The Little Lama From Seattle


It is a cloudy afternoon, and when His Holiness Nawang Kunga Tegchen Chokyi Nyima reaches up and switches off the light, the kitchen at the back of the monastery settles into a dull twilight.

“Don’t be skeeered!” he advises, then erupts in a shriek of merriment at the mere idea. Who wouldn’t be scared in such an evil light? He switches the overhead bulb on and off several more times, then takes a few fast laps around the room, trailing soft giggles behind him.

This 4-year-old believed to be the reincarnation of the revered Deshung Rinpoche, one of the highest lamas of Tibetan Buddhism’s Sakya tradition, is wearing the classic maroon garb required of his sacred position. But in this case, it is a pair of sweatpants and a matching sweatshirt that says “Lil Monster.”


“Lamas don’t act that way!” pleads Caroline Lama, a widowed day care worker whose last name by marriage is also the name for a spiritually advanced person in Buddhism. She also, by luck or grace, gave birth to a boy seen as the next great teacher of Tibetan Buddhists in exile.

On Thursday, she will board a plane for Katmandu, Nepal, with her playful young son and leave him at a remote Sakya monastery outside the city. He will stay for the decade or more of studies that will prepare him to become a teacher and spiritual leader of his faith. She will come home and wait for him to grow up.

It may seem odd that the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, learning and teaching, should have visited the middle of this north Seattle neighborhood, two blocks away from a Pizza Hut outlet and a Blockbuster video store.

But with spiritualism everywhere on the rise, experts say, Buddhism in America has slipped outside old neighborhoods of Asian immigrants and the counterculture and is taking its place in the religious mainstream.

There are hundreds of designated reincarnations of lamas around the world--and a growing number, following Buddhism’s widening reach, are occurring in the West.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1993 film “Little Buddha” depicted such a reincarnation of a Tibetan lama, ironically, in the form of an American youngster in Seattle. The fictional story was loosely based on another case not in Seattle.

The increase in North American and European incarnations of Buddhist holy men--as well as the first incarnations of holy men in female form--"from the point of view of Tibetans is not really a problem, in fact in a way it makes sense,” said Peter Moran, a University of Washington doctoral candidate. He has been tracking the growth of Buddhism in the West and the inevitable Westernization of the ancient faith as its followers move to new lands.

“Someone who is a lama, a spiritually advanced person, is able to choose their own rebirth, and they choose a rebirth that will be of greatest benefit to other people,” he said. “Because there are more Westerners and more Western women interested in Buddhism, for Tibetan teachers to take rebirth in those forms sort of makes perfect sense.”

A Spanish boy was recently designated a reincarnated lama, or tulku, and a 25-year-old Nova Scotia man, son of a hippie mother who lived in a tepee, was designated a reincarnated holy man at age 8. Including Caroline Lama’s son, there are believed to be four such tulkus in North America.

Hopes for Her Son

Yet the tale of Nawang Kunga Tegchen Chokyi Nyima, called affectionately Tulku-la, is only partly about religion. It also is very much about a mother’s hopes for her son and an American community’s love for an aging Tibetan holy man--a love so profound that many were eager to believe that, after he left them in death, he would return.

Deshung Rinpoche had been a revered lama and teacher at the Thalung Monastery in eastern Tibet when, like most of the senior religious hierarchy, he was forced into exile with the Chinese clampdown in 1959. He escaped with his family on a harrowing trek across 24,740-foot Monla Kachung into the tiny kingdom of Bhutan.

Stranded in India, Deshung Rinpoche came to the University of Washington in 1960 with two other Tibetan religious leaders under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

When the grant ran out, he went into private meditation for several years. With the growing interest in Eastern religions in the early 1970s, he began teaching and conducting meditation sessions for a large number of students and followers. He often could be seen around the university or on the streets near his home in his flowing maroon robes, his head shaved, whispering his mantras--10,000 a day.

Eventually, Deshung Rinpoche helped his niece’s husband, Jigdal Rinpoche, an even higher lama, establish the Sakya Monastery in north Seattle’s Greenwood district. He lectured throughout Asia and in New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

In the early 1980s, he left for Nepal, where half a dozen monks from his original Tibetan monastery had managed to reopen their old monastery in exile. He died there in 1986 but not before announcing to his close followers that he would be reborn in Seattle.

He is still remembered with affection among his largely American community of followers in this city.

“I think he was probably the greatest Tibetan scholar that chose to live in the West,” said Cyrus Stearns, who worked as a translator for the lamas in Seattle.

“He was a very extraordinary man. Not to give any mystical twist to it, but he’s someone who would strike almost anyone as a very different person, in the sense of, well, being a saint. Extremely compassionate, warm, generous but no pompousness, no sense of being superior. I can remember many jokes, and laughing so much with him tears were running down both our faces.”

Students were struck by the fact that Deshung Rinpoche, who had memorized dozens of book-length Buddhist texts, could quote verbatim from documents he hadn’t seen in 40 years. He attempted, they said, to show people how those texts explained how to live in the 20th century.

“I’d say, ‘OK, if I get angry, how do I deal with that?’ And part of what was so extraordinary was he would answer from experience,” Stearns said. “He would use stories, either episodes in his own life, or he would speak of episodes in the life of his teachers. He had a mastery of Buddhist teachers over the last 2,000 years. He might tell you about somebody’s life in 4th century India and an episode that happened to them that was similar and how they dealt with it.”

Richard Sherburne, a Jesuit priest and religious studies professor who studied under the lama, said he became impatient when young people would come in off the street to listen to him. “Some people just wanted to sit in his presence and get the vibes. I’d tell him, ‘They’ll be off on something else in three months; why are you giving them the vows?’ ” Sherburne recalls. “He said, ‘It’s all to the good. Next life, it’ll get a little better.’ ”

Caroline Lama, 39, started following Buddhism after a trip to Alaska in the early 1980s when she met one of Jigdal Rinpoche’s students, who encouraged her to visit the monastery in Seattle. She met a young Tibetan named Tenzin Lama there, fell in love, and they married in 1989.

Soon, she was pregnant. And from the beginning, she said she felt there was something different about the life inside her. The head lama, who was her teacher, “hinted around, ‘Oh, you’ve got something special there,’ ” she said.

Prophetic Dream

One night before the baby was born, “I dreamed that we were in an airplane. It was like a special airplane. We were sitting on a couch, and my son was there. I knew it was a son. And we were laughing and joking, playing with toys. And I knew we were on our way to where he was going to give teachings. . . . After we landed, I saw the Dalai Lama [Tibetan Buddhism’s highest spiritual figure] go in the auditorium, but it was quite clear that my son was the one who was giving the teachings.”

That her baby was the reincarnation of Deshung Rinpoche was generally rumored around the monastery shortly after his birth, Lama said, and confirmed by the senior lamas in Nepal when he reached age 2. The lamas do not reveal how they arrive at their determination.

Jamyang Sakya, Deshung Rinpoche’s niece, who lived most of her life with her uncle, said there have been several indications that the lama has returned.

“The interesting part is that as soon as she [Lama] conceived the baby, she completely changed. She got closer to Buddhism. She never missed a meditation. And her husband, he was much younger, told me that after she conceived the baby, he automatically had to worship her.”

Special Signs

Lama’s husband was killed in a 1993 auto accident.

Sakya said that when she invited the infant Tulku-la to her uncle’s house for the first time, the family sat down to dinner, leaving her uncle’s seat vacant, as usual. “He went right to it and insisted he wanted to sit there,” she said.

In a later visit, Tulku-la grabbed an old mandala [a sacred charm of Buddhism] of Deshung Rinpoche’s from a box of other items. “He didn’t want to put it back in the box. ‘This is mine! I want this!’ he said,” Sakya recalls. “We grabbed it back and it made him cry. Things like this, little by little. Of course, he’s just a little boy. But once in a while, it hits back.”

In the kitchen of the monastery, Tulku-la is scattering McDonald’s French fries across the floor. Lama issues a sharp reprimand. “You never do that, do you understand me?” she yells, and the tiny, buzz-haired youngster flies off through the door.

“It’s so funny, you have to yell at him because he’s a little kid, but I can’t help thinking of all the bad karma I’m going to get for yelling at a lama,” she sighs.

Many of her non-Buddhist friends have expressed surprise and shock that she would give up her son to a monastery in Nepal for 10 years. But Lama says that is where he belongs.

She has her own stories to tell about her son. She calls them “tulku magic.” She recalls when they first moved into the building where they are living. There was a quiet, distant man living there, she says, a standoffish fellow nobody could get close to. “I was in the kitchen. I looked out, and Tulku-la was on his lap,” she recalled.

On another occasion, when there was a death in the monastery community, a man sat crying. “It was just the way Tulku-la went up and patted his face. In a grown-up way. It’s like, he knew what to do. When things like this are happening, there’s just this special feeling.”

Lama already has taken her son for a visit to the monastery in Nepal, stocking it with familiar toys from home. His sleeping room has an urn with some of the ashes of Deshung Rinpoche. He has begun learning Tibetan, which will become his primary language. And he met the monks who will be his teachers. One of them, Nawang Tyngure, has been assigned as his primary companion.

Now, when Lama asks: “Who loves you the most?” Tulku-la replies without hesitation: “Nawang Tyngure!”

“When he’s with his monks, you can just see the bliss on his face. You can see that’s where he’s supposed to be,” Lama says.

Tulku-la doesn’t talk about the monastery. When Lama urges him to describe it, he erupts into a stream of gibberish. “Can I go now?” he says.

Lama says the boy knows he’s leaving Seattle for good, but she hasn’t dwelt with him on why.

“He pretty much knows that he’s going to go over there and live with Nawang Tyngure, and I’m going to come back here,” said Lama, who will visit her son twice a year. She will stay two months before leaving him behind. She could stay in Nepal, but she could not live in the monastery and could not have any meaningful role in his life.

“I think I’ll cry oceans of tears,” she said. “It’ll be extremely difficult. But on the other hand, I know it’s the exact right thing to do. Any son that could be raised in an education like that, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” she said.

“To me, it all really makes sense, and I guess that’s one of the reasons it was so easy to accept. A lama isn’t going to reincarnate to somebody who isn’t going to let them go get educated. It’s somebody who approves, and who’s part of the system. So when the time comes, I’ll say, ‘OK, let’s get started,’ instead of saying, ‘I want him to play Little League,’ or, ‘I want him to go to the prom.’

“I really was happy to be able to help, because really, it’s almost the infinite help.”