REINCARNATION IN EXILE
To celebrate collected stories The Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into the themes of each concert. The second concert in collected stories, Spirit, featured Tuvan throat singing and Arvo Pärt’s Passio, is paired with Tim McGirk’s essay on Tibetan Monks exposed to the twenty-first century (from the February 2013 issue of the Believer).
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE TIBETAN BUDDHIST DIASPORA EXPOSED ITS MOST REVERED ADHERENTS TO TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY DELIGHTS
DISCUSSED: A Typical Spanish Breakfast, Exasperated Nuns, Precious Ones, Hip-hop Aspirations, Dilemmas for the Reincarnated, One of the Most Erotic Scenes in Indian Cinema, Mumbai’s Most Notorious Gangster, Divination, Accurate Cricket Match Predictions, A List of Genuine Rinpoches, Steven Seagal, A Delegation of Lamas, Lithium
When I was posted in Madrid as a foreign correspondent in the late 1980s, Spain was still a very Roman Catholic country, which is why a newspaper story in El Pais caught my attention: a little Spanish boy living in the mountains had been recognized as the reincarnation of a famous Tibetan lama. I decided to see the boy and made the mistake of taking along the only photographer I knew, Derek, a paparazzo for the British tabloids.
I knew nothing about Tibet, lamas, or reincarnation. But the story seemed splendidly improbable. This was, after all, Spain, the country that had lent its name to the Inquisition. And the story seemed to show that Spaniards, at last, were shaking off their hair-shirted Catholicism and exploring other means of spirituality. The boy’s name was Osel Hita Torres, and he lived in Bubión, in the Alpujarras Mountains above Granada.
The village was hard to reach. It had snowed the night before, and the road spiraling up the mountains was glazed with black ice. At a mountain inn, Derek and I stopped for a typical Spanish breakfast of espresso and cognac. After downing his cognac in one swallow, Derek reached into his photographer’s vest and, grinning, pulled out a matador’s cap.
I had known Derek long enough to fear the worst.
“We have to make it clear from the get-go that this kid is Spanish. So we pose him as a mini-bullfighter!”
We reached Bubión in late morning, the sun glinting on rock, rushing water, and snow. A villager directed us to two stone cottages that Western followers of the late Lama Thubten Yeshe—Osel’s parents among them—had turned into a Tibetan Buddhist retreat. I heard a child howling. Derek and I got out of the car and saw a young kid tussling with a buzz-cut Spanish nun. They were standing inside a wintry vegetable garden. The boy was in mid-tantrum, and his cheeks were as flushed as his burgundy lama robes. It was Osel, age four.
Exasperated, the nun turned to us.
“He wants to scrape the snow off all the plants before the ice kills them. But look, his hands are blue, and he won’t put on his mittens!” the nun complained.
This struck me as unusually caring behavior for a four-year-old. My own two young sons, left alone in that garden, would have invented some game of gladiators and started flogging each other with the frosted tomato vines. Osel was meticulously brushing the snow off cabbage leaves. His blue hands moved with urgency.
The telephone rang in one of the stone cottages.
“Watch him for me, will you?” the nun said, and without waiting for an answer she dashed up the stony path. The boy’s bawling subsided to sniffles.
“Now! Now’s the chance! While the nun’s away!” Derek urged as he reached into his vest for the matador’s cap. He stalked toward the boy, matador’s cap in one hand, his camera raised with predatory intent. Osel eyed Derek warily.
I was still puzzled by Osel dusting the snow off the plants. It was so un-childlike. So instead of helping Derek snap his cheesy photo, I nudged Osel and said: “Vamos! Come on! I’ll race you!”
He and I ran along the mountain ridge, kicking up puffs of snow. Far below was a valley terraced with almond trees and a church steeple rising through village smoke.
That was my first, and last, experience with a reincarnate lama for many years. War intervened. Flash forward to 2012. After covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East, I was exhausted from writing about how people were shot, tortured, and blown up in the name of religion. But I often wondered what had happened to that little laughing boy running over the mountains. By now he was twenty-seven, a young man. Had he fulfilled his promise as a rinpoche (also known as a tulku), a “precious one,” a supposedly enlightened being who continues his teaching from one lifetime to the next?
Along with Osel, there are over a thousand other monks and laymen who are revered as the incarnations of past teachers. Among them, the Dalai Lama stands supreme. Below him are several dozen high lamas, also rinpoches, who are great teachers and whose spirituality is unquestioned. In old Tibet, the rinpoches were powerful men possessing monasteries, lands, treasure, and thousands of followers. Like any system of dynastic succession, this one was vulnerable to political intrigue, manipulation, and mistake; apparently, there’s no easy science for finding one’s reincarnation. The searchers rely on visions, divinations, and clues left behind by the old rinpoche, and sometimes things go awry. Nor do these rinpoches always behave as expected: the sixth Dalai Lama loved wine, carousing, and singing songs to his favorite Lhasa courtesans. He came to a bad end.
By and large, the lineage of rinpoches survived intact for eight centuries, until the Chinese Red Army invaded Tibet, in 1950. It was easier to maintain this system when the “precious ones” were locked inside monasteries ringed by mountains, far from worldly distractions. But in exile, this tradition is fast unraveling. The younger rinpoches are exposed to all of the twenty-first century’s dazzling temptations. The irony is that while Tibetan Buddhism is gaining more adherents around the world, an increasing number of rinpoches are abandoning their monastic vows. Some are having a hard time finding their own path through the complexities of modern society and feel unable, or unqualified, to pass on much in the way of advice. Neither their early training in the monastery nor, supposedly, the good karma of their past lives as teachers is able to shield them entirely from the afflictions that the rest of us experience—desire, rage, attachment, envy, and egotism. The pull of samsara, the flow of worldly existence, can be overwhelming. One Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas has two tests for graduation: first, monks are sent out onto a snowbank wearing only a wet sheet and told to keep themselves warm bytumo, a sort of heat-generating meditation; second, those who pass the first round are sent to the monastery’s printing house in Old Delhi, a neighborhood that teems with prostitutes and myriad sensory distractions. For young monks, the stint in Old Delhi is the harder test.
After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, many monks followed the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas into exile in India. Not all stayed huddled in Indian refugee camps. The more adventurous among them rode the wave of new-age curiosity about Eastern religions and headed west. Osel’s prior reincarnation, Lama Thubten Yeshe, was outstanding. Known for his boisterous humor and practical advice, Lama Thubten Yeshe stripped away many of the arcane Himalayan rituals of Tibetan Buddhism and drew thousands of Americans, Europeans, and Australians to his dharma teachings. He called himself “a Tibetan hippie” and enjoyed the Australian beaches. And, like his future incarnation Osel, who tried to save vegetables from a frosty death, Lama Yeshe was also fond of gardening. Lama Yeshe’s death, in March 1984, was widely mourned by his thousands of followers. Even after Lama Yeshe’s death, his organization, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), which runs over 158 centers and numerous projects in forty countries, remains the most influential proponent of Tibetan Buddhism in the world.
Initially, there were ten children, Western, Nepali, and Tibetan, who showed promise of being the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, but the signs and the oracles all pointed to the Spanish boy. Osel’s mother, Maria, told me that even before she knew she was pregnant, she had an auspicious dream, rich in Catholic imagery. She dreamed that Lama Yeshe was standing in a cathedral full of Western followers. “We filed up to the altar, where there was Lama Yeshe. He held my head in his hands and plunged me into a fountain,” she recalled. “I felt the water enter my mouth, my nose, my ears—but instead of drowning, I felt blissful.” At the time she didn’t read too much into it, other than that it was comforting to dream of her late teacher. When the Dalai Lama confirmed that Osel was indeed the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, Lama Yeshe’s devotees were elated; they were counting on Osel to grow up and be their spiritual guide.
Turns out, it hasn’t been easy for Osel. Shortly after I met him, the boy was shipped off to a monastery in Nepal and then to Sera Je Monastery, near Mysore, in southern India. His parents divorced, and Osel ended up leaving the monastery, disrobing, and going to a boarding school in Canada. He now prefers to be called “Oz,” and went on to study filmmaking at the Complutense University in Madrid. He hangs out on the island of Ibiza, has a girlfriend, and has given only one teaching, at an Italian retreat center in April, in which he stunned his audience by proclaiming that he was no longer a Buddhist. “When I was eight or nine,” said Osel, who has a goatee and the pallor of an El Greco ascetic, “I was always saying I was a Buddhist. But then I realized I really didn’t understand what that meant.” He said he agrees with Buddhist philosophy but prefers to think of his belief as “agnostic-scientific-spiritual.” Osel became press-shy after a “sensationalist” interview with a Spanish magazine in 2009, and my requests for a second interview were politely ignored.
Devotees of the late Lama Yeshe are divided over Osel’s unconventional choices, his refusal to assume the burden of teacher and guru. Many drifted away. Some think he was the wrong choice. I spoke to Nicholas Ribush, director of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. “We don’t really understand the workings of reincarnation, only that there’s a continuity of consciousness. But it doesn’t happen that there’s an identical continuity, and perhaps some of Lama Yeshe’s followers expected that,” he explained. “They were puzzled, disappointed.”
Osel, in one of his few communiqués to the foundation, explained how he fought his destiny. “Some people seem to expect that because this is Lama Yeshe’s reincarnation, then he’s going to be just like Lama Yeshe. But today is not like being in Tibet many years ago, or even when the hippies were in Nepal and India in the 1970s. The world has changed a bit, and so I’m trying to find a different way of communicating.”
He is not the only tulku searching for different ways of communicating. One of Osel’s closest friends is the twenty-third Gomo Tulku. That’s twenty-third, as in twenty-three incarnations. Now in his early twenties, Gomo Tulku, wavy-haired and handsome like an Apache warrior, also talks about seeking a new way of passing on the dharma to Westerners. He has aspirations of being a hip-hop star, and in February 2012 he released a music video in Italy. In a Buddhist context, the video seemed outlandish, a celebration of the ego and the carnal senses. And in a musical context, it seemed clichéd: a blinged-out Gomo Tulku lolls in the back of a limousine, draped with miniskirted bambinas.
For these reincarnate lamas who stray, the dilemma is: how deep does one delve into samsara, the repeating cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth? One young rinpoche, who settled in the U.S. and found himself a girlfriend, told me, “To understand samsara, to teach it, you have to experience worldly existence, with all of its attachments and suffering. You have to enter the current.”
I put this to Telo Rinpoche, who was born in Philadelphia of Kalmyk origin and is considered by his followers to be the reincarnation of Tilopa, an eleventh-century Indian mystic. Telo Rinpoche had also left the monastery and wandered through a succession of jobs as a pizza deliveryman, telemarketer, and construction worker. “Monks say they disrobe to understand samsara. It’s all bullshit,” he told me in his home on the Colorado plains, whose walls are adorned with exquisite thangkas. “I’m not going to lie. I lacked discipline. I screwed up. Only after nearly drowning in samsara did I crawl to shore.”
Today, as a layman, married with children, Telo Rinpoche is following in his previous incarnation’s footsteps, bringing Buddhism back to Kalmykia and Mongolia, where the communists had razed monasteries and temples and executed thousands of monks.
The difficulties that Osel faced had much to do with being caught between a Buddhist monastery’s medieval rigors and his easygoing Spanish upbringing. Osel was not the only Western-born rinpoche. In the 1980s, there was a spate of Western boys, in Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Brazil, who were recognized as past incarnations of Tibetan teachers. But many of them endured crises of identity—and faith—similar to Osel’s. Said Thupten Jinpa, a Tibetan religious scholar, “It was especially confusing when they became teenagers. On the human level, it was a disaster.”
If the clash of cultures is what led to these human disasters, I wanted to track down a rin-poche steeped in the Himalayan traditions and find out how he was coping with his inner conflict between spirit and worldly attachments. In India, I found a rinpoche who had not only taken the plunge into the ocean of samsara but had done a triple-gainer.
Kagyur Rinpoche, a respected Tibetan scholar and teacher, had scandalized the Tibetan clergy by falling in love with a Bollywood movie star, Mandakini. In the mid-1980s, Mandakini was famous for a daring scene in which she bathes in a Himalayan waterfall, wearing a wet white sari that shows her erect nipples (it is an extremely cold waterfall). It ranks as one of the most erotic scenes in Indian cinema, which, actually, used to be far more prudish than the Kama Sutra would have us believe. The glistening young starlet also caught the eye of Mumbai’s most notorious gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, and their “romance” was the staple of Indian film magazines. If any woman could lure a shy and devout scholar-monk away from his vows of celibacy, it was Mandakini.
Born in 1968 to an Indian father and a Tibetan mother, Ajay Thakur began at an early age to speak of his past life “in a big monastery” and kept mentioning the name “Kagyur Lama.” Word reached back to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s abode in the Indian Himalayas, and two lamas were sent out from Drepung Monastery, in southern India, where the previous Kagyur Rinpoche (who died in 1965) had a connection. No warning was given to the family, but on the morning before the two lamas were to reach the family’s house in Manali, the young child told his grandmother, “Today we’ll have guests. Make something tasty.” The boy supposedly recognized one of the lamas from Drepung Monastery and correctly picked out items from his past life—prayer beads, eyeglasses, a shirt, and a toothbrush—that were mixed in with duplicates.
The lamas reported back to the Dalai Lama, who carried out his own divinations with the help of the Nechung Oracle, a lama who dons an elaborate headdress and goes into ritual trances that, many Tibetans believe, predict the future or can identify a newborn tulku. All signs indicated that the boy with the Indian father and Tibetan mother was the third reincarnation of Kagyur Rinpoche. Ajay’s father, an Indian bank employee and a Hindu, was worried that monks of another faith were laying claim to his only son. The father also put Ajay through a little test of his own: he asked him which team would win the India-Pakistan cricket matches, and the boy was uncannily correct. “He was not happy when the lamas wanted to take me away,” Kagyur Rinpoche told me when we met in New Delhi. “My father wanted me to have a modern education.” The rinpoche is short and dapper, with a shy smile and a hint of Bollywood flash—tan cowboy boots and a striped indigo shirt that looked impeccably crisp in the wilting 105-degree heat. He’s in his forties but still possesses an openness, a childlike grace. I asked him more about his past lives but he said that his memories began fading once he entered his teens. “I can’t say 100 percent that I’m the reincarnation of the old Kagyur Rinpoche. Maybe I was his student. But a strong karmic connection is there,” he said between sips of milky chai at a New Delhi guesthouse.
Once he entered Drepung Monastery, everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly with Kagyur Rinpoche. No one doubted that he was the right pick. Once, during a ceremony, the Nechung Oracle, who had never seen him before, while in a trance picked him out of a crowd of five hundred young lamas. Bookish, he became a geshe, the equivalent of a doctor in theology. He studied at Oxford and gave teachings in the U.S. and Japan. But he felt a malaise. “I felt guilty. What I was saying, what I was teaching, I wasn’t doing,” he explained.
Nearly every Hindi film has a scene set in the mountains where the girl coyly dodges the caresses of the hero as they romp through forest and meadow. Inevitably, an entire troupe of dancers materializes and bursts into song, like a hip-wiggling Greek chorus encouraging or warning the young lovers. With its apple orchards and backdrop of snowy Himalayan ranges, Manali is a favorite location for Bollywood shoots, and Kagyur Rinpoche happened to be visiting his parents when Mandakani was there filming. (Her father is British, her mother an Indian Muslim.) “My mother met her family, and they became friends,” he said. Kagyur Rinpoche couldn’t put the actress out of his mind. “For twenty years, I was a really good monk. I didn’t touch any girl,” he insisted. Three agonizing years went by and, finally, he asked his mother for Mandakini’s phone number, and soon they were talking frequently. “I didn’t know we were falling in love,” he said, “but I kept asking myself why was I waiting so anxiously for her call.”
Then, in a scene out of a Bollywood script, she confessed to the gentle monk that she loved him. Kagyur Rinpoche replied, “Yes, I love you, too! We should get married!” Mandakini hesitated; on-screen, she would have danced shyly behind a tree. But she wasn’t just playing hard-to-get. Mandakini understood the lofty standing that Kagyur Rinpoche enjoyed among the Tibetans and all that he would be sacrificing. Kagyur Rinpoche insisted, and she relented. Two months later, he renounced his vows, and the monk and the movie star were married. And her attraction to him? “She’s very down-to-earth, not at all Bollywood,” he told me. “She liked me because I was a simple monk.”
Now all Kagyur Rinpoche had to do was break the news to the Dalai Lama. “I was very afraid,” he said. “When I entered the room to see him, my head was bowed. I didn’t dare see his face.” But the Dalai Lama hugged him and said: “Don’t worry.” Kagyur Rinpoche burst out crying with relief. The Dalai Lama joked: “All the monks who’ve lapsed are those who’ve gone to the West. But this is a special case. You fell for an Indian woman!” Then, in a more sober mood, the Dalai Lama told him: “You may not be a monk anymore, but you’re still a rinpoche and you must maintain your dignity.”
Next, Kagyur Rinpoche, in civilian clothes, took his new bride to Drepung Monastery. Some monks wept, lamenting the loss of a great scholar. Others, said Kagyur Rinpoche, “understood the nature of samsara.” The surprise marriage was an especially hard blow to Kagyur Rinpoche’s attendant, an elderly monk who had cared for him since he first entered the monastery, two decades earlier, as a child. “He was in shock. He had to be hospitalized for a week, but now he’s fine,” said Kagyur Rinpoche.
As a newlywed in Mumbai, Kagyur Rinpoche leaped into his new life with gusto. This scholarly monk found himself in the embrace of a movie goddess worshipped feverishly by over half a billion Indian men. “For one year, I was flying, not thinking about wrong or right,” he said. He and Mandakini clubbed with other Bollywood stars. “I was fascinated by discos,” Kagyur Rinpoche said. “Dancing, I found out, wasn’t so difficult. You just shake!”
There was the problem of what to wear. Having spent his life in red robes, fashion wasn’t his forte. So his wife chose all his clothes for him. But having stepped out of his robes into disco finery, Kagyur Rinpoche was soon beset with other, more vital worries. As a monk, he had been cocooned from the grueling slog of modern life. The monastery had fed him, lodged him, and given spiritual purpose to his life. For love, he had lost it all. Now he had to fend for himself and his new bride. And all his learning about compassion and kindness didn’t equip him for dealing with Mumbai’s rapacious con men. The “Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva,” a revered text in Tibetan Buddhism, urges the practitioner to abandon “negative people” and “negative places,” and Kagyur Rinpoche went from a cloistered world of trusting, self-effacing monks to Bollywood, where the sharks sized him up as easy prey. “I trusted blindly, and I was lied to, cheated again and again,” he said, sighing. “So I tried to lie, but I wasn’t a good liar. And when I came home after making a big mistake, my wife would know.”
After the initial rush of freedom wore off, Kagyur Rinpoche found himself facing a string of setbacks. His business ventures flopped. Worse, he felt that he was losing control. “It felt like some external force had taken over my thoughts,” he said. His virtues as a monk—his trusting nature and his “soft-heartedness”—were now handicaps.
Having realized that he lacked business savvy, Kagyur Rinpoche decided to try his hand at directing films. He had written poems and short stories as a monk. “Sitting in a monastery is not enough. We must change our style, our way of teaching,” he explained. He is now working on a screenplay.
Kagyur Rinpoche stared into his teacup and thought back wistfully on his years as a monk. “Those years were the best, the purest,” he said. Does he regret leaving the monastic life? He shook his head adamantly. “No, not at all. My life is richer. I’m more exposed to the world.” He compares being a monk to being a soldier. “A soldier spends years preparing for fighting. You want to see if your skills, what you’ve learned, survive the test of combat.” Becoming a layman, entering into samsara, is akin to a soldier charging into battle, he said. “Sure, I get tense. In Bollywood, there are big egos. All that matters to them is fame and money. But for me, balance is most important. If we eat more than we need, it’s not good. Same with the ego.” He laughed. “Buddhism isn’t an external search,” he explained. “It doesn’t come from anyone but you. It doesn’t matter if you are wearing robes or not, the teachings of the Buddha are something you can always practice.”
After our interview, I walked him out into the Delhi street. A flock of green parakeets scattered through the neem trees, fleeing a dust storm. I offered him a ride, but he didn’t want to inconvenience me, so my last image is of Kagyur Rinpoche in his crisp indigo shirt, one his movie-actress wife had probably chosen for him. He was a tiny figure on the road, bent against the swirling gale of dust, the turbulence of samsara.
The explosion in the number of so-called rinpoches alarms some devout Tibetans. The Tibetans say there are far more rinpoches or tulkus now than when the lamas fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet, in 1959. “Some of these lamas discover they are rinpoches on the plane to America,” joked one ex-monk. “They know it’s easier to attract disciples among awestruck Westerners if they can boast of being a rinpoche.”
Buddhists and Hindus believe that all of us are reborn again and again. What sets apart Mahayana Buddhism, as practiced in the Himalayas, Mongolia, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and a few other places, is the belief that it is not enough for someone to achieve nirvana, enlightenment; he or she must come back over many lifetimes to help all sentient beings. Out of this belief, the Tibetan system of reincarnate lamas arose. Says José Cabezón, professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “It’s in the best Mahayana tradition, and it’s also a way of coping with the grief of losing a teacher.”
Often, when a well-known lama dies—even if he’s not a tulku—he may leave behind real wealth: temples, property spread across various countries, a treasure of donations. The late teacher’s devotees usually have a vested emotional and, at times, material interest in keeping things as they were. And so they search for his reincarnation.
Many Tibetan monks and scholars say the system is spinning out of control, growing too commercial. “In Tibet, it was more restricted to a monastic context,” said Thupten Jinpa, the scholar. “But now the control mechanisms are becoming relaxed.” No longer are the proper divinations always done, nor does the candidate have to give proof of memories of a past life. Jinpa says that the Dalai Lama has recognized “quite a few” new rinpoches. “It’s hard for him to turn down students when they say they’ve found the rebirth of their teacher.” The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that inside the monasteries, tulkus should be treated as ordinary monks, without the special attention and perks. Only when they prove their worth, he said, should tulkus be given respect.
Bizarrely, the Chinese communists have also entered the game of proclaiming the discovery of reincarnate lamas. In 1995, the Dalai Lama announced that all the divinations and signs pointed to a nomadic shepherd boy in Tibet being the reincarnation of the eleventh Panchen Lama. The Chinese promptly arrested the boy and his family—one rumor has it that they vanished into a mental asylum—and named their own choice as Panchen Lama. Most Tibetans reject the Chinese candidate.
The Dalai Lama’s office has reportedly begun the task of organizing a list of genuine rinpoches, much like Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage, a directory of the British aristocracy. And just like those tales where nouveau-riche businessmen buy themselves a title and a crumbling castle, every so often rumors crop up inside the Tibetan community that money might have influenced the candidacy of a prospective rinpoche. One jaw-dropping example: in 1997, Hollywood’s scowling action star and martial-arts expert Steven Seagal was declared by a well-known lama to be the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century terton. A terton is a kind of spiritual treasure-seeker, able to find the hidden objects left behind by Padmasambhava, an eighth-century mystic and sorcerer who brought Buddhism to Tibet and who supposedly hid religious objects and texts that were to be revealed, throughout the centuries, at the right moment. Following the uproar over this announcement, Penor Rinpoche, who had anointed Seagal as a terton, had to fend off accusations that he had taken donations from the Hollywood heavy. Seagal, resplendent in a silk jacket embossed with dragons and accompanied by two surly bodyguards, was seen pacing outside the Dalai Lama’s prayer-flag-draped residence in Dharamsala, waiting for official recognition of his new mystical status from the boss. But it never came.
One of the most outspoken critics of tulkus is the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, Ngari Rinpoche. He has said publicly that the system was a “manifestation of attachment,” a negative concept in Buddhism, and that “some tulkus deliver, but others enjoy the title and get fat.” What made his criticism all the more pointed was that not only was he a rinpoche himself but he decided early on to abandon his vocation. In exile, he joined the Indian army as a paratrooper to fight the Chinese. It wasn’t what you’d expect from the brother of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion.
From Delhi, I journeyed up into the Himalayan foothills to see Ngari Rinpoche. He and his wife had turned an old British colonial bungalow, where the Dalai Lama’s mother had lived out her days in exile, into a small inn. It lies in the middle of a forest where langur monkeys swing along the leafy branches and a leopard occasionally prowls below. There are no signs at the turnoff by a Tibetan momo stand; the inn seems deliberately difficult to find. I had first met Ngari Rinpoche years before, when I was a Time correspondent in Delhi. “Don’t call me ‘rinpoche’,” he said abruptly. “I don’t have the qualities to be a monk or a rinpoche. I’m an ordinary person. Call me ‘T.C.’,” short for his family name, Tenzin Choegyal. Shave off T.C.’s black hair, put him in red-and-gold robes, and he would be a dead ringer for his older brother. His years as an Indian army officer gave him a taste for English cigarettes and a brusque, military bearing that vanishes when he contemplates, as he often does, a piece of mischief.
Music wafted over from the veranda; a Tibetan guest from Alaska was playing a wooden flute, and his song seemed to be choreographing the flight of raptors soaring on the thermals that sweep up from the plains of Punjab to the high white crags of the Himalayas. The musician drifted inside his bungalow, and soon T.C. strolled over from the rose garden. When I said that I wanted to talk about rinpoches, he cut me off.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” he asked me.
I told him that I’d like to, but that I didn’t have any proof. I had no recollections from my past lives.
“I believe in rebirth,” T.C. said firmly. “But reincarnation, in many cases, I’m not so sure. This recognition of tulkus, it usually comes from lobbying by students.”
Why were so many rinpoches abandoning their monastic vows?
“This is probably a good thing. There’s too much devotion toward them. Blind faith. They’re treated like shamans, with special powers,” he replied. “I don’t like the idea of depending on these ‘special’ people for your own deliverance when you have to do it yourself.”
But isn’t he one of these “special people” himself?
“I was taken hostage at a very young age, two or three,” he said, laughing, enjoying the shock value of the word hostage. “And I became a puppet of the tradition.”
It’s hard to get T.C. to tell his own extraordinary story. He is self-effacing and deflects personal questions. But eventually, over several meetings in his den overlooking the English rose garden, he told me how he was selected as the sixteenth incarnation of Ngari Rinpoche. It was in the late 1940s, and his brother was already enthroned in Lhasa. With the recognition of their first son as Dalai Lama, this humble farming family was elevated to Tibetan nobility. One day, a delegation of lamas from Zanskar Valley, in the Indian Himalayas, came to the family and said they believed that little Tenzin Choegyal, the impish youngest brother of the Dalai Lama, had been their teacher in a previous life. The Nechung Oracle had agreed. And now the lamas wanted him back.
His mother and sister delivered T.C. to a small monastery near Lhasa and left him there with the monks. “It was a bit of a shock. I felt lonely, forsaken,” he said. But his mother would visit once a month, and T.C. recalls many picnics in a meadow where the monks would do handstands, exposing their naked, wobbling legs, which had the boy laughing uproariously. He remembers the “melodious mantras” in the prayer hall and an incident where, ever the mischief-maker, he sewed together the robes of the monks sitting in a row in front of him, deep in meditation. He is still something of a prankster. T.C.’s proximity to the Dalai Lama (they meet often when the Tibetan spiritual leader is in residence in Dharamsala) and his blunt, often caustic impatience with the medieval bureaucracy, and all its intrigues, around his brother has earned him a fearsome reputation among the Tibetan government-in-exile. “My job is broom-sweeper,” he said, chuckling. And taking on the tulkus may be one of his housekeeping chores. Still, when he looks back on his days as a young monk, he said, “I realize that it made me strong.”
T.C. needed the strength for the terrible ordeal ahead. China had fallen to the communists who coveted Tibet. The first communist overtures to the teenage Dalai Lama were deceptively benign. As a boy, T.C. accompanied his brother on a trip to meet Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in Beijing. “He was very charismatic, very big, ” recalled T.C., adding ruefully, “At the time, I adored Mao.” But the promises made to the Tibetans in Beijing were soon broken, and Chinese troops conquered Tibet and overran Lhasa. The Dalai Lama was urged by his advisers and the Nechung Oracle to flee to India, the land of the Buddha’s birthplace. On March 17, 1959, under the cover of a sandstorm, the Dalai Lama and a small entourage slipped out of the Norbulingka summer palace. T.C. was among them. “My mother and sister were disguised as men. We walked across the sandbanks of the river, just three hundred yards away from a Chinese army camp. I stopped to pee and I could see my monastery, Drepung, on the other side of the river. We were in a hurry, but I stopped and did three prostrations to Drepung. I guess I knew it would be a long time before I saw it again,” he said.
For days, they galloped on horseback, trying to outrace their Chinese pursuers. The fleeing Tibetans scaled the high Himalayan passes and descended, exhausted, into northern India, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave them sanctuary. But whenever anyone wistfully suggested going back to Tibet and for T.C. to resume his life in the monastery, T.C. was overcome by “a dark paralysis.” He said: “The Dalai Lama would joke that I was the only Tibetan who was happy to leave.”
Back in Lhasa, his family had noticed that T.C., as a child, was strangely attracted to English lettering on the few books and toys that had made their way across the Himalayas to the Dalai Lama’s palace. So it was decided that T.C. would go to St. Joseph’s, a Gothic brick pile run by Jesuits in Darjeeling. It was his first encounter with Christianity. The painting over his cot of a bleeding Jesus nailed to the cross was a marked change from the Himalayan iconography of serene bodhisattvas and tantric couplings. “I loved the uniforms,” T.C. recalled wistfully. “And the senior chaps would give me sweets, pull my cheek, and say: ‘Hello, Reincarnate!’”
T.C. was a good student, memorizing Blake, Longfellow, and Browning, but his psyche was divided between wanting to be a good schoolboy and his Tibetan heritage. That “dark paralysis” that had afflicted him earlier began to surface again and again, accompanied by gusts of anger. Depression would plague T.C. for decades to come. He quit St. Joseph’s in a huff after failing a tenth-grade math final, and decided to return to his religious studies. “But I was too angry to be a monk,” he said. Besides, he had also become interested in girls. “My first girlfriend was Rebecca, a Jewish beauty from Calcutta,” he said sheepishly. T.C. is now married to Rinchen Khandro, a calm and elegant Tibetan who was his college sweetheart and who now runs a program looking after Buddhist nuns who have escaped from religious repression in Tibet. They have an adult son and daughter.
Having decided that he wasn’t cut out to be a monk, T.C. now had to inform the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s followers revere him as the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is represented in statues and paintings with many arms and many faces; most are beatific, but some are scary. Combine this wrathful face of compassion with the respect, and fear, that a youngest brother accords his elder, and you have some idea of the dynamic between T.C. and the Dalai Lama. “He can be stern,” T.C. said. “I was scared to tell him that I wasn’t going to be a monk.” There was no need for him to be scared. “You may have just disrobed,” the Dalai Lama advised his brother, “but you haven’t shredded up your commitment to Buddhism.”
That commitment was a long time in coming.
T.C. traveled to the U.S. in 1971, drank too much, smoked pot, listened to rock and roll. And yet the release from his lama’s vows, which he had long dreamed of, wasn’t living up to its allure. “I thought I was a failure,” he said. His own personal shortcomings were magnified by a larger futility: the world’s refusal to help the Tibetans against their Chinese oppressors. His two lasting memories: seeing wounded U.S. soldiers being stretchered into the Seattle airport from Vietnam, and hearing a popular song by the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Says T.C., “I very much wanted to leave America on a jet plane.”
T.C. did board a plane—back to India. His anger had found a focus. He thought that if the West wouldn’t take notice of the injustices inside Tibet, it was up to him to fight back. And so T.C., the brother of the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the world’s most famous advocate of nonviolence, took up arms. He joined the Indian army. India was wary of China after their 1962 border war, and decided to form a mountain commando unit made up of Tibetan refugees. It was known as the Special Frontier Force. (The C.I.A., meanwhile, set up its own ill-fated Tibetan guerrilla force and then dropped it.) When T.C. volunteered, in 1974, he insisted on undergoing boot-camp training with the other Tibetans, crawling through barbed wire under live fire. The other Tibetans would cry out: “Why are you doing this, Rinpoche?” But T.C. endured the hardship and distinguished himself as a paratrooper and a marksman, and when he tells of shooting a circling vulture (“Quite a lot of showmanship there,” he said), it is with remorse. “My dream,” he once told me, “was to parachute into my favorite valley in Tibet, pissing on the Chinese soldiers as I drifted down. They had done terrible things to my people, and I was angry.”
T.C. was denied that parachute drop. He left the Indian special border force after two and a half years, disgusted by the corruption of senior Indian officers and their unfair treatment of Tibetan conscripts. Dark moods besieged him. “Every now and then, I would yo-yo in and out of depression,” he said. He also admitted that he was “hung up” on people’s high expectations of him simply for being the Dalai Lama’s brother.
Over the years, lithium helped to lift him—and so, eventually, did his return to regular Buddhist practice. This, he says, gave him a glimpse into the nature of the mind, the idea that all thoughts, disturbing or pleasurable, are as insubstantial as a feather floating on the winds of consciousness. “It was only when I began to understand my afflictive emotions that I became interested in spiritual matters,” he explained. This happened when he hit his forties. “In depression, you have a strong sense of ‘I,’ but you have to size it up, examine it, and the more you do, the lighter you become.” Most of our emotional troubles, he said, come from chasing after “egocentric interests.” T.C. explained: “When you can’t get what you want, you get angry—at the world, at yourself—and to overcome that, you become numb, out of sync.”
Slowly, T.C. has resumed his Buddhist “commitments.” Sometimes he gives teachings, most recently at Stanford University, and he has become a kind of sparring partner for Western students of the dharma. For years, T.C. had refused entreaties by lamas to visit his hereditary monasteries in the high Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Zanskar (“That miserable valley,” T.C. grumbled). But several years back, he undertook the daunting drive over the 17,480-foot Tanglang La pass, where the fierce winds and blizzards shred the strings of Tibetan prayer flags into bright rags. The road drops slightly and zigzags its way across the high desert to a forbidden monastery perched on a little hill against a wall of icy peaks. This was T.C.’s destination: Likir Monastery, the ancestral seat of the Ngari Rinpoche lineage. Built in the eleventh century, Likir Monastery has over three hundred monks and an eighty-foot statue of a golden Buddha who presides, with oceanic serenity, over the Himalayan ranges and a single green ribbon of barley that unfurls down the barren valley. T.C. carried out his usual “broom-sweeping,” closing down a monastery whose rituals and practices he thought had strayed into superstition. I can’t imagine that T.C. would encourage his followers to search for his reincarnation when he dies, though the Likir lamas will probably do it anyway, hoping for a more pliable child the next time round.
T.C. may have harsh words to say about the system of rinpoches, but he has no doubts that his brother and other senior, venerated lamas are the genuine article. As for the legions of new rinpoches, he is less certain. He says, “The religious concept of peerage is a dangerous thing. I’d like to change their status.”
But toward the end of the conversation, as the monsoon clouds rolled up the valley and the skies darkened, T.C. began to recant slightly. “I don’t know if that spark is there in these rinpoches. But many of them seem very intelligent. It looks like their bank account has a tremendous asset from their past karma.” He laughed. When I suggested that he might fall into that category, he replied, “I should sue the Nechung Oracle for picking me. But, all things considered, I’ve had an interesting life.”
Tim McGirk, a former Time magazine bureau chief in South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, has written frequently on Tibet. He researched this story while a Knight Fellow for media and religion at the University of Southern California. He is currently writing a novel and helping to run the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley.