It was in 1958, the beginning of mao’s “great leap forward,” and a year before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Freedom to practice Buddhism was deteriorating rapidly but I had no idea. The cadres who were stationed at Kumbum had been forcing all the monks at Kumbum to attend political sessions for months on end. But I guess because I was so young, I wasn’t required to attend. The monks particularly the monks in their teens and early twenties—were being successfully brainwashed by the chinese communists and trained to speak out against religion, landowners, reincarnates, teachers,
One day that winter, the communist cadres called the entire monastic community outside for a meeting in Kumbum’s central square. There were somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 of us. Soldiers with guns surrounded the courtyard and lined the rooftops, their machine guns trained on us. Some of the monks who had been drilled by the communists began to shout slogans at the rest of us: “Time for revenge!” “Time to uncover the wrongs of religion!” It was the first time that I had witnessed thamzing, a chinese communist struggle session that included denunciation, beating and sometimes murder. The police grabbed a few of the most important lamas, including the Head Abbot of Kumbum, who was in his early sixties. They tied his hands behind his back with rope—very tightly. He cried out. Young monks yanked him by the rope and pulled him toward the bottom step of the high stage so that everyone could see him. They yelled, “You are sucking our blood! You are eating our flesh!” The Abbot was sobbing. He was the first one at Kumbum to be treated like that.
Within an hour, the cadres had arrested and bound about a hundred additional lamas—many Rinpoches—all forced to stand at the front of the stage. Then the Chinese began to beat them with whips and the handles of farm tools—shovels, hoes, whatever was around. After they finished beating them, they dragged them out of the square and into Chinese trucks that were waiting outside.Then the cadres came back into the square and arrested an even larger group of monks still sitting on the ground. In all, over five hundred monks and lamas were arrested and dragged away that day. My tutor, my housekeeper, my assistants—all of them were pulled away from me where I was sitting. The only Rinpoches who were not arrested were very young boys like me age six to ten, something like that.
The meeting lasted until late in the afternoon. I was paralyzed. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t even know where I was supposed to go. It was the first time in my life that I hadn’t had adults to take care of me. The only thing I could think to do was to go back to my rooms. But when I got there, young monks had been moved into my space. My residence had been reorganized into a commune: Team Number One, it was called.In the following weeks, we were forced to cut up our maroon robes, dye them black or dark blue and re-fashion them into Mao suits. Those became our new uniforms. We had mandatory study groups every day endless the cadres taught us why religion was so bad, and why religious reform was so necessary, and why the most venerated lamas were the ones who most deserved thamzing. Basically, Kumbum became a school where children were taught to denounce monasteries and the elder lamas who ran them.
A few monks from Drepung Monastery came into the Barkhor District the old part of Lhasa and shouted “Free Tibet”. Four days later, several hundred monks from Sera Monastery marched on Barkhor and all hell broke loose. The chinese opened fire. Lhasa became a battleground. beijing sent the Panchen Lama to Lhasa to assess and to quell the situation.
The mood was very ugly. The Panchen Lama headed up three teams flown out to Lhasa in a private jet. There were about one hundred of us: the religious team, which was the Panchen Lama’s handpicked group; the political team, which was comprised of communist cadres; and the police. You can imagine the tension on the airplane. There was the unspoken understanding that, if the Panchen Lama couldn’t clean up the mess, more drastic measures would be taken by the Central Government.
The TAR [Tibet Autonomous Region] cadres arranged for a viewing at the Panchen Lama’s residence of videotapes taken during the demonstrations that would prove the Chinese were blameless. There was lots of footage of the monks shouting and demonstrating in the streets, but no coverage at all of how, exactly, the police were handling the Tibetans.
When it was over, the lights came on and the Panchen Lama looked around the room. He said, “That’s it? That’s all? Where are the police in all this?”
And then he got really mad. You should understand that the Panchen Lama could be very imposing when it suited him. He cast a big shadow. So he walked over to the guy who was operating the video and grabbed him by the collar and yanked him up to his feet and yelled at him.It must have been about midnight. The Panchen Lama said, “OK, let’s go!” and herded us out to the cars waiting outside. “Get into the cars!” he ordered. “All of you!” Off we went to TAR Headquarters—just five or ten minutes away—which was also the private residence of TAR Party Chief, Hu Jintao [currently General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.]
The Panchen Lama knocked on hu jintao’s front door. All of us Tibetans were a little proud at that moment. It was such an unusual feeling to watch a high ranking member of the Party being bullied by a Tibetan!hu actually came to the door in his pajamas. Personally, the Panchen Lama and Hu were friends at that time, so when hu saw him, he called him “Great Master” or something like that and was very shocked and asked what in the world had happened.The Panchen Lama said, “Do you trust me or not? If you don’t trust me, I can go back to Beijing. I can leave tonight! If you don’t want me to investigate, then you report back to the central government!”
The Panchen Lama I’ve never seen someone so brave. The next thing I knew, everybody was making phone calls. The Panchen Lama was calling beijing. hu jintao was calling his police. A little later, a chinese guy came to Hu’s residence and produced a tape and gave it to the Panchen Lama. This version of the demonstrations was entirely different. This time, we could see chinese police all along the rooftop of the Jokhang. Then the monks came crowding down the street. The police started yelling very bad things down at the monks, and then we saw the police open fire on the monks.After seeing this version the Panchen Lama confronted the police, “Why would you start shooting the people? You are supposed to represent and protect the people.” The Panchen Lama could be fearless.
t one point, the Panchen Lama gave a long speech and much of it was critical of the chinese government. It was a political speech. But it was given in the context of recent history. In other words, he recounted many bad things that happened during the Cultural Revolution and then cautioned the chinese government to take heed of its own mistakes and to avoid them in the future. As always, he had to be careful when he did this.People have accused the chinese of killing the Panchen Lama because of that particular speech, but I don’t think that’s logical. They kill him because of one speech? I don’t think so. For one thing, anytime the Panchen Lama was scheduled to give a public message, first he had to submit a draft of his speech to be approved by the chinese censors so, really, that one speech could not have come as a big surprise.
Anyway, the celebration lasted for two weeks. The night before everyone returned to their own monasteries, we had a big party. Everyone was so happy! The next day my group left. My group was returning overland to Kumbum. We had just arrived at a place north of Lhasa when we heard a radio broadcast that announced the unexpected passing of the Panchen Lama. We were stunned. Speechless. Every Tibetan felt torn apart. And suspicious.I was told that after the big party, the Panchen Lama complained that he was feeling uncomfortable. A doctor came in and gave him a pill and that was it. The next morning, early in the morning, they discovered him in his room and he had passed away, apparently in his sleep.
But there is something very interesting beyond that. Gyayak Rinpoche’s assistant told me that when they visited his body that morning, the Panchen Lama’s face was very calm and beautiful. They began doing prayers for him. But when the Chinese found out, they brought in guys who tried to resuscitate the dead body nearly all day! Until four o’clock in the afternoon! They just would not leave his body alone. Why would they do that? Is that not a little strange? From 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.nine hours of resuscitation?
From the very beginning of the process, there were so many obstacles created by the chinese government in choosing the future Panchen Lama. Number one: They made it quite clear that they intended to be part of the election process. In the first stages, they seemed open to speaking to the Dalai Lama. They formed two teams: the political and the religious team. I was appointed Secretary of the Religious Selection Committee. But there was also the problem with the Tibetan community as well.
Before I go on, I think I should mention something about the character of the Tibetan people in general. They have a kind of weakness when it comes to harmony with one another. Our mind process is like this: I’m from Amdo, you’re from UTsang, he’s from Khampa; we are all different separate. Tibetans don’t really think of themselves as one big family. So right from the beginning, there were regional rivalries that played into the selection of candidates for the Eleventh Panchen Lama. To make matters worse, Gyayak Rinpoche, who was initially head of the religious team and a very powerful influence, became ill, was hospitalized, out of the picture, and things went downhill from there.
I don’t think any of us had ever seen the Golden Urn before. This was a chinese thing something mentioned in old chinese history books but I don’t think it was ever used, at least in Tibetan ceremonies. If you go to chinese temples, you can see these kinds of urns with sticks inside that they once used to divine the future.
The urn they had flown to Lhasa was impressive. Bigger than a basketball, with a stem, like on a goblet. Inside, there was a vase within the larger urn. And in this smaller vessel, there were three ivory sticks about a foot long and one inch wide. The nominees names had been typed on paper except for the Dalai Lama’s choice of course. The altar attendants they weren’t the regular altar monks glued the papers to the ivory sticks, pulled tight-fitting gold silk covers down over the sticks, and replaced them into the urn.
Bumi Rinpoche, who was the president of the Buddhist Association of TAR, was asked to come forward and select a stick. He did as he was told, then handed it to the head official who, after inspecting it, handed it over to the official next to him, and so on, over to the next representative from beijing.
The event was televised. Later, when we saw the video on TV, we could easily see that the stick that was chosen was a little longer the others. Obviously, this raised everyone’s suspicions. Not that we weren’t already suspicious .