All-American Lama: How an 11th Century Mystic Was Reborn in Philadelphia

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Matt Slaby / LUCEO for TIME

Telo Tulku Rinpoche, head lama of the Republic of Kalmykia, sits for portraits at his home in Erie, Colo.

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Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was crumbling. In 1991, the Dalai Lama notified Telo Rinpoche that he was arranging for him to make a trip to Mongolia. "Sooner or later," the Dalai Lama wrote him, "you'll have responsibilities there." The 19-year-old lama flew to Mongolia and was given a jubilant welcome; his previous incarnation was much revered there. Even as a political neophyte, he noticed that the country was "boiling."

Next, the Dalai Lama sent him to Kalmykia. Even though his parents were both Kalmyks, the new Telo Rinpoche didn't speak a word of the language. Through an interpreter, he asked if anyone knew whether his relatives had survived the Siberian labor camps. "Next day, I came down to the hotel lobby, and there was a fight going on between my mom's and my dad's relatives to see who would take me home first," he says, laughing. Several months later he received an invitation from the Kalmyk government to return as the republic's chief spiritual leader. Telo Rinpoche consulted the Dalai Lama, who cautioned that it might be too heavy a responsibility for the young monk. "But," the Dalai Lama told him, "go and do your best."

The young lama lasted only a year there. He found the Kalmyks fearful as they emerged from Soviet rule. He also felt manipulated by old communist apparatchiks who viewed him as a naive pawn. Worst of all, he started to doubt himself. Tenzing Sonam, a filmmaker who accompanied Telo Rinpoche to Kalmykia, recalls, "He was a callow 20-year-old — alone in a strange land, faced with unrealistically high expectations from its people and racked by personal doubt and confusion." Looking back on those dark days, Telo Rinpoche says he started thinking, "Maybe I'm not the right person. Maybe there was a mistake." Despondent, he would sit in his dreary, Soviet-era hotel room, listening to the band Smashing Pumpkins.

Without telling the Dalai Lama, Telo Rinpoche left Kalmykia and shed his monk's robes. He went back to the States and drifted westward to Colorado, where he built houses, landscaped gardens, pestered people as a telemarketer and delivered pizzas. He also fell in love. But whenever he collected enough cash, he would head back to his former monastery in India. One of his trips coincided with a ceremonial visit by the Dalai Lama, who spotted the ex-lama. "So this is what you've turned into," the Dalai Lama said harshly. Telo Rinpoche blurted out, "It was all out of stupidity. I'm lost!" The Dalai Lama kept glaring at him, then burst out laughing. "O.K., O.K. Don't worry," he reassured him.

As Telo Rinpoche was leaving the room, the Dalai Lama called out to him, "How's your partner?" Telo Rinpoche was stunned that the Dalai Lama knew about his girlfriend. He stammered a reply: "She comes from a poor Tibetan family but very religious." The Dalai Lama laughed. "She's Tibetan? No need to worry, then. I thought you were going out with a blonde!"

Telo Rinpoche went back to America, where he eventually married his girlfriend and had a son with her. But even as he became a layman, he grew serious about his duties as the reincarnation of Telo Rinpoche. He funded construction of a shining white Buddhist temple in Kalmykia and arranged for young men to study in India. And he occasionally returned to Mongolia, where the communists had obliterated Buddhism. "The communists destroyed temples, and they destroyed minds," says Orna Tsultem, a Mongolian art historian at the Institute for East Asian Studies in Berkeley, Calif. In Ulan Bator only a single monastery, Ganden, was left standing. It was kept as a showpiece from the bad old days of religious feudalism, but the monks were forced to abandon their robes and marry. The secret police placed spies among them. Many monks wandered drunkenly around the monastery. The communists also passed a law banning searches for new incarnate lamas. There are a handful of others, aside from Telo Rinpoche. A few were spirited off to India. Others have yet to be found.

Superstitions were harder to wipe out than organized religion. The nomadic Mongolian herdsmen believe that Buddhist deities inhabit every mountain, lake and river, and they often splash a bit of milk in these places as an offering. Telo Rinpoche found that "people follow the rituals, but there is a limited understanding of Buddhism." Tiny prayer wheels are now a popular car ornament, a talisman to ward off accidents.

Formal ties between the Mongolians and Tibetan lamas are increasing. Telo Rinpoche now visits Mongolia at least once a year, and he is helping promote a religious exchange between Mongolia and the Dalai Lama's institutions-in-exile. Young Mongolian men and women are crossing the Himalayas to study dialectics, tantric Buddhism, medicine and astrology. Tibetans in burgundy robes are a common sight at Ulan Bator's airport; they fan out across the grassy plains, performing rituals for Mongolians who seek divine intervention for everything from good exam grades to better jobs.

Mongolian Buddhists believe that since the former Telo Rinpoche escaped from the communist takeover in the 1930s, it has taken him 1½ lifetimes — and a long detour through Philadelphia — to return. "Christians would call this destiny or fate," Telo Rinpoche says simply. "We call it karma."

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