Asanga Sakya has been training to be a Tibetan Buddhist leader all his life. He is now on his way to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal, where he will study and live until he's an adult. He'll be there a long time, since he's only 5 years old. Within the Sakya Tibetan Buddhist sect, the teachings of the Buddha are passed down through the bloodline, from father to son. In Asanga's family, that makes the American youngster next in line to become a lama.
The Sakya's home is at the end of a quiet street in a suburban Seattle development. The two-story house is filled with Tibetan prayer books and colorful wall hangings. Asanga and his sister Aloki, 3, are immersed in the culture. They study Tibetan prayers everyday… they're involved as a family in the local Buddhist monastery… and they've been on a pilgrimage to Nepal.
Still, his mother, Chimey Sakya, says living in America means assimilation and an inevitable loss of culture. "We have nothing against the education system here," she stresses, while pointing out that there's only so much additional education they can provide for a boy who is to be a lama. "Although we have so much freedom here, we slowly start losing a part of ourselves in this huge mixing pot of American culture. We start losing our own culture and identity. We are of the second generation in exile and although we try our hardest to preserve the tradition, culture and the religion, we have been exposed to so much in exile."
She and her husband, Ani, insist that their decision to take Asanga to Nepal comes from a place of deep love for their son, something that many of their American friends have trouble understanding. "I just think people like to make judgments without thinking," he says. "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 interest, not what I want. If I had my choice, I'd like him near me. I miss him when I am at work! Why would I want him in a Tibetan monastery on the other side of the world in the care of strangers?"
But Asanga says he's ready for the experience. "I'm going to stay there for a long time and I'm going to do reading and writing and prayers. I think about going to Nepal… and doing Tibetan things there." He says he is going to the monastery to get a good education, and he's excited about it. Is he nervous at all? In a very mature and matter-of-fact way, he says, "No."
Like all parents, the Sakyas want the best for their son. And they knew how difficult it would be for their faith to survive without the ruling family. So as they watched their baby son develop into a curious and disciplined boy, their decision, while difficult, seemed obvious.
And for Ani Sakya, the opportunity to be a lama is one that passed him by as a boy growing up in America. His family arrived in 1959, when his father was invited to the United States on a university research grant. The Communist government in Beijing was tightening its grip on Tibet and Mr. Sakya says his father decided to accept the invitation for a brief period until Tibet gained independence.
"Well, it's been a long time and it doesn't look like we'll gain our independence in the near future," he says with a rueful laugh, "so that is why I am making these plans for our son. But my folks didn't send us away for training because they didn't think we would be in exile. They thought we would have a free Tibet and be able to go into Tibet soon enough."
A week before the Sakyas' flight to Nepal, Seattle's Tibetan Buddhist community held a commencement service celebrating Asanga's journey. Surrounded by friends, his mother reflected on the weeks to come. "Too soon it will be the day for us to come back and leave him," she said. "That's gonna be terrible. I don't even like to think about that. I know 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 I can be as strong as possible for him when we leave."
Still, the Sakyas explain that when they leave Asanga in Nepal next month, they will leave confident -- as parents and Buddhists -- that they are doing the best they can for their precious son.