The Panchen Lama Controversy

The Panchen Lama Controversy – Introduction

The Panchen Lama Controversy
This is a series of articles on the Panchen Lama Controversy. Click on the image to go to the main page…

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before. – Thorsten Veblen

While His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, is an extremely popular, even iconic figure in major parts of the world, the existence and importance of the Panchen Lama is widely unknown to those who admire the Dalai Lama.

The Panchen Lama is the highest-ranking lama after the Dalai Lama in the complex hierarchical system of Tibetan Buddhism. Under Tibetan tradition, the Panchen Lama bears part of the responsibility or the monk-regent for finding the incarnation of the Dalai Lama, and vice versa. This has been the tradition since the 5th Dalai Lama, recognized his teacher Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen as the Panchen Lama. [A15]

The Panchen Lama controversy presents itself by the unresolved status of two Panchen Lama, currently the 11th incarnation, one selected by the 14th Dalai Lama and another one picked by the Chinese government, which in turn raises the question about the Dalai Lama’s succession.

With one Panchen Lama nurtured by the Chinese government and the other under ‘protective’ custody, it seems obvious that China will eventually keep the upper hand in the selection and recognition process and thus further fortify its control over Tibet. The current Dalai Lama, however, insists that “My reincarnation is to be decided by myself.” In all consequence, unless His Holiness decides not to be reborn, there is a possible scenario of two Dalai Lamas in the years to come.

It may appear that any reference to the Panchen Lama controversy is, in fact, nothing but a lecture on His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, specifically his succession. But, as it is the case with any Tibetan aspect, an investigation into the controversy over the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama also uncovers a myriad of new questions whose multiple and different answers are the foundation for ongoing discussions.

It is fair to say that the vast popularity of the Dalai Lama and the focus on Chinese Human rights violations have overshadowed some historical and political facts and may even be the source of, at times, emotionally created myths.

Choekyi Gyaltsen, 10th Panchen Lama
Choekyi Gyaltsen, 10th Panchen Lama

One of these myths points directly to the former, the 10th Panchen Lama. As a matter of fact, the life and accomplishments of Choekyi Gyalsten, even though seen critical through the eyes of anti-communist reporting plus the scenario around the disputed recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama, bares the potential of shedding an unfavorable light on the current Dalai Lama’s political skills. Without denying his spiritual competence and his peace-promoting accomplishments, there are arguments that the Dalai Lama may be himself responsible for his lingering political predicament.

For instance, in his book The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama, Tibet scholar Melvyn C. Goldstein calls the Dalai Lama’s decision to preemptively announce the new Panchen Lama “politically inastute.” [B8]

Even the Dalai Lama indirectly acknowledged his (or his advisors’) lack of much-needed political skills when he agreed to allow China to continue exercising political control over Tibet if he can return as a purely religious leader. [A25]

Another, undisputed historical fact is that the 10th Panchen Lama became the most important political and religious figure in Tibet after the 14th Dalai Lama fled the country. Unlike the Dalai Lama, Choekyi Gyalsten sought to exert control in decision-making. In the turmoil of the 1959 anti-Chinese revolt, he was the lama who stayed behind, involved in delicate contacts between China and the exiled Dalai Lama. [A29] In fact, he was the most senior Tibetan in the Chinese government when he died in 1989 [W17], and although he was sometimes ridiculed as a compliant figure, he often spoke out strongly for Tibetan interests. [A60] And he never denounced the Dalai Lama, despite intense pressure from Beijing. [A77]

His most memorable achievement is the 70,000 Character Petition [B4], a document addressing the brutal suppression of the Tibetan people during and after the 1950 Chinese invasion of Tibet. Then-Chairman Mao Zedong called the petition “… a poisoned arrow shot at the Party by reactionary feudal overloads.” Choekyi Gyalsten was publicly humiliated at Politburo meetings, dismissed from all posts of authority, declared “an enemy of the Tibetan people,” and then imprisoned. After 13 years in prison, he was released in 1977 but held under house arrest in Beijing until 1982. Later, he was politically rehabilitated and rose to important positions. [W44]

While the 10th Panchen Lama’s involvement in Chinese Communist politics is at times being held against him, the Dalai Lama himself worked with and for the Chinese government. In 1954, together with the 10th Panchen Lama, he went to China to meet Mao Zedong and attend the first session of the National People’s Congress as a delegate, primarily discussing China’s constitution. In 1954, the Dalai Lama was selected as a deputy chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, a post he officially held until 1964. [W45]

These historical facts also demonstrate that the position of the Panchen Lama involved simultaneously being a rival and a partner of the Dalai Lama. Competing Buddhist sects have risen and fallen in Tibet, and for the last few hundred years, the Dalai Lama’s sect had dominated, but the Panchen Lama, though secondary, has to this day retained a critical role. [A24]

In view of the 14th Dalai Lama’s popularity and his advanced age, there have been many discussions about the future of Tibet after his death, and the recognition and installation of the next, the 15th Dalai Lama is inextricably linked to the person of the Panchen Lama (It must be emphasized that, according to Tibetan Buddhism, enlightened beings such as the Panchen or Dalai Lama do not die. They merely shed the garment of their Human body and reincarnate in the body of a newborn boy).

With the 10th Panchen Lama dead and the 11th Panchen Lama installed by the Chinese government in 1995, it appears that the Communist Party is only waiting for the Dalai Lama to die. As Goldstein states, “Time appears not to be on the Dalai Lama’s side.”

Despite its stated devotion to atheism, the Communist Party has struggled to offer a counterweight to the immense stature of the Dalai Lama, whom it views as a separatist eager to split Tibet from China. [A63] According to a senior Communist Party official, reincarnations of Tibetan spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama, must be approved by the Chinese central government [A66], and, in their view, they executed their right, which, ultimately gives them control not only over the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama but also, finally and irrevocably, over Tibet.

During the eleventh religious conclave, His Holiness explicitly rejected China’s view by stating, “My reincarnation is to be decided by myself. Nobody [else] has the right to decide about that.” However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated in a briefing, “There has never been a case of a previous Dalai determining the next Dalai.” [A68]

To quote Goldstein again, “The 1995 controversy over the selection of a new Panchen Lama illustrates the enormous difficulty both side share in compromising, as well as why Beijing has such misgivings about the Dalai Lama.”

Related Literature:

The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama
By Melvyn C. Goldstein
ISBN: 978-0520219519

A Poisoned Arrow
The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama
Tibet Information Network
ISBN: 0-953201 1-1-2