#6: Growing Up in Howell

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Growing up in Howell, New Jersey, H.E. Tsem Rinpoche studied at Land O’Pines School, where he excelled, winning the annual science awards and art competitions.

Even from a young age, Rinpoche loved animals and worked in a pet shop during the summer to earn money. At home he kept 13 cockatiels, fish, hamsters, dogs and even turtles, training them and taking the utmost care of them.

First grade in Land O'Pines School

Saying goodbye to his beloved dog before going to school

His birth mother often visited him at his Mongolian foster parents’ house, pretending to be his aunt. She seemed to be visiting to observe how Rinpoche was growing up. It was also here in Howell that Tsem Rinpoche first met his cousin, Telo Rinpoche, who had just been recognised as a reincarnation.

Dinner time at the Bugayeffs. However, things at home were not as idyllic as they seemed

His foster family was very kind, buying him whatever material things he needed including clothes and toys. But despite their love and care, growing up in New Jersey was a trying time for the young boy.

Happy families? Rinpoche with his mother Dana (far left) and father Boris (far right)

His father wanted his son to reflect well on himself. Thus Rinpoche was forced to play sports, to dress in a certain way, and to behave and act in a way that his father considered proper for a Mongolian.

Rinpoche and his foster father, Boris Bugayeff, who forced him to dress in a certain way. He was often teased and bullied at school for the way he dressed and for his Asian features

His mother was at heart a very kind person, helping anyone who needed it. However, she was also extremely paranoid and moody, which was only diagnosed much later as schizophrenic. She would regularly beat him with wooden sticks, brooms, or her bare hands, hitting Rinpoche so hard that his ears would ring and his body bruised all over. She would also blame him for everything that went wrong in her life and marriage, and would sometimes ignore the young boy for weeks at a time. It was physically and psychologically difficult living in a house with so much anger.

Rinpoche and his foster mother, Dana Bugayeff

Rinpoche's grandmother (far right) often visited him

Rinpoche’s parents never came to any of his award presentations; he was alone, every year. He would also be teased at school because of his Asian looks and the way he dressed. Both parents discouraged him from going out, meeting friends and having a social life as they were afraid he would become less Mongolian and more American.


Despite all he had to endure, Rinpoche has never harboured any resentment towards his foster parents, recognising that his mother was unwell and never meant to hurt him. Instead, Rinpoche has turned trauma into positivity, consistently showing great love and kindness to others and teaching us that painful experiences from the past do not have to affect how we live our lives today.

My mother loved me and she didn’t want to lose me. She genuinely loved me. I never felt she wanted to hurt me. She was not well. Even to today, I harbour nothing towards her. I don’t have any scars from that because I don’t feel she wanted to hurt me. She was in a lot of pain.

No ill-feelings - Rinpoche with his mother

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