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A Tibetan puzzle hanging on a golden urn and three dough balls

by CLIFFORD COONAN , The Irish Times, July 2, 2010

The battle between Marxists and Buddhists over who will be the next Panchen Lama may be reaching its endgame, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

Lhasa, Tibet (China) -- THE TASHILHUNPO monastery in Tibet’s second city, Shigatse, has been steeped in palace intrigue for the past 15 years, as Marxist-Leninism and Buddhism have wrestled for influence behind the curtains and incense smoke in one of the world’s holiest places.

<< Two Panchen Lamas: China's appointed Gyaltsen Norbu (left) and Gendun Choekyi Nyima (right, in photo frame), annointed by the Dalai lama

Much of this skullduggery has focused on two little boys, now grown into 20-year-old men. One of them, Gyaltsen Norbu, is the Chinese Communist Party’s choice for Panchen Lama, the second-in-command in Tibetan Buddhism, who is traditionally the abbot of Tashilhunpo.

The other boy is Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who was discovered by the envoys of the Dalai Lama – the exiled spiritual leader whom Tibetans consider a god-king – but was kidnapped by the Chinese government on May 17th, 1995, and has been neither seen nor heard from since.

Shigatse is a four-hour drive across the Himalayas from Lhasa, through some of the most beautiful terrain on Earth, and it has a completely different pace of life from the provincial capital. Lhasa saw rioting in March 2008 and the resulting crackdown has left the city edgy, but Shigatse is relaxed, where Han Chinese – the dominant ethnic group in China – and Tibetans, live in what looks like genuine peace and harmony.

Founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, the first Dalai Lama, Tashilhunpo gazes tolerantly down on the majestic river valley below, but its sturdy whitewashed walls have seen all manner of bitter political manoeuvring.

The machinations surrounding the appointment of the 11th Panchen Lama stand in stark contrast to all the majesty that Shigatse has to offer.

Many of Tibet’s 2.7 million people remain secretly loyal to the Dalai Lama’s chosen Panchen Lama. But the communists and their supporters among the Tibetan Buddhist community, and there are plenty, say it is Gendun Choekyi Nyima who is the imposter. This Tibetan puzzle hinges on a golden urn and three dough balls, and what’s at stake is Chinese rule in Tibet.

On May 14th,1995, Gendun Choekyi Nyima was chosen by the Dalai Lama at an elaborate ritual in Dharamsala in northern India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based. The signs were aligned, and his name came up three times when chosen from balls of rolled-up barley flour, known as tsampa. The six-year-old had birthmarks on his back that were like signs seen in the Lhamo Latso Lake, which is used for prophecies.

He was born in the Year of the Horse, and he appeared comfortable in the company of the Dalai Lama’s envoy Ngagchen Rinpoche. He also seemed to know what the Tashilhunpo monastery was. All very auspicious.

This was a disaster for Beijing’s Tibet policy. The Dalai Lama was a dangerous splittist, and the central government needed to keep a firm grip on the second most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism if it was going to succeed in winning over Tibetan sentiment in the traditionally restive province. According to the noted Tibetologist Robbie Barnett, the party leaders in Tibet came up with a ceremony, based on arcane provisions made by the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1792, which involved using a golden urn to select a lama when there was a dispute.

The procedure involved using tally sticks to choose the Panchen Lama, and when it came down to it, Beijing’s chosen candidate had the longer stick. The sole aim was to rule out the Dalai Lama’s choice from the list of candidates.

Since his disappearance, all the Beijing government says about him is that he is safe and well and wants his privacy. Meanwhile, Gyaltsen Norbu has long been earmarked as Beijing’s choice to usurp the Dalai Lama as the public face of Tibetan Buddhism. In March this year, Beijing named the Panchen Lama – the Chinese appointed one – as a delegate to the country’s top legislative advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The young monk has appeared with party leaders and publicly praised Chinese rule in Tibet, vowing to contribute to “the blueprint of the compatible development of Tibetan Buddhism and socialism.” A glorious Buddha at Tashilhunpo monastery’s heart has been restored, a golden roof given state approval and funding.

Red-robed monk Nian Zha, director of the Democratic Management Committee of Tashilhunpo, when asked about the human dimension to kidnapping an innocent child, said: “I will not answer that.”

Instead he stressed the harmonious relationship between the secular communists and the Tibetan Buddhists of Tashilhunpo. What is also significant, and what must be frankly terrifying to the exiled Tibetan Buddhist community, is that the Tashilhunpo model could become a template for the succession issue. Hao Peng, deputy secretary of the communist party in Tibet said the model could be used to decide on who succeeds the Dalai Lama, who turns 75 next week.

“The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama has to follow strict rules and has to be drawn from the Golden Urn and approved by central government,” he said. The revival of the Golden Urn could yet prove their undoing.

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