Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

When a 'Chosen' Tibetan Lama Says No Thanks

June 9, 2009

The Time

 

By David Van Biema

 

Sunday, Jun. 07, 2009

 

 

 

"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!"
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank