Said Tenzin Choegyal in 1998…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

In 1998, journalist Mick Brown (‘The Telegraph’) published a conversation with Tenzin Choegyal (formerly known as Ngari Rinpoche), the Dalai Lama’s younger brother, about the formal instatement of (re)incarnations and Tibetan lamas in the West ‘forming their own little fiefdoms.‘:

“Certainly, identifying reincarnates seemed an inexact science. In Dharamsala I took tea with the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, Tenzin Choegyal—or Geyri Rinpoche, to give him his reincarnate title—in his cottage in the grounds of the Heavenly Abode. I expected a robed monk. Instead, I was greeted by an affable man in sweater and slacks, smoking Benson and Hedges (lit by a cigarette lighter stamped with a dollar‐bill motif), who spoke in a fluent English, peppered with Americanisms acquired from his years studying in America. ‘I was a college drop‐out!’ he said with a laugh. His older brother had already been identified as the Dalai Lama before he was born, he told me. His own birth followed shortly after the death from illness of another brother. Immediately before his death, the brother’s body was marked with yak’s butter. When Tenzin Choegyal was born, he bore the same marks, in the same place—’On my butt, actually,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Very inconvenient.’

He was taken to be a direct reincarnation of his dead brother, and, simultaneously, of a previous Rinpoche. ‘That’s what they tell me, anyway.’ He sounded sceptical. He had entered a monastery at the age of seven—’I was taken hostage!’ he laughed—and remained a monk until the age of twenty-five, when he renounced his vows of celibacy. ‘To be a monk is a vocation rather than an occupation, and I just felt I didn’t have the stuff to be a celibate. To be celibate without being in the spirit of it…’ He smiled. ‘It creates inner conflict.

‘As a Buddhist, I believe that reincarnation of consciousness is totally possible. But as to the question of identification, I’m not so sure. I can’t rule out the possibility, and in the Dalai Lama’s case the signs are very clear, but in my case, there’s a mistake for sure. I don’t feel any different, and I don’t remember anything of a previous life.’ He paused to light a cigarette. ‘This question of reincarnation is very complicated, and I think there’s a danger now that it’s being degraded. There are reincarnations being declared all over the place; it’s become almost a fashion. A teacher dies and the pupils decide they have a reincarnation among them.

‘My brother, His Holiness, has spoken about this; he’s said that tulkus are growing like mushrooms. You have all these lamas in the West now, forming their own little fiefdoms. It’s like a cult. I’m totally against these. Some of these people are degrading the teachings. There’s a lot of money involved, a lot of ego. To be a teacher, there’s a lot of power. Particularly if your pupils are blind‐faithers—people who just follow the words of the teacher without using their own common sense. You find that in Buddhism too.’

He regarded me with an amused expression. ‘I can tell I’ve disappointed you. But you should beware of Shangri‐La syndrome.’

Shangri-La syndrome?

‘Yes,’ he chuckled, thinking everything about Tibet is magical and romantic. You people in the West, you like the mystery of it all, the magic, the talk of reincarnations, all the costumes and the rituals. It’s very exotic, yes? But these things aren’t important. The real miracle of Buddhism is how a person can change, from a very empty person to a person who’s full of compassion.'”

Source: Brown, Mick. (1998). The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief. New York: Bloomsbury. (pp. 122-124)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.