PRETENDER TO THE THRONE

In our last issue we reported on the outrage of Chinese officials when the Dalai Lama announced that a six-year­ old Tibetan boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, had been determined to be the reincarnation of the tenth Panchen Lama, who died in January 1989. The Chinese government claimed that, under the terms ofa 1792 Qing Dynasty agreement, they had the right to approve the selection of all important lamas found in Tibet. Now the Chinese government has installed its own selection, six-year­ old Gyaincain Norbu, thus effectively creating a rival Panchen Lama.

Six-year-old Gyaincain Norbu, chosen in late November as the new Panchen Lama, after the Chinese government refused to recognize the Dalai Lama's choice. Courtesy AP/Wide World Photos.
Six-year-old Gyaincain Norbu, chosen in late November as the new Panchen Lama, after the Chinese government refused to recognize the Dalai Lama’s choice. Courtesy AP/Wide World Photos.

Why has the Chinese government interested itself in reincarnation, and why has it evoked the terms of a treaty made by a dynasty whose every action it has long discredited? Theanswer; apparently, is that the stakes are very high, and could determine the future leadership of Tibet. The Panchen Lama (literally,”Great Pandit”) is the second most important religious figure in Tibet. For several centuries now, the Panchen and Dalai Lamas have served as one another’s teachers and, more important, each has been influential in the recognition of the other’s reincarnation. Following that tradition, when the monks of Tashi Lhunpo monastery, led by Chadrel Rinpoche, found Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in the Tibetan village of Nagqa last year, the details of his discovery were relayed to the Dalai Lama, who verified that the boy was indeed the eleventh Panchen Lama.

Chadrel Rinpoche alsoreported the findings of the search team to the Chinese government, who initially approved the appointment. In May, however, when the Dalai Lama preempted Beijing’s announcement that it had approved the boy, Chinese officials denounced his action as “separatist.” Following the Dalai Lama’s announcement, Chadrel Rinpoche and the boy, along with his mother and father, were taken into custody, where presumably they still remain.

In the months that followed, the monks of Tashi Lhunpo monastery (the seat of the Panchen Lamas) were ordered to denounce the boy selected by the Dalai Lama and forbidden to possess his photograph or to pray for his long life. One monk, the caretaker of the former Panchen Lama’s mausoleum, chose to commit suicide rather than comply with this demand. Meanwhile came the announcement that the boy had been found unsuitable because he had allegedly drowned a dog, an act that, according to Chinese officials, was a “heinous crime in the eyes of Buddha.” The Chinese displeasure at the Dalai Lama’s announcement culminated in the summoning of 75 important lamas to Beijing on November 8 for the purpose of selecting a new Panchen Lama. According to sources, some lamas feigned sickness to avoid the summons and were brought forcibly under military escort. The result was the selection of “several appropriate candidates,” one of whom, Gyaincain Norbu, was then determined by drawing lots.

At the present time, six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima remains unaccounted for. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang said recently, “He is neither missing nor in custody. He should be where he was born.” So far, however, requests by foreign journalists to travel to the boy’s hometown of Nagqa have been denied.

In the event of the death of the current Dalai Lama, now 61, the Panchen Lama would be the highest­ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and clearly there would exist a precedent for his approving the next Dalai Lama’s incarnation. Experts say it is doubtful, however, whether Beijing’s choice for the Panchen Lama will gain wide recognition from the Tibetan people.

Nevertheless, from the Chinese point of view, there can be no doubt. The boy Gyaincain Norbu was formally installed as the eleventh Panchen Lama in a private ceremony that took place two days ahead of schedule and was later televised as a live public event. Then, in December, came the final imprimatur of Chinese-backed authority: the gift of a “little Red Flag” sedan, standard issue for top communist party officials.

GOT YOUR NUMBER

Hanoi, Dec. 14 (Reuters)—Vietnam has ordered the closure of a Buddhist religious sect that worships the number 18 and counts former president Ho Chi Minh among its idols, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

The Doan Phu Tho 18 group, most of whose members are based in Hanoi and neigh boring provinces, was declared illegal last month on the orders of the State Commission for Religious Affairs, the English-languageVietnam News said.

Officials at the Religious Affairs Com­mission were not available for comment.

The newspaper said the group held regular meetings on the 18th day of each month and maintained that President Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, was the 18th in a line of Hung dynasty kings idolized by the sect. The Hung kings are viewed as the founders of Vietnam.

BILOXI BUDDHA

FROM OUR SOUTHERN CORRESPONDENT, JIM CRUMP:

Enclosed is a photo of the “Biloxi Buddha.” I made a phone call to the Magic Golf Amusement Park in Biloxi, Mississippi, to check out if there was anything special about this Buddha and how it came to be. I spoke with Jeannie Williams. She and her husband, Bob, have owned the park for fifteen years.

Putt-putt Buddha, Biloxi, Mississippi. Photograph by Jim Crump.
Putt-putt Buddha, Biloxi, Mississippi. Photograph by Jim Crump.

“It’s the oldest miniature golf course on the Gulf Coast,” she cold me. “I never paid attention that it was a Buddha, but it survived Hurricane Camille. It’s made out of cement and was originally painted bronze. You tee off at the little square in front and the ball rolls under the platform and loops up in back and comes out his hands. The hole is down front on the platform. A worker on the original crew made it. I think he went to work for another park down the coast. You know, it’s the darn’dest thing, but we see Vietnamese people and Orientals stop their cars and get out and start hugging that thing and leaving little pieces of paper on it. They’ve got a temple on Oak Street here in town. My husband and I own a cement paving company and some more amusement parks. He just likes ’em. You don’t want to talk about the dinosaur?”

I spoke with a man named Buzz who manages the park for the Williamses and he said that he was getting ready to paint the Buddha bronze again. The dinosaur she was referring to is also an obstacle on the course, and it, too, has survived the hurricanes.

A MANTRA A DAY…

Doctors at America’s health management organizations (HMOs) may soon be handing out mantras instead of prescriptions. As part of a nationwide trend to reduce medical costs, doctors and researchers are increasingly beginning to rely upon such nontraditional (from the point of view of medical science) methods as prayer and meditation. Dr. Herbert Ben­son, president of Harvard Medical School’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, explains that such methods (which reduce a health care professional’s work­ load) are “just plain money in the bank for the HMOs.”

These methods, which include spiritual practices as well as psycho­logical techniques such as biofeedback, are being grouped under the heading of “behavioral medicine.” Dr. Benson, who has been studying meditation and relaxation techniques for some time, said that, for medical purposes, he does not distinguish between spiritual and psychological techniques, but that about 80% of his patients choose some form of spiritual practice. Studies conducted at Harvard and elsewhere beginning in the 1970s have proven that these techniques can reliably reduce high blood pressure, and more recent studies have suggested they are also effective in treating anxiety, depression, insomnia, cardiac pain, ulcers, asthma, arthritis, alcoholism, and even the common cold.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health established an independent panel to evaluate these techniques. The panel concluded that a variety of methods worked, as long as they included “a repetitive focus on a word, sound, prayer, phrase or muscular activity, and neither fighting nor focusing on intruding thoughts.” Nevertheless, they cautioned that healing broken bones or a simple infection—illnesses that have no psychological component—were not likely to be affected by “spiritual methods.”

Until recently, medical science tended to regard instances of spiritual healing as a “placebo effect”—the product not of some spiritual cause but of the patient’s belief that his condition would improve. However, widening the parameters of what medical experts consider acceptable treatment has made for some interesting “alternatives.” At a recent conference at the Copley Plaza Marriott in Boston, medical doctors, nurses and clergy from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu traditions were joined by snake handlers, who insisted that handling snakes can also induce states of relaxation and well-being.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remains free of house arrest in her native Myanmar (formerly Burma), but experts suggest that that could soon change. Since her release last year on July 10, Suu Kyi has resumed her work as head of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, drawing renewed criticism from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the ruling military junta that placed her under arrest in 1989. In a recent interview, Suu Kyi suggested that the real question may be only “whether or not I’m put under house arrest or into prison.”

 Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi addressing supporters at the gate to her home in Rangoon, Myanmar, 1995. Courtesy Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos Inc.
Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi addressing supporters at the gate to her home in Rangoon, Myanmar, 1995. Courtesy Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos Inc.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 50, is the daughter of General Aung San, the founder of modern Burma. She was educated at Oxford University and is married to the Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, who lives with their two children in England. Following her release last year, she was given the option of leaving Myanmar to join her family but chose to remain behind in order to continue her fight for democracy.

In addition to regular appeals to SLORC to enter into negotiations for a return to democracy, Suu Kyi holds weekly news conferences and leads free speech meetings in front of her house every weekend. SLORC, however, has refused to negotiate and is even now in the process of drafting a constitution that would ensure its hold on Myanmar for some time to come. Suu Kyi has publicly opposed the drafting process as nondemocratic.

Partly because of her English husband, and partly because of her espousal of a foreign ideal (democracy), Suu Kyi has been labeled “too Western” by those who favor the military regime. But this criticism does little to explain why Suu Kyi’s party—even when she was under house arrest and didn’t run—won 82% of the seats in the 1990 elections. Apparently, however, SLORC isn’t bothered by that contradiction. Little wonder when you consider that they have undertaken a massive “Westernization” of Myanmar in order to attract foreign tourism and trade. In a recent interview in The New York Times Magazine, writer Claudia Dreifus asked Aung San Suu Kyi whether increased tourism might not actually help the human rights situation in Myanmar. Suu Kyi responded: “How could it? A large part of the tourist infrastructure—roads, bridges, railways—has been built with forced labor…. In Mandalay, the people are made to replace their ancient wooden-and-bamboo fences with brick walls…. And those who can’t afford it have had to leave the homes their families have lived in for generations.”

In answer to Suu Kyi’s repeated appeals for democracy and fairness, SLORC has suggested that she con­centrate more on humanitarian work, and not on politics, a suggestion that implies that Myanmar’s well-documented human rights abuses—including killing of civilians, torture, and forced labor—are a political and not a humanitarian issue.

Her work on behalf of democracy and her method of peaceful resistance have often overshadowed Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhist beliefs and practices. However, in The New York Times Magazine interview, she explained that she spent much of her time meditating during her six years under house arrest. Asked about the difference between politics and meditation, she explained:

Well, if you’re meditating and a mosquito comes and bites you, you have to think, “Biting . . . biting . . . biting.” And you are aware that the mosquito is biting and you just keep sitting there. You don’t stop the mosquito and you don’t try to shake it off.

But politics is not like that. We try everything we can not to hurt others and create feelings of antipathy. But if people are doing things that are unacceptable to us as the party that represents the democratic movement, we can’t just sit there and say, “They are doing it…. They are doing it…. They are doing it.” And not do anything.

For instance, they have been sentencing our people unjustly to prison. We’re not going to meditate and say, “They’ve been unjust…. They’ve been unjust…. They’ve been unjust.” We’re going to do something. We’ve appealed those cases, and let’s see how it goes.

FIRE AND ICE

Kegon master Shimizu Koyo performing a goma, or fire ceremony, on January 14 for the opening of the Katonah Museum's exhibit "Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual."
Kegon master Shimizu Koyo performing a goma, or fire ceremony, on January 14 for the opening of the Katonah Museum’s exhibit “Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual.”

 

On Sunday, January 14, Shimizu Koyo, a master of the esoteric Kegon School of Japanese Buddhism, conducted what is believed to be the first goma, or fire ceremony, in the United Stares. The ceremony consisted of symbolically summoning, feeding, and dispatching Fudo, the fierce bodhisattva said to possess the magical ability to convince those reluctant to accept the Buddha’s teachings. The occasion of the ceremony was the opening of “Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual ” at the Katonah Museum in Katonah, New York. The exhibit, which brings together 70 ritual objects used in Japanese Buddhism, will be on view in Katonah through March 17, after which it will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from April 19 through June 30.

THE ART OF THE BLURB

In a recent issue of The Spectator, a British magazine, readers were invited to compete for writing the best jacket “blurb” for an imaginary book entitled Combining Buddhism with Work Performance in Switzerland(or some other country of your choice). Among the winners, who received £20 and a bottle of Isle of Jura Single Malt Scotch whisky, was the following, written by W. J.  Webster:

In this fascinating study, Ernie Tscherkhin explores the roots of “the tranquillity revolution” in Switzerland, the country that took the CH out of macho and put it into chocolate. Ever watchful for innovation, the Swiss were the first to see the advantages of a Buddhist workplace. The boss looks at an employee and thinks, “That could be me the next time around.” The worker realizes that he might land in the executive hotseat when the great wheel of life next turns. Envy loses its bite, power its blinkers. In place of strife comes a calm benignity. And everyone profits.

THE WHEEL

Tibet may yet become the South Africa of the 90s—students at Oberlin College recently sponsored the Students for a Free Tibet National Conference; more than 40 colleges and universities were invited to attend. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, accused by rivals of being “as silent as a Buddha” during a parliamentary budget debate, replied by thanking them for the highest praise. Tricycle Contributing Editor Kate Wheelerhas received a GRANTA Best Young American Novelists regional award for Not Where I Started From, a collection of short stories. Move over Gideon; thanks to the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, a Tokyo-based organization, some 2,500 hotels in the United States now carry The Teachings of Buddha in addition to The Bible. His Holiness the Dalai Lama will preside at another Western Teachers’ Conference this March in Dharamsala. Readers of The New Yorker were surprised recently to discover that Virginia Hamilton Adair, the 82-year-old poet whose work has recently gained wide recognition, is a longtime student of Joshu Sasaki Roshi. A new monthly magazine, Buddhist Door, has brought the Buddha on-line (point your browser at http://www.tunglinkok.ca/buddhist door/). If that’s too heavy, try Phil Riley’s tape “Five Cent Buddha” (“one man’s crusade to destroy popular music”), which costs $3.00. Riley’s web site (http://www.math.duke.edu/~priley/buddha/buddha.html) includes a disclaimer which says that it really isn’t Buddhist, but it provides a link to Buddhist sites anyway. In late January, real-life “Little Buddha” Sonam Wangdu, the 4-year­-old reincarnation of Deshung Rinpoche, left Seattle for Nepal, where he will head a monastery of 38 monks. Finally, Zen Master Rama, the New Age huckster who skimmed his way to profit on the guru superhighway of the 80s, is back—this time “surfing the Himalayas” as best­selling author Dr. Frederick Lenz.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.