There aren’t many places like Dharamsala. 

Nestled at the base of the Himalayas, 5,000 feet above sea level, this northern Indian city feels like a stopping point for the wind as it cascades down some of Earth’s largest mountains. The word “city” evokes images of towering buildings and elevated stress levels, but Dharamsala is more acutely characterized by its crisp mountain air and thousands of hanging prayer flags, softly fluttering in the breeze. 

Since 1959, however, Dharamsala has been best known as being the home of the Dalai Lama. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama eventually fled for India, where he established the Central Tibetan Administration, a centralized governing body for Tibetans globally. Dharamsala, by coincidence, literally translates to “religious sanctuary,” and true to its name, this place continues to serve as a sanctuary to the world’s largest group of Tibetans in exile. Beneath the surface of this peaceful mountain enclave, there exists deep unspoken pressure, which has been gradually simmering for the last 25 years. 

The tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is centered around priest figures known as Lamas, whose primary objectives are to teach and pass down the fundamental concepts of Buddhism. The Tibetan word “la” means soul, and the same word is used to denote a Lama, who is considered to be a nurturer of the soul. The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, who has emerged in modern times as an international celebrity and political figure. For centuries, however, other Lamas have existed as prominent figures in the religion, each of whom reincarnates, according to a central doctrine of Buddhism. 

Geshe Damchoe, a Tibetan monk who lives and studies in Dharamsala, explained to The Politic that when the Dalai Lama passes away, “it is the full responsibility of the Panchen Lama to look for his reincarnation.” Mirroring that, Damchoe added, “when the Panchen Lama passes away, it is the duty of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to look for the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation.” 

The Chinese government has for decades already found its own political stake in this reincarnation cycle. After the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989, the search for the next Panchen began, with controversy:  “There were two different candidates—one that was embraced by the Dalai Lama and the other who was embraced by the Chinese government,” Professor David Germano, the founder and Director of the University of Virginia’s Tibet Center and a professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, explained to The Politic

In May of 1995, the Dalai Lama identified Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a six-year-old Tibetan boy, as the reincarnation and new Panchen Lama. Three days later, Nyima and his family disappeared—they have never been seen again. Germano described the situation bluntly: “Clearly the government took him and did something with him. Wherever he is or is not, the Chinese government are the only ones who know.” 

The taking of the Panchen Lama was particularly jarring because of the special relationship he holds with the Dalai Lama as a central figure in Tibetan Buddhism. 

You can see the obvious problem,” Germano explained, laying out the increasingly clear battle that is set to be waged when the current Dalai Lama dies. Just like the last transition in 1989, Germano continued, “the Chinese government is clearly…going to have a candidate, [and they will say] this is the authentic one.”

Furthermore, the disappearance of the Panchen Lama may make it impossible for Tibetans to eventually put forward their own candidate in accordance with their tradition. If Tibetans believe that the only person who can accurately identify the new Dalai Lama is the already-selected Panchen Lama, they will be unable to identify their next spiritual leader. Bemoaning the situation overall, Germano anticipated, “it is going to be a massive problem.” 

For members of the monastic class, the Panchen Lama needs to be found even sooner⁠—in time to learn about Buddhism before the death of the Dalai Lama. “We look at it from the religious point of view,” Damchoe said.

“The Panchen Lama needs to get a religious education,” Damchoe added, “so that he can become a great teacher and show a path to the people.”

The sense of urgency with which Damchoe explained this helps color just how central this problem is for the Tibetan people. The Chinese have imprisoned “thousands and thousands” of Tibetan political prisoners in China, according to Damchoe, which has been well-documented by humanitarian organizations such as Human Rights Watch. All throughout Dharmasala, in fact, walls are plastered with posters of missing family members who Tibetans say are being held captive by the Chinese government. None of these prisoners represent Chinese interference more clearly than the Panchen Lama. 

Since the kidnapping of the Panchen Lama in 1995, there have been numerous campaigns from the United Nations advocating for the Chinese government to let a delegation visit the Panchen Lama. While the Chinese government has refused to let anyone see the Panchen Lama, it has described him as being “very much safe and very much alive,” Damchoe said. 

Furthermore, the Chinese government has claimed that the Panchen Lama simply does not want to be visited by Tibetans. For decades, China has maintained that he is in protective custody, asserting that he is at risk of being kidnapped by separatists.

While the struggle to free the Panchen Lama has raged since his kidnapping, the Chinese pick for the position has quietly assumed the role along with control of the Panchen Lama’s property and assets. This fact has not been overlooked by scholars, including Professor Leonard Van Der Kuijp, a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Harvard University and the former Chair of Harvard’s Department of South Asian Studies. 

“These Lamas, of course, have large estates,” Van Der Kujip explained, comparing them to corporate land-holding entities, and can include vast properties such as monasteries which are home to thousands of monks. When a Lama is dubbed as the reincarnation, they first and foremost inherit the responsibilities of the previous Lama. Additionally, Van Der Kujip said, they inherit “the corporation that belonged to his predecessor who inherited it from his predecessor.” 

Van Der Kujip explained that questions of reincarnation sit “at the interface of economics, politics, and religion,” and that in Tibetan Buddhism more broadly, “money and politics and wealth play a very important role.” Referring to this darker side of Buddhism, he added that, “this is part of Tibetan Buddhism that you almost never find discussed.” 

The Dalai Lama has certainly understood the massive impact of the Panchen Lama’s kidnapping since 1995, but as he approaches 85, the problem is increasingly apparent—this Dalai Lama cannot live forever. Though the Dalai Lama in 2018 expressed his belief that the Panchen Lama is alive, he and Tibetan monks continue to express their desire for the Panchen Lama’s return to Tibet.  Nonetheless, according to Damchoe, the Dalai Lama has said that “he is not too curious or anxious about [his successor].” 

While he may not be anxious, there is undoubtedly worry among Tibetans who will have to traverse the landscape after their current spiritual leader passes away. These worries, however, hover in the shadows. 

“In reality,” Damchoe said, “we consider speaking about the ageing, dying, or sickness of the Dalai Lama to be taboo.” 

Tibetan scholars, however, freely discuss the issue, including Andrew Quintman, a professor of Religion at Wesleyan University. “He occasionally muses that he could even be the last Dalai Lama,” Quintman said to The Politic, “although he frequently qualifies this by saying ‘if that is what the Tibetan people want.’” 

“The most intriguing possibility is something altogether different,” Quintman suggested, including a scenario in which the Dalai Lama would choose his reincarnation before he passed away. 

Referring to this as the arcane practice of “reincarnation before death,” Quintman explained that it would effectively allow the Dalai Lama to pick his own successor, thereby seizing back the reins of control over this process.

Undoubtedly when the current Dalai Lama passes away, the Chinese government will move in and anoint its pick for his reincarnation. Having positioned its own Panchen Lama in addition to passing various laws about its right to identify reincarnate Lamas, the Chinese government has attempted to claim both political and religious authority on the issue. Whomever China claims to be the next Dalai Lama will surely be a loyal force to the Chinese and will just as surely be viewed as illegitimate by Tibetans. 

It is easy to forget about Nyima, the chosen Tibetan Panchen Lama who was taken from his home as a six-year-old boy and never seen again. The Panchen Lama serves as a strong symbol for the plight of the Tibetan people and their attitude of perseverance. It seems unlikely that the boy, now hopefully a grown man, will ever be seen again, just as it seems unlikely that Tibetans may ever again be their own sovereign in Tibet. Nevertheless, Tibetans continue to hope, continue to practice, and continue to tell the story of the stolen boy.

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