THIS IS WHAT his Aunt Pema tells him: You are a special Tibetan lama. A tulku. You were reincarnated for the sole purpose of benefiting other sentient beings. This is your 23rd lifetime.

This is what his Aunt Pema tells him: You cannot watch "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers." It's too violent. And don't watch Bart Simpson, either. Bart talks back to his elders. Come see this newscast about the earthquake in Japan. People suffer, Tenzin Dhonga. Learn to have compassion.This is what Aunt Pema tells Tenzin's first-grade teacher at Oakhills Elementary in Bountiful: nothing. It's hard to explain to Westerners that your nephew - who plays Power Rangers on the playground - is a reincarnated consciousness whose karma must ripen in a special way.

This is what Aunt Pema says when Tenzin is out of earshot: It is not easy to raise a tulku in America.

The story of Tenzin Dhonga Kashhi could begin in several different places and, in fact, in several different centuries, depending on whether or not you take the long view of things. It could start in India.

India is where Pema Chagzoentsang's parents settled when they fled from Tibet in 1959, after the Chinese invasion. Pema was a year old then. Her father wrapped her in his lama robes and carried her through the snow for weeks until they reached safety. They had to leave her infant sister with a maid servant in Tibet, hoping to come back later to get her. But no one goes back to Tibet. Later they heard she died of starvation.

Pema brings out a scrapbook. "Biography of Gomo Rinpoche," she has written on the front. Inside are pictures of her father, Gomo Rinpoche, and of her nephew Tenzin. There is a letter from the Dalai Lama and a photocopy of a magazine article titled "Rainbows appear as Holy Being passes away."

They say that when Gomo Rinpoche died in 1985, his body did not begin to decay, did not even change color, for three days. They say that many people saw rainbows over his house. This was thought to be an auspicious sign.

Pema was not there when her father died. By then, she and her husband, T.J., were living in Utah. But Pema has heard the stories about her father's death: how his body remained in meditative sublimity for three days; how, after his cremation, an image of Buddha was seen; how, later, people saw the footprint of a small child pointing toward the north.

Pema's father was a rinpoche, a high lama of Tibetan Buddhism, a man revered for his teachings. But by Tibetan reckoning, he was also something more extraordinary: a tulku, an en-light-ened being who has taken rebirth entirely for the benefit of helping other beings become enlightened. This was his 22nd incarnation. Even by Tibetan standards, this is an unusually large number of lifetimes.

In Buddhist tradition, when a tulku dies, it is important to find out where his consciousness has taken up residence, because a tulku must be trained in a certain way. If it isn't found and nurtured, the reincarnating consciousness may spend a lifetime in a body that does not reach his or her potential.

So a few years ago, Pema and her family wrote a letter to a lama at a Tibetan monastery in India, asking whether it was time to look for the new tulku. A few months later, the lama wrote back with his report: He had consulted an oracle, who had gone into a trance and had determined that yes, the consciousness of Gomo Rinpoche had been reborn.

There were two candidates for the reincarnation, he said, both of them relatives of Gomo Rinpoche. This was unusual because ordinarily a tulku will not pick a relative. But it sometimes happens.

The two candidates, the oracle said, were Pema's nephew Tenzin and Pema's son, also named Tenzin. Both were 4 years old then. Later, the family found out that another oracle had picked a third candidate, a little boy in Tibet. This is how it usually goes, as you know if you have rented the video "Little Buddha." There are three candidates, and these are then usually narrowed down to one.

The Dalai Lama himself did the narrowing for Pema and her family because Gomo Rinpoche was an important lama, a rinpoche who had mastered many teachings. It was said that he held the most teachings of any contemporary lama. So the Dalai Lama sat in front of the temple in Dharmasala and pulled a name out of a copper bowl.

He did this three times and all three times the name was Tenzin Dhonga, Pema's nephew.

Pema was relieved that it wasn't her son, even though it's an honor to be the chosen one. But a tulku should be educated in a monastery, bathed in the enlightenment of compassionate and wise teachers. So when Pema and her husband and her sister can raise enough money and can find the proper teachers and attendants, they will have to send Tenzin Dhonga to India.

It's so far away to send a little boy, says Pema. And it's not like boarding school. He wouldn't be coming home for holidays. The training of a tulku is even more strict and intense than that of an ordinary monk, because so much is expected of a tulku. So much is at stake.

"My concern is, in this day and age, will it really work," says Pema. "Tenzin is so used to a luxury life here." A monastic life is difficult. If he had grown up in Tibet he would be more accustomed to simplicity at least.

"Excuse me," says Pema. When she comes back to the phone she apologizes for the commotion and the delay. The two Tenzins, she says, were fighting over a piece of pizza.

Once a child has been identified as a tulku, to not properly train him would bring bad luck and a short life. And of course she and her sister must show respect for their father.

Pema's sister, Yangdon, has already resigned herself to sending her only child away. But Pema, who has lived in the United States for 11 years now, has mixed feelings. "I'm more questioning since living in the U.S.," she says. She has learned to speak up.

In fact, Pema has made a name for herself in Utah as the spokeswoman for the Tibetan community, which has now grown to 65 members. Four years ago, she worked with Tibetan and U.S. officials to make Salt Lake City one of 21 resettlement sites for 1,000 Tibetans granted special U.S. visas.

Eighteen months ago, Pema opened the House of Tibet restaurant, which has now become a focal point for Salt Lakers who like Tibetan food and want to support Tibet's struggle for independence.

As far as downtrodden nations go, Tibet is enjoying a fair amount of attention these days. Americans admire the way the little country has remained steadfastly nonviolent in spite of the near-eradication of Tibetan culture since the Chinese invasion more than 40 years ago.

And then, too, there is the mainstreaming of Buddhism, from soccer star Roberto Baggio to former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, who calls himself an "active Mormon Buddhist." There is a hip Buddhist magazine, and last year there was a warm and fuzzy Buddhist movie, Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha," starring heartthrob Keanu Reeves.

At the University of Utah this quarter, nearly 200 people signed up to take a night course called "Tibet: Impermanence, Compassion and Mind," featuring lectures and special teachings by revered Tibetan rinpoches. One of the first things they learned is that Tibetan Buddhism is not a religion in the way Westerners think of religion. It's a practice, in all the meanings of that word. It is not just a custom or a pursuit or a habit but a discipline.

It is the practicing - the time spent going inward, letting go, seeking while not seeking - that nudges you down the path toward enlightenment. And it helps, they say, to have a lama as your guide.

We are sitting in the Unitarian Church on 1300 East, on wooden pews meant for short sermons. Already we've been sitting for two hours, listening to Chagdud Rinpoche give the Red Tara empowerment.

Some of us are wiggling and staring at the ceiling. Chagdud Rinpoche, with his long white mustache and his happy smile, is sitting before us in red robes. He talks in metaphors, many of them, and in sentences that seem to have no punctuation. After he explains a point, for maybe 15 minutes his translator repeats what he has said.

In Tibet, when a rinpoche would come to a village to give an empowerment, it was common for people to sit for maybe four or five days in a row, listening. Tibetans are better than Americans at sitting still, and they are used to listening in a different way.

Empowerments are mind-to-mind transmissions. They are meant to be experienced more than intellectually understood, says Richard Glade. Glade, a Salt Lake psychotherapist, has been studying Buddhism for the past 30 years. He is not yet enlightened, he says. Enlightenment can take a lifetime, maybe more.

"The rinpoches plant seeds," says Glade, who along with businesswoman Marilee Latta organized the Tibet class. "Having it all make sense (in a lecture) would be a bad teaching. The rinpoches aren't interested in giving us intellectural understanding but in awakening our bodhicitta."

Bodhicitta is our intelligent, awakened heart, our aspiration to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

The Red Tara empowerment (formal title: The Condensed Essence of the Treasure of Supreme Enlightened Mind: The Mandala Ritual of the Noble Red Tara Called the Wish-Fulfilling Essence) invokes a Tibetan deity to help us get a glimpse of our Buddha nature.

In its entirety, the Red Tara practice includes meditation, visualization, yoga and extensive teachings on the nature of mind. Tonight, though, for this group of American beginners, Chagdud explains just the basics.

Buddha means awake. We can all be buddhas. With practice we can all attain the six perfections (generosity, accountability, patience, enthusiasm, concentration and wisdom) and overcome the three poisons (ignorance, attachment and aversion). These are our human frailties: our egos, our anger, our tendency to be attached to the outcome of a thing rather than just being willing to be open to what is. The three poisons arise from the delusion of not understanding that every thing and every person is interdependent, that our suffering and our happiness is part of the suffering and happiness of all beings.

Chagdud Rinpoche lives in the United States now, where he runs the Chagdud Gompa Foundation and its 12 centers. He is said to be a wise and compassionate man and, like all lamas, also cheerful and playful.

He loves garage sales, attracted perhaps by the thought of household items having more than one lifetime.

His own life provides a glimpse of what little Tenzin Dhonga's life would have been like had he grown up in Tibet, before the Chinese invasion, instead of Bountiful in the mid-1990s.

Like Tenzin, Chagdud is a tulku. When he was 4 he was taught to sit still for hours in the meditation pose. At 6 he did a 14-day Manjushri retreat. This is no soccer camp. This is a retreat whose goal is "transcendent knowledge."

When he was 8, when his American counterparts would be learning times tables, Chagdud's master taught him p'howa. This is a practice that cuts to the heart of Buddhism. With p'howa, lamas are present at the moment of death, helping the consciousness of the dead person move on to a good rebirth.

And so Chagdud's education continued, full of empowerments and meditation, prostrations and mantras. During one three-year retreat, he did 1 million recitations of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung. When he was 14, he took a test on his ability to do tummo practice. Sitting outside in the middle of winter, his naked body wrapped in cold, wet sheets, Chadgud had to generate enough heat through meditation and yogic exercises to make the sheets warm and dry.

He has spent his life trying to understand and train his mind.

But all this may not be readily apparent when you meet a tulku like Chagdud, at least if you are an American. Ask him a question and you are likely to get an answer that is vague - and then be disappointed.

This is perhaps why journalists like to write articles with headlines like "Hello Dalai: Nirvana in New York," in which they pride themselves on seeing right through Buddhists like the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader. "I came away from this event thinking that the Dalai Lama was a bit of a holy bore, if not a fraud," wrote a British journalist in the New Republic.

But Buddhists will tell you, basically, that it takes one to know one.

"Bodhicitta is so awake in tulkus like Chagdud," says Richard Glade, "that if it's not awake in you they may seem like silly old men." And a little lama may seem like just another boy.

The little lama smiles. "I'm going to grow a tooth," he says.

This is his first official interview. What is a lama, the reporter asks him. "A lama is a lama," he says.

Tenzin Dhonga and his cousin are waiting at the House of Tibet for Aunt Pema to finish supervising the cooking. If they behave well, she will take them to see "The Jungle Book."

As the afternoon wears on, Tenzin Dhonga gets restless and runs around the restaurant. When Pema looks disappointed, he sits down. Sometimes she will tell the boys that if they're bad they'll come back in their next life as pigs. The intricacies of karma can wait until later.

"Let's play tic tac toe," says the little lama. He draws a grid and makes an "x" in the corner square. Wait, he says, as the reporter starts to make her move. "We can have two turns, OK?" The reporter tries to overcome an attachment to winning. After the tic tac toe, Tenzin suggests a game of hangman.

His spelling is good, even though he has only spoken English since last August, when he and his mother moved to Utah from Montreal. He was born in Montreal and has never been to Tibet.

His Aunt Pema thinks that his ability to learn fast is a sign. And there are other signs: that he was born on the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988, an auspicious date; that he can spontaneously do Tibetan dances he has never seen before; that when she took him to see Chagdud Rinpoche speak at the university, he knew instinctively how to put his fingers in the lotus posture; that he can be contemplative and still.

But of course he is also just a little boy. After the hangman game, Tenzin gets up to make himself another drink from the restaurant's soda machine, a mixture of Coke and 7-Up and water. He sits back down at the table, but then he notices that some diners are coming up the sidewalk. He runs over to stand near the door, adopting his scariest Power Ranger pose.

Sometimes, says Pema, he will walk right up to people and tell them that he is a rinpoche. He talks about going to live in a monastery. "You pray and you eat, and you got to clean up," he says. "There's no car, and no bike and no TV."

"And you can only bring one toy," his cousin reminds him. Tenzin Dhonga says he will bring Game Boy, although he doesn't actually own one yet.

Pema worries that Tenzin Dhonga has too much of the world in him already. The West is so full of distractions. It is, in fact, what we do best. "The cult of delusion," as Sogyal Rinpoche says in "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying."

It's not just that we fill our lives with activities and noise and heroes that do not embody compassion. It is not just the fact that our culture glorifies ego. It's not just that our karma seems to include increasing violence. Last year, at the Salt Lake City Library, a man with a gun took 18 people hostage who had come to watch Tibetan monks create a sand mandala embodying enlightenment and peace.

It's not that Americans aren't compassionate. In her experience with the Tibetan Resettlement Project, in fact, Pema says she has found Americans to be incredibly compassionate. But as a society, America is lax. It allows what Pema calls a lack of "protocol," a lack of respect. The kind of disregard you can sometimes see on "Bart Simpson" and "Roseanne."

She tells the boys not to watch such shows, but when she isn't home they sometimes do. Pema's mother lives with them now, but the boys do not always obey her when she tells them to turn off the TV.

But it's not just that, either. The West is full of other distractions. In the West we see intelligence as information. We turn our minds outward. We gather data.

A Buddhist mind, one that is trained as a tulku would be trained, looks inward. The word for Buddhist in Tibetan is nangpa, insider, one who seeks the truth within the nature of mind. One who seeks, through meditation and other mind training, to know the nature of mind - to understand that consciousness is endless, that matter is formless, that all beings suffer and are connected.

It is only through this understanding, Buddhists believe, that a person can become truly compassionate, can act in ways that increase happiness and decrease suffering.

In Tibet - before the Chinese began their systematic eradication of nearly every monastery and their killing of nearly 1 million Tibetans, before Tibetans were forced to flee to various parts of the globe - a child's whole upbringing would have been different.

Imagine, says Richard Glade, if in Salt Lake City every family believed that one of its children might be a tulku. It wouldn't be apparent at birth, so each family would take pains to raise each child surrounded by compassion and awareness. Even those children who later were determined not to be tulkus would be raised this way, says Glade, because they might someday be the parent of a tulku.

Every evening after dinner, Pema sits the two Tenzins and her son Sam in her prayer room. At one end is a dining room hutch that has been turned into a shrine. There is a picture of Pema's father's teacher and a picture of the young man who is his reincarnation. There are candles and an offering of barley flour.

This is where Pema meditates and where she does prostrations, not in worship but as a surrendering of ego, as a bowing down to the potential in all of us to be aware and compassionate and wise.

The boys are expected to calm their minds with meditation. If they start to wiggle, Pema has them take turns doing prostrations, too.

Because he is a tulku, Buddhists believe, Tenzin Dhonga carries no negative karma with him from his past lives. But that doesn't mean he might not be subject to temptations and bad habits. That doesn't mean he will automatically become a person who can benefit others.

If he is not trained well, Buddhists believe, the "wisdom memory" of his 23 lifetimes may be lost. Another loss to add to the bigger loss that is Tibet.

To Westerners who don't believe in karma and reincarnation, it is difficult to understand how Tenzin Dhonga's mother can send her only child to a monastery 13,000 miles away. To be able to do this you would have to believe that the world needs him more than she needs him or he needs her. To do this you would have to believe in something bigger than family values.

Over the centuries, while the rest of the world was busy inventing technology and conquering new places and finding ways to get rich, Tibet put its effort toward developing an unusual commodity. Its gross national product was compassion.

This is where its resources went. Its monasteries were not just places to house monks and nuns but were centers of learning and medicine. Its heroes were compassionate men and women.

This, some people say, is what the world stands to lose as Tibet disintegrates.

Here is a story that Lodi Gyari Rinpoche tells. Gyari is president of the International Campaign for Tibet based in Washington, D.C. He was in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago to address the University of Utah Continuing Education class about Tibet. Gyari wears suits and does not talk in metaphors, although he is a rinpoche.

He tells the story of a monk who had been tortured and imprisoned in solitary confinement for 19 years by the Chinese in Tibet. Later, after he had been freed and had fled Tibet, he told the Dalai Lama that there was one day during those 19 years when he almost betrayed himself. When was that, the Dalai Lama wanted to know.

"There was one day," the monk answered, "when I almost had hatred in my heart against the Chinese."

To be Tibetan is to try to face the world with acceptance and compassion, to face your enemies not with revenge or threats or even judgments but with the belief that violence and hatred creates an unending karma of more violence and hatred.

"We are fighting to preserve something much more precious than you or I can comprehend," says Gyari. "That is the real essence of the cause of Tibet."