Lama Osel Before and 'Oz' After (image from El Mundo article)
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.
My recent post discussing the Dalai Lama reminded me of an interesting article I read a number of years ago about a rather unusual category of monks that existed in the monasteries of Tibet- the Ldab Ldob (dabdos) or, as they have also been called, ‘Punk monks’. These monks, who were an established and accepted part of the monastic community earned the moniker ‘punk because there time in Tibetan monasteries was spent engaging in violent duels, competing in intermonastery sporting events and rather infamously kidnapping young boys for sexual pleasure.
As such, they don’t just contradict the romanticised image of Tibetan monastic life but they grab that image, beat it senseless, steal all of its belongings then kick into a ditch and tell it not to come back and bother them again. They also illustrate how the real situation is often far more interesting and complex than any simplistic fantasy version can be.
Is he a saint?
It’s fair to say that across the Western world the Dalai Lama has a very positive public image. His talks and conferences are always well attended, his books become bestsellers and his appeal to Holywood celebrities is legendary.
In the nineties there was even something of a ‘Tibet boom’ with a massive ‘Free Tibet’ concert/rally in 1996 featuring amongst others the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, several films released focusing on Tibet & the Dalai Lama (Little Buddha, Kundun, 7 years in Tibet, etc.) and Steven Seagal was recognised as a reincarnation of a past Buddhist master (a tulku).
Or a theocratic despot?
In recent years however another more critical response towards the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly common and it is emanating largely from amongst the atheist and the skeptical communities. Since I’m involved in both communities and have spent quite alot of time looking into Tibet & Tibetan Buddhism I thought I might take a look at these criticisms in more detail and examine just how justified they are.
Leading this charge has been, the ever vocal, Christopher Hitchens whose main criticisms of the Dalai Lama are laid out in this article. Hitchens is one of the most vocal critics but he is certainly not alone.