The Panchen Lamas are the second most powerful religious and secular figures in Tibet, after the Dalai Lamas. The word pan is a short form of the Sanskrit word paṇḍita (scholar), and chen is a Tibetan word that means "great." Although the institution of Panchen Lama, like the Dalai Lama, is part of the Dge lugs (Geluk) tradition in its origins, its power and authority extend beyond the confines of that particular sect.
The line of Panchen Lamas begins with the abbots of Bkra shis lhun po (pronounced Tashilunpo) Monastery in Gzhi ka rtse (Shigatse), the largest city in Gtsang (Tsang) in west central Tibet. Bkra shis lhun po was founded by Dge 'dun grub (Gendun Drup, 1391–1474), a student of the great scholar-saint Tsong kha pa (1357–1419). Dge 'dun grub, who was posthumously named the first Dalai Lama, was instrumental in extending the influence of the fledgling Dga' ldan pa (Gandenpa, later called Dge lugs pa) sect beyond the east central region centered around Lhasa.
The first named Panchen Lama was Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan (Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, 1567–1662), the teacher of the fourth and fifth Dalai Lamas and the force behind the coalition that in 1642 defeated the Karma pas and their Gtsang patrons. Following that defeat, the center of power moved decisively from Gtsang to the new government called the Tuṣita Palace (Dga' ldan pho brang) seated in the Potala palace in Lhasa. As an expression of gratitude for his help, the fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) named his teacher the abbot of Bkra shis lhun po Monastery and bestowed on him the title Panchen Lama.
As with the Dalai Lamas, a number of important figures were subsequently and retroactively named earlier reincarnations of Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan. The most important of them was Mkhas grub dpal bzang po (Kaydrub Pelzangpo, 1385–1438), one of the two closest disciples of Tsong kha pa. Following him was Bsod nams phyogs kyi glang po (Sonam Chokyi Langpo, d. 1504?) and Blo bzang don grub (Lobsang Dondrub, 1505–1566). According to this manner of calculation, Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan became the fourth Panchen Lama, and the present disputed child incarnation of the Panchen Lama, Dge 'dun chos kyi nyi ma (Gendun Chökyi Nyima, b. 1990), is the eleventh.
In some early English accounts the Panchen Lamas are called Tashi Lamas, a confusion between the name of the person and Bkra bzhis lhun po Monastery; in Chinese publications, they are called Panchen Erdini, a Mongolian word that means "precious jewel." This latter title was first bestowed on the fifth Panchen Lama, Blo bzang ye shes (Lobsang Yeshay, 1663–1737) in 1731 by the Manchu-Chinese emperor Kangxi.
After the death of the seventh Dalai Lama in 1758, the sixth Panchen Lama, Blo bzang dpal ldan ye shes (Lobsang Palden Yeshay, 1738–1780) was regarded by the Manchus as the foremost Tibetan spiritual leader because of his great learning and rectitude. He was repeatedly invited to Beijing. He finally assented and died there from smallpox in 1780.
Although the relationship between the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was cordial, the traditional antagonism between western Gtsang and the east central regions of Tibet, centered in Gzhi ka rtse and Lhasa, respectively, soon reappeared. The Manchus, and later the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong, exploited this tension to counter the power of the Dalai Lamas.
The relationship between the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thub bstan rgya mtsho (Tubten Gyatso, 1876–1933), and the ninth Panchen Lama, Thub bstan chos kyi nyi ma (Tubten Chökyi Nyima, 1883–1937), was severely strained according to Melvyn Goldstein in A History of Modern Tibet (1989) when the Dalai Lama attempted to tax the Panchen Lama's estates to help pay for a new modern army. The Panchen Lama's retainers saw this as a veiled attack on the institution of the Panchen Lama, and this in turn led the Dalai Lama's government to accuse the Panchen Lama of treason. The ninth Panchen Lama then fled to China where he remained until his death.
The tenth Panchen Lama, Chos kyi rgyal mtshan 'phrin las rnam rgyal (Chökyi Gyaltsen Tinlay
Namgyel, 1938–1989), like the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho (Tenzin Gyatso, b. 1935), was born in 'A mdo, the far northeastern region of Tibet. The tenth Panchen Lama was educated traditionally and was given a position in the Chinese government. In 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Chinese government urged the Panchen Rinpoche to assume the Dalai Lama's position, but he declined to do so. He further antagonized the increasingly repressive Communist China government in 1962 with a seventy-thousand-character petition detailing the appalling conditions in Tibet and asking for an end to persecution and a genuine acceptance of religious freedom. This petition, later published as A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama, eventually led to his imprisonment for ten years. After his release from prison in February 1981, the Panchen Lama was reinstated; until his death in Gzhi ka rtse in 1989, he worked with the central and regional authorities for the betterment of Tibet. Tibetans consider the tenth Panchen Lama a great patriot, and pictures of him, which are allowed by the Chinese government, are widely found.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two claimants vie for the title of eleventh Panchen Lama. In May 1995 in Dharmasala, India, the fourteenth Dalai Lama announced that a six-year-old boy from Tibet, Dge 'dun chos kyi nyi ma, was the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. He had named the boy chosen by Bya bral (Chadrel) Rin po che, a religious official from Bkra bzhis lhun po and the head of the committee originally constituted by the Chinese government to search for the Panchen Lama's reincarnation. To demonstrate its sole authority over important Tibetan institutions, China repudiated the choice and later that year declared another boy, Rgyal mtshan nor bu (Gyaltsen Norbu), a six-year-old from Hla ri ri in Nag chu in northeastern Tibet, to be the true Panchen Lama. Since 1996 Dge 'dun chos kyi nyi ma and his family have been detained despite the efforts of the international community to secure their release.
Goldstein, Melvyn. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913–1951: Demise of the Lamaist State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Panchen Lama X. A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama. London: Tibet Information Network, 1998. Available online at www.tibetinfo.co.uk/pl-opening.htm.
Richardson, Hugh, and Snellgrove, David. A Cultural History of Tibet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968.
Smith, E. Gene. "Introduction." In The Autobiography of the First Panchen Lama Blo-bzang-chos-kyi-rgyal-mtshan, ed. Ngawang Gelek Demo. Delhi: Ngawang Gelek Demo, 1969.