The Panchen Lama

The history of the Panchen and Dalai Lamas is sad and complex. Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama supreme in temporal and spiritual matters but, curiously, the Panchen Lama is also considered supreme in spiritual matters. This has been a source of conflict. Both are considered emanations of bodhisattvas, beings who have chosen repeated reincarnation until all sentient beings have achieved nirvana.

Throne of the Panchen Lama - J.H. Wittke

The first Panchen ("great scholar") Lama, the abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery, was given the title by the Great Fifth, who wished to honor his tutor. Subsequent Panchen Lamas did not have such amiable relationships with the Dalai Lamas and the occupying Chinese have attempted to use this rivalry to their advantage. The Ninth Panchen Lama (1883-1937) fled to Mongolia after a dispute with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama over taxes. The Tenth Panchen Lama (1938-89) was enthroned in 1951. In 1959, after the escape of the Dalia Lama to Indai, he was appointed acting chairman of the 'Prepartory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region,' which would be established in 1965. This post had previously been held by the Dalai Lama. The Chinese appointed him vice-chairman of the Chinese Political Consultative Conference in 1960, hoping that he would be a willing spokesman for their policies in Tibet.

In May 1962, the Panchen Lama presented his 70,000 Character Petition to the Chinese government in which he presented compelling reasons for a change in the Tibetan policy of Chairman Mao. Mao is said to have called the Petition "a poisoned arrow shot at the party" and its author a "reactionary feudal overlord." Believed to be the most extensive internal criticism of Chinese Communist policies ever submitted to the leadership, it documents the mass arrests, excessive punishment and executions of Tibetans that followed the 1959 Uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule, and the starvation in Eastern Tibet that resulted from policies implemented as part of Mao's Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s. The 70,000 Character Petition remained secret for 34 years, seen only by those in inner Party circles in China.

The Panchen Lama was arrested after a 1964 speech supporting the exiled Dalai Lama and subjected to a 7-week-long struggle session in Lhasa. Condemned without trial as an enemy of the people, he spent most of the next 14 years in prison or under house arrest in Beijing. He was released in 1978, two years after the death of Mao. In the years that following, he was an outspoken advocate of liberalization laws and policies to ensure the survival of Tibetan culture and religion, returning to Tashilhunpo only in his final few years. He pushed for a law making Tibetan the official language of the Tibetan Autonomous Region; it was passed in 1987. The 10th Panchen Lama died on January 20, 1989 under mysterious circumstances, three days after consecrating a stupa containing the remains of many of his predecessors, which had been desecrated by the Red Guards. The Tenth Panchen Lama was also interred in the tomb, which was completed in 1992.

Eleventh Panchen Lama

Upon the death of the Tenth Panchen Lama, both the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and the atheistic Chinese Communist Party initiated searches for his reincarnation. The search ordered by the 14th Dalai Lama, proceeded according to the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. On May 14, 1995, after a six-year seach, the Dalai Lama recognized Gendhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet. On May 17, 1995, Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, his family, and Chadrel Rinpoche and his Secretary, who both led the search party for this incarnate, were taken to Beijing. In December 1995, The Chinese announced they had discovered the incarnation of the Panchen Lama in the son of one of their security officers. They enthroned the boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, in a carefully protected ceremony. Part of the reason for the great attention paid to selecting the 11th Panchen Lama is that he will play a major role in identifying the next Dalai Lama.

Gendhun Choekyi Nyima is considered the youngest political prisoner in the world. Since his disappearance, the Chinese government has changed its position on the whereabouts of Gendhun Choekyi Nyima many times. At first, it was claimed that Gendhun was with his family in their home village. In March 1996, it was reported that the 11th Panchen Lama was in protective custody. In the summer of 1996, the Chinese claimed that Gendhun Choekyi Nyima was back in the Tibetan community. In September 1998, it was claimed that the Panchen Lama was in their care to protect Him from Tibetans. In September 1998, Mary Robinson (UN High Commissioner of Human Rights) was denied access to Gendhun Choekyi Nyima during her fact-finding trip to Tibet.

In a 2001 press release, China claimed its handpicked boy lama was loyal to the Communist Party. He is quoted by China's newsagency, Xinhua, as saying "I have felt the greatness of the Communist Party of China and the warmth of the socialist family." The Xinhua report said that the Beijing-selected boy is intelligent, a good student, and is able to recite more than 400 pages of sutras, adding that he has an unusual understanding of the sutras.

In October 2001, Chinese officials reported that the boy is safe, that he was leading "a normal life," and that his parents did not want anyone to disrupt his studies. The officials also said the boy's "parents want their privacy respected, that they don't particularly want people to have access to the child and they want him to live a normal life and they don't want to be bothered by people." Beijing has at different times given differing accounts of the boy's whereabouts: some accounts place him on Beijing's outskirts, others in Tibet or in provinces near the Himalayan region.

In the top photograph, one of Tashilhunpo's dogs sleeps beside the unoccupied throne of the Panchen Lama in the courtyard of the Main Assembly Hall. Dogs are tolerated and fed; purportedly, they are reincarnations of monks who did not learn their lessons well.

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