The Reluctant Lama

We are used to tales of disaffected teenagers leaving Europe to join ashrams and communes in India.  Now precisely the reverse has occurred.

It is an extraordinary story.  The young man formerly known as Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche and venerated by Buddhist monks in India almost as a living god has renounced his status and told of the ‘unbearable’ conditions that he endured.  At present he lives in Madrid.

 Singled out as the reincarnation of a previous lama at just 18 months, the young Osel originally came from a Spanish family of Western Buddhists who had taken the boy to Dharamsala, where he was chosen by the Dalai Lama.  After being enthroned aged six, he then spent his youth within the walls of a monastery in Southern India.  From his previous incarnation, a guru called Yeshe who had died in 1984, he inherited the spiritual leadership not just of that monastery but of 130 other Buddhist centres worldwide.

Yet shortly before his eighteenth birthday, he cast off the saffron robes and fled to the West, where he has lived in anonymity for the last five years before deciding to speak of his ordeal:  ‘I was put in a medieval situation in which I suffered enormously.  It was like living a lie,’ he told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.

The regime at the monastery was strict – he was beaten in private if he misbehaved –  and he describes himself as having been very rebellious.   Right from the onset, he asked if he could leave and return to his family.  A Spanish monk helped him record a message and send it to his mother, begging her to take him away – but after a brief respite, he was returned, as the devout family felt the responsibility of his reincarnation.  ‘Psychologically it affected me badly.  I still have a great rage within me.’

Nowadays he is more interested in Jimi Hendrix – whose lyrics he frequently quotes – and regrets that his youth was spent with 5000 monks revering him, but no girls or movies (apart, oddly, from one film about a lama called The Golden Child, starring Eddie Murphy).  When Richard Gere came to stay, Osel failed to recognise him.   At his first visit to a disco he was mystified:  ‘What were all these people doing, bouncing up and down and rubbing against each other?’

He no longer believes in Buddhism, declares himself an agnostic – and wants to become a film-maker himself.

The story may surprise those in the West rather more that Tibetans themselves.  There is a long history of reincarnate lamas who have been unhappy with their new bodies and old responsibilities.  The most famous of all was the Sixth Dalai Lama, a Byronic figure who renounced the Potala Palace for the pleasures of the girls and taverns of Lhasa, which he celebrated in sensuous verse;  despite his lack of spiritual leadership, he is remembered affectionately by Tibetans, not least for his resistance to the Chinese who almost certainly murdered him in 1709.

More recently a book of interviews was published with a wide range of living ‘tulkus’, reincarnate lamas:  while none went so far as Osel in renouncing their status, many questioned whether they were genuinely ‘re-born’ or naturally spiritual. Tendzin Choegyal, the Dalai Lama’s forthright brother, has described the way he himself was also recognized as the reincarnation of a previous lama as ‘bullshit’.  When I once met a reincarnate lama in Bhutan, he was more interested in whether Land Cruisers were better than Range Rovers.

The practice originated as an inheritance strategy.  Monasteries were the centres of power in medieval Tibet, but as monks were celibate it was difficult to arrange a succession.  At first the custom was for the lay brother of a powerful monk to have a son who could succeed his uncle.  But this evolved in the custom – almost unique to Tibetan Buddhism – of recognising a reincarnate successor at birth, although this has always been fraught with ‘lineage disputes’ over possible false recognition.

Paul Williams, Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy at Bristol University, feels the West has a fundamental misconception about the Tibetan idea of reincarnation:  ‘just because someone is designated a reincarnate lama, does not mean that they are necessarily righteous, holy or spiritual – or that they are suited to the role.’  One senior 18th century lama, the Shamarpa, was considered wso immoral and conniving that the Tibetan Government banned him from reincarnating himself – a ban they finally lifted 200 years later:  he is now 57 and involved in a fierce ‘lineage dispute’ with the Dalai Lama.

But then the West has viewed Tibet with rose-tinted spectacles ever since 1959. Those who visited the country before the Chinese invasion, like the travel writer Robert Byron, were far less impressed by what they saw as a feudal and theocratic society.  The at times hierarchical nature of much of Tibetan Buddhism has been put in the shade by the luminous presence of the Dalai Lama himself, who has come to represent all that is most modest and admirable in a religious leader, and has done much to reform and modernise.

His example has helped spread Buddhism around the world, with monasteries from Scotland to California.  One of the ironies of Osel’s recent renunciation is that he was originally acclaimed as one of the very first Western children ever to have been recognised as a reincarnation – making his apostasy more painful.

Yet there are some indications that even Osel may reconsider.  When he made his decision to leave the monastery, his spiritual Grandmaster, Zopa – the man who had first identified him as reincarnate – made him promise that some day he would consider returning.  Osel, who is now 24,  has said that he will keep that promise and return within ten years of his departure, ‘because I need to confront my past and accept it’.

It may even be that like the historical Buddha, Siddharta, who spent a period of his life enjoying the pleasures of court before embarking on a programme of ascetic meditation, an interlude spent out in the world is necessary for any religious leader.  Whether they want to be one or not.

  1. balso
    February 24th, 2012 at 06:48 | #1

    Au sujet de la continuité de la vie
    Lamas reconnus il est sur que la destruction des institution religieuses au Tibet .
    Est devenus en délicat cette pratique indispensable pour la continuité dans l’avenir!
    Il est de tradition que le Panchen Lama joue un grand rôle avec l’oracle Nietchoug
    Et la seul sa Sainteté le Dalai_Lama a cette tache avec L’oracle Nietchoug
    Voilas pourquoi meme si les réincarnations ne font pas le moindre doute les forces de maintiens et d’implantations peuvent varier selon le niveau Lama Réincarner!

    Voilas pourquoi seul un Tulku d’une force particulièrement importante peu aller jusqu’au bout et rester comme au Tibet !
    Toutes fois certains très haut maître très rares emploient des moyens habiles pour offrir a tous les êtres l’essence de la Boddhéitée Balso Guy

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