During a break in a mixing session at a recording studio in Milan, Gomo Tulku, a Tibetan-American hip-hop artist, plays the sample he's inserting into the intro of his debut EP—a group of vocalists singing what sounds eerily like a Tibetan Buddhist chant. One of his Italian producers had it programmed into his keyboard, and when Gomo first heard it, he recalls, he said, "That's dope, I want that. Yo, that's my culture!"
Swiveling in his Aeron chair behind the multitrack console, conferring with the engineers on the mix ("Si, perfecto, bello"), Gomo Tulku looks every bit the part of an aspiring rapper: jeans, black down vest, gray porkpie hat, oversize black-and-gold Super glasses (a Milan brand favored by Jay-Z and Rihanna). But the 23-year-old is not quite the playa he portrays in the video for his first single, "Photograph," in which he drinks in a club and rides in a stretch limo while a host of leggy Italian beauties grind on him. Known as the Rapping Lama, Gomo spent his childhood being groomed to be a high-ranking lama, and the video caused a minor uproar in the online Buddhist community. But Gomo is nearly a teetotaler and insists "Photograph" is a wholesome breakup song about the one romance he's had since leaving the monastery. "Listen to the lyrics!" he says. The hip-hop eye candy was his Italian director's idea.
The tulku in Gomo's name refers to his status—according to Tibetan tradition, a tulku is the reincarnation of a recently deceased high lama, "recognized" as a young boy through a mystical process of omens and visions. Gomo was anointed by the Dalai Lama himself, whose own recognition story is so well known in the West—a peasant boy from the sticks is magically able to identify his predecessor's favorite possessions—it became the basis for a 2002 M&M's commercial.
Gomo has titled his EP Take One because "this is like my first take, my first actual experience in life as a layperson in this materialistic world," he says. Gomo, an ethnic Tibetan born in Quebec and raised in Canada, Utah, and India, is savvy enough to appreciate that his years as a shaved-headed monk make for an irresistible backstory for an MC. His digital loop—hypnotic, rumbling oms that sound like a cross between a bullfrog and a low-pitched Jew's harp—conjures up a world of burgundy-and-saffron-robed monks wielding bone horns. But it also begs the question: When the Dalai Lama, who's 77, leaves the stage, will that world—1,500 years of religious traditions and spiritual explorations—be reduced to an ersatz sample in a hip-hop song?
To an extraordinary degree, America has been colonized by Tibetan Buddhism. At the core of the community are maybe 100,000 die-hard practitioners around the country. Beyond that is a larger circle of several million spiritual travelers who may pick up the Dalai Lama's best sellers or attend his talks. (He's achieved rock-star status, having drawn a crowd of 65,000 to New York's Central Park just to hear him speak.) Helping fuel the phenomenon is the soft (but real) power that makes it a cause célèbre and a second religion to the self-help set: the Hollywood stars like Richard Gere in the Dalai Lama's American entourage, the late Beastie Boy (and practicing Tibetan Buddhist) Adam Yauch's star-studded concerts for Tibet, not to mention the Buddha statuettes, thangka paintings, and prayer flags that adorn corner yoga studios and health clubs across the country.
For the hundreds of Tibetan tulkus who came of age after the Chinese takeover of their homeland in 1959, India may be where they serve in the monastery, but the West is where the students, the press, and the money are. Yet it's unclear whether the tulku system—which, since its origins in medieval times, has been more about the transfer of monastic power than the recognition of spiritual genius—can continue to advance the Dalai Lama's engagement with the West. The young Karmapa, the heir apparent to the Dalai Lama's mantle as the global face of Tibetan Buddhism, languishes in northern India because of political tensions involving China. In his absence, the young, Westernized tulkus may be the key to turning a new generation of Americans on to Tibetan Buddhism. The problem is, these cosmopolitan tulkus, skeptical of the notion that they're deceased lamas, aren't sure they want the job.
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Gomo's fate was seemingly sealed at the age of 3, when the Dalai Lama divined that he was the reincarnation of the boy's grandfather, a prominent Tibetan lama. When the official letter of recognition arrived from the office of His Holiness, Gomo's religious mother was "kind of sad, kind of happy," he says. She was losing her son to the monastery but, according to Tibetan Buddhist lore, also being reunited with her father's spirit. Gomo's early life was peripatetic: Born and raised in French-speaking Montreal, at age 5 he moved with his mother (his parents had divorced) to Bountiful, Utah, a mostly Mormon suburb of Salt Lake City. When he was 6, mother and (only) child traveled to the tiny Tuscan village of Pomaia. The next year, the Dalai Lama cut Gomo's hair, the first stage of his initiation into monkhood. "I remember I was nervous," Gomo says. "His presence was really strong." At his "enthronement," Gomo sat on a high, brocaded throne as hundreds of monks and Western students crowded in for a closer look at the new boy lama. "I was like, 'Wow, this is pretty amazing,'" he recalls. "There were photographers from dozens of newspapers and news agencies around the world." He drifts into hip-hop lingo. "The cops, the 5-0, were there, pushing them back."
After a full day in the studio, Gomo and I make the four-hour drive south to Pomaia, arriving at midnight. There, housed in a 19th-century stone villa, is the Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa. "The Little Tibet of Tuscany" (as a tourism website describes it) is a regular stopover for eminences like Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama. Stereotypical Bella Toscana imagery—skinny, conical cypress trees, herb-scented scrubby-pretty landscape—blends well with more recent additions like prayer flags and a giant copper prayer wheel. In the morning, amid the meditation hall's golden statues of the Buddha, ornate silk tapestries, and portraits of the Dalai Lama, Gomo brings a hushed purposefulness to his prayers.
"This takes me back in time to the monastery," he says after finishing his prostrations. "We used to always pray. As soon as I get into one of these places, I try to always have the right thoughts, right intentions, try to remind myself of the purposes that I should be going after." Gomo spent only a year in Pomaia before he was sent to the Sere Je monastery in Mysore, India, to which he would give, all told, 12 years of his young life. His days as a monk went like this: up at 6 a.m., prayers, chanting, memorizing page after page of scripture, and practicing Buddhist logical debate until around midnight each night. "I had a hard time," he says, "not from what I was given, but more from what was taken from me." It doesn't take a Dylanologist to decipher the lyrics to his song "Lost and Found": "All is gone, all is gone, I miss my mama's kiss/ Tryna make a child grown/ By leaving him all alone/ Destined to be on a throne/…Why didn't you, why didn't you stay?"
Gomo remained a good monastic soldier until he was 15, when he seized on a bold idea: to reunite with his mother for a year of American high school. In Bountiful, he was the weird Asian kid who spoke patchwork English and "probably looked like a dumbass." He was still keeping his monk's vows—no sex, no alcohol—a fact he hid from his classmates, except for his best friend. "I wanted to be able to experience that actual kid life," he says. "If they'd known I was a lama, it would've been a disaster." But compared with his previous existence, this sojourn was sheer liberation. His under-the-Bodhi-tree moment of enlightenment took place when he walked into a new Apple store in Salt Lake City and saw the T.I. video "Bring Em Out" playing on a just-released 60-gig iPod. That in-your-face slice of gangster rap "overwhelmed" him, he says. "The energy it had, it kinda brought me out."
NAMASTÉ AGAIN: Despite trading the monastery for the recording studio, Gomo Tulku hasn't abandoned Tibetan Buddhism. Left: He prays in the meditation room of the Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Pomaia, Italy.