The Ninth Panchen Lama: Life, Recognition, and Role in Tibetan History

Panchen Erdeni Chokyi Nyima (1883-1937), the ninth Panchen Erdeni of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was born in Kashar Village, Dakbu District, former Tibet. He is also known as Lobsang Thupten Chokyi Nyima. His father’s name is Tamdrin and his mother’s name is Damchoe Tsomo. The Panchen Lama was born to a mute mother.

After the death of the Eighth Panchen Lama, representatives from Tashilhunpo Monastery were sent to find the reincarnated soul boy. Three potential candidates were discovered in Tibet. With Qing government approval, a ceremony occurred on the 15th day of the first lunar month in 1988 in front of the Shakyamuni statue at Jokhang Temple. The ceremony involved drawing lots from a golden urn using ivory chopsticks. His name was drawn, officially establishing him as the ninth Panchen Erdeni. On the same day, at the Sunlight Hall of Potala Palace, the ninth Panchen Lama became a student of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, and received the dharma name Jetsun Lobsang Choekyi Nyima Gelek Namkye Palsongpo.

Recognizing the Ninth Panchen Lama

In 1892, the Ninth Panchen Lama was enthroned in Tashilhunpo Monastery. The Qing government gifted 10,000 taels of silver to congratulate him. The ninth Panchen Lama sent Khenpo Norbu Zangrong Ma to thank Empress Dowager Cixi and Qing Dezong.

In 1902, the thirteenth Dalai Lama bestowed the bhikkhu precepts upon the ninth Panchen Lama in the presence of the statue of Sakyamuni at the Jokhang Temple. On the tenth day of the fifth month in that same year, the Ninth Panchen Lama returned to Tashilhunpo Monastery from Lhasa. This time period aligned with the birth and ordination of the Ninth Panchen Lama, coinciding with the British imperialists’ military aggression against Tibet. It was also a time when Tibetan monks and laymen valiantly resisted the British forces.

First Anti-British War

The first anti-British war occurred in 1888 when the British occupied Sikkim and shared a border with Tibet. In the Longtu area, a defensive line was constructed to block the British from crossing. To demonstrate the determination of Tibetan monks and civilians to oppose the British, all officials above the seventh rank from the three main monasteries in Tibet, Tashilhunpo Monastery, and the local Tibetan government jointly submitted a public report to the Minister in Tibet in 1887. The report stated, “Even in the face of potential loss of life, we must seek vengeance and persistently resist without hesitation.”

The British army easily captured the Longtu line of defence due to the vast technological superiority of their weapons compared to the bows, arrows, knives, spears, and muskets of the Tibetan army. This conflict marked the first anti-British war in Tibetan history. Both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama shared similar attitudes during the First Anti-British War. The Dalai Lama, along with the major monasteries, and the Panchen Lama, along with the Tashilhunpo Monastery, took charge. The Panchen Lama’s jurisdiction also included militiamen.

Second Anti-British War

On January 4, 1904, the British army captured Chunpi and Pali and later arrived in Gyantse on April 11. Fierce battles occurred, resulting in the destruction of the Gyantse fortress and significant losses on both sides. This event is known as the famous Gyantse defence battle in Tibetan history. In early August, the British army successfully seized Lhasa. Prior to their arrival, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was forced to flee to Outer Mongolia via Qinghai to avoid capture. The Minister in Tibet denounced the thirteenth Dalai Lama in a memorial to the Qing government, accusing him of being domineering and reckless and fleeing without a trace. In response, the Qing government temporarily removed the name of the Dalai Lama and recognized the Panchen Erdeni as an interim figure.

The Ninth Panchen Lama, considering the overall situation, believed that acting as the Dalai Lama’s authority would deepen the divide between them and harm Tibetan unity. Therefore, he declined the request to represent the Dalai Lama in U-Tsang due to the risks involved.

Panchen Lama’s Travel to India

During the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s escape, British imperialists sent Ekangnuo and 50 troops to Shigatse. They pretended to bid farewell to the Ninth Panchen Lama but suggested he go to India. The Panchen Lama said he needed permission and threatened British occupation of Shigatse and the monastery.

The Ninth Panchen Lama left Shigatse for India on October 12, 1905. Upon arrival, he met the Crown Prince and was asked to kneel down by E Connor. Telegrams were sent to the imperial envoy and governor of India, inviting the Panchen Lama to attend a meeting. However, the British plot failed as the Panchen Lama threatened to seal official documents himself if forced to intervene in Tibetan affairs. Eventually, the British had to send him back with generous gifts.

The Ninth Panchen Lama went back to Gyantse and Tashilhunpo Monastery, then travelled to India without jeopardizing the country’s sovereignty. In 1909, the thirteenth Dalai Lama left Kumbum Monastery and reached Nagchu in August. In 1937, the Ninth Panchen Lama went from Tashilhunpo Monastery to Nagchu to greet the Dalai Lama. They clashed with the Amban over Sichuan troops entering Tibet. 

Anti-Manqing War

In 1910, the Sichuan Army’s vanguard arrived in Lhasa. The Amban sent a guard to welcome them, but on their return, the guards opened fire and created chaos. The Dalai Lama escaped to India and sought refuge in Darjeeling, where British officials warmly welcomed him. In reaction, the Qing government declared the Dalai Lama’s name abolished and initiated the quest for a successor, causing great shock.

Despite initial reluctance, the Qing government sent representatives to India to bring back the thirteenth Dalai Lama. In 1912, Yuan Shikai reinstated his title in the first year of the Republic of China. The ninth Panchen Lama was also recognized in 1913, the second year of the Republic. The President praised his loyalty and dedication to Tibet and conferred a seal as a sign of appreciation.

After the Ninth Panchen Lama received a seal order, he thanked Yuan Shikai for it. The relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama worsened after the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet in 1912.

Changing the Relationship between Panchen and Dalai lama

In 1915, the Dalai Lama established Dzong in Shigatse, appointing Lobsang Dundup and Musha as its chief officers. Dzong held great authority and governed the Dalai Lama’s Dzongxi. This violated the Panchen Lama’s status and worsened their relationship with the Dalai Lama.

In 1916, the Panchen Lama wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama, addressing Dzong’s improper interference in temple administration and requesting a meeting for resolution. However, the Kashag replied with a refusal and reinstated the Ganden Phodrang’s supreme authority over the whole of Tibet. In the spring of 1919, the Dalai Lama finally agreed to meet the Panchen Lama in Lhasa, but the meeting proved futile.

Consequently, from 1923 onwards, the Kashag instructed several officials from Tashilhunpo Monastery to travel to Lhasa. Upon their arrival, these officials were immediately imprisoned without any interrogation. Upon learning of this, the Panchen Lama sensed an impending catastrophe and realized that his life would be in danger if he didn’t escape. Consequently, he promptly made the decision to flee to mainland China, taking necessary precautions to avoid detection by Shigatse.

Panchen lama’s Escape to China

On November 15, 1923, the Ninth Panchen Lama departed unnoticed with 15 attendants, heading north. Three days later, on November 18, over 100 individuals, including Suben Khenpo Lobsang Gyaltsan, pursued the Panchen Lama under the moonlight. They traversed the Tanggula Mountains and entered Qinghai. By May 4th, 1924, the Panchen Lama arrived in Lanzhou. Gansu Governor Lu Hongtao, accompanied by officials and thousands of troops, welcomed him on the outskirts of the city. The streets along the Panchen Lama’s route were adorned with yellow cloth and vibrant archways, creating a deeply solemn atmosphere.

Cao Kun, the president of the Beiyang Government, appointed Li Naifen as the “Welcome Commissioner” and led a 100-person guard from Beijing to Lanzhou for the ceremonial reception. Consequently, the Ninth Panchen Lama embarked on a fourteen-year journey across the country.

In 1937, the Ninth Panchen Lama set up camp in Yushu Temple in Qinghai, unable to return to Tibet. Meanwhile, the Japanese army occupied major cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. The Ninth Panchen Lama donated 30,000 yuan and purchased an additional 20,000 yuan in public bonds. He also rallied his colleagues in Xingyuan to actively support the anti-Japanese soldiers, wounded soldiers, and refugees. Additionally, he chanted scriptures in the Yushu Temple to pray for a swift victory in the War of Resistance.

Passaway of Ninth Panchen Lama

Unfortunately, on November 4th of the same year, the Ninth Panchen Lama experienced difficulty eating and drinking, frequently vomiting after meals. Finally, on December 1, at the age of fifty-four, he passed away in Yushu Temple.

The Ninth Panchen Lama’s coffin was transported to Tsang Region on February 4, 1941, where a pagoda was built in Tashilhunpo Monastery to honour his memory. Despite facing many challenges and struggles, the Ninth Panchen Lama possessed extensive knowledge of Buddhism and was politically astute. In his early years, he collaborated with the thirteenth Dalai Lama in leading the anti-British movement, and later actively participated in the struggle against the Japanese. He can be considered a courageous fighter against imperialism. He consistently upheld the unity of the motherland and national unity until his death, earning high commendation as a Tibetan religious leader. Therefore, the Ninth Panchen Lama, Choekyi Nyima, deserves recognition as an extraordinary anti-imperialist leader in modern Tibetan history.

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