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Reborn in the West
Reborn in the West – Part Iby Vicki Mackenzie
The last time I had seen Lama Osel was in 1988 on the steps of the Kopan gompa, as I was putting the finishing touches to my book about him and his previous incarnation as Lama Yeshe. He was then just three years old and had announced, quite clearly, that he was going somewhere where there were big mountains and cows, ‘far, far away’. I didn’t know what he meant. Nobody had any travel plans for him. Was it fantasy, some active imagination on Lama Osel’s part? In fact, a few weeks later the Nepal government canceled the visas of all foreigners living in Nepal and Lama Osel, born in Spain, had to leave in a hurry. He went to Dharamsala in north India, once a hill station of the British Raj and now the home of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, his government-in-exile and a thriving Tibetan refugee population. In terms of travel time in that sub-continent it was indeed very far away. With the mighty Himalayas as a backdrop, and many a cow passing by, Lama Osel had obviously had some premonition of his next home.
This was the remarkable child who in the first few years of his life had been recognized by the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe. He had been scrutinized by the pundits of Tibetan Buddhism and put through the traditional tests meted out to would-be tulkus, and had passed everything with flying colours. At the age of two he had been enthroned with as much pomp and ceremony as a British monarch, and had taken his place as one of the most prominent and unusual spiritual leaders of our time. From then on the former Western students of Lama Yeshe, and an increasing number of interested ‘outsiders’, would observe the Spanish boy lama in minute detail, watching for signs of authenticity and waiting for slip-ups.
Lama Osel was, after all, being held up as the most prominent example of reincarnation in our midst. While the other Western tulkus were quietly getting on with their mission, Lama Osel, on the other hand, seemed to have an extra dimension to his purpose on earth. His was very much the public face of reincarnation, in the spotlight almost since birth. This he took to with inordinate ease. From the time he was a baby and his identity was revealed he had faced public and press, crowds and disciples with a grace and detachment that were, quite obviously, completely natural.
I pondered on the fact that Lama Yeshe had, without doubt, been one of the biggest and earliest transmitters of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. His unusual and remarkable skill at putting across the ancient wisdom of his religion in Western terms, together with his charismatic personality, had inspired a huge number of followers and eventually a worldwide organization. It followed, therefore, that his reincarnation would also be high-profile, gregarious, at ease with the public, and ready to make his message known on a wide scale.
Still, it seemed a heavy burden for one so young, and I sometimes worried that my book increased his fame. Was it right? I asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Was it good for him? And Lama Zopa had answered that it was all part of Lama Osel’s purpose here on earth, this time round.
Somewhat reassured, I continued to keep track of the little lama as he darted about the globe visiting his former students and demonstrating by his very being how this extraordinary new phenomenon of the tulku was working in the Western world. The next time I saw Lama Osel was in Pomaia, a country town nestling in the Tuscan hills, where the Italian students of Lama Yeshe had founded a centre. The Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa was housed in a large and impressive villa, and in the summer of 1989 it was full of visitors listening to the teachings of Lama Zopa and waiting for Lama Osel to arrive. A year had passed, and physically Lama Osel had changed. He had lost the baby plumpness which made his small figure strangely similar to the round shape of Lama Yeshe, and the leanness of boyhood had set in. He was growing up.
Life, too, was becoming more serious. Lama Osel had a job to do in this life–the job of transmitting the holy Buddha dharma to the West–and the training for that awesome task was stepping up. He had been set on his way in Dharamsala, when HH the Dalai Lama had taught him the first letters of the Tibetan alphabet. This act secured the great man as Lama Osel’s root guru, for, according to Tibetan belief, the person who gives you the means to understand the precious dharma is the foundation of all your attainments. At that time Osel was also receiving daily teachings from Lama Zopa Rinpoche and from an extremely tall and handsome monk called Yangste Rinpoche who was hailed as the reincarnation of a former teacher of Lama Yeshe. Lama Osel was devoted to this gentle young man. All in all, the spiritual talent lining up to teach Lama Osel was impressive indeed.
Now he was four, and his maturity was pronounced. He was bilingual in Spanish and English and had daily Tibetan lessons both in the rudiments of scripture and language. Maria, his mother, along with some of her other children, had driven from Spain to Italy to see Lama Osel. Together we crept up to the room where he was receiving his daily lessons in Tibetan prayers from Basili Lorca, his attendant, and waited outside the open door. Lama Osel had his back to us and was clearly intent on his studies. We watched and listened as Basili recited the lines of the prayer that Lama Osel had to memorize. The child got so far, and then stuck. Patiently Basili repeated the lines. Again Lama Osel stopped at the same place. This happened several times–and then Lama Osel raised his fist and beat his head several times, saying in a voice of sheer determination, ‘I must get this into my head.’ Maria and I looked at each other in surprise. Here was no coercion. Here was a very little boy totally determined to learn a difficult prayer in a foreign language. The diligence was coming from him. Over and over again he spoke the Tibetan words, trying to get the pronunciation right. He was neither bored nor frustrated–just patiently committed to mastering the task at hand. He turned round, saw his mother, grinned–and then instantly turned back to his studies. He might not have seen her for months, but the lesson took priority. His concentration, as always, was remarkable.
Maria commented that she was surprised to see her young son taking his studies so seriously. ‘It is unusual to see a child of his age feel so much responsibility to learn,’ she said. It was, in fact, very touching.
Watching Lama Osel being so assiduously tutored raised the same vital questions: if Lama Osel was the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, why was he having to learn the prayers anew? Later I had the chance to put the matter to an extremely high reincarnated lama, Ribur Rinpoche, who had once been the abbot of fifteen monasteries in Tibet. Then the Chinese had imprisoned him for some fifteen years, during which time he had been tortured for months on end and had his hands tied behind him day and night. It was reported that even under such dire conditions he had remained serene throughout, and had even cheered up his fellow prisoners. He seemed as good a person as any to ask about the intricacies of the workings of the mind. ‘If reincarnated lamas have developed their minds to such a high degree, why aren’t they reborn possessing exactly the same qualities” I enquired.
‘The point is,’ he told me, ‘they don’t come as enlightened beings. They come as ordinary beings, and so they have to rely on a teacher. It’s the same for all of them, including the Dalai Lama. They have to train – they have to bring out their qualities. It’s very important. The tulkus come back through the power of loving kindness, compassion and altruism, whereas ordinary beings are reborn through the power of karma. This means they come back exclusively for the means of living beings. Since they do come again they don’t come as enlightened, because they have to show how a person should train.’ The ultimate test for Lama Osel, however, would be the benefit he would bring to others. After all, we had been told, that was the only reason why he had been born.
Certainly at this age he was already showing signs of exceptional kindness and caring. It had been there as a toddler, when he anointed my mosquito bites with ointment, when he worried about animals being killed for food. It hadn’t diminished one jot. Shortly after arriving, Maria told him her brother was ill in hospital in Spain. The effect of this news on Lama Osel was electric. He stopped what he was doing, went over to Basili, pulled on his sleeve urgently and said he wanted to leave immediately! He needed to go to Valencia to see his uncle and say prayers for him. Basili had a difficult time persuading him it wasn’t possible. Later I learned that Osel always wanted to go to people who were sick.
Over the next few days I watched Lama Osel’s growing sense of his role in life. As a baby he had naturally, almost automatically, been a tiny lama; now he was becoming conscious of it. He was perpetually smiling at people and seemed to mean it. He would stop what he was doing to greet newcomers and give them a blessing. His arrivals and departures by car were accompanied by much waving–just like those of a well-groomed royal child. He graciously posed for pictures whenever it was demanded of him. He happily passed round tea and biscuits if he received visitors in his room. In fact he was just like Lama Yeshe–warm, hospitable, considerate, outgoing and communicative, reaching out to people whenever and wherever he could.
But the most interesting development from my perspective was his growing assumption of the role of leader. Whereas before he had been happy to play with people, or by himself, now he was organizing games and gathering the youngsters of the centre around him. They flocked to him naturally, drawn by his magnetism and his infectious sense of fun. He was indubitably ‘the boss’. Was this to be his new generation of followers? One of my most graphic memories of this time was the sight of Lama Osel loading up a cart with small children and, with the help of the bigger ones pushing from behind, pulling his cartload around the grounds while he led them in Tibet’s most famous mantra, ‘Om Mane Padme Hung’ Homage to the Jewel in the Lotus–which they belted out at the top of their voices!
His spiritual precocity was still in evidence. One afternoon he got hold of the pendant of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion that his mother was wearing. ‘Take this off,’ he commanded. ‘It isn’t blessed. Only the Buddhas can bless it,’ he said as he put the pendant on his altar in front of all his Buddha statues. Who knows how he knew it hadn’t been blessed?
The same precocity reappeared during the puja, the long, ritualized religious ceremony held to pay homage to Osel as the guru. As always, Osel was surprisingly at ease sitting on the throne for some three hours at a time, dressed in the regalia of a high lama and watching Lama Zopa Rinpoche out of the corner of his eye for the cues to play his damaru and bell. At intervals he grinned at some monks and winked at others (a newly learnt trick), mixing comedy with the spiritual like Lama Yeshe. He rocked back and forth on his cushion, moving to some inner felt rhythm while reciting the Tibetan prayers he had learnt. He tried hard to do all the complicated hand mudras, attempting to fulfill his role with a touching sincerity.
It was when the selected monks and nuns stood to offer him gifts of food and incense that I saw the profoundest transformation. His whole demeanour changed. An air of exquisite serenity came over him. The atmosphere in the room became charged with a tangible stillness as, with downcast eyes and an aura of curious ancient wisdom in a body so young, Lama Osel listened to the chanted requests by the standing monks and nuns to please live long and help all sentient beings. This was Italy in 1989, but for a few minutes it seemed as though we had ‘intersected the timeless moment’, as T. S. Eliot said.
Then it passed. The puja was over. Lama Osel yawned widely, stood up from the throne and with a clenched fist above his head made the victory salute to Pende, the American monk who had been teaching him about baseball culture. It was back to normal.
Later, looking through the photograph album, I got a glimpse of the very unusual life that Lama Osel had been leading in the past year. A world tour had taken up much of the twelve months. There he was sailing in Hong Kong, there in Los Angeles at the Kalackara Initiation given by HH the Dalai Lama, there at Disneyland being hugged by Mickey Mouse, there again in Hong Kong with his arms around a young Chinese boy, the reincarnation of one of his closest friends from his previous life–the warmth between the two young boys was unmistakable. There he was making small Buddha figures with Lama Zopa Rinpoche; there he was in France playing computer games with a monk; there he was in Madison, USA with his former teacher, Geshe Sopa; there he was in Holland imitating a person meditating; there he was in Germany … and so on. It was a sophisticated life, but one which his attendant Basili Lorca insisted was not making him spoilt.
‘He can deal with the travelling easily, although the change in food sometimes upsets him,’ said the Spanish monk who had become mother, father, friend and teacher of Lama Osel. ‘He gets a lot of attention, but he is too kind and too intelligent to be spoilt by it.’
It was Basili who was with Osel more than any other person. Did he notice any further signs of Lama Osel being a reincarnated high lama, Lama Yeshe perhaps?
‘It depends on the situation. Environment is very important to him. Lama Osel, perhaps more than other children, is very quick to pick up the atmosphere and learn from the way others are. When he is with boisterous children he becomes noisy. When he is with other rinpoches, such as Ling Rinpoche, the relationship can be very good.
‘In Dharamsala, where he was surrounded by lamas and scholars, he was much more like a lama than a small child. He would do clever things and give answers that a child wouldn’t give. Of course, tulkus never say clearly who they are,’ he said.
‘At one point in Dharamsala a very high and old rinpoche came to do a retreat. During that time Osel woke up one morning saying his name–actually chanting his name. He wanted to go and see him and take him a katag. He insisted. So off we went. Sitting before this holy man, he enquired if he could ask a question. The rinpoche said “Yes.” “Can you see the minds of all sentient beings?” Lama Osel asked. The rinpoche was very surprised at such a question coming from a young child. “I wish very much that I could. I am trying to achieve that,” he replied. Lama Osel then saw a picture of the Dalai Lama in the rinpoche’s room and remarked that the Dalai Lama was his guru too.
‘But actually it is in the small things that I see the greatest signs,’ Basili Lorca continued. ‘One night after I had washed him, washed his clothes, given him supper and put him to bed–the usual routine–he said, “Thank you, Basili, for all you do for me. Thank you. You are so kind.” This is not the usual behaviour of a child,’ he said.
Anyone who knew Lama Yeshe could recall his extraordinary ability to thank people. Visions flashed back of him coming into the Kopan meditation tent, beaming at us left and right, hands together and saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.’ Gratitude, I later discovered, is a hallmark of true spiritual realization. Lama Yeshe had it. He not only thanked people for the obvious things, but he would find gratitude in himself for the most obscure reasons like someone sunbathing, or a traffic cop handing him a speeding ticket! For a small child to be aware and appreciative of the kindness of others was indeed most unusual.
Not that he was always a paragon of virtue. His mischief level was as high as his spiritual one. Maria, Basili and I watched as he occasionally hit out at a child who wanted a toy he was playing with. He often wanted to win at games, and he could be extremely bossy at times too. It seemed normal enough.’I have to keep strong discipline. He’s strong-minded, and needs strong means of control,’ said Basili.
The ‘strong means of control’ was spanking. Lama Osel frequently felt Basili’s hand on his bottom. While many of us disliked the amount of physical punishment he received, Lama Osel had his own disconcerting way of dealing with it. He would often turn round to Basili and say, ‘I am not my body’, or ‘Thank you, Basili, for beating me.’
When tackled about the correctness of hitting him, Basili was unrepentant. He had been told by Lama Zopa that this was the correct way to reprimand Lama Osel, the way that all Tibetan children were taught to distinguish right from wrong. It was the Spanish way, too. ‘The Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa, Lama Yeshe, all the great lamas have been spanked. It’s normal. The important thing is that it is not done with anger,’ he said.
The other contentious issue surrounding Lama Osel was the fact that he was separated from his family. In Tibet it was an accepted part of their culture that tulkus, when found, would be taken back to their former monastery to continue teaching and guiding others as they had in their previous life. The child himself (for it was usually a ‘he’) was normally only too willing to return to his former home, in spite of protestations from some parents. For Westerners, however, the fact that a small child like Osel was living apart from his mother and father was disturbing.
Maria and Paco were unusual parents. As a mother Maria had always expressed an unconventional belief that children should not be crowded, but given ‘space’. She was completely and sincerely unclinging. She loved her children, but she did not need them to fulfill her. In fact, although she had babies with ease, she had never actually wanted a family. They just came, aided by her innate dislike of contraception or anything ‘unnatural’. Besides, both Paco and Maria were devoted followers of Lama Yeshe. Inspired by his message of universal love and wisdom, they had established on the highest mountain in southern Spain a retreat centre which was open to practitioners of all faiths. With their devotion to Lama Yeshe and their trust in Lama Zopa it had not been so difficult for them to place their special son in Lama Zopa’s care.
They had travelled en famille to Nepal to be near Lama Osel when he was in Kopan, but had been forced to return to Spain when the Nepalese government suspended ail foreigners’ visas. It had been a year since Maria had last seen Lama Osel, and now, in Pomaia, I asked her how she had coped with the separation.
‘I know that real love is not attachment, and I try to develop this feeling with regard to my son. I have to share him with everyone,’ she said. ‘To be with Lama [Osel] for two hours is real happiness for me. To be able to come here to Italy and be near Lama for a few days gives me incredible joy. If he were with me all the time it would be just as it is with all my other children. We get angry and frustrated with each other, we never really have quiet moments together. So, I like this position very much.
‘Someone is taking care of him perfectly. He is happy, healthy, clean, kind to everyone. I am delighted.
‘Besides, after one year of being away from him I realize that Lama can manage very well without us. Lama has a very wide emotional world. He is not like other children who only have their immediate family to interact with. Lama has Lama Zopa Rinpoche and a global family. He also has no time to fret. His life is completely full.’
If Maria was sanguine about being separated from her son, Paco was feeling the wrench strongly.
‘Paco misses him more than I do. I can intellectualize the situation and accept it, but Paco is more emotional. It goes straight to his heart,’ she admitted.
She was right about Lama Osel not missing them. As always, he had shown an uncanny nonchalance about being parted from his family to lead a monastic life. This had been particularly noticeable when he was around two or three, the years when you would expect a small child to be devastated to find himself without his family, especially his mother. On several occasions in Kathmandu I watched with fascination the way he reacted when, after spending time with them, it was time for him to leave. I never saw him hesitate to say goodbye and get in the car to drive away. In fact he seemed pleased to get away from the hubbub of that large family to return to the peace of the monastery. Now, in Italy, the same dispassionate love was there.
It was not that he had no feelings for his family. He played with his siblings happily and always paid particular attention to his younger brother Kunkyen (Maria and Paco had given all their children Tibetan names), bringing him fruit and drinks and generally behaving in a deferential manner towards him. Whenever I returned from Kopan after spending time at Maria and Paco’s house, Lama Osel would ask: ‘Did Kunkyen bless you?’ It was rumoured that be too was a ‘special child’, although no official overtures had been made towards him.
A year later Lama Osel’s fondness for Kunkyen had not changed. ‘His first question is to ask how he is,’ reported Maria. Kunkyen was now three and, according to Maria, very strong-willed. ‘He speaks a lot. He’s like an actor, very funny–he bends his ears, things like that.’ Here was another child to watch, I thought …
I asked Maria what struck her about Lama Osel’s development in the twelve months since she had last seen him.
‘I notice that his mind is always positive. He seems to be able to transform any situation into a party,’ she replied. And then she remarked on a quality that I too had noticed: that Lama Osel didn’t seem to be touched by the strength of his emotions like most of us are. If he is unhappy or sad it lasts for a few seconds and then he is out of it. It is almost as though he is wearing a mask for our benefit–to be normal.
‘He doesn’t have the same concepts of suffering that we have,’ said Maria. ‘He is completely in the moment. He wakes up immediately. If you tell him to stop playing he says, “OK.” If it’s time to go to sleep he says, “OK.” If it’s time to go it’s OK. He can change from one situation to another without any problem. This is very unusual.’ As for her son’s identity, Maria is clear: ‘I don’t have any doubts that Lama Osel has the mind of Lama Yeshe, but it’s still developing. I still think of Lama Yeshe when I think of my guru. Maybe when I receive real teachings from him I will consider him my guru. Right now, however, I still call him carino!’ she said.
Reborn in the West – Part IIby Vicki Mackenzie
Another year passed before I saw Lama Osel again. He had spent the intervening months more quietly in a Tibetan monastery in Switzerland called Tarpa Choeling, set up by the late Geshe Rabten. The high mountain air, the healthy food, and the peace and routine of monastic life had suited him well. But in August 1990 Lama Zopa was coming to Holland to teach at the Maitreya Institute, founded by the Dutch students of Lama Yeshe in the beautiful woodlands of Emst, and Lama Osel and Basili had travelled there to be with him.
Lama Osel had grown up considerably and was taking charge more than ever. I arrived as a puja was about to begin, and hurried to join in. This time Osel didn’t wait for anybody’s cues. He launched right in, reciting Tibetan prayers one after the other at an impressive rate. I looked at him afresh and noticed that, in some way, he now seemed to be Lama Zopa’s equal. Thankfully, the sense of humour was still intact. At one point he got a fit of the giggles which he successfully controlled. He grinned, made faces and struck a mock meditation pose–which looked hilariously like Lama Zopa. He knew it, but interestingly didn’t laugh himself.
The discipline and the concentration which had been visible a year earlier had developed. A glass of orange juice was put in front of him, but it was an hour before he took a sip. At the back of the large room a group of children had got bored with the ceremony and were playing. He made no move to join them, nor did he cast any envious glance towards them. Instead he blessed each of them as they came up to him at the end to offer him the white scarf.
At the end of the puja Lama Zopa Rinpoche made a speech.
As always, behind the quiet delivery was a potent message: ‘Today we have offered a long life puja to Lama, who passed away in his old aspect and has returned as a guide in his new aspect. Although I have a little dharma knowledge I travel from one country to another around the world. But until Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche is ready to teach sentient beings in the West and in other places, I plan to continue like this,’ he said.
‘We invite highly qualified teachers to be guest teachers at our centres, and when they come we receive them and we accept their kindness in helping us. But we must never, never forget that this is Lama’s incarnation. Lama who has returned to us in his new form. We must not forget the one who has created all these centres.
‘There are so many sentient beings who have come into contact with the dharma that we should not let Lama, who has come back in a new form, be forgotten while we are so fortunate in meeting other qualified lamas.
‘I think it is my responsibility to say these things because Lama brought me to the West so often in the past to create this organization for his Western students.’
It was, it seemed to me, not only a promise that Lama Osel would indeed be teaching one day, but a warning that in the interim we must not lose sight of who our ultimate teacher was. What Lama Zopa was doing was shoring up the edifice of the worldwide structure of centres that Lama Yeshe had initiated, making sure it stayed steady until Osel could take the helm. Looking at the young boy sitting next to Lama Zopa, charmingly putting his hand up to his ear as if sneaking to catch words he was not supposed to hear, it sounded a dizzying plan. Osel was still five years old. So many things could happen.
I received a potent reminder of the Buddhist law that nothing stays the same when I met Maria again. Life might have been running smoothly for Osel in the past year, but she had been dealt a severe blow. Maria had discovered a large tumour in one of her kidneys. She told me the precise measurements: 8cm x 7cm x 6cm. It sounded enormous. The doctor advised her to have it out immediately. But, with her typical dislike for medical interference already evidenced by her attitude towards contraception, Maria had decided to wait before making her decision. In the meantime, with her usual sublime ease, she had produced another child, her seventh. She had also started up a tourist business in her home town of Bubion, to cater for the growing number of visitors who were beginning to discover the lovely little town.
Lama Zopa had then visited Spain, and she went to meet him to tell him of her sickness and seek his advice. ‘If the guru said I should have an operation then I would have, even though I don’t like doctors or hospitals. But Lama Zopa told me that this sickness was full of blessings for me. “It will help you practise. Now is the time to do a retreat–to control the illness,” he said.’ His words struck home, and for the first time in her life Maria was planning to plunge herself into serious meditation.
In fact the whole year had been difficult for Maria. The previous Christmas Eve she had had a car accident. She had been driving Lama Osel and Basili back to Bubion from Madrid when a car veered out of a side street in Granada and hit them. The driver had been celebrating for a good few hours. Maria had been jerked into the steering wheel; Basili had lurched forward and hurt his knee; and Lama, who had been sleeping in the back, fell to the floor, not hurt at all. Nevertheless they decided to go to the hospital to be given a check-up.
What happened there was extraordinary. The four-year-old Lama Osel took control. He had approached the doctor and said: ‘Please take care of my mother, who has a pain in her side, and Basili, who has hurt his knee. I have nothing wrong, but you need to check them.’ The doctor was rather nonplussed about being given orders by such a small patient and replied that he should be examined himself. ‘No, there is no need. But please look after my mother and Basili,’ he insisted.
A little later the doctor heard a knock on the door of the room where he was looking at X-rays of Maria and Basili. Osel walked in. ‘Please can I enter, because I am very interested in this sort of thing,’ he announced. The doctor took a second look, then recognized the child whose face was well known all over Spain. Suddenly this unusual behaviour became clear to him.
Lama Osel was also still capable of surprising even those closest to him with sudden ‘revelations’. One day when he was in Switzerland his father Paco, an Italian monk and Basili took him to lunch at a restaurant with a balcony overlooking a valley. Lama Osel sat watching some birds flying down to the balcony looking for scraps to eat. Amid the general conversation Osel began to speak in a tone that made them all stop and listen. ‘Before,’ he said, ‘many, many Buddhas came into my body, then I became tiny and entered into my mother’s womb. Then I came out.’ He paused, then added, “Before, I was Lama Yeshe. Now I am Lama Osel.’ The others were speechless. The birds flocking down to the balcony had obviously triggered off a memory of something that had happened before he was born. Nobody could be sure what exactly he was talking about, but all those present knew that when he was dying Lama Yeshe had performed his profound meditation where he would have visualized the Buddha Heruka, his personal practice, dissolving into him several times. According to the esoteric guidelines of tantric Buddhism, mastery of this highly complex meditation is essential in order for the spiritual adept to dictate the precise conditions of his next rebirth. Was this the many Buddhas dissolving into his body Lama Osel was talking about?
His statement about being Lama Yeshe before and Lama Osel now was one I had heard earlier in Kathmandu when he was only three. He had been playing with his brother Kunkyen and I had asked him outright if he was the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe. ‘I am Tenzin Osel, a monk,’ he had replied with great solemnity. ‘Before, I was Lama Yeshe. Now I am Tenzin Osel.’ I had marvelled then that at such a young age he had managed to find the words to express the complicated process of reincarnation. The continuity of the two beings was present, but the identification of the two personalities was different. I marvelled again now, when I heard the remarkable words that Osel had uttered after looking at the birds.
A few months later I saw him when he stopped over in London en route for the next stage of his extraordinary life. He was on his way to southern India to Sera monastery to begin his formal Tibetan education. He slipped his hand in mine as I showed him some of the sights. The swarming pigeons at Trafalgar Square did not impress him at all, but the creepy-crawly exhibition at the Natural History Museum did. He was engrossed by the minutiae of the insect kingdom, and would have stayed looking at the exhibits for hours had we allowed him.
He had duties to perform as well. He hosted a children’s hot-chocolate party at the Jamyang Centre, in Finsbury Park, where he sat rapt in front of a video of The Snowman, twice. Although he had come down with a heavy cold he thanked the photographers for ‘taking the trouble to come’ and he willingly presided over a puja, although he must have been feeling awful. It was on this occasion that I noticed for the first time how adults, especially newcomers, often projected their own childhood experiences on to Osel.
One woman I spoke to said it was cruel to subject a small child to such a lengthy ‘ordeal’ when he should be tucked up in bed. She had been sent to boarding school at five and had been traumatized in the process. Another man commented that he thought Lama Osel looked bored by the whole procedure–and then added that he had spent much of his childhood in a similar state. Yet another woman didn’t understand a word of what was going on but went away feeling inexplicably happy. As it was impossible that Osel was incorporating all these varying conditions I began to wonder if he was acting as a mirror, reflecting back to the observer states of minds and emotions that they possessed. If so, then he was truly fulfilling the role of the guru–for the real guru, the worthy, honourable guru, functions to reveal the disciple’s own inner nature and thus to show what must be confronted, worked on or acknowledged.
For several happy hours I watched him at play: it was a fascinating spectacle. Someone had given him a model aeroplane designed for a seven-year-old. He sat down by himself to assemble the pieces, following the instructions and diagrams. When he reached a certain point he got stuck. Much to my surprise, he did not throw a tantrum or get frustrated as most children of five would have done; instead he calmly undid all that he had done and started from the beginning again. His concentration was immense and unusual. I recalled that concentration comes from hours of meditation. The ability to focus for hours at a time on a single task is the territory of the yogi. Could what I was witnessing be the result of Lama Yeshe’s past efforts? Osel got to the same point in his plane-building, and again he could go no further. Again he took the model apart. Twice he built the aeroplane, and twice he disassembled it. On his third attempt he finally gave up, defeated by the difficulty of completing the exercise. He thrust it into Basili’s hands. ‘You do it!’ he commanded.
Later I overheard someone talking to him. ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ they asked.
‘Give teachings,’ came the immediate reply. Then he added, seriously, ‘But not now. Later.’
Did he know the Dalai Lama, and if so what did he think of him, they enquired.
‘He is my guru,’ said Osel almost dismissively, as though this was so obvious that it was hardly worth asking.
Later, he got up and led me by the hand upstairs to show me a photograph of Lama Yeshe hanging on the wall. ‘That’s me, before,’ he stated in a matter-of-fact way. ‘Then I got sick.’ He did a mime of someone getting weaker and weaker and sagging. ‘Then I died and they put me in a stupa and set fire to it,’ he said, tongue lolling out. ‘And now I am here,’ he added cheerily. It was impressive. But at this age one could not be sure how much he had been told and what he intuitively knew. From now on, I thought, demonstrations of past-life recall would never be as thoroughly convincing as those he had given when he was a baby.
I saw him again over Christmas at Varanassi, also known as Benares, that ancient crumbling Indian city on the banks of the Ganges. I was on my way to Australia, Lama Osel was on his way to Sera monastery, and a vast crowd of 150,000 Tibetans were on their way to attend the Kalachakra Initiation to be given by the Dalai Lama at Sarnath, the place where the Buddha delivered his first teaching after reaching Enlightenment. The Kalachakra Initiation was one of Tibet’s most esoteric and difficult practices, in which the Initiator would harmonize the inner elements of the body and mind to bring about harmony and peace in the outer world. The Dalai Lama had been performing this ceremony across the world in an attempt to stop humankind’s destructive tendencies. Now it was Lama Osel’s little figure which strode confidently on to the stage in front of that vast throng to present the representative offering to the great man.
Later he dressed up as Father Christmas to give presents to people in his hotel, and he ordered hot milk from a stall to be sent to the stray dogs milling around outside. On a more official note, he hosted a lunch party for all the young reincarnated high lamas who had come to the Kalachakra. It was an impressive gathering. They were ail there; Ling Rinpoche (previous senior tutor to the Dalai Lama); Trijang Rinpoche (previous junior tutor); Song Rinpoche, who had been very close to Lama Yeshe and presided at his funeral; Serkong Dorje Change; and Serkong Rinpoche, the marvellous lama whose furrowed face and large, pointy ears had supposedly been the model for Yoda in the film Star Wars.
Curiously, their ‘predecessors’ had all passed away around the same time. It was said that they had chosen ‘to die’ in order to remove serious obstacles that were threatening the Dalai Lama’s life. They had been the cream of the Gelugpa hierarchy, the lineage holders, all of them towering masters of meditation and scholarship. They had all been reborn around the same time as well. Now their reincarnations were assembled on the lawn of this smart Indian hotel.
‘That’s the entire future of the dharma,’ remarked one perceptive onlooker. Lama Osel was among them, only his white skin and Western features setting him apart. Would they accept him, and vice versa, so easily when they were all old enough to realize the difference?
Maria too had arrived–to do her retreat in Bodhgaya. She looked well, but told me that apart from the tumour on her kidney she now had a secondary tumour on her brain. As she had refused surgery and medication the doctors had given her only six months to live, but this had not upset her at all. She was putting all her faith in the spiritual practices on which she was about to embark. Lama Zopa had told her to offer up her sickness, to use her tumours as a vehicle for taking on the sufferings of others.
This advice immediately took my mind back to Medjugorye, the small town in former Yugoslavia where the Virgin Mary has been appearing to six young people daily for a number of years. Fascinated by this phenomenon, I had gone there in my capacity as a tourist to see the site for myself. I had interviewed the visionaries, one of whom, Vicka, a vivacious girl of twenty-four, told me about the brain tumour she had developed. For months on end she felt sick and was continually fainting, but she kept up her cheerful disposition, insisting on talking to the pilgrims who came to hear her message.
She had told me that the Virgin Mary, or Gospa as she was called in Medjugorye, had asked her to offer up her brain tumour for the sickness of the world, and that it would be cured on a specific date. Vicka had duly written down the date of her promised cure, sealed it in an envelope and given it to the local priest for safe keeping. In the meantime she had refused offers of free treatment from a Harley Street specialist in London.
Her faith was rewarded. On the exact date that she had written down, the tumour suddenly vanished. Today Vicka radiates good health, and that inner joy which is invariably the signature of true spiritual experience. I wondered how Maria, the mother of Osel and six other children, would fare.
During the time we were at Varanassi we had our own teaching on death and impermanence. Lama Zopa’s mother passed away literally in our midst. It affected us all deeply especially Maria, the mother of the other famous lama.
We had all come to respect the tiny, frail, almost blind old lady known as Amala, who had insisted on making the long, arduous journey from her home near Mount Everest to the hot, dusty plains of India to see the Dalai Lama and receive the Kalachakra Initiation. ‘She is sleeping in a corner of a roof–crowded in with all the Kopan boys. Although she is the mother of Lama Zopa, she refuses to have a separate room. She says she is no one special. It made me very humble,’ commented Maria.
On the last day of the Initiation, Amala had received personal blessings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. At 10 p.m. that evening, at the conclusion of the Kalachakra, she passed away, her face illuminated by serenity and peace. She had received what she had come all this way for and had died saying the mantra that she had uttered millions of times throughout her life: ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, the sacred words of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.
It was a mark of Lama Zopa’s love for his students that he turned what could have been an occasion of private grief and recollection into a public event: he allowed us into the small room where his mother’s body lay in the sleeping bag in which she had died, buried under piles of white scarves given in respect by the visitors. In spite of my apprehension at seeing a dead body, I was surprised to find the room filled with a sweetness, a delicacy and a tangible aura of something very vital, yet at the same time peaceful, going on. It remained like that for three days, when suddenly the expression on her face changed and with it the atmosphere in the room. At this point Lama Zopa Rinpoche announced that Amala had finished her meditation and had ‘succeeded’ in her death. It seemed a curious choice of words. In that singular phrase Lama Zopa had succinctly summed up the Tibetan Buddhist view that the death process was very much an individual challenge which could be controlled if we had the mind to do it.
The next day we were all invited to witness Amala’s cremation at the ghats on the banks of the holy river Ganges. It was a rare opportunity to contemplate the meaning of Death and Impermanence. The body, placed upright and covered with piles of wood scented with incense and adorned with flowers, took two hours to burn. A friend asked a nearby monk if she could take a photograph. ‘Yes–and use it as a meditation every time you feel depressed. It will put everything into perspective,’ he replied.
Silently I thanked Amala for giving us Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the small, saintly man who had worked so hard and given so much to us Westerners. As I looked at the smoke swirling over the sacred river and the queue of corpses lined up along its banks waiting to be burnt, I thought how short and ephemeral this life was.
There was, however, no end to mind. It continues in an ever-flowing, ever-changing stream, like the great Ganges itself. To press home this most fundamental of Buddhist teachings even further, in case we had not got the point, a few years later we were to be presented with a young boy with an exceptionally intelligent face. He was sitting at Lama Zopa’s feet in monk’s clothes. He was, we were told, the reincarnation of Amala.
Reborn in the West – Part IIIby Vicki Mackenzie
On 15 July 1991 Lama Osel Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe, formally entered Sera monastery. He was six years old. As his small motorcade approached its destination, a red line could be seen in the distance. As the cars drew closer their occupants saw that it was the entire assembly of monks, who had turned out to line the road to welcome their newest incumbent. It was an honour accorded only to the highest lamas–but, it was agreed, Lama Yeshe certainly qualified due to his immense work in spreading the holy Buddha dharma across the world, and because of the prestige he brought to his monastery. To the monks of Sera, the small Western boy clasping his hands together and bowing in greeting had simply ‘come home’.
Sera was awesome place and as far away as you could get from the archetypal image of a mysterious building clinging to a mountain peak. It was as big as a town, with streets, houses, dormitories, temples, kitchens, shops and dogs: a bustling, throbbing place pulsating with the vibrant, all-male energy of vast numbers of Tibetan monks. By the time Lama Osel arrived there were over two thousand of them, and their numbers were growing yearly as more and more fled from Tibet to seek the spiritual training that was denied them in their homeland. Lama Osel had entered the largest monastery in the world.
Sera was one of the three great monastic universities that the Tibetan refugees had painstakingly rebuilt in exile. It was of vital importance. Their monastic universities were not only the womb of their greatest spiritual, philosophical and meditational masters, they were also the bedrock of Tibetan culture.
Back in Tibet it was to the original Sera monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, that the young Thubten Yeshe had gone when he was just seven years old. There he began his austere, highly disciplined training which would lead eventually to a worldwide mission. It was a mighty place, founded in 1419 by Jamchen Choje Sakya Yeshe, a disciple of the famous Lama Tsongkhapa, the great reformer of Tibetan Buddhism and founder of the Yellow Hat sect. Ironically, in the light of the Chinese destruction that was to follow centuries later, Jamchen Choje Sakya Yeshe was twice sent to China to teach the Buddhist doctrine to the Emperor. By 1959, when the Chinese invaded, Sera monastery held a huge population of ten thousand monks. Although a quarter of these managed to escape to northern India, among them Lama Yeshe, many died from the unaccustomed heat and diet in the refugee camps.
Those who remained were eventually given a heavily wooded area in Karnataka state in southern India, about a two-hour drive west of Mysore. They set about clearing the space and building again the seat of learning that was to preserve their spiritual heritage and maintain the strength of their spiritual lineages.
Now, after Lama Osel’s arrival, the ceremonies and welcoming parties went on for three days as the monastery officially offered him a place in their august place of learning, and in return Lama Osel offered them the traditional gifts of ceremonial pujas, food, money and tea, as well as a new well and substantial contributions to the Sera Health Project. It did not come cheap. The estimated cost of Lama Osel starting his new education was around US$50,000.
Lama Osel appeared happy in his new house, built specially for him in a quiet place on the outskirts of the monastery. It had a garden and a dog called Om Mani. On the morning after his arrival the abbot arrived at Lama’s new house to greet him personally. Lama commented that he thought everything had gone extremely well. ‘I dreamed before coming that first there was a lot of light coming up and I was down, then much light came down and I was up high,’ he said. It was an auspicious dream.
Many Western students had arrived at Sera to witness this turning-point in Lama Osel’s life. Among them were his parents, Maria and Paco. At one point during the investiture Maria and Paco stood up and walked out of the temple together–a symbolic gesture which formalized their willingness to give their child to the religious life. Although Osel had in fact been happily leading an independent life for four years now, as his parents physically turned their backs on him and walked away he looked a little wistful.
Now the serious work–the hours of study and the tough discipline–was about to begin in earnest. Lama Osel was being plunged into an extraordinary system–rich, wonderful and unique. Only Sera had the means to lay the foundation of the work that Lama Osel was destined to carry out. For only the Tibetan teaching system had the ‘technology’ for understanding the mind in all its manifold and subtle details. The expectation was that Osel would become a holder of the lineage of teachings and initiations, which was possible only by passing through the special education of a Tibetan monastery and specifically the tulku training system. More significantly, it was felt that only an education in Sera could furnish Lama Osel with the credibility regarded as absolutely necessary for his future life as a teacher. No matter how inherently gifted as a spiritual master he might be, without the thorough training and qualifications available from Sera his work would be undermined.
For all this I, and many others, quaked a little at this next phase in Osel’s life. He was after all, a Western child with a Western mind, and Sera was–well, so Tibetan. It was also steeped in the framework of a six hundred-year-old tradition which had not changed much over the years. Many of us wondered how Lama Osel, with his love of computers and Michael Jackson music, would fare within the rules and rigid protocol of this strong Tibetan experience.
Maria voiced the concerns that a few of us were feeling: ‘Lama’s temperament is free, creative and spontaneous. He learns by reason. If you explain things to him he grasps It very quickly. In the traditional Tibetan system, however, learning is done by rote. They learn all the prayers, all the scriptures, by heart– and then when that is accomplished they debate on the meaning. This is not the Western approach to education and in my view is rather archaic.’
Osel’s day was now broken into strict periods of learning: 7 a.m. get up; prayers before breakfast at 8 a.m.; Tibetan language class from 9 a.m. for two hours; then Spanish class for one hour; lunch at noon; 1 p.m.- 3 p.m. English reading, writing and maths; 5.30 p.m. lessons with his Tibetan teacher; dinner; bed at 9 p.m.
It was indeed a tough regime, with the emphasis for the first few years on memorization and getting used to the monastic discipline. He was aiming eventually for a geshe degree, equivalent to a doctor of divinity, which back in Tibet took some thirty years to achieve. Here in Sera the process had been speeded up, but still there would be years of rigorous learning and debating before Osel was through. I wondered if he would stick it out.
I thought back to Lama Yeshe, and the way he had broken with the traditional methods of teaching to reach us Westerners. He had once told me he didn’t care, that he was prepared to use any technique to get his audience to understand the Buddha dharma. That was his great appeal his ability to communicate the way of the Buddha with his whole body, with gestures, with antics, with his marvellous sense of humour and with his spontaneous acts of kindness and love. He was not a conventional lama at all, on the outside at least. He knew that Westerners were not interested in the strict Tibetan presentation of the dharma and so had found his own highly individualistic way of teaching it. Part of me baulked at the idea of Lama Osel returning to the system which Lama Yeshe had, in the outer form, moved away from.
Still, Lama Zopa had decreed quite unequivocally that it was best for Lama Osel to go to Sera. And who were we to dispute that great man, who cherished Lama Osel more than his own life? He had taken enormous care in choosing Lama Osel’s gen-la, the Tibetan geshe who was to teach the boy the Tibetan language, the memorization of texts and Lam Rim (the step-by-step guide to Enlightenment) subjects. He was a gentle, kind man and one of the best teachers in Sera. As Lama Zopa pointed out, the conditions provided for Lama Osel were all-important. So, for all its possible drawbacks, Sera had incomparable benefits to offer. We could only wait and see the outcome.
Not that Lama Osel’s Western roots were being totally forgotten. In order to help build a bridge between the two ways of life Lama Zopa, with his infinite care, had arranged for a Western tutor to be brought into Sera to furnish Lama Osel with the beginnings of a Western education alongside the traditional Tibetan Buddhist one. The advertisement placed in the top newspapers in London, New York and Australia revealed the enormity and extraordinary nature of the task:
PRIVATE TUTOR–to provide full primary education to highest international standards for six- year-old Spanish reincarnation of former Tibetan Lama Thubten Yeshe. Tuition to run in parallel with a traditional Tibetan monastic education to be provided by others. Tuition to assist the young Lama to integrate Western and Eastern curricula in preparation for a life of teaching.
Primary instruction medium English, secondary Spanish. Location South India eight months, Europe one month per year. This unusual and challenging assignment requires a person of highest integrity, five to ten years’ tutoring experience and impeccable references.
The person who won the job from hundreds of applicants was Norma Quesada-Wolf, a classicist in her early thirties from Yale University. Born in Venezuela of an American mother and Spanish father, and with ten years of Zen Buddhist meditation behind her, Norma seemed tailor-made for the job. With her husband John she moved into Sera armed with an independent study programme from the Calvert School in America, which not only set out a tutoring schedule for Lama Osel but provided means for independently assessing his progress as well.
Peter Kedge, a board member of the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) and long-time student of Lama Yeshe, had conducted the search for the right tutor. He explained the hopes for Lama Osel’s education: ‘Great emphasis is being placed on providing Lama Osel with a strong basic Western contemporary education so that, in his later years, the “language” he uses to explain molecular physics will be the same as when explaining emptiness–the aim being to cross the boundaries of the Eastern mind and the Western mind, exposing their similarities.’ It was a mighty plan indeed, but one could not help but be a little apprehensive at the load of expectations and aspirations that was being put on a pair of small, six-year-old shoulders.
The observations of Norma Quesada-Wolf, as a newcomer to this extraordinary scene of Western reincarnate lamas, were particularly interesting. Her first impression was of a child who played hide-and- seek, then showed her and her husband the Buddhas in his room, the watercolours and drawings he had done, and where a certain lizard lived. He then asked if they were tired from their journey, turned to someone and asked, with natural dignity, if they had been offered tea.
‘I suppose I was expecting to find a wise, very serious little figure, someone like Teddy in the J. D. Salinger story of the same name. But while Lama certainly does have this aspect, I had not anticipated how light-hearted and charming he would be,’ she said.
With professional interest she also noted what many amateur observers had seen on many occasions– Lama Osel’s unusual powers of concentration and his ability to be totally absorbed in what he was doing.
‘There’s something special about him. He has a capacity for concentration, for remembering, and for invention and imagination that seems to me to be beyond the capacities of an average child. When something holds his interest, whether it be playing with Lego blocks or doing a lesson, he just disappears into it and remains in that thing for long stretches of time, constantly thinking about it, imagining it, playing with it, and seeing it from all different perspectives.’ Her words immediately flashed me back to another time when Lama Yeshe was talking about how we perceived things. He took as his example a flower. Never has a flower been looked at in the depth in which Lama Yeshe saw it. He examined all its parts, he considered its perfume and its effect on our sense of smell and an insect’s, he talked about its aesthetic properties and how the flower had been an object of poetry, intuition, love and admiration, and how this differed from culture to culture. Through this intense and detailed scrutiny Lama Yeshe was trying to get us to see the totality of things through varied levels of meaning.
In fact Lama Yeshe had very clear views about how children should be educated. Using his graphic, idiosyncratic style of English he delineated his beliefs in a system which he called ‘Universal Education’:
A narrow presentation of the world in education suffocates children. It brings frustration and blockage that interrupts the child’s openness to learning. Children do not want to be trapped by limitations. If one shows them the reality of things which is beyond all limitations, their enthusiasm for learning will never cease and the individual will become a totally integrated person.
Any explanation is incomplete if there is no logical reference, no intellectual basis for it. Behind this base there must be a psychological explanation and a philosophical framework. Then the totality in all its aspects becomes so profound, so profound. In other words, contained in an entire subject are the essence of religion, philosophy and psychology without any separation, existing simultaneously. In this way the person becomes integrated. In the world today these have become separated. Really, you cannot separate them.
We cannot make divisions such as: you are the spiritual person, you are the philosopher and you are the psychologist. All of reality is contained, potentially and now existent, in everybody. Education should be everything to come together, not separating, not partial.
The bad in the world, in my opinion, is religion separated from life, from science, and science separated from religion. These should go together…
It was a system that was now tallying with Lama Osel’s own approach to learning.
Certainly Osel was enraptured by science in the form of anything to do with outer space, and had numerous books on space and space travel which he discussed in detail with Norma. She noted, however, that he would often put his comic book stories of Superman and Batman into a dharma context, working out the morals of the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ according to Buddhist belief.
He also showed an aptitude for mathematics and was fascinated by large numbers, vast distances, huge sizes and great weights–in fact, anything big. In the past few years he had also become fascinated by illusion and magic, and would often play games where he pretended to make things appear and disappear. He was also genuinely enthralled by the minutiae of the insect kingdom, as I had seen in London’s Natural History Museum, and in the evolution of species. Osel’s was a broad mind–just like Lama Yeshe’s.
Norma noted other character traits, too–Lama’s equally famous strong-mindedness, and the fact that he often wasn’t a ‘model’ child. ‘When something doesn’t interest him, it is impressive how he can invent one way after another, non-stop, to divert his and your attention from the thing at hand. He has a strong will and high spirits, and is very independent-minded. ‘
This again was reassuring. Norma was verifying what many of us had witnessed–that Lama Osel was not in any way a malleable person. He was very much his own person. It was gratifying, for one of my greatest concerns was that Lama Osel would be ‘conditioned’ into his present role, thereby detracting from the authenticity of his identity. How much more satisfactory to have a lama who was full of life and mischief and who could think for himself.
As she looked at the child who was now under her care, Norma saw further signs that Osel was out of the ordinary. On one occasion during an English lesson she was asking him for the opposite meaning of words. She would say ‘up’ and he would reply ‘down’, for instance. When she asked him for the opposite of ‘asleep’, however, he replied ‘Buddha!’ It was an astute and subtle answer, and a remarkable one for a child of his age. Not many adults are aware that the definition of a Buddha is a fully awakened being. Later she was to describe Lama Osel as a ‘brilliantly gifted child’.
As she looked at the child who was now under her care, Norma saw further signs that Osel was out of the ordinary. On one occasion during an English lesson she was asking him for the opposite meaning of words. She would say ‘up’ and he would reply ‘down’, for instance. When she asked him for the opposite of ‘asleep’, however, he replied ‘Buddha!’ It was an astute and subtle answer, and a remarkable one for a child of his age. Not many adults are aware that the definition of a Buddha is a fully awakened being. Later she was to describe Lama Osel as a ‘brilliantly gifted child’.
Educationally, in fact, Lama Osel was doing well across the board. His gen-la, Geshe Gendun Chopel, announced that his charge was exceptionally intelligent and, even though he too noticed the boy’s fondness for play, he felt that it would abate naturally as he grew older and understood the importance of studying. He also remarked that, although at first he had regarded Lama Osel as an ordinary child with the status of a tulku, since getting to know him he now considered him to be extraordinary, with an exceptionally clear memory.
But in spite of his excellent schoo1 reports, like many a small boy Osel often complained at having to study and told visitors he was ‘too busy’. Once he was overheard saying: ‘Don’t you know I learn when I am playing?’ He was, of course, absolutely right.
Reborn in the West – Part IVby Vicki Mackenzie
For a while, in the change-over period between Kopan and Sera, a warm and funny Australian monk called Namgyal was co-attendant of Lama Osel along with Basili Lorca. Namgyal’s more artistic, less conventional personality found a link with those same aspects in Lama Osel’s nature, and the two soon formed a strong bond.
‘We used to sneak out together to eat pizzas, and we used to cook together,’ he reminisced to me one day in Dharamsala, where I had gone to interview the Dalai Lama. ‘Lama Osel, like Lama Yeshe, adores cooking. I gave him an apron which read “Never Trust a Skinny Cook”, which he loved. We used to roll out dough together to make these pizzas and he would say things like, “The cheese isn’t correct.” He is such a perfectionist! Everything has to be just so. He always wanted everything to be clean and proper. I remember him telling off the Tibetan lamas for slurping their soup, and they would laugh and laugh!’
Namgyal’s encouragement of self-expression showed results in Osel’s spiritual practices too. ‘Every day we’d fill the water bowls with water, representing the offerings of flowers, light, music, incense and so forth to the Buddhas. Lama Osel loved it. He’d invent different ways to make these offerings. He’d put the little crystal bowls in various different patterns and add colouring to the water. It took much longer, but he showed me what creativity could do to transform a fairly mechanistic daily rite.’
This was so like Lama Yeshe, who would transgress the conventional monastic rule by creating his own altars–full of diverse, imaginative objects like shells and clay animals that represented things that were precious to him. Once he put a toy aeroplane on his altar, as that was the hallowed means by which he could reach sentient beings around the globe. And, having come out of Tibet and discovered such luxurious aromas as Patou’s ‘Joy‘ perfume, he quickly discarded the usual sticks of incense for the most expensive scent that money could buy. Only the best was good enough for the Buddha.
Lama Osel was following suit. His prayers and meditations under Namgyal’s guidance were also taking a more individualistic and creative turn. One day, after offering up the mandala to all the Buddhas, Lama Osel turned to him and said: ‘Do you know what I visualized?’ ‘No,’ replied Namgyal.
‘I visualized Buddha in the sky and this mountain of ice cream and sweets and all different-coloured beautiful flowers all coming to the Buddha and entering into him.’ It was a perfect offering from a small boy.
‘I asked him once if he missed his family,’ Namgyal told me. ‘He replied, quite seriously: “Lamas don’t have families.”‘ For all the fun they had together, Osel also showed his Australian friend some of his special qualities. ‘He has psychic abilities. One night he woke up and said that some spirits were trying to push over his altar. I felt he was quite in tune with spirits, and so I accepted what he said. The next day he did a puja for them because he said they were suffering. He also told me that in my last life I was a lama in Kham, a province of Tibet. That was interesting, because it verified what I’d been told by a Tibetan oracle some time previously,’ reported Namgyal.
Other monks confirmed that Lama Osel would from time to time see into not just their past but their future as well. One said that Lama Osel had looked him straight in the eye and told him, ‘Again you are going to be a lama, and I will hold you in my arms.’ At other times he would scare them witless by declaring they were going to the hell realms–whether these were true prophecies or false no one was in a position to judge.
As time went on Namgyal saw other unusual behaviour which made him feel that Lama Osel was different. ‘Once, when we were in Kathmandu, Lama Osel saw a woman light up a cigarette. He turned to me and said, “Should I tell her that she is killing herself?” I stopped him, but when I reported the incident to Lama Zopa he said I should have let him because later, when Lama Osel is grown up and well known, she might think about what he told her and change.’
At another time he accompanied Lama Osel to Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha achieved Enlightenment. Here they met Kunnu Lama Rinpoche, a famous spiritual master so revered that even the Dalai Lama has been seen to prostrate to him. Namgyal told me what happened: ‘When they met, Lama was completely overwhelmed with devotion towards Kunnu Lama and wanted to offer him all his toys, his watch, his torch, in fact anything that he could put his hands on! Afterwards Lama Osel said that Kunnu Lama Rinpoche was a Buddha and that he would never lose the photograph that Kunnu Lama had given him.’
After his post as co-attendant came to an end, Namgyal missed the company of his unusual charge. The intimacy that Lama Osel was able to evoke was powerful and precious. ‘For a while I became Lama Osel’s best friend. He used to tell me everything. Every night he’d confess to me all the things he’d done wrong, and his secrets like how he wanted to see girls without clothes on. I just treated these things as completely normal. He was so loving, so spontaneously affectionate. He loves being close to people. He’d lean across the table in front of others and say, “Namgyal, I love you.” I will never forget Lama’s love–never,’ he said.
Life was beginning to change at Sera, and so was Lama Osel. After Namgyal left, Basili did too on ‘advice’ from Lama Zopa. No one was sure why. Perhaps, I thought, it was to prevent any single person getting too attached to Lama Osel. Or maybe it was because a monk’s ultimate task is to lead a life of prayer and meditation, rather than to be a child-minder. There followed a series of Western monks assigned to look after the daily needs of the young Spanish tulku.
Now Lama Osel was beginning to grow up and increasingly to develop his own personality. In one way it was as if the mantle of the Lama Yeshe persona was slipping away, receding into the past, to allow the new being, Lama Osel, to emerge. We all had to see that Lama Osel was a different entity from Lama Yeshe, albeit connected in essence. Not only was he now looking very different from his ‘predecessor’, with his fine face, slim body and long, thin fingers, but he was also dropping his amenable, instantly lovable, infinitely charming presentation to the world. He was becoming a powerful force to be reckoned with.
I thought it could not be an easy process sloughing off such a strong, magnetic character as Lama Yeshe’s and the heavy cloak of projections that so many former students put on him. About this time I had a dream which might have been an indication of how Lama Osel was feeling. In it he was dressed in robes and walking along a path, his head bowed and with an air of consternation about him. He looked up and said: ‘When I was younger I knew I was Buddha, but now I am not so sure.’
The lines of William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, learnt at school, came to mind:
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy…
The sentiments weren’t entirely Buddhist, but the message was remarkably similar.
Osel was now challenging nearly everyone with whom he came into contact–by a word, a look, a rebuke, a refusal to cooperate. No longer Mr. Nice Guy, he was throwing people back on themselves. No one found it very comfortable. Everyone had to admit, however, that his mind was becoming increasingly sharp, his perceptions uncomfortably accurate and his power undeniably great. The stories that emerged from those who saw him at this time illustrate the point.
‘Over the past year or so he has been incredibly wicked to me,’ reported Robina Courtin, a much-loved and respected nun, instrumental in setting up the FPMT’s publishing company Wisdom, who had known Lama Yeshe for ten years. ‘Every time I’ve seen Lama Osel recently he’s said something awful to me. And he’s absolutely spot on, every time. I’m not trying to be romantic, but it’s as though he is Lama Yeshe and he is teaching me. It started when he was about four and we were out to lunch and he said in front of everyone, ‘You talk too fast, you eat too fast; you walk too fast, you do everything too fast.’ He said it with complete clarity. He knew exactly what he was saying. In the past eighteen months I have learnt more about my own speedy, berserk nature and the harm it does to others from Lama Osel than I have in my whole life.
‘I have always known it, but until now I have never paid deep attention to it. I walk into his room and already I’m nervous because I know that, like Lama Yeshe, he’s always catching me out. He says, “Why are you nervous?” It sounds so silly, but I know that I listen to what he says, not like [I would to words from] an ordinary child. He calls me Ani Nervous. All I can tell you is that it doesn’t make me angry, like it would with any other child. He has helped me see myself more clearly than any other person. It can be very painful at times,’ she admitted.
As Robina talked, I could hear Lama Yeshe’s voice saying quite clearly, ‘Buddhism should shake you. It is not meant to be comfortable. It must shake you out of your deluded way of seeing things! Then it is good.’ ‘Holiness, it seemed, was not always sweet and comforting. No one who had ever seen Lama Yeshe shaking thieving porters by the neck, or delivering a crushing reprimand to a student, or even wielding a stick to a misbehaving monk at Kopan, could forget that terrifying sight. Lama Yeshe might well have been infused with an exquisite capacity for love, compassion, humour and kindness, but he could bare his teeth and brandish his spiritual sword in the air if he felt the occasion demanded it. And Robina remembered, too, that at times Lama Yeshe was very tough with her. ‘When I see Lama Osel it’s very clear to me that his behaviour is specific. I see him with other people and he’s gentle, sweet, kind. It’s a super-personal thing.’
And then there was the time at Sera when an Indian girl came to have lunch with Osel. She was lovely, with a long plait of beautiful hair and an expensive sari. Lama Osel just sat there, like Lama Yeshe, listening to everyone talk. Then he asked the woman her name and she replied it was Goddess from the Ocean. Osel remarked that she shouldn’t have pride because she had such a name. The way he said it stopped everyone, including the woman, in their tracks. It wasn’t said rudely, just straight. The truly remarkable fact about this episode was that the pride he had picked up was extremely subtle. It wasn’t obvious in her at all–she appeared to be a very humble person.
Similarly, he had been outraged when he learned that a wealthy nun had lent money to build a stupa. ‘What do you mean “lend”?’ he had shouted at her. ‘Why didn’t you give? You are very naughty. I am going to spank you.’
There was another occasion when he reprimanded a woman for being rude. ‘It was devastating, but true,’ she said. ‘I do come straight out with things. We had gone to dinner in Bangalore and the waiters were fussing around and I spoke sharply to them. Lama Osel observed this and was very nice to them. Later he told me off. The extraordinary thing was that he didn’t say so at the time, but waited till we were alone. That was what was so unusual.’ She added: ‘On another occasion I had been sharp with some little monks who I could see had only come to play with Lama because he had Western toys. Osel turned to me and said, “You are not very kind, are you’,”‘
There was no malice, no vindictiveness in these statements, just the need to point out people’s faults and to guide them on to more constructive paths. This was illustrated well in Taiwan, where Lama Osel met a man with clairvoyant abilities who told him about the third eye. Lama paused and then asked, ‘Do you use your third eye just to see things or to help people?’ His remark went straight to the heart of the matter– for what else is spiritual prowess for if not to benefit other sentient beings?
In this rather fearsome way Lama Osel was demonstrating that he was becoming a teacher in the true Buddhist style: reading people’s minds and pointing out their negative tendencies in order that they might transform them. Hadn’t the Buddha’s way been one of confronting reality and then doing something about it? In particular Osel was now wanting people to ‘check up’, to examine their motivation, their mindfulness. Even when he was being spanked he would look at the person and say, ‘Are you angry, are you angry?’, with no tone of personal fear but only to discover if the cardinal error of anger was present in the act. He was also constantly challenging people’s beliefs, especially about reincarnation. It was unnerving, said Michael Lobsang Yeshe, a Western boy who had been brought up in Kopan under Lama Yeshe’s strict eye and who found himself looking after Lama Osel. ‘He managed to bring out everything within me, and when I was at the highest point of my rage he would make comments such as: “Do you really believe that I am Lama Yeshe’s reincarnation?” What puzzles me is how he can be a very intelligent, wise and strong lama one moment, and just when I am about to feel “Oh, he’s really great”, the next moment he is a very clever, naughty child.’ But there was more than the emergence of a teacher–for the first time in his life Lama Osel was beginning to rebel. He started to play up at lessons, finding brilliant strategies to get out of working, and, perhaps more seriously, showing signs that he found religious ritual and practice less than interesting. He would go into fierce tantrums if he felt he was being ‘forced’, putting those in charge of him on the spot. Some put it down to having to obey too many rules and having too many expectations put upon him.
‘It’s hard for both of us when he has to be the perfect lama,’ said Michael. ‘I have to see him without any faults and behaving very well. And from his side, he has to put on this act of being a perfect, well-behaved lama. After all, he is a human being like every one of us, and I think we ought to give him his space and time. But also, because he is a human being we should be very careful not to spoil him with too much admiration. We all have the responsibility of bringing him to what we all want him to be: a world teacher,’ he said.
Lama Osel’s new outbursts of willful behaviour put us into a dilemma. How should we respond? Should we reprimand, ignore or take notice? Was it a spoilt child who was saying these harsh, rude things? Or was it a wise guru? For the Tibetans this was not even an issue. Tulkus are renowned for their great energy, their mischief, their strong will and their utter determination to take the lead. They are notoriously naughty and wild, and so for their own good must be dealt with by a strong hand. The Tibetans had no qualms about disciplining their spiritual adepts, on the grounds that their extraordinary power must be channeled into useful directions.
We Westerners, however, were new to the job. This was the first Tibetan tulku to be born as one of us, and we were having to learn the hard way how to deal with such an extraordinary situation and with the enormous responsibility that it entailed.
Reborn in the West – Part Vby Vicki Mackenzie
In the summer of 1993 the crisis stuck. For the first time in his short, incredibly rich life Lama Osel rebelled outright. Something was definitely wrong, but who knew precisely what? Certainly there had been some great upheavals in his life since he had entered Sera monastery. The problem could have been the departure of Basili, his close attendant for so many years, leaving Osel with a series of other monks, kindly but not nearly as expert in handling a Spanish tulku with high spirits and a demanding lifestyle. It could have been the harsh discipline of Sera monastery which went against his free spirit and his passion for play. It could have been that he was worried about his mother, who he knew had cancer. It could have been the sudden and sad break-up of his parents’ relationship. Or it could have been that, as he matured, he could see the awesome task that lay ahead of him, the lifetime of service and devotion, and wanted out. Whatever the reason, he sent plaintive messages both to Lama Zopa and to his mother, saying that he wanted to leave.
Lama Zopa was deeply concerned but, remembering his own inclination to run away from his monastery when he was a young child, and his several attempts to do so, ignored the request. He sincerely felt that this was a normal boyhood reaction to serious study, and was utterly convinced that Lama Osel’s path necessitated the strong foundation in Tibetan Buddhism which only Sera could provide. He, and so many thousands of other young lamas, had survived the rigors of monastic life and had subsequently been extremely grateful for them, and he was confident that Lama Osel would eventually feel the same. But still Osel’s pleas touched his heart. After all, the happiness of his guru meant everything to him. He went into deep meditation to ponder the dilemma that had suddenly arisen, but always the answer was the same– Sera monastery was where Lama Osel should be at least until he was thirteen. Lama Zopa publicly stated that this year was to be a crucial one for Lama Osel. Now was the time when he would decide what he wanted to do. Lama Osel’s life was finally his.
However, when Maria heard her son’s cries, with the boldness which characterized the other facets of her life she promptly flew into Sera, gathered Osel up and, without further ado, swiftly took him back to Spain. To say that the abbot of Sera and the rest of the monks were flabbergasted would be an understatement. It was an unprecedented move, unheard of in Tibetan history, and one that would only be performed by a European woman of particularly strong character. To lose their famous tulku was a terrible blow which cut them all deeply. The dramatic departure also created considerable shock waves among the Westerners who learned the news. What was going to happen now? What of the great scheme that had been envisaged for Lama Osel and his work in the future? Was he truly the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, or had it all been a terrible mistake?
To settle some of these disturbing questions I once again made the journey to the little Andalusian town of Bubion. It was mid-July and the ghastly pall of pollution that hung over the Costa del Sol, shrouding the once beautiful landscape in a thick yellow smog, matched my mood of apprehension. My two previous visits to Bubion had been in autumn and winter. Then the leaves were turning into glorious colours, and later the road was so snow-bound that I had to abandon the car halfway. Now, as I left the coast and drove up the steep mountain road, I noted how different it all was in high summer. The ground was parched, a strong smell of pine woods filled the air, and only the cicadas broke the heavy silence of the siesta.
Bubion itself was as charming as ever, with its whitewashed houses glinting in the sunshine, its tiny balconies cascading with red and pink geraniums, mauve and scarlet bougainvillea, and its tiny cobbled streets where cars can maneuver with only millimetres to spare on either side. In the six years since I had been there it had obviously become more fashionable, as buildings had gone up everywhere and there were more tourists roaming the lanes. But miraculously the local people still worked their fields with hoes and sickles, the goats and sheep still had bells tied under their chins (which still woke you up at 5 a.m.), and the town still echoed to the sound of ever-flowing water coursing down the many irrigation channels built centuries earlier by the Moors.
I booked into the main hotel, with its vine-covered restaurant overlooking Spain’s highest mountains and the sheer valleys beneath, and thought it wasn’t such a bad choice as a birthplace. Then I went in search of Maria and Osel.
I found him in the family house (extended now to cater for the ever-growing numbers), playing with his younger brothers. His hair was still very short, but he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt–a somewhat startling sight after years of seeing him in robes. His spirits were as high as ever as he cajoled his brothers to sneak up on me, but his face looked drawn and he had heavy rings under his eyes. He didn’t seem particularly happy. Maria appeared and we went to have a coffee and talk about what had happened.
‘For me it was very obvious that something was wrong, and I couldn’t sit back without anything being done,’ she explained. ‘I went to Sera last year, in 1992, to check out Lama’s situation. I was delighted by some things I saw, but disturbed by others. Even then he had a lot of anxiety, because there were so many things he wanted to do, new things, and yet he was restricted. The fears I had about the formal Tibetan education were coming true. I felt that Lama was being continually frustrated, that the tulku education system was subduing Lama’s will but not fulfilling Lama’s personality.
‘He was bored with the memorization process that Tibetan Buddhism requires for the first few years. He wants to understand through reason and stimulation. More importantly, he was beginning to reject wearing robes, saying prayers and being a lame. I believe these were violent reactions to a situation that was making him unhappy,’ she continued.
‘What shocked me most, however, was Lama’s behaviour. Because he was miserable and frustrated, he was developing a tyrannical ego, wasn’t able to share with others and was becoming very self-centred. This, I think, is partly to do with the tulku training centre, where they school the child to be the centre of attention and apart from other children. But it is also partly to do with Lama’s Western disciples who have not been taught how to treat him. So often they give and give–anything he wants–lust to win his love and approval. They give in order to get. It’s not good for him. It’s also made him confused and unhappy.’
The reason why she had brought him back to Spain was not, she assured me, because she had reversed her decision about giving her son to the lamas, and wanted him with her. ‘I still do not feel any maternal attachment. I freely offered Lama to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and the easiest thing for me would be to leave the situation as it was. But I was Lama’s chosen mother, and for that reason feel I have some responsibility to provide him with the best possible conditions in which to continue Lama Yeshe’s work,’ she said.
For all the present upheaval, the irrepressible Maria’s conviction that her son was the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe had not faltered. Nor had her belief that his destiny was to carry on Lama Yeshe’s mission of bringing the sacred knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism to the West.
‘Everything is Lama Yeshe’s strategy. He discovered his own limitations when he began to teach Westerners, which is why in this life he took a Western body. It is wrong to expect Lama Osel to appear as Lama Yeshe. This is a new vehicle, a new time, new parents. The causes and conditions are different. I believe that what Osel does depends on the conditions we provide. If we sow nice seeds now, then we will get a nice plant in the future. I believe that even all these upheavals are Lama Yeshe’s trajectory. He’s moving structures, bringing about new orders,’ she reasoned.
Sitting opposite me with her shining eyes, she looked remarkably well considering that two years earlier she had been given no more than six months’ life expectation. In fact the secondary cancer in her head had disappeared completely, much to her doctor’s astonishment. The tumour in her kidney was still there, but she had learnt to treat it like a friend, she said.
‘It gives me no trouble at all. It has grown to follow the exact shape of the kidney but without obstructing any of the arteries, so it has not prevented the kidney from functioning.’ She was an extraordinary woman, bold, brave and with an independent spirit prepared to challenge all given beliefs.
In the meantime having Lama Osel in Bubion was, as she foresaw, not an easy option. She was still trying to maintain his special regimen as a tulku, keeping his living quarters separate from those of the other children, and attempting to make him do his daily prayers and practices. At the same time she was running her newly established tourist business for the area, and overseeing the welfare of her other children. Even for Maria this workload was enormous. Now, in July, the children were on holiday and Lama Osel, freed from the restrictions of Sera, was running wild. To make matters worse, after their separation Paco had left Bubion to work in London. He was absolutely against what Maria had done and fervently believed that Lama Osel’s problem was primarily one of resisting getting down to hard work.
To resolve the situation, Maria had come up with a plan to start her own school for tulkus in Bubion. It was audacious, to say the least. She had it all worked out. ‘It will be a unique environment for special children, Tibetan and Western alike, who will be trained to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world. I would like it to follow the Universal Education principles that Lama Yeshe laid down, integrating the best of Western education with the essence of the Tibetan system. In this way Western society will benefit, and so will Tibetan. Of course,’ she added, ‘everything should be developed with His Holiness the Dalai Lama being the principal guide.’
It was a dazzling scheme and had some merit, but I wondered how Maria would find the teachers, let alone the finance, for such an ambitious plan. Few high lamas would be prepared to go against Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s directive, as Maria herself had discovered when she had approached one or two to ask them to come to Bubion now to teach Lama Osel. In fact, Lama Zopa’s wisdom was not to be tossed aside lightly. From the bottom of his heart he believed that Sera was the best place for Lama Osel to be, and who could dare contradict that?
Wondering where Lama Osel was now heading, I left Bubion. My last glimpse of the Spanish tulku was in the garden, where he was playing with his normal gusto. He was now ‘free’ and leading the life of an ordinary child, but I could sense something heavy and sad in him. At this stage of his life Tenzin Osel Rinpoche was a child caught between two cultures. It was a heartrending sight.
I returned to London with a heavy heart, confused by the conflicting interests that were now being played out within the context of Osel’s life. Once more I wondered if the experiment of transplanting Eastern spiritual masters into Western soil would work. But above all my heart went out to the small Spanish boy whose destiny it was to be the spearhead of such a movement.
Then suddenly the crisis was over. A few weeks later Osel visited his father in London and decided of his own free will to leave Bubion and go to Kopan, the hill in the middle of the Kathmandu valley where it had all started. He wanted to resume his life as a monk. There, according to onlookers, he visibly relaxed for the first time in months. His harrowed expression and obvious unhappiness dissipated .’It was as though he had refound where he belonged. It was as if he had come home to his real family,’ commented one observer. He spent hours every morning with Lama Zopa in his room, where the constant peals of laughter coming from behind the closed door raised everybody’s spirits. The young boy and the now middle-aged guru had re-established their indefinably close bond.
Lama Osel had clearly come to some fundamental decision about his life. He had chosen. For a short time he had tasted the ordinary life of a child, and then had voluntarily rejected it. His decision was made absolutely clear when a meeting was called between Maria, Paco and the heads of the FPMT, to discuss future plans for Lama Osel.
Although he was only nine, he took total control. Before the meeting started he actuary rehearsed with some of the FPMT leaders how it should progress. ‘He was just like Lama Yeshe, taking the reins, directing the whole proceedings. He actually said, “I am the boss.” It was impressive,’ said one participant. In short, Lama Osel declared that he was going back to Sera, but on certain conditions–that his father Paco and his younger brother Kunkyen would go with him. He made stipulations about the new Western teacher he was to have (Norma Quesada-Wolf had left in the meantime) and the type of cook he wanted. He was clear, straightforward and full of authority. Much to her consternation, he even crushed Maria’s arguments about him being better off in Bubion. ‘He spoke strongly to her, but because he spoke the truth, she accepted what he said,’ added the onlooker.
So now Lama Osel is back in Sera with his father as his attendant and his brother as his companion–as he requested. Kunkyen has subsequently become a monk, eagerly taking robes soon after he arrived, thereby beginning to fulfill the prediction that he too is a special child. He is settled and happy, and diligently getting on with his studies. Maybe his new-found acceptance has come about because he has people around him who he knows love him for who he is, rather than for what he represents. Maybe it is due to the fact that he independently chose the direction of his own life. Maybe he had discovered for himself how disenchanting ‘ordinary’ life can be. Or maybe Osel managed to resolve something very fundamental within. Perhaps it was a hurdle that all tulkus had to confront at some point in their lives.
I recalled reading about a similar crisis that the young Chogyam Trungpa, the brilliant and controversial meditation master, had gone through. In his book Journey Without Goal he described the misery he went through as a tulku in Tibet, and its resolution:
In my education I was constantly criticized. If I leaned back I was criticized and told that I should sit up. Every time I did something right I was criticized even more heavily. I was cut down constantly by my tutor. He slept in the corridor outside my door so I could not even get out. He was always there, always watching me…
I had been brought up strictly since infancy, from the age of eighteen months, so that I had no other reference point such as the idea of freedom or being loose. I had no idea what it was like to be an ordinary child playing in the dirt or playing with toys or chewing on rusted metal or whatever. Since I did not have any other reference point I thought that was just the way the world was. I felt somewhat at home but at the same time I felt extraordinarily hassled and claustrophobic.
Then, very interestingly, I stopped struggling with the authorities, so to speak, and began to develop. I just went on and on and on. At that point my tutor seemed to become afraid of me; he began to say less. And my teachers began to teach me less because I was asking them too many questions … Something was actually working. Something was finally beginning to click. The discipline had become part of my system.
Even the Dalai Lama, who has spoken openly about the strictness and isolation he experienced as a child in the thousand-roomed Potala Palace in Lhasa, has conceded that in retrospect the discipline has held him in good stead.
At this point in his life Lama Osel seems to have found himself. He has settled back into his house at Sera with its garden and ever-growing menagerie of pets: he now has two dogs, a rabbit and a deer. Having his brother and father with him has given him a stability that was obviously lacking before. His emotional environment is more important to him than anyone realized: he was missing the presence of a real friend.
He has even settled down to his studies with his gen-la, who has modified the traditional approach slightly to include more explanation and commentary, and inspirational stories of great masters and saints, which Osel enjoys. The new Western teacher is about to start teaching from an English-based curriculum devised to take children all the way to university entrance level. He is keeping up his written and spoken Spanish, English and Tibetan, and is now teaching his brother English. Much to his delight, he has been given a computer with a wide range of educational software which allows him to learn aspects of language, mathematics, reading and deduction in the form of challenging games. East and West are, at last, finally merging.
Writing in the June 1994 edition of Mandala magazine, the FPMT’s newsletter, Paco describes Osel’s present state of mind and the flavour of their everyday life:
The period in Kopan was good for Lama. It allowed him to reintegrate himself into Sera, giving him time and space to meditate on it. But he had already decided to return when we were in London.
Lama seems happy in Sera monastery. In the company of his brother Kunkyen, Lama manifests the part of him that most needs to be understood, being a child.
On 25 March 1994; an Italian television crew visited us. They were doing a piece on Ganchen Rinpoche. They interviewed Lama with the usual questions: did he remember his past life? He said he remembered nothing. Did he feel like a Lama or a child? He said like a child. Did he understand all the things they were teaching him? He said some of it. What is his schedule? He answered at length, giving the full picture, class by class. Would he like to live in a family? He said yes, that he already lived in a family at Sera.
Lama Osel has at last come home. I was interested to note, however, that he was now following the stock response of all rinpoches when asked about their memories of past lives–denial. I had once asked Lama Zopa what he remembered of his past life, and he had replied, ‘Blackness.’ The Dalai Lama similarly replied that he remembered ‘very little. Self-aggrandizement is never a hallmark of true spiritual attainment. Once, however, the Dalai Lama almost gave the game away when he remarked, ‘Among some people I know, when a more subtle level of consciousness is produced in meditation, they are clearly able to remember seven hundred, eight hundred, a thousand years back.’
What of the future? According to Lama Zopa’s vision, Lama Osel will stay at Sera at least until he is thirteen. And then his Western education will begin in earnest, grounding him in the principles of modern science, psychology and the latest discoveries of our age. As such, he is being groomed to become a unique receptacle of disparate systems: the most esoteric mysteries of the East, together with the latest thrusts of Western thought. What he will do with these two converging but different streams of thought it is too early to judge, but the plan and the aspiration are enormous. In Lama Osel it is hoped that East and West will come together and forge a new dynamic, a new venture for humankind.
It was towards this goal that Lama Yeshe’s life had been directed. Lama Yeshe, that incomparable Tibetan, had boldly abandoned the traditional methods of transmitting the holy dharma to find a different way in which to reach the Western psyche. How we had all responded! This was the lama who had used hippie language to get his message across. (‘Buddhism is not about blissing out–Buddhism is facing reality!’); who had visited Christian monasteries and befriended Christian priests to learn about the West’s predominant religion; who had disappeared alone to the Australian beach for three days to learn about beach culture, and who had abandoned his robes for a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap so that he could mingle with the people undetected; who had gone to the Gay Parade and Disneyland; who had used every pore of his being to get his message of love and wisdom across. Will Lama Osel take up where he left off? Will he fill us with inspiration and show us a new way of looking at life, like Lama Yeshe did?
When I look at Lama Osel I see so many similarities: the innate kindness; the almost unbearable caring he has for the suffering of humans and animals alike; the extrovert personality; the love of flowers, cooking, cars, even hats; his quickness; and, the most important quality of all, his profound, original mind. My greatest fear that this child would be conditioned to play a role has been thoroughly trounced by his own magnificent independent spirit. It is now proven beyond all doubt that no one will ever be able to make Lama Osel do what he does not want to do, or to be who he does not want to be.
We wonder what that way will be. He is being groomed, like any heir, to take over the helm of a large kingdom. In Lama Osel’s case, his dominion is global. The organization that Lama Yeshe set in motion, his ‘international family’, the FPMT, has steadily grown since his death in 1984 and now comprises some sixty-seven different enterprises including centres in cities, country retreat centres, monasteries, nunneries, a publishing company, hospices, homes for the destitute, a leprosy project and an ambitious plan to build a sixty-foot statue of Maitreya, the Buddha to come, in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Being responsible for such a vast organization, and its many problems and projects, is an awesome prospect. Lama Zopa has hinted that Lama Osel might begin to take the reins when he is thirteen.
There are those who fervently hope that he will. Those who have devoted their lives to establishing and running the various centres and projects that Lama Yeshe started (with all the devotion and self-sacrifice that that has entailed) are waiting for the inrush of energy and new life that Lama Osel will inject into their endeavours. Likewise, those first Westerners who were inspired by Lama Yeshe to shave their heads and put on the maroon and yellow robes expect Osel to become a great lama following in his predecessor’s footsteps. For many, anything less than Lama Osel becoming a teacher in the Gelugpa Tibetan tradition will mean that he has failed.
Others feel that Osel does not have to be in monk’s clothing to fulfill his destiny as a spiritual leader. They can envisage him going in a different direction, blazing a trail into a world other than that of Tibetan Buddhism. He came this time as a Westerner, they argue, and will use his special wisdom and compassion in a new format. Keeping to his robes and teaching as a lama from Tibet would be merely going backwards. One devoted Lama Yeshe disciple can see Lama Osel as a chat show host. ‘Well, look at Oprah Winfrey. She reaches a huge audience around the world. If you want to get your message across, that’s the way to do it,’ she says. Another argues, ‘If he had wanted to be a Tibetan following the Tibetan path, he would have chosen a Tibetan mother.’ As for Osel’s own mother, Maria states quite clearly: ‘I believe Lama Osel has come to be a universal teacher, not a Tibetan geshe.’
Nothing is certain. Lama Zopa has made no secret of the fact that it is by no means assured that everything will be successful for Lama Osel, and that there are pitfalls and obstacles that we must constantly watch for. According to Buddhist philosophy, we might have the cause to have an eminent lama in our midst to teach and guide us, but the conditions we provide, the environment and our interactions with him are of equal importance. Everything is interdependent.
For myself I welcome Lama Osel’s strong, sometimes wayward energy. I am happy that he is a thoroughly Western child with a predilection for all the technological gadgetry of our times, and I secretly hope he is going to continue to be radical. For I have missed Lama Yeshe’s nonconformist approach; his wide, ecumenical stance; his ability to cut through the complex structure of Tibetan Buddhism to deliver to us its essential message; his capacity to make Buddhism relevant and alive to us–the people of the West. Deep down, I hope that Lama Osel will find the means to put the precious ancient truths into a new language of the twenty-first century and to give meaning to this exciting, unpredictable world we live in.
The speculations go on. In the meantime I wait and watch with hope, excitement … and a little apprehension.
- Tagged: osel hita
Statements of Appreciation
I feel like FPMT is taking off like a rocket this year! I’m so happy for Rinpoche and Lama and everyone who is working, helping, studying or operating any of the centers, study groups, etc. Amazing.
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