By Tenzing Dhamdul
Tibetans are a community that has and continues to be very deeply associated with religion - this particular religion happens to be Buddhism. Many have used this as a tool of criticism against the Tibetan community, calling it a theocracy and a feudal state. Yet, since the turn of the millennial, this small community, its Buddhist philosophy and its traditions have captured the world by awe with many calling them as peace loving people.
At the very epicenter of all this stand the great lamas who have not only been a figure of reverence but individuals whom the Tibetans (that have gone through traumatic experience since becoming refugees after the forceful annexation of their homeland by Beijing) could lean upon. These spiritual figures in our community have had to serve the dual role by fulfilling their spiritual role of helping and uplifting all sentient beings, and also taking care, empowering and being the voice of the many Tibetans who have suffered and still continue to suffer under the duress of the Chinese communist government. The recent arbitrary detention of Tibetan scholars, the known 3 self-immolations victims in Tibet this year and continual destruction of Buddhist edicts in Drago County, Kham indicates to us how the life for a Tibetan is in the mainland, further pressing upon the need of such charismatic Tibetan figures - be it in the manifestation of Lamas.
This role was filled by the late 10th Panchen Lama in Tibet from 1960s onwards till his untimely demise. He was an ardent supporter of Tibetans living in Tibet and gave his life towards the well-being of the Tibetan people even though it got him imprisoned, tortured (both physically and mentally) and vilified by the communist government time and time again.
For us Tibetans, we use a particular metaphor to describe the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama as the “Sun and Moon”, with each being an important figure in maintaining the balance in Tibet, be it spiritually and politically. The “Sun and Moon” as we all know are the harbingers of life with the moon taking the mantle of the sun in the night and brining life to the nocturnal beings. The Tibetans knowing this constantly revere this metaphor and is still embedded in their life today as the relationship between these two behemoth figures continues to be symbolized by this concept.
The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama both are the prominent heads of the Gelugpa sect (one of the major sects in Tibetan Buddhism) respectively and they have adopted the role of a teacher and a disciple with each other, thus validating their reincarnations as well. The first Dalai Lama, Gedhun Drupa founded Tashi Lhunpo monastery, which is and continues to be the monastic seat of the Panchen Lama. His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama Lobsang Trinley Lhundrup Choekyi Gyalsten even stated how he not only sees the Dalai Lama as his spiritual friend but also how both of them have the role of recognizing tulkus (reincarnation of high lamas) in Tibet. Beijing, who has had knowledge of this, used it to their benefit and have tried their best in subjugating, creating divide and bringing discord between the two high lamas of Tibet. Their effort in controlling the 10th Panchen Lama backfired on them and the “Sun and Moon” became the beacon of light ushering peace, balance and tranquility in Tibet once again.
The Dalai Lama who was in exile as a refugee garnered international support and made the people of the world aware of what atrocious acts were happening in Chinese occupied Tibet (during that time any information about China was hard to come by to the international media). Simultaneously, the Panchen Lama who was holding out in Tibet, would engage with Tibetans and listen to their narratives and problems. It culminated in him writing the 70,000-word petition submitted to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Prior to this submission even his teacher advised and begged the Panchen Lama to hold back and not go forth with this petition as it would generate great distrust from the CCP and bring more harm than good. The Panchen Lama, who knew these ramifications, kept it aside as he believed he needed to raise the voice of the Tibetans and did not hold back.
The aftermath of this was him being condemned and ostracized by Beijing and sent to prison. The image of the Panchen Lama (the Moon for us Tibetans) being pointed at with fingers in public and having to undergo the struggle/denouncing (Thamzing) session because he raised the plight of Tibetans in Tibet, impacted the image of the late Panchen Lama, whom unfortunately earlier in life was associated with Beijing and many saw him being under their control. The Sun which Beijing could not control was shining brightly than ever but the Moon subjugated, controlled, tortured and now imprisoned was waning. His luminescence which was saving the soul of many Tibetans in Tibet was snatched by Beijing. Even after his release and the eventual end of the Cultural Revolution, with China itself undergoing change with the passing away of Mao Zedong, the Panchen Lama stood firm and fought for the cause of the Tibetan people day in and day out.
His speeches invigorated the sense of how important it is to be a Tibetan and gave the Tibetans a sense of pride that was lost and needed to be rekindled since Beijing occupied Tibet. His harsh criticism to many actions of Beijing still continued with him famously taking the mickey out of the founders of the Tibetology Institute in Tibet. Here he questioned how they were doing research with the negligence of Tibet’s vast history not taken into context. He said, “It is impossible to do Tibetology research if you do not have knowledge of Buddhism. If you do not have knowledge of Marxism-Leninism, you cannot do research on the communist system”. His final words are a taped statement on the recognition of Tulkus at Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse, on 24th January, 1989 just days before his mysterious death on 28th January of that year. This in many ways seemed to not only hint about his reincarnation -which meant his demise was around the corner - but also gave all of us warnings of the manipulation that would occur over his next reincarnation - the 11th Panchen Lama. Until his death, the late 10th Panchen Lama gave his life for the Tibetan people and was a key figure and pioneer in bringing a re-renaissance in Tibet after the inhumane destruction the Cultural Revolution by the occupiers had brought into Tibet.
After the passing away of the 10th Panchen Lama, the search of his reincarnation begun. Many interest groups came to the fore with Beijing being a forerunner here. What is very ironical here is that the very establishment that does not recognize the Dalai Lama, who is the pinnacle and epitome of such recognition, wanted to take part in this process. This action illustrates very clearly how Beijing does not walk the talk and shows their opportunistic and cunning side.
More than 6 years after the passing away of His Holiness Lobsang Trinley Lhundrup Choekyi Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama and his search party (in Tibet) narrowed down the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and finally on 14th May, 1995, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a 6-year-old boy born in Lhari County, Tibet was recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama. This selected reincarnation was even agreed upon by Chadrel Rinpoche, who was not only a close disciple of the late 10th Panchen Lama but was also the Khenpo (abbot) of Tashi Lhunpo Monsatery (the monastic seat of the Panchen Lama) and who was simultaneously instructed to lead the Chinese efforts to search and locate the 11th Panchen Lama. However, things took a turn for the worse here as the 6-year-old boy and his family were kidnapped 3 days later on 17th May. From then till now there has been no picture and image of the 6-year-old boy and his family that has been made public.
The Tibetans worldwide, including the diasporic community and several other people, see him as the youngest political prisoner and it was only after nearly 20 years since his kidnapping that the Chinese officials gave word to the world that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family are doing well.
What conclusion one can draw from this was how this 6-year-old boy, who had the whole world awaiting in front of him, was stripped of his basic human rights and kidnapped. Did he personally do anything wrong here? Is the right of an individual not being trampled upon here? What sort of precedent it sets of being a Tibetan in Tibet when even the reincarnation of such a high lama which the Tibetans view as their Moon can be kidnapped in broad daylight and kept in incognito just like that? Would these implications not apply to all the Tibetans and all those people living in China? Well, Beijing has really gone gung-ho here as since the Panchen Lama going AWOL, many prominent Chinese and other individuals governed by the CCP have also suffered a similar fate - Jack Ma and Peng Shuai to name a few (the latter who was fortunate to be seen to public, though most likely was under State control, was arranged so due to the huge international uproar the incident created).
The Panchen Lama conundrum does not stop here as Beijing went to stoop so low that they even went to the length to appoint their own Panchen Lama so that they could manipulate the selection of the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. Gyaltsen Norbu, Beijing’s appointed Panchen Lama has held and continues to hold various important posts in Tibet and from my view is following their orders under duress, thereby showcasing how they are yet again controlling a Tibetan and not respecting his human rights. Yet, the fact remains that Tibetans in large never keep Gyaltsen Norbu’s photo in their shrine/altar and do not revere him like the 10th Panchen Lama or even Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (the kidnapped Panchen Lama). As an individual, I personally feel sorry for Gyaltsen Norbu who has to live under such chains and burden. The 11th Panchen Lama, though two in number, which is possible according to the Dalai Lama, is being hindered with one being left incognito and the other though alive, fit and present, is merely a puppet figure to Tibetans everywhere. The latter just being a name is now gradually being ignored by the higher echelons of power in Beijing as the recent incident when president Xi Jinping visited Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) for the first time but did not meet their own appointed Panchen Lama tells its own tale.
The luminescent moon, the Panchen Lama has been captured, blocked and canceled by the Chinese authorities. When will we as Tibetans ever be able to experience its iridescence in full glow? The legacy of the 10th Panchen Lama remains strongly in the hearts of Tibetans through his many works especially the 70,000-word petition which Mao Zedong ignominiously called a “Poison Arrow”. He not only details the harm done by the communist party in Tibet prior to the cultural revolution but also brought forth means through which harmony and authentic development of Tibet could be achieved.
The question now remains as to what role will the 11th Panchen Lama play? Gyaltsen Norbu, Beijing’s appointed Panchen Lama is being paraded by the communist party but will he ever receive true love and be seen as the moon by the Tibetan masses with support even waning from the CCP? And what is the status of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (Dalai Lama’s recognized Panchen Lama) who has been incognito for the past 2 decades and will be 33 years old on 25th April, 2022? Will we ever see a live picture of him? Is he even alive? What are his whereabouts? The Panchen Lama conundrum is big and looms around the lips of every Tibetans and Chinese authorities especially with it traditionally having a strong say and role in the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, who continues to grow wiser but also older with each passing day.
(A Tibetan Refugee in India privileged to receive education. Studied at Hindu College, Delhi University and School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Recipient of the Sikyong Scholarship in the year 2015. Enjoys playing tennis and cycling. Views are personal.)