Search for the Panchen Lama

Search for the Panchen Lama

by Isabel Hilton

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ISBN-13: 9780670861415
Publisher: Penguin UK
Publication date: 09/02/1999
Pages: 352

About the Author

Isabel Hilton is an international print and broadcast journalist and a well-known commentator on Chinese affairs. She lives in London.

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Chapter One


Choekyi Gyaltsen, more widely known as the tenth incarnation of the Panchen Lama, died on a freezing night in January 1989 in his own monastery of Tashilhunpo, in Tibet. The death, when it came, was curiously unexpected for those who loved him. He had been taken for dead before, during the long dark years of imprisonment, but then he had returned, reborn almost, and this sudden, second death seemed the more cruel for being the death of hopes revived.

    This far-away event did not go entirely unnoticed in the West: it made the news on British television, a ninety-second death notice tucked away in the segment to which obscure foreign events are confined. The newspapers gave it some attention, too: judicious obituaries described how the tenth Panchen Lama had stayed behind in Tibet when the Dalai Lama had fled, thirty years before, and recorded his early collaboration with the Chinese. They told of his redemption from the shame of that collaboration through his official disgrace in the Cultural Revolution and his return, in the final decade of his life, as a public figure and occasional critic of the regime. Then events moved on. The death of the Panchen Lama slipped away into that undifferentiated fog of recent, curious but forgettable news items.

    For me, too, it was an event that had passed, another landmark in the erosion of the old Tibet, a further small step towards the absorption of that singular land into the uniformity of China. It was not until five years later that the significance of the Panchen's death was to come home to me: in Tibetan Buddhismnobody simply dies — and especially not such a figure as the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in his religious status. Death in this belief system is merely a passage to another life. The tenth Panchen Lama was dead; the task, for his followers and co-believers, was to find the eleventh incarnation. At the time, early in 1989, I had no idea that this was to become an issue which, a few years later, would convulse the Tibetan world and absorb many of my own waking hours. It began, for me, the first time I met the Dalai Lama.


In 1994 I made the first of what were to be many journeys to Dharamsala in northern India, and home of the Tibetan government in exile. I was going to interview the Dalai Lama for a documentary film. With the director, Jonathan Lewis, I flew to Delhi, took a rattling overnight train to Pathankot, then a taxi for a further four and half hours, winding north along deep river valleys into the foothills of the Himalayas. It was February and bitterly cold.

    This was my first encounter with Tibet in exile: as our taxi climbed the vertiginous, twisting roads that led to the hilltop on which Dharamsala perched, India seemed to fall away. The Indian men, women and children who had thronged the streets for most of the journey gave way to flocks of young Tibetan monks in maroon robes and old men in chubas, to old ladies in long skirts and striped aprons, walking slowly, feeding beads through their fingers as they said their rosaries. On a rock at a bend in the road 'Free Tibet' had been painted in English and Tibetan.

    The muddy streets that form McLeod Ganj, the mountain village at the commercial heart of the exiled Tibetan community's home, were lined with shops selling Tibetan trinkets, souvenirs, jewellery, books and religious pictures. In the centre of the village there was a small temple with heavy wooden prayer wheels that creak and squeak as they are turned by the faithful, sending the devotions inscribed on them to heaven. Among the crowds on the streets there drifted groups of foreigners: backpackers, volunteers, tourists and the occasional Western Buddhist monks and nuns, lumpy and incongruous with their shaven heads, maroon robes and Doc Marten boots.

    We stayed in a large and recently erected Indian hotel that clung tenuously to the side of the mountain. It had already acquired a weary air: the corridors looked as though they had been sprayed with light machine-gun fire, the bathrooms sprang a score of leaks whenever a tap was turned on, and the gloomy dining room offered an implausible range of dishes, supplied, as I later learned, from the grubby food stalls in the market.

    The hotel's one indisputable asset was a wide balcony that hung over the valley. We sat in the brilliant winter sunshine and watched the light reflecting on the golden roofs of the compound that housed the main temple. Above it lay the Dalai Lama's residence, a modest enough building set in a luxuriant garden. Monkeys played around the hotel and clattered over the flat roof of the dining room as we ate. At night, the temperature plummeted and I shivered between grey sheets and thin, damp blankets.

    The next day we paid a formal call on one of the Dalai Lama's private secretaries, Kelsang Gyaltsen, a sophisticated man in his early forties, fluent in English and German. He wanted to talk through our interview with his boss, arranged for the following day. 'His Holiness is very open,' he told us. 'You can ask him anything.' We enquired about protocol. There was none, he said.

    In a way that was true. The Dalai Lama's life in exile, I discovered, is a curious mélange of archaic court ritual, modern security and impoverished informality. For his followers, he is a Buddha in human form, a religious figure who commands almost unquestioning devotion. It is the dream of devout Tibetans to see him at least once in their lifetime, and thousands have made the difficult and dangerous pilgrimage from inside Tibet.

    He is also the latest, and perhaps the last, of the theocratic kings of Tibet, fourteenth in a line which began, in theory, with the first to be named as Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, but in fact with the Great fifth Dalai Lama, who after being aided to victory in the Tibetan civil war of the seventeenth century by a Mongol prince, Gushri Khan, established the Gelugpa, his sect, as the ruling strand of Buddhism in Tibet. The present Dalai Lama still commands the court protocol due to a ruling theocrat: his immediate entourage approach him with lowered heads, their eyes cast down in the Presence. He is surrounded by security men, both Indian and Tibetan, who protect him from the bad or the mad. (It is not just in exile that the life of a dalai lama has become vulnerable: after the Great Fifth, six dalai lamas in succession died suspiciously early.)

    But, unlike his predecessors, this Dalai Lama is also an international star, a role he has achieved through a combination of a bewitching personality, moral force and a willingness to accept the Western predilection for the exotic with good-humoured tolerance.

    In exile, the Tibetans have re-created what they could of the life they valued. There are versions of the main monasteries; there is a government in exile that is headed by the Dalai Lama but is, at his insistence, elected, and supported by a voluntary tax on the community. A library in Dharamsala contains such manuscripts as have been saved, smuggled out or reprinted, schools continue to offer education in English and Tibetan to children from exile families and from families inside Tibet. There is a cultural troupe that preserves the songs and dances of the homeland and a propaganda department that collects and circulates information from inside Tibet. It appears, at first glance, a success story, a tribute to the resilience and deeply rooted culture of the Tibetans. But many contend that it is more fragile than it looks and depends, to a degree that worries many, on the charisma and force of will of the present Dalai Lama.

    Two days after our arrival we drove the short distance to the palace compound to meet him. Once inside the heavily guarded gates we climbed the steep hill to the audience room, a long, low bungalow with deep verandas set out with pots of geraniums in bloom. We waited in a large anteroom, heated — barely — by a fat black pot-bellied stove whose smokestack described a crazy series of turns before it found its exit. The room was festooned with the souvenirs of public life: glass cases displayed the accumulation of tributes, keys to cities and small towns around the world, ceremonial certificates with peace institutes.

    We were joined by a thin, spare, bespectacled man in his forties, wearing a brown chuba. Tenzin Geyche, another of the Dalai Lama's private secretaries, is descended from one of Tibet's old aristocratic families. He crossed to the stove and held out a hand tinged with blue. 'It's so cold,' he complained.

    As I was to discover, Tenzin Geyche has worked so long with the Dalai Lama that he has developed an uncanny ability to ventriloquize: he sits, leaning forward, prompting respectfully as his boss searches for words in what he calls his 'broken English'.

    'His Holiness is ready,' he said.

    The audience room was large and decorated with vivid religious paintings. A door opened at the far end and the Dalai Lama appeared, walking briskly. 'You must be the BBC,' he said.

    'And you must be the Dalai Lama,' replied Jonathan.

    The Dalai Lama laughed as though it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. 'Yes,' he said. 'Yes, I am the Dalai Lama,' and he launched into another storm of chuckles.

    He sat in an armchair and fixed me with an enquiring smile. The Dalai Lama is not the easiest man to interview, though certainly one of the most charming. There are no restrictions on what can be asked, but there is no doubt who is in control and the answers can be elliptical. There are those in his community who believe that his famous laugh is his best weapon. 'Be careful,' I had been warned by one Tibetan intellectual. 'He uses that laugh when he doesn't want to say anything.'

    I could never quite decide whether or not this was true. It is certainly an unanswerable laugh: the first signs of it are rarely absent — the corners of his mouth turn naturally upwards, the eyes are generally alive with good humour. It's as though the laugh is being contained, by force, but waiting for a moment's inattention to escape. When it does, it takes him over — it comes from the belly, his shoulders heave, his head goes back, the eyes narrow, and he rocks in his chair until it passes. It is a great full stop of a laugh, putting an end to any further pursuit of the line of enquiry, deflecting impertinence or hostility, changing the subject, disarming the questioner.

    There is one matter about which he rarely laughs: on the subject of the Chinese occupation of Tibet one encounters a different Dalai Lama — the holy man turned statesman who is driven to secure a future for his country. He himself is both the key to that future and the obstacle. As long as he is alive he is the focus of the exiles' dream of return, a dream he says he shares. For Tibetans inside Tibet he is the memory of another life, one religious light that has not gone out and which has, miraculously, escaped the Chinese to become a symbol of freedom. So strong still is the allegiance he commands it is hardly imaginable that he could ever return to Tibet. When, in a brief period of thaw in relations in the late seventies and early eighties, the Dalai Lama sent three personal delegations to Tibet, the news of their arrival generated a wave of emotion so powerful they were mobbed by thousands of Tibetans desperate to see, hear and touch the people who represented the Dalai Lama. The Chinese were appalled.

    The interview concluded, the attendants produced khatas (ceremonial white scarves), and photographs were taken. We said goodbye to the Dalai Lama, neither of us expecting to see him again, and left, delighted by the encounter with a man whose presence had proved more than equal to his reputation.

    That evening we dined with Jane Perkins, an Englishwoman who had settled in Dharamsala more than ten years earlier, at the Hotel Tibet, the hub of social activity for passing Western trade. The hotel is the chief exhibition room for what the Dalai Lama's brother, Tenzin Choegyal, later described as the 'Shangri-La syndrome' — Westerners who are seeking answers to a variety of personal questions by means of the Tibetan cause. At one table three Tibetans listened politely as an American man loudly lectured them on the finer points of Buddhism; at another three middle-aged women exchanged accounts of their emotions on seeing the Dalai Lama at a public audience; in the bar a less spiritual group could be heard warming up on the hotel's vividly coloured cocktails.

    Jane, Jonathan and I talked late into the evening about the Tibetan question. One issue that had convulsed at least part of the Tibetan community in the previous months and was still the cause of sporadic outbreaks of violence was a bitter dispute about recognition of the head of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Three hundred years before the Gelugpa gained the ascendancy, the Kagyupa had been the ruling sect. Their late leader, the sixteenth Karmapa, had fled Tibet and established himself in a monastery in exile in Sikkim. The sect had many Western followers and was rich and successful in exile, so when the sixteenth Karmapa died, it was, perhaps, inevitable that there should be a dispute about the identity of his reincarnation.

    As the conversation turned to the continuing importance of reincarnate lamas, I asked Jane about the fate of the Panchen Lama.

    'He died,' Jane reminded me, 'in 1989.'

    'And his reincarnation?' I asked.

    'He hasn't been found yet,' she said. It was five years, almost to the day, she pointed out, since the death of the Panchen Lama. Immediately I was full of curiosity. Who was looking for the reincarnation? Were the Chinese interested? What had happened to the practice of identifying important religious reincarnates after the Chinese occupation? Could the child be found in exile? Did the Panchen Lama still count or had the last incarnation's chequered history discredited the line? Jane answered as best she could: yes, it was an important issue, and yes, by now, under normal circumstances, the child would have been found. Everyone was concerned about it, she said, but whatever was happening was happening in secret.

    Some reincarnates had been found in the exile community — some had even been non-Tibetan children — and some had been found in Tibet since the liberalization of the late seventies had restored a limited religious freedom and a cautious revival of traditional beliefs. A few had even been smuggled out: the latest boy, the little Nechung Rinpoche, had been brought out of Tibet only a few months previously and was living in Dharamsala. As we talked I became gripped by the idea of a search that had to surmount the daunting political barrier of Chinese hostility to the Dalai Lama and the formidable physical obstacle of the Himalayas to find a boy who would, in old Tibet, have grown up to be one of the most powerful figures in the land.

    Over the next few days I asked everyone I met about the Panchen Lama. It was clear that the question of the Panchen Lama's reincarnation was one of the key problems facing the Dalai Lama's government, a matter of the keenest religious and political importance inside and outside Tibet. A great deal depended on its outcome. It was Tibetan tradition that the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama maintained a close spiritual relationship, the Panchen Lama as the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Boundless Light, and the Dalai Lama as the earthly representation of the Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. As the highest bodhisattvas in the Gelugpa sect, successive reincarnations had acted as tutor and disciple to each other, and after the death of one tradition held that the other would play a key role in identifying his reincarnation. In religious terms, then, the Dalai Lama had a responsibility to find the young reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, and when the time came, the child he identified would be expected to recognize the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. On this simple fact hung the huge importance of the issue: in old Tibet the discovery of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was not only a religious matter — the boy would be brought up as an object of religious veneration, and also as king.

    The Dalai Lama no longer served as Tibet's secular ruler, but his role as the continuing focus of Tibetan identity and culture was almost more crucial. In the Tibet of former times, with its vast religious establishment, the search for the Dalai Lama was often riddled with political manœuvring; the candidates often died young — poisoned, many believe, by those with an interest in perpetuating the reigns of the regents who ruled until a Dalai Lama came of age.

    These periods of regency could be dangerous times for Tibet, with competing interests vying for power and the lack of a single political authority. But the death of one or even successive dalai lamas had not constituted a threat to an entire culture: at the very least, the powerful religious establishment would always ensure that the search began for another. Today, such cohesion as the exile community had maintained — and the most important shared belief with Tibetans in Tibet — depended on the person of the Dalai Lama. In exile, shorn of his temporal power, his symbolic value had grown. If there were to be a successor to the Dalai Lama, then the young Panchen Lama was a vital link in the chain that would lead to the recognition of his reincarnation.

    In the days that followed I discovered what I could about this esoteric issue and the complexities of the religious and political beliefs in which it was framed. It was the beginning of what was to be a long, often frustrating journey into a world thick with spirits and demons, with political intrigue and hidden history.

    I had little idea, either, of the structures and beliefs of Tibetan religion, or even what precisely was meant by reincarnation. I spoke no Tibetan and found the names so difficult I had to write them down, laboriously, before they slipped away. The story of a human tragedy I could grasp: other people's tragedies are a journalist's work. The politics and history of Tibet could be understood. But other people's religious beliefs were a challenge of a different order, and one that had to be tackled. I decided to visit the medium of the state oracle.

    I found him in a small, corner room in the Nechung monastery. He gave me his card. 'The Venerable Thupten Ngodub,' it read, 'Medium of the state oracle of Tibet'. There was a phone number, too. Thupten Ngodub was a young monk with a face of almost theatrical calm and a soft, deep voice. As well as being the medium of the state oracle, he was celebrated as a cartoonist: his Mickey Mouse was particularly famous. 'In order to avoid any misunderstanding,' he said by way of prelude, 'I want to explain that at the moment, in this conversation, I am just an ordinary human being.'

    At other times Thupten Ngodub is the means by which the principal protector divinity of the Tibetan government, Pehar Gyalpo, communicates with the Dalai Lama. When the medium goes into a trance of possession, even the Dalai Lama listens. Thupten Ngodub confirmed that the oracle had been consulted over the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, but precisely what the oracle had said, he was unable to tell me.

    'I have no recollection of what has happened after I come out of a trance,' he said. 'The process of finding the Panchen Rinpoche has begun, but I am not sure what steps have been taken, though His Holiness has said that reincarnation has taken place. The Chinese are trying to find him, too, but the Chinese are not serious about this matter. They want to use it for their own benefit. It is our custom for the Dalai Lama to make the final decision.'

    'But what if the Panchen Lama is reborn inside Tibet? How will the Dalai Lama find him and what will happen to him?' I asked.

    'If the rebirth has taken place in Tibet,' said the medium, 'we would want him to be brought here. I believe that it won't take place in China because the Chinese tortured the last incarnation. High lamas have the ability to choose where to be reborn. That is my personal opinion, of course.'

    I said goodbye to the medium and walked out into the golden light of the late afternoon. The sun was hanging low over the plains below and the red paint and gilt of the monastery's temple was glowing in the last moments of the day. A flock of parrots swooped noisily over my head and landed in a tree.

    I walked slowly back through the compound, past the two-storey building that houses the offices of the government in exile. Small painted nameplates announced the offices of state: Ministry of Religion and Culture, Home Ministry, Security Office, the National Assembly.

    It was a tiny, threadbare operation. The doors opened off a simple veranda, and inside the offices were cluttered and ill-equipped: it could have been any small business in the Third World. Opposite rose the more imposing building that houses the Kashag, the cabinet, and the meeting place of the national assembly. There was a trace of incense in the evening air and the sounds of daily life rose from the cramped living quarters that huddled against the hill below: pots and pans banging, voices, the cries of children and a thin fragment of music from a two-string violin. I could hear the tinny sound of Indian music coming from a loudspeaker in the Kotwali bazaar, two miles down the valley, and the lights of the Indian settlements had begun to twinkle yellow in the gathering dusk.

    In Dharamsala it is easy to become immersed in this little Tibet, to forget the fragility of this community, perched on its hillside above the immense hubbub of India and backed against the formidable mountains that mask the ferocious power of the Chinese state beyond. In that twilight it seemed peaceful, but also pathetic — a tiny group of exiles, nursing fading memories of home and searching for one small boy in the vastness of a land they could visit only under the suspicious gaze of the conqueror. The Chinese had troops and an imposing security apparatus. They could control almost every aspect of religious and private life in Tibet. The exiles had dreams, protector deities and faith. It hardly seemed an equal contest.

    As I sought further clues about the Panchen Lama, I began to learn more about this little community and the private tragedies and stresses that ran through it. Every week brings a trickle of new arrivals from Tibet, men, women and children who have crossed some of the world's highest mountain passes to reach their goal: to be near the Dalai Lama. They bring, on the whole, few skills and are a headache for a government in exile which has few funds of its own. The established exile community is not always friendly.

    In the forty years since the exodus of 1959 new generations have grown up in India and, as always happens, each generation must define itself afresh. They grow up with the memories of their parents and grandparents, with the official ambition of the Tibetan exiles to reclaim their homeland. They are brought up to respect their traditions. But the Tibet of those traditions has gone for ever. The new generations speak a motley collection of languages — their native Tibetan, the English of their education, the Hindi of their home in exile. They are more Westernized than any previous generation; most have never seen Tibet and probably would find it hard to live there if they were given the opportunity.

    The recent arrivals, on the other hand, have borne the brunt of the Chinese occupation. They are mostly poorly educated, speaking only Tibetan and perhaps rudimentary Chinese. Many can barely read or write. They have abandoned everything and risked their lives to get to India, animated by a desire to see the Dalai Lama and to put themselves at his service. But the truth is that they face a difficult life in exile.

    On the last day of my visit the monks of several exile monasteries were holding a puja, a prayer ceremony for the long life of the Dalai Lama: he was entering his sixtieth year, which in the Tibetan reckoning is a time of danger. The large prayer hall, high up in the compound, was filled with monks, seated cross-legged in rows, heads shaven, tea bowls laid out in front of them. A throne set with cushions draped in yellow silk awaited the Dalai Lama. To one side of it, the dignitaries of the state and the church: several government ministers, the medium of the oracle and the abbots of various monasteries.

    Outside, in the bright sunshine, the fragrance of the tall pines that clothe the slopes of the mountain mingled with the stronger smell of incense and the pungent scent of burning butter from the lamps in the hall. A powerful deep note from a pair of long horns sounded the arrival of the Dalai Lama, who came quickly up the steps, preceded, incongruously, by an Indian army officer carrying a sub-machine-gun.

    The Dalai Lama grinned and hurried inside, slipping off his shoes to climb the dais, where he sat, beaming and swaying gently to and fro as the sonorous chanting of the monks filled the hall. Beyond the central hall a shabby group of pilgrims sat: their dark brown faces and worn clothes marked them as devout visitors from Tibet, people for whom, until now, the Dalai Lama had been a remote, if precious memory. For those who had stayed behind in Tibet, the most important figure in the Buddhist faith had been the Panchen Lama.

    Over the previous few days everyone I had talked to had told me that the search for the Panchen Lama was a critical issue, but nobody could tell me much about the process now in train. There were rumours and theories, but it soon became clear that only the Dalai Lama had the authority and the knowledge to speak about it. If the story was to be followed, it could only be followed with his permission and co-operation. As the ceremony wore on, I watched him, rocking gently back and forth on his throne, sometimes chanting, sometimes apparently lost in his own thoughts. Would he agree to admit an outsider to this most sensitive of issues? The ceremony over, I left a letter with the private office and prepared to take the winding road back down from Dharamsala to the dust and noise of India. A few hours later, as I fended off a swarm of beggars and lepers on the grimy station platform at Pathankot, Dharamsala seemed like a dream.

    Months went by as I waited in London for a response. From time to time I tried to telephone. Eventually, I wrote again, setting out why I felt it important that the story be told. Four months after my visit, word came back from India. The Dalai Lama had agreed. It was five and a half years since the death of the tenth Panchen Lama. It was time for his successor to be found.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
Mapsxi
Acknowledgmentsxiii
The Search for the Panchen Lama1
AppendixThe Panchen Lama's Petition305
Notes312
Suggested Further Reading319
Index323

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Search for the Panchen Lama 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Charlottes-son More than 1 year ago
I never new there was a Panchen Lama. I have known for decades that there was a Dali Lama. This book explains the origins of the Tibetan form of religion and government. The book explains what or who the Panchen Lama is, and why he is important to Tibet. Then goes on to explain why China thinks he is important to them.