Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Ninth Panchen Lama

An English translation of part of Fabienne Jagou’s research on the Panchen Lamas is now available. The Ninth Panchen Lama (1883-1937): A Life at the Crossroads of Sino-Tibetan Relations has been published by the the École Française d’extrême-Orient of Paris in conjunction with Silkworm Books of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The translation by Rebecca Bissett Buechel serves Ms. Jagou’s style well, for it manages within its mass of details to tell the story of its subject, Lozang Chöki Nyima Gélèk Namgryel. Jagou succeeds in providing enough background on the lineage of the Panchen Lamas and their influence during this time to put it into context.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the Panchen Lamas, whose reputation was equal to or surpassed that of the Dalai Lamas, took a growing role in the political life of Tibet, particularly as the Manchus and British increasingly made contact with them. The premature deaths of the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Dalai Lamas combined with numerous intrigues of unscrupulous regents amplified this phenomenon. As a result, Tashilhunpo [the seat of the Panchen Lamas] enjoyed relative autonomy up until the beginning of the twentieth century, made possible by several factors: the distance between Shigatse and Lhasa; the monastery’s large holdings of arable land, which guaranteed enough agricultural production to establish its economic power base; the tax exemption it seemed to benefit from; and, finally, the high esteem and caution that foreign powers (Manchu and British) maintained towards the lineage of the Panchen Lamas.

A number of appendices clarify matters like the ecclesiastical lineages and successions of the Panchen Lamas (Jagrou follows the Tashilhunpo system of enumeration), the political role of the Panchen Lamas, a useful chronology of the Ninth Panchen Lama’s life, along with Tibetan spellings and Chinese sinography.

What is not told is the interaction of the Panchen Lama with the European community in Beijing during his stay there in 1925. Alice Leighton Cleather, a member of Blavatsky’s Inner Group, travelled to Beijing to meet him and secured an invitation to join him when he returned to Tashilhunpo, where Mrs. Cleather believed H.P.B. had studied. The Panchen Lama’s death in 1937 en route to their place of rendezvous put an end to these plans and Mrs. Cleather returned to India where she died in Darjeeling in 1938.

Though Fabienne Jagou does not mention Blavatsky in the text, a result of Cleather’s meeting with the Panchen Lama appears in the bibliography. Under Blavatsky, the edition of The Voice of the Silence, edited by Cleather and published by Chinese Buddhist Research Society in 1927, is listed. Mrs. Cleather writes in her editorial foreword that “part of the work we undertook at his request for Buddhism was the present reprint, as the only true exposition in English of the Heart Doctrine of the Mahayana and its noble ideal of self-sacrifice for humanity.” It includes a brief text written by the Ninth Panchen Lama for the book, which can be seen in a previous post.

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