Chinese takeaway

The Search for the Panchen Lama

Isabel Hilton <em>Viking, 335pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0670861413

Ever since European travellers first searched for the spiritual idyll of Shangri-La, an aura of purity and asceticism has shone brightly around Tibetan Buddhism. One of the few remote places of the earth, Tibet remains commensurate to our capacity for wonder. Its aura appeals to the romantic imagination, sending many travellers off on spiritual quests for enlightenment and personal calm - and it possibly blinds their judgement. It also, significantly, gives the Dalai Lama, the country's spiritual and temporal leader, a much higher international profile and prestige than might be expected. The Search for the Panchen Lama is a detached, frank and, at times, thrilling account of the politicking that racks Tibet and its major religion.

The background is this: the Panchen Lama is the second highest line of succession in Tibetan Buddhism, forming with the Dalai Lama the twin pillars of the Gelugpa (the dominant sect) hierarchy. Though often in disagreement in the 500 years since their inception, the two have interconnected roles: the Dalai Lama generally being the more temporal leader, the Panchen Lama the more spiritual. Each is decisive in the recognition of the next reincarnation when the other dies. The 10th Panchen Lama died, mysteriously, in 1989. The boy recognised as his reincarnation by the Dalai Lama was abducted by the Chinese, who in turn recognised their own. The situation is critical; when the present Dalai Lama dies, the Panchen Lama will be the sole spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, responsible for the recognition of the next Dalai Lama. What better for the Chinese than that he be a stooge to the People's Republic?

This is a very real political thriller; and Hilton is in a position of huge privilege. She was the western journalist called by the Dalai Lama to witness and film his recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama, prior to his proposed public announcement once the choice had been unwittingly accepted by the Chinese government - which could not then renege. Her account moves fluently from the origins of Buddhism, through the parts played by the 14 Dalai Lamas and ten Panchen Lamas from the 15th century to the present. A familiarity with Tibetan history is essential for an understanding of the chaotic events since 1950: the invasion by the Chinese, the partitioning of Tibet, the rebellion in 1959 and setting up of the government in exile, the imprisonment of the tenth Panchen Lama, his death in 1989 and the recognition of two Panchen Lamas - one by the Dalai Lama, the other by Beijing.

Hilton's account is precise and measured, quietly arch at times when describing the natural phenomena that supposedly point to the identity of the latest reincarnation. Her emphasis is on the dense interweaving of the spiritual and the political, the part that religion has always played and continues to play in the political hierarchy of Tibet. Despite her personal involvement, she takes no moral position but simply reports. The language of the People's Republic does the rest: the "modernisation of Tibet" (destruction of monasteries and monks); Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward (famine and death to millions); the imprisonment and "continuing education" of Chadrel Rinpoche, the monk trusted by the Chinese yet liaising with the Dalai Lama to find the 11th Panchen Lama; unanswered diplomatic inquiries following the latter's disappearance (a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima). Written with the pace and intrigue of a detective novel, this excellent book will inform both those familiar and unfamiliar with Tibet and Buddhism. Perhaps there really is an aura about them after all.

Henry Sheen is working on a collection of short stories set in Lisbon

This article first appeared in the 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality