Sacrilige: The Rebellious Reincarnate

A young Tibetan monk struggles to reconcile his love of pop culture with his spiritual calling.

text and photographs by adrian nam

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Kunga, a 22-year-old Tibetan monk, is eager to show me some YouTube videos on his laptop. Dressed in red robes and sandals branded with large Nike swooshes, he leads me down the hall of the monastery living quarters with the loose, confident stride of an American teenager. His room feels less formal than the other monks’ rooms, maybe because he has chosen to sleep on a thin mattress on the floor rather than on a bed. On the wall is a mandala, a Buddhist representation of the universe featuring the goddess Tara, mother of liberation.

Opening his computer, Kunga pulls up a video of NBA basketball highlights mixed with hip-hop music. He looks back and forth from the screen to my face, eager to see if I am getting into it. Next up is a Skrillex music video: A skinny DJ with long black hair, who could be Marilyn Manson’s better-adjusted younger brother, is en route to Las Vegas. When he arrives on the set, the music starts—totally electronic, all bass and pounding metallic rhythm. The enormous crowd goes nuts, but the music doesn’t do anything for me. When Kunga enthusiastically tells me that this guy has won Grammys, I don’t believe him. He googles it. He’s right.

It is 2012, and I have traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal, to teach technology, social media, and business English at a renowned Buddhist monastery called the International Buddhist Academy. I don’t know what I expected to happen here, but it definitely didn’t include a 22-year-old monk introducing me to dubstep.

The IBA, established in 2001, has the mission of translating and digitizing Tibetan Buddhist texts into English and Mandarin. Its monastic leadership and communication program trains monks, over several years, to become community leaders or translators of challenging scriptures. My assignment is to teach four monks who are enrolled in the program once a day for an hour, five days a week, for 10 weeks. My students are highly educated and very bright. Before matriculating at the IBA, they completed the Tibetan education system’s equivalent of a master’s degree, and many speak several languages, including English, Hindi, and Tibetan. The program provides them with open access to the Internet and allows them to interact with Westerners who are studying or teaching at the academy.

I quickly realize that many of the young monks are into K-Pop, Bollywood, and the NBA, but Kunga’s obsession stands out. At first, his voracious appetite for all things pop culture seems almost sacrilegious to me. I wonder how he can be so drawn to Western commercial glitz, which idolizes sex appeal and money, if he is truly pursuing a spiritual life. The monks live simply, eat communal vegetarian meals, and are expected to be celibate. As I get to know Kunga better, my respect for the way he negotiates between these two universes grows. But my questions do not go away.

From New Delhi to Hollywood

Kunga was born in New Delhi, India. “I was an ordinary Tibetan refugee kid whose parents were also born in India,” he tells me. “But my grandparents were from Tibet.” They had fled when the Chinese cracked down on Buddhism in their home country. Kunga’s early childhood was a few steps removed from the insular but deeply connected community of exiled Tibetans in New Delhi. His parents wanted to have a life separate from the Tibetan “colonies,” as Kunga calls them, and reared their children in a mostly Indian neighborhood. But karma—or serendipity—was to pull Kunga back to his Tibetan heritage.

One day a group of Buddhist scouts arrived in New Delhi from a distant monastery near the town of Derge. Now subsumed within China’s Sichuan province, Derge was originally part of historical Tibet in the province of Kham. The scouts were in search of their tulku, the sixth reincarnation of the high lama who has led the Derge monastery for centuries. Their tulku, as it turned out, was seven-year-old Kunga. Thereafter, Kunga became a monk preparing for his destined role as a religious leader in a place that his current incarnation, a boy born in India, wouldn’t see for the first time until the age of 14.

By strange coincidence, shortly after having been informed of his unique spiritual destiny, Kunga was again singled out as one child in a million—this time by Hollywood. Another scout, a casting agent, discovered him and put him through a process that eventually led to his being chosen to play the child Dalai Lama in Martin Scorcese’s film Kundun. Kunga says that he was unfazed by being in a movie, even when he arrived on set in Morocco. “I never had problems facing an audience or crowds,” he says. “I guess that was probably why I was chosen. For me, they were just people, even Martin. I had no idea he was so famous.”

As Kunga grew up, he dreamed of combining his two seemingly incongruous passions of modern entertainment and Buddhism. While a teenager, he spent several years at Sakya College, a monastic college in India. He recalls, “I used to be not a very good student. There was a group of us who were always breaking the rules. We had these two-hour debating sessions, and while most of the monks were debating each other, we used to fantasize about creating an album of chants or something. It was this completely modern idea: to wear this attire of a monk and be responsible, and at the same time have some fun.”

During the time that I spend at the IBA, Kunga is still thinking about how to meld pop culture with Buddhism. One day, he tells me about an idea he has for a YouTube music channel that would feature a different video for each Buddhist chant. The video would display text in English explaining what each chant meant, why it was created, and how it could help the viewer. “Chanting generates a positive energy, and this positive energy changes you little by little,” Kunga says. “It’s just like a wave effect.”

It strikes me that Kunga really might be able to create a more accessible form of Tibetan Buddhism for a young, Western audience. We sit down and begin mapping out a plan to get his YouTube channel running. During our first session, we brainstorm names for the channel: “Monk TV,” “Modern Buddha,” “Current Buddha.” But as the weeks go by, Kunga seems to lose interest in the project. He spends his free time playing basketball with the other monks or watching  videos online in his room. When I ask him about his loss of focus, he says that he is still growing up, still having fun—and that all of this meandering will eventually enable him to understand, and therefore help, other people.

I am skeptical, though. His answer sounds like an excuse. To me, creating a YouTube channel dedicated to spiritual music sounds like the perfect way for Kunga to reconcile his dual identities. I wonder if it is just laziness that is preventing him from pursuing his dreams.

But the notion that Kunga is lazy is hard to reconcile with the puja.

Kunga tells me that nearly every morning at 6 a.m., he and the other monks perform a ceremony, called a puja, that includes meditation and chanting. Waking up early one cold morning to observe the puja myself, I see Kunga immersed in a seeming trance. Devoid of his usual charismatic personality, he looks like a completely different person. The atmosphere is ritualistic and ancient—it feels uninviting and impersonal to me. The monks do not even register my presence. I have never seen human beings so focused.

                                            

A Previous Incarnation

More than a year after my time with Kunga at the IBA, I message him on Facebook to see how he is doing. He suggests that we talk on Viber, an app with free voice calling. When I ask him about his music, he initially responds as if he doesn’t remember, which seems odd: I distinctly recall him playing an acoustic guitar and singing in his room. When I remind him about his YouTube channel idea, he disavows the whole thing. Pop music, he explains, is “about entertainment and calming down listeners’ emotions. It’s basically to make money or for entertainment. And I cannot use Buddhism as a tool to entertain others or make money—that would be disrespectful.”

This answer doesn’t sit any better with me than his earlier one about being young and having fun. Where, I wonder, is the bright line that separates respectful use of music from disrespect? Isn’t it possible for him to create noncommercial religious music?

During the time that I spent at the IBA, Kunga and I didn’t have a chance to talk much about his future. But now I want to know more. What are his plans? In answering, he takes me back to one unforgettable day when he was 14.

“Before monk’s college, I visited my monastery in Tibet where I was a monk in my previous life,” Kunga says. “I couldn’t stay long because of some political issues—I could just stay for a day and I had to leave in the night—but I experienced a lot of things. I got to learn a lot about Tibet. The most fascinating thing about the trip was how people saw me. When I got there, I was meeting them for the first time—they were strangers. But for them, the look in their eyes—it was like they had known me for decades. The look in their eyes and the respect they had for me . . . many of them actually cried. It was fascinating to see such emotion from people, just for another man.”

Kunga uses the analogy of parenthood to help me understand his situation. For him, he says, meeting the community that was awaiting his return was like seeing his own child for the first time. It gave him a huge sense of obligation, as if those people were now his own offspring.

As Kunga talks about the people of Derge, I become aware of a strange duality in his response to them. He feels a deep emotional connection and commitment to the simple folk who look upon him as a holy man. But at the same time, he regards their worship with cool, intellectual detachment. “Tibet was a completely different atmosphere,” he says. “It’s more about the religion than it is for us. It’s like tulkus are gods for them. It’s kind of disgusting to share, but some of them actually believe that drinking my pee will cure their sickness—that kind of superstitious faith. When I left that night, even after crossing a 100 miles, I saw people who were actually coming to see me on their horses. They had rested for the night in small tents, and they were coming to see me. It was pretty emotional.”

The day’s events made an indelible impression on him. “It was clear from the people’s expressions that my previous incarnation was a great man,” he says, adding gravely, “I have a lot of responsibility now.” Being a tulku means striving to attain the same high spiritual level achieved, through discipline, by all six of his previous incarnations. More than a year after meeting Kunga, I am finally beginning to grasp the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional complexity of the life choices that face him.

Hotel California

One day when I am at the IBA, Kunga plays the Eagles’ “Hotel California” for me. My parents used to play the song when I was a child, and it brings back a flood of memories. Kunga looks more serious than usual. He wants to play the song again, but this time, he asks me to close my eyes and really listen to the lyrics. The second time around, I focus on the narrative.

“Hotel California” is a creepily evocative tale about a man who is driving along a highway and stops at a hotel, expecting to stay for just a short while. Although on the surface things are seductive and glimmering, there is an ominous feeling that something just isn’t right. “There she stood in the doorway / I heard the mission bell / And I was thinkin’ to myself / This could be heaven and this could be hell.”

Amid disturbingly sensual images and cryptic references to loss, the woman showing the man through the hotel says, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.” As the narrator runs for the door, trying to find “the passage back to the place I was before,” the night clerk ends the song with the words, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

The more I think about these lyrics, the more I understand why Kunga is obsessed with this song. According to its writers, “Hotel California” is about being sucked into the decadent seductions of the Los Angeles lifestyle. That subject would obviously resonate with Kunga. At the same time, he undoubtedly would interpret the hellish Hotel California as a deeper metaphor for being trapped in the cycle of desire, the endless merry-go-round of worldly gratifications that monks aspire to escape. To make the parallels to his own situation even more eerie, there is that uncanny mention of “the mission bell”—a reference to the monastic missions of old California. To Kunga, could Hotel California also inversely symbolize the monastic life—another place you can never leave?

During the months that pass after we sat in his room, I often wonder what Kunga was thinking about when he listened to that song. Was he drawn to the shimmering enticements of the hotel? Or strengthened in his resolve to pursue an ascetic life? Or, somehow, both at once?

I think back to the mandala in Kunga’s room, a painting of the universe and the goddess of liberation. To me, as to most Westerners, liberation means the freedom to pursue your dreams and desires. It means making the life you want, even if you need to find an innovative way to work around your responsibilities and challenges. But in Buddhist philosophy, liberation is freedom from worldly desires.

The path that Kunga has chosen—or that has been chosen for him—leads toward renunciation of the world and its baubles. It is an ancient calling, one pursued, in different ways, by the deepest practitioners of all of the world’s great religions. Although I had my doubts and questions about Kunga, I end up with a deep respect for him and for the choices he has made. As a postmillenial monk, he has been exposed to far more of the world’s entertaining seductions than most ascetics ever have. Still, I cannot help but wonder: If he ever listens to that song again, will he feel that he has escaped Hotel California—or that he is a prisoner of his own device?