Child Worship in Kathmandu
In 1997, before venturing into the Sagarmatha National Park on my trek of the environs of Mount Everest, I had the opportunity to visit the Kathmandu Buddhist neighborhood of Bodhnath, and there I had a peculiar visit with Deshung Trulku-la, then a 6-year old Tibetan lama.
Deshung Rinpoche III (1906-1987) was a Tibetan lama who was considered to be the third reincarnation of Deshung Lungrig Nyima, the historic founder of the Deshung Monastery in Tibet. During the 1950s, Deshung III fled Tibet at the onslaught of Mao's army, and while teaching and raising funds in the U.S. established the Tharlam Monastery in Bodhnath, near Kathmandu, Nepal.
Seven years after his death, Deshung III's followers found Sonam Wangdu, a 3-year old half-Tibetan child living in Seattle with his mother (his Tibetan father had died in a car accident) and proclaimed him to be the fourth reincarnation of Deshung Lungrig Nyima, or Deshung Rinpoche IV. (Deshung III had apparently told his followers that his successor would be born in Seattle.) Sonam's white American mother, Carolyn Lama, was unhesitatingly cooperative with the monks, much to the highly-publicized wrath of her own parents and child protection authorities: it seems that she had had a dream about her son before he was born that when he was 8 years old, thousands of people (including the Dalai Lama) would come to hear him teach.
Having passed the tests of Deshung III's followers, the tot was enthroned as Deshung Trulku-la, the abbot of Tharlam Monastery, in a ceremony on March 8, 1994. Since then, Carolyn has been permitted to visit her son in Nepal only on rare occasions, while the monks at Tharlam raise Deshung Trulku-la and train him to accept leadership of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. (Incidentally, Bernardo Bertolucci's depiction of a white child from Seattle being a considered as the successor to a Buddhist lama in his 1993 film Little Buddha is merely coincidence and was not based on Deshung Trulku-la's experience.)
While wandering the streets of Bodhnath, I asked my guide for the day, Mr. Surendira, if he knew anything about the boy lama from America, whom I had heard about on an episode of Dateline NBC.
“Oh, yes,” said Surendira, “he lives near here.”
“Well, I’d like to see his monastery,” I said.
“Yes, no problem, I will take you,” he replied, and with that we were sprinting through the streets of Bodhnath. Soon we came upon the Tharlam compound, and I began to take it in, not realizing that in following Surendira, I was wandering into the living quarters of Deshung Trulku-la.
Suddenly, as Mr. Surendira led me to the threshold of a room deep within the compound, I realized, without introduction or ceremony, that I was standing in little Deshung’s room. “Here he is,” Surendira said to me, beaming.
The child was busy playing Power Rangers with a young friend of his from the monastery. “Deshung, this man has come all the way from America to see you,” Surendira said.
Deshung looked up at me. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said wearily, as though it happened a dozen times a day, proceeding then to take a red robot action figure and crash it down onto the head of a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex.
We exchanged few words, to be honest. I asked and received his permission to take a picture. I felt totally unprepared for the moment – as if I were going to the grocery store to buy a bar of soap and suddenly encountered Pope Benedict XVI in the frozen foods section. If you had a chance to speak to an exalted holy man, even if he was only a child – what would you ask? What nagging metaphysical concerns would you seek to clear up? “Nice to meet you,” I said.
After my trek in the Himalayas, I visited the Kumari Bahal, a temple which is the home of the Royal Kumari, or living virgin goddess – at that time, a 4-year old girl who is worshipped as a Hindu goddess by the king of Nepal. She is chosen from among the Buddhist Sakya families of Kathmandu and must possess the 32 qualities of a flawless girl – i.e., she must have eyelashes like a cow’s, a neck like a conch shell, she must be intrepid and unblemished, etc. Then she is taken to spend each day in placid luxury within the walls of the Bahal, dressed in her ceremonial finery, never to emerge except during two celebrations each year, when she is carried through the streets without letting her feet touch the ground. Visitors are not permitted to photograph her, but there are photos of her for sale at the Bahal. When she reaches puberty, she retires with a pension from the king and a new Kumari is chosen.
I entered the courtyard of the Bahal and, for a small donation, I was able to see her briefly in her balcony window. She looked down on me with as blank an expression as I can recall seeing. It is said, however, that she possesses an all-knowing gaze and, like a Magic 8-Ball, can answer your questions with just a glance. Unfortunately, my mind was a blank, too.
There are numerous legends about ex-Kumaris – including, most significantly, that a man who marries one is cursed to live a short unhappy life. One ex-Kumari, an 84-year old woman who was the living goddess in the 1920s and who was married for more than 70 years to a Kathmandu craftsman, took the moment of the installation of a new Kumari to dispel the rumor, pointing to her own experience. Her husband was even more definitive: “I do not say Kumaris' husbands never die,” he said. “Everyone has to die one day. There are widows, widowers. It is natural and not because they were former Kumaris or their husbands.”
Still, one has to assume that the bridegroom of an ex-Kumari must require an exceedingly stiff spine to deal with someone who has lived most of her childhood as a goddess – not unlike the spine one must certainly have if one were to, say, marry an Olsen twin.