A one-l lama, he’s a priest.
A two-l llama, he’s a beast.
And I will bet a silk pajama,
There isn’t any three-l lllama.
—Ogden Nash

The only Tibetan lama most Westerners knew of until recently was the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the genial Nobel Prize winner and symbol of the Tibet that was. But now newspaper readers also know about the kidnapping within Tibet in 1995 of the six-year-old eleventh Panchen Lama, the region’s second-highest-ranking religious leader, and the flight into India last January of the fourteen-year-old seventeenth Karmapa Lama, on whom Beijing had pinned its hopes of legitimizing Chinese rule in Tibet.

Even the word “lama” itself is misunderstood. In Tibetan it means guru or teacher; it can also mean incarnation. A person may be both or only one. “Lama Buddhism,” a term which has come to mean Tibetan-style Buddhism, has no meaning in Tibetan.1 Incarnations have existed in Tibet since the thirteenth century. The most famous are the Dalai Lamas; the Karmapas arose several centuries earlier. Many other Tibetans are said to be incarnations of long-dead lamas of lower status.

The first Dalai Lama, a member of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect, which came into existence in the late fourteenth century, was given the title Dalai, or “Ocean,” by a Mongol prince in the fifteenth century. In 1642 another Mongol prince established the fifth Dalai Lama as the religious leader of all Tibet, with the prince as his patron. Later on, Chinese emperors became the patron. The much-debated concept of the Dalai Lama, the high priest, sharing power with the patron-ruler thus becomes central to the question of whether Tibet has long been a part of China.2 But since the seventeenth century, both the secular and the religious primacy of the Dalai Lamas have been assumed among Tibetans. Few of them lived to be old men. The present Dalai Lama is sixty-four.

The second most important religious figure is the Panchen Lama, the Tibetan “moon” to the Dalai Lama’s “sun.” Also from the Gelugpa sect, the Panchens were designated by the Manchus as political counterweights to the Dalai Lama, and were given political authority in large parts of China. Within Tibet, the Panchens’ secular authority was not recognized except immediately around their monastery in Shigatse, west of Lhasa, although their enormous religious power was unquestioned. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas have sometimes acted as each other’s tutors, depending on which lama is older.

After 1950 Beijing again treated the Panchen Lama as a political figure, especially after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. But in 1982 the tenth Panchen Lama enraged the Chinese with his outspoken petition to Mao protesting the destruction of Buddhism in Tibet and starvation there.3 He spent almost fourteen years in detention and after his release became a discreet critic of Chinese rule. The tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989. In 1995, the Dalai Lama designated the six-year-old Gendun Choekyi Nyima as eleventh Panchen. By May of that year, the child and his family had vanished, and in late 1995 a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the child, whom Beijing had earlier described as a “dog drowner,” is “where he is supposed to be.” He added that “the Chinese government does not know the address of every one of its citizens.”4 The authorities still decline to disclose his whereabouts, but insist that 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 the Panchen Lama is.5

In November 1995 Beijing organized its own ritual to choose a boy as Panchen and issued an extraordinary document describing mysterious events and signs surrounding his birth and infancy that were supposed to prove he was the genuine incarnation. Early in the following year Beijing’s choice was introduced to President Jiang Zemin, who instructed him to “uphold the leadership of the Party, have a deep love for the nation, for the people, and for socialism.” The boy is reported to have replied, “I thank the Party’s Central Committee and President Jiang. I will certainly study hard and become a patriotic and religious living Buddha.”

The Dalai Lama told me he regarded the kidnapping and the subsequent designation of a Beijing-appointed Panchen as a dress rehearsal for what will happen when he dies. He said also that the next Dalai Lama—if there is one—need not be born in Tibet, but that this will not prevent the Beijing authorities from “discovering” their own Dalai Lama. Indeed, Beijing recently stated that even hunting by Tibetan monks for any incarnations must now await Chinese approval, as will the designation of an authentic incarnation.6

A few months ago, in January, a third important religious figure, the seventeenth Karmapa Lama, fled to India. The Karmapa comes from a much older lineage than the Dalai or Panchen Lamas; his first reincarnation, indeed, the very first reincarnation ever, is said to have occurred in the early twelfth century. His spiritual authority within Tibet is enormous. What is unique about the seventeenth Karmapa Lama is that his identification when he was seven years old was approved both by the Dalai Lama and by Beijing, and when he was brought to Beijing he was reported to have prayed for the soul of Chairman Mao.


The Chinese saw him as having an essential part in their plans for Tibet, where, it was assumed, he could eventually legitimize the fifteenth Dalai Lama. But according to reports from China, the Karmapa refused to prostrate himself before the Chinese-appointed Panchen last year. This year, on February 19, speaking from his Indian sanctuary, the Karmapa said, “Over the last twenty to thirty years, Tibet suffered a great loss whereby Tibetan religious traditions and culture are now facing the risk of total extinction.”7

The historic relationship between the Chinese state and the Tibetans is a matter of debate. As Robbie Barnett, a leading British authority on Tibet now at Columbia, has observed, lawyers and scholars do not agree on this question.

The nature of Tibet’s status before 1912 was not of a kind that can be exactly expressed by twentieth-century notions of statehood: [Tibet] was not the same as a province of China, but, except when China was too weak to exercise central control, it did not define itself in modern terms as an independent state.8

The current situation of Tibet’s three principal lamas can be briefly summarized. The exiled Dalai Lama is protesting that his next incarnation need not be found in Tibet. One Panchen Lama has been kidnapped; the other is scorned by Tibetans as a puppet. The Karmapa Lama, once trusted by the Chinese, now condemns their occupation of Tibet. As a result of these developments, Beijing faces a religious and political fiasco in one of the largest geographical regions under its uncertain control.

This Issue

April 27, 2000