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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.