THE PANCHEN LAMA IN AUSTRALIA
#2 of two blogs on the 30TH anniversary of the Panchen Lama’s 1986 tour of Australian sheep ranches, with time for a phone call from the Dalai Lama.
When the Panchen Lama arrived in Australia, as guest of the Australian Parliament, he was, on paper, just one of a large delegation of members of China’s National People’s Congress, officially just the deputy leader of the delegation.
The delegation was large, with not only NPC members but plenty of minders and handlers as well, plus Canberra-based Chinese Embassy staff, plus Australian security personnel, official drivers with official cars, in the entourage. Everywhere the delegation went official photographers took the appropriate images, which are now available in the Australian government archives.
Only two events were off the record, and not for public consumption: the private receptions in Sydney and then Melbourne for the Panchen Rinpoche to bless the small Tibetan communities, then a fraction of today’s 1700 Tibetan Australians.
Sydney, at the start of the tour, did a press release, issued by organisations that mostly focused on charitable fund raising for refugees, the Australian Tibetan Society, and Tibetan Friendship Group. Their press release stressed the need to understand that, whatever Panchen Rinpoche might feel obliged to say publicly, there is much more to be said.
When the event happened, the sadness of many Tibetans at the manipulative situation was expressed vigorously, alarming some of the Chinese minders, who seemed to find it unruly, even insulting.
So when the time got close, at the end of the tour, for the Melbourne Tibetan community reception, when the delegation flew in, they said the event had been cancelled, or, at most, would be confined to a few Tibetans coming to Panchen Rinpoche’s hotel suite to privately pay their respects.
The Tibetan community in Melbourne had done much work to prepare a suitable event. A wealthy Indian couple, Zarna and Anil Somaia, had kindly made available their spacious house in the outer suburb of Ringwood as the venue, and it had been decorated with thangkas, auspicious symbols and a throne flanked on either side by large posters of HH Dalai Lama.
Since the delegation reached Melbourne 24 hours before the community reception, TIS members persuaded delegation officials to meet, at their hotel. We tried to persuade them that the event was harmless, but they remained suspicious, without being sure what to be suspicious of. So we suggested they inspect the venue for themselves, there and then, even though it was already late in the evening.
Zarna and the Tibetans had made not only a throne room but also an inviting dining room, and downstairs a carpark had been made into an inviting space for the many who would not fit into the intimate dinner for Panchen Rinpoche and the two Tibetan teachers resident in Melbourne.
The plan was that Panchen Rinpoche would first give a teaching, bestow blessings, photos would be taken; then in the next room he would be served dinner, with the rest of the entourage downstairs. That way the phone call with the Dalai Lama could take place without third parties monitoring every word.
Zarna liaised with the official Tibetan Representative in Switzerland, the closest Tibetan office to Germany, where the Dalai Lama would be teaching. Zarna recalls that two days before the scheduled date she got a call from Switzerland, politely asking if hers was an Indian household, and if she was indeed able to connect the two great lamas. The Dalai Lama, she was told, would like to speak to Panchen Rinpoche.
Everything now depended on suspicious Chinese officials. Fortunately, they agreed to go and see Zarna’s house for themselves. Sonam Rigzin and Gabriel Lafitte drove them all the way through the endless dark suburbs, having rung Zarna first to say that what was off may all be on again, so take down the posters of the Dalai Lama, and get ready to receive visitors. Zarna, by then already in pyjamas, hastily dressed, and got her mother-in-law up too.
What greeted the Chinese minders was a picture of serene piety. They were greeted at the door by a sweet old lady, the embodiment of devotion. She greeted them with palms together in a namaste. It was indeed a beautiful shrine room, and all the lights were on, inside and out, everything beamed welcome.
Carefully they inspected everything, looking thoroughly for anything unusual. They even searched the grounds. Were they worried Tibetans might kidnap the Panchen Lama? But all was impeccable, upstairs and down. So they agreed the reception could go ahead.
Next day Zarna phoned Switzerland to confirm the arrangement, and at 7pm the official Australian government cars arrived, to be greeted by Tibetans in their best chubas, and the Indian hosts. Panchen Rinpoche was in a simple brown brocade robe. Everything about him emanated power.
He took the throne, and gave a teaching, flanked by portraits of the Dalai Lama. He presented many gifts in response to the offerings made to him, such as pictures of lamas of his lineage. Everyone assembled for photos with him.
Then it was time for the evening meal. Panchen Rinpoche was ushered into the dining room, with only two Tibetan Buddhist teachers resident in Melbourne with him, and his personal attendant. Zarna slipped away and placed the call, as arranged, to Germany. Everyone else was ushered downstairs, where there was plenty of food, and Melbourne Buddhists to serve, and keep the group happy.
One burly Chinese made a big show of having to closely inspect the fire, but he too went down. The door connecting up and downstairs was closed, with Gabriel standing guard. The phone rang, just as the meal was starting, and handed to Panchen Rinpoche.
The call lasted 80 minutes.
As the call went on, some in the party downstairs wanted to go up. Anil Somaia, a prospering textile manufacturer, knowing the delegation had been looking at Australian wool and sheep farms, engaged them in an animated discussion about wool. Eventually, one did get up the stairs and tried to enter, but the doorkeeper refused entry.
Did anyone downstairs realise what was happening above? If so, by the time the call was done, the doors opened and everyone together again, it was the Chinese who decided to save face, rather than make accusations. The man who had tried to push back in apologised, explaining that he had accidentally left his camera upstairs and had wished only to retrieve it. Honour was satisfied. By the blessings of the lamas, what began as a simple idea nine weeks earlier had come to fruition. Even the phone company seemed part of the blessings. Zarna hadplaced the call, and had to pay the bill, and at that time international calls were not cheap. The Tibetans, overjoyed at the result, offered to pay, but Zarna insisted. However when the bill later came, she recalls, she was charged for only 20 minutes, not one hour and twenty minutes.
In hindsight, though we all bumbled, behind it all was the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We may have been quite unsure of what to do, but so were the suspicious Chinese officials, and to the protocol staff of the Australian Parliament it was not quite your average tour of sheep stations. Yet the result, despite confusion all round, was clarity. For that we can thank the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama.
One year later, the patience of Tibetans ran out. Lhasa was in flames. Suddenly Tibet was on the map, and we were ready to create a national organisation in all Australian states to speak up for Tibet.