Thursday, June 17, 2010

That Other Lama: The Panchen Lama

Although the Dalai Lama clearly blows up his spot internationally, you may have heard of another lama who occasionally makes it into the news: the second highest lama in the Tibetan hierarchy, the Panchen Lama. He’s been in the news a lot more recently, and he will definitely be an important figure in years to come, so this seems like as good a time as any to go into a bit more depth than I have in the past.

The Panchen Lamas have played second fiddle to the Dalai Lamas for centuries, but they still play a huge role in Tibetan affairs and have also often held a strong regional power base at Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. Crucially, they play a very important role in the selection of Dalai Lamas.

The 10th Panchen Lama, born in 1938, saw Tibet through some tumultuous years. He stayed in the country after the Dalai Lama left for India, and for a time courted the Chinese government, even going so far as to accept a seat on the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. After a number of years spent acquiescing to their demands and attempting to legitimize their rule, however, he had a dramatic reversal. He penned what is known as the “70,000 Character Petition,” a lengthy rebuke of Chinese rule that is the most thorough trashing of Beijing to have emerged from a member of the Chinese government. Mao referred to it as a “a poisoned arrow shot at the Party.” At first he was merely thrown out of the government, but that soon led to an imprisonment that ended up lasting almost twenty years.

After his release in the 80’s he resumed his role inside Tibet, and ended up being one of the only voices in support of Tibetans inside the government when the Tibetan protests of the late 80’s began. Arjia Rinpoche recounts this story, featuring a cameo by a younger Hu Jintao:
The cadres arranged for a viewing at the Panchen Lama’s residence of videotapes taken during the demonstrations that would prove the Chinese were blameless. There was lots of footage of the monks shouting and demonstrating in the streets, but no coverage at all of how, exactly, the police were handling the Tibetans. When it was over, the lights came on and the Panchen Lama looked around the room. He said, “That’s it? That’s all? Where are the police in all this?”

And then he got really mad. You should understand that the Panchen Lama could be very imposing
when it suited him. He cast a big shadow. So he walked over to the guy who was operating the video and grabbed him by the collar and yanked him up to his feet and yelled at him. It must have been about midnight. The Panchen Lama said, “OK, let’s go!” and herded us out to the cars waiting outside. “Get into the cars!” he ordered. “All of you!” Off we went to Tibet Provincial Headquarters—just five or ten minutes away—which was also the private residence of Tibet Provincial Party Chief, Hu Jintao.

The Panchen Lama knocked on Hu Jintao’s front door. All of us Tibetans were a little proud at that moment. It was such an unusual feeling to watch a high-ranking member of the Party being bullied by a Tibetan!

Hu actually came to the door in his pajamas. Personally, the Panchen Lama and Hu were friends at that time, so when Hu saw him, he called him “Great Master” or something like that and was very shocked and asked what in the world had happened. The Panchen Lama said, “Do you trust me or not? If you don’t trust me, I can go back to Beijing. I can leave tonight! If you don’t want me to investigate, then you report back to the Central Government!”

The Panchen Lama— I’ve never seen someone so brave. The next thing I knew, everybody was making
phone calls. The Panchen Lama was calling Beijing. Hu Jintao was calling his police. A little later, a Chinese guy came to Hu’s residence and produced a tape and gave it to the Panchen Lama. This version of the demonstrations was entirely different. This time, we could see Chinese police all along the rooftop of the Jokhang. Then the monks came crowding down the street. The police started yelling very bad things down at the monks, and then we saw the police open fire on the monks.

After seeing this version, the Panchen Lama confronted the police, “Why would you start shooting the people? You are supposed to represent and protect the people.” The Panchen Lama could be fearless.

He died in 1989, setting the stage for a struggle between the Chinese government and the Tibetan leadership in exile. Traditionally the Dalai Lama had played a key role in choosing new Panchen Lamas, and vice versa. Beijing clearly decided that they didn’t want to put up with another Panchen Lama along the lines of the last one, and saw an opportunity to legitimize their own future Dalai Lama somewhere down the line. The Dalai Lama announced the name of the boy that he, with the help of senior lamas still inside Tibet, had chosen- but within three days the Chinese had disappeared the boy. He remains missing today.

To justify installing their own candidate, Beijing cited a historical precedent in which a name had been drawn from a golden urn to select a lama, and then proceeded to throw a faux-religious event while they rigged the name drawing. Again from Arjia Rinpoche, who describes arriving in Lhasa for the farce:
The terminal was swarming with armed Chinese soldiers. As you know, Gonggar Airport is sixty miles south of Lhasa. Along the way, from the terminal to the Lhasa hotel—on both sides of the road, about fifteen feet apart—there stood armed soldiers! All the way to Lhasa! And that kind of intensity never let up. After we checked into the hotel, we were called together and told:

“You will not leave the premises of the hotel. You will not ask friends or associates to come into the hotel to visit. You will be prepared to leave for the ceremony without prior warning. During the ceremony, if any of you act up or do bad things, there will be no excuses and the punishment will be severe.”

About midnight, or maybe one in the morning, we were once again called together. “Time to leave!” they said, and by two in the morning, we left the Lhasa hotel. We boarded a bus. The distance couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes. This time the PLA were on both sides of the road the entire way, shoulder-to-shoulder—faceless men with helmets, face masks and big guns and shields. The Chinese were doing everything they could to make it feel like a major historical moment.

We entered the Jokhang. The main temple room was already full of witnesses saying prayers: high lamas, local representatives, important monks—I don’t know how long they had been there. The ceilings are very high inside the Jokhang and it’s very dark, even with thousands of butter lamps flickering. But as my eyes became used to the darkness, I realized that around the perimeter of the main temple there were plain-clothed police—every corner—shoulder to shoulder.

My group was escorted up to the main altar. Directly in front of the main altar, in the position of honor, sat the highest-ranking communists from Beijing. There was a big table between them and the altar. On that table sat the Golden Urn. Perpendicular to the right end of the table was another group of lesser officials. We religious leaders were ushered to the left end of the table and seated, facing the lesser officials across the way.

The nominee’s names had been typed on paper—except for the Dalai Lama’s choice of course. The altar attendants (they weren’t the regular altar monks) glued the papers to the ivory sticks, pulled tight-fitting gold silk covers down over the sticks, and replaced them into the urn. Bumi Rinpoche, who was the president of the Buddhist Association of TAR, was asked to come forward and select a stick. He did as he was told, then handed it to the head official who, after inspecting it, handed it over to the official next to him, and so on, over to the next representative from Beijing.

The event was televised. Later, when we saw the video on TV, we could easily see that the stick that was chosen was a little longer the others. Obviously, this raised everyone’s suspicions. Not that we weren’t already suspicious...

And what do you know; turns out the boy chosen by the urn just happened to be the son of two Communist Party cadres! The event soon faded from the news, except for occasional requests from the Tibetan exiles and Western human rights organizations that the Chinese free the true Panchen Lama. The Chinese-picked candidate has become known as the Panchen Zuma, or “fake Panchen,” by Tibetans. For much of the time since then he hasn’t had much to say, given that he was just a few years old during the ceremony. As he has arrived at adulthood recently, however, he has been paraded around a few times by Beijing. After the earthquake in Qinghai he was brought in for prayers, and a few weeks ago he was given a seat on the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress- the very same position from which his predecessor attempted to secure better treatment for his homeland.

With his increased visibility have come a larger number of rebuttals to his position. B. Raman from Eurasia Review puts it very well:
[The Chinese-picked Panchen Lama] does not stay in Tibet. Nor does he go to any Tibetan school. His Buddhist teachers are Beijing-based and chosen by the Party and the Government. However, once a year during the vacation in Beijing he is taken to Lhasa and nearby places by the Chinese authorities who organize religious interactions between him and selected Tibetans in order to give him a public exposure and give the impression of his playing an increasingly active role as a religious leader responsible for providing spiritual guidance to the Tibetan Buddhists and for supervising the maintenance of the religious places in Tibet.

However, the Chinese take two precautions while organizing the spiritual tours for him. Firstly, his visits are confined to the Tibet Autonomous Region. They avoid taking him to other Tibetan-inhabited areas lest by doing so they unwittingly strengthen the Dalai Lama’s claim for a Greater Tibet. The Chinese project their Panchen Lama as the religious leader of only the Tibetans of the Tibet Autonomous Region and not of all Tibetans, wherever they may be residing. Secondly, they avoid any pronouncements of a political nature during his organized tours. Since they deny any political hat for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, they do not want to create in their Panchen Lama a religious leader with a political role.

Beijing foresees an endgame in which they pull the strings of a compliant Panchen Zuma and thus get a justification to name their own Dalai Zuma. Without a universally-recognized Dalai Lama causing trouble for them, they reckon, the Tibet issue will completely disappear. Clearly there are a number of holes in that logic. The Dalai Lama himself knows what they’re doing, and has been making the argument that his successor will be born in India, or Nepal, or America, or really anywhere outside of Chinese jurisdiction. Also, continued Tibetan agitation for human rights and civil liberties will obviously continue, living Dalai Lama or not. Finally, the story of Tibetan collaborators with Beijing is one fraught with defections- indeed, even the man chosen by Beijing to tutor the young Panchen Zuma, Arjia Rinpoche, eventually denounced the government and escaped from China into exile. If Beijing wants the Panchen Zuma to become a legitimate figure in the eyes of his people they need to let him out of his cage more often, but doing so greatly increases the risk that he will choose the same path chosen by almost every other high-profile Tibetan figure since the occupation began: resistance.

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