Reincarnation: Child lama breathes new life into Buddhism

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In Nepal 15,000 people last week saw a small boy enthroned as the reincarnation of a great lama. Our correspondent in Kathmandu finds that although Tibetan Buddhism faces a bleak future in its homeland, across the border it has never looked in better shape

This week, a four-year-old Tibetan boy in a yellow padded jacket and bright red boots began to enjoy his new life in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Acclaimed as the reincarnation of one of the most revered Tibetan monks of the century, one of the Dalai Lama's teachers, he showed it in a typically four-year-old way: he refused to go home.

Instead, he led a host of shaven-headed, maroon-robed lamas on a mad dance around the temple precincts, bouncing across the cushions in the prayer hall and racing up and down the stairs, before being gently carried by the abbot to a waiting gold coloured Mercedes and driven to his parents' home.

The monks' glee at the child's behaviour was unaffected. Enthroned as the Yangsi, or reincarnation, only a week before, Ugyen Tendzin Jigme Lhundrup was for the first time showing he understood where he truly belonged.

This year is proving to be the year when the West's long running love affair with Tibet and its gorgeously elaborate brand of Buddhism turned into a mass-cultural phenomenon.

There was the film Seven Years In Tibet, and Martin Scorcese's Kundun, which opens in the United States on Christmas Day. A troup of lama dancers has just returned to Nepal from a tour of Europe where many of their performances were sold out.

In France, the ruminations of Matthieu Ricard, a monk at Shechen, the monastery in Baudhanath near Kathmandu where last week's ceremony took place, have become a best seller.

The enthronement of the Yangsi, which took place a little earlier in his life than is normal because 1999 was thought to be inauspicious, made a fine climax.

The crowd numbered 15,000. As well as lamas from the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism there were also 1,500 foreigners from 52 countries. All craned to see as, at 9 o'clock in the morning on 5 December, to the sound of trumpets, oboes and cymbals, and preceded by a procession of 100 lamas, the Yangsi was carried into the monastery under a huge orange canopy. By noon, the young boy had been enthroned. If he lives up to the hopes of the faithful he will grow up to be as important a figure for Tibetan Buddhism's continuing vitality as the two incarnations before him.

Since the enthronement, there have been opportunities to observe the young Yangsi in his new surroundings. The lamas stand around him grinning from a respectful distance, as if he were a newly unwrapped toy and no one was quite sure what it did. None of them would dream of rebuking or even touching him, and people are quick to spot evidence of precocious brilliance. The phrase "spoilt to death" goes through one's mind, though as all children in the east are indulged it probably does not apply.

But his life as a budding lama will be tough. In Tibetan Buddhism you may be born to fame, but glory you have to work for. Khyentse Rinpoche, the teacher of the Dalai Lama, of whom the four-year-old is the reincarnation, spent 13 years living in a cave in the mountains and wrote many books before being recognised as a great master. "Khyentse Rinpoche is one of my most revered teachers," wrote the Dalai Lama in Journey To Enlightenment, published last year. "[He] did not start out with a high rank in the religious hierarchy, but became a great teacher by developing complete and authentic accomplishment ... he received teachings from many masters, and instead of just leaving those teachings on the pages of his books, he actually put them into practice."

As the young reincarnation sets out on this arduous road, the outlook for Buddhism in his homeland of Tibet is worse then ever. A year ago, Chen Kui Jan became the Communist Party's top man in Tibet, fresh from his achievements in Inner Mongolia where over several years he had succeeded in squashing the renascent Mongolian identity. He has already had striking success in doing the same thing to Tibet. Under his "patriotic and political re-educational programme" he has despatched teams to more then 50 monasteries, where they conduct long, daily re-education meetings reminiscent of China's Cultural Revolution. In these meetings, the "Two headed Serpent" (the Dalai Lama) is denounced and the "fact" that Tibet has always been part of China is emphasised.

At the end of the programme, the monks are required to declare that they will never utter a word in favour of Tibetan liberty. If they refuse, they are expelled from the monastery. Already, Chen's programme has rid the monasteries that have been visited - half the total in central Tibet - of between 50 and 80 per cent of their monks. Chen's latest gambit is to assert that Buddhism is not an intrinsic part of Tibetan culture.

In Baudhanath, Tibetan Buddhism has never looked in better shape: funded by foreign money (including massive donations from Taiwan) new gompas (monasteries) are continually sprouting; Shechen monastery has just inaugurated an elementary school and a course in Buddhist psychology. But none of these achievements compensates for the bitterness of exile.