The Panchen Lama
It was near the end May 1995, and I had just returned from two months in Siberia. Trying to catch up on world events, I set to scanning accumulated copies of The Seattle Times for world-changing events that I may have missed. I nearly passed over a very small article buried deep in the news section that had accompanied a picture of a 6-year-old child.
Having just witnessed the relics of the "Communist Threat" in Russia, the story of a family being taken political prisoner by the People's Republic of China (PRC) at first seemed hardly newsworthy (a sobering thought in itself).
Yet, by the time I finished the article, I was irate that it had not been placed on the front page. The boy was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, better known as the 11th Panchen Lama. He, his family and the monks who found and identified him were abducted by the PRC just two days after the Dalai Lama recognized him as the legitimate emanation of the Amitabha Buddha.
The Panchen Lama is second only to the Dalai Lama both as political leader of Tibet and spiritual leader of Tantric Buddhism. The Panchen Lama is responsible for protecting, liberating and enlightening the Tibetan people; one of the primary responsibilities of the Panchen Lama is to identify the reincarnated successor of the Dalai Lama after the current one dies.
To put the significance of this kidnapping in terms of American Catholic ideology, imagine if a hostile occupying government kidnapped the vice president and abducted the whole College of Cardinals — and nobody seemed to notice. The Panchen Lama is one of only four religious leaders in the world who bears the title "His Holiness" (along with the Pope, the Dalai Lama and the Catholicos of the Armenian Church).
Since his disappearance the PRC has changed its story on his whereabouts many times, usually claiming that they had him in protective custody. Since no one outside the government has even had contact with the Panchen Lama, it is unknown if he or his family is still alive.
All attempts by the Dalai Lama and the international community to see the now ten-year-old have failed. On a trip to Tibet in September 1998, Mary Robinson, High Commissioner of Human Rights of the United Nations, was denied access to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
In December of the same year that the true lama was abducted, the PRC forced Buddhist authorities in Tibet to choose a false Panchen Lama. The Communist government of mainland China has no more right to oversee the selection of the lama than any other civil authority has the right to select the pope. Centuries of Buddhist tradition reserve this right to the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile from his occupied see of Lhassa, Tibet.
With the Dalai Lama not allowed to speak to his own countrymen, the presence of the Panchen Lama is essential to the survival of Tibet and the faith of its inhabitants. The breaking of legitimate succession could undermine the selection of the next Dalai Lama, which could destroy the leadership of the Buddhist community. The 11th Panchen Lama must have the right to visit Tibetans in exile around the world, particularly his holiness, the Dalai Lama. Such actions will increase the possibility that all Tibetans will have the opportunity to communicate and be blessed by this highly important spiritual leader.
All Inside Stories for Friday, October 1, 1999