Panchen Lama, any of the line of reincarnated lamas in Tibet, each of whom heads the influential Tashilhunpo Monastery (near Shigatse) and until recent times was second only to the Dalai Lama in spiritual authority within the dominant Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Traditionally, the Panchen Lama was the head of Tashilhunpo Monastery, and held religious and secular power over the Tsang region centered in Shigatse, independent of the Ganden Podrang authority led by Dalai Lama.
Panchen" is a portmanteau of "Pandita" and "Chenpo", meaning "Great scholar". The recognition of Panchen Lamas began with Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, tutor of the 5th Dalai Lama, who received the title "Panchen Bogd" from Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama in 1645.
Traditionally, the Panchen Lama has served as a teacher and aide to the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s highest leader. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas were supreme figures of spiritual authority in Tibet (as well as of the Gelug tradition) and enjoy a reverence among Tibetans that transcends the plurality of regional and sectarian affiliations.
Monastic figures had historically held important roles in the social makeup of Tibet, and though these roles have diminished since 1959, many Tibetans continue to regard the Panchen Lama as a significant political, as well as spiritual figure due to the role he traditionally plays in selecting the next Dalai Lama.
In 1995, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a six-year-old boy, as the 11th Panchen Lama, the second most well-known religious figure in Tibet.
Three days later, Chinese authorities abducted the Panchen Lama and his family, making him the world’s youngest political prisoner. After a lifetime in captivity, the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most prominent religious figure, turned 30 on April 25, 2019.
Shortly after abducting the Panchen Lama in 1995, China selected another boy to replace him.
Current Panchen Lama chosen by Beijing is Gyaincain Norbu.
By empowering its selected Panchen Lama, China hopes to commandeer the eventual rebirth of the Dalai Lama.