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The little lama from Columbia Heights

by ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune, December 18, 2011

Tibetan Buddhists see the extraordinary in this Columbia Heights boy -- a reincarnated guru.

Columbia Heights, CA (USA) -- It's morning time and a little boy with a shaved head and a face shaped like the moon chants a Tibetan prayer.

His high-pitched voice echoes inside the Columbia Heights bedroom that his father has transformed into a lavish prayer room. In here, the 4-year-old forsakes his cartoons and toys to study scripture and learn to pray the Buddhist way.

Big for his age, he looks bigger still perched on an ornate chair draped in crimson and saffron robes. "Only for lamas," explains his father, Dorje Tsegyal, sitting cross-legged on the floor at his son's feet.

Jalue Dorjee, you see, is believed to be no ordinary boy.

According to the highest authorities of the Tibetan Buddhist order, he is the reincarnation of the speech, mind and body of a lama, or spiritual guru, who died in Switzerland six years ago. Jalue is said to be the eighth appearance of the original lama, born in 1655.

His discovery in 2009 is considered an honor and a blessing for his working-class parents. But it comes with a hefty price. Jalue (pronounced JAH-loo) is their only child -- their everything. This week, he turns 5, a critical marker on his predestined path. In just five more years, he will leave the familiarity of his parents' home in Minnesota to live and study in a monastery in India.

Jalue is believed to be one of a very few American tulkus -- or reincarnated lamas -- and the first one born in Minnesota, which has the second-largest Tibetan population in the country. Still, the finding comes amid some controversy over the way tulkus are being identified, as some Tibetan scholars question why their number has been increasing -- to thousands worldwide.

But Jalue's parents are faithful believers, and they look past any doubters to the work they must do to prepare their son for his destiny.

The thought of letting Jalue go pains his mother, but she consoles herself that when the time comes, she will probably be accustomed to the idea.

Of dreams and letters

From the time a new life first began to stir inside her in 2006, Dechen Wangmo said she sensed there was something special about this child.

He was peaceful inside her body. She carried him with ease. She never felt sick, not even in the mornings.

And there were those dreams.

One night, an elephant appeared with several little ones around it, she said. They merged into the small prayer room in the family home. Once inside, they vanished.

Tsegyal, too, remembers having vivid, symbolic dreams at the time. In one, he said, he saw many lamas surrounded by tall sunflowers.

So when a highly respected lama from India came to visit the Twin Cities Tibetan community, Tsegyal told him about the dreams. That night, the lama had magical dreams of his own, according to Tsegyal, (pronounced Say-jull). The lama told him he saw huge tigers, one in each room of the family home. Robust tigers are a good omen and a sign of strength and protection, according to Tibetan Buddhist custom.

Before Jalue was born, the family asked the lama to perform a practice known as "divination," which is used by lamas in Tibetan Buddhism to advise people on important matters. Different lamas use their own divination methods, including ones using a rosary or dice to interpret events. This lama performed a divination using two arrows and prayer, Tsegyal recalled.

Weeks later, a letter arrived at the Columbia Heights home. In it, the visiting lama wrote that he was sure the child was the reincarnation of a Buddhist spiritual master, Tsegyal recalled. Which spiritual master, the lama did not know.

Determined to find out, Tsegyal wrote to His Holiness Trulshik Shatrul Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, the oldest of the four schools.

Rinpoche performed another divination, also using the arrows. Soon another letter arrived at the family doorstep.

"Your son is lucky to be a reincarnate of body, speech and mind of TAKSHAM NUEDEN DORJEE."

Accepting fate

Emotions filled Tsegyal: gratitude and fear, honor and pride.

He showed the letter to Wangmo. "Let's not tell anyone right now," she said.

What if people questioned Jalue's legitimacy? she worried.

Besides, he was their one and only child. She could not bear the thought of sending her precious son off to a monastery far from her in just a few short years.

But there could be consequences, Tsegyal gently persisted. Tibetan Buddhists believe that interfering with a person's destiny may cut their life short.

"If he is a real reincarnated lama, we have to nurture him and nourish him," he said softly. "Otherwise, he will not have a long life."

Wangmo saw that she must accept her son's fate.

When another lama from India came to town, Tsegyal brought his newborn son for a blessing, but kept quiet about the recognition. "Your son seems to be of high birth," the lama observed.

At Tsegyal's request, the lama performed a third divination ritual. Like the others, he quickly concluded the child was indeed a tulku. He told Tsegyal to alert the three highest lamas, and this led to more letters confirming Jalue as a reincarnated lama.

On Jan. 6, 2009, a letter arrived bearing the seal of the greatest spiritual leader of the Tibetan diaspora. The Dalai Lama officially recognized Jalue as the reincarnation of the lama known as Taksham Nueden Dorjee. In a second letter, the Dalai Lama gave Jalue a formal lama name -- Tenzin Gyurme Trinley Dorjee.

The boy was now 3. His life was about to change.

Enlightened parenting

The first thing to go was his hair.

Buddhist monks must keep their hair no more than 2 inches long, a custom stemming from a story about Buddha snapping his fingers and instantly removing all the monks' hair, mustaches and beards.

At the time, Jalue's shiny black hair fell to his shoulders.

His parents timed his first haircut to the Dalai Lama's visit to the Tibetan community in Madison, Wis., in May 2010. The family traveled to Madison and the Dalai Lama did the honors, cutting a lock of the boy's hair. Tsegyal keeps that strand of hair preserved inside a blue, folded paper at home.

Tsegyal had one more question for the Dalai Lama: How should he raise Jalue to ensure he will become a great lama?

The Dalai Lama told him to keep the boy in the United States until he reaches the age of 10 so he can go to school here and learn good English. When he turns 10, he should be sent to a monastery in India, where he can learn as much as he can before he is full-grown.

Jalue's father says he realizes that he is raising a lama for the 21st century. A tech-savvy spiritual leader who can easily communicate with people in the West and East. Yet someone also fully versed in the wisdom and practices of Tibetan Buddhism and able to teach those concepts to others.

On a crisp fall morning, Jalue looks the part of a boy in two worlds. He practices reading Tibetan words, sitting on his lama chair at home. He is wearing a yellow "Highland Hawks" T-shirt and red flannel pajama bottoms, his favorite colors, and the ones that lamas wear exclusively.

His head bowed over his workbook, he points to each word with a highlighter and reads aloud.

Tsegyal sits next to his son. "He learns very fast," the father says, watching Jalue power through the workbook and look to his father with a "what's next?" expression. He's learning the basics -- how to say the morning and afternoon prayers and how to read the scriptures. In due time, his father says, he will also learn the meaning of those scriptures.

"Right now," Tsegyal explains, "it's very important to know the reading. The important words. Once he will grow up his age, he will start to understand."

The boy lama

There is so much more Tsegyal must teach his son before they part. How to wear the monk robes properly. How to walk and how to sit. At times, Tsegyal feels overwhelmed by his duty.

Mother and father still struggle to find the right balance for shaping a holy man while parenting a 4-year-old.

Once Tsegyal became stern while trying to get Jalue to recite a line in the scripture. The boy's face became serious, Tsegyal said, and he spoke in a commanding tone. "Abba, now I am small. You don't have to do that. When I am grown up, I will know it."

His mother remembers the day when Jalue took issue with her discipline. "I'm the reincarnate of Taksham," he told her. "You have to talk slow and in a good manner. Otherwise, I'll be shamed."

Other times, he appears no different than any other 4-year-old.

At home, he sucks down his favorite beef soup and rice dish. He runs around the house in his Power Ranger mask, makes action figures soar off the kitchen table, builds a garage out of Legos for his toy cars. He giggles while watching "Mr. Bean" videos or play-wrestling with his dad.

He carries his eagerness to learn to preschool. He often sits near the front of the class, and when his teacher, Kathy Anderson, asks a question, he stretches his hand as high as he can, waving frantically.

Jalue stands a full head taller than his classmates. A gentle giant, he grins at a blond-haired boy named Ryan and punches him playfully on the arm. "You want to play with ME?" he asks excitedly, then leads Ryan to a tub full of Legos.

At preschool he's just one of the kids, but at the local Tibetan center, Jalue is viewed with great respect and awe. He stopped at the center on Saturday to celebrate his birthday with cake, candles and singing.

Jalue appeared stoic, in his monk robes, standing in front of dozens of other Tibetan-American children. They craned their necks to get a better view of the boy, introduced to them as "rinpoche," meaning "precious one." Then, they sang "Happy Birthday" to him in Tibetan. At the end, the headmaster of the Tibetan center's weekend school leaned down and touched his forehead to Jalue's -- in order to receive blessings from the little lama.

A mother's dilemma

Dechen Wangmo is 40 years old now, and says she won't have any more children.

She isn't sure what will happen in five years, when the day comes for Jalue to join the monastery. Sometimes she thinks she will move to India, too. Other times she feels she must stay because her job and her family are here in Minnesota.

"Right now she thinks so many things," said Thinly Woser, a family friend and longtime Tibetan community leader who agreed to translate. "Of course, she would like to go to India with him. But she needs to be here. She is in a dilemma."

She avoids taking him to shopping malls or Tibetan community events and steers clear of crowded places. Were he an ordinary boy, she would take him everywhere. But in Tibet, lamas must be kept clean and away from bad pollution so that they may have a clear vision.

On the rare times she has taken him out in public in his monk robes, people have barraged her with questions. Is this a lama? Who is he? Why do you keep him here? Why don't you take him to India? Then she feels shy. She points to Jalue's father and tells the people: "Ask him."

Her heart clings to her baby, but her faith tells her she must let go.

"Since His Holiness is our guru and he says he has to go to the monastery, then of course he has to go to the monastery," she said.

On a recent morning, Wangmo makes breakfast.

She spreads peanut butter on warm naan and pours a cup of chai tea. "Jalue," she calls.

He nibbles his bread, then pushes away from the table and rushes back to the living room to watch Elmo on TV. His mother inspects his teacup and frowns. "Jalue, are you done with this?" she calls to him again. He returns, tilts the blue and white porcelain cup, and gulps the last of the tea.

"Whoa, good boy," she says, as she wipes his mouth.

Knowing their time together is short has made Wangmo value every minute with her son. It's also made her realize that to be ready to separate from him, she must practice.

When it's time for preschool, Jalue trots down the stairs dressed head to toe in maroon with a pair of Spider-Man sunglasses over his eyes and a backpack over his shoulders. He leans against his mother as she helps him put on his sneakers.

Outside Jalue points at the yellow school bus making its way down his street. "Bus coming!" he yells. He lifts his face to receive a goodbye kiss. She bends down, cups his face and nuzzles him. The bus stops at the end of the driveway, and the whooshing sound of the doors opening tells her that it's time to let go.

She follows Jalue with her eyes, watching as he climbs each step, cheerfully greets the bus driver and takes a seat. She stands in the driveway and waves to him and to the other little faces looking out the windows. She waves until she can't see him anymore. Then she walks up the driveway toward the house. Not once looking back.



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