The Panchen Lama Mystery
Image Credit: Steve Taylor

The Panchen Lama Mystery


The 75th birthday of the Dalai Lama this week was cause for celebration for many Tibetans. But it also acted as an uncomfortable reminder of both their spiritual leader’s advancing years and the uncertainty of who will succeed him.

Under Tibetan tradition, the Panchen Lama, second only in ranking to the Dalai Lama, plays a key role in finding the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama. But the problem is there are now two Panchen Lama—one selected by the current Dalai Lama and another picked by the Chinese government.

In May 1995, the Dalai Lama named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the real incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama. However, China rejected the nomination, and soon after announced that Gyaincain Norbu was actually the newest incarnation of the Panchen Lama; it also said that the Dalai Lama’s named successor had been taken into ‘protective’ custody. By whom, where and why was never made clear.

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So who will really succeed the Dalai Lama?

Beijing has insisted that Gedhun is not the real Panchen Lama, and that he was chosen arbitrarily by the Dalai Lama. The avowedly secular Communist government instead selected its own Panchen Lama by drawing lots from a golden urn. But this selection, although a traditional method used by China, is seen by many as an effort by Beijing to diminish the current exiled Dalai Lama’s influence over Tibet. Beijing has long accused the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 and who now lives in exile in the Indian Himalayan town of Dharamsala, of being a separatist.

Supporters of the Dalai Lama say China’s efforts at influencing the succession are doomed to failure.

‘China’s appointed Lama will never get any respect. He’s Tibetan, but we can’t recognize him as the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation,’ says a Tenzin monk at the temple complex opposite the Dalai Lama’s residence in exile. ‘The Chinese have given him this status…but for us, the last words will be His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s.’

The monk is far from alone in this view—many Tibetans dismiss China’s choice as a sham and Tibetan exiles have protested over the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who they describe as the youngest political prisoner in the world. They say China’s chosen Lama is simply a propaganda tool to undercut the Dalai Lama, and many still live in hope that the ‘real’ Panchen Lama can be found or that he can escape to India.

The urn method used by China is actually considered a legitimate one and was used to select the 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lama. But critics say such a process is irrelevant if the Dalai Lama has already unequivocally named his choice of Panchen Lama. Indeed, the 10th Panchen Lama himself reportedly declared that according to Tibetan tradition, the confirmation of either the Dalai or Panchen Lama must be ‘mutually recognized’ by the other, as well as Beijing.

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