Tag Archives: Beijing

For the 11th Panchen Lama (abducted)

21 Sep

Main Temple [Tombs of the 3rd, 4th, & 5th Panchen Lamas] – Tashilumpo Monastery

Tashilumpo Monastery was built sometime in the 1400s and has served as the seat of the Panchen Lamas ever since.  The Panchen Lamas are the second most important spiritual lineage in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism which the Dalai Lama heads. The Panchen Lama selects the next Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama selects the next Panchen Lama. Unlike the current Dalai Lama who went into exile in 1959, the-then 10th Panchen Lama stayed in Xigatse and aligned himself with Beijing. He broke with the Dalai Lama in a very public way and welcomed the liberation of Tibet. Then, the 10th Panchen Lama did something unprecedented. He did a reverse renunciation — meaning he gave up his vows as an ordained Buddhist monk, got married, and had children. He assumed some ministerial government post in Beijing and did not return to Tibet. But, after nearly 3 decades of playing the part of the reformed Tibetan-turned-model PRC citizen, he went back. He returned to his old quarters at the Tashilumpo Monastery and observed first-hand what was left of it.  Certain chunks of the monastery and areas where the old tombs of the previous Panchen Lamas were interred had been completely destroyed during the liberation.  Something must have stirred inside the 10th Panchen Lama at that point because when it came time for him to give a speech in Xigatse before an assembled crowd of monks, pilgrims, townsfolk, and his PRC caretakers, he lamented the “gains” made as a result of the liberation of his country.  Although these words may have at worst been a backhanded criticism of the PRC, his public rebuke was felt in Beijing.  The 10th Panchen Lama fell dead the next day. It was said he had died of a heart attack. The year was 1989. In that same year, a Tibetan boy was born in Lhari County located in eastern Tibet. His name was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and he was identified as the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama in 1995. Once his identity became publicly known, the PRC promptly abducted Nyima and his parents. They were whisked away from Tashilumpo and have never been seen since. He was 6 years old.  He may have been defrocked and re-engineered into a model Chinese citizen [like the 10th Panchen Lama had voluntarily done all those years before], or something more sinister may have happened. The world may never know. The PRC swiftly appointed their own Panchen Lama in Nyima’s place and this replacement Panchen Lama lives in Tashilumpo under the supervision of the PRC. The strategy here is clear: The PRC’s Panchen Lama will identify the next (15th) Dalai Lama who will already be PRC-selected and who will then be reared in the PRC school of Tibetan Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama and his advisors know the game being played and understand the stakes. But, what of the 6-year-old Nyima abducted in 1995?  He would have turned 23 in 2012. If he is still alive, has he been completely stripped of all vestiges of his faith, language, culture, and purpose?  Or has been able to hold on to these while smiling at his PRC captors as he goes through the motions of his reformation?  I thought of him as I entered the grounds of Tashilumpo. At 6 years of age, he must have just begun to have a general understanding of his faith and incarnation and then one day he was yanked from this predestined life and thrust into a physically arrested existence. The mental wherewithal to withstand such a traumatic and schizophrenic ordeal would be too much fo the average person. Nyima may have been average in body, but as the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, he was certainly not average in mind and spiritual capacity. Tashilumpo was still his home.

The Maitreya – Tashilumpo

Tashilumpo consists of a bunch of connected and separate buildings — temples, shrines, assembly halls, a central courtyard, and living quarters spread out over a large area. The monastery abuts a rocky hill and a standalone large white wall with red trim rises on the right-side of its border. As I got my bearings, I noticed some Tibetan pilgrims walking past me so I decided to follow them.  They walked towards to 2 mid-sized Stupas and began circumambulating each of these. I saw a large building nearby and so I climbed the stairs towards the doorway. After paying a few Yuans in order to take photos and removing my shoes, I entered the temple. The smell of burning juniper and yak candle wax wafted over me.  What a multidimensional and enchanting aroma. If only there had been a way to have captured that scent and recast it into something visual.  But, upon reflecting on that moment years later, perhaps the answer to that was right in front of me then.  I followed the scent trail into a cavernous chamber. Emerging out of the dark and towering overhead was a wondrous sight. It was illuminated by a lone white light. A giant hand was positioned in a Buddhist mudra (gesture) or chakgya in Tibetan. The tips of the thumb and index finger were touching and formed a circle. All the other fingers were extended upwards. This was the “vitarka mudra” or the teaching gesture made right before the turning of the wheel of Dharma. But, the massive blissful face I was gazing up at was not that of the Buddha. It was the Maitreya. Most Buddhist traditions hold to a prophecy that another Buddha is to be born and will bring back the Dharma to the world.  There will come a time on earth when the path to Enlightenment is lost and the Dharma has been forgotten. Ignorance and self-indulgence will run rampant. At such time, the Maitreya will appear and resurrect the Dharma — teaching it in a pure form like the Buddha had first done in Sarnath. The Maitreya at Tashilumpo is the largest gilded statue in the world. It was built in 1914 and is 85ft high. At its base were large photographs of the 9th, 10th, and 11th [PRC-appointed] Panchen Lamas. All I could think of was, “Thank God they didn’t destroy this too.”

Fresco – Tashilumpo

One of the busloads of Chinese tourists had arrived at Tashilumpo and the serene calm of the monastery was quickly shattered. I tried to avoid them, but they gravitated into the main temple of Tashilumpo where the tombs of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Panchen Lamas rested. The corridors around this temple had lively, colorful frescoes which depicted Tibetan Bon-Buddhisht deities and stories from the Buddha’s life. I assumed that the monks who resided in the monastery had painted them all through the centuries. They were like a visual record passed on from one generation of monks to the next.  I then looked on incredulously as many of the Chinese tourists began to file past me — and one after the other — rubbed their hands and fingers all over the frescoes. Dozens upon dozens of fingers were depositing their oils, dirt, and skin cells onto these treasures with no regard for their upkeep.  The frescoes did not have any protective covering at all. I was horrified by what I saw. I tried looking for the Chinese tour guide leader but to no avail, so I made sounds of chastisement as these tourists went passed me. I think a few of them caught my drift. I would also see similar touching and rubbing of frescoes and other artwork in the monasteries at Lhasa. I think that the Chinese tourists must have believed it was good luck to rub and touch these frescoes, but it was extremely upsetting to observe. I imagined walking through the Vatican and running my hands along the frescoes of Raphael. The Tashilumpo frescoes were masterworks in the same vein and connected the past to the present. They would certainly disappear in a decade or so if the endless rubbing was not stopped or prevented in some way.

Monk and tourist – Tashilumpo

I walked out of the main temple and into the outdoor courtyard. A tall Tibetan prayer pole was staffed in the center. I headed towards the pole and when I looked up at the rafters I was startled by what I saw. A very young monk was standing on the second floor and peering over the scene. He was wearing the yellow hat of the Gelug order. But, he was not smiling, and instead seemed perturbed. He wore a scowl. I thought I was hallucinating. I immediately thought of the 11th Panchen Lama who must have experienced the same view when he had lived at the monastery. I reached for my camera in order to capture this extraordinary image, and then a Chinese tourist popped out of the blue and posed alongside the boy. The tourist started to smile in a cheeky way just as I snapped the photo. Then, right after this tourist left, I tried again to take a picture of the monk alone, but an onslaught of other tourists bumrushed the monk. Each jostled with one another as they attempted to take a photo with him. The young monk quickly retreated and I could hear excited chatter in Mandarin all around me. I put down my camera. I understood now that while the Tashilumpo monks may still live, practice their faith, conduct their rituals, debate, and work at the monastery, Tashilumpo was no longer a truly “living” monastery. It had become a museum and a folk-like curiosity for PRC citizens. Without the legitimate Panchen Lama present and in residence, the complex was filled with a disquiet — a disenchantment. I saw that disenchantment on the young monk’s face. I wonder whether the monks at Tashilumpo envision a time when the 11th Panchen Lama will return.  I think they must for this reason: The same faith they have in the return of the Maitreya would also sustain their belief in a time when the Panchen Lama will come home. I can only hope that the artistry, pageantry, and tradition of Tashilumpo do not have to be completely erased in order to trigger the reappearance of the Panchen Lama. For the 11th Panchen Lama in his 17th year of abduction, we remember and have not forgotten.

Tashi Delek

7 Sep

Arranging my entry to TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) was tricky even in June 2007. This was 9 months before the March 2008 Tibetan uprisings spread through TAR and the PRC snuffed things out. While in Kathmandu, I met with a tour agency that was approved by the PRC in order to procure my Chinese visa and “Tibetan travelers permit.”  I provided the tour agency with a passport-sized photo and the necessary rupees and was told it would take at least 3 days to process my paperwork. That was no bother to me since I had things to see in Kathmandu.  Everything was to work out so that by the time I had to meet the rest of the tour group and hop on the bus to the Nepal-Tibet border, I would receive my visa and permit.  When I arrived at the bus depot at 6:30am on the designated day, I immediately met a friendly Norwegian couple who were also traveling to Tibet. While we chatted and compared trip notes, our tour guide came up to us and casually explained that our paperwork had not yet been sent back to the tour group by the Chinese consulate in Kathmandu. “No problem,” our guide said. He would just have a messenger drive up later in the morning and catch up with our bus at the midpoint of the drive to the Nepal-Tibet border. The bus trip was a ravine-hugging unpaved road that rose out of the Kathmandu valley into the Himalayan foothills. When we stopped at the midpoint, I looked into the horizon and marveled at the blueness of the sky and the whiteness of the clouds. Then, as my mind began to focus on what I was observing, I realized that what I thought were clouds were actually the glaciered peaks of the Himalayas. I would be on top of that horizon in 2 days’ time!

First Glimpse of the Himalayas

I heard some chatter between the bus driver and our tour guide and I walked over to them. My guide explained that the messenger who was to meet us with our documents was running late. “No problem”, the guide again said. We would just continue on to the border and have lunch there and wait until the messenger caught up with us.  So, on we went — stopping off a few times — once to walk across an incredible bridge that spanned a narrow gorge over the Bhote Koshi river.  It took us 6 hours to get to the border town of Kodari, and we settled onto the wooden porch of the restaurant to eat and wait for the messenger.  And we waited… It took nearly 3 hours of sitting, standing, stretching, and reading until finally our boozy “courier” showed. I had no idea how this guy had driven through the winding terrain to reach us in his inebriated condition. But, he did have our paperwork in hand and was all smiles about it too.  The tour group and I had little time to thank the courier because we were told to run across the Friendship Bridge before the Chinese guards shut down the border for the night.  Although the Chinese customs border town of Zhangmu on the other side of the Friendship Bridge was over 2600 miles from Beijing, the PRC had that town and the entire TAR on Beijing Standard Time (BST).  This meant that once we crossed the bridge from the Kodari, Nepal side, the clock jumped ahead by 3 hours and 15 minutes. So, the Chinese closed the bridge at 4:30pm  BST and it was close to 1pm Nepal time when we finally got the paperwork. We made a mad dash, and luckily because our tour guide had given the Chinese guards a heads-up (or bribe) about our late arriving paperwork, the guards kept the border gate open a bit longer for us.

Friendship Bridge, Kodari, Nepal

Crossing into Tibet via the Friendship Bridge from Kodari, Nepal (2007)

Rain began to come down in hard sheets as soon as we had crossed the bridge.  As we passed through the border gate, we saw 4 Toyota Landcruisers waiting for us and we spilled into the cars.  Our drivers were Tibetan and did not speak a lick of English. Smiles were exchanged and they quickly drove us up the hill to Zhangmu where we had to get out and go through a more formal Chinese customs process. As the tour group waited for the customs agent to let us in, two young, curious Tibetan girls walked over to us. They laughed to themselves as they took in the strange features of the foreigners in front of them. One guy in the tour group who was from Russia made the mistake of greeting the girls with the words, “ni hao,” and was quickly scolded by the girls who snarled at him in English: “We are Tibetan not Chinese!”  Everything snapped into focus with those words. The fun at the rooftop bar in Kathmandu some nights earlier disappeared in a flash. This would be different. This would be a journey into occupied land. I had seen the Dalai Lama speak in L.A. several years earlier, and I remember he implored us to visit Tibet and to witness the resilient spirit of the Tibetan people.  I was here now. I felt a heaviness – a responsibility.  I quickly learned the Tibetan words for “hello” — Tashi Delek. But, these words had not always conveyed the succinct English meaning they had only recently been assigned. These words had a deeper, more complex meaning that could not accurately be translated into English. The Tibetan language had evolved in such a way that it did not contain a simple, terse way of greeting. Instead, the existence of the Tibetan people must have been such that it had spawned a mult-layered expression for greeting one another.  A deeper message was communicated.  That stuck with me. I would be in Tibet for the next 7 days and would be traveling overland from Neyalam, Tingri, Lhatse, Xigatse, Gyantse, and finally to Lhasa. The literally uplifting and transformative power of leaving the chaos of the crowded neighborhoods of Kathmandu, crossing over the Himalayas, and arriving onto the wide open, above-the-trees plateau of Tibet would jettison me into the lucid and purpose-driven life of the Tibetan people. I became the most sober in mind and body that I had ever been at any time in my life.  There were no distractions and no boundaries — at least that’s how the first few days began.

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