The thief left it behind: the moon at my window - Ryokan

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Kingdom of Lost Boy

Generally, May 17
can be seen as a symbolic day where we can bring to our awareness to the suffering of others and set the intention to bring about change by firmly committing to uphold the attitude and practice of Peace and Compassion in our lives. This was the date when Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was abducted by the Communist Chinese Government in 1995. Aged six years old at the time, he was effectively the world’s youngest political prisoner. Panchen Lama, now a young man, is still under arrest and little if anything is known about him and his well being.

The Kingdom of Lost Boy 1
The Kingdom of Lost Boy 2
The Kingdom of Lost Boy 3
The Kingdom of Lost Boy 4
The Kingdom of Lost Boy 5
The Kingdom of Lost Boy 6

Brief Introduction (obtained from the YouTube videos: The Kingdom of Lost Boy)

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is believed that several years after the death of select religious leaders their reincarnations can be identified as young children. These young children, or tulkus, are immersed in a rigorous 20-year education that facilitates their spiritual growth and transfers the rich knowledge of their spiritual lineage from generation to generation.

Thus, the story of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima begins long before he was born. His story stretches across the generations to when the lineage of the Panchen Lama was founded.


In the 15th Century, the 1st Dalai Lama established a vibrant monastery called Tashi Lhunpo in the Tibetan city of Shigatse, just west of the capital city of Lhasa. Two hundred years later, when the 5th Dalai Lama was a young boy, the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery (Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen) guided his spiritual upbringing as a Buddhist monk and scholar. History says that when the abbot died, the Dalai Lama (also known as the Great Fifth) dedicated the Monastery to his late teacher declaring that he would reincarnate again and again, and that each successor would be known as the holder of the Panchen Lama lineage (the term Pan-chen means "great scholar" in Tibetan).

As a further token of his respect, the Great Fifth offered his former teacher gifts of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and vast tracks of surrounding land. The 1st Dalai Lama had originally established the monastery in 1447 and it was an enormously influential center of spiritual learning. Following the Great Fifth's statements and offerings a young Panchen Lama was identified as a child and grew up to fulfill his role. Thus began the lineage of the Panchen Lama at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery.

Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is both the secular head of the country as well as the spiritual leader. He is believed to be the emanation of Avalokisteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. The Panchen Lama or "Great Scholar" plays primarily a religious role. He is believed to be an emanation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

Over the course of history the Panchen Lama became one of the foremost teachers and leaders in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet he is seen as second in importance and influence only to the Dalai Lama.

The Panchen Lama also shares a very unique and special relationship with the Dalai Lama. Tibetans sometimes refer to whoever is the elder lama as the "spiritual father" and the younger lama as the "spiritual son." Tibetans also refer to the Dalai Lama as the spiritual "sun" to the Panchen Lama's "moon." The elder lama gives Buddhist teachings and initiations to the younger one. For generations, the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama maintained this unique teacher-disciple relationship of the elder mentoring the younger. The elder lama may also help find and identify the reincarnation of the younger.

For generations, the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama maintained their unique teacher-disciple relationship of the elder mentoring the younger. Successive rulers of British India and China have quite often tried to use the good offices of the Panchen Lama to gain a political foothold in Tibet. When such efforts failed, the foreigners (especially the rulers from China) have attempted to create a division between the institutions of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

The 10th Panchen Lama

When the 10th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Trinley Choekyi Gyaltsen, was born in 1938, Tibet was an independent country and the 14th Dalai Lama was just a young boy. The two tulkus were forced to mature quickly as the political situation in Tibet steadily worsened upon the Chinese invasion of eastern Tibet in 1949, the ensuing occupation, and the eventual annexation in 1959. This was the year that the His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his life in danger, was forced to flee into exile with 80,000 of his people. The Panchen Lama, a young man of 21, stayed in Tibet and was appointed by the Communist Party as the acting chairman of the Preparatory Committee. He spent the next thirty years of his life traveling between Tibet and Beijing, gathering first hand information of the reality of the situation for Tibetans under Chinese rule. The Panchen Lama's observations during this tour formed the basis of his famous 70,000-character petition, which eventually triggered his condemnation and imprisonment by the Chinese government.

As the second most revered religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism and the most venerated lama remaining in Tibet after the Chinese invasion in 1949, the 10th Panchen Lama's death at 50 years of age was a blow to the Tibetan nation. And though there is mystery shrouding his death, no one could fully investigate what occurred in this Chinese occupied land.

The Search for the 11th Panchen Lama

But the story of the 10th Panchen Lama does not end with his death as reincarnation continues this story to the birth of the 11th Panchen Lama. Traditionally, H.H. the Dalai Lama identifies the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and guides his training through adulthood. But exiled in India, H.H. the Dalai Lama was not permitted by the Chinese government to contact the search party. This delayed the search, usually performed only two years after the death of a lama.

Finally a search party was formed with Chatral Rinpoche, the acting abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, as the head of the Chinese official search party. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Panchen Lama identification team is made up of high-level lamas from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Their guidance comes in the form of visions that prophetically direct their search to the true reincarnation. Following these mystical signs, the lama's test the most likely candidates by asking them to identify personal objects owned by the previous Panchen Lama. Oracles are then consulted and divinations performed to reconfirm the final candidate. H.H. the Dalai Lama himself normally carries out these final steps.

The search party compiled a list of numerous young boys whom could be the possible successor of the 10th Panchen Lama. Through hidden contact, H.H. the Dalai Lama received information and photographs of these boys. From his divinations, he identified and proclaimed Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama on May 14, 1995.

By May 17, 1995, the six year-old boy and his parents disappeared from their home, reportedly taken into Chinese police custody for their protection. Denouncing H.H. the Dalai Lama's proclamation as illegitimate, the Chinese authorities drew lots from a golden urn to select their own Panchen Lama on November 29, 1995. Six year-old Gyaltsen Norbu was selected and subsequently enthroned on December 8, 1995 sparking off massive protests all over Tibet.

To validate their authority in choosing the Panchen Lama, the Communist government cites a recommendation made in 1792 by the Manchu rulers to the Tibetan Government. The Manchus (the monarchy government of China from 1644 - 1912 made up of non-ethnic Chinese rulers) suggested that in selecting high lamas the Tibetans should institute a lottery, which was referred to as the Golden Urn system. One name would be chosen and then forwarded to the Chinese Central Government for final approval.

The Tibetans have asserted all along that a lottery system should be used when there are two very good candidates - making it difficult to choose between them - and, that they have their own lottery system which predates the Manchu recommendation. But, more importantly, the Tibetans also assert that H.H. the Dalai Lama should have a role in identifying the Panchen Lama.

Now that the 11th Panchen Lama is held in detention at an unknown location, Tibetans and supporters of religious freedom around the world are concerned about his physical welfare and spiritual upbringing. Tibetan traditions require that the Panchen Lama receive the care and instruction at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery for his well-being and proper religious education. Despite worldwide appeals, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his parents remain in detention. China has refused to provide information of their location or condition and will not allow any independent observer to see them.


Further reading:

A collection of news articles on the current Panchen Lama from The Office of Tibet.


Students for a Free tibet


Anonymous said...

Anna, I am so glad that you are writing about the Panchen Lama... it is such a profound story. I filmed this on his birthday last year in Dharamsala...

HummingBird said...

oh thank you, I will take look now