This is a true story that someone emailed me because it reminded them of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s story. That is: someone raised to be a teacher, steps outside the tradition that he was brought up in to do something totally different. Lama Osel was born to Spanish parents, but brought up as the reincarnation of Thubten Yeshe. In keeping with traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings he only met his teachers and other children who were thought to be reincarnations of important lamas. Kept away from TV, movies and modern music.
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?” [The Guardian]
Lama Osel then studied film and went back to using his Spanish name: Osel Hita Torres.
He’s facing the very issue Tibetan Buddhism is facing: how to combine tradition with modernity. This dillemma is wider than that: any and all religions are facing this problem. Islam fundamentalism is one response and Christians too are having to battle with this. What makes Osel’s story all the more poignant is that he was born into a modern western family. If his parents had chosen to raise him Buddhist, but not as a lama, things would have turned out very differently. Or so we can guess.
In Krishnamurti’s upbringing Besant and Leadbeater decided very quickly to make him aquanted with Western mores and habits. To give him a Western education, aside from his spiritual training. That did not prevent him from defecting, but perhaps it’s not too much to say that it helped him in his path.
Osel’s teachers on the other hand decided to keep modernity away from him. As Robert Thurman notes in the Time article about Osel:
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!”
The FMPT, the organisation that Osel was selected to be the leader of, is a curious mix of traditional Gelugpa Buddhism (a branch of Tibetan Buddhism) and modernity. It has taken on the conservation of Tibetan Buddhist scholarship by teaching lay people what in earlier times monks learned. It’s therefore a very scholarly tradition. Students (that is the proper word) are expected to not only meditate and take what vows they feel able to take, but also learn Tibetan, learn Gelugpa philosophy and the traditional ways of discussing Buddhist philosophy.
Fate has made sure I know several people active in this foundation in The Netherlands. The following is based on what they told me: while it’s clear that the FMPT is instrumental in keeping a knowledge of the scholarly tradition of Gelugpa Buddhism alive, it is not very successful at bridging the gap to Western people. That is: Westerners, especially Dutch Westerners, aren’t averse to discussing what they learn. In fact, they’re predisposed to do so. BUT to expect them to discuss in the regimental ritualistic way of the Tibetan Lama’s is too much. It’s attempted, but never very successfully. From the perspective of Buddhist history this is only natural. The Tibetan debating tradition started out as just that: people debating Buddhist philosophy. But with the isolation of Tibet, the debates cristalized – and they became memorized.
Now that Tibetan Buddhism has been liberated from Tibet (forgive the expression, will you?), it needs to face the world and reinvent debate. Perhaps, when Lama Osel is finished making films and documentaries, he can come back to the FMPT and help them modernize the forms while retaining the essence? But, from what’s published on the FMPT website, perhaps we may expect even more radical attempts from him. He says there:
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.
So I’m trying to find a different way for this future generation. One of the ways is through music, movies and audio-visual techniques. In a movie you can condense so many different stories. You can put in music, you can put in different situations and messages. Even just the sunset can be enough to give you peace to find a moment of meditation in yourself. There are so many different millions of possibilities in movies.And not just movies, but documentaries actually going somewhere and interviewing people who may have reached a level on their path where they are at peace with themselves, and so much more….!!!
That first sentence does remind me of Krishnamurti’s radical perspective. So let’s repeat it: Personally, my job is to find new ways in which to discover the true nature of our being.
Osel , I’m very curious to see where you’re headed and wonder if you’ll ever step into the shoes of ‘Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche‘ again. But let’s close off with two quotes from the original article in a Spanish magazine that got the whole thing going:
“Osel gets emotional when he sees the Dalai Lama take the floor. If Buddhas really exist. He would be one of them. He is an enlightened one.”
“The responsibility of teaching has always weighed on him. His heart tells him that for the moment he should learn. The literal translation of lama is teacher, and I’m no teacher. A good lama is a person for whom it doesn’t matter what others think about him, and who thinks about others before thinking about himself. That, to me, is being a lama, a good person.”
[Update September 2011]I have now been to an FPMT retreat, took refuge there (aka became a Buddhist) and know a bit more about the organisation. It is organised in a variation on the traditional Tibetan style of studious Gelugpa Buddhism. But it does leave people free to find their own way IN that tradition: studying as much or as little as they want, and meditation plays a huge part in the practice of most people who become serious about it, just like in any other Western Buddhist tradition.
Having read a few of Lama Yeshe’s works, I am torn: on the one hand I feel that if Osel can come back to becoming a teacher and continue his predecessor’s work it would be great. Lama Yeshe really was a very inspiring teacher who was already able to translate Tibetan Buddhism for Westerners very well, despite his Tibetan upbringing.
Is it really possible to teach through music and film, or is that merely the temptation of the modern world? I have a tendency to think it’s a temptation, but as is true for all of us, Osel must make his own choices. [/update]