Seattle Family Sends Lama-in-Training to Nepal

Chana Joffe-Walt reports on a Tibetan-American family in Seattle that's beginning journey of many miles and great faith. The mother and father are sending their 5-year-old son to Nepal for training to become a lama in the Buddhist faith.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a musical evolution--Or is it devolution?--when the lead singer for a punk group decides to opt for pop?

First, a little serenity in Seattle.

(Soundbite of chanting)

CHADWICK: There's a Tibetan family living there from the Sakya sect of Buddhist priests. Many of the Sakya fled Tibet 50 years ago to escape Chinese repression. But they carry their faith, its solace and its demands. Boys go to the priesthood early, so now a son, Asunga(ph), must return to Nepal to train to be a lama. Asunga is five years old. From Seattle, Chana Joffe-Walt reports.

(Soundbite of chanting)

CHANA JOFFE-WALT reporting:

On this morning, Seattle's Sakya Tibetan Buddhist congregation gathers for a special celebration. The boy next in line to leave the Sakya Tibetan Buddhist people, Asunga Sakya, is departing from his congregation and his family to begin his training in Nepal.

(Soundbite of ceremony)

JOFFE-WALT: Asunga's grandfather, who heads the monastery, tells the congregation Tibetans are waiting for someone of his lineage to lead them and carry on their traditions. That is Asunga's inherited role. That's a lot for a boy who's five years old.

ASUNGA SAKYA: I think about going to Nepal.

JOFFE-WALT: What do you think when you think about it?

ASUNGA SAKYA: I think about it--staying there and doing Tibetan things there.

JOFFE-WALT: Why are you going there? Do you know?

ASUNGA SAKYA: 'Cause I'm gonna have good education.

JOFFE-WALT: Are you excited about it?

ASUNGA SAKYA: Yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: Are you nervous about it at all?

ASUNGA SAKYA: No.

JOFFE-WALT: Those are heartening words for Asunga's parents, Onnie(ph) and Chimmy(ph) Sakya. Asunga's father did not have the opportunity to train in the traditional way when he came to the States as a boy in 1959. The Communist Chinese government was tightening its grip on Tibet and Onnie's family fled, hoping to return when Tibet gained independence.

Mr. CHIMMY SAKYA: Yeah, it's been a long time and it doesn't look like we'll gain our independence in the near future, so that's why I'm making these plans for our son, but my folks didn't send us off because they didn't think that we would be in exile, and they thought we would have a free Tibet, and be able to go into Tibet soon enough.

Ms. ONNIE SAKYA: If you stayed here, we have nothing against the education system here, but for him, although we have so much freedom here, we're slowly start losing a part of ourselves in this huge mixing pot of, like, American culture and all kinds of cultures, and we are of now the second generation in exile, and although we try our hardest to preserve some of the culture and tradition, the religion and everything, we have been exposed to so much in exile.

(Soundbite of family praying)

JOFFE-WALT: Praying before dinner, the Sakyas' routine is much like other American families. But they sit on the floor to eat a meal of Tibetan soup, Indian salad and American pork chops. Asunga's father helps his three-year-old sister, Aloki(ph), eat her soup.

Mr. SAKYA: ...to Papa.

ALOKI SAKYA: Thanks, Papa. Ketchup.

Mr. SAKYA: Oh, you like ketchup? Is that Tibetan?

ALOKI SAKYA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SAKYA: (Laughs)

Ms. SAKYA: Yes.

JOFFE-WALT: Onnie and Chimmy Sakya insist that their decision for Asunga comes from a place of deep love for their son, something many of their American friends seem to have trouble understanding.

Mr. SAKYA: I just think people like to make judgments without thinking. Sometimes it's like `Are you sure you want to send your son away?' I'm not sending him away. I'm putting him in good care and doing what's in his best interests, not what I want. Clearly, if I had my choice, I'd like him near me. I miss him in the day when I go to work. Why would I want him in a Tibetan monastery on the other side of the world in the care of strangers?

JOFFE-WALT: The moment to say goodbye to Asunga is fast approaching. The Sakyas will return from Nepal without their son at the end of May.

Ms. SAKYA: Too soon it will be the day for us to come back and for us to leave him. That's going to be terrible. Terrible. I don't even like to think about that because I know that I shouldn't--that day, as parents, we shouldn't show too much emotion and cry in front of him because that would only make him feel all the worse. So I hope that I can be as strong as possible for him when we leave.

Mr. SAKYA: He's going to be separated from us three. We're a very tight foursome. And he's going to have a hard time, initially.

Ms. SAKYA: I don't know if I even want to come back for a while, but we do have to come back but it will be--this whole house is filled with his memories, his voice and everything about him so it will be very difficult.

JOFFE-WALT: For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt in Seattle.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More just ahead on DAY TO DAY.

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