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Buddhadharma : Fall 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 08 34 Brothers First What’s it like being the Dalai Lama’s kid brother? Tendzin Choegyal talks with lisa Katayama about his struggles with rebellion, alcoholism, and depression, and the big brother who has stood by him through it all. Tendzin Choegyal sits across from me on his living room sofa and lights a cigarette. “I got in trouble with my brother once for smoking,” he says, blowing out a cloud of smoke. “He was on me.” It’s a cool fall evening in the Himalayas, and I am staying at Kashmir Cottage, a white brick house at the foothills of the Tibetan community-in-exile’s hub near Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama’s family settled here shortly after their arrival in India in 1959. Choegyal’s home is just behind the cottage, on the second floor of a newly constructed building. It’s a modest abode with mint-green walls, a large wooden din- ing table, black-painted doors leading to the bedroom and kitchen, and taupe curtains that match the sofa set on which we sit. Decorations are sparse: a stereo and a rotating globe rest on a wooden chest of drawers, and next to that a shelf is neatly arranged with books ranging from the World Almanac to the Koran. The house is filled more with intellect than with spirituality; a single photo of the Dalai Lama hanging above the bookshelf, draped with a silky white khata (a ritual offer- ing scarf), only hints at the Dalai Lama’s indelible link to the residents of this home. The first thing you notice when you meet Tendzin Choegyal is that he looks a lot like his famous older brother, although he doesn’t have the same creases on his face from smiling and he dresses differently. In contrast with his brother’s signature burgundy robe, Choegyal wears beige corduroys, a dark gray fleece, and argyle socks. His thick black hair is a marked contrast to his brother’s shaved head. While the Dalai Lama has become one of the greatest political and spiritual leaders of our generation, Choegyal’s path has been a tumultuous journey that is at once raw with humanity and profoundly spiritual. He, too, was chosen as the reincarnation of a holy man, but his monastic education was cut short when his family escaped Tibet. His life since then has been a wild ride guided by reckless instinct and indispensable advice from his oldest brother; he dropped out of college, joined the Indian army, picked up unhealthy habits like smoking and alcoholism, and proposed radical change to the Tibetan government-in-exile. What is it like to be the black sheep of the holiest family in Tibet? “I’m the dooms- day prophet,” Choegyal says, laughing. “Or maybe I’m just a bloody fool.” When Choegyal was born in Lhasa in 1946, the Dalai Lama was ten years old and already living in a sepa- rate compound, training to become the next head of state. The family had just moved from their native Amdo to Central Tibet to be closer to their son, and that’s where Choegyal grew up, in a home with his mother, his grandmother, an uncle, and an older brother and sister. His father passed away when he was just a year old. Growing up, trouble was never far away for young Cho- egyal. “I was very naughty and active,” he says. One time, he tried to knock down one of the doors in the house so he could use it to build a raft. “Whenever I got into trouble, I ran to my grandmother.” At the age of four, Choegyal was recognized as the reincar- nation of a lama, and three years later he was sent to Tabo, the biggest monastery in Tibet, for his spiritual training. There he devoted most of his time to memorizing texts and attend- ing debate assemblies. “I was too young to understand,” he says. “It was very dreamlike and not that important.” What Choegyal mostly remembers from that period of his life is the summers and holidays he spent at home with his family, just being a kid. aLisonWrighTphoTography