Critical Commentary: All-American Lama: How an 11th Century Mystic was Reborn in Philadelphia

Posted on April 11, 2013 by

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One of the fundamental Buddhist principles of moral thought and action is karma. Karma is defined as the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. Karma seems to have played a progressive and very essential role in the life of a man named Erdne Ombadykow. Nowadays, Ombadykow is also known as Telo Rinpoche and is the Tibetian Buddhist spiritual leader of the Kalmykia people but he had an uncommon upbringing that landed him in the position he is in today. At an early age, Ombadykow took extraordinary devotion to the Buddhist religion. Although his parents were Buddhist, they were not particularly religious themselves and found his interest unusual. When other children in his neighborhood wanted to be policemen and firemen, Ombadykow aspired to become a Buddhist monk. He was born October 27, 1972 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, far from his family’s native Kalmykia, a Mongolian territory of Russia. At age 7, Erdne came in contact with the Dalai Lama who was visiting a nearby temple and was invited to move to India to continue his studies. This event kick started his journey to gaining the identity of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, head lama of the Republic of Kalmykia.

Knowledge of Buddhism in the West has been a more recent arrival but with the growth of easy travel and communication, Buddhism has flourished within the U.S. This article about Erdne and his story brought to mind the topic of orientalism and how the West depicts the East. It also made me recall the article about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s claim to fame as the guru to the stars and his enthusiasm for the Western world. After being recognized as the reincarnation of the Buddhist Mahasiddha Tilopa, Owbadykow had heavy responsibilities but felt naïve and manipulated by others close to him. He eventually crumbled under the pressure and moved back west to Colorado. Erdne spent this portion of his life indulging in western pleasures such as drinking and partying, starting a family, and living a pretty typical life. On occasion he would make trips back to his former monastery in India but only when he could afford it. His actions seriously had the Dalai Lama who had taken him under his wing questioning him harshly. Like Yogi, Owbadykow went against the grain when it came to his position of authority within Buddhism. Both were highly respected in their communities and both felt the need to use their power to make these communities a more peaceful place. Owbadykow constructed a white Buddhist temple in Kalmykia and arranged for young men to study in India. As Americans, for the most part, we have pessimistic and privileged views of India and believe that they could not survive on their own and are dependent on others. Having lived the majority of his life in the U.S., it appears Owbadykow has similar views.

Although Owbadykow has his best intentions in mind when fighting for Buddhist rights against communism, to this day he still only visits Mongolia and surrounding areas annually. While he helps promote a religious exchange between Mongolia and the Dalai Lama’s institutions in exile, he spends the majority of his time in Colorado with his family away from the turmoil and hardship. Through all of these events, he is still seen as Telo Rinpoche, the Buddhist saint. Refering to Owbadykow being discovered in a Buddhist temple in Philadelphia, the last sentence of the article states, “Christians would call this destiny or fate, we call it karma.” He chooses to live his average everyday life in America and only holds his current status because of reincarnation. As a westerner, one might tend to look down on this but without the proper understanding it is difficult to make an accurate understanding of why things are the way they are. Still, Telo Tulku Rinpoche is equally as celebrated as his predecessor and will continue on the path of a spiritual leader.

Source: McGirk, Tim. “All-American Lama: How an 11th Century Mystic Was Reborn in Philadelphia.” Time World. n. page. Web. 09 Apr. 2013. <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2111552,00.html>.

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