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NEW YORK TIMES


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China hopes to bolster the credentials of a handpicked lama

By Andrew Jacobs

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 03:32 a.m. HST, Aug 07, 2011



XIAHE, China » His name is on the lips of the ruddy-cheeked monks, the anxious hotel owners and the intrepid tourists who make their way to this isolated and starkly beautiful town in the mountains of Gansu province: will he come to Xiahe, as unverified reports suggest, and how long will he stay?

"He" is China's handpicked Panchen Lama, the second most important religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and despite his formidable rank, his presence is not universally welcomed by the faithful in and around the white-wall Labrang Monastery that sprawls into a cavernous valley here.

In recent weeks, as word has spread that he might be coming to study at the monastery, emotions have spiked, as have the numbers of police officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes, hoping to head off trouble in a place where ethnic Tibetans have been unafraid to express their enmity toward Chinese rule.

"Nobody wants him to come, and yet still he will come," said one 26-year-old monk. "We feel powerless."

The main problem is that this Panchen Lama, 21, is one of two young men with claims to the title. The one chosen by Communist Party officials in 1995, named Gyaltsen Norbu at birth, is often referred to by local residents as the "Chinese Panchen Lama." The other is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who would now be 22, a herder's son who was anointed that same year by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader.

Most Tibetans are still loyal to the memory of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, even if he has been missing since Chinese authorities swept him and his family into "protective custody" more than 16 years ago.

"We just hope he is still alive," said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan essayist and blogger who noted that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima's visage, frozen as a 5-year-old, hangs in many homes and temples. "We are waiting for him."

As Gyaltsen Norbu moves from adolescence to adulthood, Chinese authorities are facing a quandary over how to burnish his bona fides: his standing will continue to suffer if he remains apart from Tibetan monks and the faithful, but officials risk inflaming passions by foisting him on a community that remains deeply suspicious.

In recent years, the Communist Party has tried other means to raise his profile. They named him vice president of the state-run Buddhist association and appointed him to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body that meets annually in Beijing.

But so far most of his public statements have left Tibetans unimpressed. In one typically stolid remark last March, he said, "We live in a society governed by law, while the religious practices fall into the category of social activity; therefore, only by administration according to law can we ensure a stable and harmonious development of religious affairs."

The government bureaucrats who oversee Tibetan affairs have come to the conclusion, one rooted in history, that only a significant stint in a prominent monastery can bolster the Panchen Lama's religious credentials, according to scholars and local religious figures.

"The Tibetans respect good Buddhist practice and accomplishment," Hu Shisheng, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said in a telephone interview from Lhasa, Tibet's capital.

The government's struggle to legitimize the Panchen Lama among Tibetans foreshadows the deeper struggle Beijing will face upon the Dalai Lama's death, when it has said it would name a successor. The Dalai Lama, 76, is still revered on the Tibetan plateau despite years of fierce propaganda that brands him as a troublemaking separatist, even as he insists that he is interested only in genuine autonomy for Tibetans.

Although officially atheist, the Communist Party insists that only it has the authority to pick top spiritual leaders, who according to Tibetan theology, are reincarnated from deceased religious figures.

A previous attempt to improve the Panchen Lama's religious standing in 1998 did not end well. After officials sought to pair the boy with the abbot of Kumbum, a revered monastery in Qinghai province, the abbot, Arjia Rinpoche, fled China and sought asylum in the United States. "It was a very difficult decision, but I did not want to be seen as a collaborator with the Chinese government," Arjia Rinpoche said by telephone from Indiana, where he now lives.

According to several Tibetans, both in China and abroad, the antipathy has been strong enough that the authorities may have already scaled back their plans to have the Panchen Lama spend months studying at Labrang Monastery, one of the most important centers of Buddhist learning -- and the scene of recent protests against Chinese rule that were prompted by much deadlier ethnic rioting in Lhasa.

One Qinghai-based scholar who said that he had spoken to senior lamas at Labrang in recent days noted that many rank-and-file monks had expressed concern that the Panchen Lama would bring with him security agents, surveillance cameras and even more restrictions than those that already govern the lives of the monastery's more than 1,000 monks. "There is no historical precedent for installing a Panchen Lama at Labrang," said the scholar, who asked for anonymity to shield himself from potential trouble. "But more importantly, they worry Labrang will become like a circus, not a monastery."

He and others said the monastery was most likely selected because its chief abbot, Geshe Jamyang Gyatso, has been especially cooperative with Beijing. Another factor may be that one of the tutors who teaches the Panchen Lama at his home in Beijing hails from Labrang.

Rinpoche, however, said that if the Panchen Lama one day showed a hint of independence, Tibetans could come to respect him.

"People say that even if he's not a real reincarnation, at least he's a real Tibetan, and maybe when he grows up he can believe in the Dalai Lama and do something good for Tibet," he said.

More immediately, however, the prospect of a visit to Xiahe is causing consternation, and not only among the monks. Several government workers who are ethnic Tibetans have in recent days said they were threatened with wage cuts or dismissal if they did greet the Panchen Lama with open arms. Before he was interrupted by a Han Chinese business owner, one middle-age monk who spoke to a foreign visitor acknowledged the widespread discontent but said he was resigned to the Panchen Lama's arrival.

"I will not allow it to impact me," he said. "I will continue to pray and be fully observant."






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