Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the principal monastery of the U-Tsang Province in Tibet, is one of the Great Six centres of the Gelugpa tradition. Tashi Lhunpo was founded by His Holiness the 1st Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gedun Drup in 1447, and became the largest, most vibrant monastery in Tibet.

The monastery grew in importance in the 16th Century, when Tashi Lhunpo’s Abbot, Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662) was recognised by the Fifth Dalai Lama as an incarnation of Amitabha, the spiritual teacher of Chenrezig and the patron saint of Tibet, and was given the title ‘Panchen Lama’. ‘Panchen’ is the shortened form of Pandita Chenpo, meaning Great Scholar. The Panchen Lamas became - together with the Dalai Lamas - the most important religious leaders in Tibet. In the same way as the Dalai Lamas, three previous Abbots of Tashi Lhunpo were retrospectively given the title Panchen Lama, making Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen the fourth in the line.

Under the 4th Panchen Lama, Tashi Lhunpo became an integrated society where monks from Tibet, Bhutan, India, Nepal and China lived in harmony, providing a community where monks received education as well as the warmth and love of a family. Over the years the monastery flourished as a centre of learning, and played a vital role in the preservation of Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy.

The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama have always been inextricably linked. Traditionally the elder Lama would recognize the reincarnation of the younger. Tibetans often refer to the Dalai Lama as the sun, and the Panchen Lama as the moon. Panchen is an abbreviation of ‘Pandita’ and ‘Chenpo,’ meaning Great Scholar.

Chokyi Gyaltsen, the 10th Panchen Lama, was born in Amdo in Eastern Tibet in 1938, and was recognised as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by Alak Lakho Rinpoche, and later (in 1951) by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 1954, he and the Dalai Lama travelled to China to attend the National People’s Congress. The Panchen Lama became a member of the Working Committee and a high-level member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and Vice Chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Chairman being His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 1956, he visited India for the 2,500-year celebration of the Buddha’s birth. But when the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959, the Panchen Lama remained behind. In the years that followed, he risked much to support the Tibetan people, accusing the Chinese of ignoring their “no racial discrimination” policy, and charging them with following a strategy designed to destroy Tibetan culture. As a result, he was seen as anti-Chinese, and in 1964, at a public meeting in Lhasa, was removed from all positions of authority, and openly criticised and humiliated. He was taken to China, subjected to ‘struggle sessions’ in Beijing, and thrown into solitary confinement for almost ten years, before finally being released in 1975.

On his release from prison, the Panchen Lama revoked his monastic vows, and in 1978 married Lie Jie, a Chinese medical student. This pleased the Chinese authorities, who saw the symbolic value of a marriage between the great Tibetan lama and a Chinese woman. His political rehabilitation began, and in 1979, he was appointed Deputy Chairman of the National People’s Political Consultative Committee, and Deputy Chairman of the National People’s Congress. Travelling through Eastern Tibet, he repeatedly advised the local people to maintain good relations with the Chinese, while also urging them to ‘Be a Tibetan,’ and ‘Be for the Tibetan Cause.’  In 1989, the Panchen Lama returned to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, where he commissioned a memorial stupa to replace the ones that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Several ceremonies followed. In a speech on 23rd January, 1969, he declared, ‘Since liberation
, there has certainly been development, but the price paid for this development has been greater than the gains.’

It was there, in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, that the Panchen Lama died, reportedly of a heart attack, on 28th January 1989. He was fifty years old.

On 14th May 1995, the Dalai Lama named a six-year-old boy, Gedun Choekyi Nyima, as the eleventh reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. But almost immediately, the child and his family were taken away by the authorities, and his whereabouts remain unknown. On 11th November 1995, the Chinese declared that another young boy, Gyancain Norbu, had been selected as Panchen Lama, as a result of drawing names from a Golden Urn. Human Rights groups continue to campaign for the release of Gedun Choekyi Nyima, as do Tibetans all around the world.

To read the official Statement by Tashi Lhunpo Monastery on the occasion of the Panchen Lama's 31st Birthday, 25th April 2020, please click here.