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.

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