Reincarnation: The Boy Lama - The Enthronement
I arrived in Kathmandu and for the first time headed not for the monastery on the hill but for the relative luxury of a small new hotel in among the winding alleyways of Thamel, the colorful bazaar area of Kathmandu. Having showered and changed, I eagerly telephoned the FPMT Central Office for final details of the enthronement. The embarrassed tones at the other end immediately indicated that something was badly wrong. After a lot of discussion, it emerged that it wasn't definite that the enthronement was going to be held at Kopan. In fact, it wasn't definite that the enthronement was going to happen at all. At the moment, Osel was in Dharamsala with his family, and Lama Zopa was sorting out what was best for everyone. I was rendered speechless by this bombshell. I'd come so far, spent so much money, and even had a commission from a German magazine to cover the event, just to be met with what appeared to be typical Eastern inefficiency and vagueness.
For the next week, I and many other people, including several journalists who'd flown in from across the world to witness the event, were kept in suspense. One minute it was announced that the enthronement was going to be held in Dharamsala, the next that Osel was coming to Kopan. The tension was excruciating. I became increasingly exasperated and upset, and when I eventually met Lama Zopa on the path outside the gompa one afternoon in Kopan, I complained. He laughed. "It will all make for a richer experience,"' he said cryptically. Unbeknown to me, the dilemma was not caused by some capricious whim on the part of Lama Zopa but by visa complications for Osel (which were later sorted out). After a few more days of shifting venue–during which time we were mollified by some wonderful teachings given by Lama Zopa–it was finally announced that the enthronement was definitely on, in Dharamsala.
Panic! We rushed to various travel agents and the Indian visa offices, our hearts in our mouths in case we didn't make it to Dharamsala in time. It was a long, complicated journey, across India and north through the turbulent Punjab into the very topmost peak of the subcontinent. To make matters worse, it was Holi week, one of the largest religious festivals in India, and it seemed that every seat on plane and train had been booked up weeks before. Every day, we dashed over to the travel agents to see if there were cancellations, and at the eleventh hour I miraculously got on a plane to Delhi. The cost of this trip, along with my anxiety, was rapidly mounting. There were two days before the ceremony was planned to begin.
After a few hours' sleep in the bustling, noisy capital, I rushed through the streets to Old Delhi station to try to get a seat on a train that would take me and my traveling companions to Pathankot, the nearest railway station to Dharamsala. Stepping over countless sleeping bodies who seemed to have taken up permanent residence in the station, I made my way to the reservation office, which already had a sizeable crowd waiting outside for the doors to open. During Holi week all the mighty millions of India were obviously on the move. When the doors were finally unbolted, we surged forward as one. In the mêlée I was somehow pushed to one desk, where a patient railway clerk consulted a timetable which looked as complicated as a computer manual, and much to my astonishment offered us the last remaining six seats in a train leaving that night–just enough for me and my traveling companions. It was a sleeper–third class, non-air-conditioned.
Returning that night with my fellow travelers to the unbelievable chaos of Old Delhi station, I clambered aboard the filthiest train I'd ever seen and discovered to my horror that our 'sleeping' compartment consisted of wooden seats that converted into beds. It also had no door and, in fact, no division from the countless other bodies all crammed like cattle into the corridor. Attachment to an inner-spring mattress once again rose in my mind. I was now finally beginning to believe the fundamental Buddhist tenet that attachment, any attachment, only causes suffering. Through the night we trundled along in enforced intimacy with Indian humanity (who in the way of their race accepted all life's conditions with uncomplaining passivity), the journey broken by frequent stops and a constant- stream of food vendors offering their wares in vessels that hadn't seen dishwashing liquid for the best part of a year.
The lavatory was another experience–a fetid enclosure where you balanced your feet on either side of a gaping hole, watching the railway tracks swinging perilously beneath. At least I didn't have Delhi belly. Instead, I'd come down with the flu. I was hot, and my nose was running like a Delhi railway porter. Memories of those romantic films and travel documentaries extolling the mysteries of going by train through the Indian countryside flashed before my eyes. Were we in the same country!
At 10 the next morning I stepped out at Pathankot station, my red nose coordinating nicely with my eyes. After a 'safe' breakfast of boiled eggs in the restaurant at this friendly station, with bougainvillea climbing the pillars and orange-sellers on the platforms, we piled into two taxis and negotiated the fare for the four- hour drive up the mountain to Dharamsala. Inevitably, one car broke down and the other ran out of oil, as is the way with Indian taxis, but since we were traveling in tandem, we came to each other's rescue, and I was by now resigned to the traumas of travel on the subcontinent. At last we drove past the little English church where Lord Elgin is buried, and entered a world of little Tibet. Here, the thousands of Tibetans who followed their leader into exile, choosing to become refugees rather than suffer under Chinese rule, have over the past twenty-five years resurrected their own culture with considerable success.
With the Dalai Lama's residence as its spiritual centerpiece (a modest bungalow contrasting starkly with the mighty Potala Palace where he once lived), Dharamsala now boasts a large, golden-roofed temple, housing a giant statue of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion (with His thousand arms reaching out to help all sentient beings), of whom His Holiness is said to be an emanation. There are several thriving monasteries, where monks of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism continue to keep alive their rich spiritual heritage of learning, debate, and meditation. Down the hill, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) houses many priceless ancient texts that were smuggled out of Tibet and were thus rescued from the atrocities of the Chinese invasion; nearby is the Tibetan Medical Institute, now headed by Dr. Tenzin Choedak. Dr. Choedak is the Dalai Lama's personal physician and was recently released after twenty years' imprisonment and torture by the Chinese for unspecified 'crimes.' He is now busily engaged in preserving the ancient science of Tibetan medicine. Dharamsala also has a school of arts and drama and a thriving crafts industry where carpets and artifacts are made and sold.
It was good to be here again. The air was pure, and the view of the plains below and range upon range of snow-capped Himalayas behind was breathtaking. But the best thing of all was that we had arrived in time. The enthronement was to take place at the Tushita Retreat Center the next afternoon.
At the appointed hour, we all solemnly filed into the main meditation room of Tushita, wondering what was in store. There were about sixty of us in all, a motley crew, comprising monks, nuns, former students of Lama Yeshe, and a large press corps representing some of the most influential newspapers, magazines, and press agencies in the world. All had trekked up the steep mountain road to witness and record an event which was by anyone's standards big news–the investiture of the world's smallest and most unusual lama ever. Osel Hita Torres, aged two years and one month, was about to make his official world debut.
The gompa had been specially festooned for the occasion. Richly colored tangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings), depicting aspects of the Buddha, covered every inch of the walls. The throne, three feet high, was draped with bright brocades. On the floor on either side of the central aisle sat two rows of Tibetan lamas in full ceremonial regalia. Behind them sat the Western monks and nuns, and in whatever space was left sat the rest of us.
Long horns boomed, cymbals clashed, drums and damarus sounded, conch shells trumpeted in the eerie and evocative ritual of dispelling evil forces and summoning the buddhas and protectors of the ten directions. And as the lamas began their massed chorus of deep-throated mantra–that sound which reaches far beyond ordinary emotion and thus touches the very inner core of your being–Osel arrived, carried in his father's arms.
I, for one, wasn't prepared for what I saw. Osel was dressed in full coronation regalia. He wore ceremonial lama's robes and on his head was the high, crested, yellow pandit hat, the badge of office. perhaps it was because he looked so little under that grand yellow hat, or maybe it was the silence that fell on all of us as he entered, but the moment was undeniably moving. I noticed as he went past that he was sucking a sweet and under his arm he carried a fluffy clockwork owl–a reminder that he was, after all, hardly more than a baby. He nodded to the posse of photographers gathered in one corner, like one who is used to dealing with the press, and after a second of protest allowed Pace to seat him on the throne.
There he perched, a tiny figure, the focus of all the attention, with his big hat endearingly slipping over his eyes from time to time and his owl rocking incongruously to and fro beside him. At his feet to his right sat his closest disciple, Lama Zopa, his face solemn with the import of the occasion. Beside the throne sat his parents, looking both proud and anxious. Staging a public ceremony with a two-year-old as its centerpiece was for them not only nerve-wracking but fraught with potential disasters.
They had no cause for worry. For the next three hours, Osel sat on his throne watching the proceedings with a stillness, composure, and majesty that went far beyond his years. Two or three times he clambered down from his throne, once to sit on Pace's knee for a minute, then to play with a small Italian boy he'd spotted in the congregation; but he didn't object when Pace or his monk attendant gently replaced him on his seat. More surprisingly, he handled the photographers, who were flashing their cameras throughout the entire three hours, with consummate ease. Occasionally when he thought they were getting greedy, he’d hold out a commanding hand and say "No," but for the most part he was astonishingly accommodating, at times even posing for them. They, for their part, were beyond themselves with glee. Children and animals win any reader, and this child was a natural. They couldn't go wrong.
For those who understood the subtler points of Buddhism, the event took on deeper significance when they realized that here was Lama Yeshe's reincarnation, sitting on his former throne, in his former house, sleeping in his former bed, walking round the garden he had planted, and using the same religious implements. To the believers, Osel was not just a novelty, a Spanish child being hailed as a lama, but the living proof of the continuity of individual consciousness. Here before us once again was the mindstream of Lama Yeshe, albeit in another form, returned to this earth through his great compassion to help us all on our way to the truth. To compound the miracle, he had been recognized. How many saints, I wondered, had come amongst us quietly, their works and worth unsung until, perhaps, the moment they died! And that was fine, but somehow it did not give people the opportunity to take full advantage of their hallowed presence–to learn and perceive as much as they could.
Yet, how fraught with danger was the position that Osel was now in. In publicly proclaiming his identity, the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa had exposed him to possible ridicule, controversy, and even hostility from anyone who chose to attack him. How vulnerable he was. And how brave of His Holiness and Lama Zopa to stick their necks out in such a fashion-they must have been absolutely sure of what they were doing.
Right now Osel was handling himself and the situation as though he had indeed been born to it. He sat, dignified, on his throne while the ritual was carried on before him. He was offered Tibetan tea, which he drank with relish, and a host of other symbolic gifts: a gold-plated dharmachakra (wheel of the Dharma), symbolizing the request for the guru always to give teachings; the Kangyur and Tengyur (the 108 and 225 volumes, respectively, of the teachings of the Buddha and their commentaries); statues of Amitayus and Namgyalma (buddhas of long life); the robes and pandit hat of a Tibetan lama; and the dresses of the five dakinis, symbolizing the wisdom goddesses of the five elements (whose robes are donned by Tibetan lamas when performing their stylized, ritual dance).
The high point of the ceremony was when the lamas, led by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, lined up before him, did prostrations to him in homage, and then humbly offered the child their gifts. Without prompting, Osel took each holy gift, placed it on the crown of his head in the Tibetan manner of showing reverence, and then handed it to his attendant. That done, he placed a chubby hand on the bowed head before him in blessing. He did this again and again–through the entire ranks of the Tibetan hierarchy and then the rows of Westerners. I noticed he deviated once from this action when instead of reaching out his hand he bent forward and touched crowns with a young, handsome Tibetan lama, a mark of great respect. I later found out that this was Yangsi Rinpoche, a recognized reincarnation of a former teacher of Lama Yeshe in Sera Monastery in Tibet.
It was a staggering performance. By now Osel was clearly getting tired (although one Westerner's gift of an ambulance with a flashing red light obviously lifted his energy for a while), but he sat through it until the end. When the last- hymns of praise had been sung, and the dedication that all the goodness accumulated be given to all sentient beings, Pace lifted him off the throne and took him out. Lama Zopa had been right. In spite of or because of the hardships and effort invested in getting there, the enthronement was a rich experience indeed.
After that mammoth performance, Osel was spent. His parents reported that he wouldn't go into the gompa where the enthronement had taken place, let alone sit on the throne. I couldn't say I blamed him. But a few days later, hoping for exclusive photographs for the German magazine assignment, I dared ask if Osel would be prepared to get back into his full ceremonial regalia and pose for the photographer, Robin Bath (a student of Lama Yeshe), who had flown out from England to cover the event. Much to our surprise and delight, he agreed, and we were privileged enough to receive our own private photo session.
If Osel had shone during the official enthronement, he surpassed himself for Robin's camera. Back on the throne, he went through the gamut of Lama Yeshe's facial expressions, all for Robin's camera. He looked serene, holy, wise, mischievous, profound, compassionate, and funny in turn. With extreme graciousness, he took pieces of fruit from the offering bowl on the side of the throne, giving one to each person in the room–a gesture of caring and concern that was archetypally Lama Yeshe-but then to keep the proceedings from getting too pompous, he hurled an orange at Robin and burst into giggles. At another point he threw his robes over his head, just like Lama used to do, and sat there–the ultimate clown. Then he got hold of a loose-paged Tibetan text, placed it in front of him on the throne, and proceeded to 'read' it with the sing- song voice of a Tibetan lama, turning the pages over and placing them in a neat pile before him. It was impressive! After that he put his hands in the meditation posture, closed his eyes, and began to say mantras. It was Lama Yeshe, synthesized and in miniature.
The pictures revealed what a special moment it was, but unfortunately, the German magazine didn't use them or the story. They were too pressurized by Osel's story bursting into print across Europe to wait for our exclusive material. Although the press coverage overall was favorable and unbiased, inevitably, there were the journalists who lapsed into sensationalism, or did not get the facts right, and one who was downright scurrilous. An Indian newspaper said that 'sources' in Dharamsala had revealed that Osel had not been recognized by the Dalai Lama and that the whole story was, in part, a ruse to get funds for Kopan. This was later repudiated by Lama Zopa and the Dalai Lama himself, and the so-called 'sources' could not be identified. It was the only brickbat hurled at Osel. I wondered how many more he would have to face throughout his life.
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