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When a 'Chosen' Tibetan Lama Says No Thanks
By David Van Biema
"For the last time, I'm not your messiah," groans the title character in the 1979 comedy The Life of Brian. (They crucify him, anyway.) There's an echo of Brian's panicked renunciation in a shakeup currently underway in Tibetan Buddhism — in this case, nobody's laughing, although the ending will, no doubt, be happier.
Late last month, two Spanish media outlets confirmed that 24-year-old Tenzin Osel Rinpoche, one of the most renowned Buddhist "golden children" — toddlers determined through dreams, oracular riddles and their own "memories" to be tulkus, or reincarnations of high Tibetan Buddhist lamas — has abandoned his foretold identity. Instead of a Lama, he wants to be a filmmaker, and has reverted to his original Spanish name, Osel Hita Torres. (See pictures of the Dalai Lama at home)
The abdication of the anointed tulku is a significant embarrassment to the group he was supposed to head, the powerhouse Foundation for the Preservation of the Monastic Tradition (FPMT), the foremost Tibetan teaching organization in the West. It also challenges Westerners who have adopted Buddhism to find more sophisticated ways of understanding its magical side.
In 1989, with the approval of his Spanish convert parents, four-year-old Hita was tapped by FPMT monks as the reincarnation of the group's co-founder Thubten Yeshe. Their methods will be familiar to anyone who has seen Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha or the current documentary Unmistaken Child: The monks reportedly heeded some dreams; the Dalai Lama consulted an oracle; and the capper was that young Hita "recalled" the color of the dead lama's car.
Last month, however, the magazine Babylon confirmed that the shaggy-haired Hita had long-ago dropped out of his Tibetan University, and that he no longer even considers himself a Buddhist. He was quoted more pointedly in the newspaper El Mundo as saying, "I was taken away from my family and put in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie."
Britain's Guardian then added the delicious factoid that at one point the only people Hita saw were Buddhist monks and Richard Gere. Last Monday, a statement attributed to Hita appeared on the FPMT website calling the press reports "sensationalized," and insisting "there is no separation between myself and FPMT." Still, his confirmation of his career change in the same posting in fact suggests a major rift.
Josh Baran, a New York Buddhist who has facilitated the Western trips of several high lamas, suggests that Hita's defection shouldn't cause adherents to lower their prayer flags. The West, he says, "has a romantic ideal that these lamas have some kind of super-vision and can look at a child and say, he's the one." While signs and portents may play a role in monastic successions, he explains, so do more worldly considerations. Tulkus often inherit considerable wealth and influence, and powerful monks will jockey to place their own candidates. The political needs of their lineage also figure. And sometimes the consensus-based system doesn't yield a clear winner: Tibetan history crackles with bloody battles between rival claimants or their camps.
None of this is unfamiliar to Western religious traditions. Roman Catholic Popes are supposedly chosen by the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit upon a conclave of cardinals — yet many have proven less than holy, and wars have been fought over successions. A bit like Catholics through the ages, says Baran, Tibetan Buddhists "assess a tulku's wisdom not by his title, but by his piety and learning." The monks try to pick the bright and promising children, he says; but Tibetans also assume the weeding-out function of the extensive tulku education: "no matter who they pick, the best and the brightest will surface in the course of the process."
By that logic, Hita simply weeded himself out. Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar, former monk and friend of the Dalai Lama, recounts that when told years ago that Hita was to receive a traditional Buddhist education in India he expressed concern. Thurman's argument: "If he wanted Tibetan traditional [education] he could have reincarnated in a Tibetan family in exile." The result of the misplacement, he says, is that Hita "has broken away in a full-blown identity crisis." Thurman thinks that after some time in our "busy postmodern world," Hita may see the value of the Tibetan tradition, "which he will then be able to approach or not, of his own free choice." And, he adds, "More power to him!"