Foreign Correspondents Invited To Report On China’s Panchen Lama
New York,August 16 2004: The face under the yellow hat of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism looks rather austere for the young age of the wearer. He is shown walking ceremoniously into the Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest shrine, with a yellow parasol held over his head by someone walking behind. Two older monks hold his hands on the either side. This is CNN’s picture of a 15-year-old boy, known throughout Tibet as the “Fake One”.
For years, the Communist leaders of Tibet promoted Gyaltsen Norbu as the face of Tibet’s Panchen Lama.
Chinese official publications on Norbu spoke about an abundance of mystical portents, which–the atheist rulers were convinced–pointed to his authenticity as reincarnation of an accomplished spiritual master.
Norbu’s pictures were shown everywhere. Roadside vendors on Barkhor were encouraged to sell his pictures to unsuspecting nomads and pilgrims. A video footage, shot surreptitiously in Lhasa, shows a vendor trying to sell the boy’s picture as a “lama” to a nomad from Amdo. The woman takes a look at the picture and rejects it with a remark, “This is the fake one.’
Yes, Beijing has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Tibetans as far as the issue of the Panchen Lama reincarnation is concerned; so much so that the Chinese government has to take special measures to hide him from the view of the Tibetan public.
But China is not willing to give up so easily. If it cannot win on the spiritual front, it can take the battle to the political front.
Norbu may have failed to win the reverence of Tibetans, but he can still serve Beijing’s political interests by winning international legitimacy.
The battle for that legitimacy will be fought on the arena of international media. China will bombard the international community with the image of Norbu–so thoroughly and so often that the Panchen Lama recognised by His Holiness the Dalai Lama will soon be crowded out of the collective memory of the world.
The Chinese government was merely implementing this strategy when it decided to invite Beijing-based foreign correspondents to witness and report on Norbu’s third visit to Tibet; his two earlier visits were also made into high-profile media events.
What is interesting is that the strategy seems to be working.
Already, a number of media outlets are using phrases that take it for granted that Norbu is indeed the real Panchen Lama.
A BBC report of the event speaks of “Gyaltsen Norbu” as rating “second after the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism”.
Another report refers to him as “the monk who ranks second only to the Dalai Lama”.
This report also talks about a day when it will fall upon Norbu to choose the next Dalai Lama.
Indeed, we all know that China is counting on using Gyaltsen Norbu to anoint the next Dalai Lama.
But what Beijing does not care to know is the fact that a “Dalai Lama”, appointed by the “Fake One”, will be meaningless insofar as he will have absolutely no influence with the Tibetans. If anything, the Chinese government will have to hide him from the Tibetans as it does with Gyaltsen Norbu.
Secondly, the Dalai Lama has said time and again that should he pass away while in exile, his reincarnation will not be born under Chinese control. The purpose of the reincarnation is to fulfill the unfinished task of the previous body, not to undo it, he said.
Moreover, it is wrong to say that the Panchen Lamas have authority to recognise the Dalai Lamas. While some Panchen Lamas played important roles in recognising the Dalai Lamas, others had no role in this process. The 14th Dalai Lama was recognized by Regent Reting and the Ninth Panchen Lama, who was living then, had no role in this.
Another misunderstanding that keeps cropping up is the attribution of the title of “Tibet’s second spiritual hierarch” to the Panchen Lama.
True, the Dalai Lama is the highest spiritual leader of Tibet. Under him are the heads of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, all of whom enjoy equal ranks and authority. To call anyone of them the second highest is to undermine the equal status of all the religious schools in Tibet.
The Panchen Lamas are influential spiritual teachers of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. They became highly respected in Tibet due to their special teacher-disciple relationship with the Dalai Lamas.
But to term the Panchen Lama as ranking second to the Dalai Lama and to say that he has the authority to select the next Dalai Lama is to confuse Tibetan history as it is to fall prey to the machinations of the propagandists in Beijing.