On the third and final day of the Dalai Lama’s teachings before he begins conducting the Kalachakra initiation, there was a moment when His Holiness counted on his fingers. He said, now I’m 76. In ten years, 86. In twenty years, 96. His eyes twinkled and his now familiar grin spread across his face as he said...and then...bye-bye! He waved. The crowd reacted with nervous laughter and some uneasiness. Was he making a prediction about his own lifespan?
The comment brought to mind the question of succession. Who will be the next Dalai Lama? Today, I sought out Talhum Kenpo Geshe Kachen Lobzang Tsetan, the Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Southern India. This is the monastery in exile of the Panchen Lama, who is considered the most prominent Tibetan spiritual leader next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The Panchen Lama lineage dates back to the 14th century. He has traditionally been the high lama chiefly responsible for identifying the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Conversely, when the Panchen Lama passes away, the Dalai Lama finds him again. It’s like that, lifetime after lifetime, they are bound in service to each other in a karmic dance across time. The big problem in our time is that the Panchen Lama is missing.
In 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized a six-year-old boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the rightful incarnate of his old friend. This young boy would become the 11th Panchen Lama and play a huge role in the continuation of the office of the Dalai Lama. According to Pro-Tibet exiles, the Chinese authorities promptly swooped in and abducted the boy and his family who have not been seen or heard from again. Human rights groups have described Gendun as the youngest political prisoner.
In time, the Chinese government announced that they had found the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. His name is Gyaltsen Norbu. According to a report in the Sunday Times of London last year, Gyaltsen, now a young adult, has been appointed to a senior position on the main government advisory body. Despite state media images of the young man receiving bowing Tibetan delegates, most Tibetans remain unconvinced.
Luckily, I didn’t have to travel to India to find the abbot to ask him about succession. I only had to walk a few steps to the photo display of the Panchen Lama’s life, which Khen Rinpoche, as the abbot is more commonly called, has set up in one of the high-traffic areas of the Verizon Center. I found him sitting quietly to one side, at a table filled with pamphlets, bumper stickers, key chains and other objects that would help keep the Panchen Lama’s memory alive. I was moving in a throng of people but the Abbott’s eye caught mine even before I approached the table.
I introduced myself. He shook my hand and invited me to pull up a chair. Who will find the next Dalai Lama, I asked? His leaned his face close to mine. I noticed a gentle mirth in his eyes as he spoke. Another high lama, he said. Or several of them. We will find him.
He described how there are other ways to identify the right candidate. There is divination, there are oracles. There are tests that a committee of searchers will put a child through, in order to identify the right candidate. A child will be shown rosaries and other objects, mixed in among them will be those belonging to the Dalai Lama. The child’s reaction will be carefully watched. Perhaps a former attendant or close friend of the Dalai Lama will enter the room disguised as someone else. If the child responds well to him, that will also be a sign. The abbott assures me that even if the Panchen Lama remains missing, the new Dalai Lama will be found.
Buddhism is important in the world, said the abbot. It teaches compassion. Tibetan Buddhism is an important part of world Buddhism and the Dalai Lama is important to Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore, we will do everything possible to continue. We have to keep the Tibetan language and culture alive and we have to remember the Panchen Lama. We will find the next Dalai Lama when the time comes. Please tell the people that. And ask them to help our monastery, if they can.