The Panchen Lama and Legitimacy

Dalai Lama Panchen Lama

The Dalai Lama with the previous Panchen Lama.

Today is the 28th birthday of the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who continues to remain in detention since 1995. From being the youngest Tibetan political prisoner, he might well be the only Tibetan who grew into his teens under detention by the Chinese Government.

First a recap: the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima disappeared (detained by the Chinese authorities) in May 1995, when he was a six year old child, a few days after the Dalai Lama recognized him as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. Subsequently, violating the Tibetan spiritual process, the Chinese authorities selected another boy (through illegal means, as we learn from an eyewitness, Arjia Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan Buddhist Master who was closely involved with the process before he fled to freedom a few years later). Since then, despite repeated attempts to gain access to him, no international agencies or human rights organizations – including the United Nations — has been allowed to visit the Panchen Lama or his family, and their condition remains uncertain. The Chinese authorities have even refused to provide any information on his health status or on the pertinent issue of his spiritual education and upbringing.

In an open letter to the Panchen Lama on his birthday U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee (who was a monk for some years) says, “By the age of 28, I had received both a Tibetan and modern education, as well as advanced Buddhist studies in the Tibetan diaspora in India. I would like to know more about you, especially about your well-being and the education you have received. I fear that the Chinese government has taken away your religious identity.”

Meanwhile, the de facto Panchen Lama (I am using the term “de facto” in the legal sense of “existing in fact whether with lawful authority or not”) is having occasional exposure in the Chinese media and being projected as assuming his spiritual responsibility.

Six years ago, I wrote a piece titled, “Why Doesn’t the China-appointed Panchen Lama Speak Out?” The issue is still valid. Granted that since then the individual appointed by China has been seen conducting public events and talking about issues along Party lines. This does not amount to speaking out in the way the 10th Panchen Lama did. As I mentioned in my blog, a Tibetan Buddhist leader chooses to be reborn to work for his spiritual community and to further the work of the previous incarnation. Tibetans, both inside Tibet and outside, know on how the Chinese appointed individual has fared so far.

China’s political agenda behind their selection of the de facto Panchen Lama became clear in 2010 when he was formally appointed to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Since the selection, the Chinese authorities have used all means to grant him legitimacy. But as of now, he does not enjoy the confidence nor the reverence of the Tibetan people (the Chinese government knows this and so is constantly trying to find ways to impress the Tibetan people, the latest being having him bestow the sacred Kalachakra initiation).

If Gyaltsen Norbu is truly a Tibetan Buddhist leader and has been provided with the necessary spiritual upbringing, it will be seen from his action. In 1995, after the Chinese authorities installed him, I wrote, “Ultimately, as per Tibetan belief, a lama himself will reveal, as he grows up, whether he is a genuine reincarnation or note, and behave accordingly. The late Panchen Lama was a classic example of this. Even though he was in Chinese hands, a look at his life story reveals the scorn he had for Chinese rule in Tibet.”

Without any recognition from the Dalai Lama, the Chinese authorities can never be able to put the stamp of legitimacy to their selection of any religious leader, whether it is the Panchen Lama or a future Dalai Lama.

Unfortunately, Chinese authorities have not been able to understand Tibetan mentality. To Tibetans, China’s interference in their religious life affects them equally, if not more, to its occupation of Tibet. The tenth Panchen Lama put the case in a more subtle way when he, in October 1988, three months before his demise, called for an end to “traditional interference of religious activities with administrative measures over the years.” He said this was harming “the harmony of nationalities, as religions have close relations with minorities.”

In other words, China might want to have its own version of Rule by Incarnation, but it is the will of the believers that will really matter. The earlier the Chinese authorities realize this, the better it is for them.

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Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering joined the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C. in 1995 and is currently the Vice President. He worked as a journalist with Indian Express in New Delhi, and as an official of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, before joining ICT.
 
He is a member of the Task Force set up by the Central Tibetan Administration to work on issues relating to the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. He was also a member of the team led by the envoys of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the discussions that they had with the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2010.
 
He has contributed articles on Tibet and related issues to Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Swiss and American journals. He has also testified in Congress on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet and spoken at Universities and Think Tanks.

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