The symposium held this past weekend at the San Francisco was a gathering of scholars from around the world who presented papers focused on the “Tulku” (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་ , sprul sku) institution of Tibetan Buddhism.
the conference was the second recent meeting focused on the reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism.
1) Tulkus in Transnational Buddhism: Authentication and Contestation of Hybridity in the Cross-Cultural Reincarnation System 2) Tulkus in Historical Context: Power, Knowledge, and Politics in the Innovation of the Reincarnation Institution 3) Tulkus as a Model of Ideal Beings: Embodying the Enlightened Characteristics 4) Envisioning and Retelling Birth-Stories: Tulku Lineage Narratives and the Quest for Legitimation.
Representatives speaking at the conference ran the gamut of scholars and although some papers seemed farther from the theme than others, the threads tying them together were questions about the history,
I’m not sure what general readers imagine Tibetan history may have been like, but perhaps imagining a Tibetan version of Game of Thrones with the houses as monastic institutions continuing not through a lord’s blood relations but via recognition and enthronement of child prodigies destined to take the place of previous throne holders is a useful “imaginary.”
The reasons for a gathering focused on discussing the Tulku Institution are many: it is an essential and unique part of Tibetan culture and history, it is a useful entry point for discussions about the transmission of Buddhism or
In recent years we have seen young tulkus rebelling against their traditions and revealing improprieties, movie stars becoming tulkus, and reports of general distrust of the tulku system in modern Tibetan peoples.
But these controversies were less the focus of the conference as it was about presenting research on various historical figures and creating a more nuanced and detailed thick description of the phenomenon of Tulkus in Tibetan society.
The difference in their presentations is of course partly due to personal style, but the tension between the two approaches is illustrative of some of the tensions observable throughout the symposium.
Some presenters discussed the idealized tulku as a prodigy motivated by the will to help all sentient beings, while others focused on children forced into servitude of an institution motivated by greed and power.
Some discussed the history of the tulku institution or the particulars of the development of tulku lineages in particular monastic institutions, and others focused on various responses to the question of its continuation in the modern world.
Dr. Lopez’s presentation was expertly delivered and fascinating in that it revealed that a 20th century gathering of the most powerful exiled Tibetan leaders ended with a moratorium on the recognition of tulkus, which lasted a decade before some unnamed group broke it, ushering in open season on tulku recognition.
However, it appears no one has studied the meeting in depth and we don’t know whether this was motivated by an attempt to end the tulku system for good because of corruption, or if it was an issue of expediency brought on by exile, or some other reason.
He mixed his narrative with great jokes as well as with translations from specific philosophical texts providing traditional definitions of Tibetan Buddhist concepts such as the various kayas and the meaning of “tulku.”
This is perhaps not the place to mention the significance of some of his other comments about reincarnation, and as Hopkins himself said during his speech, perhaps there are things that should remain private.
Hopkins first emphasized the technical definitions, taken from the Gomang Curriculum material he is currently translating, that require tulkus to be dharmakayas and not merely bodhisattvas of some high level.
However, he also placed emphasis on his own doubt about most tulkus’ knowledge and he insisted that what a teacher says, and the knowledge he or she thereby displays, is more important than any official stamp of recognition as a tulku.
In the case of the Tulku institution, the topic of this short symposium, some speakers talked about the earliest texts describing concatenated reincarnates (an unbroken line of dharma teachers) or the earliest reported recognition of Tibetan people as emanations of deities.
But the statement found in a text that so and so is the emanation of so and so is not the same as the cultural phenomenon of the recognition of a person as an emanation who then comes to take the power and wealth of the deceased leader, subsequently taking on the wealth and followers of that leader.
Perhaps an interesting question would be, who was the first Tibetan student who, upon the death of his teacher, having spent a lifetime studying with him as the executive of a monastery, found himself bowing down to a child believed to be the reincarnation of his teacher?
How meaningful was it for that society?
After the conference I am still wondering about the answers to these questions.
Daniel Hirshberg’s paper at the conference, “A Post-Incarnate Usurper? Guru Chöwang’s Claim to the Patrilineal Inheritance of Nyang” indicates that a 13th century figure may have worked rather hard to become recognized as a reincarnation.
These are stories of people convincing themselves and others of holding the connection of an unbroken lineage and claiming to be “tulku” – emanations, not merely of a Buddha or deity in general, but of specific historical people.
Although the basic logic is much older, it doesn’t seem to be until the 12th century that we are seeing the tulku logic instantiated in texts listing specific historical names, as indicated in José Cabezón’s paper at the conference.
José Cabezón mused that the textual evidence is in fact representative of reports of what the second Karmapa said about his previous lives and could have been the work of a later writer, such as the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorjé.
But here we are not talking about a fully formed Tulku institution.
There were, of course, earlier written accounts of people being recognized as emanations of deities and Buddhas and so forth, but what of the earliest accounts of the Tulku institution being present and functioning in a Tibetan society?
Would this be the third Karmapa?
Elijah Ary, a recognized tulku, a Canadian, and a scholar trained at Harvard, spoke of the small group of “Western Tulkus,” many recognized by traditional Tibetan leaders but rarely teaching to ethnic Tibetan peoples.
Would any want to?
see also: Tridzin