Tibetans Reject China's Panchen Lama
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
Yesterday, the young man picked by the Chinese government as the second-most-important leader of Tibetan Buddhism made his debut on the international stage. The 16-year-old Panchen Lama spoke at the World Buddhist Forum in China.
According to the official translation, his remarks focused on Buddhism's need to work toward Chinese national unity. Now, there's a great deal of controversy surrounding this Panchen Lama, and to explore that, we're joined by Donald Lopez. He's a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan.
Professor Lopez, thanks so much for being with us.
Professor DONALD LOPEZ (Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies, University of Michigan): Thank you.
NORRIS: Now, the young man who gave that speech yesterday, he's, as I understand, not the only one tapped to be the Panchen Lama, there's another. Could you explain this for us?
Professor LOPEZ: Yes. Tibetan Buddhism is unique in having the institution of the incarnate lama. The idea is that great masters come back in a next lifetime and, in fact, can be identified at birth and then educated as children to then succeed themselves, in a sense.
In old Tibet there were three to 4,000 of such incarnate lamas, the most powerful of whom was the Dalai Lama. The second most powerful was the Panchen Lama. Now, once the Chinese came into Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama fled in 1959, the Panchen Lama stayed behind in Tibet. He died in 1989, and according to tradition the Dalai Lama would then choose his successor, would identify the child who would be the next Panchen Lama.
The Dalai Lama did that in 1995, and he identified a little boy, six years old, called Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Immediately after the Dalai Lama's announcement, the child and his family disappeared. They were presumably placed under house arrest by Chinese authorities and have not been seen since then.
The Chinese, very shortly thereafter, identified another child whose name is Gyaltsen Norbu, and called him the true Panchen Lama, and it was this child, this boy, now 16 years old, who addressed the forum in China yesterday.
NORRIS: And now that he's appeared publicly, I guess there's more curiosity and speculation about what happened to the Panchen Lama that the Dalai Lama originally named. So nothing's been heard of him? This is a big mystery?
Professor LOPEZ: It's a big mystery. Foreign delegations, human rights groups annually make requests to the Chinese authorities to be allowed to at least see and meet with the child. All of those requests have been denied. The Chinese continue to insist that he is fine and is living someplace in China. People speculate he's in Beijing, but he has literally not been seen since 1995.
NORRIS: I'd like to ask you about that 10-minute speech that was given yesterday. What do you make of it?
Professor LOPEZ: Well, the Chinese choice of the Panchen Lama has not been seen much in public. His installation ceremony was so controversial it was held in secret, and he's been educated not in Tibet, mostly in Beijing by Tibetan scholars, monk scholars who have become his tutors, and the Chinese report that he's become quite a good scholar of Buddhism himself.
So this was, in a certain sense, his debut on the world stage. And his remarks seem to be, you know, fairly innocuous, sort of claim toward the importance of Buddhism for world peace and that kind of thing.
But, of course, the symbolism is that if you're having a world Buddhist forum, one would typically have as the keynote speaker the most famous Buddhist in the world, that's the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was not invited, and the Panchen Lama is speaking symbolically in his stead, from the Chinese perspective.
NORRIS: Why would the Chinese government do this, make this switch, choose their own Panchen Lama and put him out before the public at this point?
Professor LOPEZ: Well, the question is, who controls Tibet or who controls Tibetan Buddhism? The Dalai Lama was the ruler of Tibet until his, his flight into exile, and he was the leading figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Chinese now feel that Tibet is, is a part of China and that the control of religious institutions should be in their hands. And so it's a bit of a power struggle, in a sense, over who chooses the religious leaders of this country. And, of course, the greater crisis will come with the eventual passing of the current Dalai Lama, and the question of who chooses the next Dalai Lama.
NORRIS: And for now, for practicing Buddhists, which is the real Lama?
Professor LOPEZ: For practicing Tibetan Buddhists, both Tibetans in Tibet, Tibetans in exile and the various international followers of Tibetan Buddhism, the child who is held under house arrest is the true Panchen Lama.
NORRIS: So, looking ahead, when the Dalai Lama passes, what's likely to happen? It sounds like there could be quite a bit of controversy then.
Professor LOPEZ: There can be a huge controversy because the Panchen Lama traditionally chooses the Dalai Lama. And the Chinese, of course, will want their choice for the Panchen Lama to make that decision.
The Dalai Lama, however, in order to circumvent that particular process, has declared that he will be reborn outside of Tibet, he'll be reborn in exile. And so when he passes away there will be a massive search by the Chinese and a massive search by the exile community held simultaneously to find a new Dalai Lama.
NORRIS: Donald Lopez is a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan.
Professor Lopez, thanks so much.
Professor LOPEZ: You're welcome.