The young Tenzin Ösel Hita Torres with Lama Zopa Rinpoche (left) and Geshe Sopa (right)
in 1986, during the consecration of Lama Yeshe’s stupa at Vajrapani Institute, California. Source.
A recent Guardian article, let down by the tabloid-style clickbait headline “From six-year-old Tibetan monk to teenage Ibiza raver”, led me belatedly to the intriguing story of Ösel Hita Torres (b.1985) (website, including bio; wiki).
The latest publicity is prompted by a new four-part documentary in Spanish, but his story has long been in the news. After this 1990 interview,
Vicki Mackenzie published Reincarnation: the boy lama in 1996. Two years later the BBC visited Ösel at Sera monastery in exile in south India, when he was 13, to make a documentary film:
The Guardian updated his story in 2009, and in 2012 Jolyon Jenkins made an instructive radio programme for the BBC.
* * *
The fifth of nine siblings, Ösel came from a village near Granada, where his parents had become devotees of the lama Thubten Yeshe (1935–84), an influential teacher—even if some detractors considered him a materialistic paisa lama, like many gurus.
Soon after his birth, Ösel was identified as the tulku reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, and formally recognised by the Dalai Lama. * He was brought up under the aegis of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), headed by Lama Zopa, a close colleague of Lama Yeshe. Vicki Mackenzie’s detailed account of Ösel’s early years can be found on this page.
This lengthy footage was filmed in Holland in 1986:
Ösel’s training in Sera monastery, from the age of 6, was remarkable. His mother features in the BBC radio documentary, and offers further perspectives here (some Spanish practice). As Ösel later reflected,
They dressed me in a yellow hat, they sat me on a throne, people worshipped me… They took me away from my family and put me in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie.
So by the age of 18 he was free to make a similar choice to that taken by Krishnamurti in 1929, walking away from the cloistered life and his role as successor of the FPMT, despite their protestations. Opting for the secular path, he was disoriented by liberal Western values (“I was amazed to watch everyone dance. What were all those people doing, bouncing, stuck to one another, enclosed in a box full of smoke?”), and having spent a period living on the streets, he studied in Canada and Switzerland before opting to study film-making (cf. The Cup—Typical, you wait ages for a film-making lama, and then two come along at once). He is a friend of the 23rd Gomo Tulku (“the rapping lama”), who also opted for a secular lifestyle. Now settled in Ibiza with a family of his own, Ösel recognises that his story is easily sensationalised, and he remains on good terms with the FPMT.
* * *
Concepts of the “spiritual quest” may vary substantially over time, between cultures, and between classes. In Christian and other faiths, some monks find that the abnegation of the cloistered ascetic life loses its allure.
Of course, the situation of Tibetan centres like the FMPT, reaching out to Western followers, is very different from that of monasteries in Tibetan regions. For poor families there before the 1950 Chinese invasion (and even for some years before the radical interventions that escalated from 1956), it was almost a routine choice to send a young son to become a monk in the local monastery. In cases when an infant was identified as a tulku, to be venerated as the reincarnation of a high lama, his spiritual education would be closely supervised until he was ready to take his place as religious leader.
Since the occupation, state intrusion has often forced monks to abandon the clergy; despite the vast revival of religious life since the 1980s, the monasteries, potential hotbeds of unrest, have become ever more tightly surveilled. Ironically, the Chinese Communist Party has had to recognise reincarnation, with high lamas commonly becoming political pawns—most fragrantly in the case of the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (b.1989), “the world’s youngest political prisoner”, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Aside from state interference, it is not out of the question among the clerical rank-and-file to change course. In Tibetan regions since the 1980s (as in pre-Communist China), among those who entered the monastic life in their youth, some have left to get married and care for a family, with little soul-searching. However, in Tibet it would be unthinkable for a tulku to abandon his role. The case of Ösel—not only a tulku but a European—is different; while his position was high-profile, with many resources having been invested in his path, aspects of the FPMT’s Western-leaning mission perhaps made his choice at least conceivable.
More often in the West one hears of making The Journey in the opposite direction: those who forsake sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll for the spiritual quest (hints of this with the Beatles, to cite another high-profile case). In Europe and north America the attraction of the Wisdom of the Mystic East grew after World War Two (some noble instances including Gary Snyder and Alan Watts), and many Westerners have devoted themselves to Tibetan Buddhism (see e.g. Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 1998).
Gratifyingly, Ösel hasn’t rejected the spiritual path, but what he did renounce was becoming the object of blind veneration—an impressive choice when he had a ready-made, even cushy, career before him. I’m sure Ösel appreciates scenes from The life of Brian expressing the pressure on gurus to Bestow Wisdom upon their disciples (see note here, and at the end of my Krishnamurti post).
Still, despite his new family and outside interests, Ösel was perhaps unlikely to lead anything that resembled a Normal Life; deeply imbued by his upbringing, he has gone on to cater to demand among the Truth Seekers with an active teaching programme. While he generates far less hype than Krishnamurti, his demeanour is appealingly down-to-earth. Here’s a lecture he gave at Kopan monastery in 2012:
Many more talks online, such as here ( 2017) and here (2018).
Just as I admire those who persist in the religious life, I respect those who free themselves from it, or forge their own path—as long as there’s a thread of, um, mindfulness. After all, everyday normality is at the heart of Daoism and Zen.
* For the recognition of the Dalai Lama himself, click here (opening with the story of another “well-behaved” young lama!); and do watch the amazing footage of his own “graduation” rituals in 1958–59 (here, under “The political background”). The Dalai Lama’s early education in Lhasa was not entirely other-worldly: apart from learning English, maths, and geography, he watched films in his own private cinema. I wonder if he has commented on Ösel’s change of path.