The Yellow Book controversy?


  • SA: Dreyfus, Georges (1998). The Shuk-den Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (JIABS), 21. 2, 227-270.
  • TR: Tibetan Review, August, 1976.

Much of The Shuk-den Affair uses cause-and-effect constructions to show the development of issues and responses. In particular, to describe the Dalai Lama’s initial actions against Shugden practice in the late seventies, Dreyfus stresses a direct cause-and-effect relation between the effect (the Dalai Lama’s ban) and publication of Dzemey Rinpoche’s Yellow Book as the cause. In other words, the Dalai Lama’s ban was a reaction to the publication of the Yellow Book, and the Yellow Book therefore is the primary cause of all controversy since that time. However, when incidents in this time frame, in particular the mid seventies, are examined it shows this development is not likely a simple cause-and-effect relation. Rather, this retelling of events appears as a disingenuous attempt to use the Yellow Book as a lid to conceal a crock-pot of other issues cooking in the 1970’s and mute other causes that led to the Dalai Lama’s initial ban.

The anachronistic spark

“Can’t start a fire without a spark”—so goes the popular saying, and the fire is quite well known without needing to say much about at this point. It is high time for reassessing what sparked it and when, within a rational context. This account will leave examination of the actual Yellow Book’s contents for a different discussion and will primarily focus on its publication.

It is popularly assumed that publication of Dze-may Rinpoche’s Yellow Book sparked the Dorje Shugden controversy in the 1970’s. In The Shuk-den Affair, Dreyfus outlines a chronology of how that ultimately unfolded with restrictions against the practice by the Dalai Lama. First, according to Dreyfus in the early 70’s the Gelug tradition was united and “nobody would have dreamed of the crisis that was about to come.” He then claims that in 1975 the situation began to deteriorate when the Yellow Book was published (SA, 255) and that the crisis “started from this book and the Dalai Lama’s reaction to it.” Dreyfus describes the first public manifestation of this “crisis” on Tibetan New Year 1976, which will be examined next. But first, notice the logic: it is a direct cause-and-effect scenario of a controversial book being published and a subsequent public disavowal or disapproval. It some ways it seems similar to the public reaction witnessed with the publication of Satanic Verses in the late 1980’s, although the specifics are quite different. Given that this phenomenon was witnessed by many worldwide, it seems like a plausible scenario.

However, upon reconsideration the first problem with this retelling of events is a simple factual error: the Yellow Book was published in 1973, not 1975 (its LCN is BQ4890 R37 D98 1973). According to the colophon, it was written even earlier: 1970. In the time frame between the Yellow Book’s publication in 1973 until 1976, there are no known statements to determine the Dalai Lama’s reaction or immediate disavowal. Although it seems like pointing out this mistake may be a minor technicality, it is important because it is unlikely that the Dalai Lama would have reacted suddenly or sharply after sitting idle on this matter for two or three years. Moreover, per Dreyfus himself, the Yellow Book “was intended to complement Tri-jang’s commentary on Pa-bongka’s praise to Shuk-den.” Trijang Rinpoche’s commentary was first published in 1967 and also contains at least one story that is found in the Yellow Book; therefore, its material wasn’t completely unknown to those who were most likely to read it. In other words, the Yellow Book and its material were not as groundbreaking and shocking as some insinuate.

Dreyfus also claims that the Yellow Book first circulated when the Dalai Lama reinstated the Fifth Dalai Lama’s ritual system in October 1975, which he considers perhaps an attempt by high Gelug lamas to protest this move due to its coincidental timing (SA, 263). However, this argument is undermined as well when considering that it was published first in 1973. What Dreyfus does not mention is a refutation of the Yellow Book written by Dongthog Rinpoche (an unintended audience) in 1974 which got some attention. However, other than that there is no early indication of a reaction by the Dalai Lama in the advent of the publication of the Yellow Book, nor do the strange events during the Tibetan New Year of 1976 bear any relation to a reaction to the publication of this book.

The 1976 New Year Affair

According to Dreyfus, the Dalai Lama reacted strongly to this book and the first public manifestation of his disapproval was his refusal of annual long life offerings made by the Tibetan government on Tibetan New Year in 1976 (SA, 257). Regarding this affair, Dreyfus states “I do not believe that these events have been well documented even by Tibetans.” He goes on to explain how this is linked to Dorje Shugden and the Yellow Book using his own subjective recollection of that time. However, there are many of documents explaining the incidents and sentiments of that time, for instance the August 1976 edition of The Tibetan Review contains four pages of various newspaper articles that covered this story. And from these reports, the actual nature of this affair can be read in moderate detail, which has no mention of Dorje Shugden whatsoever. Rather, reading these articles exposes many tangible political forces within the exiled Tibetan community at the time, with any “ethereal” influence limited to statements of the state oracle only.

According to the article The Prophecy and the Speculations published by the Hindustan Times (May 7th, 1976), many Tibetans in Tibetan settlements in India were praying feverishly because of growing sentiment that the Dalai Lama may not be with them long, a sentiment backed by palpable indications. It goes on to explain that one of the indications was the Dalai Lama himself doubting his own usefulness to the Tibetan community (TR, 18). This is corroborated by the Times of India article Prayers for His Health which states that “there is ferment over the Dalai Lama’s BBC-TV interview last November [1975] when he said that most probably he might be the last Dalai Lama and that institution intended to benefit Tibetan people might no longer be able to do so” (TR, 19).

It is unclear whether the Dalai Lama himself said that he may not live much longer. In any case, in 1976 statements by the state oracle made this sentiment much more ominous, as described in the The Prophecy and the Speculations article:

This by itself is enough to cause a stir, but what has confounded the Tibetans is the state oracle who too has thrown the he-may-not-be-with-you-long hint. The oracle was first consulted by the monks of Drepung Monastery in Mysore in the first week of March. Later in the last week of the same month, delegates from India and abroad, who had assembled here to attend the annual religious conference, consulted the oracle. The oracle, a monk, went into a trance and again came out with the same answer. (TR, 18)

This article goes on to explain the importance of the state oracle, given that it found the present Dalai Lama incarnation. In retrospect of the events in 1976, this article further reports:

In Dharamsala, following the last March prophecy by the State oracle, the lamas held a ritual, called the Tenzhugs ceremony. Traditionally, the ceremony is to request the Dalai Lama to stay on for a long time. But the Dalai Lama refused to accept the customary gifts-a statue of Buddha, a book and a stupa image-from the lamas. Even persuasion by the two teachers of the Dalai Lama was of no use. The acceptance of the gifts is taken to be concurrence to “stay on”. (TR, 18)

In addition, this article reports that the Dalai Lama’s annual address on March 10 of 1976 to commemorate the 1959 Lhasa revolt was significant:

In a hardhitting speech, the Dalai Lama castigated the Tibetans in India for indulging in “squabbles and factionalism” and accused them of emulating the “luxury life-style of other rich people.” (TR, 18)

The article states that seventeen days later the Dalai Lama went into retreat, confined himself to a room and received no visitors. This same basic story is retold in articles by Gemini, Times of India and Sunday. But what exactly is meant by the Dalai Lama’s reference to “squabbles and factionalism”? Could he possibly be referring to the publication of the Yellow Book?

The article The Last Dalai Lama published by Sunday has more in-depth analysis of that speech by the Dalai Lama, saying that “he spoke of many things, but the thread which held it all together was made of frustration.” It states that 17 years had passed since he left Tibet, and that the Tibetan cause had lost a lot support around the world since then. It says on March 10, 1963 he proclaimed the first constitution for Tibet, which would go into effect if and when the exiled government would regain control of Tibet. However, the article states that constitution did go into effect for the exiled Tibetan government itself in 1963 and it is precisely this which was the source of “squabbles and factionalism”:

Since 1963, the office-bearers in his “Government” at Dharamsala have been elected. The elections, it is reported, are keenly contested and have given birth to squabbles and factionalism within the community. This has further embittered the Dalai Lama. (TR, 20)

In the wake of all these events The Prophecy and the Speculations article reported it left the Tibetan people speculating “what exactly the statement of the oracle that the ‘Dalai Lama may not be with you for long’ means” (TR, 18). Dreyfus recollects the reaction among Tibetans in Switzerland and suggests some were not emotionally moved, perhaps due to their loyalty to Trijang Rinpoche over the Dalai Lama (SA, 258). However, it is clear that the events of this time are not linked to Dorje Shugden or the Yellow Book at all. Nor by this time has the Dalai Lama been linked to any public statements regarding the matter. Rather Dreyfus’s subjective recollection is not only merely conjecture, it has just been proven wrong. In addition, this also shows there were other palpable factors contributing to political problems in exile for the Dalai Lama in the mid-70’s: the statements made by the state oracle, factionalism due to elections for the constitution and statements by the Dalai Lama himself openly questioning his role.

The Birth of Opposition

All of this may leave one begging when and how exactly did the Dalai Lama to start opposing Shugden practice. This article will not definitively answer this question, many of the clues needed to answer this question having never been exposed or published (being as inaccessible as the Dalai Lama’s mind itself). However, it is important to examine some of the parameters of the possibilities, because other accounts of when and how this may have happened, such as The Shuk-den Affair, are not reliable.

The Shuk-den Affair states another cause for strong reaction against the Yellow Book was the incompatibility between the ritual system of the Dalai Lama and Shugden. Dreyfus notes two aspects of this ritual system started by the Fifth Dalai Lama: rituals in conjunction with Guru Rinpoche and the state protector Nechung. Dreyfus states a return to this earlier ritual system was reinstituted by the Dalai Lama in October 1975 with an offering ceremony to Guru Rinpoche, which was intended to “restore synergy that existed between this figure and the Tibetan people.” (SA, 262). However, in November 1975 the Dalai Lama in an interview with the BBC stated that he doubted that the institution of the Dalai Lama was doing any good to the Tibetan people (TR, 20). This leads one to doubt the allegation of a revival of the Dalai Lama’s institution and state rituals at this time.

Moreover, according to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s ritual system had the purpose that the “nation be able to take part in the history of the region” (SA, 262), as it was rooted particularly in the historical temples in Southern Tibet itself including Khra-’brug and bSam-yas. However, these temples were not recreated in exile and they would by definition lose their significance outside of Tibet. Dreyfus claims that after the Fifth Dalai Lama the eclectic ritual system supported by these temples was abandoned and replaced by a purely Gelug one (SA, 261). This requires a much more thorough historical analysis to determine, but in any case there is no indication of a redefinition in the significance of these original establishments. The Dalai Lamas succeeding the Fifth did not break their link with these temples; they also sought to restore them, and the Tibetan government consulted the local Tshang-pa oracle. In other words, there was always a certain tolerance for the Dalai Lama’s orientation with accommodating these pre-Gelug institutions. This is even more apparent in the case of the state oracle Nechung.

Nechung has remained the state oracle since Fifth Dalai Lama, continuing with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Dreyfus notes that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama abandoned his own Shugden practice in the mid-70’s because he could not keep propitiating Shugden and relying on the state oracle Nechung simultaneously (SA, 262). This decision, however, does not hold up to reasoning. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama relied on both Shugden and Nechung up until this time without any well-documented issues, so how would the publication of the Yellow Book change the nature of Shugden himself to be incompatible with Nechung? If one accepts the Yellow Book’s message as definitive, it states the nature of Shugden had been opposed to Gelug lamas doing Nyingma practice for nearly a century, so how would merely penning these accounts in a book change Shugden’s nature or behavior to be suddenly incompatible with Nechung? Alternatively, if one rationalizes the Yellow Book’s message as mere ideology, then the message of the Yellow Book would not be definitively describing the nature of the Shugden as a Gelug protector, hence any perceived conflict between Nechung and Shugden would be merely a product of human ideas.

Yet, putting reasoning aside, according to Dreyfus, the Dalai Lama’s earliest speeches on his advice for opposing Shugden refers to statements that the Dalai Lama attributes to Nechung. Dreyfus references a collection of speeches between 1978 to 1996 published as gong sa skyabs mgon chen po mchog nas chos skyong bsten phyogs skor btsal ba’i bka’ slob (SA, 261), in short “advice” given by the Dalai Lama regarding Shugden. Notice the starting year of this collection: 1978. It has been established that the events in 1976 were not related to Shugden, nor do we find publications indicating statements by the Dalai Lama on this matter before 1978. Therefore, there is a five-year gap between publication of the Yellow Book and the Dalai Lama’s first known statements against Shugden practice.

In the reference by Dreyfus to this, the Dalai Lama claims he initially tried to prevent Nechung from expressing resentment against the success of Shugden through the oracle, but the publication of the Yellow Book made his restraint not possible (SA, 263). Yet this should be subjected to chronological analysis: did Nechung actually say this before 1973? If one accepts this literally, it would need to be the case. But this is not surprising when considering a statement from Trijang Rinpoche’s 1967 Music Delighting the Ocean Protectors that says many Tibetans were claiming there was resentment between Nechung and Dorje Shugden, therefore it is not suitable for the Tibetan government and its workers to rely on Dorje Shugden. The major question this spawns is whether this was due to actual statements made by the Nechung oracle itself or if words were being put into the mouth of the oracle by certain people (including perhaps even the Dalai Lama) or factions for a political purpose. This is indeed difficult to ascertain and will need to be examined upon finding reliable historical documents.

In short, there is no indication that the Yellow Book sought to redefine the Dalai Lama institution itself, stripping it of the state oracle and its pre-existing allegiances to Padmasambhava. Nor can Padmasambhava or temples such as bSam-yas in this context be claimed to be exclusive to the modern Nyingma sect. This figure and these places are common to the Tibetan heritage, so there is no reason to conclude that all rituals to Padmasambhava would have been met with immediate resistance by puritanical Gelug figures. Therefore, there is little or no evidence of such an ideological conflict necessitating the Dalai Lama’s ban of Shugden. Rather, in the initial speeches against Shugden in 1978, the Dalai Lama used statements and behavior he attributed to Nechung to justify it. However, it still needs to be determined if the Nechung oracle really said this or was being misquoted to advance some interest.


This account is by no means definitive to describe what happened in relation to the Dalai Lama institution and Dorje Shugden in the 1970’s. Rather, it is an attempt to consider known evidence on equal ground. It is understandable that the Yellow Book may be offensive or far-fetched for many people; however, that does not mean that all problems can be blamed on it. This account does certainly show that The Shuk-den Affair is way off the mark in describing the lead-up to the ban of Dorje Shugden in the 1970’s. A major problem with The Shuk-den Affair is it attempts to define all events and ideas in terms of Dalai Lama/Shugden when there is clearly much room for considering other factors and political currents.