Reborn in the West - Part II
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.