Tibet Still Waits For Its Panchen Lama
In his summer school “Introduction to Theology” course at a large university in midtown Manhattan, my husband found that almost a third of the students on his roster were from China. At one point the Dalai Lama was mentioned and at least one of the students from China expressed shock to hear that the exiled Tibetan leader is still alive: Apparently the student (who laughed nervously when my husband showed him that the Dalai Lama had recently visited nearby Newark) had been informed otherwise in China.
The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has lived in Dharamsala in northern India in exile since 1959 after a failed Tibetan uprising. In 1995, he anointed Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a herder’s son, as the Panchen Lama, the reincarnation of one of Tibet’s highest Buddhist leaders. But Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has missing since May of 1995 when Chinese authorities placed him and his family in what is called “protective custody.” The Panchen Lama would be 22 years old now.
Tibet has been under Chinese rule since 1950 and many Tibetans fear a diluting of their numbers as more Han Chinese inhabit their country.
The Chinese Communist Party – which is officially atheist but reserves the right to name top spiritual leaders – has chosen its own Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, in 1995. Gyaltsen Norbu is now 21 years old and speculation is rife that he may soon come to study at the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, Tibet, in an effort of Chinese authorities to lend him more legitimacy and prevent unrest in Tibet. According to the New York Times, most Tibetans still revere the memory of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima:
“We just hope he is still alive,” said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan essayist and blogger who noted that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s visage, frozen as a 5-year-old, hangs in many homes and temples. “We are waiting for him.”
In an effort to, as it were, boost Gyaltsen Norbu’s credentials, the Chinese Communist Party made him vice president of the state-run Buddhist association and also appointed him to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory organization that meets annually in Beijing.
The possibility of Gyaltsen Norbu being at the Labrang Monastery has led to disquiet in Xiahe, with an increased police presence in the streets.
The government’s struggle to legitimize the Panchen Lama among Tibetans foreshadows the deeper struggle Beijing will face upon the death of the Dalai Lama, when it has said it will name a successor. The Dalai Lama, 76, is still revered on the Tibetan plateau despite years of fierce propaganda that brands him as a troublemaking separatist, even as he insists that he is interested only in genuine autonomy for Tibetans…
A previous attempt to improve the Panchen Lama’s religious standing in 1998 did not end well. After officials sought to pair the boy with the abbot of Kumbum, a revered monastery in Qinghai Province, the abbot, Arjia Rinpoche, fled China and sought asylum in the United States. “It was a very difficult decision, but I did not want to be seen as a collaborator with the Chinese government,” Arjia Rinpoche said by telephone from Indiana, where he now lives.
At the beginning of July in anticipation of the 90th birthday of the Chinese Community Party, Chinese authorities closed Tibet to foreigners, says the Guardian which notes that “China, sensitive to instability or any other perceived threat to one-party rule, is wary of foreigners in its ethnic border areas, which it calls ‘autonomous regions,’ especially ahead of politically charged anniversaries.” Just last week, Chinese authorities ordered a “sweeping security crackdown” in western Xinjiang province after at least three dozen people were killed in attacks in the cities of Hotan and Kashgar. Members of Xinjiang’s native Turkic Muslim Uighur population were blamed and Beijing has vowed a policy of “no mercy” towards any one “pursuing violence or separatism.”
The Uighurs, who are culturally, linguistically and religiously distinct from China’s Han ethnic majority, say that the violence is due to “economic marginalisation and restrictions on Uighur culture and the Muslim religion that are breeding frustration and anger among young Uighurs.” Tibetans and also the indigenous population of Inner Mongolia have voiced similar complaints. For its part, China has blamed the unrest in Xinjiang on “militants based overseas” and said some trained in terrorist camps in neighboring Pakistan.
As with the Community Party’s naming of its own Panchen Lama, and my husband’s Chinese student being told that the Dalai Lama is dead, China continues to create its own “version” of events.
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