Reborn in the West - Part I
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.
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