Ever since Shirley MacLaine made it safe to reincarnate in America, all sorts of people have been making claims about their past lives as Egyptian queens, or Sioux medicine men. Skeptics have been kept busy.
But Catharine Burroughs is not so easily dismissed. Last month, at the Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling, the Buddhist World Prayer Center west of the Potomac Polo grounds in Poolesville, Md., amid ceremonial regalia never before seen in the Western world, this 38-year-old Brooklyn-born mother of three was officially enthroned as Ahkon Norbu Lhamo.
Adopting the name of a Tibetan girl she is said to have once been, a saint who died almost 400 years ago, Burroughs is the first Western woman to be identified as a tulku , or “reincarnate lama,” in the more than 12 centuries of Tibetan Buddhism.
Prefers Pulp Novels
Burroughs didn’t initiate the claim for herself. In fact, she’s just starting to get used to the idea. While Tibetan monks and American devotees last week prepared the center for the ceremonies, she sat in an overstuffed armchair in her living quarters adjacent to the prayer room and admitted she prefers reading pulp adventure novels to Buddhist scriptures. She’d rather spin old Motown albums than listen to the sound of chanting monks. And though recently she has begun to study the ancient teachings, she confessed she’s always been a lousy student. “I didn’t know the word ‘Buddhism,’ ” she said. “I didn’t even know there was a Tibet.”
As protege of His Holiness the Third Drupwang Padma Norbu Rinpoche, the Eleventh Throne-Holder of the Palyul lineage of Nyingmapa, Burroughs is something of a golden girl, held almost in awe by followers of that Buddhist school. That’s because it was Penor Rinpoche, as His Holiness is commonly called, who first recognized Burroughs two years ago as a reincarnation of the sister of the founder of the Palyul monastery. And it is Penor Rinpoche who traveled halfway around the world, from the monastery he built near Bylakuppe, India, following the 1959 Chinese occupation of his homeland, to conduct Saturday’s enthronement.
An Enlightened Being
The significance of his presence can’t be overestimated. This small, roundish man with the bristle haircut and thick-rimmed glasses is considered an enlightened being, or “Living Buddha,” although the selflessness and humility that come with Buddhist enlightenment require him to deny it. His status was determined before his birth 57 years ago, the time, place and details of which were known in advance among Tibetan holy men. They began training him when he was a child. He is among the most revered Tibetan figures today; his followers in India are known to snatch up the dirt he walks on as a blessing.
Still, you might say Penor Rinpoche went out on a limb with this one.
“The recognition of non-Tibetans as a Tibetan incarnate lama is definitely unusual,” says Tenzin Tethong, a special representative in the United States of the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan nation in exile, who is based in India. Tethong knows of only three or four tulkus in the Western Hemisphere, “and in this case,” he adds, “certainly it is a new phenomenon that it is a woman.”
Burroughs makes no claims of an exalted background. Her mother was a Jewish grocery store cashier and her father an Italian truck driver. He drank too much, she was emotionally unstable, and they both beat the kids, she says. Her childhood in Brooklyn, and later in Miami, was unhappy, she says.
No Traditional Religion
Religion was fought over but not practiced in her home, Burroughs recalls. “I was very spiritual, but we never had a traditional religion.” She does, however, remember having beatific visions at age 10 in the top bunk of her bunk beds. And she had prayers that were all her own. “Even as a young child, I would have a special awareness of something that was, uh, I don’t know how to explain it. Something that was sort of calm,” she says.
At 20, she left home, got married and started having kids while living in a farmhouse outside Asheville, N.C. Her husband worked in a hospital, and between diapers and feedings she taught herself to meditate.
That felt right: “The ball had fallen into a slot on the roulette wheel,” she says. Twelve years later a vision propelled Burroughs, by then divorced, and her prayer partner, Michael, to Washington. They married and she started teaching what she thought was her own unique brand of meditation and spiritual discipline.
Meditates on Emptiness
“I hadn’t read any books on it and had never had a real teacher,” Burroughs says. “Later on, when His Holiness asked how did I practice and what did I teach, I told him I would meditate on the emptiness of all phenomena, the emptiness of self-nature . . . and I would meditate on compassion. They were teachings that sort of welled up within me. He told me these were the essentials to Buddhism.”
That was after Burroughs first met Penor Rinpoche in 1985, practically on a whim. A Tibetan acquaintance, who earlier had persuaded her to seek foster parents to sponsor Tibetan refugee children at the Bylakuppe monastery, had called, wondering if she and Michael would like to meet a Tibetan lama who was flying in to National Airport. Why not, they said.
Burroughs likes to describe the moment she met Penor Rinpoche, amid the confusion of the airport, as “like a hair spray ad,” in which a man and a woman run toward each other in a field of daisies. “Time stood still when we met,” she says. “I looked at him and knew this is my teacher, this is my mind, this is my heart. And I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there like a ninny and cried.”
Stays With Burroughses
If that beginning wasn’t auspicious enough, Penor Rinpoche and an assistant abruptly decided to stay with the Burroughses, spending five days at their Kensington, Md. home. “My first thought was whaddya feed him? Whaddya do with him?” she says, recalling that they wound up taking him sightseeing at the monuments and the White House.
“I had no idea he was such a holy guy. We sat with him on the back porch and ate hot dogs and barbecue. His own monks now would give their right arm to sit and eat a hot dog with him. It was just so silly.”
Before he left, he assured Burroughs that there was a connection between them that “will never be broken.” Two years later, when the Burroughses visited Penor Rinpoche at his monastery, he told them what the connection was.
All this has been an adjustment for her family. Michael Burroughs’ reaction, once the realization had sunk in, was: “My God, I’m sleeping with a tulku .” Her oldest son, 18-year-old Ben, wants nothing to do with it all, especially when Burroughs’ longtime students prostrate themselves before her at the start of a class. Christopher, 15, has become a Buddhist, as has Michael. And 6-month-old Atira Maitri, which translates as “Prayer of Compassion,” is being raised as a Buddhist. For a long time, says Michael Burroughs, “it was the B-word around here. Calling ourselves Buddhists was a big step.”
Speaking to the audience at last month’s enthronement, Penor Rinpoche joked that he had heard complaints that there were no American or women tulkus , “so now that there is one, you who are complaining should be very happy.”
“We cannot say for sure who is going to be (one),” said Penor Rinpoche of the mysterious nature of the reincarnative powers of the Tibetan tulku . “They return only where they are needed. . . . And they have the freedom to take on any form they want.”