First steps on a long journey
He is the most protected and the most mysterious person in China. Perhaps we should not even address him as a 'person', because to many he is more than that. The Panchen Lama is a reincarnation, a revered spiritual figure, and one of the two highest spiritual leaders of Tibet, together with the Dalai Lama.
Little is known about the 11th Panchen Lama chosen by mainland authorities, and his visit to Hong Kong, where he gave the keynote speech to the Third World Buddhist Forum last Thursday, was the first time he has left the mainland. For that reason and because of the controversy surrounding him as well as the recent events in Tibetan areas, the South China Morning Post asked for an exclusive interview with the person his followers call the Master.
On short notice, I was told he would meet me and my photographer at 9pm on Thursday. I rushed out of the office, jumped into a taxi and headed to his hotel in Wan Chai.
I knew Hong Kong had been carefully chosen as the ideal stop for his first trip outside the mainland, all the more carefully because of the controversy surrounding him and the self-immolation of protesters in Tibetan areas.
The 22-year-old man I was to meet, Gyaincain Norbu, was an ordinary Tibetan boy before being anointed by Beijing in 1995 as the reincarnation of, or the successor to, the 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989 after a tumultuous relationship with China's leaders. Beijing says a lot had been drawn from a sacred golden urn in accordance with Tibetan Buddhist rituals.
But the Dalai Lama, in exile, had picked a different boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and remains in dispute with Beijing about who is the real successor. The Tibetan boy he chose disappeared on the mainland shortly after, aged six.
Norbu - the name means 'holy streamer of triumph' - was more fortunate. Away from the world for 16 years, during which he was carefully educated, the boy has emerged to make his first public appearance outside the mainland and his first one-on-one interview with outside media. I was told I had only 15 minutes, due to his tight schedule.
But it would still be a good chance to learn more about him.
When we arrived at the Grand Hyatt, we were escorted to the executive floor. The Beijing official accompanying us, who was introduced as Bureau Chief Zhou from the central ministry of the United Front Work Department, asked us to wait outside while he told the Master of our arrival. I took the chance to double check my questions, making sure we would touch on sensitive questions, such as the recent self-immolation of Tibetan monks.
Zhou said: 'As long as the Master is willing to answer, you can ask whatever question you like.'
I was surprised to see it was an ordinary suite, not a grand, presidential one. There was the young face I recognised from his occasional appearances on television. He wore his saffron kasaya, the Buddhist robe, and in his hands, which he held in front of his chest, was a string of prayer beads. I wondered whether I should shake hands. Is it true that lamas are not allowed to touch women? But before I could consider, the Panchen Lama extended his right hand, and the three young monks surrounding him smiled and gestured for me to step forward to shake it.
Realising we only had minutes for an interview that I wished would last an hour, I immediately asked: shall we start?
'Yes, please,' the young Panchen Lama said, putting on his glasses and sitting. I noticed he had all the curtains closed - for this interview, or because he has been trained not to get too excited by this colourful, secular world?
My first question was why Hong Kong had been picked as his first stop outside the mainland.
'It is a great honour for me to have this opportunity to attend the worship ceremony of the skull-bone relic of the Buddha in Hong Kong,' the lama said in a peaceful tone. 'I got the chance to worship the teeth relic and the finger relic before, but not yet this one. That is why I'm here.'
But is it that simple?
'I have been wishing to visit this city ever since it returned to the motherland in 1997,' he said.
'I'm very glad to see that Hong Kong is prosperous and that the people here look very happy. The forum I attended will bring good luck to the people of Hong Kong, and I wish them more happiness.'
Hong Kong is likely to be only the beginning of many future visits outside the mainland. After 16 years being groomed by Beijing, it appears that now is the time for this young Tibetan spiritual leader to go international and tell the world his version of the story concerning religious freedom in Tibet and the rest of China.
It is not surprising that Beijing wants the world to recognise the 22-year-old as a Tibetan spiritual leader, if not to replace, at least to minimise, the impact of the Dalai Lama.
'I'll definitely come back to Hong Kong again, and would like to visit Taiwan and Macau,' he said. 'I'd also like to visit Singapore and many other countries in future.'
Taiwan? Any concrete plans in mind?
'Not yet, I just hope I can go there someday'.
'But if you are to venture overseas, you will definitely encounter or be confronted by supporters of the Dalai Lama, who will protest at the lack of religious freedom in China. Will you be able to handle those situations, and how?'
The young Master did not seem flustered on hearing the title of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. He kept his smile and said: 'Wherever I go, I only have one mission. That is to advocate Dharma, that is to promote the altruistic care for all beings, to advocate purification of body, speech and mind, and to achieve universal salvation. Thus, I will teach people to have a kind heart, to be good to others.'
As I listened to this abstruse Buddhist theory I did not know whether he had answered the question or evaded it.
Just then one young lama reminded me: 'Time is up.'
Was the little lama - he could not have been more than 17 - trying to steer away from a politically sensitive question? As I did not want to finish the interview so abruptly, I immediately raised another question: 'What do you think of the recent self-immolation of some Tibetan monks and nuns in protest at Beijing's control? Was it because of Beijing's crackdown on religious freedom?'
He was quick to defend Beijing.
'I don't think the self-immolations had anything to do with religious freedom,' he said. 'As a matter of fact, the doctrine of Buddhism is against any self-destruction of life. We all have short and precious lives.
'We should make our lives more meaningful by doing good for people and the world. So, I here take this opportunity to call for everyone to treasure life, to make full use of our limited lives to make unlimited contributions to all. That is, to do good things for the happiness of the whole world.'
Doing good for others and for the world also means not being greedy, he said. So, I asked what he thought of those who say Hong Kong is an avaricious city, full of, as we say in Chinese, 'money animals'.
'I believe people in Hong Kong enjoy a rich spiritual life. You have different religions in Hong Kong and each respects the others. I don't agree with those who say Hongkongers value money over everything. As long as one has a [religious] belief, one has a way to choose between wholesome and unwholesome acts. Our hearts can then be purified.'
But while praising the people of Hong Kong, the young buddha did express concern about the contamination of greed on the mainland. 'Money blinds one's heart easily sometimes. This can be very dangerous to Buddhism, especially now, when the mainland is experiencing rapid economic growth. That's why I stressed the importance of avoiding the temptation of materialism, while maintaining the 'science of mind', which stresses the harmony of nature and peace of the world.'
Despite his spirituality, the Panchen Lama is very much a creature of the 21st century. The Master obviously did not want to talk about politics, but he was at home with technology like computers and digital cameras. 'Many of our Buddhist doctrines are now put online. I spend most of my time studying Buddhism using my computer, but I also like photographing beautiful scenes.
'I'm also learning English, and the study of logic is one of my favourites [hobbies] too'.
As he talked about his activities outside Buddhism, I felt that in front of me, if he were not in his kasaya, was just an ordinary young man full of curiosity about the world.
So will he have time to go outside and see a bit more of Hong Kong?
'Oh yes, I'll visit the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island tomorrow.' He also said he had done some sightseeing that day and enjoyed the beautiful views of the harbour.
Fifteen minutes had passed quickly and turned into half an hour, but now the interview was over.
The Panchen Lama is well known for his Tibetan calligraphy, so I asked for a sample. He took out a piece of yellow paper and wrote down words meaning 'auspiciousness and good luck', then carefully signed.
'This is for all people in Hong Kong,' he said.
Then he stood. 'Let me present you both a khada,' a Tibetan ceremonial white scarf for good luck.
The little monk who had previously tried to end my interview now turned solicitous. He smiled and told me and my photographer: 'You are all blessed by the Master.'
It was clear the Panchen Lama was well educated and well prepared. One can only hope the wisdom of Buddhism will be enough to guide him in the role he is supposed to play.