The great Tibetan Buddhist leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is no stranger to conflict with the Chinese authorities. This is especially true when it comes to the centuries-old practice of identifying the 11th Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second in rank to the Dalai Lama, in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy.
Back in 1995, the Dalai Lama selected a young boy called Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, to be the 11th Panchen Lama, and China strongly disapproved. The Chinese government refused to recognize his ordained title as Panchen Lama. Furthermore, the authorities took away Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, preventing him from ever becoming a spiritual leader. Since then, his whereabouts remain unknown – it is believed he is being held by the Chinese government.
In response to the disputed selection of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama, China made its own selection; There is now an official 11th Panchen Lama who is widely accepted by Tibetans living in China, however, The Dalai Lama has rejected them; publicly stating he does not recognise the Chinese choices. Despite this, the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama is seen and celebrated by many Tibetans living in Tibet.
As a result of the power struggle between China and the Dalai Lama, both religious leaders and spiritual advisers are having to navigate a delicate religious and political situation. As the Chinese incumbent Panchen Lama continues to grow in influence, Tibetans are in an awkward position of loyalty. Tibetan Buddhists and lay people alike are divided on the issue, some feeling obligated to pledge their loyalty to the Chinese-backed Panchen Lama to avoid retribution, whilst others remain loyal to the Dalai Lama’s choice of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
The conflict between China and the Dalai Lama has caused a spiritual crisis for Tibetan Buddhism; a displacement of identity that is particularly sensitive due to its historical importance for Tibetan Buddhists as their spiritual leader and wish-fulfilling jewel. Questions of legitimacy are now being asked which could have ramifications for decades to come.
Despite the tensions, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities are still working together on other matters. For instance, the government of China has reportedly made some advances to the Dalai Lama, offering some autonomy for Tibet and they are currently engaging in dialogue regarding Tibetan Buddhism.
It is evident that the aspirations of the Tibetan people and the interests of the Chinese government will be difficult to reconcile, and the Panchen Lama issue remains a major source of contention that shows no signs of dissipating. In all likelihood, there is still Hindu-Tibetan Buddhist conflict ahead until a resolution on the Panchen Lama is found.