- Published on January 09, 2012
Reborn in the West - Part IV
For a while, in the change-over period between Kopan and Sera, a warm and funny Australian monk called Namgyal was co-attendant of Lama Osel along with Basili Lorca. Namgyal's more artistic, less conventional personality found a link with those same aspects in Lama Osel's nature, and the two soon formed a strong bond.
'We used to sneak out together to eat pizzas, and we used to cook together,' he reminisced to me one day in Dharamsala, where I had gone to interview the Dalai Lama. 'Lama Osel, like Lama Yeshe, adores cooking. I gave him an apron which read "Never Trust a Skinny Cook", which he loved. We used to roll out dough together to make these pizzas and he would say things like, "The cheese isn't correct." He is such a perfectionist! Everything has to be just so. He always wanted everything to be clean and proper. I remember him telling off the Tibetan lamas for slurping their soup, and they would laugh and laugh!'
Namgyal's encouragement of self-expression showed results in Osel's spiritual practices too. 'Every day we'd fill the water bowls with water, representing the offerings of flowers, light, music, incense and so forth to the Buddhas. Lama Osel loved it. He'd invent different ways to make these offerings. He'd put the little crystal bowls in various different patterns and add colouring to the water. It took much longer, but he showed me what creativity could do to transform a fairly mechanistic daily rite.'
This was so like Lama Yeshe, who would transgress the conventional monastic rule by creating his own altars–full of diverse, imaginative objects like shells and clay animals that represented things that were precious to him. Once he put a toy aeroplane on his altar, as that was the hallowed means by which he could reach sentient beings around the globe. And, having come out of Tibet and discovered such luxurious aromas as Patou's 'Joy' perfume, he quickly discarded the usual sticks of incense for the most expensive scent that money could buy. Only the best was good enough for the Buddha.
Lama Osel was following suit. His prayers and meditations under Namgyal's guidance were also taking a more individualistic and creative turn. One day, after offering up the mandala to all the Buddhas, Lama Osel turned to him and said: 'Do you know what I visualized?' 'No,' replied Namgyal.
'I visualized Buddha in the sky and this mountain of ice cream and sweets and all different-coloured beautiful flowers all coming to the Buddha and entering into him.' It was a perfect offering from a small boy.
'I asked him once if he missed his family,' Namgyal told me. 'He replied, quite seriously: "Lamas don't have families."' For all the fun they had together, Osel also showed his Australian friend some of his special qualities. 'He has psychic abilities. One night he woke up and said that some spirits were trying to push over his altar. I felt he was quite in tune with spirits, and so I accepted what he said. The next day he did a puja for them because he said they were suffering. He also told me that in my last life I was a lama in Kham, a province of Tibet. That was interesting, because it verified what I'd been told by a Tibetan oracle some time previously,' reported Namgyal.
Other monks confirmed that Lama Osel would from time to time see into not just their past but their future as well. One said that Lama Osel had looked him straight in the eye and told him, 'Again you are going to be a lama, and I will hold you in my arms.' At other times he would scare them witless by declaring they were going to the hell realms–whether these were true prophecies or false no one was in a position to judge.
As time went on Namgyal saw other unusual behaviour which made him feel that Lama Osel was different. 'Once, when we were in Kathmandu, Lama Osel saw a woman light up a cigarette. He turned to me and said, "Should I tell her that she is killing herself?" I stopped him, but when I reported the incident to Lama Zopa he said I should have let him because later, when Lama Osel is grown up and well known, she might think about what he told her and change.'
At another time he accompanied Lama Osel to Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha achieved Enlightenment. Here they met Kunnu Lama Rinpoche, a famous spiritual master so revered that even the Dalai Lama has been seen to prostrate to him. Namgyal told me what happened: 'When they met, Lama was completely overwhelmed with devotion towards Kunnu Lama and wanted to offer him all his toys, his watch, his torch, in fact anything that he could put his hands on! Afterwards Lama Osel said that Kunnu Lama Rinpoche was a Buddha and that he would never lose the photograph that Kunnu Lama had given him.'
After his post as co-attendant came to an end, Namgyal missed the company of his unusual charge. The intimacy that Lama Osel was able to evoke was powerful and precious. 'For a while I became Lama Osel's best friend. He used to tell me everything. Every night he'd confess to me all the things he'd done wrong, and his secrets like how he wanted to see girls without clothes on. I just treated these things as completely normal. He was so loving, so spontaneously affectionate. He loves being close to people. He'd lean across the table in front of others and say, "Namgyal, I love you." I will never forget Lama's love–never,' he said.
Life was beginning to change at Sera, and so was Lama Osel. After Namgyal left, Basili did too on 'advice' from Lama Zopa. No one was sure why. Perhaps, I thought, it was to prevent any single person getting too attached to Lama Osel. Or maybe it was because a monk's ultimate task is to lead a life of prayer and meditation, rather than to be a child-minder. There followed a series of Western monks assigned to look after the daily needs of the young Spanish tulku.
Now Lama Osel was beginning to grow up and increasingly to develop his own personality. In one way it was as if the mantle of the Lama Yeshe persona was slipping away, receding into the past, to allow the new being, Lama Osel, to emerge. We all had to see that Lama Osel was a different entity from Lama Yeshe, albeit connected in essence. Not only was he now looking very different from his 'predecessor', with his fine face, slim body and long, thin fingers, but he was also dropping his amenable, instantly lovable, infinitely charming presentation to the world. He was becoming a powerful force to be reckoned with.
I thought it could not be an easy process sloughing off such a strong, magnetic character as Lama Yeshe's and the heavy cloak of projections that so many former students put on him. About this time I had a dream which might have been an indication of how Lama Osel was feeling. In it he was dressed in robes and walking along a path, his head bowed and with an air of consternation about him. He looked up and said: 'When I was younger I knew I was Buddha, but now I am not so sure.'
The lines of William Wordsworth's famous poem 'Intimations of Immortality', learnt at school, came to mind:
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy...
The sentiments weren't entirely Buddhist, but the message was remarkably similar.
Osel was now challenging nearly everyone with whom he came into contact–by a word, a look, a rebuke, a refusal to cooperate. No longer Mr. Nice Guy, he was throwing people back on themselves. No one found it very comfortable. Everyone had to admit, however, that his mind was becoming increasingly sharp, his perceptions uncomfortably accurate and his power undeniably great. The stories that emerged from those who saw him at this time illustrate the point.
'Over the past year or so he has been incredibly wicked to me,' reported Robina Courtin, a much-loved and respected nun, instrumental in setting up the FPMT's publishing company Wisdom, who had known Lama Yeshe for ten years. 'Every time I've seen Lama Osel recently he's said something awful to me. And he's absolutely spot on, every time. I'm not trying to be romantic, but it's as though he is Lama Yeshe and he is teaching me. It started when he was about four and we were out to lunch and he said in front of everyone, 'You talk too fast, you eat too fast; you walk too fast, you do everything too fast.' He said it with complete clarity. He knew exactly what he was saying. In the past eighteen months I have learnt more about my own speedy, berserk nature and the harm it does to others from Lama Osel than I have in my whole life.
'I have always known it, but until now I have never paid deep attention to it. I walk into his room and already I'm nervous because I know that, like Lama Yeshe, he's always catching me out. He says, "Why are you nervous?" It sounds so silly, but I know that I listen to what he says, not like [I would to words from] an ordinary child. He calls me Ani Nervous. All I can tell you is that it doesn't make me angry, like it would with any other child. He has helped me see myself more clearly than any other person. It can be very painful at times,' she admitted.
As Robina talked, I could hear Lama Yeshe's voice saying quite clearly, 'Buddhism should shake you. It is not meant to be comfortable. It must shake you out of your deluded way of seeing things! Then it is good.' 'Holiness, it seemed, was not always sweet and comforting. No one who had ever seen Lama Yeshe shaking thieving porters by the neck, or delivering a crushing reprimand to a student, or even wielding a stick to a misbehaving monk at Kopan, could forget that terrifying sight. Lama Yeshe might well have been infused with an exquisite capacity for love, compassion, humour and kindness, but he could bare his teeth and brandish his spiritual sword in the air if he felt the occasion demanded it. And Robina remembered, too, that at times Lama Yeshe was very tough with her. 'When I see Lama Osel it's very clear to me that his behaviour is specific. I see him with other people and he's gentle, sweet, kind. It's a super-personal thing.'
And then there was the time at Sera when an Indian girl came to have lunch with Osel. She was lovely, with a long plait of beautiful hair and an expensive sari. Lama Osel just sat there, like Lama Yeshe, listening to everyone talk. Then he asked the woman her name and she replied it was Goddess from the Ocean. Osel remarked that she shouldn't have pride because she had such a name. The way he said it stopped everyone, including the woman, in their tracks. It wasn't said rudely, just straight. The truly remarkable fact about this episode was that the pride he had picked up was extremely subtle. It wasn't obvious in her at all–she appeared to be a very humble person.
Similarly, he had been outraged when he learned that a wealthy nun had lent money to build a stupa. 'What do you mean "lend"?' he had shouted at her. 'Why didn't you give? You are very naughty. I am going to spank you.'
There was another occasion when he reprimanded a woman for being rude. 'It was devastating, but true,' she said. 'I do come straight out with things. We had gone to dinner in Bangalore and the waiters were fussing around and I spoke sharply to them. Lama Osel observed this and was very nice to them. Later he told me off. The extraordinary thing was that he didn't say so at the time, but waited till we were alone. That was what was so unusual.' She added: 'On another occasion I had been sharp with some little monks who I could see had only come to play with Lama because he had Western toys. Osel turned to me and said, "You are not very kind, are you',"'
There was no malice, no vindictiveness in these statements, just the need to point out people's faults and to guide them on to more constructive paths. This was illustrated well in Taiwan, where Lama Osel met a man with clairvoyant abilities who told him about the third eye. Lama paused and then asked, 'Do you use your third eye just to see things or to help people?' His remark went straight to the heart of the matter– for what else is spiritual prowess for if not to benefit other sentient beings?
In this rather fearsome way Lama Osel was demonstrating that he was becoming a teacher in the true Buddhist style: reading people's minds and pointing out their negative tendencies in order that they might transform them. Hadn't the Buddha's way been one of confronting reality and then doing something about it? In particular Osel was now wanting people to 'check up', to examine their motivation, their mindfulness. Even when he was being spanked he would look at the person and say, 'Are you angry, are you angry?', with no tone of personal fear but only to discover if the cardinal error of anger was present in the act. He was also constantly challenging people's beliefs, especially about reincarnation. It was unnerving, said Michael Lobsang Yeshe, a Western boy who had been brought up in Kopan under Lama Yeshe's strict eye and who found himself looking after Lama Osel. 'He managed to bring out everything within me, and when I was at the highest point of my rage he would make comments such as: "Do you really believe that I am Lama Yeshe's reincarnation?" What puzzles me is how he can be a very intelligent, wise and strong lama one moment, and just when I am about to feel "Oh, he's really great", the next moment he is a very clever, naughty child.' But there was more than the emergence of a teacher–for the first time in his life Lama Osel was beginning to rebel. He started to play up at lessons, finding brilliant strategies to get out of working, and, perhaps more seriously, showing signs that he found religious ritual and practice less than interesting. He would go into fierce tantrums if he felt he was being 'forced', putting those in charge of him on the spot. Some put it down to having to obey too many rules and having too many expectations put upon him.
'It's hard for both of us when he has to be the perfect lama,' said Michael. 'I have to see him without any faults and behaving very well. And from his side, he has to put on this act of being a perfect, well-behaved lama. After all, he is a human being like every one of us, and I think we ought to give him his space and time. But also, because he is a human being we should be very careful not to spoil him with too much admiration. We all have the responsibility of bringing him to what we all want him to be: a world teacher,' he said.
Lama Osel's new outbursts of willful behaviour put us into a dilemma. How should we respond? Should we reprimand, ignore or take notice? Was it a spoilt child who was saying these harsh, rude things? Or was it a wise guru? For the Tibetans this was not even an issue. Tulkus are renowned for their great energy, their mischief, their strong will and their utter determination to take the lead. They are notoriously naughty and wild, and so for their own good must be dealt with by a strong hand. The Tibetans had no qualms about disciplining their spiritual adepts, on the grounds that their extraordinary power must be channeled into useful directions.
We Westerners, however, were new to the job. This was the first Tibetan tulku to be born as one of us, and we were having to learn the hard way how to deal with such an extraordinary situation and with the enormous responsibility that it entailed.