The Tashi Lhunpo monastery – the seat of the Panchen Lamas (second to the Dalai Lamas) in Shigatse, southwest China – was thronged by Tibetan Buddhists on Thursday to attend the four-day-long Due Khor Wang Chen (Kalchakra) proceedings.
The elaborate ritual scheduled from 21 to 24 July, began after Gyaltsen Norbu, whom the Chinese hold to be the eleventh Panchen Lama, unveiled a huge Thangka portrait of the Buddha.
According to Xinhua, the turnout far exceeded the initial estimates of 50,000 in spite of heavy overnight rainfall.
Literally meaning the wheel of life, the Kalchakra ritual is important to Buddhists for activating dormant enlightenment. Even as the ongoing proceedings are being carried out in Tibet after a long gap of over 50 years, the Buddhists are not pleased. That's because Norbu continues to occupy the exalted title of Panchen Lama without being ‘entitled’ to do so, merely because he has the backing of the Chinese government.
Who is the real Panchen Lama?
Reincarnation of Tibetan lamas is an old tradition and has been practiced for many centuries.
The Dalai Lama is considered to be the highest reincarnated Buddhist spiritual leader. Second to him in terms of influence is the Panchen Lama, the spiritual leader of the Gelug sect.
The tenth Panchen Lama, Choekyi Gyaltsen – a strong advocate of Tibetan cultural identity and a relentless critic of Beijing’s policy – died under mysterious circumstances (his followers believe he was poisoned) in 1989.
In 1995, six years after the death of the aforesaid spiritual head, Dalai Lama recognised Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a chubby-cheeked six-year-old boy as his reincarnation, as is the norm. A few days later, he and his family were whisked away by Chinese agents citing threats to his security. His followers accused the Chinese authorities of having abducted him.
The conspiracy grew deeper when shortly after Nyima’s disappearance, Gyaltsen Norbu, a son of two Communist Party members was appointed as the eleventh Panchen Lama by the officially ‘atheist’ Chinese government.
Even 21 years after the reincarnated Panchen Lama vanished, the whereabouts of the cherubic six-year-old, who, at the time of his abduction was the youngest political prisoner in the world, remains unknown. The Chinese authorities refuse to share details about the same saying his security is ‘threatened’ and that he could be ‘kidnapped by separatists’.
In May 2007, Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief of the UN Human Rights Council, questioned Beijing about the steps they had taken to implement the recommendation of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. To which they replied saying: "Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is a perfectly ordinary Tibetan boy, in an excellent state of health, leading a normal, happy life and receiving a good education and cultural upbringing.”
In 2015, Norbu Dunzhub, a member of the Tibet autonomous region’s united front work department, elaborated saying, "The reincarnated child Panchen Lama you mentioned is being educated, living a normal life, growing up healthily and does not wish to be disturbed."
The importance of Due Khor Wang Chen (Kalchakra)
The Kalchakra is an esoteric but a key ritual in Tibetan Buddhism during which a senior Lama conducts a series of teachings, initiations, and empowerments, hoping these will assist Tibetan Buddhists through the cycle of life.
The ongoing ritual is the first one to be conducted on Tibetan soil in the last 60 years. It was last conducted in Tibet in 1956 by Dalai Lama, whom Beijing insists on calling ‘a long-time stubborn secessionist’ (even though he been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize).
Since then, this religious event has been conducted at various places all over the world 33 times by the present Dalai Lama.
Buddhists from Tibet who face the risk of persecution on getting back home have braved all odds to be a part of it – such is the importance of these proceedings for a practicing Buddhist.
To ensure a ‘decent’ turnout, the Chinese authorities have made it mandatory for each household to send at least two members to the religious congregation.
Why the Buddhists are not pleased, when they supposedly ‘should’ be?
As a part of its efforts to win over the allegiance of Tibetans, the Chinese have been gradually exposing Norbu in public roles in the past too, with almost no success. The ongoing Kalchakra is the biggest ever religious platform for him as they prepare him for playing a vital political and religious role in future.
In spite of being a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Buddhists, the news of the ongoing Kalchakra being presided over by the ‘fake’ Panchen Lama has not gone too well with the otherwise peace-loving Buddhist community. The move, for them, is a part of Beijing’s efforts to legitimise Norbu as their spiritual leader. And this is not acceptable to them.
"We consider Gedhun Choekyi Nyima to be the true reincarnation of tenth Panchen Lama,” said Ven Kachen Kunchok Tenzin, head of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Bylakuppe (Mysore), Karanataka.
“In Tibetan Buddhism, choosing one's own Lama is by the will of the disciple and faith in the enlightened one who shows the right path,” Tenzin said.
The heads of various monasteries and sects have, historically speaking, held an important place in the Tibetan setup. The control of these monastic heads have over the Tibetans and their role has diminished considerably after 1959. Ever since Dalai Lama and his followers were forced to flee Tibet, Panchen Lama continued to be an important figure both politically and spiritually because of the role he could be playing in selecting next Dalai Lama.
“This is an attempt to exert political and social control over Tibetans through sacred religious rituals, which are an integral part of Tibetan life,” said Dorjee Tseten, an exiled Tibetan Parliamentarian and Students For Free Tibet (SFT) Asia Director.
“Their decision to force attendance at a religious ritual proves that they have failed miserably,” he went on to add.
Given that the present Dalai Lama turned 81 last month, the Chinese could well go on to bestow the title of Dalai Lama to the son of a loyal member of the Communist Party in the event of his death. It could then use its economic superpower status for pressurizing Western governments and getting its pawn recognized as the next Dalai Lama!
“The officially atheist Chinese government has long tried to impose its authority on Tibet by co-opting Tibetan Buddhism,” said Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, Director of London-based Free Tibet, in a press statement. She pointed out that Norbu’s presence at this event “stems from the Chinese occupation rather than from genuine religious legitimacy.”
For a regime to organise an event like this shortly after they ordered Tibet's largest Buddhist center – Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Serthar Countyin Kardze – to trim its size and later even went ahead to demolish it (citing ‘overcrowding’ concerns) does sound ironical, to say the least.
Is it a preposterous attempt by those controlling the strings in Beijing to control the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people?