At the temple, the moonfaced little boy would mimic the chanting monks. Erdne’s parents were Buddhists — they were immigrants from Kalmykia, a Mongolian enclave inside Russia — but not particularly religious, and they were baffled by their son’s devotion. In 1979, when Erdne was 7, the Dalai Lama visited the temple, and the little boy crawled straight into his lap.
Thus began the strange odyssey of a Philly-born child who was recognized as the reincarnation of an 11th century Indian mystic the Tibetans call Telo Rinpoche. It would lead him to a Tibetan monastery in southern India and back to the life of a teenager with attitude in Philadelphia — crazy about girls, basketball and hard rock. He would endure a prolonged crisis of faith in which he abandoned his priestly vows, delivered pizzas in Colorado and found a wife. It took a scolding from the Dalai Lama himself to set him back on his extraordinary path: reviving Buddhism in Mongolia and Kalmykia, where 70 years of communist purges had silenced the faith. “I kept asking myself, Why? Why me?” Ombadykow, now 39, tells TIME at his Colorado home.
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