350-Year-Old Murder Haunts Tibetan Unity

NEW DELHI, India -- A 350-year-old ghost is haunting the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, a land where many believe that spirits and reincarnations are as real as the controversy over Chinese rule.


The ghost is the spirit of powerful 17th-century monk Dorje Shugden, who was murdered in his palace in Tibet.


But in rejecting the monk as a deity and calling him an evil spirit, the Dalai Lama has provoked a rare challenge to his religious and political authority among Tibetan Buddhists.


The dispute has divided families and triggered clashes among the tightly knit community of Tibetan exiles.


Police believe it was the motive behind the slayings of three Dalai Lama disciples in February near the Tibetan leader's seat in exile in Dharmsala, where the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 with 120,000 followers.


The two men suspected of stabbing their victims more than a dozen times each are believed to have fled India. Five others, all linked to the Dorje Shugden Society in New Delhi, were questioned for months about a possible conspiracy. No one has been charged.


The Dorje Shugden Society denies involvement in the murders, and accuses the Dalai Lama's administration of implicating it to crush religious dissent.


"If we were in Tibet, we would all be in prison, tortured or dead by now," said Cheme Tsering, a monk whom police have named as a suspect.


Tsering said Dorje Shugden devotees may decide to seek Indian citizenship, which could be seen as a collective walkout from the Dalai Lama camp that has carefully preserved its refugee status as a symbol of hope of returning to Tibet.


"If we were Indian citizens, we would not face religious persecution," he said.


The conflict has been brewing for a long time. Nearly two decades ago, the Dalai Lama began reconsidering his own faith in Dorje Shugden, and decided that the wrathful spirit was working against him, hampering his goal of seeking autonomy for Tibet with minimal interference from Beijing.


Although the Dalai Lama has not said so explicitly, his followers believe Dorje Shugden is seeking revenge for his own brutal murder, and is undermining the Tibetan's struggle against China by creating "disharmony." Since he fled Tibet after an abortive anti-China uprising, the Dalai Lama has conducted a global campaign from Dharmsala, about 480 kilometers north of New Delhi. He accuses China of occupying his homeland, while China says Tibet is its rightful province.


Last year, the Dalai Lama asked all his followers to renounce Dorje Shugden. Everyone working for his administration was told to forswear Dorje Shugden or resign.


Most exiles, who revere the Dalai Lama as a god himself, complied. But die-hard Dorje Shugden followers resisted. They consider Dorje Shugden a "protector deity" with the power to answer prayers, in much the same way Catholics view saints.


It's unclear how many people remain faithful to Dorje Shugden. Tsering claims as many as 20,000, but the Dalai Lama's administration dismisses them as a fringe group.


Dorje Shugden's story begins during the palace intrigues of the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, the man credited with uniting the warlike medieval tribes of Tibet. "Dalai Lama" is a title conferred on Tibet's highest priest and means "Ocean of Wisdom." The current one is believed to be the 14th reincarnation of the 14th-century founder of the sect known as the Yellow Hats for its ceremonial dress.