Rebirth - in the spirit of the Himalayas

The battle raging around the search for the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama is only the latest in the troubled history of this, the second most respected reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. The office of Panchen Lama was created by the Fifth Dalai Lama, a man whose political skills and force of will established the lamaist state that lasted from the seventh century to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the Fifties. It was the Great Fifth Dalai Lama who, in 1641, with the support of a Mongol king, succeeded in establishing political control of Tibet for his order, the Gelugpa sect, and united the roles of spiritual leader and king of Tibet.

The Dalai Lamas are considered to be the successive reincarnations of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The Fifth Dalai Lama had a beloved teacher, Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen, a monk who was renowned for his humility and great learning. The Dalai Lama pronounced him to be an incarnation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, and declared that he would be reincarnated with the title Panchen Erdeni, or Great Teacher. He also appointed him abbot of Tashilhumpo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet's second city, 130 miles west of Lhasa. Tashilhumpo has been the seat of the Panchen Lamas ever since.

The Panchen Lamas were often great scholars, but Tibetans never accorded them temporal power. State rule was the province exclusively of the Dalai Lama. Between Dalai Lamas, or until young Dalai Lamas came of age, a regent was appointed to run the affairs of state. The Panchen Lama was not, with one brief exception in 1860, one of the regents, though he would certainly be consulted in the search for the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, just as it was the Dalai Lama's responsibility, as Tibet's highest spiritual authority, to identify the reborn Panchen Lama.

Some Tibetans even argue that of the two, the Panchen Lama is spiritually more important. They reason that since Amitabha was the spiritual guide of Avalokiteshvara, the spiritual prestige of the Panchen Lama is the higher of the two, provided he confines himself to the meditative, intellectual sphere. In worldly terms, seniority varied as the pattern of their respective reincarnations played out. Sometimes the Panchen Lama was the elder, and would play a role in the spiritual landmarks of the Dalai Lama's education. At others, the Dalai Lama was the senior and he would mark the stages of the Panchen Lama's spiritual progress. The Dalai Lamas had a mixed record, several dying with suspicious suddenness shortly before or after they attained their majority.

And though the Panchen Lama was never supposed to play a political role, several outside forces tried to impose one on him. The British, for instance, frustrated by the Dalai Lama's inaccessibility, cultivated successive Panchen Lamas from the 18th century on, in an effort to gain influence in Tibet and to counter what they feared was a growing Russian presence. Imperial China, too, saw a political opportunity in the prestige of the Panchen Lama and assiduously cultivated Tashilhumpo. Relations became so strained between the 13th Dalai Lama and the 9th Panchen Lama that the Panchen Lama fled into exile in China and, despite protracted negotiations, he died before he could return to Tibet.

Suspicion lingered in Lhasa that many in the Panchen Lama's circle were too close to Peking. When China "peacefully liberated" Tibet in 1950, a key part of the agreement defined the relative status and importance of the Panchen and Dalai Lamas.

When the present (14th) Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the Panchen Lama was left as the most senior religious figure inside Tibet. The last incarnation, who died in 1989, never had the opportunity to pursue his religious studies to the depth that his predecessors had done. He was too caught up in the drama of his country. But neither that nor, apparently, the fact that after the Cultural Revolution he broke his religious vows, affected the spiritual esteem in which he was held in Tibet. For Tibetans he remained the Great Teacher, a man prepared to risk his own life to defend Tibet's religious and cultural traditions.

ISABEL HILTON

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Soft Developer (4.0, C#, Windows Services, Sockets, LINQ, WCF)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer (4.0, C#, Windows ...

C# Developer -Winforms, VB6 - Trading Systems - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading financial software house with its He...

C #Programmer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#) -Hertfordshire-Finance

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: C #Developer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#, A...

JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Tr...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home