In the 1990s the Dalai Lama banned the Buddhist practice of relying upon the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden, who had been considered for over four centuries as a Wisdom Buddha who helps arrange favorable outer and inner conditions for an individual’s practice of Buddha’s teachings. This created a great deal of controversy.
This practice of relying upon Dorje Shugden was taught extensively by Je Phabongkhapa and Vajradhara Trijang Rinpoche, the greatest Gelug Lamas of the 20th century, the latter being the Dalai Lama’s own root Guru. It was a practice which the majority of Tibetan Buddhists throughout most of the 20th century engaged in, including some of the greatest Lamas to come to the West. To name but a few, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, founders of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT); Geshe Rabten and Gonsar Rinpoche, founders of Rabten Choeling Monastary in Switzerland; Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT).
The Dalai Lama himself engaged in this practice, but later changed his mind and started calling Dorje Shugden practitioners sectarian spirit worshippers who were causing the degeneration of Buddhism into spirit worship and undermining the cause of Free Tibet and his own long life. He formally banned the practice of Dorje Shugden in the Tibetan community through the sanctions of being expelled from one’s monastery (hundreds of monks were expelled), losing one’s job, being deprived of basic social services, being denied access to teachings, being viewed as a national traitor, and facing complete social ostracism. The Dalai Lama’s followers further expanded his denunciation of the practice on a global scale, embarking on international forced signature campaigns and trying to destroy the credibility of all those who spoke out against this ban.
By declaring that Dorje Shugden is a worldly spirit or evil demon, the Dalai Lama was saying that his spiritual lineage Gurus Trijang Rinpoche and Je Phabongkhapa were spirit-worshippers and he called them “wrong, all wrong”. If they were wrong, then the entire Gelug lineage is wrong since virtually all Gelugpas alive today are derived, directly or indirectly, from these two lineage Lamas.
The most immediate effect of this ban and controversy was the untold human anguish of those suffering under it. If left unchecked, the Dalai Lama’s actions would have had the result of extinguishing from the world the practice of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition. For these reasons, Dorje Shugden practitioners around the world felt compelled to speak out publicly against this injustice. They included NKT students.
The Dalai Lama and his follower’s consider Dorje Shugden to be by nature a worldly being; Dorje Shugden practitioners consider Dorje Shugden to be by nature an enlightened being. Those who follow the Dalai Lama’s view can, of course, believe what they want, and Dorje Shugden practitioners should be allowed to believe what they want and engage freely in Dorje Shugden practice; there need be no controversy.