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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

A Tibetan puzzle hinging on a golden urn and three dough balls

July 8, 2010

The Irish Times
July 1, 2010

The battle between Marxists and Buddhists over
who will be the next Panchen Lama may be reaching
its endgame, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

THE TASHILHUNPO monastery in Tibet’s second city,
Shigatse, has been steeped in palace intrigue for
the past 15 years, as Marxist-Leninism and
Buddhism have wrestled for influence behind the
curtains and incense smoke in one of the world’s
holiest places. Much of this skullduggery has
focused on two little boys, now grown into
20-year-old men. One of them, Gyaltsen Norbu, is
the Chinese Communist Party’s choice for Panchen
Lama, the second-in-command in Tibetan Buddhism,
who is traditionally the abbot of Tashilhunpo.

The other boy is Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who was
discovered by the envoys of the Dalai Lama -- the
exiled spiritual leader whom Tibetans consider a
god-king – but was kidnapped by the Chinese
government on May 17th, 1995, and has been neither seen nor heard from since.

Shigatse is a four-hour drive across the
Himalayas from Lhasa, through some of the most
beautiful terrain on Earth, and it has a
completely different pace of life from the
provincial capital. Lhasa saw rioting in March
2008 and the resulting crackdown has left the
city edgy, but Shigatse is relaxed, where Han
Chinese – the dominant ethnic group in China –
and Tibetans, live in what looks like genuine peace and harmony.

Founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, the first Dalai
Lama, Tashilhunpo gazes tolerantly down on the
majestic river valley below, but its sturdy
whitewashed walls have seen all manner of bitter political manoeuvring.

The machinations surrounding the appointment of
the 11th Panchen Lama stand in stark contrast to
all the majesty that Shigatse has to offer.

Many of Tibet’s 2.7 million people remain
secretly loyal to the Dalai Lama’s chosen Panchen
Lama. But the communists and their supporters
among the Tibetan Buddhist community, and there
are plenty, say it is Gendun Choekyi Nyima who is
the imposter. This Tibetan puzzle hinges on a
golden urn and three dough balls, and what’s at stake is Chinese rule in Tibet.

On May 14th,1995, Gendun Choekyi Nyima was chosen
by the Dalai Lama at an elaborate ritual in
Dharamsala in northern India, where the Tibetan
government-in-exile is based. The signs were
aligned, and his name came up three times when
chosen from balls of rolled-up barley flour,
known as tsampa. The six-year-old had birthmarks
on his back that were like signs seen in the
Lhamo Latso Lake, which is used for prophecies.

He was born in the Year of the Horse, and he
appeared comfortable in the company of the Dalai
Lama’s envoy Ngagchen Rinpoche. He also seemed to
know what the Tashilhunpo monastery was. All very auspicious.

This was a disaster for Beijing’s Tibet policy.
The Dalai Lama was a dangerous splittist, and the
central government needed to keep a firm grip on
the second most powerful figure in Tibetan
Buddhism if it was going to succeed in winning
over Tibetan sentiment in the traditionally
restive province. According to the noted
Tibetologist Robbie Barnett, the party leaders in
Tibet came up with a ceremony, based on arcane
provisions made by the Chinese emperor Qianlong
in 1792, which involved using a golden urn to
select a lama when there was a dispute.

The procedure involved using tally sticks to
choose the Panchen Lama, and when it came down to
it, Beijing’s chosen candidate had the longer
stick. The sole aim was to rule out the Dalai
Lama’s choice from the list of candidates.

Since his disappearance, all the Beijing
government says about him is that he is safe and
well and wants his privacy. Meanwhile, Gyaltsen
Norbu has long been earmarked as Beijing’s choice
to usurp the Dalai Lama as the public face of
Tibetan Buddhism. In March this year, Beijing
named the Panchen Lama – the Chinese appointed
one – as a delegate to the country’s top
legislative advisory body, the Chinese People’s
Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The
young monk has appeared with party leaders and
publicly praised Chinese rule in Tibet, vowing to
contribute to “the blueprint of the compatible
development of Tibetan Buddhism and socialism.” A
glorious Buddha at Tashilhunpo monastery’s heart
has been restored, a golden roof given state approval and funding.

Red-robed monk Nian Zha, director of the
Democratic Management Committee of Tashilhunpo,
when asked about the human dimension to
kidnapping an innocent child, said: "I will not answer that."

Instead he stressed the harmonious relationship
between the secular communists and the Tibetan
Buddhists of Tashilhunpo. What is also
significant, and what must be frankly terrifying
to the exiled Tibetan Buddhist community, is that
the Tashilhunpo model could become a template for
the succession issue. Hao Peng, deputy secretary
of the communist party in Tibet said the model
could be used to decide on who succeeds the Dalai Lama, who turns 75 next week.

"The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and the
Panchen Lama has to follow strict rules and has
to be drawn from the Golden Urn and approved by
central government," he said. The revival of the
Golden Urn could yet prove their undoing.

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