Features | Society | East Asia

The Panchen Lama Mystery

Is China’s pick for second-highest spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism legitimate or just a power grab, asks Saransh Sehgal.

By Saransh Sehgal for

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.

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.

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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.

China had until recent months kept its choice out of the glare of the international media, with the youngster spending most of his time in Beijing, studying with his teachers and carefully watched over by the Communist Party. But officials underscored the importance of their nominee to the Party by this year appointing him a member of the country’s top legislative advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The move followed his election as vice president of China’s state-run Buddhist Association.

‘I’ve shouldered the mission of safeguarding national unity and ethnic solidarity since I was enthroned,’ Norbu told the official Xinhua news agency a week after he was declared a delegate to the advisory body. ‘Now, such a sense of responsibility is becoming even stronger.’

So how does the Dalai Lama feel about Beijing’s choice?

In May, he held a Twitter session with Chinese Internet users in which he discussed Norbu’s selection. According to AFP, he said:

‘As far as I understand, he (the new Panchen Lama) is very intelligent—as far as Buddhist scriptures, he is making a lot of effort…But the people have certain suspicions about him, on whether or not his interpretations of Buddhist scriptures will be effective. This is very important and it will depend on he himself.’

Chinese officials are undoubtedly aware of the uphill struggle they have in winning over sceptical Tibetans, and it was likely such concerns that prompted a visit by Norbu to address a number of prominent Tibetan monasteries, including Tashilhunpo Monastery—traditionally the seat of power of the Panchen Lama.

‘China seeks to legitimize its rule in Tibet by claiming it plays a crucial role in the identification of Tibet’s two most important spiritual leaders,’ says Tenzin, a young Tibetan in exile, on the issue of the Tibet political debut of Beijing’s choice.

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Indeed, Tibetans in exile have been particularly vocal in their opposition to China’s Panchen Lama. ‘No matter what China claims and what it does, he (China’s Panchen Lama) isn’t authentic in the eyes of Tibetans. He has no legitimacy,’ says Thupten Samphel, spokesperson for the exile government. ‘This is just another attempt by the Chinese government to diminish His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s image among the Tibetans.’

And there remains the question of the whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, still the choice of Panchen Lama for many exiled Tibetans. China denies he’s in detention, with the recently appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, reportedly telling AP on the sidelines of China’s annual legislative session:

‘As far as I know, his family and he are now living a very good life in Tibet…He and his family are reluctant to be disturbed, they want to live an ordinary life.’

Such assurances are unlikely to satisfy Tibetans any time soon.