The Dalai Lama and Protector Deities

The Dalai Lama is currently on a mini-speaking tour of the U.S. Tomorrow night he will be in Los Angeles to give a public talk on Non-Violence and the Effects of Compassion in the 21st Century at the Forum. Last night, he was in Berkeley speaking on How To Achieve Happiness.

Public talks are different from the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Public talks usually do not last more than two hours and he mostly speaks in English, or at least he makes what is for him a valiant attempt at English. Teachings are given over the course of a 3-4 day period, about six hours per day, and he will only speak in Tibetan with a translator on stage and several other translators behind the scenes translating into various languages.

Reuters reported that “Dozens of Buddhists rallied on the streets of San Francisco on Saturday protesting the Dalai Lama, who they say has persecuted followers of an ancient deity that the Tibetan spiritual leader denounced decades ago.”

For some time in Tibetan Buddhism there’s been a controversy over practice associated with Dorje Shugen, a protector deity. The Dalai Lama is very much opposed to this practice. According to Reuters, “Critics claim that the Dalai Lama has excommunicated thousands of Shugden Buddhists from Tibetan exile communities in India, and continues to push practitioners out of communities around the world by encouraging his followers to deny them jobs, schooling and health care.” I don’t know about the excommunication part, but I seriously doubt the second accusation. I have heard him ask Dorje Shugden believers to leave his teaching sessions, though.

I side with the Dalai Lama on this because practice based on any protector deity falls under the rubric of outer-power (tariki), which I feel has no place in Buddhism. It’s looking for enlightenment outside of your own life and that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught inner-power (jiriki). If you are interested in learning more about this long, complicated controversy, Wikipedia has a good but not perfect overview here.

And from my notebook, here are some remarks made by the Dalai Lama on this subject in May 2001 during a teaching on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life:

You are your own protectors. You should take hardships as positive aspects for your practice.

Not satisfied with the Three Principal Parts of the Path*, other practices are added that corrupt the practice. Buddha is the supreme refuge, but we sometimes think that Shayamuni died a long time ago and is no longer relevant, so other protector deities are used and this is wrong.

Success depends on the practice of loving-kindness and meditation on emptiness, not protector deities. It’s as if some people are trying to bribe protector deities and are not relying on the practice of developing oneself.”

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* The Three Principal Part or Aspects of the Path, a Tibetan Buddhist teaching by Jey Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). The three refer to renunciation, bodhichitta (the thought of awakening), and a correct view of emptiness.


2 thoughts on “The Dalai Lama and Protector Deities

  1. I struggle with this idea ever since the time that I professed the Christian faith. When I converted to Buddhism could never admit to bribery of protective entities, in whatever sense that is.

    1. I don’t quite understand what he means by ‘bribing a protector deity.’ Since I don’t believe such beings, whether it be God, Allah, Amida Buddha or Dorje Shugen, are real, I don’t see how you could bribe one.

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