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Natasha Sander. Passing through death. The tradition of Tulku

Tulku – the one who crosses the death

Tulku (in Tibetan) is a Buddhist or Bon spiritual teacher (or lama in Tibetan language) who made a conscious decision to be incarnated again in a human body to continue his activity and carried out it. 

«The reincarnated» -  is the most interesting phenomenon of Tibetan spiritual culture that is specific exactly to this region of the Himalayas. The doctrine of reincarnation existed in India since immemorial Vedic times long before Buddhism has appeared as religion. We can read about reincarnation in Upanishadas, in Bhagavad Gita and in numerous Puranas. However, the most desired goal in Hindu religion as well as in Jain and early Buddhist tradition was a conscious liberation out of a chain of regenerations and deaths (moksha for the Hindus and nirvana for the followers of Buddha Gautama). Early Buddhists did not accept a Vedic concept of the Atman (a human soul), Buddha himself answered a question about its existence or non-existence with a “noble silence”. However, they have kept the idea of incarnating, considering, that it is the consciousness and its “karmic luggage” that reincarnates from one body into another. 

In India there were practices (they are described in the texts) of conscious dying, or “deducing” consciousness (or soul) out of a body and transferring it over to higher measurements or to a new, more favorable place of birth (the most known example is described in Bhagavad Gita, part 8, shlokas 6-14). Swami Rama in his popular book “Living with the Himalayan Masters” describes such examples as well: the soul consciously transfers out of an old body of the teacher into a young body of a recently died young man. That happened, as he testifies, in the beginning of the 20th century. However, this theme in details is presented in a tradition of Tibetan Buddhism where together with Mahayana teachings (Buddhism of “the Grand Chariot” which has appeared in the beginning of our era during the days when Buddhist teachings were blooming in India, already after the death of Buddha Gautama) the idea of Bodhisattva has entered. Bodhisattva is an enlightened teacher who out of compassion to all living beings refuses to enter nirvana completely (a state of eternal peace) and accordingly to leave sansara (a chain of reincarnations), and is consciously born in a human body again and again to continue his mission.

There is no cult of longevity or achieving physical immortality in Tibetan Buddhism unlike in a number of Hindu schools (for example, Shaivist’s Siddha-Siddhanta sampradaya or South Indian tradition of Tamil Siddhars). Looking at the dates of life of well-known Tibetan teachers we notice that many of them did not live for long that, probably, was caused very much by severe conditions of life in high mountains. Due to this fact, a question of incarnating technologies was rather actual, so that to be able to transfer skills and knowledge into the next embodiment. The topic of afterlife existence and proper actions of a human after a death of his physical body is fully described in “Bardo Tedol”, a Tibetan treatise which is a comment to Buddhist tantric practice “Shitro”, a practice of contemplating peaceful and angry deities. This text under the name “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” has got the world’s popularity in its English translation made by an orientalist W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The desired aim after death of a physical body is achieving enlightenment through merging with “the Clear light” which is seen by a human after he leaves his rough body. But if the level of his mind’s development or karmic conditionality does not allow him to do it, he is given guidance how to gain a more successful human rebirth, with possibility of a favorable life and continuation of spiritual training. Similar process was carried out by tulku that allowed them to continue supporting their disciples and to supervise monasteries.

Along with spiritual there was a social aspect of life in medieval Tibet. Tibet was a feudal theocratic kingdom (operated by a religion) where monasteries very often were rich proprietors of lands and peasants who worked on those lands. Therefore, the status of a tulku, a head of a big monastery, was economically and sometimes politically significant. Such child “automatically” was getting honors and gifts; and inherited all the property and the influence of his previous incarnation. Sometimes, due to this, conflicts happened concerning the identification of candidates into “the reincarnated”. Different clans tried to “appoint” their child as a successor of a monastery or spiritual school, confirming that exactly he is an embodiment of the previous master. Unfortunately, it happens nowadays as well. For example, in 90s a wide publicity was given to an uneasy situation with two candidates for the post of Karmapa the 17th, the head of Karma Kagyu school (Kagyu is one of the four largest schools of Tibetan Buddhism). As a result now there are two Karmapas the 17th, each of them has his own circle of followers and supporters. And there is one more little-known candidate, from a Nepalese tribe of sherpas. In connection with this conflict Namkai Norbu Rinpoche, a well-known Tibetan teacher, who is a recognized tulku himself, an embodiment of the king of Butan, wrote the open letter in which he urged people not to render honors and not to give political influence to any of the children recognized as tulku till they grow up and prove their high status as spiritual teachers by their personal example. But Tibetan tradition of honoring and worshiping tulku was formed by centuries and is improbably strong nowadays. When the tradition arose, not social aspects but vows of Bodhisattva (a teacher who always comes to help the living beings who suffer in sansara) were the main motivation. Detailed information about this topic is presented in a material by Natasha Sander, our correspondent in Nepal.

Ilya Zhuravlev

"Tulku come to this world to grant Teachings..."

Natasha Sander
Edited by Dmitry Anoshin

Interview with Lama Oleg (Sonam Dorje), the first Russian practitioner, who has completed the full course of theoretical and practical training in Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, India and Tibet.

Sonam Dorje (Lama Oleg )

When the institute of tulku has appeared?

In terminology of Buddhism the word “institute” does not exist. Tulku means Nirmanakaya (in Sanskrit), one of three measurements of the enlightened mind, which can be translated as “a body shown” or “Emanation Body”. From the point of view of the universal enlightened mind Nirmanakaya has never appeared, as it was always existing, being one of measurements of the enlightened mind (and it gave the beginning to the all Universe). Speaking about more ordinary things, reincarnation of Tibetan Lamas has begun in the first millennium when Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra came to Tibet from India.

It is rather difficult to say whether there were tulku or Nirmanakaya in India, if we consider as the basis the interpretation of tulku in Tibetan system. Unequivocally, those were such masters who in historical annals and descriptions were considered as the embodiments of this or that Buddha. And Buddha Shakyamuni himself was a tulku according to all characteristics and definitions. He has appeared as a response of the enlightened mind to prays of suffering living beings who wished to be freed out of sufferings.

In teachings of Sutra and Tantra it is said, that the enlightened beings (Nirmanakaya) come to this world due to three factors: own good wishes of these enlightened beings; prays and aspirations of ordinary living beings; and a potential of good merit accumulated by these living beings. It looks like two and a half thousand years ago the population of India had a lot of accumulated good merit, prays and aspirations.

There are tulku of the following kinds: the highest Nirmanakaya; geniuses - the beings possessing talents or abilities, differing from ordinary people, and not necessarily completely enlightened (for example, Mozart and Leonardo Da Vinci); and various Nirmanakaya (the enlightened mind can send an answer to help living beings in a form of anything: a fish, an animal, a medicine).

Tibetan concept of reincarnation nowadays is reduced to one that some great Teachers, due to their realization and great compassion, reincarnate again to conduct disciples to the enlightenment. The very first Tibetan tulku can be found in Nyngma lineage in 12-13 centuries, they were disciples of Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra. They were not very much in number. When Padmasambhava was hiding precious teachings, writing them down and hiding in different places of Tibet, he was appointing his disciples to become emissaries, special envoys - they had to reincarnate during different moments of time to disclose and disseminate these teachings. People were becoming tertons and were born throughout the last thousand years.

During further centuries the quantity of such reincarnated masters in Tibet has considerably increased. Western Buddhologists mention about three thousands of tulku in Tibetan Buddhism. The most known reincarnation is Dalai Lama as he is a visible figure and possesses great political influence. Dalai Lama cannot leave his physical body “just like this” without leaving detailed instructions where to look for his incarnation and names of his future parents.

One more well-known case of reincarnation in Tibet is Karmapa. Karmapa the 1st - Djusum Khjenpa - died in the end of the 12th century. Many of Karmapas were leaving letters with instructions mentioning the places and conditions of birth and names of parents. Now in the world there are Dalai Lama the 14th and Karmapa the 17th.

 How it is defined where there will be the next reincarnation?

Letters or exact instructions are not always left. It is important in cases of high teachers such as Dalai Lama and Karmapa who also possess certain political influence. There should not be idle talks or contradictions. Until recently several factors were taken into consideration while defining tulku, it concerns the majority of tulku met nowadays in Tibet, Nepal and India.

First, there always should be an acknowledgement by a realized teacher. For example, Karmapa16th, who died in 1981, was defining tulku almost every week. It is considered, that Karmapa possesses omniscience and wisdom. He was one of the most authoritative teachers. Sometimes Karmapa identified reincarnated teachers himself, without any inquiry. Sometimes he was approached by disciples of a passed away teacher. They gave offerings to Karmapa and asked him to identify their teacher. Sometimes he could help them and sometimes he could not. If there were problems concerning the realization of a teacher, Karmapa used to say that he has no clearness concerning that person. At present, the role of such authoritative teacher can be carried out by several great lamas. And they try to address a teacher in a tradition in which reincarnation is being defined. To identify the incarnation of Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche they addressed Trulshku Rinpoche who is considered to be one of the most realized teachers of Nyngma tradition.

Secondly, indications of parents are taken into account; they could have special dreams before pregnancy, during it and after a birth of a child. A behavior of a child is also taken into consideration; he could demonstrate some special qualities. When child’s awareness becomes more or less higher, there is a possibility to check it up. A child is offered several subjects to choose, among the subjects there are things that belonged to his previous incarnation. He should choose correctly his clothes, his place and ritual attributes. An authoritative teacher, who is addressed to confirm the reincarnation, can be guided both by his visions and his dreams. He cannot be guided just by his sensations.

Can there be several incarnations at one time?

Yes, there can be. Both in Sutra and in Tantra, it is said, that Buddha and Boddhisattvas can have an uncountable quantity of incarnations. For example, such a great teacher as Dzhamgon Kongtrul, right after his death has appeared in five incarnations representing body, speech, mind, quality and activity (it is a traditional classification of the enlightened being). 

   Can you comment, please, on the situation with two Karmapas 17th?…

I can comment on it in the same way as Choki Nima Rinpoche did. He was asked a question during one of his seminars when the situation was very tense: “Can Karmapa has several incarnations?” He answered, that Boddhisatwa can have many incarnations. As the fates decree, Choki Nima Rinpoche, my Teacher, appeared to be the Master who has promoted a meeting of the two camps and the beginning of a dialogue between them. 

 What cases of incarnation did impress you the most?

As to me I did not see very many incarnated masters starting from their birth. Probably, there were about ten boys. Speaking about stories from the past I like the description how the master named Pema Ledrel Tsal appeared. Padmasambhava was invited to Tibet in the 8th century AD by tsar Trisong Deutsen. This tsar had several sons who have got teachings from Padmasambhava, and also two daughters.

 One of the daughters named Pemasal, which means a clear or shining lotus, died at the age of sixteen. Trisong Deutsen was very upset and addressed Padmasambhava with the request to explain him, why after she met such a great Teacher, his daughter had to die in such an early age. Padmasambhava answered that laws of karma are very difficult and clear only to Boddhisattwas of the highest level, and told him a story how a princess was born in a family of the tsar. Besides, he asked Trisong Deutsen not to be upset, and told that the princess will serve for the blessing of all living beings in future. He drew a tantric syllable on her body, touched it with a special ritual staff and revived her.

When the princess has revived, Padmasambhava gave her a cycle of Dzogchen teachings. He gave prays that she reincarnates in future as a Teacher who will bring Dzogchen teachings into the world. And after that he let the princess die. In the end of 13th century a child named Pema Ledrel Tsal was born, he became the embodiment of this princess. He did not live for long, some sources mention less than thirty years. But during his short life he managed to take Dzogchen teachings out from the space of his mind and from some secret places in Tibet. In his next life he was born as Longchen Rabzham, the most known Dzogchen master for the whole history of Tibetan Buddhism.  

 Were there any female incarnations?

Yes, it happens repeatedly. Just one Yeshe Tsogyal, Tibetan spouse of Padmasambhava, reincarnated for more than ten times in different masters; Machig Labdron, a founder of Chod doctrines, and Mandarava, a spouse of Padmasambhava, also reincarnated for several times.

 Could you, please, tell us about the reincarnation of Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche…

Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche was the main holder of Chokling Tersar tradition. He died in 1996 and was one of the greatest and well-known Dzogchen masters of the 20th century. Among his disciples there were the most known teachers of Nyngma tradition and also Karmapa the 16th. I was lucky to receive teachings from him, and also was present at all ceremonies connected with its cremation and chanting, opening of the Stupa where he was cremated, and finding special relics which have remained after his cremation. All the disciples were praying for Rinpoche’s return, and a special pray has been made about a prompt reincarnation of Urgyen Tulku.

Finally it has happened: Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche has reincarnated in 2002. He was born in a family of a well-known master named Neten Chokling, whose monastery is situated in Bir (India). This master was connected with Urgyen Tulku, was getting teachings from him, and Urgyen Tulku was one of his radical teachers. Neten Chokling himself is an incarnation of Chokgyur Lingpa. It means that Urgyen Tulku has reincarnated in a family of an emanation of his great-grandfather. It should be added, that such cases happen rather often: son of Urgyen Tulku - Chokling Rinpoche is also an incarnation of his great-grandfather Chokgyur Lingpa. Probably masters like to reincarnate in families which are closely connected with them spiritually and as well have a blood tie. And it is correct, as in such families they get favorable atmosphere for spiritual growth and advancement on a spiritual way. We hope that in the nearest future we will have a new bright and remarkable teacher when this boy will grow up and get educated. 

Here is a fragment from a record of speech of Choki Nima Rinpoche (a teacher of lama Oleg) made in Ka-Ning Shedrub Ling monastery on the third day of Tibetan New Year (2006):

“Once our father was gone it was important to properly identify his reincarnation. It is of utmost importance to leave no room for error, no confusion, and no dispute. Let me speak frankly here. There’s a saying that “where the Dharma holds sway, the Maras will play.”

In the end, my brothers and I decided that it was best to request one of the personal guru’s of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Trulshik Rinpoche. Trulshik Rinpoche is also the guru of the present reincarnations of both Dudjom and Khyentse Rinpoches. Lamas from all four schools - Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug and Nyingma - respect him highly and with pure appreciation. He merits this respect because he has practiced his entire life. He has kept all three levels of precepts - the precepts of individual liberation, the Bodhisattva vows and the tantric commitments of the knowledge-holders - so he honestly deserves to be described as an authentic “triple vow vajra-holder”. In our times he is simply extraordinary, a noble master who is both highly educated and has reached a profound level of realization, and so he can definitely be trusted.

 After performing the sadhana of longevity in Maratika Cave, that possesses extraordinary blessings, Trulshik Rinpoche gave us a silken scarf with a document inside, which reads as follows:

By the blessings of Orgyen Padma

A sublime Tulku, intentionally appears,

As the fruit of long and repeated prayers.

To the gurus and deities, on the world's stage,

To a knowledge-maiden, with blazing element,

And in the fourth precious drum of summer (Dragon)

A snake-child is born with noble signs and marks.

When enthroned, a great boon will be bestowed upon beings.

(details of supportive ceremonies)

This was written by Dharma Mati’s hand

Trulshik Rinpoche is an excellent master; his words come from his wisdom vision and not from the interpretation of signs received in dreams or divination. So, Chokling from Neten who lives in a monastery in Bir, has a son; this boy is the reincarnation of my father without any doubts and mistakes.

According to Buddhist tradition, a reincarnation is celebrated with a name-giving ceremony conducted by a great master, which includes the cutting of a tuft of hair. It is the best if a great master performs an enthronement as well, so we have asked the lord of refuge Trulshik Rinpoche to conduct both of these important events. Even though he is aged, we insisted, stressing the importance of the event. “Yes, of course,” he replied. “He was my teacher as well. I will be happy to do so to the best of my abilities.”

First I intend to arrange the ceremonies conducted by Trulshik Rinpoche, then to take the tulku to meet with the Dalai Lama and then with the two Karmapa incarnations. Unfortunately, many of the great masters that I personally knew have passed away, but there are still teachers alive from all the four schools, teachers of incredible knowledge and realization, and I intend to take the tulku to receive empowerments, reading transmissions and instructions from many of them. This is necessary. It is also necessary to arrange education of the tulku. I’m concerned about that and all of you, please, take care of that as well. The tulku must also meet the three lords of refuge - Shamar Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He should meet as well with all the other masters with whom we have a spiritual connection.

I also pray that this new reincarnation may have a long and healthy life with no obstacles; that he may receive plenty of empowerments, transmissions and teachings; that his mind may become wealthy in the qualities of learning, reflection and meditation; that he may be masterful in expounding and composing teachings and in settling arguments.”

Konstantin Astakhov – a practisioner, a disciple of Shedra Shechen (Tibetan Buddhist Institute in Katmandu, Nepal:

The institute of tulku is a Tibetan tradition and it is characteristic for Vajrajana. In Tibet there are about 600 lines of tulku in total. It is possible to say that the beginning was put by Buddha Shakyamuni and was based on prophecies that contain in Sutras. The first tulku was Karmapa. The first Karmapa, named Dusum Khyenpa (Dusum is translated as the three times, and Khyenpa as the knowing), was a disciple of Gampopa , who in his turn was the main disciple of Milarepa. Concerning him there was a prophecy even in Samadhiradjasutra by Buddha Shakyamuni. It says that in a northern country of snows a person will appear named Karma who will become a distributor of Tantra teachings and who will have reincarnations.

As an indirect justification of a tulku’s line can be considered a prediction of Buddha Shakyamuni about Tsonkapa: When Buddha was in Rajagrigh, he was approached by one Bodhisattva, his Mahayana disciple, who has lead to him a little boy from Brahman’s family. The boy held a crystal mala and gave it to Buddha. And Buddha said that in a far future this boy will be born in a country of snows, he will be named “Good Mind” (Lobsang in Tibetan), he will become a distributor and a reformer of the teaching and will build a monastery named Tushita. It means that Buddha saw a chain of reincarnations of this boy in 2000 years before the events happened. Tsonkapa was born in the 15th century and became his highest incarnation. Everything happened: he was given a name Lobsang Dragpa at his birth and he built the biggest monastery - Tushita.

Speaking about the accuracy of predictions of reincarnations it is necessary to mention the story about Karmapas. Karmapas always left detailed instructions where to look for tulku. And in cases with original tulku there always were clear signs, therefore searches were easy. Karmapa the 4th - Rolpey Dorje and Karmapa the 8th declared that they are Karmapas right after their birth. Karmapa the 3d - Rangzhung Dorje was able to speak right after his birth that is unusual. And at the age of three playing with other children he has started to make a Karmapa’s black crown out of pieces of soil. Highly realized Lamas usually know about their following incarnation and always leave clear instructions.

As an example, a founder of Dudzhom Tersar, Dudzhom Lingpa, can be named. On the day of his death he told his disciples to go with prays to a secret place of Guru Rinpoche in the western Tibet, and he also added, that he will appear there before them! He gave them the birthplace and names of his parents. When disciples reached the place, the child was already born. Singularity of this embodiment is that there was no traditional transference of consciousness at the moment of a conception (that corresponds to Buddhist tradition), and the consciousness did not stay in bardo. It means that the incarnation of tulku is possible at the moment of birth and even after birth! For highly realized Lamas there are no obstacles or certain laws existing for ordinary people: staying in bardo, for example, entering of consciousness into a belly through a connection of elements. Consciousness of Dudzhom Lingpa has entered right into a child.

It can be added that in some cases of incarnation external signs and physical qualities even remain. A surprising example is Tsetrul Rinpoche. In his previous reincarnation as a result of one incident fingers on his hands were chopped off. And in this life fingers on one of his hands are almost twice shorter than on another one.

It should be noticed that there can be three tulku and more at the same time. Let’s remember Dzhamyang Khyentse Vanpo, a teacher of Sakya of the 19th century, a terton. At the same time he had five tulku: of speech, of mind, of body, of activity and of wisdom! His reincarnations are Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzongar Khyentse, Dodrubchen Khyentse and Tulku Yangsi Dilgo Khyentse. Also there are cases when one person becomes a reincarnation of the several. Many tertons were becoming an incarnation of several disciples of Guru Rinpoche. For example: Namkai Norbu in one person embodies incarnations of Adzom Drugpa, a Dharmaraja of Butan and Sakyapa’s Rinpoche

More over the sex of the incarnation can change. But the institute of female tulku is poorly developed. For example: Khandro Rinpoche, a daughter of a passed away Trichen Rinpoche, is an incarnation of dakini from Tsurphu. I think it is connected with a certain negative attitude towards women in Tibetan society. A female birth is the lowest by definition. Though it should be told that there are very high yogini exist and also there is a cult of dakini.

In some cases there were complexities with identification of tulku. It is considered, that the main problem is concluded in disciples of Lamas: the main obstacle is an infringement of samayas taken. Karmapa the 16th possessed a highly developed clairvoyant and during his lifetime he defined the majority of Kagyu and Nyngma reincarnations. His was often addressed with requests to define reincarnation. In some cases it was easy to do, and in some cases he said, that he “sees a fog in front of him”. Reasons of this unclearness were the problems with disciples’ samayas in relation to their teacher: quarrels and disagreements between disciples, absence of devotion towards the teacher. The teacher as though “loses a touch” with this world, loses a stimulus for returning and incarnating. As we know, tulku come to this world for giving teachings: disciples attract the teacher.

In difficult cases of identification they resort to various methods: fortunetelling, referring to oracles (to people connected with spirits) and astrological calculations. To identify Dalai Lama the power of Khalmo Latso Lake was used. It was considered that the lake is connected with a deity Phalden Lhamo, a defender of Gelug school. High Lamas came to the lake coast, made special offerings, and in the waters of the lake an image of Dalai Lama’s birthplace or his parents has appeared.

As it is considered that the Teachings of Buddha gradually fall into decay, the influence of a general destruction and commercialization affect the institute of tulku as well. I think that 90 % of identifications of modern tulku are conditioned by politics and economy. In the history of Russian Buddhism the most known tulku was Buryatiian lama and scientist Bidia Dandaron, who has passed away in 1974 in Soviet prison, accused of "creation religious group". In Buryat, Kalmyk and Tuva Buddhism there were no lines of tulku. There were single cases of reincarnations among Lamas.

Lama Bidia Dandaron, died in Soviet prison in 1974

Lama Bidia Dandaron, died in Soviet prison in 1974