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Tulkus: Incarnate Lamas of Tibet

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An Interview with His Holiness Sakya Trizin

An excerpt from Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus; A Research among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile by Danial Barlocher, Opuscula Tibetana, Rikon-Zurich, August 1982

Question: What do you think about this possible 'switching-over' of the emanations? Like I was told that for example instead of an Avalokiteshvara emanation - in the case of the Dalai Lama - there can be in that place a Manjushri emanation? Answer: Sure! It's the same.

Q: This can happen? A: Yes.

Q: What are the laws behind this?

A: There's no law. I mean it just happens: whenever the Bodhisattvas will appear; wherever, whenever, whatever form it requires they appear. For instance, certain situations that Manjushri is more powerful, then Manjushri will appear, whereas in certain places the Avalokiteshvara is more effective, then he will appear.

Q: By his own choice and judgment of the situation as a Bodhisattva? A: Yes, yes.

Q: Also, I was told it can be gradual: one incarnation after the other. Or it can be.... A: - simultaneous, yes.

Q: Could you explain more about this happening of an emanation?

A: Again it is in the different situations. You know a certain situation that requires many incarnations - so the great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who possess infinite wisdom and compassion and skilful means can emanate as many emanations as the situation requires. So in certain places where more than one emanation is required they appear in many different aspects; like body emanation, voice emanation, mind emanation, and quality emanation, and activity emanation, etc,

Q: In many different persons? A: Yes; many different persons, many different forms, even as a layman, even as a woman, even as an animal.

Q: Ah: even as a non-human being? A: Yes.

Q: What would you say is the purpose of a Tulku today in exile, or even in the West?

A: O saying; I mean the Buddhist teaching is really needed everywhere and you need to - in order to spread the Buddha's teaching you need the Tulkus. Because only Tulkus who have - great former Tulkus who have a great knowledge; they can explain better and they can help people. Psychologically it is very important to have the establishment going on. The Tulkus play a very important role in spiritual as well as in the temporal.

Q: Yes. For the Tibetans? A: Yes; for Tibetans as well as for westerners. I mean the westerners who are interested in Dharma; they can learn better from the Tulkus.

Q: Ah? What is then the difference between a highly learned 'geshe' - who is not an incarnation but who is a master and a Guru for some people - and a Tulku who is also highly learned and also a master and a Guru? What is the difference?

A: Geshe, even though is very learned, but he is still ordinary man. But Tulku specifically, right from their birth - they choose to be born. They came here with their own wish to help the sentient beings. So therefore their effort is much more greater and more effective than the Geshes.

Q: Are there still new Tulku lineages born or started in exile? A: Yes. Yes, yes.

Q; Even such that did not exist before? A: That's right, We have case here, among the Sakya.

Q: When they started: on what indication? How did that start?

A: We have one abbot, a great, very great abbot. He was not Tulku; he's a formerly ordinary man. But then after studying he became a great scholar and also a very great practitioner and finally he became the head abbot of the Sakya monastery in Tibet, Then he died early in 1960's, I think so.

Q: In Tibet?

A: In Tibet, under the Chinese, ah, torture. And he is now born again.

Q: Only twenty years afterwards? A: No, no: he's born; he's now already about ten years old.

Q: And he was born in India? A: He's born in India. And he himself said, right from the beginning - nobody searched for him - but he said he is- he mentioned his house, where he had lived. He said that he wanted to go to the monastery. Even at the time when he was just first speaking.

Q: And now, where does he stay? A: He stays in Darjeeling.

Q: What is his name? A: His born name is 'Yishe Sangpo;' that is his present name. But his abbot name is now Jampal Sangpo now he's called Jampal Sangpo Tulku.

Q: Ah yes; and all his incarnations will have the name of Jampal Sangpo? A: Yes, yes, that's right.

Q: So that would be a new lineage? A: Hm. Yes, he wasn't before a Tulku. The abbot wasn't before Tulku.

Q: And now, what is he doing? A: Studying.

Q: Do you think that when he grows up he will lose his remembering of the past life? A: Yes, yes.

Q: That is the way it goes?

A: Yea , usually.

Q: But he could tell his parents in India, as a boy in India, the house; he could describe the house? A: He didn't describe the house but he said - he's from Sakya, first of all, he said. He was not a Sakya, he was not from Sakya -

Q: His parents?

A: His parents are not from Sakya. But the boy said: I am from Sakya. Then they asked him: Where are you from, which part of Sakya? And then he mentioned that, his own house name.

Q: And that was checked?

A: Yes. Very early, I think at two years already, just when he began to speak.

Q: Then it came to you - and then: did you also do some prediction about this?

A: Since it was very clear we did not do detailed prediction. But we did one prediction and it said that he is, So then we're certified.

Q: I would like to know about the role or importance of the Tulku's surroundings.

A: Tulkus are usually - you know although they stay in 'Labrang,' usually the Labrang is very close to the monastery or sometimes the Labrang is in the monastery - so in which case the atmosphere is the monastic atmosphere. The Tulku is particularly associated with the teacher, his teacher, and his servants and his secretaries and so forth. They always try to create the atmosphere or right from the beginning; a spiritual atmosphere, so that everything that he does will be towards the 'Dharmapa.'

Q: And when this is lacking now?

A: This is lacking now - in some places it is lacking; for instance like many Tulkus go to the west, or many Tulkus work in the cities, like Dehli - in which case, so due to this is that many Tulkus are ah; left their vows'. But there are still very many Tulkus in the monastery. Within the monastery is the same atmosphere as we had in Tibet. And we have many monasteries in India that all have very many Tulkus - still continuing the same way as they did in Tibet.

Q: In a completely worldly atmosphere, in a city for example, a Tulku could not act the same way?

A: Yes, that's right. Particularly in the west because there is no monastery, right: there is no monastery - and many times they have to go in ordinary jobs. And when they have to work in ordinary jobs of course they can't wear their robes, for instance, and due to this then it sort of fades out, their spiritual role.

Q: Do you think that the attitude of the Tibetans towards the Tulkus is changing, in exile?

A: Maybe the younger generations, people who are educated in the west and so forth, maybe, but still the older people have a great - the same attitude. But the younger generations; yes it is changing. Specially the young ones who are educated in modern schools.

Q: And what is changing with the young? Their knowledge about Tulku?

A: Hm. And also their whole attitude. I mean they we leave them educated in modern schools with science and things but they don't believe, some don't believe.

Q: They don't believe what?

A: They don't believe the Tulku system. It is possible. But I think the number of people compared to the whole of Tibetans in exile, and the number of people who don't believe: it is really - few people who don't believe, who are changing their attitude.

Q: How do y o u face some western people's opinion that there is no rebirth and no such thing like Tulku? From a western scientific point of view? A: Of course there are many different beliefs which we cannot argue. They will carry their own views, they have different opinions, different thinking. But frankly speaking that I met mostly - in the world where I go I meet people who are Buddhists or at least believing towards Buddhism, closer towards the Buddhist; so many of them believe.

Q: For yourself that is no problem that there is a science which pretends there is no rebirth, no after-life, and no -

A: but I think the more we go, the more we learn about science, the more we learn about the modern world - the more clear we become to our traditional beliefs.

Q: You Tibetans?

A: Yes. Because ultimately I am quite sure that the science, the science as it develops more and more it becomes closer and closer towards the Buddhism.

Q: Western so-called natural science?

A: Yea . In the beginning it is very much different but as - the Buddhism of course is still the same - but the science is developing; every day it becomes, they know more situations and more things. As more and more they learn it comes closer and closer to the Buddhist views.

Q: To the Buddhist conception of the world too? A: Yea , yea.

Q: So you think that also the Sakya Tulku system can be maintained in exile? A: Yea : I think that very much.

Q: Do you think the Tulku system is of any value to the west? A: Yea , I think so.

Q: In what way?

A: Psychologically I think it is very important, because when you think that this particular person is somebody who is an incarnation or emanation or great Bodhisattva or so and so great teacher's incarnation - when you have this then naturally your faith towards that 'lama' is, develops far more than the ordinary monk, even though this one is very learned. So therefore to develop the Buddhism psychological I think it is very important. When you have a real belief, when you really believe then, even then it is not the hundred percent real one, real thing, but it helps a lot.

Q: What is the purpose of this coming again and remembering, if it happens?

A: You know in Buddhist teaching we have 'Karma,' the karmic link we have. Everything is created by our own Karma, good or bad; everything is our own Karma, The cause we are born here in this planet also is Karma. We're born in this particular religion and particular tradition; this is also our Karma. So therefore we have a karmic link with the teachings and we have a karmic link with a Guru also. We can have many Gurus but we have o n e Guru who is karmically linked with us. So like that a Guru who is karmically linked with his followers, in order to further his particular followers he will reappear, return to his home, the monastery; in order to continue to look after his old followers,

Q: That is why he remembers: that he finds his place where he belongs to? A: Yea.

Q: Do you think that Tulkus are born even outside the Tibetan people and the Tibetan culture? A: Yes. There is no reason why not.

Q: What happens if for example you are lacking within the Sakya system one Tulku. A: yes .

Q: What would happen if your predictions say he is born in Switzerland? A: Yes?

Q: Then what? A: Then we have to go to Switzerland to ask this boy to come to India,

Q: And if it is a Swiss boy? A: Yea ; even if it is a Swiss boy.

Q: Can you imagine that? A: (His Holiness laughing), sure, sure.

Q: Sure?

A: Is already I think, already there are Tulkus in the western families.

Q: Like - you know some? A: Yes. His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa has already recognized several Tulkus in western families -

Q: With parents - ?

A: Everything hundred percent Western.

Q: And if the parents have no knowledge of Buddhism, are not interested in religious questions and all that; completely western orientated. Then what happens?

A: Hm. Then it will be difficult, eh? Then it will be difficult. What is sometimes happens to the Tibetan families also; because, for instance, certain Tibetan - of course all Tibetans are Buddhist and all Tibetan believe in Tulku system - but certain Tibetan families are, for example they have only one son. And if that becomes a Tulku then it means sort of completely distinct; so for that kind of reason and also sometimes due to different sects. For instance a Gelugpa Tulku is born in a Nyingma family, very strong Nyingma family - then also sometimes such problems do arise. But then, also in our prediction it is quite flexible; that as we have said there are several Tulkus you know: one can have several Tulkus. So if they fail to get such a one then they can do another prediction to find a second Tulku.

Q: Which would be as authentic as the first one?

A: Yes, the Tulku that we recently found also has actually all these situations; that I've told you, very recently we found one Tulku -

Q: Yes.

A: And that family is a Gelugpa family. It's father is Gelugpa. And not only that: he is the only son, they don't have other sons. They have many daughters but they have only one son. But we managed, we talked to the - the monastery talked to the parents and he said although it is very difficult for him to give his only son, but since the prediction is said and it is beneficial to the beings and teachings, then he is give willing, he said he accepted. Even though he is a Gelugpa and also he is his only son. But in the predictions, right from the beginning, it says: This particular Lama is (manifesting in) three Tulkus.

Q: Now what happens with the two other ones? A: Now we don't, we cannot recognize, we cannot find all of them - so we just find one and we don't try further

Q: - and you leave the others?

A: Yes, we just leave the others. So they may be born and they may lead an ordinary life. But since he's still a Tulku, unrecognized Tulku, it will be of benefit; I mean still he will do some beneficial work in a hidden way.

Q: Even if he himself does not know that he is a Tulku?

A: Yes of course. Of course all the advanced ones they do know.

Q: Yes. A: Although maybe the lower ones they don't know.

Q: Then there is another point: what do you think about the eventual tension arising from a certain stream of consciousness - a Tulku - who is incarnated in a quite opposite type of personal character? Like a very merciful, tender Tulku - lineage mind being incarnated in a rather violent or power loving character? A: So? It is possible.

Q: What happens then?

A: I think usually it - for example; I think the Dalai Lama also has like that. The previous Dalai Lama is a very - he's not really violent, but he's a strong man, very strong and very, maybe harsh, hard. But the present is completely different: very tender and warm and merciful.

Q: Could you say that in such a case it is like too characters parallel, in one person?

A: No. I think it is just, as I said from the beginning: the Tulkus, the great Bodhisattvas, will appear whenever, wherever and in whatever form requires. For example at this particular time and situation that such a wrathful form does not suit, so therefore he particularly chose to be born in a peaceful and warm and open and a friend - whereas in the previous time, in the last Dalai Lama's time, it is okay, it is a purpose to have a little wrathful form, And in certain situations it is also very purposeful to have an ordinary human form. In that way many of the unrecognized Tulkus work that way because, although they are Tulku - but it serves better if they are not recognized and if they remain in ordinary life, through ordinary jobs, if they can benefit. So that; whatever actions the Tulkus do, whether they are recognized or not; all the proper Tulkus, I am saying the top, advanced Tulkus; whatever their actions do will be beneficial to the sentient beings.

Q: What happens if a Tulku gives up his vows and gets to a city and married and is no more a monk?

A: Yea ; but he is still Tulku. That of course he cannot live the monastic and spiritual activities so much as he was in vows - but still he remains Tulku, his title never relinquish.

Q: But if he works in a factory - is there something like 'passive Tulku'?

A: Yea.

Q: Would you call this then Karma or is that also his own choice? A: It could be both. For lower Tulkus it could be Karma, but for higher Tulkus it is their choice because through this work even they can benefit us.