Lobsang Yeshe is a Buddhist monk. His other name is Michael Cassapidis. How Michael “became” Lobsang is a story that transcends and even challenges commonly-held notions of ethnicity.
I feel a connection as the rituals are similar to Buddhist ones. Both have chanting and smoky incense. I’ve always enjoyed lighting a candle in a church.
Lobsang/Michael was born in England to a Greek father and Belgian mother. At the age of three, Michael (now forty three) traveled with his mother and a friend of hers overland from the Netherlands to India – the so-called “hippie trail”.
He has “vague memories” of that trip, one being of his go-cart on top of the Land Rover they were travelling in. When they reached Delhi, Michael’s mother met a friend of hers – Zena – who happened to be one of the first Western women ordained as a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Zena introduced them to two Tibetan lamas (teachers) Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, who had left Tibet following the Chinese occupation.
“I seem to have bonded with them,” says Michael.
A little while later, he joined the Kopan monastery in Nepal as a novice monk. That is also when he received his Buddhist name Lobsang Yeshe, which stands for kind-heart wisdom and is something he aspires to.
A year later, his father, who had been living in Greece, went to the monastery to see his son. He also had the intention of giving him a ‘proper education’, but, comments Michael, “when he saw me, he felt that I enjoyed being there and that Buddhism was a positive thing, so he decided to ‘leave’ me there.”
In fact, Michael’s father became very interested in Buddhism and established a retreat centre in Lesvos, which he ran for fifteen years.
All this time, Michael had never been to Greece, living most of the time in monasteries in Nepal and southern India. At about age thirteen, Michael, along with a few other boys, “ran away” from the monastery after they had been disciplined for missing some classes.
When Michael’s father, concerned that his son was unhappy, asked him if he would like to leave the monastery and enrol in a school, Michael responded that he wanted to meet his (Greek) grand-mother and sister instead.
Permission was sought from the monastery and Michael travelled to Greece for the first time.
“I was overwhelmed because it was so different to where I’d been living. I was fascinated by TV! I’d never seen one before. And there was plenty of food!”
He could not speak Greek, which made it difficult to communicate, but when it came to his grand-mother and food, they always had good communication, he comments.
“I spent two and a half months there and even though I enjoyed the summer on Lesvos, I also started to feel that I didn’t belong there. I felt a bit empty, that that kind of lifestyle lacked any substance. I wanted to go back to the monastery. That’s when I started feeling a stronger calling.”
His father gave him the choice to leave Greece, if that is what he wanted. And he did.
He eventually became a “full-pledged monk” at age twenty-two, receiving his ordination from the Dalai Lama in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (often referred to as the “yellow hats”).
Since 1997, Lobsang has travelled to and worked as an interpreter at various Buddhist centres around the world affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a network of Buddhist centres that promote harmony and compassion for all beings through education and public service.
He has been based at the Tara Institute in Brighton (an affiliate of the Foundation) for the last two years, acting as an interpreter for the Venerable Geshe Doga (a senior teacher), teaching Buddhist introductory courses and conducting school visits.
Both his parents, says Michael, were very supportive of his choice to become a Buddhist and a monk.
“My mom kind of initiated it with the trip to the East. She’d always been interested in Eastern philosophy and in India, she pursued it further. My father was very open-minded. He was more concerned about my education, but when he came to the monastery, he realised that there were other studies there besides just Buddhist.”
Whenever Michael has visited Greece, he has always gone to churches there. “I feel a connection as the rituals are similar to Buddhist ones. Both have chanting and smoky incense. I’ve always enjoyed lighting a candle in a church.”
He emphasises that “my choice to pursue Buddhism in no way negates the values of other faiths.”
This kind of accepting, inclusive attitude is central to Buddhist philosophy and one that has enormous relevance in our multicultural/multi-faith society.