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The Panchen Lama Mystery

July 13, 2010

Is China’s pick for second-highest spiritual
leader in Tibetan Buddhism legitimate or just a
power grab, asks Saransh Sehgal.
By Saransh Sehgal
The Diplomat (Japan)
July 11, 2010

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.

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.

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.
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