Meet the Minnesota 9-year-old destined to be a Buddhist spiritual leader

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HARI SREENIVASAN: The tradition of rebirth is a central Tenet in the Buddhist religion. And when spiritual leaders, or lamas, die, there’s an elaborate process of identifying their reincarnation.

It’s usually an infant. One such young lama was identified a few years ago far away from his Himalayan roots.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Minnesota.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They are chants more likely heard in a Himalayan monastery than a working-class Minneapolis suburb.

But it’s here in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, that 9-year-old Jalue Dorje begins the day in a routine of Tibetan Buddhist mantras, coached by his father.

A bit later, there are house calls from volunteer teachers in modern Tibetan, in the calligraphy of the ancient scriptures.

THINLY WORSER, Teacher: He has really motivation to learn and especially — even I know him, he’s tired, but he says, no, I’m not tired. I want to continue, you know?

So that also motivated me also to teach him.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s a fitting trait, because Jalue Dorje has been recognized as a reincarnation of Takshem Karma Yongdu Choekyi Nima, an eminent senior lama, or spiritual leader, who died nine years ago. He would be the eighth reincarnation of the first Takshem lama, who lived in the 16th century.

In Tibetan tradition, the process of recognizing a reincarnate varies, depending on circumstances. Spiritual masters divine from a variety of signals. In the case of Jalue Dorje, it was the dream of a senior monk who had visited Jalue’s home in Minnesota, which is home to some 3,000 Tibetan-Americans, the second in size only to New York.

In that dream, tigers roamed in every room of Jalue’s house. It was a critical clue in the search for the Takshem Lama’s reincarnation.

THINLY WORSER: The Takshem lamas, they used to wear skirts of the tiger skin. Then I also thought, oh, it might be, you know, because Takshem lama was passed away year before, and everybody was trying to find out his reincarnation.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The question of whether that reincarnation is indeed Jalue Dorje went all the way up to the Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism.

THINLY WORSER: Then His Holiness’ prediction was the same, and many other high lamas, and so he was confirmed.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the old days, the boy would be moved to a monastery in Tibet, or now in India, where the Dalai Lama and thousands of followers have lived in exile since 1959.

However, the Dalai Lama suggested that Jalue’s monastic education be deferred until he’s a bit older. The spiritual leader has emphasized that Tibetans or all Buddhists must reconcile their traditional belief system with the modern world. .

DALAI LAMA: I always appealing we Buddhists should be 21st century Buddhists.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For Jalue Dorje, that means immersion in ceremony and scripture, on one hand, and, on the other, a fairly typical 21st century Minnesota upbringing.

Soccer and swimming are favorite pastimes, as are more sedentary ones, isolated in headphones and a laptop computer. All this will soon change drastically in a Himalayan monastery perhaps in a couple of years, though an exact date has not yet been determined.

After about 10 years in India, he is to return to Minnesota as a spiritual leader.

When you grow older and you’ve completed your studies, what do you think you’ll be doing for people?

JALUE DORJE: I will be praying for them. I will be chanting for them.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: When I asked what those chants mean, he responded after consulting with his dad, who sat in on our conversation.

JALUE DORJE: It’s like meanings of how to help, how your body works, to be nice, to be — have peace.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Not every young lama fully embraces the rigorous, altruistic calling of meditation and service to others. The modern world can be filled with distraction.

All this adds pressure on Jalue’s parents, who labor long hours doing janitorial jobs in Minneapolis. Devout Buddhists, they say they were honored and a bit awed when they learned of the boy’s recognition, something that has even brought them into close quarters with the Dalai Lama.

DECHEN WANGMO, Mother of Jalue Dorje (through translator): It was the first time in my 40 years I got to see His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. It is overwhelming for me, because ordinary people don’t normally have the opportunity to meet him.

DORJE TSEGYAL, Father of Jalue Dorje (through translator): I’m happy that he has the chance to learn about the modern world, as well as the Eastern spiritual wisdom, both combined right from childhood. It’s going to be good.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But like every other parent of a 9-year-old, he has strategies, mainly an incentive system to keep his son on task.

Every time you memorize a set of scriptures, you get a toy at Target, like a set of Pokemon cards or something?

JALUE DORJE: Yes, mostly that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He’s learning to strike a balance in life, even as ceremonial obligations are being added to his routine. At this gathering celebrating the birthday of the Karmapa Lama, a major spiritual leader, Dorje came prepared with a book that’s popular with grade school readers.

So, what did you bring to read today?

JALUE DORJE: “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Did you bring Pokemon cards?

JALUE DORJE: I snuck them.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Does dad know that?

JALUE DORJE: No.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So, we agreed to keep it a secret between him and the television audience.

For the record, the Pokemon cards remained out of sight, and Jalue Dorje remained as attentive as any adult through the three-hour ceremony.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Columbia Heights, Minnesota.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

And a version of this report aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”

The post Meet the Minnesota 9-year-old destined to be a Buddhist spiritual leader appeared first on PBS NewsHour.