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Tulkus and a Question of Identity by Rob Preece

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In 1973 in Nepal I remember speaking with a friend who said that a young Nepali incarnate lama or tulku I had recently met seemed to have a lot of emotional problems. This young Nepali in his late teens appeared to be a very troubled young man who was torn between his monastic life and the desire to be like a Westerner. At the time I was listening to teachings from another highly venerated lama, also a tulku, explaining that the term tulku refers to the emanation body of a Buddha. It implies that the tulku is someone that has achieved a state of awakening that is clear of the minds ordinary confusion and ignorance and yet remains in a physical incarnation. They are usually given the title Rinpoche, meaning precious, to signify that they are then considered to be a special, revered and holy being. I began to feel very confused because on one hand I was being given the message that a tulku was someone who had a profound enlightened quality and yet at the same time here was a tulku with quite serious psychological problems.

Many years have past since my early encounter with Tibetan Buddhism but the question of Tibetan tulkus and their experience seems to be even more relevant today. In the eighties there was a period when many of the famous older tulkus passed away. Over the next years their reincarnations were sought so that they could be rapidly re-trained. Now they appear to be coming back into the limelight in the form of young men (seldom do there seem to be women) in their twenties having been recognised as the reincarnation of the previous lama. Many of these re-incarnations find themselves in positions of great authority and wealth; the question is how do they carry this weight of expectation, responsibility and reverence? In the Tibetan world great importance is placed upon searching for the child who is considered to be the reincarnation of a lama, so that they can maintain a line of spiritual authority within the tradition. This child is then removed from his parents at a very young age, taken to a monastery and then trained to be able to replace the old tulku. Their training is often a mixture of careful, devoted pampering and harsh disciplining. Observing the kind of reverence that is paid to these tulkus by their devoted servants, from a Western perspective one might be concerned for their psychological wellbeing.

Something that is increasingly troubling the Tibetan establishment and also confusing Western devotees is that some of these highly venerated young tulkus are actually rebelling against the tradition and breaking out on their own. What this often means is that they disrobe leave the monastery and are going out into the world where they are living lives that on first glace may seem to be antithetical to their upbringing. Basically they are going through what might be seen as an identity crisis, forsaking much of their traditional background to discover who they are.

When I began to hear of this happening I could not help but consider what this meant from a psychological point of view. Buddhism does not have a developmental perspective that considers the way in which the individual emerges, and a sense of self-identity forms, as we grow up. Buddhist philosophy begins from a place that assumes that we have already developed a well-established ego-identity; it does not propose how that emerges. Something that has been well understood from Western psychology is the development of self-identity through childhood, as well as the process of individuation whereby we become self-actualised. What this tells us is that we all go through stages and phases of transition as we grow up, gradually mature our self-identity and open to our potential for wholeness. Some of the more significant of these stages are at six or seven as we begin to move away from the holding of mother; around puberty as we pass through a physical, hormonal and emotional transition in to adolescence; from adolescence into early adulthood; then into midlife and so on. It is in adolescence that there is a strong push towards developing self-identity and a need to express a stronger sense of self. It is through this phase that some of these tulkus are coming up against psychological problems.

The question one could ask is why would a Tibetan or indeed a Western tulku not go through this process? Because a tulku has potentially deep realisations of the nature of reality on one level they still need to maintain a relative identity in the world. For this to grow and emerge in a healthy and stable way they will still need to pass through the normal developmental processes. We might then ask, however, what kind of context enables a healthy identity to grow? In the context of a very contained and traditional environment, a young tulku is given special treatment and venerated with considerable devotion and deference. The kind of identity that grows will tend to be one that identifies with being some kind of special being who is the centre of everyone’s world. Those attendants that serve the lama continually reinforce this. It is then reinforced further by the world the tulku moves out into where everyone reveres and venerates them as a special being. Even the title Rinpoche is constantly strengthening the sense of being some kind of divine being. This is not, however, an identity that would live easily in the ordinary world and there is little room for genuine individuation or real relationships. It is an identity imposed upon the child by a system that is trying to shape the new protégé.

So long as this person remains within the cocoon of the traditional environment of servants and devotees this may not be a problem. Here there are traditions of behaviour that provide a relatively safe container for the lama’s identity in a particular role. Consider, however, the effect of this kind of development upon someone who then does go out into the world, feeling what in psychological language is a kind of narcissism that really believes, albeit perhaps unconsciously, that they are special and the world revolves around them. Unfortunately it is this sort of damaged identity that has led to pathological behaviour such as addiction to sex and alcohol and the abusive bullying we have seen in certain famous tulkus. We may try to pass this behaviour of as crazy wisdom but psychologically it is a reflection of a very wounded self-identity.

When I reflect upon the new young tulkus passing through the transition of adolescence and reacting to their Tibetan origins, part of me feels very happy for them. I am sad that they have often had a difficult time, but I am glad they are making an individuating step for themselves. They are doing something that is normal and potentially healthy, although some of them may need psychological help if they are willing to receive it . What feels so important is that they are perhaps the first group of tulkus that will begin to individuate in a way that allows them to find their own way. When I heard that Osel Hita had left the monastery and was studying film, I felt very happy for him because he is genuinely growing up to be his own person. When I hear the story of Gomo tulku, Kalu tulku and others I feel we see the same process unfolding. They have also been through something of a crisis of identity that has led them to react to their roots and question the validity of their traditional upbringing. This has often been very painful for them, but it is enabling them to grow and develop what can eventually be a healthy and perhaps normal sense of identity. They are beginning to find themselves, but perhaps we should not assume they can do this without psychological support.

From a traditional Tibetan perspective this may be very worrying because they may not wish to follow an orthodoxy that requires them to be the carriers of the authority of the tradition. From a Western psychological perspective this is a sign of the emergence of their identity in a new and individuated way. What is both fascinating and I feel very positive about this process is that they will become themselves, rather than a kind of clone of the tradition. They can then bring something that is a fresh and original to the tradition that may be of great importance to Buddhism as a Western reality.

The greatest question in this process is whether we are open enough and psychologically astute enough to really understand what they are going through. Can we then support them in this process and not impose upon them demands to be something that they may not wish to be. In their home context there are huge expectations for them to be the holders of a position that caries with it often great political, spiritual and economic weight. They are not allowed to be other than what the tradition demands. They are not really allowed much self-expression, but then in the Tibetan world the notion of creative self-expression is actually frowned upon as something that has no basis in tradition. But disdain of self-expression is antithetical to individuation where we begin to discover our own sense of what is true and express that through our individual nature.

Somehow if the Tibetan tradition is to survive in the West I feel it is going to need to respond to a paradox. There is immeasurable value in the tradition and all that it can offer us as a resource for our awakening. Restoring and maintaining this wealth of knowledge and experience is vital. This must be placed alongside a psychological need that is perhaps more appropriate in the twenty-first century, for good or ill, namely that we need to individuate and discover our own experience. Individuation is not about becoming egotistical individuals, it is the gradual awakening of our innate potential for wholeness and integration. It is the place where our individual sense of identity is able to be a stable and healthy vehicle through which profound insights and realisations can actually manifest in the world. This is perhaps the journey of our time where Buddhism really does come out into the world and is able to be a profound influence through the genuine expression of realised individuals who are deeply sensitive and who care about the suffering of others. Being a Bodhisattva, one who awakens for the welfare of others, does not mean having to be a traditional tulku, it means having the stable and healthy identity that can dedicate life to serve the welfare of others through being who we are. If young tulkus can do this and genuinely be themselves, have relationships feel passionate about what they do and grow to be mature adults, then I want to support them in every way possible.