Jigme Yeshi ([email protected])

On 20th October 2020, Xinhua which is the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China carried a news article on the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama. According to the state media, the Panchen Lama had completed his tour of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Panchen Lama is the second highest reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism, next only to the Dalai Lamas. Both reincarnates exercise great authority with the senior one providing teachings to the other. They also play an important role in recognizing the other’s rebirth. The Panchen Lama is considered to be the emanation of the Buddha Amitabha and the current one is Eleventh of his line. However, the Panchen Lama whose travel itinerary are widely covered by the official Chinese media is the one recognized and sanctioned by the communist state. There is another 11th Panchen Lama who was recognized by the exiled spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism; the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Named as Gendun Chokyi Nyima, whose whereabouts are not known as the Chinese state had forcibly taken him with his family into custody after he was recognized at the age of six by the 14th Dalai Lama. Tibetans in exile and their international supporters have campaigned for his release, something that the Chinese government has not agreed to. In 2019, when Beijing was pushed for providing information regarding the Panchen Lama, they responded by stating that the Dalai Lama chosen reincarnate was “attending school and leading a normal life like any other ordinary children”.

The Dalai Lama had announced the name of the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, which was promptly rejected by the Chinese state. Ironically, a state controlled Chinese media commentator had then remarked that the Dalai Lama’s announcement betrays the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and violates the national sovereignty of China. This is a highly strange statement coming from an officially atheist state, one that has not even protected the basic rights of their Tibetan minorities. What is interesting is that immediately after the demise of the 10th Panchen Lama, the central government in Beijing had invited the Dalai Lama to preside over a prayer event for the Panchen Lama at the Yong He Gong monastery in Beijing and more importantly to participate in the search for the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. These accounts and much more are mentioned in the autobiography of Arjia Rinpoche, the abbot of Kumbum monastery in Amdo, eastern Tibet who came into exile in 1998. A search team was formed in China to seek the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation, which was divided into two divisions – one political and one religious. The religious team agreed on the importance of the involvement of the Dalai Lama that was reaffirmed by the central government.

However, due to the catastrophic Tiananmen square massacre in Beijing in 1989 and the 1987-88 Tibetan protests in Lhasa, the hardliners in the communist party changed their stand regarding the involvement of the Dalai Lama in the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation. This was made clear in a report carried out in Outlook magazine, where when the Dalai Lama informed the Chinese government through its Delhi embassy that he wished to assist in the search for the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation by sending a delegation to a sacred lake in Tibet. This proposal was rejected by the Chinese state who stated that they did not want any interference in the search. Still, Chadrel Rinpoche the head of the Chinese appointed search party had been secretly in contact with the Dalai Lama in an effort to reach a decision that would avoid conflict. Arjia Rinpoche writes how due to a lack of an efficient, secure means of communication with the Dalai Lama and unaware that Chadrel Rinpoche had written a ‘letter of promise’ agreeing to obey the Chinese government requests in the matter, His Holiness announced from India that he had made his choice for the 11th Panchen Lama. This resulted in massive criticisms and denouncements from the Chinese officials. Historically, the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas have shared a cordial relationship barring a few instances and even then, the differences were created by their followers who created political intrigue and feuds. It was witnessed in the case of the Ninth Panchen Lama (1883-1937) who left his monastery Tashilhunpo in Shigatse as the Tibetan government under the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933) had imposed a huge tax on Tashilhunpo for the upkeep of the new Tibetan army. However, the issue was aggravated by their influential inner circles that had sown discord between them to gain personal privileges.

Sadly, the 9th Panchen Lama passed away in eastern Tibet without being able to return to his monastery. However, in 1936, a year before his demise he was instrumental in the search of the current Dalai Lama, which shows the deep linkages between both reincarnates. The 9th Panchen Lama was supported by Republican China with an aim to gain a foothold inside Tibet. The Republican government of China followed Sun Yat Sen’s policy of cultural assimilation with regard to Tibetans and other ethnic nationalities. According to this policy the non Han people were “destined to be melted in the same furnace, to be assimilated within the Han nationality”. For them, support to the 9th Panchen Lama would be much beneficial for their policies regarding Tibet. As, Tenzin Tsetan a senior researcher in the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI), a think tank affiliated to the exile government writes “the Panchen Lama was inspired by Sun Yat Sen’s ‘Three Principles of the People’ that stresses on nationalism, democracy and well being of the people. The Panchen Lama drew a comparison of Sun Yat Sen’s philosophy to the Buddhist doctrine of equality and elimination of suffering”. The Panchen Lama was seen as an ambassador of the Chinese dream, which was then the ‘union of the five nationalities’. He was also associated with the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission and was given an annual allowance of 120,000 Yuan by the Kuomintang government.

Hence, a policy of grooming was followed by the Chinese state in the 1930s towards the 9th Panchen Lama. This policy continued with his successor, the 10th Panchen Lama, who was supported by the communists. The late Professor Dawa Norbu writes how the communists tried to use him as a rival to the Dalai Lama, a counterforce to Tibetan nationalism and indeed as an advocate for their policies in Tibet. He was born in Amdo, northeastern Tibet and recognized by the 9th Panchen Lama’s associates, something that was not officially accepted by the Lhasa government. The new reincarnate was supported by the Republican government. According to the Chinese scholar Hsiao-ting Lin, the Republican government wanted to use the Panchen Lama to create a broad anti-communist base in southwest China. However, with the defeat of the Kuomintang in the 1949 Chinese civil war, the Panchen Lama declared his support for the victorious communist PRC. The communists understood his importance and hence his return to Tibet was kept as one of the clauses under the 17 Point Agreement with the Lhasa government. It was in 1952 that the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government finally accepted the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The communists adopting a Machiavellian strategy wanted to groom the 10th Panchen Lama who would be an alternative to the Dalai Lama, with his monastery in Shigatse rivalling the Tibetan government. From the period of 1951-59, both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were courted by the Chinese communists, with both religious leaders given honorary positions in a number of institutions of the PRC and inside Tibet. However, in the aftermath of the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, the Chinese appointed the Panchen Lama as the acting chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region (PCART), an office previously held by the Dalai Lama. As Dawa Norbu writes in an introduction to the Tibet Information Network (TIN) published ‘A Poisoned Arrow – The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama’, published in 1997, where he writes how the Chinese communists wanted to use the Panchen Lama as their puppet spokesman and advocate for communist policies in Tibet. The Panchen Lama on the other hand launched a scathing criticism of Chinese policies in Tibet in a petition that was addressed to the highest leadership of the party.

Titled as the Seventy Thousand Character petition, it was a sound argument and compelling case for a change of policy in Tibet by means of a critical analysis of the cultural, economic and political conditions in Tibet. Dawa Norbu states that the Panchen Lama through his petition defends the rights and interests of the Tibetan people on the basis of Chinese constitutional guarantees and Marxist ideological legitimacy that the communist authorities would find difficult to reject. He states that the text is the Panchen Lama’s ‘policy paper’ on Tibet, presented as a petition to Premier Zhou Enlai and through him, to Chairman Mao Zedong. For his petition, the Panchen Lama was imprisoned, tortured and humiliated and it was only with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s that he was rehabilitated. He passed away in 1989 under mysterious circumstances. However, from his rehabilitation till his demise he worked tirelessly for the Tibetan people, rebuilding monasteries, temples and other cultural institutions. He championed education especially in the Tibetan language and also provided welfare services to remote nomadic populations. The 10th Panchen Lama is still remembered fondly by Tibetans who hold him in high regard. His pictures are more popular that that of Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama.

The legacy of the 10th Panchen Lama lives on and along with his predecessors, their influence and authority remain strong among the Tibetan and larger Himalayan community. This influence was understood by the Republican government in China and also by the atheist communist state, which attempted to groom the 10th Panchen Lama and after his demise installed their candidate as the legitimate 11th Panchen Lama. The Chinese picked candidate, was selected in 1995 through the ‘golden urn’ system, a method that the Qing had instituted for meddling in the reincarnation affair of Tibetans. With the Dalai Lama’s chosen reincarnate disappearing and Chadrel Rinpoche arrested for making contacts with the Dalai Lama, the Chinese communists through a staged event selected their 11th Panchen Lama. The entire selection process was choreographed and monitored by the Chinese state as according to Arjia Rinpoche, who was forced to attend the event. In his autobiography titled ‘Surviving the Dragon’, the now exiled reincarnate writes how along with him the other high lamas and reincarnates who had received a notice much earlier for attending a meeting to determine the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama tried adopting numerous tactics to avoid this, which was foiled by the Chinese state. Arjia Rinpoche provides a detailed narrative regarding the elaborate process through which the Chinese appointed the Panchen Lama. The drawing of the lots was performed by Bumi Rinpoche, the government appointed Ganden Tripa or throne holder of Ganden monastery, who was also chairman of the Tibetan Buddhist Association. Instead of shaking the urn to draw out a lot, this lama simply pulled one out. The lot was handed to the Chinese official Luo Gan, who after inspecting it passed it on to Gyaltsen Norbu, the then governor of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), who announced the name. It is further stated by Arjia Rinpoche that the Chinese had put a bit of cotton at the bottom of one of the silk pouches so that it would be a little higher than the others and the right candidate would be chosen. This was mentioned to him by the Chinese official Ye Xiaowen on a flight to Beijing. His account simply proves that the 11th Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu is a handpicked candidate of the communist state, a puppet who is not the real Panchen Lama.

Even the Tibetans inside Tibet do not accept the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama, with his pictures not selling well nor being placed on their shrines. The Chinese state is seen to be aware of this Tibetan skepticism and has tried to come up with new strategies to legitimize their choice. Gyaltsen Norbu is groomed by the Chinese communists to act as their leader among Tibetan Buddhists, who will definitely play a role in the selection and training of the next Dalai Lama. In recent years, the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama has been given official responsibilities with him being appointed in 2010 to the country’s top legislative advisory body. In the same year, he was elevated as the vice president of the Buddhist Association of China. In 2019, he was elected as the president of the TAR branch of Buddhist Association of China. He has also made frequent public appearances, with him making his first appearance outside mainland China, in Hong Kong in 2012 and in 2019, he travelled to Thailand where he spoke at a Buddhist university in Bangkok and also attended a number of Buddhist events and religious exchanges. Attempts have also been made to boost the spiritual and political authority of Gyaltsen Norbu, with him bestowing the prestigious Kalachakra initiation in Shigatse. However, to ensure a decent turnout, the Chinese authorities had made it mandatory for each household to send atleast two members to the religious congregation.

The ’fake’ Panchen Lama has also praised China’s policies in Tibet, terming them as benefiting Tibetans. A large number of Chinese leaders have met their appointed Panchen Lama, in an attempt to raise his stature as well as to assure their support for Gyaltsen Norbu. In 2015, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping met him and in 2019 he had a meeting with Wang Yang, politburo member as well as China’s top political advisor. The Chinese Panchen Lama in his speeches has strongly supported China’s nationalistic attitude towards securing the nation’s frontiers with India, in which according to him Tibetans have to play a patriotic role. The appointment of Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Chinese communists is a political project, the results of which, they assume will accrue in the near future especially in a post Dalai Lama period. Tibetan Buddhism with their paraphernalia of lamas and other allied institutions are the heart and soul of Tibet and Tibetans. The Chinese through the Panchen Lama has tried to gain a foothold inside Tibet, among Tibetans, which however has been an uphill task as Tibetans have not truly accepted Gyaltsen Norbu as their 11th Panchen Lama. Furthermore, he does not reside in his monastery in Shigatse, instead stays in Beijing that has exacerbated the gap between him and the monastic community in his monastery as well as the common Tibetans. Maybe, the Chinese communists have trust issues with him or it is a lingering fear that like his predecessor the current Chinese appointed Panchen Lama will also speak truth to power and criticize the Chinese communists.

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