Where Is The Panchen Lama? John Oliver Says He's Been Missing For Years

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

In a segment leading up to his interview with the Dalai Lama on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver addressed the issue of where the Panchen Lama is; the Panchen Lama is the second-highest ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism and when a Panchen Lama dies, he is reincarnated as a child, who is identified by by the Dalai Lama. However, as indicated on Oliver's show, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the child selected by the present Dalai Lama as the reincarnated Panchen Lama when he was six years old, has not been seen in public for over 20 years.

In 1995, the current Dalai Lama named six-year-old Tibetan boy Gedhun Choekyi Nyima the 11th Panchen Lama (or the reincarnate of the 10th Panchen Lama). Several days after the boy was named Panchen Lama, he was taken into custody by Chinese government authorities and has not been seen publicly since that time. As Oliver indicated on his show, authorities have only recently even offered a vague update on the status of the now 27-year-old Panchen Lama, saying two years ago that "The reincarnated child Panchen Lama...is being educated, living a normal life, growing up healthily and does not wish to be disturbed."

David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

After his disappearance, many characterized the missing Panchen Lama as the "youngest political prisoner" in history. The Panchen Lama's missing status is evidently alarming in itself, as well as because of the role the Panchen Lama plays in both Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet-China relations.

As Oliver indicated on his show, the Panchen Lama plays a significant role in selecting the reincarnate of the next Dalai Lama. Without a Panchen Lama to designate the next Dalai Lama, the latter's reincarnation could be in question. This issue is exceedingly urgent considering the age—81—of the present Dalai Lama.

However, as Oliver revealed, the situation is even more complicated. In 1995, after taking the Panchen Lama named by the Dalai Lama into custody, the Chinese government named its own Panchen Lama, a boy named Gyaincain Norbu. Norbu is presently recognized as the official Panchen Lama by the Chinese government, and, after the Dalai Lama's death, will be considered by the Chinese the designated authority to select the next Dalai Lama.  As Oliver indicated, "If they [the Chinese] control the Panchen Lama, they can use him to pick a new Dalai Lama, who might (completely coincidentally) be very favorable to the Chinese government."

Oliver also stated on his show that the present Dalai Lama is evidently quite unhappy with the Panchen Lama situation. The Dalai Lama used strong language to decry the Chinese government in a clip played by Oliver, saying "One thing I want to make clear as far as my own rebirth is concerned, the final authority is myself and no one else. And obviously not Chinese communists."

Indeed, Oliver asserted that the Dalai Lama is so frustrated by the situation with the Panchen Lama that he has suggested that he either may not reincarnate at all or that he will do so outside of Chinese Tibet. In regards to the latter possibility, Oliver indicated that after the present Dalai Lama's death, this could indeed result in two "rival Dalai Lamas" and the "already fraught situation [between China and Tibet] could spiral out of control."

Oliver's discussion of the Panchen Lama likely provided many with the opportunity to learn about (or reacquaint themselves with) Chinese-Tibetan tensions and the Panchen Lama controversy. One of the most brilliant aspects of Oliver's show is that it offers audiences highly informative segments on currents events coupled with Oliver's ever-entertaining interjections. Oliver's coverage of the Panchen Lama was thought-provoking and interesting and will likely resonate strongly with audiences as they read news about Tibet and China in the months and years to come.