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Soul Boy - the Panchen Lama Controversy

by Ivy Hsu
October, 1996
Chinese (BIG5) version



photo of Gedhun Choekyi NyimaOn December 8, 1995, the Chinese Communist government again seemed to succeed in imposing its will on the Tibetan people. In a carefully orchestrated ceremony at the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the Panchen Lama's traditional seat in Shigatse, a Communist-chosen "soul boy" was enthroned as the 11th Panchen Lama (Soul boy is a Chinese term referring to a religious reincarnate). Meanwhile, the whereabouts of another boy earlier recognized as the reincarnate by the Dalai Lama remained unknown.

Almost a year after the enthronement, as the media attention surrounding the controversy fades, we recount the events and bring to your attention that the fate of two little boys and that of about sixty Tibetan people arrested in connection with the choice of the Panchen Lama are still in China's hands.

The 10th Panchen Lama passed away on January 28, 1989, just five days after boldly criticizing the Chinese government. Chatrel Rinpoche, the acting abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery, headed a search committee undertaking the task of finding the reincarnate. Despite the tradition that the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama assume the responsibility of recognizing and educating the new reincarnate when one of them passes away, China rejected the Dalai Lama's offers to send a religious delegation to assist the search.

Meanwhile, Chatrel Rinpoche carried out the traditional search in Tibet, which includes interpreting clues revealed in his meditation at Tibet's sacred lakes, Lhamo Nam and Lhamo Lhatso. The names of 28 potential candidates finally reached Dharamsala, the location of the Dalai Lama's Government-in-Exile. In January 1995, during the Dalai Lama's Kalachakra teaching, he commenced the recognition process. Through a series of divination, the name of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was identified and confirmed.

One of the procedures was the doughball divination, in which the name of each candidate was wrapped in a barley dough, which was then shaped into sphere and weighed on scale to make sure that all balls weighed the same. They were then rolled in a chalice while monks chanted, until one of the balls, as if propelled on its own, jumped out. This was repeated twice and both attempts confirmed Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. (link to a complete description of the recognition process)

On May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama announced his decision. The official Chinese reaction came in the form of a Xinhua news dispatch on May 17, 1995. It contains a statement by a spokesman of the Bureau of Religious Affairs, declaring the Dalai Lama's decision "illegal and invalid." Xinhua further carried out its common tactic of smear campaigns, character-attacking the boy and his parents. Chatrel Rinpoche was arrested. A ban was imposed on gathering of more than three people and on publicly discussing the Panchen Lama's incarnation. The whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family have been unknown since July.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was born in April 25, 1989, in the district of Lhari of the Nagchu Prefecture, which is located at the edge of the Tibetan plateau. It was said that he declared himself to be the Panchen Lama and named the locations of his monasteries as soon as he was able to speak.

The repression continued. Monks and lay people all over Tibet were forced to attend re-education sessions and to denounce the Dalai Lama and the soul boy. In July 1995, six monks were arrested for staging a protest over the abduction of the boy. Following that another 28 monks were arrested for boycotting the Zamling Chisang festival. Monks and nuns in Lhasa were placed under strict confinement to their monasteries and nunneries. As of spring 1996, the number of arrests in connection with the Panchen Lama issue has gone up to about sixty.

The Chinese authority evoked an old precedent dating back to 1792 based on an agreement between the Eighth Dalai Lama and the Manchu (Qing) emperor on a system of determining reincarnates through drawing lots from a golden urn in Lhasa. This, they dictated, would be the method used to identify the 11th Panchen Lama. In November 1995, 75 high lamas were summoned to Beijing and demanded for a list of candidates. After five days of sequestering, they came up with three names. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima's name was not among them. Apparently the authorities would leave nothing to chance.

The three names were inscribed on ivory chips. On November 29, 1995, in a highly secretive ceremony that lasted only 15 minutes, the name of another 6-year-old boy also from the Lhari district, Gyaltsen Norbu, was drawn from the golden urn.

Shortly afterward, he was spirited away to Tashilhunpo Monastery, and isolated from public view. A curfew was imposed in Tibet's three largest cities-Lhasa, Shigatse, and Chamdo. The enthronement took place on December 8. At the boy's side was Sengchen Lobsang Gyaltsen, the man who endeared himself to the Communists by persecuting the 10th Panchen Lama in 1964 and now replaces Chatrel Rinpoche as the head of Tashilhunpo.

On May 28, 1996, after a year of denying knowledge on the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama's boy by all Chinese officials, the Chinese Ambassador to the UN in Geneva finally admitted that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was under the "protection" of the government. He claimed that the boy's parents requested the government to protect them, but would not disclose where they were and what condition they were living under.

In my opinion, both boys will remain in China's hand for the indefinite future. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima will be held to prevent any chances for the Tibetan people to express who they truly believe in, and to prevent him from getting the proper education needed to ever become the Panchen Lama, or even an ordinary monk for that matter. The Communists will try to groom Gyaltsen Norbu as a puppet to showcase the Tibetan people's obedience, and to exert whatever influence he will have as the holder of the second most revered throne in Tibet.

As a Chinese, I question how such actions can serve the interest of the Chinese people. Please keep in mind that by not voicing our objection, all Chinese people are consenting to this act of repression.


Write to Voice Your Concern

Sample appeal letter in the Glow Magazine


To Probe Further

A list of detailed information maintained by the Office of Tibet in London

Where is the Panchen Lama? - An article in the Glow Magazine

China Picks a Panchen Lama - news from the Associated Press

Missing! - articles and discussion group organized by Limited Infinity


Other News Articles

  1. "That's My Boy - Beijing uses Panchen Lama, police against Tibetans", Far Eastern Economic Review, June 20, 1996.
  2. "Sun without a Moon", Vanity Fair, August 1996.