In 1254 the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck, a missionary in Mongolia, became the first Westerner to describe a reincarnate Buddhist teacher. In the report of his mission to King Louis IX of France he recounted the following episode:
A boy was brought from Cataia [China], who to judge by his physical size was not three years old, yet was fully capable of rational thought: he said of himself that he was in his third incarnation, and he knew how to read and write. (Peter Jackson's The Mission Friar of William of Rubruck, Hakluyt Society, 1990.)
Seven hundred and thirty years later, the same phenomenon was reported in the heartland of Christian Europe:
On February 12th, 1985, in the State Hospital of Granada, Spain, Osel Hita Torres was born. He came into the world without causing his mother any pain, his eyes wide open. He didn't cry. The atmosphere in the delivery room was charged—very quiet and yet momentous. The hospital staff was unusually touched. They sensed that this was a special child.
This passage from Vicki Mackenzie's book, Reincarnation: The Boy Lama (Bloomsbury, 1989), describes the birth of a young boy who was shortly to be recognized by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe, a charismatic teacher and founder of numerous Tibetan Buddhist centers throughout Europe, Australia, and America, who had died in Los Angeles eleven months earlier of heart failure at the age of forty-nine.
Following the traditional ways of determining a future rebirth, Lama Thubten Zopa, Lama Yeshe's principal disciple, began examining his dreams and consulting oracles for signs that might indicate the whereabouts of his teacher. In one dream he beheld "a small child with bright, penetrating eyes, crawling on the floor of a meditation room. He was male and a Westerner." Shortly afterward, he visited Osel Ling, a meditation center that Lama Yeshe had founded in Spain, and there, crawling on the monastery floor, was the very same child. According to Mackenzie, the fourteen-month-old boy was then subjected to a number of traditional tests to determine whether he was in fact Lama Yeshe.
Lama Zopa sought out some of Lama Yeshe's possessions, mixed them with others of similar type, and asked Osel to pick out those that were rightfully his. He started with a rosary, a fairly ordinary wooden beaded one, a favorite of Lama (Yeshe)'s, which he placed on a low table along with four others almost identical in style and one made of bright crystal beads which he thought would act as a natural red herring. Then, with Maria (the mother) and a few Western disciples as witnesses, he commanded Osel, "Give me your mala (rosary) from your past life." Osel turned his head away as if bored. Then he whipped it back again and without hesitation went straight for the correct mala, which he grabbed with both hands, raising it above his head, grinning in a triumphant victory smile.
In December 1990, I had the opportunity to meet the five-year-old Lama Osel, as he is now known, in a Buddhist center in Finsbury Park, London. He was a fair, attractive child, dressed in miniature Tibetan robes. For our meeting he sat cross-legged on a bed, looking down at myself and Roger Wheeler, a former student of Lama Yeshe's (we were seated on the floor). After introducing ourselves, Roger said, "I studied with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa at Kopan (in Nepal).
Lama Osel eagerly replied: "Before, I was Lama Yeshe."
"You remember that well, do you?" I asked.
"Not all," said Lama Osel.
"What do you remember?"
"When I was very sick they put me in the fire...."
"What was it like being put in the fire?"
"Very hot. I couldn't see I was Lama Yeshe when they put me in the fire. I didn't see because I was in a stupa. In a photo, they put me into a fire like this—I saw. In one little hole, like this, then zzp!, they put here fire. All burn. I saw in photo that it was like a monster. Eyes like this all red."
Although we tried, he did not respond to our further questions about his past life, instead, he talked about what he had been doing in the previous weeks and months.
What impressed me most about the young boy was the calm and dignified way in which he carried himself. Although sometimes he would behave just like any other child of his age, as soon as he had to function as Lama Osel he displayed a maturity that seemed far in advance of his physical age—an impression similar to that of the boy described by William of Rubruck. That afternoon an hour-long ritual was offered by the center for Lama Osel's long life. He was placed on a throne about six feet high, wearing a pointed Tibetan hat and saffron robes. His high child's voice led the chanting in Tibetan and he stayed completely composed to the very end without looking bored, neither fidgeting nor looking around distractedly—certainly not the kind of behavior I would have expected from a five-year-old.
Yet being around Lama Osel raised far more questions than it answered. The basic enigma that preoccupied me as I came away was quite simply: What on earth is going on here? The most straightforward answer would have been that what was going on was precisely what was claimed to be going on: that this five-year-old Spanish boy called Osel was the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama called Thubten Yeshe.
In support of this possibility is the fact that most religions assert the continuity of life after death in one form or another. In some, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, it is very specific: one is reborn in a form that corresponds to the kind of ethical or unethical actions (karma) that have been committed either in this or a previous life. In the monotheistic religions of the Middle East and Europe, the range of options is usually limited to either heaven or hell. The indigenous Chinese religion of Taoism does not have such a strong sense of individual identity, nevertheless some form of afterlife is suggested. A longstanding popular belief in Europe and America, moreover, posits an "other side" from which the intact personality of this existence is able, through the agency of mediums, to communicate with friends and relatives on "this side." Religious and spiritual traditions throughout history have explained that death is not the end of life but that some part of us, perhaps all of us, somehow carries on.
Buddhism is no exception to this. It is undeniable that the historical Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth. He spoke of rebirth and frequently described, sometimes in considerable detail, how actions committed in this life determine the form of existence in a future world. He also spoke of enlightenment in terms of how many times one must be reborn before one will be freed from the cycle of birth and death. Although there are instances in his discourses (the Kalama Sutta, for example) where he says that the practice of dharma is meaningful, whether you believe in a hereafter or not, the overwhelming mass of evidence does not suggest that he held an agnostic position himself.
On the basis of such authoritative statements, Buddhists of all traditions have used the concept of rebirth to make sense of the process of spiritual liberation and to provide an explanation' of what carries the all-important imprints of karma that drive the cycle of birth and death itself. An action is judged to be right or wrong in terms of the kind of karmic consequences it will reap in the future—both in this life and after death. "After you die," declares the Tibetan lama Pabongka Rinpoche, "your consciousness does not end: it must definitely take rebirth, on the upper or the lower realms."
In addition to these views about karma and rebirth, Tibetan Buddhists adhere to the Mahayana doctrine of bodhisattvas (beings who dedicate their lives to the enlightenment not only of themselves but of all others). Bodhisattvas strive to replace the force of karma with that of bodhicitta, the altruistic resolve to continue taking birth as long as there are living beings in the world that need to be saved from suffering. According to Mahayana Buddhism, at any one time numerous bodhisattvas are taking birth to help other beings in whatever ways are required.