Tibet in turmoil over ruin of ancient rituals

Panchen Lama: Chinese tamper with mystic tradition to weaken exiled leader
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The Independent Online

New Delhi

Tibet is in turmoil over the fate of two six-year-old boys. One of them, Gyaltsen Norbu, is to be enthroned today by Chinese authorities as the reincarnation of the spiritual leader, the Panchen Lama.

For that, the boy can expect a lifetime of ill-will focused on him by millions of Tibetans who see him as a Chinese stooge, chosen not because he radiates enlightenment but because his father, a security officer in Naghcu prefecture, was an obedient Communist.

The other boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima - whom Tibet's exiled god-king, the Dalai Lama, has declared to be the true reincarnation - may be doomed by the Chinese to an early death or imprisonment, according to Tibetan exiles. "Even the boy's existence is a danger for the Chinese," said one exile in India.

By tampering with the selection of the Panchen Lama, the Chinese are attempting to smash an occult ritual that has persisted in Tibet for hundreds of years. Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and that certain enlightened lamas can, after death, choose to be reborn and continue their teachings.

Since the 16th century, the Dalai Lamas have assisted with their supernatural powers in finding the reincarnated Panchen Lama, and vice versa. Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama to be an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, while the Panchen Lama is revered only slightly less. The Dalai Lama has traditionally been based in Lhasa and the Panchen Lama in Shigatse, Tibet's second city, and their relationship has sometimes been muddied by politics and personal rivalries. After 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala in India following a failed uprising while the Panchen Lama remained in Tibet, they could scarcely communicate at all.

But never, throughout the centuries, have the Chinese emperors been called in to meddle with the arcane search for a Panchen Lama. The last Panchen Lama, the ninth in his line, was a chubby and jolly-looking 50-year-old who died in 1989 after having spent 10 years under house arrest for criticising Chinese rule in Tibet.

Tibetans in Dharamsala claim that the Dalai Lama, who is in his 60s, had wanted the true Panchen Lama to begin his religious instruction as swiftly as possible, so that when he dies the Panchen Lama can lead the Tibetan people until the next Dalai Lama is reborn.

When the Dalai Lama announced he had located the rebirth of the Panchen Lama last spring after mystical divination and consulting oracles, the child and his nomad parents were seized by the Chinese off the high Tibetan plateau and have not been seen since. The Dalai Lama recently said: "At this moment the safety of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his proper religious training is of particular concern to me. He has not been seen in public for some months and is reported to be detained somewhere in Peking."

By installing their choice on the Panchen Lama's throne in Tashilhumpo monastery in Shigatse, the Chinese are trying to strengthen their hold on Tibet. Having failed to destroy Buddhism, even though the Red Guards demolished thousands of monasteries during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese are now trying to use the Panchen Lama to undermine the tremendous influence the Dalai Lama has on religious and independence-minded Tibetans. This tactic, according to Tibetan experts, is likely to fail; few Tibetans are willing to let the Chinese dictate in matters of Buddhist faith and tradition.