The Western Buddhist media have barely touched the Kalu story, which may represent its own form of decorum: not wishing to demoralize American converts or roil the waters among powerful Tibetan Buddhists. But some younger, Western Buddhists, like Ashoka and his half-brother Gesar Mukpo, the director of the 2009 documentary Tulku, say they find Kalu's raw honesty inspiring. Ruben Derksen, a 26-year-old Dutch tulku who appears in Gesar's film, says that it was about time that Tibetan Buddhist institutions were "demystified and the shroud was removed." Derksen, who as a child spent three years in a monastery in India, wishes to draw attention to the physical beatings that are a regular practice there. "I met Richard Gere and Steven Seagal, and they didn't see any of this," he says. "When celebrities or outsiders are around, you don't beat the kids."
Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche
Kalu's revelations have quietly rocked the Tibetan Buddhist establishment, and even some of its most distinguished figures have been taken aback. Robert Thurman, the Columbia University professor and the Dalai Lama's American confidant (and yes, Uma's father), says of Kalu's video, "I thought it was one of the most real things I've seen." About the knife-wielding incident, which some might find hard to credit, Thurman wrote in a subsequent e-mail, "Sadly, it all does seem credible to me. . . . The whole thing just reeks to high heaven." Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the lama who directed The Cup, the one relatively unsentimental feature film about Tibetan children raised as monks, is concerned about sexual abuse at monasteries. "I think this is something we should look at," he says. "It's very important that people don't forget: Buddhism and Buddhist are two different entities. Buddhism is perfect." Buddhists, he suggests, are not.
In Kalu, there is a reformer struggling to emerge from the self-pitying victim. He plans to open his own school in Bhutan and to forbid his monasteries from accepting children. He rails about the human costs of the monastery system that consumes thousands of kids, both workaday monks and revered tulkus, providing them with no practical education or fallback plan, all to produce a handful of commercially successful spiritual masters. "The tulku system is more like robots," he says. "You build 100 robots, and maybe 20 percent will be successful and 80 percent will go in the trash."
GOMO AND OSEL: OM BOYS REUNITED
Under the afternoon Tuscan sun in Pomaia, Gomo is sitting by the Istituto's giant brass prayer wheel with Osel Hita. Best friends from their years at the Sere Je monastery, the two are catching up on old times. Osel, a 27-year-old Spaniard, was a child lama prodigy and the subject of a biography by the time he was 3. He created a scandal a decade ago when he disappeared from the monastery without warning and made his way back to Europe to find himself. "I didn't feel I deserved so much respect, so many projections," he says. A scruffy freelance philosopher and secular seeker who has attended Burning Man, Osel lives with his girlfriend on the hard-partying Spanish island of Ibiza, where he is an aspiring filmmaker. Free of his monastic vows, he's since reconciled with the Buddhist tradition and now involves himself in the affairs of the Istituto's international parent organization.
Both he and Gomo are tulkus who had to leave the Tibetan Buddhist system to make their peace with it. The same could almost be said of Kalu, who has taken on the unhappy job of bringing Tibetan monasteries out of the Middle Ages. Listening to Gomo and Osel talk, one could easily think of the two lapsed lamas as apostates. But they could be seen as harbingers of a new, accessible, youth-friendly brand of Buddhism that owes as much to Western social mores as to traditional Tibetan forms.
As the conversation turns to Gomo's burgeoning hip-hop career, I mention that one of the tracks on his EP, "Don't You Know," sends a pretty clear Buddhist message: "I let life play its course now/ I'm just the caddy." Sounding very much like the Buddhist teacher he swears he'll never become—at least not formally—Gomo replies, "That's the thing. I am dharma. Don't know if you're aware of it, but you can be too. It's about the quality of who you are: being logical, compassionate, cool, chill. Anyone can do it—not just Buddhists."