A boy has vanished; monks have been thrown into gaol. How did Tibet's Chinese rulers turn the search for a religious leader into an excuse for renewed persecution? And where is the boy?

Isabel Hilton
Saturday 20 April 1996 23:02

A six year- old boy stares out from a fuzzy photograph. He's wearing an orange zipped jacket over a blue shirt, his lips slightly parted; his large eyes look into the camera above cheeks reddened by the cold winds of his native place. Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the son of a doctor, born in Nagchu, a remote area of central Tibet, is now a mysterious figure: this single photograph is the only image the world has of a boy whom the Dalai Lama calls the world's youngest political prisoner. The boy disappeared last May, days after he was proclaimed by the spiritual leader of Tibet as the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama - after the Dalai Lama himself, Tibet's most exalted religious figure.

Since then, this one image has been copied hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, to be distributed among the faithful. Last December, a version of it, with ceremonial robes meticulously painted in, was lovingly installed in the main temple of a monastery of exiled Tibetans in southern India that bears the name of the historic seat of the Panchen Lamas in Tibet. The photograph sits there now, on the throne the boy himself is unlikely ever to occupy. His robes are poignantly folded in a neat pile in front of his image, waiting for him. In Tibet, the photograph has been banned.

Of the boy himself, his character, his likes and dislikes, his short life until that fateful day last May, little more is known. There are stories, of course, as there would have been even had he not disappeared: the child is said to bear on his arms the marks of the ropes that bound the 10th Panchen Lama in a "struggle session", one of the Chinese government's ritualised public meetings of denunciation and confession. The ropes cut so deep that the 10th Panchen took the scars to his grave. The little boy is said to have greeted as an old friend the venerable monk who came to find him and to have been willing to leave his mother and his home for a life in the monastery. It is even said, and believed by many, that his first words were: "I am the Panchen, I sit on a high throne."

But these stories are for believers, outward confirmation of the mystery and miracle of their faith. For the others there are harsher facts: that last November, another six-year-old boy was picked as the Chinese government's candidate for 11th Panchen Lama and that the government is trying to force the Tibetan people to accept him; that the Chinese propaganda machine has denounced Gendun Choekyi Nyima and his entire family as bad characters - his parents as grasping and eager for money and the child himself as guilty of the un-Buddhist act of drowning a dog; that a high-ranking Buddhist monk is accused of treason, that another has been tortured in prison; and that many other men and women in Tibet have gone to gaol for the crime of believing in Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the true incarnation of the Panchen Lama. Some are monks, others lay people. All are victims - and heroes - of the latest round in the bitter and long-running dispute between the government of China and the exiled Dalai Lama.

THE recognition of the reincarnations of high lamas is a fundamental practice in Tibetan Buddhism. The idea that all living creatures are caught in a cycle of death and rebirth is common to all sects of Buddhism. But the tradition of searching for the reincarnation of a particular teacher is unique to Tibet. It has both a spiritual and a worldly importance. Spiritually it is an affirmation of the belief that there are beings who themselves have attained enlightenment - the supposed end of all incarnations - but have chosen to return to earth to help others. Materially it is a reflection of Tibet's past as a theocracy, a nation in which religious leaders held political and economic power. And in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism, two great lamas predominated - the Dalai Lama, Tibet's secular and spiritual leader, and the Panchen Lama. The search for the latest reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was always going to be more than a spiritual issue. That was the primary consideration for the exiled Dalai Lama; for the Chinese it was a question of power.

It is nearly half a century since the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet and set about the task of dismantling the country's religious and social order. In that time, Chinese policy towards Tibet's religious faith has swung from a cautious tolerance to outright repression and back to a policy that Peking now claims is one of religious freedom. That claim is strongly rejected by the many Tibetans living in exile and, more cautiously, by many in Tibet. For decades the Chinese denounced the belief in reincarnation as feudal superstition, but the people would not abandon their faith. When the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989, the Peking government had a choice - to allow his reincarnation to be found by Tibet's spiritual community, or to use the process to assert its sovereignty over the country by looking for a puppet. It chose the latter course.

It had been tried before. When the People's Liberation Army swept into Tibet in 1950, the 10th Panchen Lama wasn't far behind. As a young monk he had been recognised by the Chinese Nationalist government as the reincarnation but was living on the Tibetan-Chinese border province of Qinghai. (There had been a dispute between the 9th Panchen Lama and the previous Dalai Lama which had resulted in the Panchen's flight into exile.) When the nationalists were finally routed by Mao Tse-Tung's army in 1949, the Panchen Lama's entourage sent Mao a telegram of congratulation and urged him to "liberate" Tibet; the following year Mao obliged.

The Chinese saw the young Panchen as their friend and, for a time, they had need of friends in the religious establishment of Tibet. He took up residence in the historic seat of the Panchen Lamas, Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, the capital of the Tibetan province of Tsang and Tibet's second city.

Shigatse is now a nondescript town, its ancient fortress reduced to rubble in the Cultural Revolution and the harmony of its architecture destroyed by a sprawl of cheap development. But Tashilhunpo monastery, founded in the 15th century, remains a place of haunting beauty. Behind the heavy main gate, a complex of whitewashed buildings climbs the hill above the town. Steep steps and narrow paths lead to a group of ochre buildings topped with resplendent golden roofs. A little further still lies the palace of the Panchen Lamas. When the 10th Panchen Lama first moved there he seemed to deserve the suspicion in which many Tibetans held him; had the Chinese acted otherwise, they might have kept his co-operation. But neither he nor the people of Tibet were prepared for the complete destruction of their way of life that their new rulers saw as the prelude to the dawn of socialism.

By the early Sixties, with the Dalai Lama already in exile, reports began to reach the Panchen Lama of widespread suffering in his home province, where enforced collectivisation had brought traditional communities to starvation. Alarmed by reports that the monasteries were being disbanded and that the province was on the edge of ruin, he wrote to Mao urging him to put things right. His reward was 17 years of disgrace, humiliation and imprisonment.

While the Panchen Lama languished in prison in Peking, the Cultural Revolution completed the devastation that the Great Leap Forward had begun. By the end of it, Tibet's great monasteries lay in ruins, the gold statues and historic works of art had been looted and, often, sold on the international market; the clay images had been smashed. The monks were working the fields or had died in labour camps. As far as the outside world knew, the Panchen Lama was dead. When he eventually reappeared, in 1979, he was a changed man.

The companions of his early life, those of his entourage who had welcomed the Chinese, had died at the hands of the new rulers in whom they had put their trust. The religious order in which the Panchen Lama was so important a part was shattered and his country devastated. If his inner religious faith survived he must have believed his life as a monk was over; he renounced his vows and married a Chinese woman by whom he had a daughter. He was out of prison, but living in Peking, far from his homeland and his people. He was given a political role in China's rubber-stamp parliament and an office, but was never again allowed to live in Tibet.

But Mao Tse-Tung, his chief persecutor, was also dead and Deng Xiaoping's era of liberalisation had dawned. Politically rehabilitated, but never entirely trusted, the Panchen Lama spent the next 10 years trying to rebuild Tibet. For the Tibetans in exile, he remained an ambiguous figure. In his official statements he was careful to observe the Party line, supporting the Chinese claim that Tibet was part of China. But in private he argued that what mattered, for now, was the survival of Tibetan culture - schools for Tibetan children, businesses to give them employment, rebuilt monasteries and a religious life restored. If the price of that opportunity was to give up the claim to independence, he was prepared to pay it. In Tibet, when he was allowed to visit, he was greeted as a saviour.

His death came suddenly, in early 1989, at the height of a three-day ceremony that crowned the achievements of the previous decade: the restoration of the desecrated tombs of his predecessors in Tashilhunpo monastery. Thousands of people had gathered in Shigatse for the celebrations, some of them local religious leaders from distant parts of Tibet, others simply the faithful. The monastery's courtyards were hung with silk and brocade banners. It was the end of January and bitterly cold, but for the monks of Tashilhunpo monastery and the Panchen Lama, who had returned for the the festivities, the event crowned years of patient effort.

On the night of 28 January, the Panchen Lama, by now over 50 and physically huge, was taken ill. The Chinese authorities say he died of a heart attack; in Tibet, many believe he was poisoned by the Chinese as a last act of revenge for his independence of spirit. When they heard of his death, the monks of Tashilhunpo banged their heads against the walls until they bled.

His death robbed Tibetans of a man who had defended their interests for a decade and had been a focus of the revival of Buddhism. It robbed the Chinese of the figurehead they had used to cloak their regime in Tibet in the guise of tolerance. It robbed the Dalai Lama and the thousands who have joined him in exile of a man whose intentions they had slowly learnt to trust and whose religious importance was undimmed by the years of collaboration. For all of them, the search for his reincarnation was to be a critical issue.

IN THE exhibition hall of the Lama Temple in Peking, a large gold vase is displayed in a dusty case. It stands about 18in high and is heavily adorned. It is one of twins, manufactured in the 18th century under the orders of the Qing emperor, Qianlong. Both were used by the emperor to resolve religious disputes in the territories over which he had influence. The urn that is now in Peking was presented to the Mongolian church; its twin was sent to Tibet, with instructions that the Emperor's representative should be involved in the selection of their religious leaders. In the event of a dispute, the emperor said the name of the winning candidate should be drawn by lot from the Golden Urn. As the search for the 11th Panchen Lama unfolded, the struggle for control of the process became a struggle over the use of the Golden Urn. It symbolised the central question: who had the right to choose? The spiritual head of the Tibetan church, the exiled Dalai Lama? Or the Chinese government? The man in the middle of the dispute was the abbot and adminstrator of Tashilhunpo monastery.

Through the Eighties, Tashilhunpo had become a showcase monastery for the Chinese, who were anxious to demonstrate, if only to foreign tourists, that religious freedom was permitted in Tibet. After the assault of the Cultural Revolution, its splendours were greatly reduced: a Tibetan exile, a monk now living in India, remembers that, when he was a boy monk there, there were 5,000 monks. Now, only a few hundred are permitted to live and study there. It is a faint shadow of its past, but in a country in which most of the monasteries and temples were destroyed after the Chinese invasion, it is one of the largest functioning religious establishments and still, recognisably, a mediaeval religious university, a place of quiet cloisters and cavernous prayer halls, richly hung with silks and heavily decorated with religious paintings. In its courtyards, young monks debate the scriptures. And, behind its high walls, religious life has found a way to continue, albeit under the watchful eyes of informers and secret police.

In the early Nineties, the abbot of Tashilhunpo - or, to give him his Chinese title, the head of the Democratic Management Committee - was Chadrel Rinpoche, himself a reincarnate lama, though a relatively minor one. He was an ambiguous figure. He was an effective administrator who maintained an iron discipline among the occasionally rebellious monks. But he had learnt the same lesson as the late Panchen Lama: that in order to wield influence with the Chinese, one must observe certain formalities. If he was to keep government interference in his monastery to a minimum, he himself had to keep the nationalist sentiments of its monks, and overt loyalty to the Dalai Lama, under strict control. His personal reward was a high position and, as the Chinese were later to point out with furious indignation, a very large official car. As the head of the Panchen Lama's historic monastery, Chadrel was to head the search in Tibet.

But there was equal concern about the reincarnation, in northern India, the home in exile of the Dalai Lama. There, it was held that the Dalai Lama, as Tibet's spiritual leader, was responsible for the recognition and education of the young Panchen Lama. As soon as news of the 10th Panchen Lama's death had reached him, the Dalai Lama had made it known to Peking that he wanted to send a spiritual delegation to Tibet. The request was refused. Yet in the early years of the search it seemed as though the official line was not to block the Dalai Lama's participation out of hand: in 1993, the government allowed Chadrel Rinpoche to pass him an official message. By 1995, however, the Chinese attitude had hardened: further contact would be considered an act of treason.

In Tibet, the search followed the slow, traditional procedures. Reports of unusual boy children from all over Tibet were relayed to the monastery and were patiently collated by the abbot Chadrel. Chadrel nominally headed the search, but there was, inevitably, a committee, some of whose members were the eyes and ears of the Chinese. The spiritual side of the proceedings - the prayers for the swift rebirth of the Panchen Lama and the interpretation of the dreams and other signs that might point to his whereabouts - was in the care of a venerable monk from Tashilhunpo called Ngagchen Rinpoche, a master of Tantric ritual whose talent for interpreting visions commanded respect. He was the first to meet Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the doctor's young son. It was an experience that so moved him that throughout the trials to come, he never wavered in his belief that he had, indeed, found the new Panchen Lama.

By early 1995, the search was drawing to a close. The Chinese were growing impatient and were pressing Chadrel for a decision. In exile, the Dalai Lama, too, was reaching a conclusion. From all over Tibet the faithful had smuggled him reports of likely candidates, accompanied by photographs and descriptions of the unusual characteristics the children had displayed. Gendun Choekyi Nyima was among them. On 25 January 1995, through a process of repeated divination, the Dalai Lama finalised his decision: Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy from Nagchu, was recognised as the 11th Panchen Lama. It was, the Dalai Lama confessed, a huge relief to have resolved an issue that had preoccupied him for six years. "Our responsibility is over," he said, "but now a new worry begins: how to play it with our new masters." When and how was he to announce the new incarnation?

The child was in Tibet, and thus effectively in the hands of the Chinese. The Dalai Lama had considered smuggling him out, but he knew that the monks of Tashilhunpo wanted the young Panchen Lama under their care. The child's future depended on the Chinese government accepting him as the Panchen Lama, but the Dalai Lama had no power to force them to do so. He did have one hope, however: the search committee in Tibet favoured the same child. Once Peking accepted the choice of its own search committee, there would be no harm in revealing that the Dalai Lama had previously endorsed him. The boy would be left in Tibet, to be enthroned at Tashilhunpo and receive his spiritual education there. And as an authentic incarnation, the Dalai Lama believed, the young Panchen would rise above Chinese attempts to manipulate him. He decided to wait.

Back in Tibet, however, things had begun to go wrong. In January, after an acrimonious meeting of the search committee, Chadrel had been summoned to Peking. A number of disputes had broken out. The first and most embarrassing was with the 10th Panchen Lama's widow, Li Jie, who was locked in an argument with the monastery over the late Panchen's considerable assets. Before the Chinese occupation Tashilhunpo was a rich and powerful monastery with huge estates that belonged to successive incarnations of the Panchen Lama. Even in the reduced circumstances of the late Eighties, the Panchen Lama on his death was, by Chinese standards, a wealthy man. By Chinese law, his assets would pass to his widow and child. By Tibetan tradition, his estate belonged to his next incarnation. Months of delicate negotiations were required before an agreement was reached.

The second problem was even more serious: the Chinese had begun to insist that the final choice of the reincarnation be made by drawing lots from the Golden Urn. Chadrel had always resisted its use, partly because he well understood its political implications but more immediately because, if it was used, he would lose control of the result. The fate of the child, in whom Chadrel now firmly believed, would be decided by a random stroke.

For several weeks Chadrel stayed in Peking, arguing against the use of the Golden Urn. Other members of the search committee, less scrupulous about maintaining religious independence, argued against him. The more he argued the more he attracted the suspicion of the Chinese. In early May, Chadrel decided to return to Tashilhunpo, with his secretary. They never made it. On 15 May they were arrested in the Chinese city of Chengdu, as they prepared to board a flight to Lhasa. The day before, on the anniversary of the birth and death of the Buddha, the most auspicious day in the Tibetan calendar, the Dalai Lama, puzzled by the search committee's failure to nominate a candidate inside Tibet, and by now concerned to pre-empt an announcement from Peking of what might prove to be the wrong child, had announced the recognition of Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. News of the Dalai Lama's announcement had reached Tibet within hours. By the afternoon of 14 May, it was carried on Voice of America's Tibetan- language broadcasts, heard clandestinely by the monks of Tashilhunpo. At first the monks were delighted, but as the force of the Chinese reaction grew, joy turned swiftly to apprehension.

Within days a party of security police had arrived at Gendun Choekyi Nyima's home in the remote town of Lhari, in central Tibet. Witnesses say that he, his parents and brother were taken to Nagchu airport where they boarded a plane. None of them has been seen since.

Tashilhunpo monastery was at the centre of the storm that followed. On 17 May, 50 Party officials moved into the monastery. Their task was to identify and deal with any monks who supported the Dalai Lama. One monk, who has since fled from Tibet, remembered: "They called a meeting in the monastery, in the main Assembly Hall. They had video cameras with them and they told the monks they weren't allowed to say anything. They read out a Chinese newspaper that accused the Dalai Lama of organising splittist activities. The monks didn't say anything but they turned their faces away from the cameras or put their shawls over their heads. When they started to criticise the Dalai Lama, some monks laughed. The officials told them they weren't allowed to laugh."

As the weeks went by, the laughter died away in Tashilhunpo. The monks were questioned, one by one. Those who rejected the Dalai Lama's candidate were given extra food. Those who did not were warned to correct their attitude. The people who had betrayed the government, the monks were told, would be removed, "like hairs from the butter".

By July, tension in the monastery had reached breaking point. It was at an annual three-day festival that the crisis came. On the afternoon of the first day, the monks were called to a meeting in the forecourt behind the monastery's main gate, where the head of security in the monastery told them not to move, not to talk to each other or go to the lavatory, and to look straight ahead. But they had had enough. The monks jeered and heckled as Party chiefs read a denunciation of their abbot, Chadrel Rinpoche, and the Dalai Lama. Chadrel, the Chinese charged, was a traitor who had been in contact with the Dalai Lama. "He was given a house, a car worth 1 million yuan and a senior position," one official lamented. "He betrayed it all."

That night, according to a former Tashilhunpo monk, the monastery was in turmoil. "Nobody could sleep. The monks were all arguing about what to do. They were furious," he said. "They said what's the point of holding religious festivals if our abbot is arrested and we can't have our Panchen Lama." The next morning, there was open revolt. As hundreds of pilgrims waited outside for the second day of the religious festival, the monastery gates remained shut. One Western traveller who was in Shigatse that day described what happened: "At the end of the morning trucks loaded with riot police began driving round and round, through the crowd. Nobody knew what was happening. We waited all morning but the gates never opened. The whole town was very tense. In the afternoon I was in the market in Shigatse when a man shouted something and the entire market disappeared in minutes. People just crammed everything into bags and vanished. In the late afternoon six military trucks loaded with men in riot gear and two landcruisers went into the monastery. That night, the police went round all the hotels telling tourists that they had to leave town the next day. A huge convoy of foreigners left the following morning."

What those foreign tourists didn't know as they left was that, by 2am, more than 30 monks had been taken to town's main prison. They arrived badly bruised and bleeding, some with broken teeth. The revolt at Tashilhunpo was crushed. Chadrel Rinpoche, whom the Chinese claimed was receiving medical treatment, was formally removed from his position as abbot, and a more compliant leadership was installed. Elsewhere in Tibet, the methods were less violent, but the message was the same. It took six months for the Chinese authorities to assert enough control over the Tibetan religious establishment to complete their own selection. By November, they were confident enough to summon to Peking more than 70 eminent lamas who make up the leadership of the monasteries and the state-sponsored religious bureaucracy. There they were cloistered under heavy guard in a military hotel in the city and the Party line was given to them: a new candidate was to be selected, using the Golden Urn.The job of the monks was to give legitimacy to the deed.

Even then there was resistance. Some lamas feigned illness to avoid attending the ceremony. Others spoke up for the Dalai Lama's right, as their religious superior, to recognise the Panchen Lama. But the new leadership of Tashilhunpo monastery was compliant. As the meeting closed, Chinese television news broadcast their report of the proceedings. The monks, it said, had been indignant at the Dalai Lama's interference.

Within days, the Chinese victory was consummated in a dismal ceremony in Tibet's capital, Lhasa. It was held in the chill darkness before dawn in the main temple, one of the holiest places in Tibet, as heavily armed guards stood on the roof. Bomi Rinpoche, an elderly monk widely respected for his learning, was called upon to draw the winning name from the Golden Urn. Some accused him, afterwards, of treachery; others said he had no choice. The Chinese filmed the proceedings - the bowed heads of the monks, their eyes downcast avoid ing the camera. The government officials sat in a line, with an air of forced jollity, like a row of short-tempered Father Christmases faced with a sullen children's party. When the name of Gyain- cain Norbu was proclaimed as the official choice for the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, they cheered. It was all done, the Chinese said, with the deepest respect for Tibetan tradition.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, or perhaps an attempt to marry expediency with the mystical signs, but Gyaincain Norbu came from the same region as the Dalai Lama's choice. The Chinese English-language news releases described him as intelligent and "cute". Doubters whispered that his parents are in the Party. In December he was enthroned in Tashilhunpo, then swiftly taken to Peking to be photographed with the Chinese leadership.

Since the day of his selection, the Chinese campaign to rid Tibet of the influence of the Dalai Lama has been waged with undiminished force. The first requirement of religion, the Chinese have told the Tibetans, is "patriotism" - and the most convincing sign of patriotism is a willingness to denounce the Dalai Lama. More than 50 people have been imprisonsed for refusing to give up their belief that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is the true incarnation.

But his fate in this story is perhaps the saddest of all. As long as Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama, the boy that he recognised as the 11th Panchen Lama will always be sacred to them. If he were ever to be released, he would quickly attract the devotion of the faithful. It is a fact well understood in Peking. The Chinese say he is alive and well, but they refuse to say where. Wherever he is, his future is bleak. Tibet is unlikely ever to see that particular little boy again.

! Isabel Hilton is writing a book on the search for the 11th Panchen Lama which will be published by Viking next year. She is associate producer of an `Everyman' special at 10.25pm today on BBC1.

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