The Rinpoche Next Door

November 15, 2010

How does a runaway kid from a working-class neighborhood in New Jersey wind up as an exalted high-ranking Buddhist Lama in Malaysia? The head of a global institute for humanitarian work and world peace?

Top: Me, Burcha, 8th grade
Bottom: Buddhist Temple in my old neighborhood

I spent much of my childhood growing up in a New Jersey neighborhood that originated as a relocation center for Kalmyk refugees. Kalmyks are a Western Mongolian ethnic group whose territory became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s.  During WWII they were invaded by Nazi Germany, and after the Soviet Red Army liberated them, Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Nazis and began exterminating them.  Many fled Soviet persecution, and in 1951 a large group were settled in a hastily built neighborhood along route 9 in Howell, New Jersey. By the time my parents moved there in the early 1970s, the neighborhood had become more diverse. White kids, black kids, Kalmyk kids - the neighborhood was a melting pot but still the Kalmyk families numbered around 50%. Many of my childhood friends had names that my parents found difficult to pronounce, and among them was my good friend Burcha Bugayeff.

Burcha was an oddball. His parents were extremely strict - even by Kalmyk standards. They would not allow him to wear 'cool' clothes to school. They fiercely resisted influences of the western world. For years I was under the impression that his parents spoke no english whatsoever. Often, When the neighborhood kids came asking for Burcha, his parents would admonish him in their Kalmyk dialect. He would explain to us that he had not completed his chores and was not allowed to go outside and play. To compensate for his upbringing he found a release in school. He was a good student, full of energy and personality - also a bit of a class clown. If you picked on him, as many tried to do, he defended himself by turning the tables and making you the fool. I've always been attracted to oddballs and still have many among my close friends, so Burcha and I got along pretty well.

As Burcha grew, the fighting between him and his parents became more intense. His mother was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. I can only imagine how that must have shaped his situation at home. In the summer of 1981 my brother, sister and I summered at my grandparent's farm and lakehouse in Michigan - as we had done for many previous summers. It was during that summer that Burcha became fed up with his life at home. With $50 in his pocket he hit the road - a teenage runaway.

I came home from Michigan in time to start school and realized Burcha was gone. What struck me as strange then - and still does - was how, even though I was known as one of his best friends, not a single police officer, teacher, parent or social worker asked me any questions about Burcha. Some kids from school asked me where he was. I didn't know. I kept expecting to either find somebody who knew where he went, or be questioned by somebody regarding his whereabouts. Neither ever happened. Burcha had simply vanished.

Several years later I received a letter from Burcha. He had hitch-hiked to Los Angeles where he was now seriously studying Tibetan Buddhism. He was preparing to leave America for a monestary in India but would briefly be coming back to New Jersey to collect some belongings. I was in college at this time but returned to meet him in our old neighborhood and wish him well. Burcha was on his path to self-discovery. These were the days before internet and email. Back then, if somebody left to go live in India, you could be pretty sure you would never hear from them again.

Top: Rinpoche (Burcha - second from left) with the Dalai Lama
Middle: Me and the Kechara group at Turkey Swamp
Bottom: Gifts from the Kechara group

Twenty years passed. One day I received an email. The Subject read "Greetings from Malaysia". At first glance it seemed like spam, but as my mouse cursor sped toward the 'Delete' button I saw his name. He doesn't go by Burcha anymore. Now he is H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche. He resides in Kuala Lumpur as a high Buddhist Lama. In the years since he ran away, he learned he was actually not Kalmyk at all. He was Tibetan and his parents in New Jersey had adopted him in China and brought him to America. In the years that followed at the monestary, he would become recognized as a Rinpoche - a reincarnation of another Buddhist High Lama. Not one to squander his new position and influence, he became the founder and leader of Kechara. As leader of Kechara he oversees operations such as soup kitchens, animal sanctuaries, peace centers - even a media and fund raising department that works to secure funding for Kechara's efforts - and more than 150 employees.

In his email, he explained that a small contingent from Kechara would be coming to America for an interview at CNBC studios in New York. While in the US, his colleagues wished to record interviews with his American friends and visit the places of his childhood. They would follow his journey from New Jersey to LA. Apparently in Buddhism, a Rinpoche from America is a novelty. His colleagues and students are fascinated by his transition from American teenage runaway to High Lama. I am too.

I arranged to meet the Kechara representatives in our old neighborhood. I expected three or four people. There were thirteen. We sat around the center circle of a basketball court and I answered their questions and told them what stories I could remember from 30 years ago. They presented me with gifts: information and DVDs created by Kechara, as well as books written by Rinpoche and others. They told me that Rinpoche often speaks fondly of a place we used to ride our bikes as kids: Turkey Swamp Park. They asked if I could take them there. So we went. Turkey Swamp Park was about five miles from our neighborhood. It's a park with a lake, but if you hike around to the other side of the lake it becomes very secluded. We used to find our way out to the secluded areas. Burcha would look for a spot that seemed especially peaceful, and he would meditate. Back then I knew that Burcha had alot of stress about his home life and I assumed this was his way of dealing with that. I would just shake my head and leave him alone. Those Buddhists!

The Kechara group he sent to the US were so friendly that I would have been tempted to drop everything and head off to LA with them.  They were also very devoted to their Rinpoche.  Many told me he seemed to make Buddhism new again and that he was the reason they chose to study it.  He is also planning to expand his organization and build a sanctuary in the mountains outside Kuala Lumpur.

It goes to show: you never know who your childhood friends will grow up to be. The story of my old friend inspires and amazes me.  Stories of teenage runaways almost never end this way, and the fact that this one has is a testament to the motivation and dedication of Tsem Tulku Rinpoche.

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Oliver Loi07/21/2021
You said Burcha realised he was not Kalmyk at all, but I gathered from his various YouTube videos, he was half Kalmyk through his mother being that Kalmyks are closely related to the Mongols of Xinjiang, China and half Tibetan.
Annelies van Dommelen06/29/2021
Such an interesting story. I've known a couple of sides of you, artist, computer geek,rat king, canal traveler, ruin lover now writer and my neighbor.
Jacinta Goh06/27/2014
Thanks a lot Marc. Thank you for sharing this and brought them to the lake that Rinpoche used to meditate. I think you will be very proud too to have friend like that! Come on, a Rinpoche....what's more, now Rinpoche is in USA! Hope you can meet the good ol friend of yours!
Grace Leu KHJB12/19/2013
Thanks for the sharing , Marc.
Pastor Adeline12/19/2013
Thank you for such a sweet writing. Rinpoche has inspires and continue to inspire many of us throughout the world! I wish very much that you get to meet with Rinpoche now that he is in the US. http//
So Kin Hoe12/19/2013
Thank you so much for sharing about Tsem Rinpoche during his young age in New Jersey. I wish you can come over to visit Kechara Forest Retreat in Malaysia.
Beautiful story about Rinpoche and his best friend. Thank you so much!
Sadhu.. Sadhu.. Sadhu...!!!
So glad to hear of your friendship with the Rinpoche, aka Burcha who I was raised as my cousin. I am so proud of him and all that he has survived and achieved, but mostly on how he has always been able to capture your heart.
Leu Chong Hin12/18/2013
Tsem Tulku Rinpoche sacrifice a lot in order to bring dharma and benefits to Malaysian people. We are fortunate to have such qualify dharma teacher to teach us. Dharma change my life and I'm a more happier person now compare to last time. Thanks
Hi Marc, thanks for such a wonderful article about Tsem Rinpoche. Indeed Tsem Rinpoche childhood was never easy but having you as his childhood friend definitely a great memory.Tsem Rinpoche always mentioned about you whenever come across Turkey Swamp Park. Thanks again for your
Thank you Marc for this heart warming post on your friendship with our beloved Tsem Rinpoche the oddball as you call it in school I guess wherever Rinpoche goes, he always makes a mark. Love that he'd turn the tables around whenever he was picked at, yeah that's our Rinpoche! haha xjoy
Henry Ooi12/17/2013
What you wrote here is what Rinpoche has been telling us, about his growing up years in the US, his parents and his friends. It's nice to read your story. Thanks.
That's such a beautiful story
Dee Dee 11/14/2010
Hi Marc, I was one of the Bio team. I truly enjoyed our interview with you and am glad that Rinpoche had a best friend such as yourself while you were both growing up. It was heartwarming to learn of your friendship and all that you have shared. Warmest wishes.

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