2 Jun 2009

Osel Torres: from Buddhist Lama to Film-maker

Born in 1985 and quickly elevated to the position of reincarnated lama, or tulku, Osel Hita Torres has turned his back on Buddhism and now claims to be agnostic.

Both Torres's parents were members of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Founded in 1975 by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, the FPMT teachings are founded on the Tibetan Gelupta tradition.

Barely a year after Lama Yeshe's death, the birth of Osel was heralded as the reincarnation of the Foundation's leading light. Indeed, Lama Zopa had written to FPMT members that their founder was coming back very soon, knowing that Osel's mother was already pregnant. At the age of 14 months the boy was confirmed by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe and given the name Tenzin Osel Rinpoche. With very few Western tulkus in existence there was much media interest in Lama Osel's story and progress. But a tale that seemed to bring together the different worlds of modern Western Europe with the traditions of Tibetan lamaism has turned sour.

At the age of 18 Lama Osel handed back his robes and left the monastic order. This in itself is not unusual or controversial: many Tibetan teachers decide to renounce their monastic vows and step into the secular world. There is nothing wrong with this and all Buddhist schools allow for people to enter a monastery and to leave when the time is right; there is no rule that stipulates that a monk must remain so for life. However, such Buddhist teachers do not lose their status or their titles: once a tulku, always a tulku.

What is unusual with Osel is that he has now made public that he renounces the very organisation that had hoped he would become their new master. He has also turned his back on Buddhism as a whole and now describes himself as agnostic. A recent interview in the Spanish paper El Mundo was then reported in The Guardian newspaper.

"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."

The FPMT website has removed all references to their "boy lama", but the internet has a long memory and Google cache still holds the 'offending' pages. It is easier for the FPMT to wipe away the traces of their 'failed' tulku, but it is altogether harder for Osel to forget his childhood.

This strikes me as having some resonances with the story of Krishnamurti, who himself was 'recognised' as a master by theosophists but later rejected the whole notion and went his own way. However, Krishnamurti continued to write about spiritual matters and especially about how one should follow one's own inner journey and not be entranced by apparent 'masters'. As Osel continues to study cinematography, perhaps he will eventually tell his own story in the language of films rather than the written word.

Be careful who you follow.

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