tenzin tulku

My Story

I was born in 1972 to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother who discovered Buddhism shortly before I was conceived. Having met the late venerable Kalu Rimpoche, a great Tibetan Buddhist master, they quickly became his followers. A few years later, they decided to open up a Buddhist center in our home in Montreal. I was thus blessed with the opportunity to meet and learn from some of Tibetan Buddhism’s greatest masters. One teacher that often visited with us was Geshe Khenrab, whom everyone affectionately referred to as Geshe la. Geshe la headed another Buddhist community in the Montreal area, and it was at his center, in 1979, that His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized me as the reincarnation of a prominent Tibetan Buddhist scholar and practitioner.

My recognition did not come about on its own. Around 1975 or 1976, Geshe Khenrab received Khensur Pema Gyaltsen, a prominent Tibetan scholar and ex-abbot of Drepung Monastery. A very impressive figure, with an austere yet warm presence and a beautiful smile that came from the deepest part of his being, my parents invited him for lunch at our home. After he left, I asked my mother who he was. She explained to me that he was one of Geshe la’s teachers, to which I replied that I too had a teacher whose name was Geshe Khunawa. I explained to her in great detail that he lived in a far off place that only I knew how to get to, and told her of other “friends” and of a protector deity in the form of a horse with wings. At first, my mother thought that I had been impressed by Khensur Pema Gyaltsen, and had therefore made up a cute story. She told my father, who proudly related my utterances to Khensur Pema Gyaltsen. But instead of finding these stories “cute,” Khensur Pema Gyaltsen became very serious, saying that I must not be an ordinary child, for he had known these people, most of whom had passed away some time ago in Tibet.

Khensur Pema Gyaltsen returned to India and began four years of “research” to identify whose reincarnation I might be. He compiled a list of people who had been disciples of Geshe Khunawa, removing those who were either still alive or had already reincarnated. He then presented this “short list” to both the oracle and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who performed divinations to determine who I was. Then, one day in 1979, two letters arrived from India. The first was from Khensur Pema Gyaltsen himself, explaining to our family that his suspicions had been confirmed: I was the reincarnation of Geshe Jatse, a Tibetan Buddhist master from Sera Jey, one of the most prestigious scholarly monastic institutions in Tibet, who died in the mid-1950’s. The second letter came from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, officially confirming my recognition, and explaining a bit more the significance of my being what they called a “Tulku” (the Tietan term for reincarnated masters). His Holiness also decided to give my case his full personal attention, as it was the first time that the reincarnation of a Geshe (i.e. someone from the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism) had been recognized to Western parents.

The letters came as quite a surprise to my parents who, despite their faith in the Buddhist tenets of "no-Self" and rebirth, seemed to have been plunged into a whole new perception of reality, and the notions of life and death, karma and rebirth (which they probably considered mere theories until then), all took on new and deeper meanings. They felt honored and overjoyed to have had the good fortune to bring such a being into the world, but were at once hesitant and overwhelmed by the news. For me, it was the most “normal” thing that could be, and I spared no one talking about it.

Throughout my childhood, I continued to show that I was not an ordinary child. When I was about nine years old, I was brought before the renowned Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Zong Rimpoche, who had been my predecessor’s cousin. He spoke no English, and his attendant, who did, left the room to make tea almost immediately after my father and I walked in. I sat down in front of this impressive, stern-looking elderly figure, not saying a word for almost half an hour, after which I got up, prostrated myself three times, and left the room. My father was a bit surprised and embarrassed, but Zong Rinpoche burst into laughter. The attendant, hearing the noise, came back to see what had happened. Zong Rimpoche told him to tell my father that I hadn’t changed one bit. When asked how so, Zong Rimpoche replied that the last time he had seen me (as Geshe Jatse), I had entered his quarters, sat there without saying one word for about one half hour, gotten up, prostrated three times, and left. For Zong Rinpoche, there was absolutely no doubt as to who I was, and he gave me a small statue of Tsongkhapa (the founder of the Gelukpa school), which I have carried with me ever since, as a symbol of recognition.

Not long after the first two letters had shaken our world, a third one arrived, this time from a small group of monks in a monastery in India who claimed to be the friends, students, and compatriots of Geshe Jatse. They said that I belonged in the monastery with them, in order to pursue my spiritual education, rather than at my home in Canada with my family. My parents did not understand what was going on. Suddenly it seemed as though it was bad for me to live with my own family, and that the better place for me to be was India with these monks about whom we knew next to nothing. Confused, my parents asked for the guidance of many Buddhist teachers. The reactions were mixed: they were told either that it would be good for them to send me to the monastery, as that is where I, as a Tulku, belonged; or that the situation was too delicate to comment on without causing tension. My parents finally decided to ask me what I wanted to do. I can still remember that day. My mother came into my room to ask me what I thought about the whole thing. I told her that I was unable to resist my karma; I would have to go one day. But for the time being, I was not ready to go. They then consulted His Holiness the Dalai Lama who also told them that I would eventually have to leave, but for now it indeed was not yet the right time. Instead, he said, I should concentrate on getting a Western education.

So how does a reincarnated master do in school? If my report card is anything to go by, not so good! Going to school was unpleasant. My interaction and behavior with other kids, especially during play, and also the way I spoke seemed to set me apart. I often spoke of my past-life recollections, of my identity as a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist monk, or even of the Potala palace in Tibet, which I named as my favorite place in the world. I wasn’t interested in playing “war” or in fighting as the others were, though I did have a particular penchant for playing hockey on the fourth floor near the cafeteria. Not understanding, the other children often teased or even bullied me, and I remember very vividly coming home from school more than once having been physically picked on or roughed up. I also hated studying, as I didn’t understand the importance of the topics I was being taught in the larger scheme of things. Sure, math and geography were good to have as skills, but I didn’t think they had much place in attaining enlightenment. My grades reflected this lack of interest, and I remember my parents often reading remarks on my report cards that said “a good student, but we know he can do better” and “he doesn’t really try his best, he should work harder.” Personally, it didn’t really matter that much to me. Besides, a lot of my efforts at school were concentrated on surviving through the day unscathed.

Another factor that most likely contributed to my poor performances at school was the constant pressure from the monks in India for my parents to send me there. I’m not accusing them of doing bad; I got to know them later and realized that they were merely doing things the only way they knew how. Not realizing that they were dealing with people from a different culture than their own who held different values, they acted in the way they would have with the Tibetan parents of a Tulku. However, this was simply inappropriate for my particular case. As the pressure got worse, my parents continually tried to find a situation in which I could study Tibetan language and Buddhism close to home. But everything they tried seemed to displease the monks even more. I was sent to Buddhist centers in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, California, and even France in an attempt to find an accommodation for my “Tulku education,” but none of these were good enough, especially since the resident teacher was often from either another Tibetan Buddhist tradition or monastery. In the end, I would find myself back at home trying to think of another solution to the problem.

Eventually, all the moving around, missing school, missing my family and friends took its toll on me and I developed asthma, which only hindered my studies even more. Moreover, my parents were in a bit of a twist about the whole thing. They were torn between being “good Buddhists” and being “good parents.” It was a lot of emotional and physical stress, and it eventually began to create tension between them. By 1986 I was no longer in school, my parents were living in different places, which pained me a lot, and everyone felt that it was the time that I either go to India and get the education I “needed,” or else waste my life watching TV and waiting for my friends to come home from school so I could play with them. So in late October 1986 I said goodbye to my Dad and to my two sisters, which was one of the most painful experiences of my life, and left for India with my mother, who stayed there with me for about two months to make sure I was properly settled in. It was there that I would spend the next six years of my life doing what I hated the most: studying.

Much to my surprise, and everyone else’s for that matter, going to the monastery was like a fish going back to water. I felt right at home, and quickly took to the monks who had become my caretakers and attendants. I also had the company of other Westerners there, one of whom, Jampa (from New Zealand), had been left at the monastery by his parents when he was only four years old. He was older than me, and spoke perfect Tibetan. One particular aspect of monastic life that captivated me was debate. It is one of the most important components of the Gelukpa monastic curriculum, for it is supposed to hone our logic and comprehension skills, while allowing us to know and understand better various Buddhist doctrines. Very physical, it often looks as though the participants are arguing and fighting when they are actually only discussing fine points of the Buddhist doctrine. During a debate, one person sits down and answers philosophical questions thrown at him at high speed by another (standing) participant, while the rest of the classmates sit facing each other on either side of the one who answers. The examiner claps his hands together at the end of each question, soliciting the immediate response from his opponent. The examiner’s right and left hands are said to symbolize wisdom and logic, and the joining of the two implies that the respondent must use both wisdom and logic to formulate a valid answer. When the debate gets interesting enough, other people try to participate, and the result is usually something that looks like a professional wrestling match. But there is absolutely no animosity between the participants, and the pushing and shoving often ends in laughter. From the moment I saw a debate I was hooked. I absolutely wanted to participate, but didn’t know enough Tibetan (despite all the training I had received) to understand even the simplest conversations. So I had to wait…and study!

Soon after my arrival at the monastery, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came there to give a series of teachings. My mother and my newly appointed caretaker requested that he choose two teachers for me, which he did, and I began my formal education as a Tulku. Only three months later, one of my teachers told my caretaker that I should begin participating in the debate sessions. He thought that it would help me learn Tibetan better and faster. It did, and it was such an honor to feel that my teacher had so much confidence in my capabilities. But debate wasn’t the only form of studying that I did; in fact my days were pretty full with curricular activities, and I often would spend around fourteen hours every day studying. But contrary to my schooldays in Canada, I actually enjoyed studying in the monastery. I finally felt like I was learning something useful and important, not wasting time, or learning mundane things as I had in grade school. I felt that studying how the mind functions, or what it means to have no “self” were infinitely more important to me than mathematics, or even geography. I developed a strong passion for philosophy, and for saying things in a very precise way so that there could be no confusion as to what my intentions were. I literally loved it, and the fourteen hours each day flew by like a flash. Pretty soon, I was preparing for oral examinations in Tibetan, and my English sounded as though it was learned as a second language.

My stay at the monastery, and among the Tibetans, transformed me more than just from a reluctant student into an enthusiastic one, it also allowed me to enter and become part of a completely different culture. I not only spoke Tibetan, but I also thought and reacted like one. I felt upset by things that only a Tibetan would find upsetting, and I understood and appreciated their humor (which, according to Western standards, has no punch line, and therefore falls somewhat short of being funny). I was also often told that I thought like a Tibetan, and that I had therefore become one of them. It was strange to be told by Tibetans that I couldn’t possibly be a Westerner, since I thought, spoke, and acted like one of them. They would say “no, no…you’re Tibetan” or “in any case, you’re more of a Tibetan than you are a Westerner.” This experience allowed me to penetrate deeper into the Tibetan culture than most people, and I really learned a lot. But somewhere deep inside of me, there was a Westerner too, and he was not going to be forgotten. I began to contemplate my place in this world as a Westerner and as a Tulku, and came to the conclusion that I was born in the West for a reason, and that it was there that my life would have the greatest meaning.

After years of studying at the monastery in India, I felt that my life was not as fulfilling as it could be. I felt that I wasn’t doing what I was here in this world to do. I wanted to help people understand the transience of this existence, and show them that there was a way to not be bothered by it. I wanted to help sentient beings free themselves of their suffering, and I also wanted to teach them a bit more about Buddhism, and the Tibetan culture. I felt that although as a Buddhist monk one’s actions are supposedly always geared to helping others, I wanted my help to be more tangible, more real. For me there is a difference between praying for a person who is ill, and actually helping him or her overcome the illness. This could be in some way due to the tangible evidence-demanding Westerner in me, I don’t know. In any case, I felt that I could do more good by being in direct contact with those I wanted to help. Moreover, the Tibetans already had many people to take care for their spiritual needs, whereas the West seemed somewhat underdeveloped in that sector. After much pondering, meditation, and an incredible discussion with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I decided that my time in the monastery had come to an end, and that it was more important for me to be in the West.

So in 1992, just before my 20th birthday, I made the trip back home to Montreal and to my family, and began to think of how to go about accomplishing my goals. I decided that I wanted to teach about Buddhism and Tibetan culture at the university level, as it seemed to be the best way to teach people about what I learned in a serious manner. I didn’t want to be a teacher in a Buddhist center, as I never enjoyed being revered or put on a throne, and moreover, I didn’t like the idea of having disciples. I would much rather have students who are there to study academically than disciples who cling on every word I say, and who end up respecting me more than the teachings I share with them. Furthermore, I wanted to study Buddhism and Tibetan civilization more objectively than I had up until then, as I felt this could help complete the image I, and many other people in the West had of Buddhism and Tibetan culture.

In 1996 I completed a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). In 1998 I had completed a Master’s degree in Tibetan Studies in Paris, France, and was on my way to begin a PhD. Program at Harvard University. I received my doctorate in 2007.

Since 2003 I have been living in Paris with my wife, my best friend since our adolescence. One of the biggest challenges so far in my life has been to live both as a Tulku and as a "regular" Westerner simultaneously. It has not always been simple; there have often been times when one aspect seemed privileged more than the other (feeling like I am not doing enough meditation, or not enough sports, for example). It was often a struggle, with feelings that one aspect detracted from, or at the very least, stood in opposition to the other. Sometimes, it felt like I had to choose one OR the other. But today, I have come to realise that there are many different facets to who I am, and I'm very happy to share all of them.

Professionally, I am both a Gestalt therapist and a meditation teacher for beginners and advanced practitioners alike. It has been a wonderfully fulfilling experience, and it brings me great pleasure to feel that I am contributing to helping others rediscover the happiness and wellbeing that is inherent to all beings. Of course, helping others is not always an easy task; there are days when it can seem more difficult. But even then, the presence of those around me, and the understanding that I am fulfilling a purpose and giving meaning to my existence gives me the strength and confidence to continue.


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