tenzin tulku


Reincarnation is a pervasive doctrine throughout Buddhist traditions. Like his philosophical and spiritual predecessors, the Buddha is said to have maintained that birth and death recur in successive cycles for beings afflicted by ignorance about the true nature of the world. We have therefore all lived multiple lifetimes prior to this one, and most of us will continue to live countless more. This does not mean, however, that we all were always human, or that we always will be. In fact, the human condition is considered to be a privileged type of existence that only comes around once in a very long while. Unless, that is, we live our lives in a way that is conducive to further human rebirths.

According to Buddhist cosmology, sasāra, or cyclic existence, is composed of six different realms (hells, animal, hungry-ghost, demi-god, god, and human). All sentient beings migrate through these realms, being born in one or another depending on their karma. We are born, we grow old, and we die, over and over again, each time in a different form and in different circumstances, but always with a sense of regret and suffering. Our repeated errancy in sasāra is largely due to our own ignorance and attachment, through which we act, causing further karmic imprints that keep us from achieving emancipation from this seemingly endless cycle of rebirths.

For most beings, then, we are unwitting and errant slaves to our own karma. We wander through cyclic existence dragged along paths we have created for ourselves (after all, karma is our own doing), getting into more trouble for future lives by unknowingly creating more of the negative karma that keeps us going around in circles.

Within sasāra there are those who strive to achieve liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death, and to help others do the same. These beings are called bodhisattvas, and are the epitome of altruism. There are stories often told in the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition of bodhisattvas literally giving life and limb for the benefit of others. It is said that certain bodhisattvas make the solemn promise NOT to achieve enlightenment until every last sentient being has been freed from the throes of cyclic existence. By the strength of this vow, and the compassion that motivates it, these exceptional beings reincarnate in particular contexts that will allow them to best serve others. It is even said that some choose the families and even the particular era in which they will be reborn so as to be of the greatest effect.

 In the Tibetan tradition, these incarnations are called “Trulpa” (sprul pa), meaning “emanation,” and are regarded with the utmost veneration. The notion of intentional incarnation eventually lead to the belief that certain Tibetan masters, considered to have achieved a heightened state of spiritual advancement, could also choose to reincarnate for the benefit of other beings. In the 12th century, the second Karmapa hierarch, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283) proclaimed himself to be the re-embodiment of the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), thereby marking the traditional beginning of what has come to be one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most distinctive characteristics: the Tulku (sprul sku, literally “physical emanation”) tradition.

 Traditionally, only inhabitants from Tibetan cultural areas (Tibet, Mongolia, and Bhutan) were recognized as reincarnations. However, over the years, and particularly with the post-1959 mass migration of Tibetans to India, children from India and Nepal came to be identified as Tulkus too. Then, with the spread of Tibetan Buddhism and culture to Europe and North America, Tulkus began to be found there too.

For a more detailed discussion of the Tulku tradition, see the following works:

Elijah Ary. “The Westernization of the Tulku Tradition” Chapter in Vanessa Sasson (ed.), Little Buddhas: Children in Buddhist Culture (New York: Oxford University Press), forthcoming.

Daniel Bärlocher. Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus: A Research Among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile. Zürich: Tibet-Institut, 1982

Mick Brown. The Dance of 17 Lives. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. My Land and My People: the Official Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet. New York, Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 1997.

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé. Enthronement: the recognition of the reincarnate masters of Tibet and the Himalayas. Ithaca, N.Y. : Snow Lion Publications, 1997.

Reginald Ray. “The Themes of a Tulku’s Life.” Vajradhatu Sun (August 1980): 7, 38-40.

Reginald Ray. Secret of the Vajra World : the tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Boston : Shambhala, 2002.

Lea Terhune. Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004.

Leonard van der Kuijp. “The Dalai Lamas and the Origins of Reincarnate Lamas.” In Martin Brauen (ed.). The Dalai Lamas, a Visual History. Chicago: Serindia, 2005, 14-31.



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