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Interference and Antagonism: Reflections on the History of the "Golden Urn Lottery" System

posted May 15, 2014, 12:48 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated May 15, 2014, 12:49 PM ]
By Pema Wangyal

1st Dalai Lama

The trulku system of reincarnation is a unique characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism, which arose based on the Buddhist concept of karma, the Mahayana concept of Bodhisattvas, and other ideas. The recognition of trulku candidates is a religious matter within the Tibetan Buddhist faith which shouldn’t be subject to political interference. The supposedly “atheist” government in Beijing, however, played an inappropriate role during the search for the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.
After the 10th Panchen Lama passed away in late 1989, the atheist government in Beijing disregarded the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism and forcibly identified a boy as the Panchen Lama, while attempting to replace the 11th Panchen Lama identified by the Dalai Lama. Beijing insisted on adhering to the so-called “Golden Urn Lottery” system because it mistakenly believes that the Tibet policy of the feudal Emperor Qianlong best embodied the authority of the central government. Today, almost two decades later, their chosen Panchen Lama still isn't accepted by Tibetans, and it’s hard to find eager worshipers no matter where he goes. The Beijing government has had a lot of trouble establishing religious prestige for him, and it’s all because of the Golden Urn Lottery.
The origin of the Golden Urn Lottery system is as follows: in 1789, the Nepalese Gurkha king invaded Tibet, sacked the Panchen Lama’s Tashi Lhunpo monastery, and attacked the castle in Shigatse. At the time the 7th Panchen Lama was only 4 years old, and the 8th Dalai Lama requested that the Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty send troops. As a former student of the 6th Panchen Lama and a patron of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, Emperor Qianlong immediately sent General Fuk’anggan to lead troops through Tibet to Shigatse. Fuk’anggan drove away the Gurkhas, protecting the Panchen Lama while restoring and strengthening the Tibetan government.
However, the Qing dynasty also used this as an opportunity to start interfering in Tibetan internal affairs, trying to rule in the name of the Dalai and Panchen lamas and sending “ambans” to Tibet. They also sent the “Golden Urn” to Tibet, where it was kept in the Jokhang before being moved to the PotalaPalace. The Golden Urn was said to be able to test the authenticity of Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama trulku candidates, thus beginning the Golden Urn Lottery system.
In reality, the Tibetan trulku reincarnation system began with the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism in the 13th century. With over 800 years of history, the tradition of reincarnation has played a very important role in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Reincarnate lamas are the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, the enlightened thinkers, respected and admired as saints by the Tibetan community. In the early 15th century Tsongkhapa created the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, and two of his disciples, Gendun Drup and Kedrup Je, went on to start the reincarnation lineages of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, respectively. These two became the most famous lineages of reincarnate lamas in Tibet, and from the 15th century to the present they have acquired 600 years of history.
Official Chinese reporting has claimed that “in terms of historical and religious rituals, use of the Golden Urn Lottery is a necessary procedure for finding the right reincarnation of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.” As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, so let us quickly review the history so that we understand it: Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty sent the Golden Urn to Tibet in 1793 to help with finding the incarnations of the Dalai Lamas. But the Dalai and Panchen lama lineages dated back to the 15th century, so by the time the so-called “Golden Urn Lottery” system was created their lineages were already over 200 years old.
Let us continue to analyze and consider the historical record. Over the last 600 years there have been 14 successive Dalai Lamas and 11 successive Panchen Lamas. Sino-Tibetan historical data shows that of the 14 Dalai Lamas, only the 10th, 11th, and 12th were identified by use of the Golden Urn Lottery. Out of the 10 previous incarnations of the Panchen Lama, only two incarnations (the 8th and the 9th) were found using the Golden Urn Lottery.
The historical data shows: From the 10th to the 12th Dalai Lamas, a short period of only 40 years passed. From the 8th to the 9th Panchen Lamas, not even 30 years passed. As you can see, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas recognized under the Golden Urn Lottery system spent a very short time on this earth. This clearly shows that the use of the Golden Urn Lottery system was a form of political interference by the Qing dynasty, and such kinds of interference inevitably antagonizes the Tibetan people. The imposition of the Golden Urn Lottery system lasted less than 40 years before it died away completely. Political interference in religious matters is bound to inspire resistance. In the course of researching this history we can see a peculiar phenomenon: Before the Qing dynasty imposed the Golden Urn on Tibet, the Dalai and Panchen lamas were very long-lived. The 1st Dalai Lama lived until the age of 84, the 2nd until 67, and the 5th until 66. Meanwhile the 2nd Panchen Lama passed away at the age of 66, the 4th at 96, and the 5th at 75.
The Dalai and Panchen Lamas selected by the Golden Urn, on the other hand, all died suddenly and for no apparent reason at very young ages. The 9th Dalai Lama passed away at the age of 9; the 10th was 22 when he died in the Potala Palace. Neither was old enough to assume power. The 11th Dalai Lama assumed power at the age of 18, but he died suddenly in the Potala Palace less than two months later. The 12th Dalai Lama also assumed power at 18, but he lasted less than two years before passing away of illness as he turned 20.
Looking at the Panchen Lama lineage, among the successive Panchen Lamas the shortest-lived was the 8th, who was identified at the age of 6 by the Golden Urn Lottery and enthroned at Tashi Lhunpo before dying of illness at the age of 29. The 9th Panchen Lama wasn’t as short-lived as the other Panchen and Dalai Lamas picked by the Golden Urn, but he lived a turbulent life: forced to flee central Tibet in 1923, he died 15 years later without realizing his wish to return to Tashi Lhunpo.
That so few Dalai and Panchen Lamas were selected by the Golden Urn, and that so many of them died sudden deaths, reflects the total failure of the “Golden Urn Lottery” system devised by the Qing dynasty. It also reflects the strong aversion Tibetans feel towards foreign interference in Tibetan Buddhist religious affairs. Why hasn't the Beijing government, which is much more enlightened than the Qing dynasty, learned from history in regards to the Panchen Lama selection issue, instead of repeating the mistakes of the Manchu government and stubbornly adhering to the principles of the so-called Golden Urn?

This article was originally published in International Campaign for Tibet: click here

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