Lamas, dramas and Chinese whispers

A six-year-old boy, declared to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, one of Tibet's spiritual leaders, has been whisked away by Peking. Tim McGirk reports
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The Independent Online
The high Tibetan plateau is an empty place of stone, ice and fleeting clouds. Chinese officialdom seldom bothers with the nomad tribespeople who move their yaks across this vast wasteland searching for pasture. But sometime last month, in the remote Nagchu prefecture, high-ranking communist cadres swooped down on a nomad encampment and detained a six- year-old Tibetan boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, and his parents.

The strange odyssey of this little boy is only now beginning. Gendun and his poor, barely literate parents were reportedly placed on an aeroplane under the kind of tight security reserved for dangerous political prisoners. They were flown to Peking, under orders direct from the politburo.

This six-year-old is no ordinary child. Gendun is considered to be the reincarnation of the revered Tibetan spiritual leader known as the Panchen Lama.

Tibetans believe that certain enlightened monks can, after death, choose exactly where they will be reborn and who their parents will be - so they can be easily located and taken back to the monasteries to carry on teaching Buddhism. It is not unusual in Tibetan lore, as in the Panchen Lama's case, to find the reincarnated lama has returned as the son of simple but pious yak-herders or farmers.

Ever since the last Panchen Lama, a rotund and jolly-looking 50-year- old, died in January 1989 under mysterious circumstances - some Tibetans accuse the Chinese of poisoning him - the search for his reincarnation has acquired a dangerous political dimension. In the spiritual hierarchy of Tibet, the Panchen Lama is second only to the exiled Dalai Lama, who won a Nobel peace prize for his non-violent opposition to China's continued occupation of Tibet. Peking wanted desperately to find the new Panchen Lama and to mould the boy so that he could eventually be set up as a challenger to the Dalai Lama. "We're greatly worried about the boy and the family's safety. Nothing is known of their whereabouts," says Tenzin Atisha, an official in the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile.

As one London-based Tibetan specialist puts it: "There was something Monty Python-esque about how the Chinese went looking for the Panchen Lama. They were perfectly willing to abandon Marxist dialectics for mysticism to strengthen their control over Tibet."

Using such traditional aids as dreams, omens and divinations, the Dalai Lama and fellow lamas were able to locate the nomad boy first. This outraged the Chinese communists. And although exiled Tibetans are unwilling to criticise their god-king directly, some think the Dalai Lama, for all his candour, committed a naive tactical error in publicising the discovery of the new Panchen Lama. This way, they argue, the boy fell into Chinese hands; whereas, if the Panchen Lama's identity and whereabouts had been kept secret, it might have been possible to spirit him over the Himalayas to safety in India.

The tale of how the Panchen Lama was found requires a suspension of disbelief in reincarnation, a principle that is central to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. For Buddhists, dying is like exchanging worn clothes for new; consciousness flows through countless lifetimes. The boy Gendun, for example, is the Panchen Lama's 11th rebirth, a line that spans 600 years. Although rivalry has often existed between the Dalai Lama's throne in Lhasa and the Panchen Lama's in Shigatse, the present Dalai Lama was apparently on very friendly terms with the last Panchen Lama. And it usually happened that the Panchen Lama oversaw the search for the Dalai Lama's successor and vice versa.

When the Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile in 1959, the Panchen Lama remained behind and was at first dismissed by Tibetans as a "Chinese chopstick" or stooge. But in 1964, after submitting a 70,000-character petition to Chairman Mao Tse-tung demanding more freedom for Tibetans, the Panchen Lama was jailed for 10 years. Released in 1981, the Panchen Lama grew increasingly critical of Chinese rule and, a week before his death, officially by heart attack, he publicly reaffirmed his loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

Soon after the Panchen Lama died, the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile requested that senior monks be allowed into Tibet to search for his successor. The Chinese refused, and instead launched their own quest for the Panchen Lama. The "five-step selection procedure" drafted by the Chinese in February 1989 is a bizarre mix of Maoist officialese and Himalayan mysticism. It allows the searchers to consult oracles and divinations, followed by a government-organised lottery and a "final decision by the central government".

Divination is not something often taught to communist commissars at political re-education meetings, so to speed things up, the communists included in their search party several lamas from the Panchen Lama's monastery, Tashilhumpo.

The lama put in charge of the Chinese search was Tashilhumpo's abbot, Chadrel Rimpoche. Among the monks at his own monastery, Chadrel Rimpoche was considered a traitor, another chopstick. In 1993, he informed on five monks who were arrested by the police for reading a forbidden autobiography of the Dalai Lama and for listening to Voice of America radio broadcasts. It is possible, however, that Chadrel Rimpoche turned them in so that the police spies within the monastery would not accuse him of laxity and remove him from the search party.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama was pursuing his own investigations from India, helped by scores of lamas from Tashilhumpo who had escaped from Tibet. The list of candidates grew. Some were in Tibet, others among the Tibetan refugee communities scattered throughout India. Then came a breakthrough. It seems that in early 1993, Chadrel Rimpoche was able to persuade his Chinese minders to open up channels with the Dalai Lama. Contacts were made, but these broke down by August, as Peking redoubled its attacks against the "splittist clique of the Dalai".

Through a Chinese businessman go-between, the exiled Tibetans applied three more times for permission to send a search team to a lake known as Lhamoi Lhatso, where auspicious signs are said to appear in the water, but they were rebuffed. Just six months ago, two Australian backpackers who visited the lake stumbled upon Chadrel's search team from Tashilhumpo carrying out their own divinations. This involved reciting Buddhist mantras and carrying out arcane rituals with conch shell trumpets and dorjes (symbols of thunderbolt power), during which monks were seen scanning the lake with binoculars for mystical signs. The Chinese apparently feared the two Australians were the Dalai Lama's spies, for they were later arrested by police, strip-searched and deported.

According to Tibet Information Network (TIN), a human rights organisation based in London, the Dalai Lama's investigations and those of Chadrel Rimpoche were both leading to the nomad boy in Nagchu prefecture. The child had correctly identified possessions of the late Panchen Lama, and his birthplace matched descriptions given to the Dalai Lama by several of Tibet's protective oracles - men who enter trances and allow the spirit of a deity to speak through them.

As a final test, the Dalai Lama wrapped the names of all 30 candidates inside dough balls and mixed them up. One witness said: "The ball with Gendun's name seemed to fly up at the Dalai Lama, not once but several times. The Dalai Lama laughed and said, `It's like magic'."

The Dalai Lama's final announcement on 14 May of the Panchen Lama's discovery threw the Chinese into a spin. The timing caught Peking in the midst of a power struggle to determine who will replace the ailing patriarch, Deng Xiao Peng. Peking's first statement attacked the Dalai Lama for interfering in the Panchen Lama's selection, but, so far, nobody has said the boy is not the true Panchen Lama. Not only were Gendun and his parents trundled off to Peking but so, too, were at least two other boys. Some analysts claim the Chinese may want either to enthrone one of the others - though no Tibetan would accept him - or at least go through the charade of holding a lottery, which would give the Dalai Lama's choice an official sanction from Peking.

Chinese wrath at being outwitted by the Dalai Lama has fallen heaviest on Chadrel Rimpoche. Tibetans now regard him as a secret patriot. The lama was detained in Chengdu and is being held incommunicado in Peking. His interrogators are thought to be trying to find out to what extent - if any - he secretly collaborated with the Dalai Lama. Dissident sources claim the monk is also under heavy pressure to denounce the boy picked by the Dalai Lama, but so far he has resisted. "He has shown an extraodinary level of heroism to hold out for so long," says TIN's Robbie Barnett.

In ordinary times, the discovery of a new Panchen Lama is a joyous occasion, with tens of thousands of Tibetans swarming to Tashilhumpo for the enthronement ceremony. In a quandary over how to handle the little lama, the Chinese have resorted to menace. "We are deeply concerned that the Chinese authorities have launched a massive campaign of political and religious persecution," says Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama's private secretary.

Two weeks ago the Chinese banned any public discussion of the Panchen Lama in Tibet and have declared any gathering of more than three people unlawful. Tashilhumpo, according to recent visitors, is now surrounded by more than 1,000 Chinese soldiers armed with assault rifles. Inside the monastery walls, monks are being forced to sign denunciations against their former abbot and the new Panchen Lama. Patrols of Chinese soldiers have even been spotted on the inhospitable Tibetan plateau.

The stakes were raised higher last Friday when a Chinese government body described the Dalai Lama as "a reactionary chieftain" and said his choice was illegal and would never be recognised by the communists. As this latest political storm sweeps Tibet, it is easy to forget that all these intrigues focus on a six-year-old boy, whose parents may be delighted, but who might rather be left alone to play.