By Mimi Pollack
As a Jew who studies Tibetan Buddhism, it was with great interest that I went to see well-known playwright Sarah Ruhl’s “The Oldest Boy” at the Lyceum Theater. The play’s last day in San Diego was Dec. 6, but it inspired me to write this piece and reflect on karma, destiny, and the universal conflict a mother must feel when her child leaves, even if it is for a higher calling.
I probably saw the play with different eyes than most because I actually met a boy whose story was very similar. The play deals with the true story of an American woman, married to a Tibetan man, whose son is recognized as a Tulku or the reincarnation of a great Buddhist rinpoche or teacher. The play is about the struggle between faith and family and the understandable grief the mother feels as she is torn between keeping her son, or sending him off at the age of three to live with the monks in Dharamsala, India, so he can be enthroned and trained. In the end, she and her husband go with the boy to India, and allow him to follow the destiny the dedicated monks envision for him. Perhaps the blow is softened a little by the fact that she has another child in India and eventually the baby girl and her parents return to Boston.
In 2001, I traveled to Mundgod, India with Land of Compassion Buddha to study with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Mundgod is home to a magnificent temple and school of Buddhist monks and the Tibetan Buddhist refugee camps. It was there that I met a young teenage monk from Victorville, CA, who had also been recognized as the reincarnation of a great teacher when he was five. His Tibetan parents sent him to India to study. By the time, I met him, he was on his way to becoming a great lama and teacher, but he still had a little bit of California boy left in him. He liked practicing his English with me and asked me to bring him back comic books when I returned, which I hope to do one day.
The play made me think of him and what happens to others like him when they grow up. In the case of the young man from Victorville, he remained with the monks and continues to study and teach. However, I’m familiar with the case of a Tulku from Spain who left the monastery and is now pursuing an artistic life as a musician.
Although one can no longer see the play in San Diego, my favorite character, veteran Tibetan actor Tsering Dorjee Bawa, reports that he will be working on a film in San Francisco called “Finding Tenzin” and it is based on the little boy in the play, with plans for a release sometime in 2016. He has his own website: www.tseringbawa.com. I look forward to seeing the movie.
Mimi Pollack is an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Grossmont College and a freelance writer.
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