The unlikely tale of a teenage lama
By JEANNE MALMGREN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
CLEARWATER -- You've met kids like Jack Churchward.
He was hyperactive as a tyke. Loves McDonald's. Schleps around in baggy jeans and a white undershirt. Drank and hung out with slackers as a teen. Loves to shoot hoops. Had some scrapes with the law. Quit school in ninth grade.
Buddhist believers have identified the Clearwater youth as the reincarnation of a lama, or high-ranking monk, who died sometime around the first World War. They treat him with deference and affection. They seek his advice.
Having struggled in English class, he is now trying to learn Tibetan.
When he takes his place as head of a monastery in the Himalayas, he will have completed a remarkable transformation.
Talk about good karma.
* * *
The story starts when Churchward was 4, with the french fry incident.
"I was driving along and he was chucking his burnt french fries out the car window," recalled Churchward's mother, Cindy, 42. "I said, "Jack, why are you throwing them in the grass?' He said, "Because if I throw them on the street and the ants come out to eat them, they'll get run over.' "
Cindy Churchward knew right then her son was something special. (The Churchwards also have two daughters, both older than Jack.) She and her husband, also named Jack, have studied Buddhism for decades. Compassion is an important part of what they practice. So when their son showed concern for ants, they got excited.
They consulted with their meditation teacher, a monk from Tibet. He told them the boy was indeed special, possibly a tulku, a highly realized being who chose to reincarnate himself in their child.
Far-fetched? Not to Tibetan Buddhists. More than 200 tulkus have been identified in Tibet, according to Nathan Katz, chair of religious studies at Florida International University and an expert in Tibetan Buddhism.
Most tulkus are born to Tibetan or Chinese parents, but a handful have been found in the West. Usually they are young children but one, found in 1988, was a 39-year-old American woman. She opened a large Tibetan meditation center in Maryland and last year was the subject of a biography, The Buddha from Brooklyn, written by a Washington Post reporter. The book included stories from former students of the woman, who claimed she physically and verbally abused them.
To Tibetan Buddhists, the tulku is a sacred being, a treasured part of their tradition.
"The Dalai Lama is the best known and most esteemed of all tulkus," said Katz. "He is said to be the fourteenth in his lineage." That means a single human consciousness has reappeared that many times, gaining compassion and wisdom along the way.
A tulku, according to Katz, is also a bodhisattva, a spiritually advanced person who "undertakes to work tirelessly and ceaselessly for the welfare of all sentient beings." That includes being reborn again and again, so the bodhisattva can help and teach others.
By the time Jack Churchward was ready to start school, his parents were pretty sure they had a little bodhisattva under their roof. His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche, head of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, confirmed this the first time he visited the family at their house in Clearwater.
Even though Churchward was 7 at the time, he remembers what happened.
"They were in our house doing a ceremony," he said. "I closed my eyes and I saw a chicken lay an egg."
"And that," said Cindy Churchward, maternal pride in her voice, "is a visualization that only a highly realized master can do. It's a secret, what it means, but they told us . . . only the masters know it."
His Holiness was impressed. He pronounced the young boy a reincarnated Tibetan lama. He asked Churchward if he would like to come to India and be enthroned.
Replied the boy tulku: No way!
Over the years, His Holiness asked again and again, each time he visited Clearwater. Churchward always said no. That he was given a choice was unusual: In the case of most tulkus, the child is taken to live at a monastery whether he likes it or not. The parents, deeply honored, willingly give their child to the greater cause.
But this was an American boy with American parents who, for all their devotion to Buddhism, were leery of letting their son go. Monks advised the Churchwards not to worry, just wait and let the boy go to India whenever he decided he was ready.
Meanwhile, Jack seemed to be channelling Dennis the Menace.
"He was a brat," Cindy Churchward said, laughing. "Very hyperactive, very demanding. Now I can understand why, because for lifetime after lifetime, he's had people waiting on him."
Starting in first grade, the young tulku had trouble in school. He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Doctors prescribed Ritalin and Lithium to calm him. For a while he attended Clearwater's Calvin Hunsinger School for emotionally troubled kids.
At 14 he started smoking, drinking and hanging out with a group of rough teenagers. His parents remained deeply involved in their Buddhist studies. Colorful pictures of Tibetan deities hung on the walls of their house. A large shrine with flickering candles dominated the dining room.
Young Jack ignored it all.
"I thought it was nothing. I didn't believe in Buddhism at all," he recalled.
When he was 15, he and some friends were caught shoplifting athletic shoes. His community service was helping build the shrine room at the Tibetan meditation center his parents had started.
Halfway through ninth grade, Churchward dropped out. He worked sporadically, at construction jobs and at a Wendy's. More and more of his friends were doing drugs. The Churchwards worried constantly about their son.
Just after his 16th birthday, Churchward was arrested for possession of marijuana. The charges were dropped, but it was a big scare for the family. Cindy Churchward called her Buddhist teacher, in a panic.
It's okay, she remembers being told. This will give your son a first-hand experience of suffering. And suffering brings about change.
Change came just after Churchward turned 17. Many of his friends were in prison. One died of an overdose. He realized he had an extraordinary chance to escape that fate; he could take refuge in a spiritual life.
His Holiness again came to visit the family. Churchward asked to speak to him. They went into the boy's bedroom and shut the door.
"I could hear them in there, laughing and laughing," said Cindy Churchward. "And then Jack came out and said, "I'm going to India. I've decided to accept my enthronement.' "
The date was set for November 2000, more than a year away. Churchward started cleaning up his life. He pruned his list of friends to three or four. He gave up cigarettes and drugs and spent his free time camping and cave diving. He worked as a cart attendant at Countryside Executive Golf Course, where Cindy Churchward is general manager. (Jack Churchward, 43, is a senior development and design engineer at Honeywell in Largo.)
He also began attending meetings at the meditation center with his parents. "I started to listen and it started to make sense," he said. "You know, living your life without so much stress."
Cindy Churchward was elated. "I was very happy he was finally on the path. He's not only going to relieve his own suffering, but the suffering of so many others."
On Nov. 10, in an elaborate ceremony at the headquarters of the Drikung order, near Dehra Dun, India, monks shaved Churchward's head and draped him in the maroon robes of a Tibetan monk. His Holiness proclaimed him the sixth incarnation of Tradak Tulku, a lama who ran the Katsel Monastery near Lhasa, Tibet, nearly a century ago.
"They told me I died 70 to 90 years ago, and they were searching for me all this time," Churchward said.
At his request, Churchward was enthroned as a nak-pa, which means he can marry and have a family.
"His Holiness asked me if I was sure I didn't want to become a monk," said Churchward, with a grin. "I told him I like girls. I don't think that will change."
After two months in India, the new tulku came home to Clearwater.
Churchward still plays basketball and video games with his two closest buddies. He listens to rap and R&B. He hangs out with his ex-girlfriend, whom he says is still a friend. He plays with his dogs, a chow named Bo and a pit bull puppy named Tashi. On Super Bowl Sunday, he and a friend watched the game at home.
The other half of his life is that of religious leader-in-training. Every morning when he wakes up, he sits on his bed and spends an hour chanting prayers in Tibetan. He repeats the ritual at bedtime. He studies other religious texts throughout the day. He does not have a job -- with his parents' blessing.
"I would rather let him have the free time to meditate, contemplate and do his practices," says Cindy Churchward.
Eventually Churchward will visit his monastery in Tibet, which is being rebuilt after the Chinese sacked it. His days there, he's told, will consist of prayers, meditation and studying ancient Tibetan texts, plus being fawned over by respectful monks. Not a bad life, but Churchward can't imagine it full-time.
"If it's my choice, I'd like to go back and forth," he says.
Each evening at 7 he visits the center parsonage, where resident monk Trinley Dorje drills him in the Tibetan alphabet. It's slow going, but Churchward is determined.
"I've changed a lot," he says in a soft, relaxed voice. "I did a lot of bad stuff in my past, but this is what I'm doing with my life now. I'm glad. And I feel very privileged that they would see me as this special thing."
Soon another monk will arrive from Tibet, to be Churchward's personal attendant. He will spend 24 hours a day with the young tulku and will sleep on the living room sofa at the Churchward house.
"It will be better when he's here," said Churchward. "He's going to help me stay on the right track, teach me what I should and shouldn't do."
The attendant might have come in handy recently, when Churchward's cell phone rang minutes before he was due at Tibetan class.
It was his ex-girlfriend. Her car had stalled in a Wal-Mart parking lot on U.S. 19. Could he come and help her?
Churchward's brow furrowed. It was a bodhisattva crisis. Should he honor his religious duties? Or assist a sentient being with a broken-down car?
"You have to go to the center," his mother said, her voice trailing off uncertainly. She has been training herself to let go. A tulku's innate wisdom must be respected.
"Mom, she needs my help," Churchward said, holding the phone.
An hour later, the car was fixed. On their way home, the tulku and his friends stopped to shoot some pool.
* * *
The center holds formal services on Thursday and Sunday nights. A handful of people, all American, show up. On those nights Churchward is Rinpoche, a title meaning "precious one." Wearing his robes, he sits on a low platform at the front of the room.
His black hair is buzzed, with long, skinny sideburns. Every so often, the robe slips off one shoulder and reveals a tattoo of praying hands and the letters J-A-C-K.
For an hour the group chants in unison, kneeling on cushions. Churchward leans forward, peering at a prayer book. Occasionally he pulls a white sock-clad foot from under him and twirls it to restore the circulation.
After the service, the group gathers in an adjoining room. Churchward is completely without airs.
"I feel normal, to tell you the truth," he says. "I just have a good seat in the shrine room now."
The group looks at photos taken during his trip to India. In one, he stands at the edge of a river, wearing his robes. A shaft of sunlight pours down on his head, like some kind of heavenly benediction.
Wow, someone murmurs. It's a sign.
"Oh," says the tulku, laughing. "I thought the film was messed up."
Someone else wants to know if Rinpoche has any advice for American students of Buddhism.
Says Churchward: "Who, me?"
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