As a 5-year-old, Erdne Ombadykow began to display signs of eccentric behavior. While his many brothers and sisters were busy watching cartoons on TV or playing in the streets of their rough Philadelphia neighborhood, Erdne would bug his mother to take him to a nearby Buddhist temple.
At the temple, the moonfaced little boy would mimic the chanting monks. Erdne's parents were Buddhists they were immigrants from Kalmykia, a Mongolian enclave inside Russia but not particularly religious, and they were baffled by their son's devotion. In 1979, when Erdne was 7, the Dalai Lama visited the temple, and the little boy crawled straight into his lap.
Thus began the strange odyssey of a Philly-born child who was recognized as the reincarnation of an 11th century Indian mystic the Tibetans call Telo Rinpoche. It would lead him to a Tibetan monastery in southern India and back to the life of a teenager with attitude in Philadelphia crazy about girls, basketball and hard rock. He would endure a prolonged crisis of faith in which he abandoned his priestly vows, delivered pizzas in Colorado and found a wife. It took a scolding from the Dalai Lama himself to set him back on his extraordinary path: reviving Buddhism in Mongolia and Kalmykia, where 70 years of communist purges had silenced the faith. "I kept asking myself, Why? Why me?" Ombadykow, now 39, tells TIME at his Colorado home.
These days, Ombadykow is busy with what can be called the Dalai Lama's re-evangelizing of Mongolia, where Buddhism was all but obliterated under communist rule. Beijing is not pleased with the growing Tibetan influence in Mongolia. Just hours after another revered lama, Jetsun Dhampa, died in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, on March 2, a Chinese delegation warned the Mongolian government to keep the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama out of the search for his new incarnation. So far, the Mongolians have resisted Chinese pressure. As the new Telo Rinpoche, Ombadykow's focus is also on Tibet, where over 30 Tibetans, mostly monks and nuns, have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. While taking one's life is against Buddhist principles, he says, "their motivation is pure. It's a desperate act in desperate times. They were hoping it would benefit Tibetans."
But there was a lifetime (or more) of faith lost and regained before Ombadykow found his footing as the reincarnated Telo Rinpoche and a role in the Dalai Lama's vision for Mongolia, Tibet and other former Buddhist lands.
A cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhism, which has been practiced for centuries in both Mongolia and Kalmykia, is the belief that a great teacher, or lama, will keep returning for many lifetimes to continue his teaching. Telo Rinpoche, who is said to have left the Himalayas to spread Buddhism among the Mongolian horsemen, is one such revered teacher. The Dalai Lama, who asked young Erdne to move to a monastery in India after their Philadelphia encounter, recognized him as Telo Rinpoche's reincarnation.
The previous incarnation of Telo Rinpoche was not only a spiritual leader but a political one as well. He helped spearhead the failed Mongolian resistance against the communists. He escaped from Mongolia in 1939, just as the Bolsheviks began their slaughter of 30,000 Buddhist lamas and their razing of over 2,000 temples and monasteries. He eventually reached the U.S. on a scholar's visa.
And guess where he settled? In Philadelphia. He died in 1965. Only seven years later, the new Telo Rinpoche was born in the same city, into the large, brawling Ombadykow family.
It was not an easy path. In India, the young Telo Rinpoche struggled to adapt to monastery life. He was a curiosity. "I stood out. I was this kid from America who happened to be Mongolian," he says. "But the Dalai Lama really cared for me. The Dalai Lama said, 'If you have any change of mind, don't do anything without talking to me first.' " Those words would come to haunt him. He confesses that as a rebellious teenager, he sneaked out of the monastery at night to watch TV at a chai shop. On a visit back to Philadelphia, he welcomed release from the monastery's iron discipline. By then, his parents had separated, and he fell in with his teenage cousins, staying out late, driving fast and ogling girls (though he kept his celibacy vow). A basketball fanatic, he says he wanted to "be as free as Michael Jordan" soaring to the hoop.