Why the Panchen Lama Matters

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Why the Panchen Lama Matters

The Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas consider themselves “spiritual friends,” but the relationship between the two figures and their communities has hardly been smooth. 

Why the Panchen Lama Matters
Credit: Depositphotos

The 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet, Chokyi Gyalpo, has been called many names in and outside China, including “fake,” a “Chinese puppet,” “Jiang Zemin’s Panchen” and a “Chinese Panchen.” 

Many claim that his influence in Tibetan affairs is negligible. The reasons for these negative conceptions go back to the controversial way in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) selected him after disqualifying another boy that the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso had already recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama, Gendun Chokyi Nyima, because the process lacked the authority of the Chinese government. 

The whereabouts of Gendun Chokyi Nyima have remained unknown since 1992. 

Even so, dismissing the PRC-appointed 11th Panchen Lama Chokyi Gyalpo can be detrimental to the future of Tibetans in China and to the safeguarding of Tibetan cultural heritage. The wellbeing and interests of the Tibetan people in China depend not on forces and powers outside their land, but on those inside. 

The two highest-ranking Tibetan lamas affiliated with the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism, which ruled Tibet prior to the invasion of the PRC, were the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. For at least the past three generations, there have been tensions between them over jurisdiction, territory, and taxation. At the same time, these two lamas have maintained a tradition of recognizing each other’s reincarnation. It is not hard to see, then, why the current Panchen Lama, Chokyi Gyalpo, is so important right now — Chokyi Gyalpo is 34 years old and the Dalai Lama will turn 90 on July 6, 2025. 

If the 14th Dalai Lama officially recognizes the PRC-appointed 11th Panchen Lama Chokyi Gyalpo, this could break the nearly 75-year-old Sino-Tibetan standoff and could even pave the way for his return to Tibet. A rapprochement between the current Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama could soften the Chinese government’s hand in Tibetan areas, pacify restive movements among the Tibetan population in China, and offer some closure to long-standing traumatic events of the past decades. The Dalai Lama could follow the model set by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and return to his Communist-controlled homeland to live out his final days. 

A Tibetan Buddhist Leader in China

Jetsun Lobsang Jamba Lhundup Chokyi Gyalpo Pelsangpo, or simply Chokyi Gyalpo (Ch. Queji Jiebu), was born Gyaltsen Norbu in Lhari County in the northern areas of the now Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1990 to parents from the pastoral region of Nakchu. His parents are members of the Chinese Communist Party and first met at a local test-prep school in 1986. 

After the Chinese government decision to disqualify the Dalai Lama’s recognition of Gendun Chokyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama, a government-approved Tibetan delegation led by a senior Gelugpa monk, Sengchen Chokyi Gyaltsen (1936-1998) searched for potential candidates. In 1990, in the presence of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Government Chairman Gyaltsen Norbu, State Councilor Luo Gan, and Ye Xiaowen, head of the State Council National Religion Affairs Bureau, Senchen Chokyi Gyaltsen extracted the name of Chokyi Gyalpo from a short list of finalist candidates contained in a Golden Urn officially proclaiming him the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet. The Chinese government bestowed upon Chokyi Gyalpo the responsibility of representing his fellow Tibetans and the Chinese government’s interests in the betterment of Sino-Tibetan relations. 

Since his early years, Chokyi Gyalpo has lived in Beijing, where he received a religious education in accordance with the Gelugpa tradition as well as a secular education, which included Mandarin Chinese, Chinese history, and Marxist-Leninism theory. Most of his studies were carried out at the Tibetan Advanced Buddhist Academy of China, which his predecessor the 10th Panchen Lama Chokyi Gyaltsen established in Beijing in 1987. 

Presently, Chokyi Gyalpo enjoys the highest Tibetan Buddhist clergy leadership rank in the People’s Republic of China. He has direct access to Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, and benefits from warm relationships with the Chinese Government and the large Chinese Buddhist community. 

Just like his immediate predecessor, the current Panchen Lama is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, knowledgeable about Chinese politics and world affairs, and highly erudite in Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. Additionally, his cooperation with Chinese authorities is in line with his predecessor’s regarding policies to prioritize education among Tibetans, Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism, protect Chinese territorial integrity, support the Chinese Communist Party, and deter separatist activities that disrupt interethnic harmony.

Nowadays, in his capacity to represent the interests of Tibetans and following the footsteps of his two predecessors, the young Panchen Lama is allowed to join high profile meetings and participate in national political conferences, thus gaining familiarity with state affairs and diplomacy firsthand. In 2010, he personally welcomed Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo to the PRC. On June 10, 2015, Xi held a formal audience with the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet in Zhongnanhai, the palace that serves as the headquarters of both the Chinese Communist Party and central government of China. Chokyi Gyalpo travels domestically and internationally (he visited Bangkok, Thailand, in 2019) to give speeches and offer spiritual teachings to Buddhist devotees. According to Tibetan Buddhist customs, he bestows blessings to devotees, grants audiences, offers teachings, and performs various rituals for both monastic and lay communities. He frequently gives political talks, addressing the necessity for Tibetans to accept a Sinicized form of Buddhism in Tibet in line with Socialist values, the Chinese legal system, and the core principles of a modern society. 

A History of Rivalry

Although criticized by many in the world, the close relationship that exists between the Panchen Lama and the Chinese government should not be a surprise. Both previous Panchen Lamas, the 9th and 10th, were close allies of China under the Nationalist government (1911-1949) as well as the Communist government after 1949. They also had a controversial relationship with their respective Dalai Lamas, they lived and operated from China, had Chinese followings, and worked for the Chinese government. Just like his predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama, Chokyi Gyalpo is a member of the Standing Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and vice president of the Buddhist Association of China, which is the top governmental organization in charge of handling Buddhist affairs in accordance with the Chinese law. 

The two previous Panchen Lamas had interests incompatible with those of the previous Dalai Lamas, especially regarding the Panchen Lamas’ control and management of their vast lands, taxation, and monastic administration in Central Tibet. They had a progressive agenda to modernize Tibet and welcomed political assistance and protection from China. They also lived out the end of their lives in Chinese cities, where they supported various religious and political initiatives and commanded Chinese followings. 

The Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas consider themselves “spiritual friends,” but the relationship between the two figures and their communities of followers and supporters have hardly been smooth. Their rapport has been characterized by turbulence and rivalry for much of the past century. Just like the 11th Panchen Lama, the 10th Panchen Lama was not recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama right away. The nomination of Gompo Tseten, the boy who later became the 10th Panchen Lama, was supported by the 9th Panchen Lama’s monastery search committee and the Chinese Nationalist government of the Republic of China, but not by the Dalai Lama, who had another candidate in mind. Although the young Gompo Tseten was officially enthroned as the 10th Panchen Lama at Kumbum monastery in the summer of 1949, the Dalai Lama reluctantly conceded his recognition only several years later.

Reconciliation and Cooperation

As the Dalai Lama ages, journalists and analysts around the world speculate about the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama and the fate of Tibetans. In 2010, the Tibetan delegation paused its work with the Chinese government and talks have not reopened since. 

For his part, the 11th Panchen Lama continues to build confidence among the Tibetan population in China to increase their welfare and prosperity. His influence could be substantially improved with the Dalai Lama’s official support on his side, and his recognition as the legitimate Panchen Lama. If the Dalai Lama succeeded in opening a dialogue with the Panchen Lama to understand his vision and acknowledge his leadership in China, the Dalai Lama may have the chance to improve Sino-Tibetan relations, Tibetans’ quality of life, and the safeguarding of the Tibetan language and culture. This could also help curtail the possibility of violent reactions to the future news of the passing of the Dalai Lama.

The traditional role of the Panchen Lama as a key figure in recognizing the incarnation of the Dalai Lama is well known among Tibetans and the Chinese officials alike. The 14th Dalai Lama and the administration in exile could opt to continue the tradition of finding the next incarnation. However, it is extremely improbable that the Chinese government will allow the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama to be found within Tibetan areas of the PRC without the authority of the Chinese government. It is also very likely that the Chinese government and the Tibetan leadership within China will decide to select and recognize the Dalai Lama’s successor in accordance with their own standards and laws, and with the participation of the current 11th Panchen Lama.

A Path Ahead?

The Dalai Lama has tried for decades to cultivate dialogues with Beijing, with limited success. However, there are a few final options he could pursue. The Dalai Lama could offer to formally accept and confirm Chokyi Gyalpo as the legitimate reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. He could offer to cooperate with Beijing in the selection of his successor as the 15th Dalai Lama, if such a path is agreed upon. If these actions were to succeed, they would have considerable power to bring benefit to both parties. The Dalai Lama would be appreciated for acting responsibly and peacefully, while Beijing would have to seriously consider accommodating some of the Dalai Lama’s wishes to improve the wellbeing and safeguard the cultural heritage of Tibetans in China. The Dalai Lama could even garner some leverage with Beijing to disclose information about and negotiate the release of Gendun Chokyi Nyima and his family. By recognizing the 11th Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama would send a message to all Tibetans that it is time to move on, accept the situation, and welcome the 11th Panchen Lama as a legitimate leader acting in the interests of Tibetans. 

Finally, the Dalai Lama could consider negotiating with Beijing for a possible return to Tibet to live his last years there, as Thich Nhat Hanh did in Vietnam. Considering the profound influence Hanh’s Buddhist-inspired peace activism has had on him, the 14th Dalai Lama could model his final act on that of the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who passed away at Tu Hieu Temple in Vietnam at the age of 95 in 2022. The socially and politically active Hanh campaigned extensively in the 60s both in his country and abroad for a peaceful solution of the war in Vietnam. He reluctantly opted to live a life in exile in 1966, the year he publicly announced his “Five Point Proposal to End the War,” fearing reprisals and incarceration or even worse murder upon his return to his country.

Despite that fear, however, toward the very end of his life he returned to Vietnam in 2019, ending his exile and fulfilling his wish to be in his homeland. If the Dalai Lama followed Hanh’s lead and returned to live out his final days in Tibet, he too would be able to rest in the land of his people and bring closure to his long exile. Tibet is now part of the PRC, but it is still Tibetans’ ancestral land, and it could be spiritually supervised by a Panchen Lama under the blessing of his “spiritual friend” the Dalai Lama.

Guest Author

Antonio Terrone

Antonio Terrone is an Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at Northwestern University.

He teaches courses at the intersection of East Asian literature, politics, and religions. Previously he was an Assistant Professor of Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Graduate Institute of Religious Studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan. His research and publications focus on politics, policies and religion in modern and contemporary China and its borderlands, with a concentration on Tibetan religious culture and literature, and Chinese ethno-religious policies.