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Originally published July 21, 2012 at 4:17 PM | Page modified July 22, 2012 at 11:06 AM

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After 7 years away, Tibetan Buddhist leader, 13, visits Seattle-area family

Born into Tibetan royalty, a Seattle-area boy who left here at age 5 to study at a Buddhist monastery in Katmandu has returned for his first visit in seven years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For the past seven years, at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal's Katmandu, a Seattle-area boy has been living a most unusual life.

Up by 5 a.m., Asanga Sakya performs a ritual of morning prayers in his private quarters. His study of Buddhist scriptures follows breakfast prepared by loyal monks.

Soon, a Chinese language instructor arrives, and after lunch Asanga practices his Tibetan writing. In the afternoon, it's English classes and then dinner, followed by more religious studies and prayer before he goes to bed by 9.

In this place some 7,000 miles away from his parents and two younger sisters in Shoreline, Asanga has grown from the seemingly typical 5-year-old his parents delivered to the Tharlam Monastery in 2005, to a boy barely into his teenage years, yet venerated by Sakya Buddhists everywhere.

A lama and Tibetan Buddhist prince by birth, he is heir to a royal line that dates back nearly 1,000 years.

His father and four uncles are all lineage holders and his grandfather, founder of the Sakya Monastery in Greenwood, headquarters of Sakya Buddhism in North America, is one of the two top Sakya Buddhist leaders in the world.

Asanga's studies at the monastery in Nepal and the oral teachings he receives in India from Buddhist leaders — including the Dalai Lama — are preparing him to give his own religious teachings and to perhaps one day lead more than 100,000 Sakya Buddhists worldwide, if it comes to that.

It's a departure from the outwardly American life he had here with his family — his father, a corporate attorney, his stay-at-home mom and his two sisters, who are students at the neighborhood elementary school.

In June, the 13-year-old returned to the Seattle area for his first visit since he left. He'll spend the rest of the summer giving Buddhist talks in Seattle and California and receiving teachings from his grandfather, before returning to Asia in the fall.

After so much time away, Asanga is also getting to know his family again, including his two younger sisters — Aloki, 11 and Mamaki, 6.

Of the Seattle area, he has only fleeting memories — of coastal beaches, a few favorite restaurants, romping in the snow.

"I was wondering what it would be like, 'cause I couldn't remember that much about Seattle," he said in a quiet voice. "I remember going on a ... what are the big boats that go across the water ... ?"

Ferries, his mother gently prompts.

Next generation

Asanga Sakya is a slight boy, reserved and introspective, a ready smile set off by braces.

In public, people greet him as Asanga Rinpoche, meaning precious one, reflecting his status.

His black hair has grown long since he's been gone and, in the manner of high-ranking Sakya lineage holders, he wears it in a ponytail down his back.

On the Sunday last month after he got back, the family hosted a potluck at the monastery in Greenwood in his honor.

Sitting at a head table between his paternal grandfather, Jigdal Dagchen Sakya, and uncle Zaya Sakya, Asanga wore the traditional robes of a high-ranking lama.

Groups of young people performed before him.

Later, he thanked everyone, saying in a small, steady voice, "I hope to get to know you all through the course of the summer."

Stephanie Prince, a longtime member of the Sakya monastery, remembers the "brilliant child" who from a very young age was "engaged with practice and prayer."

"We were very happy that he wanted to and was going to be studying," she said. "I'm blessed to be in his presence That he has the capacity to carry on the lineage is so wonderful. I'm happy for the family and for the tradition."

His uncle Zaya Sakya, whose only two sons, now 15 and 19, are also studying in India, said these young people are part of the next generation of teachers and leaders of the Sakya line.

"It was hard to have them leave," he said. But, "we understand how important this is."

Dreaming of Nepal

Most parents may never understand the sacrifice Ani and Chimey Sakya made when they left Asanga behind in Nepal seven years ago to be trained by Buddhist monks — knowing he would likely never return to live with them here again.

They spent a month settling him into the monastery before returning to Seattle without him.

He was weeks shy of his 6th birthday.

"The first year was the hardest," said his mother, Chimey Sakya, "and the first few months were the most difficult."

Asanga shrugs it off: "This was something I always wanted to do," he said recently. "I had been dreaming of coming to Nepal many years before."

His sister Aloki remembers the pain of his absence: "I felt empty," she said.

In Tibetan culture it is customary for people to exchange white scarves, called khatas, during greetings and farewell. And Chimey Sakya said she was sobbing that last day in Nepal when she reached down to place one around her son's neck. "He said, 'Don't cry mamala. Don't be silly.' "

Back in Seattle, as she packed away his favorite toys and pulled his little shirts and shorts from the closet, the emptiness set in: "He was not coming back; he was really gone," she said.

Because of Asanga's status, his family couldn't simply donate his belongings to charity, but have stored them away instead.

"People would love to have a piece of his clothing to put on an altar — toys, books and anything that he physically wore, shoes, socks," his mother said. "When we travel to Tibet or India, we would hand them out."

"Different paths"

The Sakya family is deeply rooted in Tibet.

Before 1959, Asanga's paternal grandparents and their oldest sons lived in a palace in Sakya, Tibet, surrounded by servants.

That year, in the midst of the communist Chinese government crackdown, the family fled to India along with thousands of other Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama. The Sakyas came to the University of Washington as part of a research project about Tibetan culture, becoming one of the first Tibetan families in exile in North America.

Their order of Buddhism differs from the religion's other sects in that its teachings and instructions are passed down through blood lineage, which requires a male heir to perpetuate it.

From a large rental house in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood, Jigdal Dagchen Sakya raised his five boys as regular American kids — Asanga's dad and an uncle played football for Roosevelt High — never pressuring them to follow any specific path.

"My father didn't have the freedom to do what he wanted but he said, 'We are in America, I'll give my children all the freedom they need,' " said Asanga's dad, Ani Sakya, an attorney at Starbucks.

"We all took different paths." None received the formal Buddhist training needed to carry on the line. So that torch is being carried by their sons — Asanga's generation.

The boy's parents said they knew from the time he was very young that this was a commitment he wanted to make.

Always curious about the Buddha, he had, by age 2, memorized and could recite important Buddhist prayers, his parents said. By 3, he could repeat from memory what others at the monastery were reading from text.

"My son had choices, but he wanted to do this," Ani Sakya said.

Asanga expresses his desires more simply: "I wanted to know about Tibet, study the scripture and how to read and write," he said.

Surrogate family

At the monastery in Nepal founded by his grandmother's uncle, Asanga lives in private quarters. It's where he spends most of his time, hardly ever going outside.

Monks see to his daily needs — cooking his meals and caring for him when he's sick. They learned to make the pizza he loves.

Buddhist monks dedicate themselves to a life of humility, and those who teach and care for Asanga get no financial compensation other than the gifts the family brings on visits each year.

"They are honored to be his attendants and teachers," Ani Sakya said.

One monk is so close, the family calls him a substitute mother. "The monks stay with me almost 24 hours," Asanga said. "They're actually like my family since my parents aren't around in Nepal."

When he was younger, monks around his age were brought to his quarters to play with him. And a year after he arrived at the monastery, his parents bought him a computer on which he loaded several games, including the children's adventure series Freddi Fish.

He used to love board games, especially Monopoly, about which he now says, "I've forgotten how to play."

In his spare time — he gets off half a day Friday and all of Saturday — he enjoys reading biographies. His favorites: Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

During special ceremonies, Asanga sits on a high throne looking down, his father said.

"They all sit below my son," Ani Sakya said. "He sits higher on the throne in a public formal setting, just under my father and my uncle and then under the Dalai Lama."

Last September, in what Asanga called the "biggest exam of my life" he correctly led the congregation of monks in a daylong ritual called the Vajrakilaya, scoring the highest points possible and becoming the youngest to successfully take and pass the exam.

It involved chanting and proper use of instruments and hand movements and Asanga performed it before a packed monastery of lamas and nuns, with hundreds in the monastery courtyard outside.

Once a week in Nepal, Asanga talks to his family via Skype. And every summer, his parents and sisters visit for a month, always taking him and his teachers away from the monastery for a small vacation. Each time, they ask the same question: Does he want to come back with them?

Asanga's answer is always the same: He wants to continue his studies in Nepal.

Studies and games

Even in Seattle this summer — away from the watchful eyes of his teachers — the young lama is continuing his daily studies.

Every Thursday, he connects with the monks via Skype and many mornings they call to make sure he's doing his work.

Asanga said he's enjoying the time back with his family. He declines his mother's suggestions to swap his traditional skirtlike shemdap for regular shorts, but he and his sisters spend hours hanging out, sometimes playing rock-paper-scissors in a tent their parents pitched in the backyard.

The day after he arrived in Seattle, he visited his sisters' elementary school for their last day of class. It was his first time in a public school.

The family has trips planned to Mount Rainier, the Space Needle and the ocean. In August, they'll visit relatives in California where, in addition to a trip to Disneyland, Asanga will deliver Buddhist teachings.

His return to Asia is still open.

Ani Sakya said he may take his son back to Nepal in the fall.

Alternatively, if the boy's grandfather is well enough, the two will travel on a teaching tour through Asia over the next year. Asanga is to begin Sakya College in India in 2013.

"He's my father's grandson," Ani Sakya said. "There are Sakya monasteries all over Asia and they are clamoring for him."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @turnbullL.

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