The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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For example, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is held to be the reincarnation of each of the previous thirteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet, who are in turn considered to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion, holder of the White Lotus.
The tulku incarnation lineage should not be confused with the lineage of Buddhist masters and their disciples, which is concerned with the oral or written transmission of particular Buddhist teachings and spiritual practice from generation to generation.
The word སྤྲུལ or 'sprul' (Modern Lhasa Tibetan ʈʉlku was originally a verb in Old Tibetan literature, found at 敦煌/Dunhuang, and was used to describe the བཙན་པོ་ btsanpo ('emperor'/天子) taking a human form on earth.
Over time, indigenous religious ideas became assimilated by the new Buddhism; e.g. 'sprul' became part of a compound noun, སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་'sprul.sku' ("incarnation body" or 'tülku', and 'btsan', the term for the imperial ruler of the Tibetan Empire, became a kind of mountain deity).
designates one who is "noble" (or "selfless" according to Buddha's usage) and used in Buddhist texts to denote a highly achieved being who has attained the first bhumi, a level of attainment which is truly egoless, or higher.
The Tibetan institution of the tulku as the emanation (often misunderstood as the rebirth) of a lama developed during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, as various Schools of Tibetan Buddhism began to accept the possibility that exemplary figures might remain within the human world as institutional teachers, manifesting from one lifetime to the next out of compassion.
Now in the Tibetan diaspora, tulku are being found all over the world. In modern times, as Tibetan Buddhism has attracted followers across the world, a small number of tulkus have been found among Western people.
Perhaps the most religiously significant such tulku is Tenzin Ösel (born 1985), the child of Spanish parents, who has been recognized as the reincarnation of Thubten Yeshe, an influential Tibetan lama.
In 1988 a conference was convened at the request of the Dalai Lama at which approximately 350 tulkus and Abbots attended from all five Tibetan spiritual traditions - Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, and Bon.
Finding a successor
If such details are lacking, the monks whose duty is to locate his reincarnation, resort to a lama-tulku astrologer (or tsispa) for directions. Prophecies, which may date forward or backward many generations, also play a role.
The vetting of a potential successor often involves tests such as checking whether the child can recognize acquaintances or possessions from his previous life or answer questions only known to his former life-experience.
“A number of objects such as rosaries, ritualistic implements, books, tea-cups, etc., are placed together, and the child must pick out those that belonged to the late tulku, thus showing that he recognizes the things that were his in his previous life."
This process was portrayed in the movies Kundun and The Golden Child.
The thoroughness of the testing procedure varies according to the eminence of the tulku.
- See also:List of tulku lineages
The same was true of the third emanation, Sonam Gyatso, until he was dubbed "Dalai Lama" as an adult, after which he applied the title posthumously to his predecessors and declared himself the 3rd Dalai Lama.
After their control was consolidated, recognition of some of the most important tulkus was vetted by the government at Lhasa, and could on occasion be banned if its previous incumbent fell out of favor.
This ban remained in place until after the Dalai Lama lost power in Tibet during the 1950s, although it was later revealed that the Karmapa had recognized emanations of the Shamarpa secretly during the intervening period.
In most cases there is no such relationship, but the potential candidate is always vetted by respected lamas (as described above).
Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo is an enthroned tulku within the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma tradition recognized by Penor Rinpoche. In the late 1980s, she gained international attention as the first Western woman to be named a reincarnate lama.
Controversy and Criticisms
The recognition of tulkus has sometimes involved ambiguity as well as controversy. According to Tibetan historian Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, wrote in his autobiography:
- The official Tsawa Kachu of the Ganden Palace showed me statues and rosaries (that belonged to the Fourth Dalai Lama and other lamas), but I was unable to distinguish between them!
When he left the room I heard him tell the people outside that I had successfully passed the tests.
- And now, I personally think that to hold that culture, institutionalized Tulku. That culture is dying; it’s not going to work anymore. And even if it…
The American film actor Steven Seagal, while already an adult, was recognized by Penor Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma school, as the reincarnation of a 17th century tertön from eastern Tibet, Chungdrag Dorje.
Penor Rinpoche notes that "such recognition does not mean that one is already a realized teacher"; Seagal has not been enthroned and has not undergone the extensive program of training and study that is customary for a tulku.
For many years "Lama Ösel" was expected to succeed to leadership of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), the organization co-founded by Yeshe.
As a university student, however, "Oz" (as he is now known) gradually distanced himself from the FPMT, and in 2009 made media statements clarifying his intention to pursue a life independent of that organization.
In popular culture
- In the 1994 film The Shadow, a mystical tulku trains Lamont Cranston to use his inner darkness to fight crime.
- In the book Tulku, by Peter Dickinson, a young boy and his companions, fleeing the Boxer Rebellion in China, encounter Tibetan monks awaiting the birth of a tulku.