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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kalmykia's Most Unlikely Lama

ELISTA, Southern Russia -- Telo Rinpoche, the Buddhist Shaddin Lama of Kalmykia, hasn't yet developed a taste for Kalmyk tea, which is made with milk, butter and salt. The diner coffee his mother served in the slums of Philadelphia is more familiar. And while he's adjusting to Kalmyk music, he still listens to the Smashing Pumpkins in his spare time.

At 23, Rinpoche is at a loss to explain how it all happened -- how he went from being a poor child from the American ghetto to his new role as the spiritual leader of an obscure nation of people with whom he doesn't even share a language.

"Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here, how I got here," said Rinpoche, waving off his translator, who had stepped into his office with a stack of papers for him to sign. "I don't know these people. I don't understand many of their problems. And yet, they all come to me, looking for answers."

Rinpoche and Kalmykia, a sprawling region in Russia's south, found each other only after a remarkable series of coincidences. When Rinpoche, whose family was part of a tiny Kalmyk diaspora in the eastern United States, was born in 1973, Kalmykia was still a spiritual wasteland, deprived of its Buddhist tradition by Soviet doctrine.

It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the way was cleared for the republic's spiritual rebirth. But before he could lead the rebirth, the future Lama first had to complete an extraordinary personal journey.

One of six children, Rinpoche had an unhappy early childhood. His father, one of about 5,000 to escape Soviet Kalmykia during World War II, But while his childhood friends, and even his brothers and sisters, never found a way out of the ghetto, Telo conceived a way out early on. Attracted to the smell and the feel of Buddhist temples he'd visited with his Kalmyk relatives, he announced to his parents at age 6 that he wanted to be a monk.

Startled by their son's decisiveness at such an early age, his parents acquiesced, and through Kalmyk acquaintances in southern New Jersey, they arranged for him to begin religious instruction in a New Jersey temple.

"I was a success right away," Telo laughed. "Buddhist monks, you know, tend to be superstitious when it comes to young children. And when I came along, saying at such a young age that I wanted to be a monk, I was immediately taken for something special."

Fortunately for Telo, his entrance into Buddhist society coincided with a breakthrough event in the religion -- the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the United States. Because he was considered special, Telo, by then 7, was introduced to the Buddhist leader when he passed through Philadelphia.

"His Holiness asked me what I wanted to be," Rinpoche recalled. "I said I wanted to be a monk. And from there it was decided that I would go away to India to become one."

On the Dalai Lama's initiative, Telo traveled from America to the southern Indian town of Khublai, where he entered the Gamange Buddhist monastery. He quickly learned the Tibetan language and was ordained a monk by age 8.

Rinpoche might have lived in India for the rest of his life, but when chance intervened to end Soviet rule and bring religious freedom to Kalmykia, he was once again summoned to move. For his first visit to Kalmykia in 1991, the Dalai Lama thought to bring one of his favorite monks -- the little American he nicknamed "Multinational."

The Dalai Lama arrived to find Kalmykia devoid of temples -- they'd all been destroyed by the Soviet government -- and badly in need of a strong spiritual presence. Buryat monks had been passing through Kalmykia since the beginning of perestroika, but they had been "unpure" in their personal habits, according to Rinpoche, and created a "bad relationship between the people and Buddhism."

It was after that trip that the chaste young Rinpoche was chosen by his benefactor to be the Shaddin, or Chief, Lama of the republic. Finally, his Buddhist instruction would be put to the test.

"All of a monk's life, and especially his early life, is spent in preparation for being alone," said Rinpoche. "We learn self-'discipline in taking care of ourselves and in resolving problems, both internal and external."

For the first three years of his relationship with Kalmykia, Rinpoche traveled back and forth from India and the United States, never remaining in the country permanently. It is only now, after the celebration of the Dalai Lama's 60th birthday July 6, that he's come to stay.

He busies himself mainly with overseeing the construction of its Buddhist temples and counseling Kalmyks with religious and personal questions. He focuses special effort on trying to steer young people away from drugs and crime, which he says have become serious problems in the republic in the last few years.

In the meantime, he has also begun studying Russian and Kalmyk, and is learning to reconcile himself with the sense of displacement his nomadic life has left him with.

"It gets dull here," he said, "but I'm learning to like it. If my life has taught me anything, it's how to adjust. And, of course, I'm Kalmyk. If these people don't feel like my own blood yet, maybe they will someday."