Reborn in the West - Part V
In the summer of 1993 the crisis stuck. For the first time in his short, incredibly rich life Lama Osel rebelled outright. Something was definitely wrong, but who knew precisely what? Certainly there had been some great upheavals in his life since he had entered Sera monastery. The problem could have been the departure of Basili, his close attendant for so many years, leaving Osel with a series of other monks, kindly but not nearly as expert in handling a Spanish tulku with high spirits and a demanding lifestyle. It could have been the harsh discipline of Sera monastery which went against his free spirit and his passion for play. It could have been that he was worried about his mother, who he knew had cancer. It could have been the sudden and sad break-up of his parents' relationship. Or it could have been that, as he matured, he could see the awesome task that lay ahead of him, the lifetime of service and devotion, and wanted out. Whatever the reason, he sent plaintive messages both to Lama Zopa and to his mother, saying that he wanted to leave.
Lama Zopa was deeply concerned but, remembering his own inclination to run away from his monastery when he was a young child, and his several attempts to do so, ignored the request. He sincerely felt that this was a normal boyhood reaction to serious study, and was utterly convinced that Lama Osel's path necessitated the strong foundation in Tibetan Buddhism which only Sera could provide. He, and so many thousands of other young lamas, had survived the rigors of monastic life and had subsequently been extremely grateful for them, and he was confident that Lama Osel would eventually feel the same. But still Osel's pleas touched his heart. After all, the happiness of his guru meant everything to him. He went into deep meditation to ponder the dilemma that had suddenly arisen, but always the answer was the same– Sera monastery was where Lama Osel should be at least until he was thirteen. Lama Zopa publicly stated that this year was to be a crucial one for Lama Osel. Now was the time when he would decide what he wanted to do. Lama Osel's life was finally his.
However, when Maria heard her son's cries, with the boldness which characterized the other facets of her life she promptly flew into Sera, gathered Osel up and, without further ado, swiftly took him back to Spain. To say that the abbot of Sera and the rest of the monks were flabbergasted would be an understatement. It was an unprecedented move, unheard of in Tibetan history, and one that would only be performed by a European woman of particularly strong character. To lose their famous tulku was a terrible blow which cut them all deeply. The dramatic departure also created considerable shock waves among the Westerners who learned the news. What was going to happen now? What of the great scheme that had been envisaged for Lama Osel and his work in the future? Was he truly the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, or had it all been a terrible mistake?
To settle some of these disturbing questions I once again made the journey to the little Andalusian town of Bubion. It was mid-July and the ghastly pall of pollution that hung over the Costa del Sol, shrouding the once beautiful landscape in a thick yellow smog, matched my mood of apprehension. My two previous visits to Bubion had been in autumn and winter. Then the leaves were turning into glorious colours, and later the road was so snow-bound that I had to abandon the car halfway. Now, as I left the coast and drove up the steep mountain road, I noted how different it all was in high summer. The ground was parched, a strong smell of pine woods filled the air, and only the cicadas broke the heavy silence of the siesta.
Bubion itself was as charming as ever, with its whitewashed houses glinting in the sunshine, its tiny balconies cascading with red and pink geraniums, mauve and scarlet bougainvillea, and its tiny cobbled streets where cars can maneuver with only millimetres to spare on either side. In the six years since I had been there it had obviously become more fashionable, as buildings had gone up everywhere and there were more tourists roaming the lanes. But miraculously the local people still worked their fields with hoes and sickles, the goats and sheep still had bells tied under their chins (which still woke you up at 5 a.m.), and the town still echoed to the sound of ever-flowing water coursing down the many irrigation channels built centuries earlier by the Moors.
I booked into the main hotel, with its vine-covered restaurant overlooking Spain's highest mountains and the sheer valleys beneath, and thought it wasn't such a bad choice as a birthplace. Then I went in search of Maria and Osel.
I found him in the family house (extended now to cater for the ever-growing numbers), playing with his younger brothers. His hair was still very short, but he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt–a somewhat startling sight after years of seeing him in robes. His spirits were as high as ever as he cajoled his brothers to sneak up on me, but his face looked drawn and he had heavy rings under his eyes. He didn't seem particularly happy. Maria appeared and we went to have a coffee and talk about what had happened.
'For me it was very obvious that something was wrong, and I couldn't sit back without anything being done,' she explained. 'I went to Sera last year, in 1992, to check out Lama's situation. I was delighted by some things I saw, but disturbed by others. Even then he had a lot of anxiety, because there were so many things he wanted to do, new things, and yet he was restricted. The fears I had about the formal Tibetan education were coming true. I felt that Lama was being continually frustrated, that the tulku education system was subduing Lama's will but not fulfilling Lama's personality.
'He was bored with the memorization process that Tibetan Buddhism requires for the first few years. He wants to understand through reason and stimulation. More importantly, he was beginning to reject wearing robes, saying prayers and being a lame. I believe these were violent reactions to a situation that was making him unhappy,' she continued.
'What shocked me most, however, was Lama's behaviour. Because he was miserable and frustrated, he was developing a tyrannical ego, wasn't able to share with others and was becoming very self-centred. This, I think, is partly to do with the tulku training centre, where they school the child to be the centre of attention and apart from other children. But it is also partly to do with Lama's Western disciples who have not been taught how to treat him. So often they give and give–anything he wants–lust to win his love and approval. They give in order to get. It's not good for him. It's also made him confused and unhappy.'
The reason why she had brought him back to Spain was not, she assured me, because she had reversed her decision about giving her son to the lamas, and wanted him with her. 'I still do not feel any maternal attachment. I freely offered Lama to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and the easiest thing for me would be to leave the situation as it was. But I was Lama's chosen mother, and for that reason feel I have some responsibility to provide him with the best possible conditions in which to continue Lama Yeshe's work,' she said.
For all the present upheaval, the irrepressible Maria's conviction that her son was the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe had not faltered. Nor had her belief that his destiny was to carry on Lama Yeshe's mission of bringing the sacred knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism to the West.
'Everything is Lama Yeshe's strategy. He discovered his own limitations when he began to teach Westerners, which is why in this life he took a Western body. It is wrong to expect Lama Osel to appear as Lama Yeshe. This is a new vehicle, a new time, new parents. The causes and conditions are different. I believe that what Osel does depends on the conditions we provide. If we sow nice seeds now, then we will get a nice plant in the future. I believe that even all these upheavals are Lama Yeshe's trajectory. He's moving structures, bringing about new orders,' she reasoned.
Sitting opposite me with her shining eyes, she looked remarkably well considering that two years earlier she had been given no more than six months' life expectation. In fact the secondary cancer in her head had disappeared completely, much to her doctor's astonishment. The tumour in her kidney was still there, but she had learnt to treat it like a friend, she said.
'It gives me no trouble at all. It has grown to follow the exact shape of the kidney but without obstructing any of the arteries, so it has not prevented the kidney from functioning.' She was an extraordinary woman, bold, brave and with an independent spirit prepared to challenge all given beliefs.
In the meantime having Lama Osel in Bubion was, as she foresaw, not an easy option. She was still trying to maintain his special regimen as a tulku, keeping his living quarters separate from those of the other children, and attempting to make him do his daily prayers and practices. At the same time she was running her newly established tourist business for the area, and overseeing the welfare of her other children. Even for Maria this workload was enormous. Now, in July, the children were on holiday and Lama Osel, freed from the restrictions of Sera, was running wild. To make matters worse, after their separation Paco had left Bubion to work in London. He was absolutely against what Maria had done and fervently believed that Lama Osel's problem was primarily one of resisting getting down to hard work.
To resolve the situation, Maria had come up with a plan to start her own school for tulkus in Bubion. It was audacious, to say the least. She had it all worked out. 'It will be a unique environment for special children, Tibetan and Western alike, who will be trained to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world. I would like it to follow the Universal Education principles that Lama Yeshe laid down, integrating the best of Western education with the essence of the Tibetan system. In this way Western society will benefit, and so will Tibetan. Of course,' she added, 'everything should be developed with His Holiness the Dalai Lama being the principal guide.'
It was a dazzling scheme and had some merit, but I wondered how Maria would find the teachers, let alone the finance, for such an ambitious plan. Few high lamas would be prepared to go against Lama Zopa Rinpoche's directive, as Maria herself had discovered when she had approached one or two to ask them to come to Bubion now to teach Lama Osel. In fact, Lama Zopa's wisdom was not to be tossed aside lightly. From the bottom of his heart he believed that Sera was the best place for Lama Osel to be, and who could dare contradict that?
Wondering where Lama Osel was now heading, I left Bubion. My last glimpse of the Spanish tulku was in the garden, where he was playing with his normal gusto. He was now 'free' and leading the life of an ordinary child, but I could sense something heavy and sad in him. At this stage of his life Tenzin Osel Rinpoche was a child caught between two cultures. It was a heartrending sight.
I returned to London with a heavy heart, confused by the conflicting interests that were now being played out within the context of Osel's life. Once more I wondered if the experiment of transplanting Eastern spiritual masters into Western soil would work. But above all my heart went out to the small Spanish boy whose destiny it was to be the spearhead of such a movement.
Then suddenly the crisis was over. A few weeks later Osel visited his father in London and decided of his own free will to leave Bubion and go to Kopan, the hill in the middle of the Kathmandu valley where it had all started. He wanted to resume his life as a monk. There, according to onlookers, he visibly relaxed for the first time in months. His harrowed expression and obvious unhappiness dissipated .'It was as though he had refound where he belonged. It was as if he had come home to his real family,' commented one observer. He spent hours every morning with Lama Zopa in his room, where the constant peals of laughter coming from behind the closed door raised everybody's spirits. The young boy and the now middle-aged guru had re-established their indefinably close bond.
Lama Osel had clearly come to some fundamental decision about his life. He had chosen. For a short time he had tasted the ordinary life of a child, and then had voluntarily rejected it. His decision was made absolutely clear when a meeting was called between Maria, Paco and the heads of the FPMT, to discuss future plans for Lama Osel.
Although he was only nine, he took total control. Before the meeting started he actuary rehearsed with some of the FPMT leaders how it should progress. 'He was just like Lama Yeshe, taking the reins, directing the whole proceedings. He actually said, "I am the boss." It was impressive,' said one participant. In short, Lama Osel declared that he was going back to Sera, but on certain conditions–that his father Paco and his younger brother Kunkyen would go with him. He made stipulations about the new Western teacher he was to have (Norma Quesada-Wolf had left in the meantime) and the type of cook he wanted. He was clear, straightforward and full of authority. Much to her consternation, he even crushed Maria's arguments about him being better off in Bubion. 'He spoke strongly to her, but because he spoke the truth, she accepted what he said,' added the onlooker.
So now Lama Osel is back in Sera with his father as his attendant and his brother as his companion–as he requested. Kunkyen has subsequently become a monk, eagerly taking robes soon after he arrived, thereby beginning to fulfill the prediction that he too is a special child. He is settled and happy, and diligently getting on with his studies. Maybe his new-found acceptance has come about because he has people around him who he knows love him for who he is, rather than for what he represents. Maybe it is due to the fact that he independently chose the direction of his own life. Maybe he had discovered for himself how disenchanting 'ordinary' life can be. Or maybe Osel managed to resolve something very fundamental within. Perhaps it was a hurdle that all tulkus had to confront at some point in their lives.
I recalled reading about a similar crisis that the young Chogyam Trungpa, the brilliant and controversial meditation master, had gone through. In his book Journey Without Goal he described the misery he went through as a tulku in Tibet, and its resolution:
In my education I was constantly criticized. If I leaned back I was criticized and told that I should sit up. Every time I did something right I was criticized even more heavily. I was cut down constantly by my tutor. He slept in the corridor outside my door so I could not even get out. He was always there, always watching me...
I had been brought up strictly since infancy, from the age of eighteen months, so that I had no other reference point such as the idea of freedom or being loose. I had no idea what it was like to be an ordinary child playing in the dirt or playing with toys or chewing on rusted metal or whatever. Since I did not have any other reference point I thought that was just the way the world was. I felt somewhat at home but at the same time I felt extraordinarily hassled and claustrophobic.
Then, very interestingly, I stopped struggling with the authorities, so to speak, and began to develop. I just went on and on and on. At that point my tutor seemed to become afraid of me; he began to say less. And my teachers began to teach me less because I was asking them too many questions ... Something was actually working. Something was finally beginning to click. The discipline had become part of my system.
Even the Dalai Lama, who has spoken openly about the strictness and isolation he experienced as a child in the thousand-roomed Potala Palace in Lhasa, has conceded that in retrospect the discipline has held him in good stead.
At this point in his life Lama Osel seems to have found himself. He has settled back into his house at Sera with its garden and ever-growing menagerie of pets: he now has two dogs, a rabbit and a deer. Having his brother and father with him has given him a stability that was obviously lacking before. His emotional environment is more important to him than anyone realized: he was missing the presence of a real friend.
He has even settled down to his studies with his gen-la, who has modified the traditional approach slightly to include more explanation and commentary, and inspirational stories of great masters and saints, which Osel enjoys. The new Western teacher is about to start teaching from an English-based curriculum devised to take children all the way to university entrance level. He is keeping up his written and spoken Spanish, English and Tibetan, and is now teaching his brother English. Much to his delight, he has been given a computer with a wide range of educational software which allows him to learn aspects of language, mathematics, reading and deduction in the form of challenging games. East and West are, at last, finally merging.
Writing in the June 1994 edition of Mandala magazine, the FPMT's newsletter, Paco describes Osel's present state of mind and the flavour of their everyday life:
The period in Kopan was good for Lama. It allowed him to reintegrate himself into Sera, giving him time and space to meditate on it. But he had already decided to return when we were in London.
Lama seems happy in Sera monastery. In the company of his brother Kunkyen, Lama manifests the part of him that most needs to be understood, being a child.
On 25 March 1994; an Italian television crew visited us. They were doing a piece on Ganchen Rinpoche. They interviewed Lama with the usual questions: did he remember his past life? He said he remembered nothing. Did he feel like a Lama or a child? He said like a child. Did he understand all the things they were teaching him? He said some of it. What is his schedule? He answered at length, giving the full picture, class by class. Would he like to live in a family? He said yes, that he already lived in a family at Sera.
Lama Osel has at last come home. I was interested to note, however, that he was now following the stock response of all rinpoches when asked about their memories of past lives–denial. I had once asked Lama Zopa what he remembered of his past life, and he had replied, 'Blackness.' The Dalai Lama similarly replied that he remembered 'very little. Self-aggrandizement is never a hallmark of true spiritual attainment. Once, however, the Dalai Lama almost gave the game away when he remarked, 'Among some people I know, when a more subtle level of consciousness is produced in meditation, they are clearly able to remember seven hundred, eight hundred, a thousand years back.'
What of the future? According to Lama Zopa's vision, Lama Osel will stay at Sera at least until he is thirteen. And then his Western education will begin in earnest, grounding him in the principles of modern science, psychology and the latest discoveries of our age. As such, he is being groomed to become a unique receptacle of disparate systems: the most esoteric mysteries of the East, together with the latest thrusts of Western thought. What he will do with these two converging but different streams of thought it is too early to judge, but the plan and the aspiration are enormous. In Lama Osel it is hoped that East and West will come together and forge a new dynamic, a new venture for humankind.
It was towards this goal that Lama Yeshe's life had been directed. Lama Yeshe, that incomparable Tibetan, had boldly abandoned the traditional methods of transmitting the holy dharma to find a different way in which to reach the Western psyche. How we had all responded! This was the lama who had used hippie language to get his message across. ('Buddhism is not about blissing out–Buddhism is facing reality!'); who had visited Christian monasteries and befriended Christian priests to learn about the West's predominant religion; who had disappeared alone to the Australian beach for three days to learn about beach culture, and who had abandoned his robes for a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap so that he could mingle with the people undetected; who had gone to the Gay Parade and Disneyland; who had used every pore of his being to get his message of love and wisdom across. Will Lama Osel take up where he left off? Will he fill us with inspiration and show us a new way of looking at life, like Lama Yeshe did?
When I look at Lama Osel I see so many similarities: the innate kindness; the almost unbearable caring he has for the suffering of humans and animals alike; the extrovert personality; the love of flowers, cooking, cars, even hats; his quickness; and, the most important quality of all, his profound, original mind. My greatest fear that this child would be conditioned to play a role has been thoroughly trounced by his own magnificent independent spirit. It is now proven beyond all doubt that no one will ever be able to make Lama Osel do what he does not want to do, or to be who he does not want to be.
We wonder what that way will be. He is being groomed, like any heir, to take over the helm of a large kingdom. In Lama Osel's case, his dominion is global. The organization that Lama Yeshe set in motion, his 'international family', the FPMT, has steadily grown since his death in 1984 and now comprises some sixty-seven different enterprises including centres in cities, country retreat centres, monasteries, nunneries, a publishing company, hospices, homes for the destitute, a leprosy project and an ambitious plan to build a sixty-foot statue of Maitreya, the Buddha to come, in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Being responsible for such a vast organization, and its many problems and projects, is an awesome prospect. Lama Zopa has hinted that Lama Osel might begin to take the reins when he is thirteen.
There are those who fervently hope that he will. Those who have devoted their lives to establishing and running the various centres and projects that Lama Yeshe started (with all the devotion and self-sacrifice that that has entailed) are waiting for the inrush of energy and new life that Lama Osel will inject into their endeavours. Likewise, those first Westerners who were inspired by Lama Yeshe to shave their heads and put on the maroon and yellow robes expect Osel to become a great lama following in his predecessor's footsteps. For many, anything less than Lama Osel becoming a teacher in the Gelugpa Tibetan tradition will mean that he has failed.
Others feel that Osel does not have to be in monk's clothing to fulfill his destiny as a spiritual leader. They can envisage him going in a different direction, blazing a trail into a world other than that of Tibetan Buddhism. He came this time as a Westerner, they argue, and will use his special wisdom and compassion in a new format. Keeping to his robes and teaching as a lama from Tibet would be merely going backwards. One devoted Lama Yeshe disciple can see Lama Osel as a chat show host. 'Well, look at Oprah Winfrey. She reaches a huge audience around the world. If you want to get your message across, that's the way to do it,' she says. Another argues, 'If he had wanted to be a Tibetan following the Tibetan path, he would have chosen a Tibetan mother.' As for Osel's own mother, Maria states quite clearly: 'I believe Lama Osel has come to be a universal teacher, not a Tibetan geshe.'
Nothing is certain. Lama Zopa has made no secret of the fact that it is by no means assured that everything will be successful for Lama Osel, and that there are pitfalls and obstacles that we must constantly watch for. According to Buddhist philosophy, we might have the cause to have an eminent lama in our midst to teach and guide us, but the conditions we provide, the environment and our interactions with him are of equal importance. Everything is interdependent.
For myself I welcome Lama Osel's strong, sometimes wayward energy. I am happy that he is a thoroughly Western child with a predilection for all the technological gadgetry of our times, and I secretly hope he is going to continue to be radical. For I have missed Lama Yeshe's nonconformist approach; his wide, ecumenical stance; his ability to cut through the complex structure of Tibetan Buddhism to deliver to us its essential message; his capacity to make Buddhism relevant and alive to us–the people of the West. Deep down, I hope that Lama Osel will find the means to put the precious ancient truths into a new language of the twenty-first century and to give meaning to this exciting, unpredictable world we live in.
The speculations go on. In the meantime I wait and watch with hope, excitement ... and a little apprehension.
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