This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet into Indian exile. He is sixty-five and some day even god-kings must die. But in the eyes of Tibetans he is also the fourteenth incarnation of the first Dalai Lama, who died in 1578. Eventually there will be a fifteenth Dalai Lama whose identity will be of the greatest importance for Tibetans—and for Beijing. The succession problem is therefore on the mind of the present Dalai Lama, who was in London in early May to give religious lectures to sold-out audiences of the faithful in the gigantic Wembley Convention Centre.
The Chinese expect to make, or at least to arrange, the choice of the fifteenth Dalai Lama; they hope a friendly god-king will secure for them the legitimate hegemony over Tibet which they have yet to achieve with the two million inhabitants of the Autonomous Region who regard the exiled Dalai Lama as their leader.
When I suggested to the Dalai Lama, during a recent interview in London, that the abduction and disappearance in 1995 of the eleventh Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-most-prominent religious leader, was a dress rehearsal for what will happen after he dies, he agreed. The tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989. Although a virtual prisoner of the Chinese, for many years he had publicly and privately criticized their condemnation of Buddhism and the persecution of its adherents. In the spring of 1995 the Dalai Lama appointed Gendun Choekyi Nyima, a six-year-old boy, as eleventh Panchen. He vanished in May of that year together with his family and Abbot Chadrel Rimpoche from the Tashilhunpo, the Panchen’s traditional monastery in Tibet.
Near the end of 1995 a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said that the child, whom Beijing had earlier described as a “dog drowner,” “is where he is supposed to be,” and insisted that “the Chinese government does not know the address of every one of its citizens.” The authorities still decline to disclose his whereabouts, but insist he is well and that they are shielding him from kidnapping by Tibetan exiles. The Dalai Lama told me that he has no idea where he is.
In Beijing’s view the Dalai Lama’s appointment of Gendun Choekyi Nyima broke a two-centuries-old agreement—disputed by Tibetans—whereby Beijing must approve the designation of new Panchen Lamas. If this were true, it would be a fundamental proof of Beijing’s claim that Tibet has been a part of China for at least 250 years. The Chinese authorities in Tibet issued a statement blaming the Dalai Lama’s “crimes of undermining the work related to the reincarnation of the Panchen in violation of historical convention…and the crimes of the former persons of the Tashilhunpo Lamasery….” The People’s Daily, the Party’s newspaper, in language odd for the mouthpiece of a thoroughly antireligious regime, described the dispute as “a political struggle with the Dalai Lama in the search for a verification of the reincarnation.”
In November 1995 Beijing presided over its own ritual to choose a…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.