The Dalai Lama & Panchen Lama with Mao
In the firmament of the Tibetan theocratic echelon, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are often metaphorically regarded as the sun and the moon respectively. As universally known, former is considered to be the human manifestation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion and later is thought be the earthly representation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Boundless Light. Their subsequent incarnations have alternatively acted as either a mentor or a disciple depending upon their maturity. Most importantly, each of their avatars have played significant role in finding the reincarnation of the other, making plausible the continuance of their pristine pedigrees.
Blame it on karma or consider it a work of destiny, the relationship between these two high patriarchs of Tibetan Buddhism has not always been harmonious. From a cordial mentor-disciple association between the fourth Panchen Lama and the fifth Dalai Lama to a scenario of direct confrontation between the ninth Panchen Lama and the thirteenth Dalai Lama, their history has been more than a rollercoaster ride. The fundamental imperial principle of ‘divide and rule’ has been instrumental in this regard. The Great Game in Central Asia, internal political strife and the Manchu influence in Tibet meant that the two later incarnates, more often than not, discovered themselves on the opposite sides of the river much to the dismay of Tibetan people.
The lives of the successive incarnate of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama narrate the tragedy of Tibet as a nation. Their lives bear witness to the gradual absorption of an isolated theocracy into the so-called Chinese ‘motherland’. Even today, centuries after the establishment of their lineage, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama continue to be the epitomes of a lost country and the flag bearers of Tibetan hope and nationalism.
Beginning of the Yab-Say (Father-Son) liaison:
Gendun Drub (later to be know as the first Dalai Lama), a principal disciple of Jhe Tsongkhapa (the founder of the Gelukpa sect) established the monastery of Tashilhunpo in the year 1447.In 1598, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen was invited to become the abbot of this monastery. It was not a glamorous job in those days as Tashilhunpo lacked sources of income to support its monks. But Lobsang Choekyi proved to be a resourceful individual. He successfully convinced the local landowners to donate enough land to the monastery to ensure its sustenance. He also built a tantric college in the monastery and under his administration Tashilhunpo became one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet.
Lobsang Choekyi had been the fourth Dalai Lama’s tutor and had ordained him as a monk after his arrival from Mongolia. However, the fourth Dalai Lama died young at the age of 28. Lobsang Choekyi oversaw the search for the fifth Dalai Lama and later became his tutor. He played a pivotal role in the establishment of Gelukpa as the ruling sect in Tibet after the civil war of the seventeenth century, for which the patronage of a Mongol prince (Gushri Khan) was sought. He was a great religious scholar and a skilled diplomat; and was considered by the Great Fifth as both his political and spiritual mentor. Lobsang Choekyi was the first to be conferred the title of ‘Panchen’ by the young Dalai Lama, which is an amalgamation of a Sanskrit and a Tibetan word meaning ‘the great scholar’. Lobsang Choekyi later came to be known as the fourth Panchen Lama because of backdating, as he was the fourth abbot of Tashilhunpo. With this began a unique bond between the two Lamas that saw more twists and turns than a Bollywood suspense film.
Entangled in the great imperial game and internal turmoil:
Internal turmoil of the 18th century and the great imperial game of the 19th century had as profound an impact on the relationship between the two Lamas as they had on Tibet as a whole. Desi Sangay Gyaltso’s disclosure of the fifth Dalai Lama’s demise after years of secrecy (to facilitate the completion of Potala Palace) paved way for another power struggle. A civil war broke out in Tibet and the opportunity was seized by the Manchus to escalate their influence in Tibet. While the sixth and the seventh Dalai Lama became victims of internal strife, the Manchus started stationing their imperial representatives, Ambans with few hundred troops in Lhasa. By that time the East India Company was well established in India and was interested in trade with Tibet. The first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings sent George Bogle as his envoy to Tashilhunpo in 1774 to discuss the prospect of trade with the sixth Panchen Lobsang Palden Yeshe. The eight Dalai Lama was still a minor then. The regent in Lhasa rejected the trade proposal and directed the envoy to leave Tibet at once.
The sixth Panchen Lama passed away few years later. Following his demise the Qing emperor proposed the use of the Golden Urn to ascertain the true reincarnations of the Panchen and the Dalai Lamas. The Tibetans accepted the Golden Urn as a gift from the emperor; and his insistence on its use was taken more as a suggestion than an order. Moreover, drawing of lot from this Urn was at no time the principal method of finding reincarnations rather it was only seen as an addition to the already existing methods of divination. Whatever may be the emperor’s intention behind his Golden Urn idea, his farsightedness is commendable. Even today, two centuries after its introduction, the same lottery system together with the bestowing of titles on high Lamas continues to be the Chinese justification of Tibet being their inalienable part.
Six Dalai Lamas after the Great Fifth died suspiciously young; the role of the Ambans in their untimely demise cannot be entirely ruled out. Even as the Manchu influence grew in Central Tibet, Panchen Lamas were able to operate autonomously in Western Tibet and carried out their own diplomacy with the British and the Manchus alike. The power vacuum in Lhasa as a result of immature deaths of the Dalai Lamas facilitated the emergence of Shigatse as a rival centre of power in Tsang, which at a later date came in the way of the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s vision of centralization of power. The dual power centres in Tibet was chiefly responsible for souring of ties between the ninth Panchen Lama and the thirteenth Dalai Lama. While the thirteenth Dalai Lama wished centralization of Tibet under one administration, the ninth Panchen Lama (or at least his entourage) persisted on the maintenance of the status quo. The rift between the two Lamas were aptly exploited and even encouraged by the British and the Chinese for their own interests. The situation was precipitated by the Dalai Lama’s decision to levy addition land tariff to maintain a strong Tibetan army. As Tashilhunpo owned large estates, it was directed to contribute a quarter of the total military expenditure. The Panchen Lama expressed his inability to pay such a huge amount, which was interpreted by the officials in Lhasa as his confrontation of the Dalai Lama’s administration. In 1921, the ninth Panchen Lama escaped to China hoping Chinese mediation in the crisis between him and the Dalai Lama.
The thirteenth Dalai Lama passed away in 1933 and the ninth Panchen Lama in 1937 (but not before advising the search party of the 14th Dalai Lama about his possible whereabouts). Unfortunately their differences were never settled during their lifetime, which meant that they be inherited by their successors.
The 14th Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama:
Both the 14th Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama were born in Amdo province of Tibet in 1935 and 1938 respectively. While the Dalai Lama was recognized at the age of four, the official recognition of the Panchen Lama came much later (at the point of gun in Beijing in 1951, corresponding with the conclusion of the seventeen point agreement). Right from its formative days in Tibet, the Communists began to advertise the Panchen Lama to mitigate the influence of the Dalai Lama among the Tibetan masses. In fact it was the so-called letter written by the Panchen Lama to Mao requesting the liberation of Tibet, which was used as an excuse for the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959, after his efforts to reach at a working compromise with the Chinese culminated with the massacre of thousands in the streets of Lhasa in March that year. While the Dalai Lama endeavoured to garner international support in exile, the Panchen Lama (believed to be pro-Chinese at that time) stayed behind hoping to modernize Tibet.
In the early 1960s, the Communists began implementing ‘democratic reforms’ in Tibet. They encouraged the collectivization of land and cultivation of wheat instead of barley, which resulted in famines hitherto unknown in Tibet. The Panchen Lama’s dreams of modernizing his country were shattered when he witnessed the destruction of monasteries and the deplorable condition of his countrymen on his tours throughout the Tibet plateau. His horrible experiences in different parts of Tibet prompted him to write a 70,000- character petition denouncing the Chinese policies in Tibet, which till date remains the most explicit written criticism of the Communist regime in China. Mao was alarmed by the Panchen Lama’s courage and straightaway branded him a reactionary. The Panchen Lama was directed to declare the Dalai Lama as a reactionary, which he refused adamantly (rather he showed no hesitation in urging the Tibetans to pray for the long life of the Dalai Lama). He was subjected to countless struggle sessions and thamzings during which he was charged with numerous fabricated crimes. His Tashilhunpo monastery was specially targeted during the Cultural Revolution and the mausoleums of his predecessors were broken open. The Panchen Lama was incarcerated for more than 15 years and remained incognito until his reappearance in 1978.
The events of late 1970s and 1980s revived the hopes of Tibetans both inside Tibet and in exile to some extent. Den Xiaoping’s liberalization policy, re-emergence of the Panchen Lama, the fact-finding delegations from exile and the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg proposal were seen as the beginning of the Tibetan renaissance. Unfortunately these hopes were short-lived. The pro-independence demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987-88 were brutally crushed and the martial law was imposed thereafter. Following year the Panchen Lama passed away in Tashilhunpo, his swansong being the renovation of the stupas harbouring his predecessor’s bones and relics. Only reason for elation during that period was the Dalai Lama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in1989.
Past tense and future imperfect:
The present Dalai Lama is getting on in years and the whereabouts of the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama is still a mystery. Beijing has enthroned its own 11th Panchen Lama and it doesn’t require a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that it will come up with the same tactics once the present Dalai Lama passes away. Under the current situation very few would envy being a Tibetan, with the ruins of one’s nation behind and the possible extinction of one’s race ahead.
Existing circumstances place before us umpteen number of colossal questions, which need to be answered forthwith. To what extent is our dependence on High Lamas for political guidance justified? Isn’t the tradition of reincarnate rulers obsolete and vulnerable to foreign exploitation? How pragmatic is the idealistic blend of religion and politics in the 21st century? Isn’t it the right time to draw a line between religion and politics?
The fate of future Tibet will essentially depend on our acceptance of political responsibilities, the success of democratic institutions in exile; and most decisively on the renunciation of ‘Gyalwa Rinpoche Khennoo’ attitude. If the political indifference of the Tibetans in the Diaspora persists for say, another decade then the gravity of the resulting situation would be difficult to comprehend. Unless we embrace our political obligations now, the Chinese orchestrated eclipses of our suns and moons would be a routine affair; and the night shall really be long and dark.
Even His Holiness doesn’t want his people to be completely dependent on him. His democratic reforms in exile and repudiation of political pursuits are indicative of his will. The time is opportune for the secular leaders to shoulder the worldly affairs. Besides our aging Dalai Lama deserves some breathing space after decades of selfless toil.