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The Golden Urn originated in a decree issued by the Qianlong Emperor in 1792, after the Qing victory in the Second Invasion of the Sino-Nepalese War. Article One of the decree, The 29-Article Imperial Decree for Better Governing in Tibet, was designed to be used in the selection of rinpoches, lamas and other high offices within Tibetan Buddhism, including the Dalai Lamas, Panchen Lamas and Mongolian lamas. The Urn's real purpose was to allow the Qing Emperors of China to control the selection process.
Two Golden Urns were issued by the Qianlong Emperor: one is enshrined in Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and is to be used for choosing Dalai and Panchen Lama reincarnations; the other is in Yonghe Temple in Beijing for choosing Mongolian Lama, known as Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, reincarnations.
The specific ritual to be followed when using the Golden Urn was written by the 8th Dalai Lama, Jamphel Gyatso. The names and dates of birth of each candidate were to be written in the Manchu, Han, and Tibetan languages on metal or ivory slips and placed in the golden urn. After prayers before the statue of the Jowo in the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, a slip was drawn. The 7th Panchen Lama, Palden Tenpai Nyima, used the Golden Urn for the first time in 1822 to choose the 10th Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso.
According to the 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the urn was used in three Dalai Lama selections, those of the 10th, 11th, and 12th, and two Panchen Lama selections, the 8th and 9th. However, also according to the 14th Dalai Lama, only the 11th Dalai Lama was actually selected with this method, as the 10th and 12th Dalai Lamas had already been identified, and use of the Golden Urn in their cases was ceremonial to humor the Qing. The 9th Dalai Lama, though recognized and enthroned after the decree was issued, was not chosen using the Golden Urn.
In 2018, historian Max Oidtmann compiled various sources and concluded that between 1793 and 1825 the Golden Urn was used for roughly half the major reincarnation searches in Tibet and Mongolia, and overall it was used 79 times for 52 different major lineages.. Reviewing Oidtmann's book, Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne noted that his data show that most historical accounts of the Golden Urn have been politically constructed and are not completely accurate: Tibetan historians tend to downplay its use, while contemporary Chinese historians exaggerate it.
In November 1995 the Golden Urn was controversially used to name Qoigyijabu (Gyancain Norbu) as the 11th Panchen Lama. This action was approved by the Chinese government, but opposed by the Government of Tibet in Exile. In May of the same year, Tenzin Gyatso had named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama.
In 2007, an order from the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the People's Republic of China's agency charged with keeping religion under state control, titled the State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5 was issued regarding reincarnations in China. This order states that any tulkus (reincarnated teachers), which include the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, who plan to be reborn must complete an application and submit it to several government agencies for approval.