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You are here : Home > Reading Room > Tulkus : Masters of Reincarnation
Tulkus : Masters of Reincarnation
Indian Origins of the Tulku Tradition

The tradition of tulku or "emanated incarnation" is a term borrowed from basic Mahayana Buddhist doctrine. In Buddhism the doctrine of reincarnation is accepted as a self-evident truth and all schools accept it in one form or another. Until one reaches a certain level of spiritual stability one can fall into any one of the six realms of existence : the hells, the ghost realm, the animal world, the world of humans, and the realm of the anti-gods and gods. Through one's practice of the Buddhist path wisdom increases and the forces of ignorance are transcended and one acquires an ever-increasing control over the wheel of rebirth. This will eventually lead to the power that enables one to take birth not out of the compulsive force of karma but in accordance with one's conscious aspiration and altruistic concern to benefit the world. Such a being is known as a bodhisattva and is characterized by the ability to enter the world at will in order to guide those ready to be trained.

Buddhism in India developed in three principal waves : Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. In the Theravada teachings the doctrine of reincarnation is presented in terms of cause and effect in that every action we do leaves an impression on the mind and acts as a propelling force in our unfoldment. Wholesome deeds of body, speech and mind produce happy results in this and future lives ; unwholesome deeds produce the opposite.

The doctrine was presented differently in the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, where the emphasis was placed on universal responsibility and the benefit of all living beings. Personal liberation was presented as merely a steppingstone on the way to the universal goodness of a bodhisattva. Here the doctrine of reincarnation suggested that one could grow in strength lifetime upon lifetime until one eventually achieved the great enlightenment that was of benefit to all beings. Finally the esoteric Vajrayana took the doctrines of reincarnation and bodhisattva's universal concern a step further. If both were valid principles then at the time of death one could direct one's consciousness or mind to a rebirth that would be of maximum benefit to the world. It suggested, in other words, the idea of controlled rebirth.

The spiritual technology whereby controlled rebirth could be achieved as a social institution was never fully developed by the Indians however; this did not occur until Buddhism reached Tibet where it cross-fertilized with the great Himalayan mystics of Central Asia. These currents together produced the institution of the tulku, or officially recognized reincarnate lama. Tibetans came to cherish this phenomenon as one of their greatest achievements, with great amounts of energy and resources poured into its production of "reincarnate lamas".

The tulku phenomenon is subtle and complex and appears in many different forms. Within Tibetan Buddhism tulkus are found within all the major schools and the term refers to people thought to embody the qualities of spiritual realization. In the Tibetan context any person judged a tulku is seen as the reincarnation of some particular realized person. Employed in this way, the term is used in different contexts, one general and one more specific.

In the general sense it can apply to any person of realization who is felt to be the reincarnation of a certain holy person regardless of the fact that they might have lived centuries before. For example the nineteenth century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul the Great was considered to be the reincarnation of both the great translator Vairochana and Ananda, the Buddha's attendant.

Evolving from this general meaning is the more specific usage of tulku where a small child is recognized as the reincarnation of a particular recently deceased lama. In traditional Tibet the newly recognized tulku would be installed in the same position as the previous person such as the abbot of a particular monastery. They would be understood as the "rebirth" of the person who had previously held the monastic seat in question and would take up again the work, teachings and administration which had been interrupted by the death of the previous incarnation. Over the last few centuries most abbatial seats in Tibetan monasteries were held by tulkus, and the prestige of the various gompas depended to a considerable extent on the stature of the tulku who resided and taught there. This second more specific, and institutional meaning of tulku, applied to a wide variety of people at various levels of realization, with some tulkus considered quite realized whilst others were seen to be much more ordinary.

There is a general view that after looking at other Buddhist traditions around the world the tulku tradition is a relatively late and uniquely Tibetan phenomenon having little to do with classical Indian Buddhism. In fact the tulku tradition does have many roots in its Buddhist past and is much more closely related to early and later Indian developments that might appear at first glance. We can see, for example, in the Pali Canon how the Buddha is understood to have been a bodhisattva who on his journey to enlightenment was reborn countless times working for the benefit of others. He is depicted as having taken intentional rebirth, talking about his reincarnations and even remembering specific places, people and events of those former lives.

In Mahayana Buddhism the way of the bodhisattva became an ideal for all. In the context of the tulku tradition it is worth noting that as the bodhisattva makes progress along the path he or she acquires the power to consciously and intentionally chose the situation of their rebirth in terms of time, family, place and so on. This power explains how a person of attainment is able to die and then find their way back to a locale and family which would enable him to be recognized and reinstalled in his previous seat.

In Vajrayana Buddhism we encounter siddhas who are understood as high-level bodhisattvas. These human saints are understood to have attained many of the abilities and powers of advanced bodhisattvas. This is seen in the famous Lives of the Eight-four Siddhas where certain siddhas exhibit powers over rebirth and other abilities and powers of accomplished bodhisattvas. In these biographies we find themes which are to be repeated in the later Tibetan tulku tradition where many high level bodhisattvas live in the world and hold positions of material and political power.


Origins of the Tulku Tradition in Tibet

The tulku idea is found in the early spreading of Buddhism in Tibet amongst the accounts of the oldest of the four Tibetan Buddhist schools, the Nyingma, where the twenty-five disciples of the Indian guru Padmasambhava were charged with taking intentional rebirth at specific times and places, remembering their former births and locations of spiritual treasures hidden by their master and discovering them and bringing them to light. The classical form of the tulku tradition took definitive shape however among the schools of the later spreading. It was here that the various ideas of reincarnation came together with the evolving monastic system in Tibet. A bodhisattva now took rebirth closely following the death of a known predecessor, was identified with that person and reinstalled in the institutional seat of the previous incarnation.

This development led to increased independence of the monasteries away from the lay people in the form of powerful families and landed nobility. This shift in the balance of power meant that monasteries were free to choose their leaders without fear of outside interference. Tulkus meant that monasteries themselves chose their leaders in accordance with the clairvoyance of realized masters and thus acquired ultimate control over their governance. It is a point of speculation as to whether the genesis of the tulku idea in Tibet was politically motivated in that it allowed the monasteries to gain the upper hand in their ongoing power struggle with their lay supporters. What can be safely stated however is that in time Tibetan tulkus came to be repositories not only of social, political and institutional power, but also of mastery that was scholastic, ritual and yogic. So the rise of the tulku as a centerpiece in Tibetan Buddhism fulfilled the need, in a relatively decentralized culture, for spiritual leaders spread throughout the country who were more or less equivalent in function, embodying in one person and one place the various dimensions of Buddhism.

It is stated that the first identifiable lineage tradition began with the successor to Dusum Khyenpa, of the Karma Kagyu school, a sub-school of the Dagpo Kagyu lineage, one of the four main Kagyu schools. Dusum Khyenpa was a student of Gampopa who established several important monasteries in central and eastern Tibet and after his death his successor, Karmaprakshi, was the first formally recognized tulku in Tibet. In total there have been seventeen incarnations up to the death of the Sixteen Karmapa Rigpe Dorje in 1981 and the subsequent discovery of the seventeenth Karmapa in 1992.

Tibetan experience makes clear there is a wide range in the levels of attainment of people called tulkus, from those who are fully realized to those who do not even exhibit a level of attainment high enough to be able to select their own rebirth. There is also the fact that to say a tulku is a literal reincarnation of a specific former person seems questionable,
especially when a large number of tulkus claim to have no recollection of their former lives or feeling of connection with their previous incarnation.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche distinguishes between three different types of tulkus. Firstly there are those tulkus who are more in name than in fact. There are ordinary people whom tradition has placed in the position of a tulku to fulfill certain religious, social and political functions. Such a person is not a genuine tulku in the strict sense of the word as he is not really the reincarnation of an earlier identified saint but has merely been chosen in this present life to play the assigned role; the fact that he or she has been chosen rather than someone else is somewhat arbitrary. This kind of tulku perhaps more than any other reflects the a situation where it was considered institutionally desirable to fill vacant abbatial positions with tulkus and thus take advantage of the title.

The second category of tulku according to Trungpa Rinpoche is the "blessed tulku", the category which most Buddhists in the west would be familiar with and who belong to some of the better known incarnation lines. Again the blessed tulku should be understood as not being the literal reincarnation of the previous person but rather we can say that the previous person has in some way transferred their energy to this other individual. The energy transmitted is the spiritual force or character of the tulku and the line that the previous master had received from his own "predecessor". Blessed are perceived to be already somewhat advanced on the path and therefore are chosen for that reason by the previous incarnation.

In order for blessed tulkus to fulfill their calling it is necessary for them to have rigorous training and education in order for them to realize their potential. Blessed tulkus can sometimes have memories of their previous incarnations but even such phenomena do not necessitate the existence of one person simply being reborn as another. Another question concerning blessed tulkus is what happens to the previous incarnation once the spiritual energy has been transmitted to someone else? Here it is important to realize that although the predecessor has passed on their energy to the one who will be the new incarnation they still retain their original spiritual energy and realization. In this sense the person who has transferred their energy to another returns to the world but in a different guise.

The third category of tulku is the "direct tulku", this is a bodhisattva of a high level who takes rebirth over and over to help sentient beings. It is this type of tulku who is considered to be an actual literal reincarnation of a previous realized master. In any one generation there would be very few of this grade of tulku. Even in the case of a direct tulku we should not make the assumption that it is a single self that is reborn over and over. It is possible for instance for a direct tulku in his or her next birth to split into three, four or five different incarnations representing body, speech and mind etc. Trungpa Rinpoche remarked on the difficulty these concepts and practices pose for westereners who are firm in their belief of the reality, solidity and unity of the "self".

The Tibetan tradition also makes a distinction between the purpose of the education process as it applies to blessed and direct tulkus. For the direct tulku education is viewed as having no basic effect on his understanding or realization. In contrast to this education and training are essential to the continued development of the blessed tulku. There is also a difference in the experience of learning between the two. For direct tulkus learning is more like a review, as if they were simply refreshing themselves with something already known. For the blessed tulkus there is rather the experience that something is actually being learned and that a journey is being made.

There is also a difference between blessed and direct tulkus in relationships they both have in regard to the contexts in which they are born. Here the blessed tulku is far more strongly influenced by his birth situation and family, whilst direct tulkus are far more inwardly driven and much less dependent on the particular conditions of their environment. The sense of realization of the direct tulku is natural and spontaneous from their birth onward and is not altered by the vagaries and inconsistencies of their environment and training.

Tulku Tradition in Practice

When surveying the actual Tibetan situation it is true to say that the way in which tulkus actually appear is not nearly so neat and tidy as this three-leveled schema outlines above might suggest. This is because there were hundreds, if not thousands, of tulku lines all reflecting different regions, schools, lineages, types of training and specific monastic institutions. Whilst many Tibetans would probably agree on who did or did not belong to the highest category, the direct category, there would be divergent views on the others and who belonged to where with different traditions valuing different qualities in a teacher.

It also a fact that no line of tulkus has a necessary and static value associated with it. At any given time within a lineage and within the wider context of Tibetan Buddhism there is a kind of official hierarchy of different lines of tulkus. But equally important in each generation is the extent to which a particular tulku lives up to the expectations of his teachers, disciples, devotes etc. The extent, in others words, to which he "proves" himself. So the estimation of a tulku and his line will ultimately depend on the qualities of wisdom and compassion that the current incarnation shows, the various powers and abilities he exhibits in his teachings and his effectiveness in helping his followers.

The theory surrounding the tulku phenomenon is not a cut and dried matter, and there is no final and definitive dogma to it, in fact it can be considered to be something of an enigma to all.

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