© Newsweek April 28 1997 - Posted on May 6, 1997 by World Tibet News

Did an obscure Tibetan sect murder three monks close to the Dalai Lama?



This murder mystery seems earthly to be set in the monastic palace of

the God King of Tibet. Yet the facts are inescapable. Three members of

the Dalai Lama's inner circle were brutally slain on the night of Feb

4 in a bedroom just a few hundred yards from His Holiness's exile

residence in the northern Indian city of Dharmsala. The next morning

monks found the Dalai Lama's close friend and confidant 70-year-old

Lobsang Gyatso, dead on his bed. Two young monks, Nagawang Lodoe and

the Dalai Lama's Chinese-language interpreter, Lobsang Nagwang, died

within hours of the attack. Each victim had been stabbed 15 to 20

times, leaving the walls of the small monk's chamber splattered with

blood. Police believe it was the work of five to eight attackers. But

who, exactly? Cash and gilded Buddhist statues were left at the scene,

ruling out robbers. And what kind of criminal would commit such

carnage in this famed sanctuary of the gentlest religion?


The savagery of the attack immediately steered police to search for

fanatics of some kind. So did the death threats that followed against

14 more members of the Dalai Lama's entourage. Now Indian police

believe the murders were committed by an obscure Buddhist sect that

takes its name and inspiration from a minor but ferocious Tibetan

deity: the Dorje Shugden.


The Shugdens consider themselves guardians of Tibetan Buddhism, and

particularly their branch of the faith, known as Gelugs, or the Yellow

Hats, for their ceremonial headdress. They can be harshly doctrinaire,

and have branded the Dalai Lama a traitor to the Yellow Hats for

befriending other branches of Buddhism. In the last year the Dalai

Lama has retaliated, denouncing one Shugden order in particular as a

hostile and crass, commercial cult -and providing what police suspect

maybe the motive for brutal retaliation against His Holiness's inner

circle. Indian police have formally questioned at least five Shugden

followers, and were canvassing Tibetan-refugee neighborhoods in New

Delhi last week, seeking clues to what they describe as a well

organized murder plot. "I think there's no doubt that Shugden was

behind the killings," says Robert Thurman, America's foremost Buddhist

scholar and an old friend of the Dalai Lama's. "The three were stabbed

repeatedly and cut up in a way that was like an exorcism."


The Shugdens worship a god who is often depicted wearing necklaces of

human heads - symbols of conquered vices and transgressions. He is a

sword-wielding warrior figure, riding a snow lion through a sea of

boiling blood. As one of the minor Dharmapala, or protectors of the

faith, Dorje Shugden has had an underground following among Tibetans

obsessed with doctrinal purity for centuries. "It would not be unfair

to call Shugdens the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism," says Thurman,

referring to the Muslim extremists of Afghanistan, who believe in

swift and brutal justice. As early as the 1600s, the Dalai Lamas were

trying to curb worship of Dorje Shugden. About 15 years ago, the

current Dalai Lama began to voice concern that the sect was gaining

strength, sowing discord.


Then, in 1991, a senior monk named Kelsang Gyatso established a new

Dorje Shugden order based in England and called the New Kadampa

Tradition (NKT) The NKT soon flourished by promising spiritual

rewards for cash-an unholy sales pitch that helped trigger

confrontation with the Dalai Lama's circle. Through a spokesman,

Kelsang insisted to NEWSWEEK that his followers had nothing to do with

the grisly murders in Dharmsala and that their idol's "wrathful

aspect" is only symbolic: "Even if my best friend did the

murders, I would condemn it," he said.


Nonetheless, the followers of the NKT have painted a hostile portrait

of the Dalai Lama that is unrecognizable to mainstream

Buddhists-indeed, to millions around the world who revere the Nobel

Peace Prize winner and champion of Tibet. The NKT accuse him of

selling out Tibet by promoting its "autonomy" within China rather than

outright "independence." In fact, the Dalai Lama's global campaigning

on behalf of Tibet may have made him an obvious target, like any other

world leader. Since the Dharmsala murders, security has been tightened

around the Dalai Lama, who was traveling last week in France and Spain

under the careful watch of bodyguards.


The dispute with Dorje Shugden is rooted mainly in ancient struggles

within Buddhism. Above all, the Shugdens are angry that the Dalai Lama

is promoting dialogue between the Yellow Hats and another major branch

of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma, or the Red Hats. The Shugdens consider

it a sin even to talk to Red Hats, or to touch Nyingma religious

works. The police believe that one of the reasons the men were killed

was that the old sage, Lobsang Gyatso, was a particularly active

intermediary between the Dalai Lama and the Red Hats. His obituary

describes him as an outspoken critic of Yellow Hat conservatives. And

in an interview with NEWSWEEK earlier this month, the Dalai Lama

expressed his worries about the Dorje Shugden. "That

cult is actually destroying the freedom of religious thought," he


"Say I want to practice Nyingma. They say this Protector will harm me.

Now, that's an obstacle to religious freedom. I am trying to promote

thetradition of coexistence, but the Shugdens say you should not even

touch a Red Hat document. That teaching totally contradicts my



The split grew angry early last year. The Dalai Lama issued a call to

all Tibetan Buddhists to avoid the Shugdens. He warned against the

cult's extremism and against public worship of their idol. Soon after,

the NKT in London claimed that the Dalai Lama's remarks had inspired

Tibetans to harass Shugden followers in Dharmsala. It claimed that

mainstream Tibetan groups were searching homes and temples for Shugden

devotees and burning images of the Dorje Shugden. The NKT began

protesting on the streets of London last May, accusing the Dalai Lama

of suppressing their religion.


They carried a picture of His Holiness over the slogan YOUR SMILES

CHARM, YOUR ACTIONS HARM. Then the threats began. A letter to the

Tibetan Women's Association in Dharmsala warned, "If there comes a

division among prominent persons in the [Yellow Hat] sect, there will

be bloodshed in the monasteries and settlements [across India]."


The threats were among the clues that set police on the trail of the

Shugdens soon alter the murders. On Feb. 8 the five Shugden followers

were questioned in New Delhi and ordered to be available again on May

3; police said the five are not suspects but suspected witnesses of a

well-organized murder plot. The leader of the Dorje Shugden devotees,

Geshe Dragpa Gyaltsan, said police are intensely questioning innocent

Shugden followers.

"We are supposed to have a hit list of 14 men," he said. "We don't

have a hit list, and it would be completely against the advice and

guidance of Dorje Shugden if we did." He described the Dalai Lama as a

good man led astray by his advisers and the Tibetan exile government

in Dharmsala, which he accused of banning Shugden followers from

official posts and higher education. At this rate, he suggested,

Shugdens "will end up being the Jews of Tibetan Buddhism." Then he

offered a peace plan: the Dalai Lama could speak "face to face" with

Dorje Shugden himself through one of the sect's "three or four"

mediums. "I have spoken to Dorje Shugden many times this

way," said Geshe, "and we could easily arrange for him to talk to the

Dalai Lama."


The religious conflict at the heart of this mystery goes back to the

early 15th century, when a reformer named Tsongkhapa founded the

Yellow Hats. The nephew of Tsongkhapa became the first Dalai Lama,

establishing an unbroken line of God Kings. Each was believed to be a

reincarnation of his predecessor, and ruled supreme over older orders,

including the modest and scholarly Red Hats. The Yellow Hats were far

more grand than the austere Red Hats in their clothes and magnificent

palaces, but the Dorje Shugden sect would become grander still. They

were always among the most fervent defenders of Yellow Hat supremacy,

and in London today they celebrate Kelsang as their "peerless"

spiritual guide.


Shugden followers always believed their god could grant earthly

favors, and NKT has richly exploited this belief. Though barely known

in the East, the NKT has slickly and successfully promoted Dorje

Shugden in Europe. It's the fastest growing Buddhist sect in Britain,

where it now has about 3,000 members, a thriving publishing business

in London and mansions that double as "Dharma Centers" all over the

country. It has also been denounced by the London press and the Dalai

Lama as a cult that fleeces its own followers. "Nobody would pray to

Buddha for better business, but they go to Shugden

for such favors - and this is where it has become like spirit

worship," the Dalai Lama told NEWSWEEK. "This is a great pity-a



NKT founder Kelsang has publicly retreated from his confrontation with

the Dalai Lama. Through his spokesman he told NEWSWEEK that the NKT had

abandoned its demonstrations last July alter realizing they were less

and less appropriate. Elsewhere he has denied allegations that he is a

fraud of a monk who never went on a religious retreat and who has made a

personal fortune in the "millions of pounds." He insists that any

profits go to his Dharma Centers and that he lives modestly on a 3250

stipend each month. Yet there is no denying the crude mix of spiritual

and commercial themes pitched on the sect's Internet Web site. A

current bulletin explains that "accumulating merit" is vital to "become

an enlightened being" and that helping the Dharma Centers "flourish" is

a great way to accumulate merit.

"So," the bulletin offers, "if you are in the market for some merit

(and who isn't) here is a perfect opportunity." There follows a price

list: 23,000 ($4,800) for an NKT shrine cabinet, 22,000 for an NKT

Buddha statue, 230 for "a teacup and saucer for Geshe-La" (Kelsang's

honorific title).

"Shugden appeals to crazies by offering instant gratification," says

Thurman. "Once you get involved, you're told you have to devote your

lives to the cult, because the god gets very angry if you don't attend

to him every day. It's really bad stuff, the way they're draining money

out of people."


The suspicion now is that the savvy these Shugdens apply to business

could have been put to more nefarious ends in Dharmsala. But Kelsang

insists his idol and his order are peaceful. No one saw the attackers

slip in and out of the monastery chamber on the frosty night of Feb. 4.

There are no real suspects in hand, only suspicions, potential witnesses

and the suggestive tale of an angry split in Tibetan Buddhism. As much

as anything, the Shugdens are suspect because no alternative theory has

emerged to explain this unholy crime. But the mystery of the Dharmsala

murders is far from solved.


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