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The Panchen Lama looms almost as large on the Tibetan landscape as the Dalai Lama, who is probably more familiar to people in the West. Like the Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Panchen Lama is the latest incarnation in a long line of very holy men.
Just as the present Dalai Lama is considered to be a reincarnation of his predecessor, the Great 13th Dalai Lama, and a manifestation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva1 of compassion, the Panchen Lama is also the latest incarnation in His lineage and a manifestation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. The title 'Panchen' derives from the Sanskrit word Pandita, which means 'scholar', and the Tibetan term Chen Po, which means 'great'.
In 1447, the 1st Dalai Lama built a great monastery, Tashi Lhunpo, in the city of Shigatse, 250km west of the country's capital, Lhasa. The abbots of Tashi Lhunpo came to be known as 'Panchen', because of their scholarly reputation. In the 17th Century, the Great 5th Dalai Lama gave the title of 'Panchen Lama' to his teacher, the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo, and declared that he would continue to be reborn in an unbroken lineage of successors. Thus the line of Panchen Lamas was begun.
An interesting relationship exists between the two religious leaders: the elder acts as the spiritual teacher of the younger; and the younger leads the search for the new incarnation when death comes for the elder.
In 1950, Chinese forces invaded Tibet. At first, the Communist government in Beijing (Peking) hoped to make use of the influence religious leaders had over their people by forcing them to accept seemingly important positions on various committees. It soon became obvious, however, that the Tibetan figureheads were nothing more than puppets, being used to feign legitimacy for the invaders and their alien policies of radical reform. The Tibetan uprising in 1959, and the brutal military response, dashed the Chinese hopes of using the Dalai Lama, when He and His government escaped into exile in India.
Chinese hopes then shifted to the 10th Panchen Lama. He seemed a likely candidate, because His predecessor had revolted against the government of the Great 13th Dalai Lama, and had hoped for assistance from China, before Mao's Communists swept the Nationalists from power in that country. He was appointed to the position of acting Chairman of the 'Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region', and later as vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Congress.
Three years older than the Dalai Lama, He was, in His own way, just as unconventional. In 1956, He opened a school in Shigatse, which He hoped would provide a modern education to its students, equipping them to face the challenge of Tibet's new relationship with the outside world. He was a lonely man, little understood in His lifetime, and even considered a traitor by many Tibetans, because of His close association with China. The Chinese, on the other hand, were equally suspicious of Him, suspecting Him of using the school to train counter-revolutionaries in the 1959 uprising.
His inevitable fall from grace came in 1962, when He addressed a 70,000 character petition to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, documenting the terrible living conditions faced by the people of Tibet, the deaths in forced labour camps, and the harm being done to his country in the name of socialist reform. This audacious criticism of the Chinese occupation touched on all aspects of life in Tibet, from the misguided agricultural reforms to religious persecution and systemic racism.
Predictably, Chairman Mao blew a gasket. He described the petition as,
... a poisoned arrow shot at the Party by reactionary feudal overlords.
The Panchen Lama was arrested, and spent 15 years in detention. While in prison, He was subjected to torture and forced to endure the ritual humiliation of thamzing, 'struggle sessions', in which victims are forced to dissect their own faults while being verbally abused or beaten by others (often friends or family members), who are in turn judged by their level of enthusiastic participation. He wrote the petition as a young man of 24, and returned to Tibet an old man in ill health... at the age of 40.
In 1989, His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama was finally allowed to return to Shigatse, where He addressed a jubilant crowd of 30,000. He described the suffering of Tibet under the yoke of occupation in terms reminiscent of the 70,000 character petition. Five days later, He suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of 50.
Tibet's Stolen Child
The quest for the 11th Panchen Lama was complicated by the animosity between the new Chinese rulers of Tibet and the Dalai Lama in exile in India. The Dalai Lama sent a message offering to send a search team to help discover the whereabouts of the next Panchen Lama. The frosty response He received was that His assistance would not be required.
The search for the new emanation was lead by Chadrel Rinpoche, the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo monastery. In 1993, he sent a letter to the Dalai Lama, informing him of the status of the search to that point, and indicated that a new Panchen Lama had been born... somewhere. The Dalai Lama again asked the Chinese to allow Him to participate in the search, according to custom. But, again, he was rebuffed.
In May, 1995, after consulting the State oracles and performing various traditional divination rituals, the Dalai Lama announced the selection of six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. The Chinese government immediately ordered the religious leaders in Lhasa to repudiate the selection, and announced a winning candidate of its own... which is ironic in view of the fact that the official view of the atheistic People's government is that reincarnation is bunk.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the boy appointed to the ancient post by the Dalai Lama, was seized (along with his family and several members of the search team) by Chinese officials, and has not been seen or heard from since; thus making Him arguably the world's youngest political prisoner. Repeated requests from international human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and various governments (under pressure from their constituents), have so far yielded no evidence of His whereabouts or satisfactory proof that He is alive and well.
According to the American government's State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2001 (October, 2001), Chinese authorities have acknowledged that the Venerable Chadrel Rinpoche is still in prison for 'betraying state secrets', despite the fact that his official sentence elapsed in May, 2001.
International efforts are still under way to find the young Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and determine whether He is alive and well. The Dalai Lama has said,
The safety of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his proper religious training is of particular concern for me. I, therefore, appeal to all governments, religious and human rights organizations for their intervention in ensuring the safety and freedom of the young Panchen Lama.
The well-being of the Panchen Lama is especially important to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in view of the responsibility the Panchen Lama will have in locating His next incarnation. The Dalai Lama, recognizing the danger of an imposter being selected, has said that He will not take rebirth in Tibet under the current tragic circumstances.