Religious Adaptation through Reincarnation?

The Role of Lama Michel, the "Little Buddha" of São Paulo,

within the Globalized Tibetan Buddhist Movement

of Lama Gangchen

by Frank Usarski (Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil)
A paper presented at CESNUR 99 (Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania) - Preliminary version (do not quote without the permission of author)


I Preliminary remarks

A paper which deals with a Tibetan Buddhist movement active in the West doesn’t need a long-winded explanation in the context of a conference which problematizes the relationship of "globalization and localization". Throughout many centuries, the Himalayan-based Vajrayana or Tantrayana has been a cultural, highly specialized branch of Buddhism. Since a great part of Tibetan Buddhism suffers the destiny of exile, this situation has changed dramatically. Separated from its homeland, far away from its traditional monasteries, Tibetan Buddhism was scattered not only in the neighboring Himalayan regions, but also in the West. There, Tibetan Buddhism, more than ever before in its history, opened up to the occidental public and, since the 80s, became the fastest-growing form of Buddhism in the West. (1)

Tibetan Buddhism must balance traditional and innovative trends in the process of transition from a localized to a more globalized religion all over the world. The tension, however, between these two poles is different in different places, and a "host culture" whose religiosity is eclectically predisposed represents a special challenge for Tibetan Buddhism.

This idea guides my reflection on the case of the Paulistan Michel Lenz Cesar Calmanowitz, alias Lama Michel, and is the focus of this paper. Michel Calmanowitz is considered a Western tulku, a reincarnation of a high Tibetan master, and Lama Michel was born into a Brazilian family committed to the Tibetan monk Lama Gangchen and his movement. In this respect, the case of Lama Michel is a prime example of the ambiguity of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism in the Western hemisphere. On one hand, the case demonstrates that Tibetan Buddhism continues to hold on to the importance of an unbroken line of monks and the role of reincarnated lamas as a means of maintaining religious authenticity. On the other hand, Brazil, where Lama Michel was identified as a tulku after the first occidental center of Lama Gangchen's movement had been founded in São Paulo by his mother, is highly eclectic and was even recently called, metaphorically, the "motherland of syncretism". (2)

This constellation leads to a special interpretation of Lama Michel and makes the case interesting in the context of this conference.

My following reflections are subdivided in four parts. The first part contains basic information about the Lama Gangchen movement with a special focus on Lama Michel. Part two characterizes the Lama Gangchen's movement as a "modern" Tibetan Buddhist movement. Referring to Michael Pye’s simple but useful model of religious transplantation, part three problematizes Lama Gangchen’s modern way to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the West. The case of Lama Michel is interpreted in this context.


II Reflections upon Lama Michel

II.1 Basic information about the movement of Lama Gangchen and Lama Michel

Lama Gangchen was born in 1941 in East Tibet. He is considered a specialist in traditional Tibetan healing. In 1963 the monk went into exile, completed his studies in India, and worked as a healer in Tibetan refugee communities in the Himalayas. In 1982 he traveled to Europe for the first time. Shortly thereafter he settled in Milan, Italy. The "Centro de Dharma Shi De Choe Tsog" in the middle-class neighborhood Perdizes in São Paulo was founded as his very first institution in 1988. Today Lama Gangchen is responsible for an international movement. There are local groups in various parts of the world, not only in Asia, in Europe or in the United States but - besides Brazil - also in South American countries such as Argentina and Chile.

It was soon after Lama Gangchen had settled in Italy that the Brazilian Monica Benvenuti met the monk in Milan. The spiritual relationship between Ms. Benvenuti and the monk deepened when the Brazilian woman assisted the Lama in Goa, India, during a Health Fair, where the Tibetan treated clients with traditional Himalayan methods. Ms. Benvenuti became fascinated with Lama Gangchen’s holistic medicine and tried to convince the monk to visit São Paulo.

It is said that after returning to São Paulo, Monica Benvenuti consulted an astrologer to discuss her plan to invite the Tibetan monk to Brazil. The astrologer recommended that she collaborates with one of his other clients who had extraordinary organizing talents (according to astrological readings). This client was Isabel Villares Lenz Cesar, at that time married to Daniel Calmanowitz, and mother of two children, a boy, Michel, born in July 1981, and a younger girl, Fernanda. Miss Benvenuti contacted Isabel and finally managed to convince her, who up to then had never heard anything about Lama Gangchen, to contribute to the realization of the monk’s visit to Brazil.

As Isabel herself reported, the plan to establish a local Center at São Paulo was spontaneously introduced to her by Lama Gangchen while meeting her for the first time in a Paulistan hotel room. He had addressed her with the words: "You will be the one who is going to establish my first center". Since that day Isabel is committed to the monk, and played continuously an outstanding role as a local transmitter of Lama Gangchen’s teachings after having established the São Paulo Center of Dharma for Peace in 1988.

In December 1995 Lama Gangchen looked back to this beginning. "I visited Brazil for the first time in 1987", he wrote, "when I found a special couple, Isabel and Daniel, with two children, Michel and Fernanda. Immediately we had a good friendly relationship and [...] I noticed that the children were special. I didn't get round to say anything, I just went over to observe the various facets of their qualities, energies and behaviors" (3). In those days Michel was a boy of only five years. The hypothesis that he was not only very special, but even a tulku, was reinforced by other Tibetan Lamas who visited São Paulo after the establishment of the center, or who met Michel in Asia, while he was travelling with Lama Gangchen and some of the Brazilian group members to holy places of the Buddhists tradition.

1993, at the Borobudur-Temple, Lama Gangchen performed a special ceremony to confirm that he had recognized Michel as a tulku. In February 1994, the boy-lama - according to his own deep desire, the agreement of his parents and the support of Lama Gangchen - entered the Tibetan Buddhist monastic community of Sera Me, South-India. Shortly thereafter, Lama Gangchen laid out in a letter the details of Lama Michel's reincarnation. (4)

Referring to several auspicious signs, messages, visions and dreams the monk specified, that in the XV century Michel was Drubtchok Gualwa Samdrup, a High Lama of the monastery Gangchen Tchopel Ling. In those days, the tulku, who is now Michel, was the master of Lama Gangchen. He was considered a great yogi trained in various traditional disciplines such as Buddhist philosophy, astrology and healing and capable of performing effective initiations. The master (today Lama Michel) died when his disciple (today Lama Gangchen) was 13 years old. From that time, the deep spiritual relationship among these two tulkus has continued, and they have met in several lifes thereafter. Finally in July 1994 Michel was officially enthroned in Sera Me as a tulku. Until today he is living at the monastery, concentrating on the Buddhist teachings and routines.


II.2 Remarks on Lama Gangchen’s teachings and methods

In contrast to the conservative New Kadampa Tradition of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, for example, whose movement reproduces itself through a standardized and canon-based strict formation of Western representatives (5), Lama Gangchen can be considered "modern". There is no doubt that at their core, his teachings are grounded in the Tibetan tradition. The methods of Self-Healing, on which Lama Gangchen lays emphasis, are based upon Tibetan Buddhist principles, symbols and insights in the mind-body correlation. (6). The same is true for the Kumpen Lama Gangchen Institute, which was founded in 1989 as a means to preserve and propagate the authentic heritage of Tibetan medicine and to guarantee the continuation of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, tangkas painting, and other traditional arts like sacred dance. (7).

However these teachings and practices are presented and explained, the readiness to combine genuine elements with techniques and approaches stemming from other backgrounds, and collaborating with other spiritual institutions, leads to a religiosity whose authenticity in terms of Tibetan Buddhism is not always evident. This is already indicated in the foreword of one of his books: "Lama Gangchen would like to share with the new generations a non-sectarian system of self-responsibility, self-developement and administration of peace, based on the old teachings of the Buddha, delivered 2.500 years ago. The teachings of this old tradition are approached by Lama Gangchen in a complete modern form, appropriate to meet the needs of the busy modern people of all the cultures, ages and lifestyles" (8). The newness of this approach becomes evident when one takes into consideration that Lama Gangchen’s general objectives are linked to the key words peace, health and environment, hence, to the main ambitions of the alternative movements of the 70s and 80s in the West. To accomplish these objectives, Lama Gangchen proposes that all useful concepts - from the West as well as from the East - should be introduced, all responsible forces working together.

Based on individual peace, the Lama Gangchen World Peace Foundation was founded in 1993. This institution claims to promote a system of education aiming at creating interior peace and contributing to an intercultural exchange, spiritual and material, between the West and the East, including a dialogue between science and religion (9). That Lama Gangchen is willing to cooperate with other pacifist movements was demonstrated by his participation in the 1993 Peace-Rally in Milan, which was organized by the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy (10). Another example is Lama Gangchen's proposal to establish a Spiritual Forum of the United Nations for World Peace. The main idea is that the forum should be a platform on which leaders and representatives of all the religions and spiritual movements can held their dialogues. Since 1998, several local World Peace forums took place in São Paulo in neutral buildings such as public cultural centers (11). Members and representatives of several religious groups, such as the ISKCON, Brahma Kumaris, Ramakrishna Movement and the Baha'i participated. During the entire program, from the psycho-physiological warm-up into speeches by representatives from participating groups and the final brainstorming session, the Lama Gangchen Center’s central organizing role was not apparent to casual observers.

Eco Village, in Bagni di Lucca, Italy, also represents Lama Gangchen’s so-called non-sectarian approach in that many of its activities are carried out by groups that are unaffiliated with Lama Gangchen, such as the Club of Budapest and Cosmos for Bioarchitecture. Eco Village is projected to run a center for holistic health in addition to traditional Tibetan methods, offering therapies such as Shiatsu, Yoga, Tai-Chi and Bio-dance (12).

Another aspect revealing the tradition-transcending openness of Lama Gangchen is the fact that the goals of his regular pilgrimages include not only auspicious Buddhist sites but also the ritual monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury and the ruins of Delphi (13). Last year Lama Gangchen took his adherents to the wilderness of the Amazon forest to meet Indians and to perform rituals in order to come in tune with life-protecting forces of nature.

Finally, it is interesting that in additon to heeding the assessments of Tibetan Lamas such as Zopa Rinpoche, Dagyab Rinpoche and Guelek Rinpoche regarding the confirmation of Michel Calmanowitz as a tulku, Lama Gangchen has sought the opinion of the Brazilian Dona Filhina (14).

To summarize, it can be said that Lama Gangchen’s teachings and undertakings comply with

the needs and interests of a Western audience. Such an attitude is advantageous in the "religious market," fostering the acceptance of Tibetan Buddhism in a Western setting. This is especially true for Brazil, a country known for its syncretism; Lama Gangchen’s approach accommodates the "eclecticism" which - to cite Carpenter and Roof - "is deeply entrenched in the Brazilian psyche."(15) However, as long as the question of the authenticity of Tibetan Buddhism is taken into account, Lama Gangchen’s openness is not without problems. In other words, the present situation of Lama Gangchen’s movement, at least in Brazil, is ambiguous. This becomes clear when one looks at to Michael Pye’s model of the transplantation of a religion.

Some years ago, Michael Pye stated that "the transplantation of a religion involves a complex relationship between tradition and interpretation, or in other words, an interplay between what is taken to be the content of the religion and the key factors in the situation which it is entering." He subdivided the corresponding process into three phases: the phase of contact, the phase of ambiguity and the phase of 'recoupement' (16).

Considering the phases as a chronological order, one can say that a transplanted religion has to present itself within new surroundings by addressing potential new adherents on their own terms. Different degrees of this adaptation are conceivable. It may be regarded as sufficient to translate religious texts into the language of the host culture. The changes are more severe if certain aspects of the transplanted religion are emphasized while others are pushed to the side. To make the adapted religion even more attractive, new influences may be integrated or combined with traditional teachings and practices. In this case, representatives of the transplanted religion may suffer sentiments of ambiguity, feeling a tension between old and new elements, and fearing the loss of the tradition’s integrity. As a consequence, efforts may be made to reevaluate the former heritage and to distinguish the religion more sharply from its environment. According to Pye, however, these endeavors do not simply restore the religion as it was prior to the transplantation. Rather, they will lead to a modified form showing influences of the host culture.

In terms of the dynamics of transplantation of a religion to a new host culture Lama Michel can be considered as the mediator who is capable of reducing the ambiguity of traditional and new elements which we have noted in Lama Gangchen’s movement’s current situation.

Although Lama Gangchen insists that his message for the occident is based on the teachings of the Buddha as they were laid out 2500 years ago, he also admits that he had to figure out "the most appropriate approach for the Western mind. There are so many different techniques [...] of Buddhist tradition that I was not sure, in the beginning, which method was the best to teach." (17) And Lama Michel said about his master: "Lama Gangchen doesn't have a traditional way, because he left Tibet, applied himself to the West and adopted his teachings to the people here."(18)

Compared with Lama Gangchen's way, Michel Calmanowitz’ carrier points to the inverse direction. He was born in the West but now he lives in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the East, being trained according to the old monastic tradition. The community of which he is part consists of four hundred Asian monks who are Buddhist by birth. Like all the others, Michel has to follow a strict monastic routine. His lessons include the Tibetan language so that he is capable to devote himself to the classical disciplines of the Vajrayana. Several hours a day he memorizes sacred texts, since he knows that: "In Buddhism there is a great concern for memorizing, because the monks have the habit of reciting and of debating philosophy. And when someone is going to a debate, he has to know everything, he cannot take the text and read. He has to have everything in his mind."(19) Furthermore, he already has made clear the value of the purity of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings: "We have to take care not to confuse the ideas", he said in an interview, "since on this basis the road of wisdom will persist much longer." (20)

Michel Calmanowitz has expressed, in his own words, his preparedness to stay some twenty years in the monastery (21). This can be taken as a hint that one day he will leave the community of Sera Me in order to play a more active role within the international movement of his master. In this case, an impact on the current repertoire of Lama Gangchen's teachings can be expected. One who, like the Brazilian Lama Michel, has been intensively educated in the old tradition, will be capable of contributing to the "rescue" of a considerably Westernized and authenticity-lacking version of Tibetan Buddhism. This doesn’t mean that a "recuperated" Lama Gangchen movement will completely loose his Western touch. Rather, the Western features will continue, while at the same time traditional Eastern element will be re-enlivened. This prospect seems in an accord with Lama Gangchen's vision regarding the further development of his movement. As he already in 1995 put it in religious words: " Lama Michel is really a extraordinary boy and many have noticed that his energy is especially cordial, as it is the pure quality of Maitreya, the future Buddha of love. Today, the feelings of love are almost non-existent, and therefore Buddha Maitreya [....] will restore the pure energy of love in the world. This will happen in the future, but this energy is already manifesting itself in human society." (22)

Whatever the future will bring to Lama Michel and Lama Gangchen’s movement is a mystery at this time; it is worthwhile to continue investigating the ways that Tibetan Buddhism manages the transition from a localized religion to a more and more globalized religion.



(1) Cf. Batchelor, Stephen, The Awakening of the West. The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture, Berkeley 1994.

(2) Quote from the introduction to the Internet-conference "Hightech and Macumba", Goethe-Institute of São Paulo; cf.

(3) Uma jovem idéia de paz. Conversas com o Lama Michel Rimpoche, São Paulo (Sarasvati) 1996, p.15.

(4) This information was published on the Internet; cf. <> (accessed in May 1999; no longer online).

(5) Cf. Kay, David, "The New Kadampa Tradition and the Continuity of Tibetan Buddhism in Transition", Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol.12, No.3, 1997, P.277-293

(6) Cf. Lama Gangchen, Autocura. Proposta de um mestro tibetano, Milano (Sherab) 1991

(7) Cf. Lama Gangchen, Zamling shide bang chen da sel II: Clara luz da lua mensageiro da paz mundial, Livro II, Milão (Lama Gangchen Peace Publications) 1995, p.116.

(8) Cf. Ibid., p.I.

(9) Cf. Lama Gangchen, Ngelso - Autocura III, O guia para o Supermercado dos Bons Pensamentos, São Paulo (Saraswati) 1998, pp. 477 ff.

(10) Ibid., p.118.

(11) Cf. Tempos de Paz, Jornal do Fórum Espiritual Local , São Paulo: 1, No.1 (Verão ‘98).

(12) Cf.

(13) Cf. Zamling shide bang chen da sel II, op.cit. p.115.

(14) Lama Gangchen, "Apresentação", in: Uma jovem..., op.cit., pp17..15-18, especially p.15.

(15) Cf. Carpenter, Robert T., and Wade Clark Roof:, "The Transplantation of Seicho-no-ie from Japan to Brazil: Moving Beyond the Ethnic Enclave", : Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol.10, No.1 1995, pp.41-54, especially p.48.

(16) Cf. Pye, E.M., "The Transplantation of Religions", Numen: 16 (1969), pp.234-239.

(17) Zamling shide bang chen da sel II, op.cit., p.19.

(18) Uma jovem idéia de paz, op.cit., p.30.

(19) Ibid., p.39.

(20) Ibid., p.29.

(21)Uma jovem..., op.cit., p.48.

(22) Lama Gangchen: Apresentação..., op.cit., p. 17.

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