On 28 January, 25 years ago, the 10th Panchen Lama of Tibet died at the age of 51. Popular Tibetan opinion commonly refers to the 14th Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama as the “sun and moon” of the Tibetan Buddhist firmament. They are the center of Tibet’s Buddhist civilization which draws in its sphere millions of non-Tibetans. The importance of the 10th Panchen Lama to the Tibetan people was that his short life encapsulated the political tragedy and spiritual triumph of Tibet. The challenge Tibetan spiritual leaders grapple with even today is how Tibetan Buddhism can co-exist with a system that brooks no rival in its desire for total dominance.
On his part, the Panchen Lama while working within the Chinese communist establishment chose to be its most vocal critic. How he did it is a story of courage, personal tragedy and how Tibet in his view could productively co-exist with modern China without losing its Buddhist soul.
For many years after the failed 1959 uprising that forced the Dalai Lama and about 87,000 Tibetans to flee to India, Tibetans took a dim view of the Panchen Lama. In this exodus, almost the entire Tibetan Buddhist church, the Tibetan equivalent of the pope, cardinals, bishops and the clergy relocated in India. The dim view the Tibetans had then of the Panchen Lama was based on the fact that he was the lama who ‘stayed back in Tibet’, implying that he had sided with the Chinese Communist Party.
But unknown to the Tibetans outside or those in Tibet, in 1962 the Panchen Lama, 24 years old, presented to the top Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, his 70,000-character petition, a document that constitutes the most detailed and comprehensive Tibetan critique of the nature of Chinese rule in Tibet. Jasper Becker in his book,Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine, says in this report, “Tibet’s second highest religious leader came close to accusing the Chinese Communist Party of attempted genocide.” [Source]
Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.