For Tibetans, 2 heirs apparent


Buddhists: Two young boys have been designated His Holiness the 11th Panchen Lama, and tensions are rising between factions that support each of the youngsters.

July 01, 1999|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

XIGAZE, Tibet -- Both boys are too young to shave or even to count their age beyond the fingers of two hands. Both live in the Chinese capital surrounded by police who supervise their every move.

But only one is His Holiness the 11th Panchen Lama, the second most revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism, who by tradition reigns in this gritty but sacred city in the highlands of south-central Tibet.

The officially approved 11th Panchen Lama is 9-year-old Erdeni Chosgyi Gyalpo, a descendant of nomadic Tibetan herders who has spent the past four years in Beijing studying classic Buddhist texts and scriptures.

To a wizened Tibetan street vendor named Gyashi, however, the boy is something else. "He's a fake," the vendor says with a dismissive snort and wave of the hand.

For Gyashi and many others, the genuine article is 10-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who, like his younger rival, reportedly also lives in Beijing -- but under house arrest. The 10-year-old, along with his family, has lived the life of a virtual prisoner since the exiled Dalai Lama infuriated China's leaders by naming him as the reincarnated Panchen Lama without their consent in May 1995.

Tensions between religious Tibetans and China's atheistic regime have grown in the past two weeks as the government's Panchen Lama journeyed amid tight security to Tibet. The boy appeared in public briefly on the first two days of a religious festival in Xigaze, Tibet's second largest city, before being whisked away.

Living gods

In the world of Tibetan Buddhism, the top two spots belong to the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, both of whom are believed to be living gods worthy of worship and who are reincarnated repeatedly.

The Panchen Lama's lineage dates to the 16th century. The original Panchen Lama was tutor to the fifth Dalai Lama, who gave his teacher the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Xigaze in gratitude. Panchen Lamas have served as abbots of the monastery for centuries. The original Panchen Lama was also declared to be the incarnation of Amitabha, the "Buddha of Infinite Light."

According to ancient tradition, the Dalai Lama selects the new Panchen Lama when the old one dies and vice versa, following divine signs and omens.

However, the Chinese emperor in 1792 instituted a ceremony involving a lottery, a golden urn and names wrapped in barley dough balls that allowed the central government to have the final say on selection of the new Panchen Lama.

The current flap over the 11th Panchen Lama hinges on the choice of the present, or 14th, Dalai Lama of a candidate without the Chinese government's approval. The Beijing regime accused the exiled Dalai Lama of flouting the lottery ritual and making a politically motivated choice. Six months later it replaced the Dalai Lama's choice with its own candidate following a government-overseen lottery.

The succession flap underscores how sensitive the communist regime is to the continuing influence in Tibet of the Dalai Lama, whom China regards as a "splittist" bent on breaking up the country.

Chinese communist troops moved into Tibet nearly five decades ago. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for exile in India after an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. China considers Tibet an "autonomous region" within the People's Republic, akin to other Chinese provinces.

The Dalai Lama has said he is willing for Tibet to be a broadly autonomous part of China. The United Nations acknowledges Chinese control over Tibet.

Beijing links Tibetan Buddhism to nationalist and separatist activity, and fears that the figure of the Panchen Lama -- who practitioners believe is a living god -- could become yet another major flash point in the struggle over religious expression and Chinese rule.

Aware of widespread opposition to its choice, the government put its Panchen Lama under heavy armed guard for his trip to Tibet, which began in Lhasa.

About two dozen sharpshooters lined the roof of the Jokhang temple, Lhasa's holiest site, when the boy visited in early morning darkness June 19, witnesses say. During his 90-minute visit, he received scarves in tribute from the temple's monks, some of whom said the government had ordered them to present the offerings.

"Their own demons"

"If he were the real reincarnation, the government wouldn't have to be so severe," says one young monk, his wiry frame hidden beneath the loose folds of his crimson robe. "But the fact that they were shows that they have their own demons about it."

Two days later, at the hillside Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Xigaze, the historic seat of the Panchen Lama, men in monks' robes patrol the imposing compound with walkie-talkies before the boy arrives to kick off the second day of one of Xigaze's most important religious events, the annual Kuiku festival.

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