A 300-Year-Old Saint Returns as Buddhism's First U.S. Mama Lama
In some ways, life with Catharine Burroughs is as American as red meat, red wine and red lipstick, all of which this 39-year-old housewife and mother of three happens to like. "There is still a part of me that is a red-blooded Brooklyn girl who loves Motown and played stickball in the streets and had a Revlon doll," she says. "The Brooklyn girl in me was surprised by what happened. But the rest of me wasn't."
It was the rest of her, presumably, that led to her enthronement last month as a tulku, or reincarnated lama, in the Tibetan Buddhist faith, making her the first Western woman in that religion's 12-century history to be so honored. In a ceremony at the colonnaded house that serves as both the Burroughs home and the Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling—the Buddhist World Prayer Center in Poolesville—Burroughs sat on a red wooden throne as His Holiness the Third Drubwang Padma Norbu Rinpoche, the supreme head of the Palyul lineage of Nyingmapa Tibetan Buddhism, formally recognized her as the reincarnation of a Tibetan woman, a Buddhist saint who died 300 years ago. In addition to the title tulku, Burroughs was given the woman's name, Ahkön Lhamo.
One of his religion's most revered holy men, Rinpoche three years ago divined Burroughs' hidden identity. At the time, she had never read any Buddhist texts, and "like any typical American, I thought, 'Where the heck is Tibet?' " She and Michael, her second husband, and her sons from her first marriage, Ben and Christopher, were renting a house in Kensington, Md., where Burroughs was leading a nondenominational prayer-and-meditation group, while Michael worked in a computer store. A Tibetan friend had introduced the couple to a visiting Tibetan Buddhist, and when Rinpoche came to the U.S. a year later, the Burroughses went to the airport to meet His Holiness.
"I thought, 'We'll just wing it, be polite,' " recalls Catharine. But when he appeared, she says, it was like "a shampoo commercial. Remember the one where two people come bounding across the field toward each other and time stands still? I just looked at him and suddenly understood everything."
The reverberations recalled her childhood in Brooklyn, where, she says, she had had many "experiences of intuitive understanding." Her father, an Italian Catholic who drove a truck, and her mother, who was Jewish and worked as a cashier, would argue about religion in front of their six children. "It seemed to me that people everywhere suffer because they are self-absorbed," she says. "I had this idea that if everybody could get to this place where they would only think of others, we would be expanded. I had a Revlon doll, and I used to pretend she went around the world and made everybody happy."
An unexceptional student, Burroughs married an Asheville, N.C., respiratory therapist when she was 20 and developed her own method of meditation after her first son was born. She joined a nondenominational prayer group, which eventually claimed so much of her energy that it helped break up her marriage in 1981. The next year, Catharine married Michael Burroughs, moved to Maryland and formed a new prayer group. Later that year her 30 meditation students encouraged her to quit her job as a retail clerk and let them pay her for classes. Says one longtime adherent: "She perceives the world more completely than people normally do."
When Rinpoche came to the U.S. in 1985, he spent five days with the Burroughses. "He kept asking me what I was teaching," Catharine recalls. "I told him I meditated on the emptiness of all phenomena and that selflessness was the answer. He said I was teaching the basic tenets of Mahayana Buddhism." Several months later Burroughs' disciples bought the Poolesville house as a prayer center and residence.
In the spring of 1987 Catharine and Michael studied at Rinpoche's monastery in India. It was there that Rinpoche informed her that she was the reincarnation of Ahkön Lhamo. "It blew my mind," she says. Rinpoche, through a translator, says he recognized Burroughs' divinity after much meditation. "Many come to me and say, 'I am an enlightened being. I am a Buddha,' " he says. "She did not do that."
As a tulku, Burroughs now spends at least five hours a day in prayer and recites mantras thousands of times to clear the mind of hatred, greed, ignorance and desire. She must also learn Tibetan to study ancient scriptures in the original. Michael, 34, now administrator of the prayer center, says, "I had no trouble accepting Buddhism. I studied it and understand it." But Ben, who unlike his stepfather and brother has not converted to Buddhism, sees his mother's sainthood as no big deal. "I don't think of her as a tulku," he says. "I just think of her as my mom."