The Selection of the 11th Panchen Lama

The Selection of the 11th Panchen Lama

We’re praying for his rapid reincarnation, but we don’t know when or where we’ll find the boy. – Barsan, a senior lama at the Tashilhunpo Monastery in 1990

The majority of records written after the events in 1995, namely the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama, focus on the unresolved problem of two Panchen Lama, one selected by the Dalai Lama, the other by the Chinese Government, which may result in further conflicts when it comes to the selection of the next, the 15th Dalai Lama.

However, when looking at archives of newspaper articles written between the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989 and the installation of the Chinese-appointed Panchen in November of 1995, some surprising details come to light that bear the potential of casting a shadow on the Dalai Lama’s political skills as well as the sincerity of the Chinese government and its officials.

As Tibet scholar Melvyn C. Goldstein states in his book The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama: “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.” [B8]

Some records claim that the Chinese government may have initially agreed to the selection of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama but revoked their decision when Dalai Lama preemptively announced the new Panchen without waiting for the official Chinese consent. It may be for that reason, that Goldstein called the Dalai Lama’s action “politically inastute.” [B8]

On the other hand, the reaction that followed lays bare the Chinese inability for a thoughtful and appropriate response, the inability of solving a potential problem with anything less than brute force.

Only a few years earlier, in 1992, the reincarnation of another important lama, the 17th Karmapa Lama, was ordained with the approval of Beijing authorities and the Dalai Lama, indicating that both parties were able at some time and to some degree of reaching an agreement. Ironically, due to disagreements within the Tibetan religious system (not caused by Chinese interference), there are two Karmapa Lamas, and in January of 2000, the Karmapa approved by the Dalai Lama and Beijing fled to Dharamsala in India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. [A80]

Given these events, one has to wonder why the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama went awry. Many sources claim that the root of the disagreement between China and the Dalai Lama lies in the process used to select the Panchen. Historically, the child Panchen Lama was confirmed by the Dalai Lama and by the Chinese emperor, which, as in the case of the Karmapa Lama, is now replaced by the State Council (The State Council is China’s Cabinet). [A73]

Ultimately, China used the urn method to select the 11th Panchen Lama, which is considered legitimate and was used to select the 10th, 11th, and 12th Dalai Lama. However, critics say the process is irrelevant when the Dalai Lama has already unequivocally named his choice of Panchen Lama and that the urn method applied only in cases of unresolvable disagreements. Indeed, the 10th Panchen Lama himself reportedly declared that according to Tibetan tradition, the confirmation of either the Dalai or Panchen Lama must be ‘mutually recognized’ by the other, as well as Beijing. [A15]

The question that lingers is, did the Chinese initially agree with the choice of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama? If yes, they were probably angered by the Dalai Lama’s announcement without waiting for their official consent, and, consequently, they broke the rule of mutual agreement. If not, the choice for the urn method was legitimate, and the Dalai Lama was at fault (which, nevertheless, does not justify the violation of Human rights by the Chinese following the Dalai Lama’s announcement).

Only a sober analysis of the events, between the death of the 10th Panchen Lama and the disputed installation of Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama, may (or may not) answer that question.

The only direct account on the search of the 11th incarnation, at least in the view of the Dalai Lama’s side of the search, comes in the form of Isabel Hilton’s written account, namely her book The Search for the Panchen Lama.

The following chapters on the death of the 11th Panchen Lama and the search for his reincarnation will attempt to provide more insights.

Related Literature:

The Search for the Panchen Lama
By Isabel Hilton
ISBN: 0-393-04969-8

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