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Life with Lama Osel
Norma Quesada Wolf took a year off in 1992 from her studies of the tragedies of Sophocles for her Ph.D. in Classics from Yale University in the USA in order to take the job as tutor to Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe. Here she writes about her experiences with Lama at Sera Je Monastic University in south India, “… a truly inspiring place where life had been cleared of excess and distraction to the point of simple comfort, leaving the mind free for the concentrated study of Dharma.”
Four years ago my mother sent me a small advertisement from the New York Times. The ad was for the position of tutor to a young Spanish boy living in south India at a Tibetan monastery who had been recognized to be the reincarnation of a well-known Tibetan lama, Thubten Yeshe. I was living in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the time, working on my graduate thesis. I welcomed the distraction from the dissertation and proceeded to write up the résumé for this unusual job, never consciously believing there was any real likelihood of my being selected. Yet, while setting down my relevant biographical facts, education experience, religious leanings, etc., I had the strange feeling that inevitably I would be called to India.
My husband John and I had been Zen Buddhists for a long time and had studied Buddhism intensively in the past in and out of school, but we did not know much about Tibetan Buddhism. At the start of the Year of Tibet (1991) we thought it would be a good idea to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism and even begin some of the practices as a way of supporting the Tibetan cause. We did not expect that the outcome of this vague aspiration would be life in a Tibetan monastery a year later.
Indeed, we arrived at Sera Je Monastery on a late afternoon in mid-January 1992. Along with Ganden and Drepung, Sera is known as one of the Three Seats of the Gelugpa lineage, all of them now re-established in India. In Tibet, these monasteries were once the largest in the world, at times housing up to twenty thousand monks among them.
Sera, located about two hours west of Mysore in the south of the country, rises up like a small city in a landscape of rolling corn fields and distant jagged mountains. Nearly three thousand monks live at the two colleges of Sera now – Sera Je and Sera Me – and new ones come every week, from the various refugee camps scattered throughout India, from Nepal, or making the long and difficult journey from Tibet.
After a short rest we walked over to Osel Labrang, or House, to meet the seven-year-old Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche and his household. Throughout the dinner Lama Osel laughed, talked and asked questions. The butterflies in my stomach that had been building up throughout the course of the car ride from Bangalore were quickly put to flight by his sweetness and charm. Afterwards he took us around his house and showed us the shrine room, and his own room, where our classes were to be held.
Once we had settled down at Sera, I began the classes with Lama Osel. I found him to be a brilliant boy, absolutely aware of everything going on around him, including other people’s thoughts, and with a clear, far-reaching memory, as his teacher, his Genla, Geshe Gendun Choephel, has observed. He had a wisdom, power and kindness that I found fascinating and magnetic, if not unnerving at times.
I remember one time when I came to the class feeling exceptionally happy for some reason. By the end of the class, however, I had become impatient with Lama for the way he had dawdled and stalled throughout the lesson. When I pointed out my change of mood to him, he smiled and said nothing, continuing to play with a little metal rod and hood he had in his hand.
He would cause the hoop to spin from the end of the rod near his hand out to the father end, and it would make wider and wider circles as it went. Finally he looked up and said, “I know you were happy when you first came in. But now look at this hoop. See, it’s your mind. Look how it’s going around and around now. That’s samsara, isn’t it?” That stopped me in my tracks right there.
On another occasion I came to the class with a cold. Lama volunteered to take it away. He said he was a doctor. He stood in front of me with his arms stretched straight out towards me, hands cupped, and he concentrated on drawing the cold from me into himself. I protested and said I did not want to give him my cold. But he replied, “No, no, don’t worry, I love suffering.”
When playing any type of boardgame, Lama Osel would suddenly decide to change all the rules, so that instead of playing competitively, all the players would play cooperatively, and so help each other reach the finish-line together.
Lama believed it was possible for everyone, including me, to achieve enlightenment quickly, and he would exert himself to that end relentlessly. He had an extraordinary will and could be very stubborn when he set his mind to something. His efforts, however, to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment did not always accord with the lesson plan, and this, predictably, led to the occasional confrontation over who was the teacher in the class. I don’t think that there was ever a question in Lama Osel’s mind.
John and I were at Sera for a little more than a year. I loved being at the monastery. In a sense I have never felt more at home anywhere else. Of course it has its share of political problems and outdated customs, as any institution of that size and tradition would, but overall Sera is an amazingly alive and evolving community whose overarching purpose makes any complaint insignificant.
The intense intellectual energy with which the monks study, reflect upon and debate their Dharma teachings, together with the equally intense devotional energy of their prayers and rituals, makes Sera, like its sister monasteries, a place unique in the world.
Every night, from our small apartment on the outskirts of the monastery, we would hear what sounded like the distant roar of a stadium with a soccer game going on. These were the nightly debate sessions held in the large temple courtyards. Peering over the walls we would see hundreds of monks divided into pairs fiercely debating, shouting, clapping and occasionally brawling over points of Buddhist philosophy while friends looking on would laugh and egg the argument on, often pushing a debater to the side and stepping in to clarify a point. Some of these clusters would carry on a debate late into the night while everyone else had gone back to his room to wind down with the more peaceful task of memorizing scripture.
Sera seemed to me to be a truly inspiring place where life had been cleared of excess and distraction to the point of simple comfort, leaving the mind free for the concentrated study of Dharma. While it was virtually utopia to me, I cannot say that during that time Lama Osel always felt the same.
Traditionally, in the Tibetan system, when a boy is recognized as a reincarnated lama, he is usually taken to the monastery he was associated with in his previous life in order to resume his studies and take up his old position. If the child is recognized to be a tulku of exceedingly pure purpose and high realization, he is given very special attention. He will have a private residence within the monastery, private tutors and attendants will be appointed to him, and he will be protected from harmful and distracting external influences. In this undisturbed environment the boy’s mind and purpose mature and strengthen quickly.
Lama Osel, as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe, is one of twenty-some tulkus at Sera, but while this upbringing is a traditional one among the Tibetan boys, it is extremely unusual for a Western boy. Coming from a close, numerous family and used to a Western way of life, Lama Osel frequently felt painfully lonely and bored. He did not like being separated from the other children at Sera and did not understand why he had a big house to himself with all kinds of books and toys, when all the other little monks had virtually nothing. One time he confessed to running out of the labrang and inviting a horde of boys into play with his toys when his attendants had gone off on an errand. When they returned they found the gompa full of little monks playing and shouting. Lama was very pleased with what he had done!
Lama Osel’s first year at Sera seemed to me to be a time of great inner struggle. He said that the reason he was at Sera was in order to strengthen himself and “to collect weapons” for a future battle. He demonstrated a warrior stance to life and constantly played out battles against “the bad guys.” Who were these bad guys? “Sadness, anger, laziness, pride – the bad thoughts,” he would say.
For a long time in the afternoons after class, he would go outside the garden “to train,” to make himself strong. He would practice long jumps, high jumps, and exercise in his jungle gym. He was always very proud of the various scrapes and bruises he would acquire and say they did not matter because he could stand the pain. The ideal he had of himself as a monkish warrior who relieves the suffering of all beings struggled with the need of a seven-year-old child for the love and comfort of family and home.
Lama’s struggle to reconcile so many forces naturally affected those around him. It was a dilemma to see him dejected and dispirited, and I wonder whether it was right for him to remain in the monastery. From a higher perspective, however, I could see what kind of being Lama Osel was and I could appreciate the preciousness of his mind and purpose. I had no doubt that he had consciously reincarnated in order to help others overcome the limitations of their hearts and mind.
Consequently, I felt that the only place in the world that could give him the protection and nurture he needed was Sera. A life and education for Lama in the West, even if in a Buddhist environment and with lamas to instruct him, seemed too diluted a solution. I did not doubt that Lama Osel would be a great teacher no matter where he lived or what he studied. I felt, however, that if Lama were to grow up at Sera and complete a geshe degree there, the potential for him to break down old barriers, synthesize many forces and cultures, and spread the Dharma to different peoples, would be much greater. A “universal education” for Lama Osel seemed to be a more real and immediate possibility at Sera than it could ever be in the West.
In any case, Lama’s mother, Maria, responded to Lama’s cries, and in June ’93 came to Sera and took him back to Spain. I had met Maria the year before when she came to Sera to visit Lama and see how he was doing. She impressed me with her kindness and strength of character. She was obviously concerned for her son’s well-being and wanted him to be happy. She especially wanted to protect him from the burden of expectation and adulation that seemed to follow him wherever he went. I thought her position was extremely difficult. She was pulled between the duty a loving mother has to her child on the one side and the claims of religion and faith in her gurus on the other.
She reminded me of the mother of Shiwala Rinpoche, whom I had met at Sera. Shiwala’s mother had told me how sad she had been when the lamas recognized her son as the reincarnation of a high lama. It meant that she would have to give up her only child to the monastery and, being Swiss Tibetan and living so far away, resign herself to seeing her son only for a short period once a year. “But,” she said, “the Tibetan people and the world need spiritual leaders.”
Lama was gone from Sera for a year. After a few months in Spain and in England, he arrived at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu in November 1993 accompanied by his father. His time away had not been happy, and after much heart searching he, with the agreement of his mother and father, decided he would return to his home at Sera. He arrived back there in March ’94.
John and I returned a month after a year’s traveling in India and Nepal, to pack up all our belongings and move to Mysore for an extended period of study and meditation. No place, however, was better than Sera and we ended up staying for the next six months. Paco, Lama’s father and his brother, Kunkyen, were living with him now, and we saw them quite frequently.
During our absence, Lama’s gardener, Dhrubha Subhedi, had turned Osel Labrang’s dry yard into a lush, flowering oasis, a beautiful place filled with fruit trees, hundreds of flowers, shady trees and bushes. Birds gravitated to this garden and made their nests throughout. A tame, blind deer, Tsering, wandered through it, and Lama’s rabbits peacefully hopped about on good terms with his dogs.
Lama too had blossomed in his father and brother’s company. Clearly, Paco and Kunkyen had provided the missing ingredient for Lama’s complete well-being at Sera. Paco was father, teacher, attendant and friend to Lama and Kunkyen. He made the labrang a loving and stable home for them without losing sight of the monastic environment. He struck the right balance between Western family-life and education and the training and education of a Tibetan lama.
Paco took an active interest in Sera, in its various construction projects, and in the surrounding areas. In the evenings, we would often see Paco, Lama and Kunkyen strolling through the monastery to check on the progress of the enormous new temple, or of the new debating courtyard. Sometimes they would take excursions into the countryside, as when they once walked down to the river during the monsoons to see the flood waters.
Paco’s interest and positive attitude towards Sera and the monastic life seemed to mean a great deal to Lama Osel. Paco provided Lama with a balanced, healthy view of the community there and helped to give him a secure sense of himself as part of that community.
Kunkyen’s contribution to his brother’s happiness is no less. His presence allowed Lama to see and feel himself a child and to live in the world of a child. Lama needed to share his life with other children, and it was touching to see how loving and protective he was of Kunkyen. The two often walked arm-in-arm through Sera. It was obvious that Kunkyen adored Lama. When he too became a monk, he was so pleased because now, in addition to being able to dedicate himself to praying (which he said was what he did best), he now looked exactly like Lama. They both liked to go around pretending each was the other.
On Tuesdays, the weekly holiday at Sera, Lama would play with his friends. Two of them, Tashi Tulku and Dumden Rinpoche, lived in a house near his. Tashi Tulku had visited Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy and had gone to school in Australia for a while. Dumden Rinpoche is a Swiss-Tibetan acquainted with Western ways.
Lama Michel, a Brazilian Rinpoche of about thirteen or fourteen years, who was also studying at Sera, would come to visit Lama occasionally and the two would play computer games. Lama Michel was a recognized expert and gave Lama a number of tips for some of the games. Another time, someone saw Lama Osel and Lama Michel hanging from a tree competing with each other to see who could rattle off Lama Chöpa from memory the fastest.
If the weather was good, everybody would go to Deer Park, a nearby nature reserve through which the Cauvery River flowed. It was a favorite place of the monks for swimming, the washing of robes and mo-mo picnics.
Everyone from the labrang together with the Kopan boys at Sera would often go for all-day outings. Other Tuesdays Lama would travel with his father and brother and with some of their friends to Mysore, the nearest city. There is a Western-style hotel there which has a pool and a big lawn where all the boys play soccer.
Since his return from Spain, Lama Osel clearly had a new enthusiasm for his studies and a real desire to learn. Having his father teach him, and knowing that Kunkyen had classes at the same time he did, seemed to give Lama a sense of companionship in his studies that he had not had before.
Paco had set up a chart in Lama’s room on which each of Lama’s teachers would give him a score for each class. Lama was especially proud when he would get the top score of ten in classes with his Genla. Lama was also becoming very interested in learning by computer. His attitude toward his studies seemed definitely to have improved, and this was good to see.
In the middle of October last year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Sera for about three weeks to teach Chandrakirti’s The Middle Way. The teaching sessions lasted all day, were intense and the subject matter was difficult. Lama Osel, however, sat attentively and seemed to be absorbing everything. When others had taken off their headphones for a break from the transmission and were simply resting or meditating quietly, Lama Osel always remained tuned-in.
“Tuned-in” is exactly how I would describe Lama during that time. He seemed to delight in the festiveness of the event, in seeing Westerners and old students and in coming to eat at the restaurant where everybody else ate. At the same time, however, he seemed deeply watchful, intent on monitoring the states of mind of those around him, checking levels of commitment and seriousness of purpose. Others who saw Lama at the Kalachakra initiation in Mundgod in January a few months later have mentioned how he seemed serious and mature and to have a real presence.
At the end of November last year we left Sera to go to Barcelona for the Kalachakra initiation given by His Holiness there, and then on to the US for a month. We returned to India in January for a last pilgrimage to the four holy sites and to Dharamsala for the Tibetan New Year. We went back to Sera for nine days in April, this time to really pack our things for shipment to the States and to say good-bye.
Everyone in the labrang seemed happy and well. The garden was flowering. Tsering the deer had grown quite a set of antlers, the rabbits continued to hop, and Mani had had a new litter of puppies. It had only been five months since we had last seen Lama, but it was surprising how much he had grown in that short space of time. He was as sweet and funny and generous as he had ever been, but he also seemed to have grown more stable and to have gained authority.
He is now ten years old, no longer a child. All his classes seem to be going very well. He has excellent teachers. Paco is teaching him Spanish. Ven. George Churinoff is teaching him English, History, Math and Science. Ven. Pemba teaches him conversational Tibetan and guides him through his prayers. Lama’s Genla continues to give Lama instruction in Tibetan handwriting, scripture study, Buddhist principles and ritual and has started to take him through the basics of Tibetan philosophical debate. Lama seems to be completely at home in Sera. “This is the best place in the world for me,” he said.
As for us, we have now been back in the States for three months and are living again in Northampton, Mass. Our life here seems dream-like compared to the intensity of our time in India with the lamas. I am grateful to Lama Zopa Rinpoche and to everyone we have met in the FPMT. I am fortunate to be able to remember the kindness of many people. To Lama Osel, who opened my eyes to so many things and planted so many precious seeds in my mind, I can only say that I am trying to put his teachings into practice.
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