His Holiness the 9th Panchen Lama Thubten Choekyi Nyima, often referred to simply as Choekyi Nyima, was born in 1883. The name “Panchen” is an abbreviation meaning ‘great scholar’ (pandita chenpo). In fact, the Panchen Lama is second-highest ranking Lama in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the highest being the Dalai Lama.
The Panchen Lamas are said to be emanations of Amitabha Buddha, and their traditional seat is Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet, which has close ties to the Kalachakra Tantras and the mystical kingdom of Shambhala.
In 1901 Agvan Dorzhiev, also known as Sokpu Tsenshab Ngawang Lobasang (literally, Mongolian Tsenshab Ngawang Lobsang in Tibetan), visited the 9th Panchen Lama. He was a Mongolian/Russian diplomat and Lama of the Gelug order.
Choekyi Nyima conferred upon Agvan Dorzhiev secret teachings as well as readings of the Prayer of Shambhala which was written by Panchen Lobsang Palden Yeshe, the 6th Panchen Lama. These teachings concerning the Buddhist kingdom of Shambhala were of great importance to Dorzhiev’s developing understanding of the Kalachakra (‘Wheel of Time’) Tantras.
At the turn of the 20th century, the British Indian government sought to cultivate a relationship with the 9th Panchen Lama after they had been rebuffed by the Dalai Lama. He was invited to visit India in 1905 and met the Viceroy at Hastings House in Calcutta.
In 1906 Sir Charles Alfred Bell, the British Political Officer for Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet, paid him a visit. Sir Charles Alfred Bell, known as “British India’s ambassador to Tibet”, was invited to visit the 9th Panchen Lama at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, where they had friendly discussions on the political situation.
This was not to be the only time he would have dealings with the British. In his later years as a political figure, negotiations between the 9th Panchen Lama, the Lhasa government, British representatives and the Chinese government would have a great impact on Sino-Tibetan politics.
In 1920, the 9th Panchen Lama invited the then 64-year-old 1st Serkong Dorje Chang Rinpoche to consecrate a statue of Maitreya Buddha and to give many teachings to a great assembly of his disciples.
The relationship between the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas have always been peppered with disputes and contentions. In 1924, one such dispute arose when His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama raised the taxes payable by the Panchen Lama’s estate, to pay for a newly created standing army of Tibet. Believing that the taxes were inordinately high and were in fact a punishment for his close relationship with China, the Panchen Lama refused to pay his share and even wrote letters of complaint.
As a result, three of the Panchen Lama’s ministers were locked up in the Potala dungeon in Lhasa and monks from his monastery were prohibited from holding office in the Central Tibetan government. Sensing the imminent threat, the 9th Panchen Lama fled to Inner Mongolia, where he lived for a time.
The 9th Panchen Lama was well-liked by the Mongols and was known as Banchin Bogd in Mongolia. Mongolian representatives visited him on many occasions to invite him to reside in what is now Ulan Bataar.
There were also claims that the rebellions in 1930s Mongolia were supported by the 9th Panchen Lama and that he would come with an army to liberate the Mongolian people from the rule of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party.
There is no proof of these claims but they can perhaps be attributed to stories about the sacred Shambhala War against the enemies of Buddhism, which were popular in Mongolia at the turn of the 20th century.
According to these tales, the Panchen Lama would be born as Regdendagva, the future 25th Emperor of Shambhala, and the Mongolian Bogd Gegen as Hanumanda, the military leader of Shambhala. So powerful were these stories that the last Great Khan of Mongolia was a very strong patron of Kalachakra.
Influence in China
The then President of the Beijing Government, Cao Kun, received news that the 9th Panchen Lama was in Inner Mongolia and arranged for him to be invited to Beijing. This marked the beginning of a long relationship between the Panchen Lamas and China.
According to official Chinese sources, the 9th Panchen Lama was considered extremely “pro China” and both 9th and 10th Panchen Lamas were said to have had strong ties with China.
In fact, the 9th Panchen Lama held a position in China’s Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission and worked on plans to develop Tibet along modern lines.
He is also said to have embraced the ideas of Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat-sen, although there is no proof of this.
The Chinese awarded many titles to the 9th Panchen Lama including:
- zhizhong chanhua translated as “Faithful Orator Devoted to the Propagation of Values”. This title was conferred on the 9th Panchen Lama in 1913, and he received it in Beijing in 1924 from Cao Kun, the President of the Northern Government
- xuancheng jishi translated as “World Saviour Who Propagates Orthodoxy”. He received this title in 1925 from Duan Qurui, the President of the Chinese Northern Government
huguo xuanhua guanghui dashi translated as “Great and Glorious Master Panchen Who Protects the Country and Propagates Its Values”. He received this title in 1931 from Chiang Kai-shek of the Nanjing Government. This title is especially significant as it marks the time that the Panchen Lama officially became a member of the Chinese government.
- xichui xuanhua shi translated as “Emissary for the Propagation of Values on the Western Frontier”. This title was conferred on the 9th Panchen Lama in 1932, and he received it in 1934 from Lin Sen, the Chairman of the National Government of the Republic of China.
- huguo xuanhua guanghui yuanjue dashi translated as “Glorious Great Enlightened Master Who Protects the Country and Propagates Its Values”. This title was posthumously conferred on the 9th Panchen Lama in January 1938.
His close relationship with the Chinese government allowed the 9th Panchen Lama to continue sharing Buddhist teachings in China. In June 1931, he gave a teaching on the mantra OM MANI PEME HUNG at huguo shenghua longchan si, a monastery outside Nanjing. This was the first time he taught in territory controlled by the Nationalist Party, and it was a sign of many more teachings to come.
Also in 1931, he conducted the Kalachaka rituals in Beijing, attended by thousands, to provide protection for the country and eliminate disasters. The 9th Panchen Lama would go on to give the Kalachakra once again in May 1934 in Hangzhou.
Uniquely positioned to bridge Buddhism and politics, the 9th Panchen Lama was also known for his skilful speeches that furthered the government’s agenda while also gently chastising the administration.
At the Central Party Memorial Conference for Sun Yat Sen on 5th May 1931, he gave a lecture on the topic “Hoping the Country’s Citizens Will Understand Tibet”. On May 10th, he addressed Nanjing’s New Asia Society on how to “Cultivate One’s Own Moral Policies Before Governing a Country”. And on May 16th, he presented a paper to the government titled “Perspective on Resolving Tibet’s Problem”.
Finding the 14th Dalai Lama
After the passing of His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933, the 9th Panchen Lama attempted to return to Tibet amidst difficult circumstances.
The Chinese government saw an opportunity to escort the Panchen Lama back to Tibet and to establish its control over the region. Meanwhile, the Tibetan government in Lhasa desired to bring the Panchen Lama back to Tibet but without his escort of 500 armed Chinese soldiers.
Having begun his journey homeward, the Panchen Lama had arrived in Jyekundo (what is now Yushu) in eastern Kham with his entourage when negotiations between the Lhasa Government, the Panchen Lama and the Chinese authorities hit a standstill. Thus, the Panchen Lama remained in Jyekundo for a time while trying to overcome the impasse.
In 1936, a team of monks from Lhasa journeyed to north-eastern Tibet to search for the 13th Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Due to the historical relationship between the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas, the search party sought the advice of the 9th Panchen Lama, who at the time was living in Jyekundo. Coincidentally (or not), the Panchen Lama had been busy investigating reports of unusual children born in the area, who might be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.
By the time the search team arrived in Jyekundo, the 9th Panchen Lama had identified three potential candidates. He gave their details to the search party leader, Keutsang Rinpoche, who proceeded to investigate further.
He found that one of the candidates had passed away while another ran away crying when he was shown the objects belonging to the late 13th Dalai Lama. The third candidate, who lived in Taktser, was characterised as ‘fearless’ and was eventually recognised as the true incarnation.
Thus, it was the 9th Panchen Lama Thubten Choekyi Nyima who first discovered and identified the 14th Dalai Lama, and this proves that the deep spiritual link between the two Lamas had never wavered despite apparent political difficulties.
While in Jyekundo, the 9th Panchen Lama fell ill and on 1st December 1937, he entered clear light. The tombs of the 5th through to the 9th Panchen Lamas were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and have since been rebuilt by the 10th Panchen Lama with a huge tomb at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, known as the Tashi Langyar.
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