His Holiness the Dalai Lama announcing his recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama on May 14, 1995. A portrait of the Panchen Lama can be seen on the table beside him.
Yet another birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama, his 32nd, falls on April 25, 2021, and the world has as much information or as little as it had when he was abducted by the Chinese authorities in 1995, following his recognition by the Dalai Lama. In 1995 he became the youngest individual to have been placed under virtual detention, becoming known as the world’s youngest political prisoner.
Way back in August 2003, when asked about the Panchen Lama, who was 14 years old then and a minor, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “He is now in a good healthy condition, leading a normal and happy life,” adding, “He is not the incarnated soul boy.” In 2020, when the Panchen Lama was 31 years old, Chinese state media had the Chinese Foreign Ministry having a similar position, reporting, “this so-called ‘soul boy’ designated by Dalai Lama” is just an ordinary Chinese citizen living normally.” “Soul boy” is a mistranslation used by the Chinese authorities in English to refer to a reincarnated being.
So if the Chinese government considers the Panchen Lama “just an ordinary Chinese citizen,” today he is an adult and past his Age of Majority even under Chinese laws, and should be given all the rights, including to speak for himself. But the fact that the Chinese government continues to speak on his behalf shows that they have taken away his freedom of expression and that he is not “leading a normal and happy life.”
This attitude by the Chinese authorities has even made some in the Tibetan Buddhist community ask questions about his fate. On his 31st birthday last April, the re-established Tashi Lhunpo monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, now in south India, asked in a statement, “Due to this stonewalling of the truth for such a long time, today it is a pertinent question whether the Panchen Lama is still alive or not?” The monastery added that, “This is a matter of deep concern to the monks of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.” I have even heard some Buddhists, who fear the worst about the fate of the 11th Panchen Lama, opine that the followers might as well supplicate to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to start the process of finding his reincarnation. This is certainly thought-provoking. If there is no evidence of the Panchen Lama still living, it is an appropriate step, according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for his followers to make this request to the Dalai Lama.
But this blog post is about another aspect of the Panchen Lama, namely his name. The world knows of him as Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. It is a name that finds a place in the records of the United Nations as well as in parliaments and governments in many parts of the world. However, from a Tibetan Buddhist tradition perspective, that is no longer his formal name. Rather, his name is Tenzin Gedhun Yeshe Trinley Phuntsog Pel Sangpo, a mouthful, which had been bestowed on him by the Dalai Lama upon recognition in May 1995. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is his non-monastic order name. Let me explain.
In the Tibetan Buddhist cultural tradition, an individual joins the monastery for spiritual pursuit, leaving behind the material concerns of the world. One of the first acts after an individual becomes a novice monk or nun is to get a new name from the spiritual master. One of the reasons for this is to symbolize the getting of a new identity, and non-attachment to the life before entering the spiritual path.
In the case of the Panchen Lama, it is the Dalai Lama who shoulders the responsibility for bringing him along the spiritual path. So, on May 14, 1995, when the Dalai Lama announced his recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama, his statement included the bestowal of a new name. In the statement, the Dalai Lama outlined the series of spiritual tests he had conducted, including divination, and all of them in unison pointed to the boy from “Lhari district in Nagchu, father Kunchok Phuntsok and mother Dechen Choedon, named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima” as being the unmistakable one. He was thus given the new name Tenzin Gedhun Yeshe Trinley Phuntsog Pel Sangpo. Had he been living freely and assuming his religious responsibility in Tashi Lhunpo, the 11th Panchen Lama would be known by this name rather than by Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama delivers teachings in February, 2021.
Oftentimes, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives public teachings, he takes the opportunity to provide advice on specific issues, in addition to explaining the subject matter itself. Given the strong bond between the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama, his advice then reverberates in the community. For example, in January 2006, on the final day of the sacred Kalachakra empowerment in Amravati in South India, he had a message for the Tibetans, “When you go back to your respective places, remember what I had said earlier and never use, sell, or buy wild animals, their products or derivatives.” His call was followed in subsequent months with Tibetans in Tibet giving up the skins of animals in their possession and organizing their public burning, much to the chagrin of Chinese authorities who were then being accused of lack of enforcement over poaching and selling of endangered animal pelts in Tibetan areas.
This past weekend, during his annual teaching on the holy 15th day of the first month in the Tibetan calendar (which fell on Feb. 27, 2021), the issue he addressed was the Tibetan language.
His Holiness understands the power of his platform. He began his teachings on Saturday saying that although the unfortunate pandemic situation has made him have to adapt to a new teaching format, it has also enabled these teachings to be seen and heard by people worldwide, including Tibetans living all over Tibet.
His Holiness then made a special appeal to Tibetans in Tibet, specifically the younger generation, to study the Tibetan language. He did this by virtually challenging them to make a paradigm shift in their thinking on the reasons for doing so.
It is commonly assumed that Tibetans should study the Tibetan language because we are Tibetan. Learning and using pure “father tongue” (Tibetans are among the few communities that use this term rather than the commonly seen “mother tongue”) is included as part of the broader movement to protect Tibetan identity. This can be seen in the Lhakar (“White Wednesday”) movement, which Tibetans in Tibet initiated informally many years back (and the Tibetan community in exile replicated, most visibly through performing circle dances on the day).
His Holiness first applauded a new interest in the Tibetan language that he was seeing in different parts of Tibet, giving the example of developments in Siling (Chinese: Xining) area. He said he saw some videos of Tibetan children there studying the Tibetan language, which wasn’t the case in the past.
His Holiness then said Tibetans, particularly the younger generation, should study the Tibetan language not from a sense of Tibetan nationalism, but because of its ability to impart knowledge about the profound Buddhist philosophy of the Nalanda tradition. His exact words, translated into English, were, “This is not a matter of attachment to one’s own nationality.”
He expanded on this saying (with reference to Tibetans in Tibet) that on subjects like science and politics, Chinese might be the dominant language in the short run. But on subjects of religion, culture and Buddhist philosophy, which enjoy worldwide interest, knowledge can only be gained through the Tibetan language. He referred to the two Tibetan Buddhist canons of Kagyur (with 100 volumes) and Tengyur (with nearly 200 volumes) and said that it will be almost impossible to translate them into Chinese. To me, this reference to the drawback in the Chinese language on matters of Tibetan Buddhism makes me feel the Dalai Lama is cognizant of the reports of efforts by the Chinese authorities to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism. I guess he is implying that the Chinese plan cannot succeed.
Secondly, His Holiness made the interesting point that studying Tibetan Buddhist culture does not necessarily mean one has to be a “believer.” This seems to me to be a direct message to those many Tibetans in Tibet who are members of the Chinese Communist Party and thus consider themselves to be non-believers. In recent times, the Chinese authorities have been restricting party cadres, government officials and their children from participating in religious activities. His Holiness explained his call by referring to several scientists who are his friends who study Buddhism as an academic subject, getting benefit in the process, but who are not necessarily Buddhist practitioners. This is because Buddhism is not only about faith, but also about knowledge, he said.
His Holiness also presented his call for studying the Tibetan language in the context of his now well-known emphasis on studying the Buddhist scriptures rather than merely having a superficial understanding. He urged the younger Tibetans to do deeper study of subjects like logic and perfection of wisdom. He made the case that this was necessary particularly in light of the “situation created currently by those narrow-minded Chinese Communist leaders bent on wiping out the Tibetan language.”
For those working in the field of human rights, there are few occasions when we can feel our effort is having concrete and positive impact. This is particularly so when the issue concerns political prisoners as then there is the measurable output in the form of their release. Over the years the International Campaign for Tibet has taken up a number of cases with the United States Government as well as with the United Nations. There have been occasions when we have had the pleasure of seeing some of the Tibetan political prisoners not only released, but also sent abroad for a variety of reasons.
Such occasions arose for us in the early 2000s when the Chinese authorities released four Tibetan political prisoners between 2002 and 2004, who were subsequently sent to the United States. Since the International Campaign for Tibet was then providing support to the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C. we were closely involved in arranging for the resettlement of the former political prisoners. Takna Jigme Sangpo was the second in the group, the others being (in order of their dispatch to the United States) ethnomusicologist Ngawang Choephel, Drapchi nuns Ngawang Sangdrol and Phuntsok Nyidron.
The process would be something like this: Special Envoy Lodi G.Gyari is informed by the State Department about the impending release of a Tibetan. ICT then steps in to work on the logistics; housing, medical treatment, long-term stay, etc. We would work with the individual to discuss future plans and how we could help realize them. Accordingly, from the four that were sent to the United States, Takna Jigme Sangpo and Phuntsok Nyidron opted to be resettled in Switzerland as it had also taken an active interest in their cases (we facilitated their interaction with the Swiss Embassy) while Ngawang Choephel and Ngawang Sangdrol (we assisted in their documentation) settled themselves in the United States.
Although in his seventies when he arrived in the United States, he was mentally very alert. One of the very first things he told us during our first meeting with him was how he noticed that we were all mistaken in calling him “Tanak” (which we were doing then) and that the correct form was “Takna” like it is in “Tiger’s nose”. Also, following his medical checkup at Georgetown hospital, he took it in his strides when the doctors kept him in an isolated room for a few days after they suspected him of having TB.
While John Kamm, American businessman and human rights campaigner, is to be rightly complimented for relentlessly taking up the cases of Takna Jigme Sangpo and the three other Tibetan prisoners who were released, his work was helped by strong support by the United States Congress and the Administration. In the case of Jigme Sangpo, Congressman Tom Lantos (since deceased) was among those who took a lead on his behalf.
Since then there have not been any more Tibetan political prisoners released to the United States by the Chinese authorities. In general, the four Tibetan political prisoners were released and sent to the United States not because the Chinese authorities felt that that was their right, but because they thought they would win the support of the United States, on this.
That was the period when President Jiang Zemin and his successor President Hu Jintao were desirous of improving relations with the United States to fulfil their own agenda for China. Similarly, the United States Congress and Administration were sending the right message to China. In a report on October 18, 2002, the Washington Post analyzed the circumstances leading to the release of prisoners by China saying:
“When President Bush last met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, a senior State Department official passed a list of 13 jailed dissidents and other prisoners to a Chinese counterpart and delivered a message: If China wanted better relations with the United States, it should let these people go.
“The Chinese government responded in the following months by releasing two of the individuals on the list. They were Jigme Sangpo, a Tibetan teacher who was one of China’s longest-held political prisoners, and David Chow, a U.S. businessman jailed eight years ago on questionable fraud charges. Today, eight days before Bush and Jiang are scheduled to meet again, China released a third person on the list, a young Tibetan nun named Ngawang Sangdrol who was imprisoned in 1992 at the age of 15.”
So Takna Jigme Sangpo symbolized a few things. He symbolized the determination of the Tibetans in Tibet in standing up for their rights. The governmental support for his release symbolized the international community’s concern for the Tibetan people. His release and subsequent dispatch to the United States indicated the fact that if the Chinese Government is placed in a situation where it is in their interest to change their approach to issues relating to Tibet, they will do so.
Takna Jigme Sangpo passed away on October 17, 2020. This article was written for Swirling Red Dust, the story of Tibet’s longest-serving political prisoner, Blackneck Books in collaboration with ICT-Europe, 2017. Although China did not release any Tibetan political prisoners in a similar way in recent years, in a different circumstance, ICT had the opportunity to assist Dhondup Wangchen when he arrived in the United States in 2017.
On September 2, 2020 we celebrated the 60th anniversary of Tibetan Democracy Day, marking the day in 1960 when the first Tibetan parliament in exile was established.
During these six decades, much water has flowed not only down Bhagsunag, the small stream in Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration, but also in rivers in more than 30 countries where Tibetans reside today. Similarly, Tibetan democracy has also gone through much evolution during this period.
Until 2011, the Tibetan democratic experiment had been a top-down one. It began with His Holiness the Dalai Lama implementing his political vision once he escaped from Tibet to freedom in India in 1959.
In February 1960, while in the sacred town of Bodhgaya in India, the Dalai Lama made an address to the Tibetan people explaining his political vision of a future Tibet. He told them then, “Since in Tibet, unlike in the past situation, it is important to establish a democratic governmental system with a blend of religion and politics, there needs to be a people’s assembly that has been constituted by the general public through an electoral system. You should, on your return, identify people in the community who are educated, capable, patriotic, and have the confidence of the people. For the moment, you should elect a deputy each from each of the four major religious [Buddhist] traditions and three each from each of the three provinces [of Tibet].”
Tibetans in Dharamsala voting in the Sikyong and parliamentary elections in March 2016.
The Dalai Lama continued with his quest to educate the Tibetan people about democracy. In mid-1960, during a visit to the Indian hill station of Dalhousie, the Dalai Lama explained to the Tibetan people his vision of reform in the Tibetan society. He said, “Changes must come in all spheres. The government structure will also have to undergo far-reaching reforms so that the people are more intimately associated with the policies of the government and the administration of the country. The task and responsibility of establishing improved political and religious institutions lies upon all of us.”
Meanwhile, on their return to their respective places in the Indian subcontinent, these Tibetan refugees introduced the process of democratic elections and 13 ‘Deputies’ were elected to what was known in English as the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies. The deputies took their oath of office on September 2, 1960. This historic date was later celebrated as ‘Tibetan Democracy Day.’
The Dalai Lama’s next step towards democratization was the introduction of the rule of law. He set up the process of the drafting of a constitution for future Tibet, the provision of which could be applied in the exile situation to the extent possible. He provided an outline of the principles of the Constitution on October 10, 1961 and subsequently a detailed document was prepared based on it. He promulgated the draft Constitution for Tibet on March 10, 1963.
The Dalai Lama highlighted the blend of Tibetan values and modern systems in this democratic constitution by saying in the foreword, “This takes into consideration the doctrines enunciated by Lord Buddha, the spiritual and temporal heritage of Tibet and the ideas and ideals of the modern world. It is thus intended to secure for the people of Tibet a system of democracy based on justice and equality and ensure their cultural, religious and economic advancement.”
The name of the Commission subsequently changed to Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies and thereafter to the current Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. Its role in the administration also began to be further institutionalized.
Rule of Law in exile
In 1990 the Dalai Lama took the next step in his quest toward further democratization and establishment of the rule of law when he asked for a specific Charter for the Tibetans in Exile that would be the law for the Tibetan administration. The Charter was to incorporate the best of modern democratic system and traditional Tibetan values. Thus, the Charter was adopted by the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies on June 14, 1991.
Under the section on “Principles of the Tibetan Administration” the Charter highlighted the Tibetan desire to be responsible members of the international community. It said, “It shall be the duty of the Tibetan Administration to adhere to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as specified by the United Nations, and to also urge and encourage all other countries of the world to respect and comply with such Declarations, and shall emphasize the promotion of the moral and material well-being of the Tibetan people, the safeguarding of their social, cultural, religious and political rights, and in particular, the ultimate achievement of their common goal.”
With the establishment of the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission, as stipulated by the Charter, on March 11, 1992, the three pillars of democracy became fully functional in the Tibetan democratic set up in exile. The Kashag, the administrative wing, was made more answerable to the parliament and the Justice Commission began adjudicating on cases within the framework of arbitration laws. The membership of the parliament was also expanded to give more voices to the people in the policy decision making process.
Despite these incremental steps, the Dalai Lama continued to be directly involved in the Administration, whether it was in the appointment of the members of the Kashag or being the final authority on assenting to bills before they became law.
Era of Direct Elections of the Administrative Head
In 2001, the Dalai Lama democratized the system further when he mandated amendments to the Charter giving authority to the public and their representatives the authority to select and appoint members of the Kashag. Since then the Chairman of the Kashag began to be directly elected by the people. The Chairman in turn sent his nominations for members of the Kashag to the parliament to decide. Prior to this, the convention was for the Dalai Lama to appoint the members of the Cabinet.
In this way, the Dalai Lama’s vision of having the people “intimately associated with the policies of the government and the administration” began to be realized. It may be pertinent to mention here that the parliament took this role seriously and even rejected a nomination by the very popular Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche to his cabinet. Of course, internal politics was involved here, but even then democracy was practiced, whether rightly or wrongly.
With this, the Dalai Lama said he was now in a period of semi-retirement with the elected leadership assuming the major role in the governance system.
End of era of top-down democracy
As the years passed His Holiness the Dalai Lama undertook the most significant step in 2011 to alter the Tibetan democratic structure. He announced the devolution of his authority to the three pillars of democracy. The Charter was amended to reflect this and the Kashag began to be totally answerable to the parliament.
The Dalai Lama announced then that he was ending more than 300 years of rule by the Dalai Lamas over the central Tibetan government. Equally important was the message that henceforth it was totally up to the Tibetan people to assume their responsibilities of Tibetan democracy.
The most important transformation since 2011 is the change in role of the Dalai Lama. From being the virtual head of state, he became the “symbol” of Tibetan identity, unity, and the free spokesman of all the Tibetan people. He no longer had any direct role in the governance system, with final authority being shouldered by the three pillars of democracy. As the Dalai Lama, he is now completely retired from any political responsibilities.
To the international community, the most visible aspect of this change is that since then the Dalai Lama stopped issuing his annual statement on March 10, the anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising. Conventionally, that statement used to be considered his “state of the nation” speech reflecting political developments relating to the Tibetan issue.
Since then, we have had two elections for the post of Sikyong, the administrative head, and the parliament, including a very partisan and divisive campaigning for Sikyong in 2016. I wrote about that situation at the time, calling for civility.
As another Tibetan Democracy Day passes us by, we need to realize that the era of top-down democracy is over. We are in a period where we no longer enjoy the advantages of any direct intervention by the Dalai Lama and so whatever directions we are heading, it is up to the Tibetan people to take charge.
Having a proper democracy does not mean doing away with dissenting voices. Far from it, democracy will not work well when there is just one point of view. However, the way the views are expressed and acted upon are equally critical to the survival of Tibetan democracy. One can use dissent to create chaos and divisive environment or the same can be used to provoke candid discussions leading to considered decisions.
To put this in context, it is said that in the Tibetan community there are two broad political movements, one for independence and the other for the Middle Way Approach. What has often ended up happening is attacks and counter attacks between sections of followers of these two movements rather than finding common grounds and moving the struggle forward. I for one feel that if one doesn’t know how to express one’s devotion to the issue of Middle Way rightly, merely espousing it might even be counterproductive. Conversely, if one knows to project one’s adherence to the cause of Tibetan independence appropriately, it could even be supportive of the Tibetan leadership’s efforts through the Middle Way Approach to resolve the issue with the Chinese leadership.
It is generally understood that when we talk about the Tibetan struggle, it is between the Tibetans and the Chinese. But in another sense, the Tibetan struggle is as much about us Tibetans facing the challenges of democracy head on and exercising our rights as well as duties responsibly.
As I write this, we have upcoming elections for the Sikyong and parliament. We are already beginning to see the campaigning for Sikyong and to a lesser extent for the parliament. Will we see a repeat of the bitter experiences of 2015-2016, or will the Tibetan people in the free world show their maturity and together make Tibetan democracy a success? The jury is out, but it is all in the hands of the Tibetan people.
Valerie Jarrett speaks with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015
One of the benefits of my work in Washington, D.C. has been the opportunity to meet a wide section of policy makers and public figures in the course of accompanying Mr. Lodi Gyari, the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (and Executive Chairman of ICT Board), for meetings. One such individual Rinpoche, as we refer to Mr. Gyari, would meet during the Obama Administration was Ms. Valerie Jarrett. Her official title was “senior adviser to President,” but it was no secret that she was more than that. She was a friend and confidante to the Obama family. Her views and gestures showed that she had deep reverence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and sympathy for the plight of the Tibetan people.
In his first year, President Barack Obama faced with developments that affected US relations with China that would have an impact on US relationship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (I will dwell on this more later). As part of the resolution of the issue, Ms. Jarrett (and the newly designated, but not announced, U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Maria Otero) ended up flying to Dharamsala in India in September 2009 to call on His Holiness.
I will let her memoir take it up from here. She says, “When I returned to DC, I told the president that the Dalai Lama had changed my life. If his spirit could be so positive and hopeful in the face of fifty years living with his people in exile, I should have no complaints.” She then compares the Dalai Lama to two other personalities who have touched her deeply: “He had the same generous spirit I saw in Elie Wiesel when we had visited Buchenwald, a spirit I’d also seen once before back in city hall in Chicago, when we received a visit from Nelson Mandela.”
She then recalls this incident when the Dalai Lama visited Washington, D.C. in February 2010: “Several months later, when the Dalai Lama did visit the president, I was so excited to see him again. After dealing with the frustrations of trying to work with the Republicans in Congress, I needed another infusion of his hopeful spirit. After President Obama greeted the Dalai Lama, he re-introduced him to me and told the Dalai Lama that I had said he had changed my life. The Dalai Lama’s eyes danced with delight, and, pausing first for effect, he announced with a belly laugh, “She exaggerates.”
Now to the background to this Dharamsala trip by these senior American officials. The years around 2009 were those in which the Dalai Lama made at least one annual visit, if not more, to the United States. Some months after President Obama assumed office in January 2009, there were talks of him making his first visit as President to China in November. That news came when preparations were already underway for a visit by the Dalai Lama to Washington, D.C, in October, to participate in programs, including a conference with scientists organized by the Mind & Life Institute.
Rinpoche took up with the White House the issue of a presidential meeting. It is public knowledge that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a principled position not to cause inconvenience to leaders of countries that he visits and President Obama was no exception. Given that US-China relationship is something important, the US side wanted to request the postponement of a meeting with His Holiness to a period after the China trip. At the same time, the White House felt important to get His Holiness’s thoughts on what the President could convey to the Chinese leaders during the November trip. It was thus that Ms. Jarrett ended up going to Dharamsala on September 13 and 14 of 2009 to convey President Obama’s message to His Holiness.
Ms. Jarrett explains this in her memoir: “My work for the White House took me around the world and back, many times. Very early on, we heard that the Dalai Lama wanted to visit DC and call on President Obama. At the same time, we were trying to manage our relationship with China, and it would have caused diplomatic problems if the Dalai Lama, who China considered to be an enemy, came to visit the White House before they did. We had to try and think of a delicate way to ask the Dalai Lama to postpone his trip without giving offense. The national security team came up with the idea that I should go and hand-deliver a letter from the president to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, where he and thousands of other Tibetans have lived in exile for fifty years. The letter invited him to come in six months. We felt that the symbolism of someone close to President Obama making this trek would smooth over any ruffled feathers with the Dalai Lama, while not provoking any negative reaction from the Chinese.”
The Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama announced their visit to Dharamsala on September 14, 20109 saying, “US President Barack Obama’s emissary, Valerie Jarrett, called on His Holiness the Dalai Lama on September 13 & 14. She was accompanied by State Department Under Secretary Maria Otero, who she introduced formally to His Holiness as the designated new Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues.” The statement also said, “His Holiness is looking forward to meeting President Obama after his visit to China.”
The International Campaign for Tibet carried a report on the visit on September 14, 2009. It quoted Rinpoche as saying, “His Holiness has shared with the US delegation his views about how the President can help the Tibetan people and he would value an opportunity to hear directly from the President about what transpired during the Beijing summit with regard to Tibet.”
President Obama and the Dalai Lama eventually met on February 18, 2010 with the White House issuing a statement saying, “The President met this morning at the White House with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China. The President commended the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach, his commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government. The President stressed that he has consistently encouraged both sides to engage in direct dialogue to resolve differences and was pleased to hear about the recent resumption of talks. The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.”
The White House had to face some criticism from members of congress, analysts and the media for the non-meeting in October 2009 as some saw this as kowtowing to the Chinese. Ms. Jarrett’s memoir explains from the Obama Administration’s perspective, the development leading to this.
While in Dharamsala, Ms. Jarrett was also touched by the babies at the Tibetan Children’s Village as well as other people she met. She writes, “We arrived a couple of days before the Dalai Lama, who was on his way back from Europe. He’d arranged for us to tour an orphanage filled with over five thousand children, all sent by Tibetan families to escape persecution in China and to be closer to their spiritual leader. The children were so well loved and happy. One of them grabbed my hand and took me to her immaculate room and showed me her stuffed animals. The woman giving me the tour had a special way with the children because she had been an orphan herself decades earlier. I visited with nuns who’d been incarcerated in Tibet because of their commitment to the Dalai Lama, and met with the men who’d escaped the Tibetan village and hid in the surrounding mountains while the Chinese government searched for them. We met with Buddhist monks who tended to the ancient manuscripts secured safely away in their monastery, and they told me the history of the Dalai Lama and why he meant so much to his people.”
Be that as it may, Ms. Jarrett concludes her experience meeting the Dalai Lama by comparing his life with that of Elie Wiesel and Nelson Mandela. She writes, “All three men had endured terrible ordeals, and not only had they not lost their will to live, but they never let those experiences warp their spirit or undermine their belief in the potential of all people to be good. Their empathy, warmth, and compassion always remained unshakably intact. They all had a genuine love for their fellow man, regardless of how their fellow man felt about them.”
Congressman Jim McGovern addressing the gathering at the event at UMass, Amherst.
On February 23, 2019, I was at UMass Amherst to participate in an event to thank Representative Jim McGovern on the successful passage of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act (RATA). Acknowledging the International Campaign for Tibet’s close involvement at all stages in the legislative process on RATA, we were invited to speak at the event that saw Tibetan Americans and Tibet supporters not just from UMass, but also from Amherst and neighboring areas as well as from Boston and Connecticut.
The local paper The Daily Hampshire Gazette covered the event that included remarks by Congressman McGovern, Ms. Dhardon Sharling, an UMass research student and a former secretary in the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, and Thondup Tsering, president of the Regional Tibetan Association of Amherst. UMass SFT’s Tenzin Tseyang and Tenzin Tsedon were the moderators of the event. The Tibetan students from Amherst and Boston performed several cultural songs and dances.
Congressman Jim McGovern meeting the Tibetan Americans gathered in Amherst before the event began
In my remarks, I outlined a few areas in which RATA’s significance can be appreciated.
First, I said it gave hope to the Tibetan people. At a time when the Chinese authorities are increasing their efforts to break the spirit of the Tibetan people, RATA’s message of not isolating Tibet makes the Tibetan people understand that the international community does not forget them.
Secondly, it sends a strong message to China as RATA showed that the United States will continue to raise the Tibetan issue until the grievances of the Tibetan people are addressed and their freedom and rights restored.
Thirdly, RATA gave an opportunity to the Tibetan Americans to know that they have a role in the American political process. The Tibetan Americans really understood the power of their American identity as they lobbied their members of Congress to support the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act.
Fourthly, Congressman McGovern had mentioned during the introduction process of RATA that one of the reasons he was doing so was because his Tibetan American constituents in Massachusetts were asking him. I said that this showed that supporting the Tibetan cause is in the interest of the American citizens, including those of Tibetan heritage. It is a step in the process of making the Tibetan issue a domestic issue of the United States. I do believe that this will have far-reaching consequences on the overall issue of Tibet. China will no longer be able to use the excuse of the Tibetan issue being its internal affairs to silence the international community.
In his remarks, Congressman McGovern outlined ways in which the Tibetan Americans could contribute to spreading awareness and drawing support to the Tibetan issue. I mentioned that as we move forward with a renewed sense of determination, one way the Tibetan Americans can implement the Congressman’s advice was by becoming more active. I said ICT will proudly partner with them through our programs like the Tibet Lobby Day, the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program, the Washington Internship Program for Tibetan Americans, and the Rowell Fund for Tibet.
I concluded by quoting His Holiness the Dalai Lama who said, “No matter how strong the wind of evil may blow, the flame of truth cannot be extinguished.
The event was a meaningful one. In addition to Congressman McGovern, there was a State Representative as well as officials from Amherst Town Council, which indicates that there is good interest at the local level in the issue of Tibet and Tibetan Americans.
Two monks doing a dialectic debate at the Losar ceremony at the main temple in Dharamsala on the first day.
The first day of Losar, or New Year, in the Female Earth-Pig year fell on February 5 this year. Losar is celebrated by Tibetans and people in the Himalayan region and includes a combination of early morning religious rituals followed by social festivities.
However, this is not the only time that Losar is celebrated. Although by the name of it, the first day of Losar ought to be the first day of the first month of a new year, historically there have been variations in when people celebrate. These variations are also accompanied by locally originated reasoning. Let me try to explain this historical development here.
How did Losar originate? It has its roots in the pre-Buddhist Bon period. This can be visible from some of the Losar paraphernalia that are supposed to be there on the altar. Items like་“Sheep’s head” (improvisation from the time when there were sacrificial offerings) as well as the use of the image with Swastika and the sun and the moon.
It is said that in Tibet, tradition of celebrating Losar started around 1st century BC during the time of King Pude Gunggyal. It was based on lunar cycle with Losar observed when flowers started blooming on the trees on the sacred Yarlha Shampo Mountain in Lhoka. The current tradition of Losar seems to have been instituted during the time of the Sakya rule over Tibet in the 14th century.
Gar performance is an integral part of the traditional Losar ceremony, as is seen here in Dharamsala on the first day.
Be that as it may, the earliest among the Losar celebrations every year takes place in Kongpo in Tibet, where people observe it on the 1st of the 10th month. It is generally known as Kongpo Losar. According to local legend, in the 13th century, the ruler of Kongpo (Akyi Gyalpo) had to wage a war against the invading Mongol army. While he could not avoid going into battle, at the same time he understood that his soldiers needed to celebrate Losar. Thus, he ordered that it be celebrated before their expedition, and thus the tradition of Kongpo Losar on the 1st of the 10th month was born.
In Ladakh (as well as neighboring Ngari in Tibet) Losar is observed on the first of the 11th month. According to Ladakhi tradition, in the 17th century, similar to the Kongpo version, then ruler of Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyal, had to wage a war against the neighboring Balti ruler. However, since the timing was close to Losar, he resolved the problem of his soldiers being able to go to war and at the same time celebrating Losar by observing the same on the first of the 11th month. In some parts of Tibet, the nomadic community celebrates this day as the Bheu Losar “Calf’s New Year” to celebrate the annual tradition of going to a warmer site where the calves of their cattle are born and returning from a barter trip to nearby settled towns.
The tradition of celebrating Losar on the first of the 12th month is somewhat widespread in the Himalayan region. It is called Sonam Losar (Farmer’s New Year), a tradition that traces its origin to farmers’ doing a celebration after their harvest. In the Tsang region in Tibet, it is also called Tsang Losar.
Pre-dawn traditional prayer ceremony at the main temple in Dharamsala.
In Bhutan, too, this day is celebrated as Chunyipai Losar, Losar of the 12th month. According to the Central Monastic Body, the origin of this tradition is traced to the time of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and it marked the occasion when people from all over came to make their annual offerings.
In the Nyarong area of Tibet, there is a tradition of celebrating what could be Losar on the 13th of the 12th month. The people call this the Nyarong Chusum, Nyarong 13th. Similar to the stories from Ladakh and Kongpo, one of the legends in Nyarong say that the observation was moved forward to the 13th because of the ruler’s need to go on a military expedition.
Losar festivities traditionally go on for several days, but the first three days have specific rituals in traditional Tibet. The first day is called Lama Losar as on that day, there are spiritual rituals early in the morning and people go to offer greetings to the Lamas. The second day is known as Gyalpo (ruler, king) Losar as on that day there is the official ceremony where the government officials make traditional offerings to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This ceremony also includes a display of dialectic dexterity by learned monks and the performance of a song and dance ritual known as Gar by a specially trained troupe. The monks chosen for the dialectic display are selected from the best of the scholars of the monasteries and it is seen as a coveted prize to be won. Interestingly, the King of Ladakh who sent a team of Gar artists to pay respect to the 5th Dalai Lama introduced it to Tibet in the 17th century. Impressed by the performance, the Dalai Lama issued a decree to establish a Tibetan troupe specializing in Gar song and dance. Thus was born the tradition of performing Gar during such official ceremony. The third day is called Tensung Losar when the state oracles come into trance, protecting deities are propitiated, and prayer flags are hoisted.
Now a word about the designation of the year. This year is the Female Earth-Pig year. As you can see, it is composed of three categories: gender, element and the zodiac animal. An element (iron, water, wood, fire and earth) is paired with a gender for two consecutive years along with a Zodiac animal (Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Bird, Dog, and Pig). Thus, since this is a Female Earth Pig Year, next year will be Male Iron Mouse Year and the year after that Female Iron Ox. The whole circle is completed in a 60-year cycle, which is called a Rabjung. We are currently in the 17th Rabjung period.
Two anchors along with a group of Tibetans who were among several such Tibetans shown showering praises on President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party at the Losar gala on TV in Lhasa.
In the post-1959 period, the Tibetan people have had to change the nature of the Losar celebrations. In Tibet, after the Chinese takeover, community Losar celebration, which is connected to Tibetan religious and cultural tradition, had to change because of the nature of the Chinese Communist ideology. In fact, these days the main community event in Tibet is the evening Losar gala concert on TV rather than the official spiritual ceremony before Chinese rule. The concert by Tibet TV in Lhasa this year, in itself a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese items, was particularly political with many Tibetans brought to mouth praise to Xi Jinping and the Communist Party at regular intervals. In addition, popular Tibetan artists are performing skits in Chinese rather than in Tibetan, making them artificial. In contrast, the one from Qinghai TV in Amdo, was comparatively wholesome and was a proud display of Tibetan cultural tradition. I am yet to see the Losar program on the TV in Kham at the time of writing this blog.
In exile, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people’s life in a different society meant that certain changes were inevitable. Losar celebrations currently is a condensed version of what used to happen in Tibet. It does include the pre-dawn prayers, the Gar performance, and the dialectics display. In the United States, as also in the West in general, the Tibetan community had to adapt further. Families do try to visit nearby monastery or Buddhist center on the first day, the community Losar celebrations often tend to be scheduled to a weekend as some people even have to report for work on the first day of Losar. Nevertheless, they do include some spiritual and traditional components.
Happy Losar to everyone, whether or not you are celebrating it!
Commemoration of the 10th Panchen Lama’s 30th death anniversary by Tibetans in India (with dignitaries, including Speaker of Tibetan Parliament) and in Beijing (where a photo of the China-appointed Panchen Lama is also on display). (India photo from www.tibet.net)
January 28, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of the 10th Panchen Lama. It is interesting to see that his death anniversary was observed in China as well as by the Tibetan community in the free world. These observations included a ceremony in northern India and a daylong discussion with an evening ceremony and concert in New York.
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.
We are in the 49th day period after the passing away of Kasur Lodi G. Gyari, or as he is universally known to the Tibetan-speaking world (as well as to Himalayan community), Gyari Rinpoche. Rinpoche is a title with which we refer to incarnated individuals, and he was recognized as one at an early age, while in Tibet.
The 49th day after death is an important landmark in Buddhism. In the broader context of the theory of the transmigration of consciousness, it takes at least 49 days after death for the consciousness to proceed on the path of rebirth. It is believed that rites conducted during this period – known as Bardo (intermediate stage)—can help to guide the consciousness toward a good rebirth. But a Rinpoche is also believed to have the ability to determine the nature of his rebirth.
Nevertheless, the timing provides one with the opportunity to look back at Rinpoche’s life in a less emotional way than was possible in the immediate days following his passing on October 29, 2018 in San Francisco. The coverage in the international press about Rinpoche outlined in detail his contributions and is a testimony to what he meant to the community interested in Tibet and beyond. The International Campaign for Tibet, which was the base of Rinpoche’s work from 1991 until his retirement, has encapsulated his lifetime of service in its report.
I was fortunate to have worked with Rinpoche, in one way or another, from 1984 until his retirement in 2014. While he was my boss for around 30 years, he was also my mentor and guide.
What have I learnt from and about Gyari Rinpoche? Here is a partial list.
Rinpoche was a strategist. He was someone who did not wait for opportunities, but ventured forth to create them. Whether in Dharamsala or subsequently in Washington, D.C. he did not look at the issue that he was dealing with in isolation, but tried to put that into context. He did this to get the best outcome rather than merely doing a checklist. One clear example is about visits by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the United States and specifically to Washington, D.C. (of which he was directly in charge as the Special Envoy). In organizing such visits, Rinpoche was strategic even before proposing a visit or acceptance of an invitation so that the visit had a well laid out objective beyond the immediate programs. He consulted the leadership in Dharamsala, strategized with officials of the host government, and worked on creating a proper environment with concerned offices even before the visit. This included identifying concrete programmatic and policy outcomes. After the visit, he would follow up for their implementation. That is how many of the initiatives on Tibet, including the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, came about in the United States.
I can recall a few major initiatives where I saw him implement this sort of strategic vision. In 1990, Rinpoche coordinated the first-ever International Conference of Tibet Support Groups in Dharamsala and those who were present then can testify how the conference energized Tibetans and Tibet supporters alike. At the conference a “long and ambitious list of new global strategies and initiatives was drawn up” which is a benchmark against which today’s Tibet movement can be measured, nearly 30 years later. Among specific suggestions from that conference were “to initiate international Tibetan Flag Days, to set up a computer information network (TibetNet), to internationally publish the destruction of Tibet’s environment, to campaign more effectively with dissident Chinese students abroad, and finally: to intensify lobbying at the UN or through other governments and non-government bodies.” EcoTibet (no longer active) was in fact founded thereafter for Tibet groups to take up the Tibetan environmental issue. Also discussed then was the establishment of an inter-parliamentary network of parliamentarians who are active in raising questions on Tibet.
Similarly, he outlined the strategy that eventually resulted in the United States Congress bestowing His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. When the historic event finally took place on October 17, 2007, everyone, including Administration officials, members of Congress, Tibetans and their supporters, returned home feeling ownership and having a stake in it. This also reminds me of how Rinpoche coordinated an international strategy in the wake of the Nobel Peace Prize to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1989. I was then a junior official but felt empowered when I was part of that strategy tasked with producing the commemorative medallion.
Rinpoche worked at many levels. In the mid-1980s, at one level, he oversaw the development of a new Tibetan font for letterpress printing that was used by the Narthang Press in Dharamsala, until the onset of the digital typesetting. At another level, he was leading an international coalition of groups representing communities under Chinese Communist Government oppression. If you happen to come across old issues of a journal, Common Voice, that is one of his ideas.
In one sense, Rinpoche was a maverick. He always tended to look at issues beyond the confines of Gangchen Kyishong (as the seat of the Tibetan Administration is known), searching for new ways to take the Tibetan issue to the next level. In the process, he was all for taking advantage of the resources, including human and material, in order to reach this goal. He would enable those working under him to think outside the box, and provide resources accordingly. Those of us who have worked closely with him have heard him say in an understated manner that he only had one quality: he got the best possible people to work for him and let them do their job. However, the truth is that he had a well-planned strategy and got the staff to implement that.
Although, he personally did not take up technological gadgets like a computer (iPad became a companion in later years), he went all out to provide such facilities to the office he was connected with or to make the best use of them. In my early years in Dharamsala, when not just the Central Tibetan Administration, but Himachal Pradesh state as a whole, was only beginning to hear of something called a fax machine, he was able to get one for the Department of Information & International Relations. Similarly, his mobile phone was indeed his mobile office and if one has to think of a caricature of him, it might be him with his phone. In addition, if I recall correctly, he was the first Tibetan official to have a telephone connection at his residence in the early days in Dharamsala, and put it to good use.
He looked at the dialogue process with the Chinese Government — the main task assigned to him by His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 1997 – in a strategic way. As he would tell concerned Tibetan officials, dialogue did not merely mean the few days of actual talks that might take place with Chinese officials. Rather, it involved building the necessary support base among governments and in the international community so that the few days of talks can have the needed outcome. He implemented that by building a coalition of governments whose representatives met regularly to strategize with him, in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Through such interaction, Rinpoche was able to convey the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and plan forward movement.
Some people have different views on the outcome of the 2002-2010 dialogue process that he led without considering the actual achievement. On September 28, 2002, after the first round of the talks with the Chinese officials, Rinpoche issued a statement in which he said, “The task that my colleague Envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen and I had on this trip was two fold. First, to re-establish direct contact with the leadership in Beijing and to create a conducive atmosphere enabling direct face-to-face meetings on a regular basis in future. Secondly, to explain His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach towards resolving the issue of Tibet. Throughout the trip, we were guided by this objective.” Therefore, if you look at the marching orders that the envoys were given no one can deny that these two objectives were fulfilled even though talks stalled in 2010.
Rinpoche’s work style was such that he made everyone involved in his project feel as a stakeholder. This was apparent whether he was dealing with different Tibetan organizations or with governments whose help he sought to help with the dialogue process. This even resulted in many of the officials and other individuals taking the lead in proposing strategy or plans as if the issue was more for their interest. It was also true for the Board members of the International Campaign for Tibet. They would listen to his passionate explanations — whether about His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s plans or his own ideas – as well as how ICT could contribute towards fulfilling them. This eventually made the board members into partners in the endeavor.
He would move beyond professional relationship and personally symbolized the nature of the people and the culture that he was asking them to help. I vividly recall many instances when senior Administration officials would literally sit alongside Rinpoche and chart out a plan, which they themselves ended up implementing. He was on a first-name basis, if that is the standard, with many influential individuals. On a lighter note, this even resulted in the well-known Congressman, Charlie Rose, establishing a tradition of sending Rinpoche’s family a turkey around every Thanksgiving. Similarly, he involved his whole family in this endeavor of cultivating friends, with his wife, Dawa Chokyi la, and his home serving as hosts for countless meals and meetings.
As for Tibetan officials, those who worked under him would testify to the fact that he literally and figuratively treated all of us as colleagues. Even while respecting the fundamentals of bureaucratic protocol, he went out of his way to establish a personal relationship, in addition to a professional one, with his staff. When he saw a potential in an individual, he would do everything possible to encourage his or her advancement, which he would say would eventually be for the greater good.
Rinpoche was someone who cared both about the substance as well as about the symbol. Those who can recall events such as those surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize celebrations in 1989, the conference in 1990, and the Congressional Gold Medal event in 2007 will know that when there was substance Rinpoche went all out to make the best public presentation, too. He would often tell us that even though Tibetans are living not in an ideal situation, we should always act in ways that can bring us respect and credibility. He would quote a saying in Tibetan that can be roughly translated as, “Even if we can’t be extravagant, don’t present an impoverished image”.
Rinpoche was always for Tibetans taking the lead in the Tibetan issue. He would poke fun at himself by telling our non-Tibetan colleagues that he knows they sometimes see him as a “control freak”, but that he believes that as a Tibetan and the Special Envoy of His Holiness, he needed to assert himself. Similarly, he would tell Tibet supporters that since they are there to support the Tibetans, they should leave decision-making authority to the Tibetans.
Above all, Rinpoche understood the privilege he had in serving His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His approach towards fulfilling His Holiness’ vision was a holistic one, going beyond the superficial level. While because of his spiritual devotion and political respect it was natural that he would honor His Holiness’ wishes, yet he did not rely merely on that authority while implementing them. Rather, he took time to study them and to provide a rational basis for the same to his target audience. For example, after the formal announcement of the Middle Way Approach Rinpoche made every effort to put His Holiness’ initiative in context. Understanding concerns in a section of the Tibetan community that looked at this as a compromise, he urged the Tibetan people to study our history to understand the significance of His Holiness’ approach. He pointed out that this 14th Dalai Lama has — through a very far-sighted approach — provided the Tibetan people in all the three provinces with the feeling of being one people once again. In order to understand its significance, we need to go back to history. While all the Tibetans were under one united Tibet at one point of time, when the Communist Chinese invaded and occupied Tibet, much of the eastern and northeastern part (what we call Kham and Amdo) had already been outside the control of the Tibetan Government in Lhasa. Therefore, the importance of the renewed feeling of common identity among all Tibetans created by His Holiness cannot be underestimated.
Rinpoche’s approach can also be seen in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs hearing on the “The Crisis in Tibet: Finding a Path to Peace” on April 23, 2008. He wanted the international community not to take His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent approach casually. Through a very deeply personal and poignant way, he conveyed the significance of His Holiness’ nonviolence strategy to the Senators. He told them, “In fact to struggle nonviolently is the most difficult struggle. …Every moment it is new dedication that we have make to remain nonviolent. And we can only do it again because of the leader that we have.” He explained this by revealing for the first time publicly “the pain that I was going through” when visiting his monastery in Tibet in 2004 (as part of the dialogue process with the Chinese Government); he found 70% of it in ruins, and visited the places where his grandmother was tortured to death and his elder brother starved to death. He added, “In spite of that, because of the leadership that His Holiness provides, because of the commitment that we have made to nonviolence, you see me all smiles with my Chinese counterparts.” He ended this part saying, “I am sharing this with you because you understand and appreciate more the path of struggle that His Holiness has led us. So please help us stay on this course, because this is not only important to us, but also important for China.” I was with Rinpoche on that trip to his monastery in Tibet and had not realized the deep internal pain that he was going through.
Following his retirement and departure from Washington, D.C. “How is Lodi?” was a constant refrain that I would hear from serving and retired officials here when I accosted them. Until now, I could respond by saying that he is spending his time writing his memoir as he sees that as something that he can put his retired life in a meaningful use in the service of the Tibetan people. Now Rinpoche is no more, but he will continue to be my inspiration.
Che Dalha and Lobsang Gyaltsen who have been “re-elected” to their posts in the Tibet Autonomous Region during the meetings in January.
Every year, the Chinese governance system mandates the holding of the meeting of the “Two Sessions” in the provincial level administrative divisions around this time. The two sessions are those of the People’s Congress (the local version of the National People’s Congress) and the People’s Political Consultative Conference (state-level Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, CPPCC).
In theory, the People’s Congress is the Parliament and sets the policy for the region while the PPCC is an advisory body. The People’s Congress appoints the administrative leader, who is the governor/chairman of the Region/Province. There is much fanfare about the “election”, including the usage of the “secret ballot” system, of new leadership by the two sessions. Spoiler alert: it is still the Chinese Communist Party that decides on who is elected or not, not to speak of the fact that the Party decides the overall policy in the region.
Be that as it may, the provincial level two sessions have been held, and this is an initial attempt to look at the outcome in terms of Tibetan personnel changes.
In Lhasa, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) People’s Congress took place from January 24 to 30, 2018, while the People’s Political Consultative Conference took place between January 23 and 29, 2018. In Qinghai, the People’s Congress took place from January 25 to February 1, 2018, while the People’s Political Consultative Conference took place between January 24 and 30, 2018. In Sichuan, the Provincial People’s Congress session took place from January 26 to February 1, 2018 while the People’s Political Consultative Conference took place between January 24 and 29, 2018. In Gansu, the Provincial People’s Congress session took place from January 24 to 30, 2018 while the People’s Political Consultative Conference took place from January 23 to 29, 2018.
These meetings were in advance of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, scheduled to begin in Beijing on March 5 and 3, 2018 respectively. The Beijing sessions will also lead to the formation of the Government, including reappointment of Xi Jinping as the President.
To begin with, all four Tibetan members of the 19th Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee (full and alternate) obviously find a place in the new leadership line-up. While Lobsang Gyaltsen is re-elected chair of the TAR People’s Congress, Che Dalha is re-elected chair of the TAR Government. The two Alternate Members, Norbu Thondup and Yan Jinhai have become Vice Governors, of TAR and Qinghai Province governments respectively.
In terms of ethnicity of the elected leaders, the Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region is a Tibetan and so are seven of the 14 vice chairs. The Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress is a Tibetan and so are six of the 13 vice chairs of the PC. The Chairman of the TAR People’s Political Consultative Conference is a Tibetan, as are 12 of the 15 vice chairs. In fact, Phakpalha, who has been re-elected, is the longest serving Tibetan official under the Chinese administration, having been serving as Chairman of the TAR PPCC intermittently since 1993.
In Qinghai, the Governor as well as the Chair of the People’s Congress of the Province are non-Tibetans, but one of the vice-governors and vice-chairs of the People’s Congress are Tibetan. The Chairman of the Qinghai People’s Political Consultative Conference is a Tibetan and there are three Tibetans among the nine vice chairs.
In Sichuan, one of the vice-governors is a Tibetan. It does not look like a Tibetan finds a place in the provincial PC and CPPCC standing committees.
In Gansu, two lamas have secured positions: one as a vice chair of the provincial PC and another as a vice chair of CPPCC standing committees. I am not able to see any Tibetan in the Gansu government leadership.
From the Yunnan list, it is not clear whether there are any Tibetans in the provincial leadership.
Overall, a majority of the leaders are those who have already been holding similar posts during the previous year, an indication that the Chinese authorities have stuck to the familiar and the trusted. The top three positions in the TAR (except for the Party Secretary, which is the highest) goes to the same Tibetans who were there last year. In Qinghai, Dorjee Rapten has taken over from fellow Tibetan Rinchen Gyal as the chair of the Political Consultative Conference. In Gansu, two prominent Tibetan lamas continue to maintain political positions.
It is interesting that Penpa Tashi does not seem to figure among the leadership in the Tibet Autonomous Region. He is a rising star, and was in the TAR Party Committee heading the Party Propaganda Department. He was also a vice chair of the TAR Government. I should say that his name continues to appear among “TAR leaders present” at public events even after the two sessions. In any case, it could be that he might move to a position in Beijing, a possible replacement to fellow Tibetan Sithar, who seems to have retired. Sithar was a Vice Minister in the Central United Front Works Department.
The new Leadership in the Tibetan areas
The following are the Tibetans who find a place in the government, the People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu.
Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Congress
Chairman: Lobsang Gyaltsen (Losang Jamcan)
Vice Chairmen: Dothok, (Duotuo); Tenzin Namgyal (Danzeng Langjie); Samding Dorje Phakmo Dechen Choden (Samding Dojepamo Deqenquzhen); Woeser; Chime Rigzin; and Nyima Tsering.
Chairman: Che Dalha (Qi zhala)
Vice Chairmen: Norbu Thondup; Chakra Lobsang Tenzin (Gyai’ra Losang Dainzin); Dorje Tsedup; Gyaltsen; Zhang Yanqing (former mayor of Lhasa); Luomei; and Jamphel
TAR People’s Political Consultative Conference
Chairman: Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal
Vice Chairmen: Tenkho (Danko); Drupkhang Thupten Khedup; Tsemonling Tenzin Thinley; Lobsang Gyurme; Zonglo Jampa Khedup; Salunphulak (monk); Sonam Rigzin (Suolan Reng zeng); Ngawang; Jigyon Ngapo; Sangye Dakpa; Dolker; and Tashi Dawa
Vice Chair: Yan Jinhai
Qinghai People’s Congress
Vice Chairmen: Nyima Dolma (Neima Zhuoma)