It is the role of the Panchen Lama in the discovery of the Dalai Lamas.
Let us pretend for a moment that this is one of those tricky college exams:
True or False: It is the duty of the Panchen Lama, exclusively, to recognize the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama?
Most people, including myself up until a few years ago, would answer "True." However, they would be wrong.
The Tibetan system of reincarnation is very complex, and so in general conversation, it is boiled down to its simplest terms. And in those simplest terms, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama have a joint relationship whereby one recognizes the other. And, in those simplest terms, it brings up the uncomfortable question that the Tibetan community is currently faced with: Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama recognized by HH the 14th Dalai Lama, has been missing since May 17th, 1995. He was only 6 years old when Chinese security forces disappeared him and his family. Without the Panchen Lama, who will recognize the 15th Dalai Lama when the current Dalai Lama passes?
Based on this belief, many fear that if Tibet is not free prior to the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet will, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist. This belief creates a false sense of urgency, whereby there is an extremely limited amount of time to solve the Tibet problem. Many people faced with this misconception urge forms of sudden-death compromise. Although I fully believe that the situation in Tibet must be remedied as soon as possible, I have to ask: is this deadline real?
Let's put the situation into western terms.
In the United States government, we have a Vice President. In the simplest terms the Vice President's duty is to take over the roll of president in the case that the president dies or is otherwise incapacitated. In doing so, a smooth government continues and upheaval is prevented.
However, let us take instead the possibility that the President and Vice President are travelling together and there is some sort of accident: Both are incapacitated. If we were only looking at the simplest terms, then the country would be in very big trouble! However, an entire hierarchy exists within the US government which would cause a series of shifts, thus providing a new president and guaranteeing a smooth continuance of government and prevention of major upheaval.
This safety net provides two functions: Firstly, it guarantees that if something were to happen to both the President and Vice President, someone would still be running the country. However, secondly and far more relevant to our case, it guarantees that enemies of the current political regime cannot overtake the government through assassinating or kidnapping the President, Vice President or other political leaders.
Likewise, the Tibetan political and religious systems have had such failsafes for years. In the case that the Panchen Lama is unavailable, other qualified lamas can recognize the new Dalai Lama. In fact, recent history shows that the system can work perfectly smoothly, even when the Panchen Lama is unavailable.
For readers who have seen the Martin Scorcese film, Kundun, think back and try and remember the role the Panchen Lama served in the film. You may recall that he was not even mentioned! Why? Because in the case of the current Dalai Lama, The Panchen Lama was unavailable!
How is that? The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, passed away in 1933. The 9th Panchen Lama, Thubten Choekyi Nyima, passed away four years later in 1937. The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935. The search for and recognition of the 14th Dalai Lama commenced in 1937 after the Panchen Lama had died. To put it simply, after the death of Panchen Lama there was neither a Panchen Lama available to recognize the Dalai Lama nor a Dalai Lama available to recognize the Panchen Lama. While the system of mutual recognition works perfectly when there is an age gap of at least 15 years, it fails when the deaths and births fall within about ten years of each other.
Being that Buddhism teaches impermanence, the Lamas who worked within this system were painfully aware that you could not conveniently schedule death and there needed to be a back-up system in the case of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama dying or being born at around the same time.
In the case of the 14th Dalai Lama, he was recognized by another high lama: Reting Rinpoche. As we can see when we now look at HH 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and recipient of the 2006 congressional Gold Medal, the system seems to have worked just fine.
The disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama was one of the greatest and most tragic blows to Tibetans in their recent history. As long as he is missing, it will remain an open wound and I do not mean to dismiss that in any way. However, it is important that we remember that Tibetans and the Tibetan institution have an emergency plan, set up and practiced, for a situation in which the Panchen Lama is not available to recognize the Dalai Lama.
Why did I feel that this detail of Tibetan Buddhism and politics was so important that it deserved its own post? In Tibet's current non-violent struggle, the two main weapons are truth and hope. Without truth, there is no reliability or legitimacy to the cause. Without hope, it is too easy to give up and in doing so abandon the Tibetans inside of Tibet who's lives rely on not giving up. While we must always struggle to move as quickly as possible, we cannot afford to create a false deadline whereby we can declare the struggle "dead." For Tibetans inside of Tibet, as long as they remain oppressed, the struggle continues. If we declare it hopeless, we withdraw our support, and that is the greatest disservice we can provide.