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?
Me, Burcha, 8th gradeBottom:
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.
Rinpoche (Burcha - second from left) with the Dalai LamaMiddle:
Me and the Kechara group at Turkey SwampBottom:
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.