Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama quarrel: The way for rapprochement with China

The last month or two have been a busy time for geopolitics. While Western leaders convened in Washington to discuss the potential trans-Atlantic trade war and the possibility of a conventional war against Iran in support of Israel, Korean leaders got together in the demilitarized zone and India’s Narendra Modi headed to Wuhan province in China for an informal two-day summit with President Xi Jinping. As a new world order takes shape, these two countries China and India, have evolved from peripheral actors to central players.

In 2000, China accounted for just 3.6 percent of the global economy; today it’s responsible for nearly 15 percent of the world’s economic output, and by 2032 it is poised to surpass the U.S. as the world’s foremost economic powerhouse. It has achieved this by harnessing the strength of state-capitalism, intertwining its political power with its financial clout on a scale never before seen in the global free market. Between 1990 and 2011, nearly 450 million Chinese were raised out of poverty. Over roughly the same time period (1994 to 2012), more than 130 million Indians escaped poverty, a 50 percent reduction in its poverty level.

Given today’s chaotic politics and the disruptive belligerence in the Middle East, the Chinese political model has become increasingly appealing. The goal of the Wuhan meeting was to help Xi and Modi keep things cordial between the two growing economic powers. There have been more than enough flashpoints in recent months to make a meeting like this necessary: in the Maldives, in Sri Lanka, even in sleepy Bhutan.

One of the most contentious issues springs from Beijing’s resentment that India continues to give shelter and a platform to the Dalai Lama and those Tibetans who followed the spiritual leader into exile following a failed uprising against Chinese rule almost six decades ago. This is particularly galling to the Chinese because the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government in exile had, until very recently, never lost an opportunity to needle Beijing about the legitimacy of its claims on Tibet. China sees Tibet as an integral part of its territory, and is extremely sensitive to any question regarding the legitimacy of its rule in the region.

A number of recent developments in the last month have however raised hopes for more cordial relations between Beijing and the exile government’s representatives, with both the Dalai Lama and the CTA at pains to minimize issues that in the past have strained relations between China and the exiled Tibetans. These include the issue of the Panchen Lama, and of devotion to the Dorje Shugden deity, both often the subject of heated debate between the two sides, although the subject matter might seem rather arcane to outsiders.

Squabbling over succession

The Panchen Lama is one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, whose spiritual authority is second only to that of the Dalai Lama himself. Of particular significance is the Panchen Lama’s role in identifying the next Dalai Lama. Given the Dalai Lama’s spiritual leadership of the Tibetan community in exile, he is an important factor in both CTA relations with China and, to a lesser extent, China’s relations with its Tibetan Autonomous Region. A Dalai Lama who is open to a cordial relationship with China could ultimately pave the way for an agreement between the CTA and China that would allow the return home of Tibet’s exile community.

In May 1995, the current Dalai Lama, the 14th, recognized six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. Three days later, Nyima was abducted by the Chinese and spirited away to an undisclosed location. Chinese officials said the whereabouts of Nyima and his family had been kept secret for their protection. However, China did not recognize Nyima’s legitimacy and, some months later, said a separate selection process had identified Gyancain Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama.

This controversy over the rightful Panchen Lama has created a further division between the CTA and China over the naming of an eventual successor to the Dalai Lama himself. The Chinese-sponsored Panchen Lama is likely to name a pro-China successor in order to foment controversy and weaken the “Tibetan cause”, reasons the CTA. The Chinese counter that choosing an aggressive, independence-minded successor would only serve to perpetuate old wounds and make the likelihood of reconciliation ever more remote.

Norbu hails from a line of devotees to the Dorje Shugden deity, to which the Dalai Lama himself has admitted that he once used to offer prayers before declaring it to be a malign spirit. Since 1976, the spiritual leader has stated publicly on several occasions that the practice of paying devotion to Dorje Shugden shortened the life of the Dalai Lama, encouraged sectarianism among Buddhists and represented a “danger to the cause of Tibet”. Thus the Dalai Lama and the CTA at the time saw the Chinese-sponsored Panchen Lama, a Shugden devotee, as a provocation and an attempt to create a rift in the exile community.

The Dorje Shugden deity is revered as one of several protectors of the “Geluk”, or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lamas belong. But the spiritual leader and other critics said worship of the deity creates and deepens divisions among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism despite them all sharing the same fundamental philosophy – their differences residing mainly in the emphasis they place on the vast body of Buddhist scriptures.

Shortly after the revelation that the Chinese had backed their own Panchen Lama, the CTA upped the stakes against Shugden worshippers, issuing resolutions and directives that effectively made outcasts of the Shugden community. For many years, they were accused of being stooges of China and supporting Beijing rule in Tibet. By continuing in their devotion, they were allowing China to exploit divisions among Tibetan Buddhists, the CTA said. Many were accused, some justifiably so, of accepting Chinese backing to encourage the ensuing turmoil within the community.

But ultimately, the Dalai Lama and the CTA’s efforts to use Shugden as an instrument against China backfired. The marginalization of the Shugden practice provided China with a pretext to oppose the Dalai Lama and draw devotees in Tibet and the exile community into its own ambit. At the same time, the manoeuvre alienated from the Dalai Lama and his followers a large percentage of Shugden worshippers in Europe and Asia who felt they had been unfairly targeted, since they played no part whatsoever in the Sino-Tibetan conflict, and had no desire to be drawn into it.

The CTA’s faux pas

In recent times, the CTA has been compelled to tone down its US-backed anti-China rhetoric significantly as it has begun to lose the faith and support of numerous exiles, having done little to ease their precarious situation after sixty years of exile. Its support has dwindled amid allegations of corruption and self-promotion; its people are leaving and its relevance is diminished, and just as serious, it appears to be losing international support.

One grave misjudgement of the CTA last year created more trouble for its Indian hosts than they were willing to tolerate. Specifically, The Dalai Lama’s visit to the Arunachal Pradesh region in April 2017, where hundreds of his supporters triumphantly waved Tibetan flags, earned India a stiff rebuke from China. Chinese authorities bridled at his reception by Chief Minister Pema Khandu and Minister of State Kiren Rijiju, which Beijing perceived as official backing of the Dalai Lama from India.

While the Dalai Lama’s previous visits to the area had also stirred Indi-China tensions, the latest one was followed by a military standoff between Indian and Chinese forces along their common border later in the year before both sides took steps to de-escalate the situation. Unlike on previous occasions, it appeared that this time India decided enough was enough, and that there was little value to be had in allowing a small group of long-term Tibetan refugees to provoke trouble between itself and a neighbour which happens to command the world’s largest army.

In diplomatic terms, India’s message to the CTA has been crystal clear: back off from antagonizing China. Senior government officials were earlier this year discouraged from participating in Tibet-related events, forcing the CTA to shift a high-profile celebration, planned to commemorate the start of the 60th year of the Dalai Lama’s exile, from Delhi to the much smaller city of Dharamsala. What had been originally planned as a full-scale jamboree in the capital – which would certainly have again roused China’s ire – was downgraded to a rather low-key event in the provinces.

According to the Hong-Kong daily South China Morning Post, “reports in January of a fresh Chinese build-up in the Himalayan area raised fears that an August peace deal may be unravelling, paving the way for an even bigger confrontation.” India will want to avoid any such confrontation if possible, and will certainly wish to ensure that the CTA is in no position to jeopardize the situation.

The modified Indian stance vis-à-vis its scattered Tibetan community finds an echo in how the U.S. attitude towards Tibet has changed, verging on outright indifference since the election of President Trump. That is in spite of a recent budget grant to support certain Tibet-focused projects. In fact, the grant seemed more the result of political horse-trading in Congress, with Tibet as a low-value bargaining chip, than any true desire to put the Tibet question on the agenda.

The changes in the attitudes of both the CTA’s hosts and what was once its most powerful advocate have forced the government in exile onto the defensive. No more can it provoke China with impunity and hope to maintain the unwavering support of its principal erstwhile benefactors, India and the United States. The Dalai Lama has certainly taken the lessons from these developments on board.

Indeed, in recent interviews and speeches, the spiritual leader has been more conciliatory towards China and the idea of Chinese rule in Tibet than at any time during his exile. His emissary, former CTA Prime Minister Samdong Rinpoche was reported to have paid a discreet visit to China in late 2017 for discreet discussions with the Chinese authorities, reportedly to advance negotiations for the spiritual leader’s eventual return to Tibet.

The Dalai Lama now seems more open to building bridges with China than in the past. In November 2017 he even admitted that most Tibetans want to remain part of China, effectively dealing the independence cause a severe blow. He also added that he would return to Tibet at once, if China agreed, flagging is the strongest manner yet his willingness to work towards better relations with China.

Signs of a change

In 2016 the China-sponsored Panchen Lama performed the Kalachakra ritual, an esoteric but important rite for activating dormant enlightenment. This was the first time the ritual had been practiced in the Tibetan Autonomous Region for 50 years, although the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, has performed the ritual in exile.

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, director of London-based NGO Free Tibet, was highly critical, saying the Chinese were trying to impose their authority on Tibet “by co-opting Tibetan Buddhism.”

But since then, the evolving story of the two Panchen Lamas has begun to indicate a change in tactic, a silent signal that Dalai Lama’s position has softened markedly. Recently he has said that, according to reliable sources, the 11th Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima “is alive and receiving normal education”. Significantly, on April 27 the United States, which since the Trump election has been far less vocal on Tibet issues than previously, weighed in, calling on China to immediately release the Panchen Lama, Nyima.

As for the awkwardness of having two Panchen Lamas – which has echoes in the Western Schism of 1378-1417, when the Catholic Church had two rival Popes – the Dalai Lama has sought to downplay any question of a conflict by noting instances in Tibetan Buddhist tradition “where a reincarnated lama took more than one manifestation”. This is significant, since it shows a willingness to recognise China’s “version” of the Panchen Lama without repudiating his own.

His Eminence Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, spiritual advisor to the Malaysian Kechara Buddhist Association, has continued in his appeal to the Dalai Lama to heal the divisions around the religious tradition of Dorje Shugden, which is also practiced by the Chinese-backed 11th Panchen Lama. Tsem Tulku noted this would be a logical and opportune step following the spiritual leader’s recognition of the Chinese-backed lama and the great strides towards peace made during the recent meeting of the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President.

The recent developments represent a huge opportunity to bridge differences not only between India and China but between Chinese-controlled Tibet and its exile community. It has become clear over the years that the Central Tibetan Authority itself no longer sees an independent Tibet as a viable option, and that the most practical way of working towards a return to the homeland is through de-escalating tensions with China. Pulling back from the long-running controversies over the Panchen Lama and Dorje Shugden devotion represents a small step towards this end.

Dr. Andrea Galli
Dr. Andrea Galli
Dr. Andrea Galli, principal investigator at swiss east affairs