Beyond the Dalai Lama: Profiles of Four Tibetan Lamas-in-Exile

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This is a guest post by Elizabeth Dias, a TIME contributor based in Washington.

When the Dalai Lama came to Washington this month, he wasn’t alone. Accompanying the spiritual leader of Tibetans-in-exile were a group of other leading rinpoches, or reincarnate lamas and teachers. These Tibetan clerics, or “precious jewels” as the term rinpoche means, often keep their national and international influences low profile. Kate Saunders, director of communications for the International Campaign for Tibet, says this in part because the “one thing virtually all Tibetans share is loyalty to the Dalai Lama.” Yet as His Holiness nears the twilight of his life, attention has already shifted to those who are shouldering the mantle of his spiritual leadership overseas — the Dalai Lama already ceded his political powers earlier this year. TIME caught up with four of these leaders to hear their own stories of Tibetan leadership.

Gomo Tulku Rinpoche (Photo: Courtesy Gomo Tulku Rinpoche)
Gomo Tulku Rinpoche (Photo: Courtesy Gomo Tulku Rinpoche)

Gomo Tulku Rinpoche, 22

A “Recording-Artist Rinpoche” may seem unlikely, but then you have Gomo Tulku Rinpoche. He hails from the same Gelugpa lineage as the Dalai Lama, who recognized Gomo Tulku’s reincarnation at age three.

While his previous incarnation reportedly enjoyed ritual dance and music, Gomo Tulku takes this passion to an entirely new level. Three years ago he quit the Sera Je Monastery in south India to pursue a music career in Italy. That was not an easy decision. Since age 7 he’d been trained to become a teaching monk. Without telling anyone, “I booked the tickets myself and I left,” he recalls. “Being a lama, if that is my role, as a teacher, then at least I need to know what life is.”

Today he has created his own sound, one that trades traditional chant for a fusion of contemporary hip-hop and R&B with some slash and pop, and on July 28, he is set to release his first single, “Photograph.” Gomo Tulku works with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition and its 160 centers worldwide even as he is busy “spitting lines.” Here’s the line he spit for TIME: “I’m constantly dazed and confused, I never cease to be amazed by the views.” It’s an impromptu composition, but nevertheless it reveals his honest approach of self-discovery. As he describes it, he is trying “to find myself in a different way and experience life and share it with my people” and to “have that direct interaction instead of being on the throne. I want to come down with you guys, just chill with you guys and talk.”

Khyongla Rato Rinpoche listens to the Dalai Lama's teaching at Radio City Music Hall, May 22, 2010. (Photo: David Turnley / COrbis

Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, 89

Few people have known the Dalai Lama longer than Khyongla Rinpoche. He was there the first day His Holiness arrived in Lhasa as a toddler and was seated on his throne in a peacock-adorned tent. They shared tutors and eventually fled Tibet only days apart in 1959. Today their relationship remains close—the Dalai Lama sometimes greets him with a tap on the head and his attendant with a pinch to the nose.

This esteemed lama founded New York City’s oldest Tibetan Buddhist organization, The Tibet Center, in 1975. At age 6, he became the head of a Gelugpa monastery in Tibet. Now 89, Khyongla Rinpoche plays the self-deprecating monk. “I’m not important at all, among the many thousands to Tibetan incarnate lamas, Rinpoche is only one,” said Khyongla Rato Rinpoche. “You’re interviewing the wrong person.”

Unlike most elderly lamas, Khyongla Rinpoche has branched out to embrace new means of communication.  He has starred in the 1993 film Little Buddha at the Dalai Lama’s request, and today uses his favorite film March of the Penguins to teach his students the hardships love requires. “If I’m [reborn] a penguin, I’ll have to do like this,” he jokes as he waves his arms.

Arjia Rinpoche, Director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, February 24, 2010. (Photo: Robert Scheer / The Indianapolis Star / AP)

Arjia Rinpoche, 60

A former abbot of Kumbum monastery, one of the largest and oldest on the Tibetan plateau, Arjia Rinpoche ruffled quite a few feathers in Beijing when he fled Tibet in 1998. Before the Karmapa Lama fled in 2000, Arjia Rinpoche was considered the most senior lama to flee Tibet after the Dalai Lama.

Recognized at age two to be the re-incarnation of Lama Tsong-khapa, a 13th century Buddhist reformer, Arjia Rinpoche knows firsthand the challenges Tibetan Buddhism faces. Chinese authorities forced him out of his teenage monk robes and into the work force for 16 years, during which he saw family members disappear or be imprisoned. His own monastery changed drastically under Chinese watch. “The people say, ‘It’s more like Buddhist Disneyland,’” he notes. Eventually China tapped him to lead the Chinese National Buddhist Association, but when the Chinese government prepared to force him to become their Panchen Lama’s tutor in 1998, he realized he could no longer let China’s political agenda against Tibet dictate his spiritual life. “More and more political things had interrupted my practice. That’s why I escaped,” he says. He fled to Guatemala before receiving asylum in the United States.

Today Arjia Rinpoche insists there may be a hopeful future ahead with China. “I can see lots of difficult things in China—the control of media, human rights,” he says. “But at the same time I can see lots of positive things there too. China might have a big change. In my lifetime, I saw lots of big changes in China.”

Currently he runs the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, IL, but his reputation extends far and wide: even while he’s tucked away in the corner of a Thai restaurant in a Washington, a Western devotee found her way to his feet to seek his blessing. He is not too worried about the selection of the next Dalai Lama. Instead he shares the Dalai Lama’s openness to His Holiness’s next incarnation. “Maybe next life a westerner, maybe as a woman. That’s really a possibility.”

Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche

Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche (Photo: Birrell Walsh)

Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, 42

Women are traditionally rare birds among Buddhist lamas. But that shows signs of change. A nun who grew up the only woman among 500 monks in India, Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche represents the Mindrolling lineage, one of Buddhism’s few with a history of female masters. She leads the Lotus Garden Retreat Center in Stanley, VA, where one of her primary projects is directing nuns in a range of social service projects, from actively educating Tibetan women toward financial independence to creating independent living opportunities for senior citizens in Tibetan refugee camps.

Khandro Rinpoche’s hair has often sparked controversy and confusion. Bucking a tradition of nuns keeping their hair long, Khandro Rinpoche keeps hers neatly shaved. But what many people believe was a profound spiritual decision actually was initially a slip of the scissors. At age 19, after much debate between her elders about whether or not she should shave her head in typical Tibetan-monk fashion, a barber accidently chopped off a chunk of her locks. To the chagrin of the emotional mothers in the room, Khandro Rinpoche replied, “Just cut the whole thing off.” She has gone shaved ever since.

In Washington with iPhone in hand, Khandro Rinpoche is a savvy communicator and ready to face the critical challenges ahead. “I think the next five decades are going to be hard work,” she reflects. “Now I think is the time where Western Buddhists have to exert more effort. It is about saying this is not an Eastern philosophy that we are blindly following but it is something that we have to let grow in our own selves and adapt to our way of living life.”