The Panchen Lama Affair

The Panchen Lama is considered to be the second highest rank- ing incarnate lama after the Dalai Lama in the Gelugpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The successive Panchen Lamas form a tulku reincarnation lineage who are said to be incarnations of Buddha Amitabha.221

After the death of the Panchen Lama in 1989, the Chinese government agreed to permit the selection of a new Panchen Lama and in 1993 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was invited to cooperate in the selection process. At the end of 1994, Chadrel Rinpoche, the head of the search team, indicated that, of the twenty-five candidates, Gendun Choekyi Nyima was the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. ‘By early February the Dalai Lama got a message back to Chadrel Rinpoche stating that he had done divination that confirmed Gendun Choekyi Nyima.’222

Having obtained the Dalai Lama’s confirmation, Chadrel Rinpoche tried to secure Chinese approval of the boy, but ‘… the [Chinese] government asked Chadrel to submit three to five names for the golden urn drawing.’223 The ‘golden urn drawing’ is a traditional divination lottery in which the reincarnation is determined by selecting or ‘drawing’ one name from a golden urn containing the names of all the short-listed candidates. In mid-May, before the Chinese government had completed the arrangements for the golden urn drawing, the Dalai Lama suddenly announced to the world that he recognised Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the new Panchen Lama. He ‘asserted that the Chinese government had no authority over this selection by saying, “The search and recognition of Panchen Rimpoche’s reincarnation is a religious matter and not political.” ’224

‘This announcement, of course, embarrassed and infuriated the Chinese government.
‘… Chadrel was sentenced to six years in prison … Beijing … disqualified Gendun Choekyi Nyima and used the golden urn lottery to select a different boy, whom the Chinese government formally confirmed in November 1995.’225

The Dalai Lama’s premature announcement of his choice of the Panchen Lama was a disaster, both politically and for those personally involved. Melvyn Goldstein writes:

‘… the Dalai Lama’s decision to pre-emptively announce the new Panchen Lama was, to say the least, politically inastute…. To be sure, it made Tibetans and their Western supporters feel good to see the Dalai Lama exert his authority over the issue, but the price he paid was substantial and the gains were minuscule. In practical terms, … he has in effect relegated the boy he chose to a life of house arrest.

‘… Moreover, his announcement has badly undermined the credibility of the more moderate Chinese officials who sold the State Council on the idea that the ethnically sensitive selection process would be in China’s best interests. It has therefore reinforced the hard-liners’ contention that China cannot trust or work with the Dalai Lama and has set back chances that China will agree to renew talks with him.’226