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Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leader chosen by Beijing, makes rare public speech in Hong Kong

April 30, 2012

HONG KONG — The Panchen Lama chosen by China but disputed by Tibetan Buddhists discussed religious philosophy Thursday during his first appearance outside the mainland, marking greater efforts by Beijing to win acceptance of its rule over Tibet.

The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest spiritual leader, but followers of the exiled Dalai Lama — the top leader — do not recognize China’s choice.  Beijing’s 22-year-old Panchen Lama spoke at the third World Buddhist Forum, a showcase for China’s cultural diplomacy that is attended by more than 1,000 monks, nuns and scholars from 50 countries. His attendance is aimed at burnishing his religious credentials. He’s almost never seen in public but has also appeared at the two previous forums, held in mainland Chinese cities in 2006 and 2009. Hong Kong is a semiautonomous region of China.

Buddhist theory is “sweet dew that ends human suffering and is a way to promote world peace,” said the religious leader, who wore a crimson robe and glasses.  He criticized “materialistic technology” in his eight-minute speech and said greed has “unbalanced the ecosystems, contaminated the environments, caused natural disasters, spread epidemics, induced wars and hence endangered all sentient beings now and in  future,” according to an official translation of his speech.  The forum highlights efforts by China’s officially atheist communist government to assert control over the religion, an integral part of the restive Himalayan region’s identity. The country’s ethnic Tibetan areas have been especially tense since violent riots four years ago in Lhasa, and the government has imposed a major security crackdown, which has not stopped a string of self-immolations.

Before the speech, he and other Buddhist leaders bowed three times before a 2,500-year-old bone fragment said to be part of the Buddha’s skull. Pop singer Faye Wong, who’s hugely popular in the Chinese-speaking world, performed a song.  Beijing installed then-6-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu as the Panchen Lama in 1995 while rejecting another boy chosen by the Dalai Lama.  That boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, has not been seen since.  In a rare clue to his whereabouts, Tibet’s Chinese-appointed governor said in 2010 that he was living in the Himalayan region with his family and did not want to be disturbed.

Followers of the Dalai Lama were “very concerned about the real Panchen Lama,” said Thubten Samphel, a former spokesman for the Tibet government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India who’s now director of its think tank.  “As far as the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama is concerned, we feel that China is trying to find a platform for him to be accepted by the larger community, which will not happen, I think.”  The dispute over the Panchen Lama has also raised questions and concerns about what will happen when the 76-year-old Dalai Lama dies.  China wants to be deeply involved in choosing the next Dalai Lama and insists religious law requires the reincarnation be born in a Tibetan area under Chinese control. The Dalai Lama has said his successor will be born in exile and has even floated the idea of choosing his own successor while still alive.

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