Man's Work - Part I
Reproduced with permission from Telegraph Magazine, London - 27 April 1996
From the age of 19 months, when he was identified as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama, Osel Hita Tores has lived like no other child. Transported from a Spanish village to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India, he is now, at age 11, the subject of what is described as 'potentially the most exciting experiment in education, done anywhere, at any time.'
THROUGHOUT THE LONG AND exhausting drive from the city of Bangalore to Sera monastery, I had been considering the protocol involved in meeting Osel Hita Torres.
How does one behave towards an 11-year-old Spanish boy who is said to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama - a boy who already is the spiritual figurehead for tens of thousands of Buddhists around the world? Do you bow? Shake hands? Bring toys? From the age of two, Lama Osel has been accustomed to visitors prostrating themselves before him and offering him the ritualistic white silk scarf - the kata - which he in turn drapes around their necks. I have no kata, and I am unsure about prostrating myself before an 11-year-old.
In the event my fears are groundless. Lama Osel greets me at the door of his house, an unusually tall and sturdy boy for his age dressed in maroon robes and a pair of flip-flops, his expression of seriousness momentarily illuminated by a shy smile. Sensing my hesitancy, he holds out his hand and shakes mine firmly. He offers tea, which is brought by a Tibetan attendant, and which we drink on the verandah.
As a reincarnate lama, the young boy occupies a privileged position in monastery life. His home is a large, airy bungalow, set in its own grounds. A housekeeper tends the flowerbeds, and a blind, pet deer contentedly grazes the lawn.
The young lama offers a tour of his house; his bedroom, decorated with Tibetan religious tapestries, and a large shrine, with effigies of saints and a golden Buddha in a glass case; his playroom, where there is another shrine, more hangings and almost shockingly incongruous - the biggest Lego set I have ever seen.
In the lama's classroom is an old-fashioned school desk and a table-top science laboratory with scales, a microscope and a rack of test-tubes. The shelves are crammed with school text-books and improving novels: Watership Down, Kidnapped, The Hobbit. Sitting on an adjacent desk is his laptop computer (he is linked up to the Internet) and a stack of software disks.
'Do you play SimCity?' he asks enthusiastically. 'Sim-Tower, Sim-Farm, or I've got Doom2...’ Lama Osel's lessons begin at six in the morning with prayers and the memorisation of Buddhist teachings; they end at nine at night, when his Tibetan teacher carefully wraps the loose-leaf religious texts in their binding of gold cloth. In the hours between there is English, Spanish, history, science, geography, mathematics, instruction in Buddhist philosophy and dialectics.
But now it is dinner time. The young lama switches off his computer and comes to the table. We are seven: Lama Osel, his father Paco and his eight-year-old brother Kunkyen who, like the lama, is dressed in the maroon robes of a monk. There is the lama's Tibetan attendant, Pemba; his American tutor, George Churinoff; and Peter Kedge, from the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition - an English Buddhist and businessman who is in charge of Lama Osel's education, and who is visiting from his base in Hong Kong to check on his young charge's progress.
The boy leads grace, in Tibetan, and there is a moment's pause as all around the table wait for him to begin to eat. The conversation turns to philosophy. George Churinoff, a 50-year-old American Buddhist monk and MIT physics graduate, expounds on the nature of reality. What do we mean when we talk of a tree? A table? A body? Do these things have an absolute reality? No, they are merely names for a composite of parts, each of which is a composite of smaller parts, breaking down to a degree where the parts cannot be measured; they are simply energy. The Ii-year-old boy toys with his food, listening intently, then picks up the thread of the argument. 'So a cup is impermanent, the body is impermanent. Only emptiness is permanent...' He pauses, and turns to me. 'You're like me,' he says, 'you eat very slowly,' and laughs.
His future can roughly be described as follows: by the age of 19 he will have been tutored in both the centuries-old teachings of Tibetan Buddhism and the contemporary teachings of the technological West; he will be engaged in a degree course in, say, nuclear physics, or perhaps psychology; at the same time he will be travelling the world, lecturing and running an organisation that embraces monasteries, retreats, hospices and homes for the destitute.
'I think what we are engaged in,' says Peter Kedge, 'is potentially the most exciting experiment in education, probably done anywhere, at any time.' This, I say to Kedge, is a daunting prospect for an Ii- year-old boy. He nods. 'Yes, Lama is aware he has a big load to carry.' And is he happy with that? 'I've honestly never heard him express any hesitation. It was Lama Yeshe's work, and Lama Osel has always been quite clear that his role is to carry that on.'
ACCORDING TO TIBETAN BUDDHIST teaching, while reincarnation is inevitable for everyone, there are certain beings who have so trained their minds through intensive study and meditation that they can influence the conditions of their next birth. These tulkus, as they are known, are bound by their vow to return to lead others to enlightenment. The Dalai Lama, whose lineage can be traced through 14 successive rebirths, is the best known. But within Tibetan Buddhism at large there are many such tulkus. Sera monastery alone accommodates some 25 of them.
Traditionally, this recognition was confined to Tibet, but the diaspora that followed the popular uprising against the Chinese in 1959, when the Dalai Lama led thousands of Tibetans into exile, brought countless lamas and teachers to the West, and in recent years Western reincarnates have been identified in Canada, France, Spain and America. Lama Osel is the best known of these, and his story was the inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci's film about a Western reincarnate, Little Buddha.
Lama Yeshe himself had been identified at an early age as the reincarnation of a Tibetan abbess. He spent his early years in a monastery in Tibet, fleeing the country in 1959 at the same time as the Dalai Lama. He eventually settled in Kathmandu, where he started to gather Western students around him.
Peter Kedge was one of the first. Now 48, Kedge grew up in a devout Christian family in Birmingham. He studied engineering at university, but in the early Seventies set off with a group of friends in a Land Rover on the hippie trail across Asia, eventually arriving in Kathmandu. Meeting Lama Yeshe, he says, was 'a revelation. For the first time in my life I was receiving crisp, clear, scientific answers to all the questions I'd always been asking - why we are born, why we die, why some people have good lives and others bad.
Kedge became Lama Yeshe's attendant for four years, organising lecture tours and helping to establish the Lama's organisation, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. It was Lama Yeshe's particular skill, he says, to extract the essence of Buddhist philosophy and psychology 'what makes you happy or unhappy, the purpose of life, and how to solve life's everyday problems' from its Tibetan packaging and make it lucid and understandable to Western students. The FPMT now has some 70 centres around the world.
The young lama has a bearing, an awareness of others' moods, and a mindfulness of their well-being–'Are you OK?' he will ask–which would be uncommon in an adult, let alone an 11-year-old.When Lama Yeshe died, the responsibility for finding his reincarnation fell to his student and closest friend, Lama Zopa. In accordance with tradition, he consulted several oracles mediums who are in touch with the guiding and protecting spirits of Tibetan Buddhism. These indicated that in his next life Lama Yeshe would choose a Western reincarnation to continue his work of teaching.
Zopa studied his dreams. In one, Lama Yeshe appeared, telling his old friend that he was about to take human form. Much later, Zopa dreamed of a Western baby, crawling across the floor towards him. Convinced that Lama Yeshe's reincarnation was now in the world, Zopa began his search in earnest, visiting the centres and monasteries that Lama Yeshe had founded in his lifetime. At length he came to the small village of Bubión, high in the Alpujarra mountains near Granada, where Paco Hita and his girlfriend Maria Torres, both former students of Lama Yeshe, had helped round a Buddhist retreat. Lama Yeshe had visited the retreat a year before he died and thanked Paco and Maria for their work. 'Even if I die,' he told them, 'I will never forget you. We have much business, much karma business between us.
Six months before Zopa's arrival in the village Paco and Maria had had their fifth child, Osel: Lama Zopa immediately recognised him as the baby in his dreams. He asked Maria, when exactly was the baby conceived? It was the night of Zopa's first dream. He said nothing then to the parents about reincarnation, only that Osel was a very special child; that he should be kept in an unpolluted atmosphere, and that nobody should be allowed to ruffle his head.
Even when Maria had been pregnant with Osel, says Paco, something had seemed slightly different. Paco’s work as a builder had always been irregular and life for the large family was difficult, yet during the pregnancy Maria seemed unusually relaxed, and suddenly there was more work, more money. Paco was able to build extra rooms on his house, with a nursery for the new child.
Paco practised his daily meditation in the baby's room. 'I don't know why, he says, `but sometimes I had these incredible feelings. I would open my eyes and many times see Lama Osel looking at me with very wide eyes, and then laughing. When I was first with Lama Yeshe, we didn't speak, but we had incredible communication. And it was the same with this baby.
At length, the Dalai Lama announced that he had made his own divinations. confirming the recognition. Finally came the public affirmation, when Osel was presented with a selection of hand-bells and prayer- beads and unerringly selected those which had belonged to his predecessor.
Osel Hita Torres was just 19 months old when he was proclaimed as 'the absolute and irrefutable' reincarnation of Lama Yeshe. Paco says he did not know what to think.'I needed time to meditate, to think about this. I needed to feel it in my heart.'
'Now, I feel it.
Why, I ask Paco, does he think his family was chosen? 'Not because I am a good person, no. 1 think because we are a big family, we have many children and are less attached to them. That way it is easier for Osel to follow the way to help many thousands of sentient beings.
'Lama Yeshe's motivation was always incredible. When I first met him in 1977 I didn't understand Buddhism, nothing - but his compassion, his understanding reached me. And now we have Lama Osel who speaks English, Spanish, Tibetan, he understands computer. It is as if he has made this incredible body to help the world.'
At his enthronement ceremony at Dharmsala, in northern India, the two-year-old lama, dressed in ceremonial robes and the curved, yellow pandit’s hat, accepted ritual offerings, grinned, yelled, chewed sweets and played with a toy car. At the end of the ceremony, he wriggled off the platform and ran to his father, Paco, who carried him out of the temple, his destiny changed forever.
LAMA OSEL SUGGESTS THAT HE, THE photographer and I should play SimCity on his computer - a game that involves planning and building a city from the power supply up. As much as this is entertainment, it is also an ad hoc lesson in financial and social management.
'OK,' Lama says. 'Before we build anything, we all have to agree. If two say yes and one says no, we do it. If two say no, we don't.' Such diplomacy is not normal behaviour in an Ii-year-old.
Lama allocates an area of forestland 'for the animals to live in - do you agree?' He sensibly installs hospitals, schools, a police station. 'Perhaps we should raise taxes,' I suggest. 'The people don't like it,' he says. 'We must keep the people happy.'
UNTIL NOW, PETER KEDGE ADMITS, Lama Osel's upbringing and education has been largely a case of' trial and error'. In Tibet, a young reincarnate would be given up to the monastery at an early age; his parents would welcome it as an honour. But what is appropriate for a Tibetan tulku is not necessarily appropriate for a Western child; trying to strike a balance between the requirements of tradition and the expectations of a normal family life has not been easy.
From an early age Lama Osel led a peripatetic life. In order for students of Lama Yeshe to 'reacquaint' themselves with their reincarnated teacher, he travelled to monasteries and centres in Nepal, America, Australia and Europe, usually in the company of one or other of his parents.
As Buddhists and students of Lama Yeshe, Paco and Maria had always acknowledged that, at some point, it would be necessary for their son to enter a monastery in order to continue his education. In 1991, at the age of seven, the young lama left his parents in Spain and took up residency in Sera, some 50 miles from Mysore.'
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