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Hello Dali

Om Ham Ksha Ma Lava Raya Hum Phat

THE SEARCH FOR THE PANCHEN LAMA By Isabel Hilton; W.W. Norton: 336 pp., $25.95

May 14, 2000|SETH FAISON | Seth Faison, former Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times for five years, is writing a book about China

One night in January, 1995, Isabel Hilton, a British journalist, was awakened at her home in London by a telephone call from the office of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader. A private secretary to the Dalai Lama told Hilton that His Holiness wanted her to come immediately to his residence in Dharamsala, the remote town in northern India where Tibetan exiles are based. Why, exactly, the secretary could not say. Hilton, more than intrigued, agreed to go.

As she lay sleepless in bed afterward, wondering at the sudden urgency, Hilton surmised that a critical juncture had been reached in the search for a Panchen Lama, the second-most important figure in Tibet's religious hierarchy. The search, though it may sound like an arcane religious procedure, was actually a grave political issue with tremendous implications for China and Tibet.

At the center of the Panchen Lama dilemma lies the way Tibetans choose their religious leaders, a secretive blend of mystical divination and back room politicking that is medieval by almost any definition. The theory, in Tibetan tradition, is that when a holy person dies, his spirit assumes a new body, typically a boy born within a year of the lama's death, who carries identifying marks or behavior.

The reality, in Tibetan history, is that recognizing those signs on a small boy has been an inexact process, vulnerable to interference. The senior monks charged with searching Tibet's vast countryside for unusual boys are meant to follow instructions they receive in a vision or a dream, and they have often used criteria that shifted to fit a favored candidate, once he was found. Perhaps every religion has to stretch to find heavenly reasons to select its earthly representatives. Lama choosing, whatever its charm, is plainly of another age.

Hilton had interviewed the Dalai Lama before and was at work on a book about the Panchen Lama when the call came. But she had not expected to be drawn herself into a role in the remarkable drama that was unfolding in the fractious, devout, almost surreal Himalayan desert of a land known as Tibet. Hilton's was a side role, but it gave her a special view on the turn of events.

For centuries, the Panchen Lama has headed a sect of Tibetan Buddhism that made him simultaneously a rival and a partner of the Dalai Lama. Competing Buddhist sects have risen and fallen in Tibet, but for the last few hundred years, the Dalai Lama's sect has dominated. The Panchen Lama, though secondary, has retained a critical role as well. After 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as China seized control, Beijing tried hard to discredit the Dalai Lama and to promote the Panchen Lama as a superior Tibetan leader. Only 20 years old at the time, the Panchen Lama looked pliable at first, yet he steadfastly refused to denounce his spiritual confrere.

Although he was effectively strong-armed by the Chinese into endorsing their rule and was jailed by Mao during the leftist frenzy of the 1960s and '70s, the Panchen Lama emerged in the 1980s as a critical power broker. He was useful to China in legitimizing its rule, but he was also a fierce protector of Tibetan culture.

When the Panchen Lama died unexpectedly at age 50 in 1989, it left a void and a new crisis. Who would select his replacement? Tradition dictated that the Dalai Lama give final approval to the chosen one, but exile limited him. Beijing, always trying to reinforce its rule of Tibet, insisted that any new incarnation of the Panchen Lama be found and raised on Chinese-controlled territory, under the watchful eye of the Communist Party. Relations between the Dalai Lama and Beijing were so bad that negotiations were conducted sporadically over the course of six years before the process came to an unsavory end.

"The Search for the Panchen Lama," Hilton's riveting account of the entire drama, captures the panoramic scope of a remarkable story. Brimming with political intrigue, it is colored with amusing anecdotes about the oddities of Tibetan life and with the poignancy of a people whose land has been torn apart. The ending is heartbreaking.

In a broad sense, "The Search for the Panchen Lama" is about the clash of traditional religion and modern circumstance. Transitions from one leader to another are a test for any system, and contemporary Tibet, as ruled by China, fails horribly. The unsolved political struggle between old and new, between Dalai Lama and Beijing, has left a chasm between faith and politics. Each side seems at a loss about how to bridge this canyon of dissonance.

The Chinese seem torn between pointing out the archaic nature of traditional Tibetan practices or accepting them as a sign of respect for Tibetan worshipers and co-opting them under Chinese rule. Either way, theirs is the role of a colonial occupier, struggling fitfully to hold onto this enormous chunk of land and utterly perplexed by the locals and their idolatrous religious practices.

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