In Philadelphia in 1972, an immigrant couple of Kalmyk origin gave birth to a boy they named Erdne. A few years later, the Dalai Lama renamed him Telo Tulku Rinpoche and identified him as one in a long line of reincarnations of an ancient Buddhist saint. The boy was then taken to a monastery in the mountains of southern India to learn the teachings of the Buddha.
Telo Rinpoche was one of the first of his kind: someone from the West learning thousand-year-old traditions a world away from his family.
His story, and those of others like him, is chronicled by journalist Tim McGirk in this month's issue of The Believer.
In part because of the Dalai Lama's exile from Tibet in 1959, an increasing number of rinpoches — the name given to all reincarnated Buddhist high lamas — are born in the West, or exposed to Western culture. And while the West embraces Tibetan Buddhism, young lamas are renouncing their monkhood.
The Dalai Lama sent a 19-year-old Telo Rinpoche to Kalmykia, a Buddhist region of Russia on the Caspian Sea. It was the region from which the young man's parents had emigrated about a half-century earlier. The Buddhist faith and its temples had been nearly destroyed during the Soviet era.
"The people around you grew up in an atheist society," Telo Rinpoche says. "They believed that religion was poison."
He was charged with leading the people there back to Buddhism, a responsibility he called a tremendous pressure.
"I think my emotions really took over, and I became frustrated, and I just got up and left," he recalls.
Telo Rinpoche cannot go back to monkhood. But after he left his post, he met with the Dalai Lama, who encouraged him to continue his work in Kalmykia.
Telo Rinpoche now spends half his life in Erie, Colo., with his wife and their son. The rest of the time is spent in Kalmykia, where he has worked for two decades to re-establish Buddhism.
McGirk, the author of the article in The Believer, tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that when rinpoches were forced out of the monasteries in Tibet after the Dalai Lama's exile in 1959, "suddenly they were much more vulnerable to the temptations of, to the desires, to the delights of the 21st century."
Many young monks were dispatched across the globe, taken out of isolated mountain monasteries, to spread the teachings of the Buddha. So, for some, "all the years of meditation and training, well, all of that fell away."
McGirk says all hope is not lost, though.
"I think that for a religion to renew itself, it has to be, kind of, more in contact with the changing times," he says.
Just because the rinpoches have left monkhood, they haven't left Buddhism. McGirk sees them continuing their teachings, but in unconventional ways.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
In 1972 in Philadelphia, an immigrant couple welcomed the birth of their fifth child, a boy they named Erdne. But a few years later, the Dalai Lama renamed him Telo Tulku Rinpoche and identified him as one in a long line of reincarnations of an ancient Buddhist saint.
TELO TULKU RINPOCHE: The elder monks, they saw something unusual in me.
LYDEN: Rinpoche is the name given to all reincarnated Buddhist high lamas. As a young boy, Telo Rinpoche was taken to a monastery in the mountains of southern India to learn the teachings of Buddha on his journey monkhood. He was one of the first of his kind, a Westerner learning thousand-year-old traditions a world away from his family. In part because of the Dalai Lama's exile from Tibet in 1959, more and more rinpoches are born in or exposed to Western culture.
And while the West seems to embrace Tibetan Buddhism, a rising number of young lamas are renouncing their monkhood. It's a story that we first heard about in this month's issue of The Believer magazine.
TELO RINPOCHE: Once you have broken your vows, then there's no going back.
LYDEN: When he was just 19 years old, the Dalai Lama sent Telo Rinpoche to Kalmykia, a Buddhist region of Russia on the Caspian Sea where Soviet Communists had destroyed temples and nearly the faith.
TELO RINPOCHE: The people around you grew up in an atheist society. They believe that religion was poison.
LYDEN: He was charged with leading the people there back to Buddhism, a responsibility he called a tremendous pressure.
TELO RINPOCHE: I think my emotions really took over. And I became frustrated, and I just got up and left.
LYDEN: Telo Rinpoche can never go back to monkhood now. He's broken his vows, he has a wife and child. But after he left his post, he did meet with the Dalai Lama, who encouraged him to continue his work in Kalmykia, nonetheless. Now, he lives half of his life in Erie, Colorado, together with his wife and son, and the other half in Kalmykia, where he has worked for two decades to reestablish Buddhism.
It's been a success. He worked to rebuild 27 temples, he oversees seven lamas, and he himself is revered. Twenty years ago, journalist Tim McGirk stumbled on a similar story in Spain. There, another young Western boy was identified by the Dalai Lama also as a high lama reincarnation or rinpoche, so Tim McGirk went to Granada to see the young Spanish lama.
TIM MCGIRK: When I got up there, he was having a temper tantrum like any other 4-year-old. And it was because he was standing at a snowy vegetable garden. This nun who was with him was exasperated because the boy knew the cold and the ice were killing the plants, and so he was running around trying to sweep the snow off the vegetable plants so that they wouldn't die.
And his hands were turning blue, and the nun was saying: Please, you got to put on your mittens. You know, your hands are freezing. I thought: Well, this is kind of odd behavior for a 4-year-old child.
LYDEN: And what happened to this reincarnated rinpoche?
MCGIRK: He was packed off to a monastery in India, and the boy was absolutely miserable. You know, he was shoved back into the medieval setting of a monastery. And so after a while, he said: Enough of this. I'm going to study film and go to university and have a girlfriend and have a normal life.
Many of his followers were Westerners. They were heartbroken that the Lama Yeshe that they'd known and loved and followed in his previous lifetime had kind of turned into this, you know, rather rebellious teenager.
LYDEN: What did begin to change? These rinpoches started leaving their tradition. Why?
MCGIRK: Because they were forced out of the monasteries, suddenly they were much more vulnerable to the temptations, to the desires, to the delights of the 21st century. It's one thing if you're shut away in a monastery, but it's another thing when you're, you know, wandering the streets of Delhi and you're hearing Bollywood music and you're seeing pretty girls and, you know, suddenly, all the years of meditation and training and - well, all that's just kind of fell away at the sight of a beautiful woman, in many cases.
LYDEN: So is this drifting away by a number of the reincarnated, is that a disaster for the system?
MCGIRK: I think that for religion to renew itself that it has to be kind of more in contact with the changing times. And many of these rinpoches that I interviewed who've left the monastery, who've left the robes, you know, who now have more conventional lives, they still talk about the need to communicate the Buddhist teachings, but I think in more unconventional ways.
LYDEN: Tim McGirk's article "Reincarnation in Exile" is about the changing face of reincarnation in the Buddhist faith. It appeared in this month's edition of The Believer magazine. Thank you very much.
MCGIRK: Thank you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.