23 years ago a Spanish baby boy was recognised by the Dalai Lama and other important Tibetan lamas to be a reincarnation (tulku) of a well known Lama called Thubten Yeshe. His story was widely reported and received wider attention as it happened to coincide with the release of a Holywood blockbuster called The Golden Child (starring Eddie Murphy!) which was based around a story about a young reincarnated lama.
After a short flurry of media attention the boy, named Osel Hita Torres, dropped back into the relative obscurity of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Within the tradition he remained an important figure however and was sent to a monastery in India to receive a traditional Tibetan education alongside tutoring in Western subjects. High hopes were held by Lama Yeshe’s followers that Osel would take up the mantle of leadership vacated by Lama Thubten Yeshe and usher in an era of greater integration between Tibetan Buddhism and the Western world.
These hopes were rather soundly dashed a few days ago however when Osel gave an interview to a Spanish newspaper El Mundo in which he stated that he was now agnostic and more interested in cinematography than being a spiritual figurehead. He also spoke critically of his upbringing describing how:
At 14 months I was recognized and taken to India. I dressed in a yellow hat, I sat on a throne, people worshipped me … 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.
Lama Thubten Yeshe was one of the earliest promoters of Tibetan Buddhism to Westerners and was considered to be rather unorthodox by his Tibetan peers. His approach proved attractive to Westerners however and he gained a considerable amount of followers and was eventually able to found an extensive network of Buddhist centres which he called ‘The Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Buddhism’.
It was this foundation which it was hoped Osel would take control over, and up until yesterday their website contained a glowing and detailed account of his early childhood and the various signs that had lead to his recognition as Lama Yeshe’s reincarnation. This account has now been removed along with any reference to Osel but thanks to the wonders of google’s cache (see here) and the ‘way back machine’ the old pages can still be viewed (see here).
The fact that the account has been removed is indicative of the embarrassment that Osel’s decision has caused to the Tibetan Buddhist community and Lama Yeshe’s foundation in particular. It is also rather likely that Osel himself was not expecting his comments to be so widely reported and he is perhaps now regretting granting the interview. This is all just speculation on my part but, even if the reporting is accurate and Osel does harbour genuine resentment for aspects of his upbringing, I sincerely doubt that he had any intention or expectation of creating the negative publicity storm that has followed in the wake of the El Mundo article.
I also expect that the image reported- of a youthful renegade dressed in baggy jeans, quoting Jimmy Hendrix and performing at the Burning Man festival in Las Vegas- is a somewhat exaggerated portrayal of what is, quite likely, just a typical film student. What will be interesting to observe in the coming months and years will be whether Osel truly rejects his upbringing and remains estranged from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition or whether this is a temporary rebellion which will eventually become just another chapter in his spiritual story.
What’s certain however is that this is something of a blackeye to the Tibetan Buddhist community and although no official response has been offered so far, the removal of all reference to him from the Foundation’s website suggests strongly that his comments are not being received with equanimity. The response so far is also rather interesting when compared with statements made around ten years ago in an article written in the Telegraph. Here the reporter asked his tutor and his father what the response would be if Osel chose to abandon his role as a reincarante Lama and take another path, say becoming a famous footballer:
I don’t know.’ Kedge replies. ‘We’re pioneering something that clearly you can pioneer only if you have some vision of the future. We would have to try to be flexible to accommodate something that didn’t necessarily fit into that, but a professional footballer…? I just don’t know.
When I ask his father, Paco, the same question he considers it carefully. ‘I think it is not possible for him to go the wrong way,’ he says at last. ‘Whatever he chooses, even if we don’t understand it immediately, he will have chosen it because it is the best way to help people. This is what Lama wants.’
It’s also interesting to compare Osel’s reported assesment of the restrictions of his upbinging against those of his former tutor:
Yesterday he bemoaned the misery of a youth deprived of television, football and girls. Movies were also forbidden – except for a sanctioned screening of The Golden Child starring Eddie Murphy, about a kidnapped child lama with magical powers. “I never felt like that boy,” he said.
By 18, he had never seen couples kiss. His first disco experience was a shock. “I was amazed to watch everyone dance. What were all those people doing, bouncing, stuck to one another, enclosed in a box full of smoke?”
But is the boy being deprived? ‘Of what?’ Kedge asks: mindless television programmes? Pop music? Of normal family life, perhaps. ‘But any child who was getting the input, the education, the breadth of experience of people around him that Lama is getting would be doing supremely well, and getting the most phenomenal basis for leading their life.’
Whatever the eventual outcome of this situation (and at the minute the outcome is far from certain) I think this case is an excellent illustration of the kind of problems encountered when religions are exported out of their native habitat and into an unfamiliar setting.
There were also earlier warnings that this unusual situation could backfire when, for instance, Osel’s education became a bone of contention between his parents as their marriage disolved in divorce with his mother reportedly complaining his education was making him too Tibetan.
With all that being said, it is worth bearing in mind that not even all Tibetan Lama’s embrace their ‘predestined’ spiritual lifestyle; the infamous playboy 6th Dalai Lama being one notable example.
UPDATE: The articles about Osel have been restored to the Foundation website and a new message from Osel has been added wherein he accuses the media reports of being exaggerated and sensationalised and adds the following message of support:
FPMT is doing a great job and Lama Zopa is an immensely special person – very inspiring and a great yogi.
Personally, my job is to find new ways in which to discover the true nature of our being. There is no separation between myself and FPMT – we are all working together in so many aspects and terrains. Humanity is our office. Besides, I don’t really qualify very much in Buddhist studies, because I didn’t finish them, so working together is the clue.
I expected that something like this would happen but I wasn’t expecting it to happen in a day. Regardless, it’s clear that Osel did not intend to harm the Foundation’s image and does not want the Tibetan community to think that he has entirely abandoned them and is not grateful for his upbringing.
BUT… it’s also clear from the comments in the El Mundo article and the comments in the Babylon article (highlighted by Ibex below) that Osel may not be as united with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as his new statement suggests. It is good for the Foundation that they restored the pages about him though, as simply removing all trace of him after he was reported making negative statements did give a rather bad impression!