow boxing on the path to Nirvana”.
Mutsuk Maro! · Sarva Mangalam!