The Nominated Boy

Robert Macfarlane

  • The Search for the Panchen Lama by Isabel Hilton
    Penguin, 336 pp, £7.99, August 2001, ISBN 0 14 024670 3

The Tibetan Government presently sits in exile in McLeod Ganj, a small town outside Dharamsala separated from Tibet itself by the ramparts of the Himalayas. The Dalai Lama escaped there in 1959, after a major uprising against the Chinese occupation. A microcosm of old Lhasa has formed in the town around the nucleus of the Dalai Lama: schools teach in Tibetan and English, there are various government ministries, a national library, a troupe which preserves and performs Tibetan dances and songs. Versions of the main Tibetan monasteries have been built where the monks go about their business dressed in an unlikely combination of Buddhist robes and Doc Martens. McLeod Ganj also enjoys a thriving tourist trade, fed chiefly by Westerners who have contracted what Isabel Hilton calls ‘Shangri-La Syndrome’.

Despite its prosperity and solid infrastructure, McLeod Ganj has an air of temporariness, of waiting for something: there is a sense that when the time comes, the community will just up sticks and relocate to Lhasa, where the old ways will be resumed. But at present the cause of Tibetan independence is in more difficulty than at any stage since the country’s occupation by the People’s Republic in March 1951. The problem for those who want independence is that so much of the unity and momentum of the Tibetan cause depends on the current Dalai Lama, who is both the global face of exiled Tibet and its spiritual centre. The whole world knows the Dalai Lama: he has become an unmissable cultural icon, as well as a cultural industry in his own right (in an Amazon.com search, he turns up as the author of an implausible 158 books). Most impressively, he has managed to raise funds and support from the West without coming to seem a money-grubber in the eyes of the Tibetan community. When he dies – he is now 66 – Tibetan nationalism will be deprived of its hub, and will surely find it hard to resist the centrifugal force of exile. This, at any rate, is what the Government in Beijing is hoping for. And it has good reason to believe that the Dalai Lama’s death will swing the game its way because it has, by underhand means, taken control of the selection of his successor.

Tibetan governance is founded on the doctrine of reincarnation. The Dalai Lama is a bodhisattva – an incarnation of an aspect of Buddha. When an incarnate dies, the unhoused aspect selects another foetus in which to ‘emanate’: to take flesh. There is no secular logic to the choice of the new incarnate, except that he will be male and Tibetan, and the emanation is not immediate: the soul can take its time traversing the spirit world, sometimes dawdling there for two or three years.

This unconventional dynastic mechanism has two important consequences. The first is that on the death of a Dalai Lama there is always an interregnum before the new incarnate is identified, traditionally a period in which there is a great deal of jostling for power. The second is that a search has to be mounted to discover the whereabouts of the new incarnate. Once a search party has been formed (itself a vexed process), the searchers begin by consulting various oracles. The most famous of these is Lhamo Latso, a sacred melt-water lake whose surface is disturbed by the wind into patterns that can be interpreted: a set of letters or figures, for example, or a glimpse of a house or mountain. If a specific location can be divined from the clues, the search party will travel there to inspect the young males of the area for signs of godhead. Often, the searchers will carry props with them and carry out recognition tests: the boys may be shown a collection of artefacts, some of which belonged to the previous bodhisattva, and asked to pick from them. Candidates may also be marked out by physical signs, such as abnormally long earlobes – a Tibetan equivalent of the Habsburg nose. By these laborious means, a shortlist is drawn up. The final selection is made by the Panchen Lama, usually in consultation with the monks of Lhasa.

For four centuries the Panchen Lama has been the second most important spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas – the absolute heads of state – have been based in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, while the Panchen Lamas have ruled from the monastery of Tashilhunpo, near Shigatse, 160 miles west of Lhasa. The last Panchen Lama, the tenth, died in 1989 under suspicious circumstances at Tashilhunpo – poisoned, according to the prevailing rumour, by the Chinese security services for his outspoken views. His premature death devastated Tibet, but for the Tibet Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party it was a unique opportunity to take control of the dynastic processes. If the new incarnation of the Panchen Lama could be found and brought under the power of Beijing, then, when the time came, this puppet Panchen could be used to select an equally fake Dalai Lama, and Tibet would lose both its spiritual figureheads.

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