Telo Tulku Rinpoche, left, prays with Buddhist monks in front of inmates in a prison colony in Kalmykia, Russia, on Sept. 7, 2010. After renouncing his monkhood, Telo Rinpoche can no longer wear traditional robes, but still serves as the region's Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.
In Philadelphia in 1972, an immigrant couple of Kalmyk origin gave birth to a boy they named Erdne. A few years later, the Dalai Lama renamed him Telo Tulku Rinpoche and identified him as one in a long line of reincarnations of an ancient Buddhist saint. The boy was then taken to a monastery in the mountains of southern India to learn the teachings of the Buddha.
Telo Rinpoche was one of the first of his kind: someone from the West learning thousand-year-old traditions a world away from his family.
His story, and those of others like him, is chronicled by journalist Tim McGirk in this month's issue of The Believer.
In part because of the Dalai Lama's exile from Tibet in 1959, an increasing number of rinpoches — the name given to all reincarnated Buddhist high lamas — are born in the West, or exposed to Western culture. And while the West embraces Tibetan Buddhism, young lamas are renouncing their monkhood.
The Dalai Lama sent a 19-year-old Telo Rinpoche to Kalmykia, a Buddhist region of Russia on the Caspian Sea. It was the region from which the young man's parents had emigrated about a half-century earlier. The Buddhist faith and its temples had been nearly destroyed during the Soviet era.
"The people around you grew up in an atheist society," Telo Rinpoche says. "They believed that religion was poison."
He was charged with leading the people there back to Buddhism, a responsibility he called a tremendous pressure.
"I think my emotions really took over, and I became frustrated, and I just got up and left," he recalls.
Telo Rinpoche cannot go back to monkhood. But after he left his post, he met with the Dalai Lama, who encouraged him to continue his work in Kalmykia.
Telo Rinpoche now spends half his life in Erie, Colo., with his wife and their son. The rest of the time is spent in Kalmykia, where he has worked for two decades to re-establish Buddhism.
McGirk, the author of the article in The Believer, tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that when rinpoches were forced out of the monasteries in Tibet after the Dalai Lama's exile in 1959, "suddenly they were much more vulnerable to the temptations of, to the desires, to the delights of the 21st century."
Many young monks were dispatched across the globe, taken out of isolated mountain monasteries, to spread the teachings of the Buddha. So, for some, "all the years of meditation and training, well, all of that fell away."
McGirk says all hope is not lost, though.
"I think that for a religion to renew itself, it has to be, kind of, more in contact with the changing times," he says.
Just because the rinpoches have left monkhood, they haven't left Buddhism. McGirk sees them continuing their teachings, but in unconventional ways.