Tibetan Minister Kalon Karma Gelek Yuthok had this to say about the 10th Panchen Lama at an event held in Dhondupling Tibetan settlement near Dehra Dun on January 26, 2019: “Despite facing lots of trouble, Panchen Lama showed unwavering courage to work for the cause of Tibet and Tibetans by writing and submitting the 70,000 character petition about the Tibetan’s plight under the Chinese rule.”
Similarly, in a report about an observance of the death anniversary in Beijing on January 28, 2019, a Chinese media outlet said, “The 10th Panchen Lama was a great patriot, a famous state activist, a loyal friend of the Communist Party of China, and an outstanding leader of Tibetan Buddhism in China.”
However, the two sides approached the 10th Panchen Lama differently. The main reason why the 10th Panchen Lama is still relevant (and a reason why the Chinese government has to show a semblance of respecting him) is because he was able to win over the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people even while working for the Chinese Communist system. No other Tibetans working for the Chinese Party and state have been able to replace the Panchen Lama in this.
The following are two anecdotes that were shared at the daylong event in New York organized by the Panchen Lama Gratitude Commitee, which I had the opportunity to participate in. They shed light on why the Tibetan people, both in and outside of Tibet, continue to respect the 10th Panchen Lama.
Firstly, the 10th Panchen Lama sincerely respected His Holiness the Dalai Lama and shared his aspirations. If you look at all the initiatives taken by the Panchen Lama to preserve and promote Tibetan identity, culture, religion, and way of life in Tibet, you can see how they complement what the Dalai Lama has been doing outside of Tibet. Even the way the 10th Panchen Lama referred to the Dalai Lama, in his public addresses in the 1980s, conveyed to the Tibetan people the reverence he had for His Holiness.
Mr. Lobsang Jinpa, a retired secretary to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was one of the speakers at the New York event, told the gathering about the telephone conversation between the Panchen Lama (who was visiting Australia then) and the Dalai Lama (who was visiting West Germany then) in 1986. He said that the Panchen Lama knelt down, as his mark of respect, when speaking to the Dalai Lama on the phone. That one gesture clarified to all how the Panchen Lama perceived the Dalai Lama.
In fact, the Dalai Lama refers to this telephone conversation in his memoir, Freedom in Exile, saying, “We were not able to speak for long, but it was enough to assure me that in his heart the Panchen Lama remained true to his religion, to his people and to his country.”
The position adopted by the Chinese government towards the Dalai Lama stands in stark contrast to that of the Panchen Lama. That is one reason why the Panchen Lama commanded such deep respect among the Tibetan people.
Then, Arjia Rinpoche, who is the head lama of Kumbum Monastery in Tibet and had close ties with the 10th Panchen Lama (you can read more in the book Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama’s Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule), narrated an incident that took place in Kathmandu in Nepal in November of 1986. The Panchen Lama was in Nepal to participate in the World Fellowship of Buddhists conference. Being aware about the presence of a sizable Tibetan community in Nepal, the Panchen Lama had expressed his wish to have an opportunity to meet them. However, the Chinese officials who were accompanying him on the trip found excuses not to have such an interaction. Therefore, the Panchen Lama instructed Arjia Rinpoche, who was part of the entourage, to go outside the hotel with another official to see how many Tibetans had gathered and to find a way to make a meeting happen.
Arjia Rinpoche said he found very many Tibetans and other followers of Tibetan Buddhism outside the gate of the hotel, which was closed. Therefore, he and the official discussed and laid out a strategy on how they could fulfil the Panchen Lama’s aspiration. The Panchen Lama had earlier promised to the World Fellowship of Buddhists that he would gift some Buddhist scriptures and one batch had already been delivered. However, there was another batch yet to be delivered. Therefore, Arjia Rinpoche and the official had the security people open the gate so that the vehicle delivering the scriptures could depart. When the gate opened, he had worked with the Tibetans outside that they would rush in. This they did, and they were fortunate not only to have an audience with the Panchen Lama, but also received a short teaching from him. This incident shows the concern that the Panchen Lama has for the Tibetan people. While the Chinese authorities look at the Tibetans, particularly those outside of Tibet, with suspicion, the Panchen Lama has always looked to address the concerns of the Tibetan people and that is why he gets their respect.
Therefore, if the Chinese authorities truly want to honor the 10th Panchen Lama they should pay heed to what he had said about the aspirations of the Tibetan people. The policies towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people currently being adopted by the Chinese government totally contradict the thinking of the 10th Panchen Lama.