Minnesota 5-year-old believed to be a reincarnated lama

Jalue Dorjee, 5, of Columbia Heights, Minn., is said to be the successor to a lama, or spiritual guru, who died in Switzerland eight years ago and the eighth incarnation of the original lama, born in 1655.
Jalue Dorjee, 5, of Columbia Heights, Minn., is said to be the successor to a lama, or spiritual guru, who died in Switzerland eight years ago and the eighth incarnation of the original lama, born in 1655. MCT

MINNEAPOLIS — It's morning, and a little boy with a shaved head and a face shaped like the moon chants a Tibetan prayer.

His high-pitched voice echoes inside the Columbia Heights, Minn., bedroom that his father has transformed into a lavish prayer room. In here, the boy forsakes his cartoons and toys to study scripture and learn to pray the Buddhist way.

Big for his age, he looks bigger still perched on an ornate chair draped in crimson and saffron robes. "Only for lamas," explains his father, Dorje Tsegyal, sitting cross-legged on the floor at his son's feet.

Jalue Dorjee is believed to be no ordinary boy.

According to the highest authorities of the Tibetan Buddhist order, he is the reincarnation of the speech, mind and body of a lama, or spiritual guru, who died in Switzerland six years ago. Jalue is said to be the eighth appearance of the original lama, born in 1655.

His discovery in 2009 is considered an honor and a blessing for his working-class parents. But it comes with a hefty price. Jalue (pronounced JAH-loo) is their only child, their everything. Last month he turned 5, a critical marker on his predestined path. In five more years, he will leave the familiarity of his parents' home to live and study in a monastery in India.

Jalue is believed to be one of a very few American tulkus — or reincarnated lamas. Still, the finding comes amid some controversy over the way tulkus are being identified, as some Tibetan scholars question why their number has been increasing, to thousands worldwide.

But Jalue's parents are faithful believers, and they look past doubters to the work they must do to prepare their son for his destiny.

The thought of letting Jalue go pains his mother, but she consoles herself that when the time comes, she probably will be accustomed to the idea.

From the time a new life first began to stir inside her in 2006, Dechen Wangmo said she sensed there was something special about this child.

He was peaceful inside her body. She carried him with ease. She never felt sick, not even in the mornings.

And there were those dreams.

One night, an elephant appeared with several little ones around it, she said. They merged into the small prayer room in the family home. Once inside, they vanished.

Tsegyal (pronounced say-jull) also remembers having vivid, symbolic dreams at the time. In one, he said, he saw many lamas surrounded by tall sunflowers.

So when a highly respected lama from India came to visit the Twin Cities Tibetan community, Tsegyal told him about the dreams. That night, the lama had magical dreams of his own, said Tsegyal. The lama told him he saw huge tigers, one in each room of the family home. Robust tigers are a good omen and a sign of strength and protection, according to Tibetan Buddhist custom.

Before Jalue was born, the family asked the lama to perform a practice known as divination, used by lamas in Tibetan Buddhism to advise people on important matters. Different lamas use their own divination methods, including ones using a rosary or dice to interpret events. This lama performed a divination using two arrows and prayer, Tsegyal recalled.

Weeks later, a letter arrived at the home. In it, the visiting lama wrote that he was sure the child was the reincarnation of a Buddhist spiritual master, Tsegyal recalled. Which spiritual master, the lama did not know.

Determined to find out, Tsegyal wrote to His Holiness Trulshik Shatrul Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, the oldest of the four schools.

Rinpoche performed another divination, also using the arrows. Soon another letter arrived at the family doorstep.

"Your son is lucky to be a reincarnate of body, speech and mind of Taksham Nueden Dorjee."

Emotions filled Tsegyal: gratitude and fear, honor and pride.

He showed the letter to Wangmo. "Let's not tell anyone right now," she said.

She worried. What if people questioned Jalue's legitimacy?

On Jan. 6, 2009, a letter arrived bearing the seal of the greatest spiritual leader of the Tibetan diaspora. The Dalai Lama officially recognized Jalue as the reincarnation of the lama known as Taksham Nueden Dorjee. In a second letter, the Dalai Lama gave Jalue a formal lama name, Tenzin Gyurme Trinley Dorjee.

The boy was now 3. His life was about to change.

The first thing to go was his hair.

Buddhist monks must keep their hair no more than 2 inches long, a custom stemming from a story about Buddha snapping his fingers and instantly removing all the monks' hair, mustaches and beards.

At the time, Jalue's shiny black hair fell to his shoulders.

His parents timed his first haircut to the Dalai Lama's visit to the Tibetan community in Madison, Wis., in May 2010. The family traveled to Madison, and the Dalai Lama did the honors, cutting a lock of the boy's hair. Tsegyal keeps that strand of hair inside a blue, folded paper at home.

Tsegyal had one more question for the Dalai Lama: How should he raise Jalue to ensure he will become a great lama?

The Dalai Lama told him to keep the boy in the United States until he's 10 so he can go to school here and learn good English. When he turns 10, he should be sent to a monastery in India, where he can learn as much as he can before he is fully grown.

Jalue's father says he realizes he is raising a lama for the 21st century: A tech-savvy spiritual leader who can easily communicate with people in the West and East, yet someone fully versed in the wisdom and practices of Tibetan Buddhism and able to teach those concepts to others.

There is so much more Tsegyal must teach his son before they part. How to wear the monk robes properly. How to walk and how to sit. At times, Tsegyal feels overwhelmed.

At preschool Jalue is just one of the kids, but at the local Tibetan center, he is viewed with great respect and awe. He stopped at the center last month to celebrate his birthday with cake, candles and singing.

Jalue appeared stoic, standing in his monk robes in front of dozens of other Tibetan-American children. They craned their necks to get a better view of the boy, introduced to them as rinpoche, meaning "precious one." Then, they sang Happy Birthday to him in Tibetan. At the end, the headmaster of the Tibetan center's weekend school leaned down and touched his forehead to Jalue's — to receive blessings from the little lama.

Knowing their time together is short has made Wangmo value every minute with her son. It's also made her realize that to be ready to separate from him, she must practice.

When it's time for preschool, Jalue trots down the stairs dressed head to toe in maroon with a pair of Spider-Man sunglasses over his eyes and a backpack over his shoulders. He leans against his mother as she helps him put on his sneakers.

Outside Jalue points at the yellow school bus making its way down his street. "Bus coming!" he yells. He lifts his face to receive a goodbye kiss. She bends down, cups his face and nuzzles him. The bus stops at the end of the driveway, and the whooshing sound of the doors opening tells her it's time to let go.

She follows Jalue with her eyes, watching as he climbs each step, cheerfully greets the bus driver and takes a seat. She stands in the driveway and waves to him and to the other little faces looking out the windows. She waves until she can't see Jalue anymore. Then she walks up the driveway toward the house, not once looking back.