Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lama No More

I didn’t hear about it when it happened because I have been out of the loop for a month or so. Now I have just finished reading the Time magazine article about it as well as several other accounts, and I am making a heroic effort not to say 'I've told you so!' The much promoted and a lauded Lama Tenzin Osel Rimpoche has renounced his role as the reincarnation of the much loved Lama Yeshe. So it seems that all the prophetic dreams foretelling where he would be reborn were wrong, all the oracular signs were misread and all the wonders pointing to him being the lama reborn were just imagination. And how now are we to explain all the claims that when he was young Osel could clearly 'remember' incidents in his earlier life? Imagination again or did truth fall foul to over-enthusiasm? When they bought him to Singapore when he was four or five years old, someone who had been a disciple of Lama Yeshe told me that he had clearly recognized all his old teacher's mannerisms in the young child. Imagination again, apparently. Two former Western dropout from Tibetan Buddhism then studying at Sera Monastery told me the FPMT had to make a huge 'donation' to the monastery before the monks there would 'recognize' Osel as the genuine reincarnation. If true, this too raises a few serious questions about the whole tulku thing.
The Time article says. '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'. No Time, I must correct you there. It challenges those Westerners who have adopted Tibetan Buddhism. It neither challenges or threatens me or any Westerner who has adopted the Buddha's Dhamma, as opposed to its various cultural expressions in Asia.
The former Lama Osel apparently does not even consider himself a Buddhist anymore. He was quoted in the Spanish 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'. A medieval situation! What a perfect description of the atmosphere that has surrounded the poor kid for the last 20 years. It will be interesting to see if Osel returns to being a 'reincarnated' teacher and if he does what his motives for doing so might be.
Don’t get me wrong. I'm not glad this has happened. My heart goes out to the really nice and dedicated people at the FPMT who must be feeling rather confused and let-down right now. But this is what happens when you confuse Dhamma with its various traditional and cultural expressions. If my understanding is correct, the whole tulku concept is a fairly recent one in Tibetan Buddhism (15th century ?) and it had no antecedence in Indian Vajrayana or in other countries where Vajrayana was practiced, like Japan. And I seem to remember that the Buddha said, 'No one is born a brahmin' (Sn.136), which in effect is what the tulku concept says, that a lama is worth listening to because he is supposedly the reincarnation of an earlier lama, whether he has anything profound to say or not.
Don’t practice Tibetan Buddhism, or Thai Buddhism, or Japanese Buddhism. Practice the Buddhism that is not culturally specific, the Dhamma that is timeless, that transcends culture and that is applicable everywhere and always.

A little ditty with apologies to Ogden Nash.

A one l lama he's a priest
A two l llama he's a beast
And I will bet a silk pyjama
That you can't really 'recognize' a reborn lama.


Vasile Andreica said...

straight like an arrow, me likey.

Cittamutta said...

this is Osel's comment, i think.

Talljoanne said...

Hi Venerable, I have followed your blog for a few months. I appreciate your criticisms of the tulku system and I too have personal reservations about plucking a child from their childhood and anointing them a special status. However, I do think there has been sensationalisation in popular press regarding this, and despite all the shortcomings of the tulku system or even Tibetan Buddhism as a whole, it is only fair to present the other side, or at least a more balanced view of the story.

I have not researched in too much detail, but it seems that the Babylon Magazine (p.56) was the first to have interviewed Osel and all the rest picked up the story. I would like to suggest putting aside pre-conceptions and just taking a peek. Personally, I thought the Babylon article was considerably more thoughtful, less black and white - which is what the world is like.

In all organized religions and perhaps organizations and systems in general, size breeds politics. Original intentions become forgotten and perfectly well-intended processes become blindly ritualized. Given that organization is almost a necessary evil in human society, I am not sure if your advice to follow a culture-divorced Buddhism, although a good one, is actually attainable in reality.

Disclosure: I am exposed to Therevada, Chinese Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The Therevada tradition taught me my first meditation experience, for which I am forever grateful. As a student in the midwestern US, I used to go to a small Tibetan Buddhist temple headed by compassionate and unpolitical people. Although I do not regularly go to any centres now nor do I have a guru, that remains the tradition I have most affinity with.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Talloanne,
Very nicely said. Thanks for that.

Unknown said...

Dear Bante,

I read the original article in the Babylong Magazine following the link posted by Talljoanne. My impression is that this Osel didnt like the Tibetan monastic life from the beginning to the end and finally he chose to leave.

He said "

He also had no recollection of his
supposed earlier life. “My earliest memory is of being
four years old in Daramsala, walking alone through a
wood, but nothing about past lives.”

Warm regards,

dmkorman said...

The situation with Osel is complicated, but the need to distinguish between dhamma and culture specific practices is crucial.

Many of you might be interested in this contemporary film about Westerners who were identified as tulkus, but have not necessarily felt “comfortable” being so identified.:

Be well and take care.


Talljoanne said...

@David: Thanks for the link. I'd be interested to see it.

Monastic life is not an easy one. I wonder if it should be something that one can choose on behalf of a child. In Asia, other than the tulku system, poverty is also a reason (actually, probably the key reason) why children are sent to the monastery. Should abbots of monasteries then turn them away? I don't have the answer. What we can do is not to make life difficult if they decide to renounce later.

dmkorman said...

I think everyone's life has difficulties- many of which are rarely appreciated by others. We must try to be compassionate toward everyone, and recognize the unique nature and circumstances each person carries with him or her. The parents' decision "to push" their child toward what they perceive as a better life is understandable. The child's resistance to a path contrary to his or her liking is also understandable.

I do think, however, that it would be better if we were motivated to act for reasons other than to ensure basic living conditions for ourselves and our loved ones. For most of the world's population, unfortunately and to our shame, this must be the motivation and practice to survive.

Unknown said...

Anything has hierarchy has politics. which breeds "politicians". " Politicians" maintain their power by seeding fear, magic , mysteries ... That's how the whole tulku system there works!

Isn't it fishy that Bodhisattva choose reincarnated in only Tibet?

Magical infusion in religion is so passe. Man is heir to his actions alone.

Thank you Gautama Buddha for liberating more fear from external violent bullying god who is only interested in roasting non believers in eternal hell and peeking into other people's sexual orientations