UCA News

Party control of reincarnation is killing Tibetan culture

How the forced disappearance of the real Panchen Lama is damaging Tibetan Buddhism
Party control of reincarnation is killing Tibetan culture

A file image of a Tibetan carrying a portrait of Tibetan spiritual leader the Panchen Lama after celebrating his 23rd birth anniversary at the Tibetan Welfare Center, Boudha in Kathmandu on April 25, 2012. Tibetans in exile have demanded the release of the Panchen Lama, who disappeared into Chinese custody in 1995 after being chosen by the Dalai Lama and has not been seen since, while Chinese authorities selected another child as the Panchen Lama. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)

Published: June 20, 2017 09:28 AM GMT
Updated: June 20, 2017 09:33 AM GMT

May 17 was the 22nd anniversary of the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism as recognized by the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans around the world held various petition activities demanding the Chinese government grant freedom to him and his family.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was also mentioned in the latest 2017 report published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has added a section to express concern on "religious prisoners."

He was born on April 25, 1989 in Jiali County of Naqu District in Tibet Autonomous Region in western China.

The now 28-year-old was forcibly disappeared when he was just seven. His father is Kunchok Phuntsok and his mother Dechen Choedon. They were also disappeared. It is unknown what has happened to his elder brother and elder sister. 

Following the sudden death of Tibetan Buddhist leader Choekyi Gyaltsen, the 10th Panchen Lama, on Jan. 28, 1989, a search needed to be conducted to find the child recognized as his reincarnation according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition. As part of such customs, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, the second-highest position in Tibetan Buddhism, would mutually help seek and identify each other's reincarnated body.

However, the Chinese government, by setting up a team to search for the reincarnated child, took charge of the matter for its own purposes. But the search team was headed by Chadrel Rinpoche, who maintained a close contact with Dalai Lama in India and reported to him about the search process.


A file image of Tibetans in exile walking past the portraits of spiritual leaders the Dalai Lama (left) and the Panchen Lama after celebrating the 23rd birth anniversary of the Panchen Lama at the Tibetan Welfare Center, Boudha in Kathmandu on April 25, 2012. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)


After carefully studying the reports of several possible child candidates, the Dalai Lama finally announced on May 14, 1995 that the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who subsequently became the 11th Panchen Lama.

Three days later, the Religious Affairs Bureau of the Chinese Communist government refused to recognize the new Panchen Lama. In Nov. 29, 1995, it declared another Tibetan child Gyancain Norbu who they enshrined as the 11th Panchen through the ceremony of the so-called "Golden Urn" held in Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

The ceremony is a lottery method to pick the reincarnations of lamas, in which names of competing candidates are written on folded slips of paper placed in a golden urn. Participants confirmed the lot-drawing process was compromised by representatives from the central government.

The child selected in this process, Gyancain Norbu, is thus called by Tibetans as the "Additional Panchen" or "Han Panchen." He is now a vice-president of the Buddhist Association of China and a member of the 12th National Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a top advisory body of Beijing.



A file image of the "Han Panchen" Gyancain Norbu talking to other delegates after the closing session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2012. (Photo by Liu Jin/AFP)


Ye Xiaowen, the then head of the Religious Affairs Bureau, reportedly said, "To be honest, after Dalai Lama announced the reincarnated child, the situation became really tense. We immediately took action and asked permission from the Politburo Standing Committee to deploy three aircraft to transport and hide the three [possible] reincarnated children in three places. No one knew their whereabouts…"

Since then, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima disappeared with his family. He was then the youngest political prisoner in the world.

The Chinese government has long denied that he went missing. Under continuous pressure of the international community, the Chinese government claimed on May 14, 1996 that he is an "ordinary boy" and he was given "safe protection" to avoid an attempted abduction of him by a separatist organization.

The last time the Chinese government released information about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was on Sept. 6, 2015, when Nor Bu Don Grub, a Tibetan official of the United Front Work Department — a Communist organ that oversees religions — responded to the media that "he is receiving education," "leading a normal life" and "growing up healthily."

These were the same things mentioned in previous statements by the Chinese government. It was again mere talk without evidence.

Circulated outside China, there is one photograph of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima taken when he was a boy. Recently an unconfirmed photo appeared on the internet claiming that it is the portrait of his whole family.

No one can prove if the image is real and some people doubt if he is still alive.

Though the Communist Party has enshrined its "Han Panchen," people inside and outside Tibet still believe Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is the 11th Panchen Lama and they would revere him if the Communist Party set him free.

Evidence of this was seen at the Party-organized Kalachakra empowerment, a major religious festival for Tibetan Buddhists, presided by the "Han Panchen" Gyancain Norbu in July 2016. To get people to attend the event, the communists had to force the temples and monasteries in Xigaze to send people to attend the event.


Tibetans living in-exile take part in a rally in New Delhi on May 23, 2016, after a cycle event supporting the Panchen Lama. (Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP)


The reason why the Communist Party forced Gedhun Choekyi Nyima to disappear was because it was concerned that the world Buddhist community would recognize him as the 11th Panchen Lama if he went into exile abroad. If this occurred it would further invalidate the Communist Party's Han Panchen and have a tremendous impact on politics in Tibet. The communist government has resolutely tried to prevent this from occurring.

The atheistic Chinese government interference in Tibetan religious traditions is purely politics. Tibetan Buddhism's reincarnation system cannot function in such a way. Tibetan Buddhism includes systematic education, which needs to be learnt and practiced from childhood.

The Communist Party has isolated Gedhun Choekyi Nyima from learning Tibetan culture and its religious education. Now, the 28-year-old young man has lost his best time of learning. A real guru needs to master the knowledge of Buddhism and to have a high standard of religious practice himself. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has been denied this.

The Chinese government's interference in the Panchen Lama reincarnation system is not only destroying the system itself but is seriously damaging the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, causing extensively and irreparable negative impacts upon Tibetan believers.

Song Jieja is a Tibetan writer, commentator and former Chinese spokesman of the exiled Tibetan government. He is currently studying in Spain.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Lent is the season during which catechumens make their final preparations to be welcomed into the Church.
Each year during Lent, UCA News presents the stories of people who will join the Church in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is their Lord. The stories of how women and men who will be baptized came to believe in Christ are inspirations for all of us as we prepare to celebrate the Church's chief feast.
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
UCA News
Asian Bishops
Latest News
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia