It's early morning at the Songzanlin Monastery in Shangri-La, Yunnan province, and nine monks are fingering prayer beads as they chant in a small room, gold-coloured shawls on their shoulders to ward off the cold mountain air.
On the wall is a likeness of Dorje Shugden, a controversial Tibetan deity. Exactly 340 small new statues of Dorje Shugden riding on a snow lion fill glass-enclosed cabinets covering two sides of the room, which is partially lit by pungent yak-butter candles.
On the second floor, a young monk is huddled in his room reading from a worn yellow book of scriptures, a likeness of Dorje Shugden pasted to a wall.
On the other side of the hilly complex of monastery buildings, a monk greets a visitor with a suspicious look, asking him if he's a follower of 'this or that', holding his thumb up first and then down. It's understood that the up thumb represents the Dalai Lama and the down Dorje Shugden. To reassure the visitor, he says his part of the monastery is 'clean', code meaning there are no statues of Dorje Shugden in its imposing hall.
'We don't worship Dorje Shugden in our khamtsen [housing block for monks],' he says.
Contemporary followers of this centuries-old deity refer to him as Gyel-chen Dor-je Shuk-den Tsal, or the Great Magical Spirit Endowed with Adamantine Force. Critics, many afraid to even mouth his name for fear he may be conjured up, call him 'the devil'.
The conflict, which has resulted in the assassination of at least three monks loyal to the Dalai Lama, appears to be widening in China, with critics accusing Beijing of trying to capitalise on the dispute to weaken support for the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama.
Although Shugden has been disputed for centuries, there was no real controversy when the current Dalai Lama came of age in the 1950s.
Georges Dreyfus, Jackson Professor of Religion at Williams College in Massachusetts, in the United States, wrote in an article titled, The Shugden Affair: Origins of a Controversy that the worship of Shugden expanded as a result of the nomination of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche as the junior tutor of a young 14th Dalai Lama. Swiss-born Dreyfus, who spent 15 years being trained as a monk in India, says Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was an influential and charismatic teacher within the Gelugpa sect and was 'personally extremely devoted' to Shugden.
The situation took a dramatic turn in 1975, when the Yellow Book appeared. Co-authored by Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, the book stated that Gelugpa lamas should not practise the teachings of other schools, for that would incur the wrath of Dorje Shugden. The Dalai Lama reacted strongly against the book, feeling it was an open attack and a rejection of his leadership by the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat establishment, which he heads.
The Dalai Lama himself was once a follower of Dorje Shugden but, according to his website, he renounced the deity the year the Yellow Book was published, explaining that after deep study, he had determined Tibetan Buddhism could 'degenerate into a form of spirit worship' if it followed Dorje Shugden and that the practice was 'an obstacle to the emergence of genuine non-sectarianism'. Most importantly, he declared Dorje Shugden a malevolent spirit who was detrimental to the welfare of adherents. The Dalai Lama claimed a historical precedent for banning Dorje Shugden.
What appears to have irked the exiled religious leader the most, however, was the Shugden attack on his personal rituals. Dorje Shugden followers, described by Robert Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, in New York, as 'ultra-sectarians', were angered because the rituals are based on practices borrowed from Nyingma, one of the four Tibetan schools of Buddhism, which, observers say, the group is opposed to, insisting on sectarian purity.
'It's not a purely political question,' Dreyfus says. 'It's theology, politics and ritual all at once. He really believes the institution of the Dalai Lama depends on the rituals.'
In 1977, the Dalai Lama asked followers to abandon the worship of Dorje Shugden. He told Shugden lamas they could practise it in private, but to stop propagating the worship to new believers.
The situation took a dramatic turn in 1996, however, when the Dalai Lama realised his 1977 request was being largely ignored and, in some cases, brazenly flouted. Some lamas were found propagating Shugden widely, even in the West, drawing tens of thousands of new devotees. The Dalai Lama again made a plea to his followers, which upset and confused many of them, as they'd been worshipping Dorje Shugden for years and because the deity had been promoted by Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama's own teacher.
'It's a big problem,' says Kesang, a native of Chatreng (Xiangcheng), a Dorje Shugden stronghold in Sichuan province. 'It's caused divisions between teachers and students, and husbands and wives.'
'There's a big split. Couples even divorced,' chips in Sonam, Kesang's cousin. 'In the monasteries, teachers and students have split. It's a conflict among Tibetans. We can't be united.'
Kesang's brother, a high-level lama studying in India in a Dorje Shugden monastery, is home on holiday, but chooses not to comment on the issue. The family house has several altars, with photographs of prominent lamas in the Dorje Shugden movement, the Panchen Lama, chosen by the Chinese government, and images of Dorje Shugden.
As his mother serves yak-butter tea, cheese, lamb and Tibetan bread, Kesang complains of a bias against Dorje Shugden believers.
'I was riding on a train in India and chatting with some older Tibetan men,' Kesang recalls. 'But when I said I was from Chatreng they turned their backs to me.'
Sonam says that at his school in Dharamsala (the Indian home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile), he had to hide the fact he was from Chatreng.
'I just kept silent,' he says. 'After I graduated, they couldn't do anything to me.
'In Derong [in Sichuan], some taxis will ask where you're from and if you say Chatreng, they show you the door.'
Sonam says a marriage to a fellow Tibetan in India failed because the girl and her parents were not Dorje Shugden adherents. Another girl he met told him: 'People in Chatreng are very bad- they worship an evil deity.'
Ask a Shugden follower the reason behind the Dalai Lama's decision and it is unlikely any will refer to the reasons laid down in the religious leader's writings.
'Even the Dalai Lama's teacher worshipped Dorje Shugden,' Sonam says. 'If his teacher worshipped Dorje Shugden, why doesn't he?
'We never opposed the Dalai Lama,' he insists. 'But they think we are his enemy.'
Lobsang Choezom, head abbot of Chatreng's Samphel Monastery, says: 'He just rejected the reality. I don't know his reason. We should ask him why he did this.'
The smiling rotund monk then repeats the oft-heard claim that Dorje Shugden protected the teenage Dalai Lama during his hazardous 1959 escape from Tibet to India.
Sitting on an intricately carved chair painted gold and red, nearby walls covered with paintings of Buddhas and pictures of famous Shugden lamas, Lobsang Choezom takes a dig at the Dalai Lama.
'How could a deity of compassion be harmed by a deity like this?' he asks. 'If [that were possible], he is not the real reincarnation.
'We still recognise him as the head of our religion, he's like a king. But we can't listen to everything the king says.'
Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer, defends the Dalai Lama. 'This is a religious question. The Dalai Lama has the right to decide [the answer]. Dorje Shugden is Gelugpa and the Dalai Lama is the highest person in Gelugpa.'
Monks are also divided over the issue. On March 14, 2006, monks at the Ganden Monastery, in Lhasa, turned over statues of Dorje Shugden and his retinue in a hall. Several were arrested and sent to prison.
'We don't talk with [the Dorje Shugden contingent],' says a pro-Dalai Lama monk at Songzanlin, where halls dedicated to the Dalai Lama and Dorje Shugden stand beside one another. 'We're busy with our things and they're busy with their things.'
Monks at the Kirti Monastery, in Langmusi, Sichuan, wear a circle pin to distinguish themselves from their Dorje Shugden-supporting colleagues at the Sertri Monastery, just across the border in Gansu province.
Dreyfus says Dorje Shugden followers are well aware of the Dalai Lama's motive.
'They know why he did it, but, to be fair, they don't see it the same way the Dalai Lama [does],' Dreyfus says. 'They are loyal to particular lamas, [so] they continue to practise the cults promoted by them.
'It's a complicated story,' he says. 'It's not [about] the good guys and the bad guys. Both sides have [their] reasons.'
Dreyfus says a schism has already occurred in India, where at least two Dorje Shugden monasteries have opened to accommodate the movement's adherents. He says, however, the problem there is not serious.
'There, the Dalai Lama has largely prevailed,' Dreyfus says. 'The situation has stabilised while in Tibet it's very much a live issue.'
He says the situation is being exacerbated by Beijing, which is 'pushing the Shugden cult... to play on these divisions' in Tibetan areas of China. 'It's obviously working.'
Tsering Woeser says many Tibetans are afraid of the 'horrible spirit and possible cruel revenge that could be carried out by Shugden followers' and that they avoid Dorje Shugden followers 'as if they were evading plagues'. She says they even avoid restaurants and shops run by followers.
'My mother won't even let us mention his name,' says one devout Tibetan Buddhist. 'We use the word 'devil' when we refer to him.'
In 1997, six Tibetans killed the director of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics and two of his students in Dharamsala. The victims supported the Dalai Lama's view on Dorje Shugden. It is thought at least two of the killers disappeared back to their homes in Chatreng.
AS OUR VAN WINDS its way along snow-covered mountains towards Chatreng, our guide points out Dorje Shugden mantras on the windshields of the cargo trucks that ply these dangerously winding roads.
The small valley town was the home of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and is the site of one of the major monasteries that worship the banned deity. Some 700 lamas live in the Samphel Monastery, which has worshipped Dorje Shugden for hundreds of years.
The recognised reincarnation of Trijang Rinpoche has traded his Buddhist robes for a Western suit and lives in Vermont, in the US. The monastery, however, is awaiting his return, and has prepared a lavishly decorated room for him, with an intricately carved chair and a huge bed.
At the entrance to the main hall of the monastery are two images of Dorje Shugden, one on the door and another above it. Just inside there is a large colourful painting of Dorje Shugden riding a white snow lion that's trampling the naked body of an enemy of the Gelugpa. In one hand he holds a sword, which stands for the destruction of ignorance, and in the other, a heart, representing compassion.
In another hall, there's a seven-metre-tall copper statue of Dorje Shugden. Monks sit here chanting throughout the day, pounding on a large drum and gong. The statue, which is surrounded by Dorje Shugden's four subordinates, is covered with white khata, or ritual Tibetan scarves.
At 8.45am, about a dozen monks clad in red robes sit on rugs and begin chanting. A senior, on a high chair swinging a handbell, chants in a deep guttural voice as the monks rock slowly back and forth to the chant.
Kesang points to photographs of various rinpoches on the walls. 'All of them follow Dorje Shugden,' he says, 'otherwise we wouldn't have their photo here.'
Observers claim Beijing donated one million yuan (HK$1.2 million) to the expansion of the monastery, which includes intricate wooden carvings and massive statues.
A tourist who recently visited the Sertri and Kirti monasteries reports that the former, a Shugden stronghold, has been 'remarkably renovated, very clean, [with] fresh paint and certainly well-financed' while the latter, which supports the Dalai Lama, remains untouched. Many of its monks were arrested and beaten after the protests in Tibetan areas in 2008.
'This has become a political problem,' says Tsering Woeser, 'because of the involvement of the Communist Party of China. Originally, it was not a big problem but, because of the Chinese, it's become larger.'
Refuting such claims, Lobsang Choezom says: 'The government is not supporting followers of Dorje Shugden. If the government is good to one, others will wonder why. People who say this insult Dorje Shugden followers.'
He claims his monastery was built mostly with donations from farmers and monks, with the government giving only a small amount.
'The Chinese government supports all the monasteries,' he says.
Lobsang Gyaltsen, a senior abbot at Songzanlin, is surprisingly sympathetic to the government. When asked about monks who have been arrested and beaten over the past three years, the lama, tipped to be the next head of Songzanlin, replies: 'Of course, they should be arrested when they violate the constitution of China. Of course, the government will arrest them and beat them like a thief. They misused religion.'
The incident in which Dorje Shugden statues were destroyed was played up by the official Xinhua News Agency, which quoted Zhang Qingli, then party chief of Tibet, as accusing the Dalai Lama of being behind the attack. 'What the Dalai Lama has done violates the religious freedom of believers,' he said.
Tsering Woeser says the Chinese paid for a replacement statue of Dorje Shugden, which was put in Ganden Monastery 'with great pomp by the Chinese authorities', who claimed it was 'to protect religious freedom'.
'[The schism] has become a political issue controlled by the Chinese authorities behind the scenes,' says Tsering Woeser.
Dreyfus says: '[The Chinese] didn't instigate it but they are using it and putting oil on the fire. In Tibet they are helping pro-Shugden lamas, that's very obvious. They give special privileges or support to certain monasteries.'
In an August 15 article by Jayadeva Ranade, in India's Daily News & Analysis newspaper, titled 'Undermining the Dalai Lama at Tibet's 60th Bash', the writer says China has 'stepped up efforts to sow division in the Tibetan ecclesiastical hierarchy and is attempting to undermine the Dalai Lama's influence', adding that Beijing hopes a weakened movement will force the Dalai Lama's successors to find new methods of accommodation with the government.
Ranade cites the 60th anniversary of the 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet as one example. He says a number of leading lamas, many of them Dorje Shugden worshippers, accepted Beijing's invitation to Lhasa, to celebrate the anniversary. The monks included the Paris-based former 101st Ganden Tripa, the titular head of the Gelugpa sect, who, Ranade says, met Gyaincain Norbu, the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, in Beijing. The move is seen as an attempt to shore up support for Gyaincain Norbu, who is not recognised by the Dalai Lama and who most Tibetans refuse to accept.
Tsering Woeser argues reincarnated lamas who worship Dorje Shugden have been given high positions and handsome salaries while those who do not have been isolated. One prominent example is Lama Gangchen, a former exiled monk, who, she says, has become 'an honoured guest' of the Chinese government. Lama Gangchen, an outspoken critic of the Dalai Lama, is also said to have taken part in the recent celebration in Lhasa and is believed to have established a major Shugden movement in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
Photographs on the walls of the Songzanlin Monastery show a beaming Lama Gangchen shaking hands with a smiling Premier Wen Jiabao and posing with the Chinese Panchen Lama. Tsering Woeser says Lama Gangchen has also met with President Hu Jintao and that he travels back and forth between his home in Italy and Beijing, where he has been provided with a house and a car. Lama Gangchen's photos and news about him appear on the websites of the United Front Work Department and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
'There are said to be some Tibetans in Lhasa who have been given high-level positions there who come from families that worship Shugden,' says Barnett, adding that Shugden shrines have also been established at the Sera and Ganden monasteries.
Tsering Woeser offers the example of Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai, whose monastery in Qamdo, eastern Tibet, worships Dorje Shugden. The lama is a deputy chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and his daughter is a standing member of the Tibet Autonomous Region's People's Political Consultative Conference.
Tsering Woeser says that when she visited the Songzanlin Monastery in 2000, only one of the monastery's eight khamtsens was worshipping Dorje Shugden. Now, she says, five follow the deity, and monks there told her the government had funded statues of Dorje Shugden and required they be placed around the monastery.
Tsering Woeser tells of Kesi, the chief reincarnated lama at Songzanlin, who criticised the Dalai Lama on state television and in other media after the troubles of March 2008.
Furthermore, says Tsering Woeser, Lobsang Chodak and Tenzin Chozin, two of the killers of the Tibetan monks in Dharamsala, are moving around freely in Chatreng. Interpol, which has issued an arrest warrant for the two, says on its website that both are natives of Chatreng, but did not respond to questions for this article.
Dorje Shugden followers are not likely to back down.
'Chatreng people will never give up,' says Lobsang Choezom. 'We have followed Dorje Shugden for hundreds of years and we will follow him in the future.
'Non-followers are not brave enough to come here to talk about this. We will sacrifice our lives for Dorje Shugden.'
As we chat, monks come and go, mobile phones ring and bells clang in the wind. One monk pours snuff from a yak horn into the top of his clenched fist, stamps it down and then puts some in his nose. The monks are clearly stirred by the rare discussion.
Dorje Shugden supporters are fiercely loyal, locked in by a ceremony called 'life entrusting', in which followers and the deity are 'introduced' to each other by the teacher, who provides the empowerment.
Barnett says followers believe that if they abandon Dorje Shugden, the deity will take a terrible revenge. The Dalai Lama has countered this by offering to personally take on any such consequences.
Due to the sensitive nature of the topic and superstitions, many Tibetans who support the Dalai Lama are reluctant to discuss the subject, causing rumours to swirl and confusion to spread. Interviews with monks who have rejected Dorje Shugden are carried out in whispers for fear they would be overheard.
'People are reluctant to talk about it and don't like to see it talked about, I think because of a residual belief that that encourages and strengthens the spirit,' says Barnett. 'People don't even like to mention or hear its name. So for this and other reasons, rather little has appeared in the mainstream press about the situation inside Tibet.'
Tsering Woeser spent a month researching and writing about the issue, but decided not to publish her article after friends advised her against it, fearing retaliation from Dorje Shugden followers and Beijing.
'People have avoided this like a plague. Bad vibes, to put it crudely,' says Dreyfus, admitting he was 'kind of foolhardy to get into this'. He says he had teachers in India from both sides of the issue. 'Several people advised me not to write on this. There's no good to come out of this, so most scholars have kept away.'
Meanwhile, adherents hope the Dalai Lama will soon have a change of heart - a hope that is unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon.
Sonam says: 'We only ask the Dalai Lama that he let us follow Dorje Shugden. We need religious freedom.
'If he can change his mind before he passes away it would be wonderful,' he continues. 'Otherwise, this problem will continue from generation to generation.'