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Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin, the first Westerner to lead an international Tibetan Buddhist sect, has died from an AIDS-related illness, members of the religious group said Sunday. He was 47.

Tendzin, born Thomas Rich, died Saturday of respiratory failure at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco, according to members of the Boulder, Colo.-based Dharmadatu Buddhist congregation called Vajradhatu.Julie Murray, spokeswoman for the hospital, could not confirm his death, saying no one was registered under the Tendzin or Rich names.

``A lot of members had difficulty accepting that he was sick,' said one of the group's members, who refused to give his name. ``It's been quite difficult for a lot of students of our church. There have been a lot of different versions of reality.'

Tendzin was reportedly admitted to the hospital in mid-August.

He was raised in Passaic, N.J. After dropping out of Fordham University, he met the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa in 1971 and became the Tibetan Buddhist leader's top student. Trungpa gave him the name Osel Tendzin, or ``radiant holder of the teachings.'

Vajradhatu was founded by Trungpa, who had fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet to settle in Boulder. Trungpa also founded the Naropa Institute, an accredited liberal arts college combining Eastern and Western studies.

In 1976, Trungpa named Tendzin as his successor, the first time a Westerner had achieved such a position in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Trungpa died in 1987 at the age of 47.

In December 1988, Tendzin told Vajradhatu members in San Francisco that he had contracted AIDS. There were reports at the time he also had acknowledged putting others at risk through his sexual behavior.

The revelation tore the organization apart, with supporters insisting Tendzin should remain as the group's leader and critics arguing he must resign because he had betrayed the trust of followers.

The Buddhist group's board of directors, who wrested leadership from Tendzin, were meeting during the weekend at Karmecholing, a meditation center in Barnet, Vt.


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