What of Tulkus? (updates)

There is an interesting article on the topic of Tulkus over on the One City blog at Beliefnet.  Tulkus are deemed to be the reincarnations of past teachers in the Tibetan tradition.

Ethan Nichtern has written about the Tulku named by the Dalai Lama who has decided Tulku-ness is not for him. Ethan also wrote:

This case certainly highlights the difficulties of bringing the incarnate lama (tulku) system of lineage from Tibet into the 21st Century. Personally, I don’t think the tulku system will survive in the 21st century world for more than a generation or two. It is simply too at odds with democratic, science-based society to survive. Also, historically, there is nothing that necessitates it in either the larger Buddhist lineage framework, or even in the system of Tantric Buddhism, which survived in India for a long while before anyone came up with the idea of reincarnated teachers.

There are also many insightful comments on that blog post as well. From a religious standpoint I do agree with Ethan’s assessment. But from a socio-cultural and even economic point of view there are some larger issues that I would like to attempt to delineate.

Historically when you have a very small isolated population that is primarily nomadic, intensive administration of such an area is not really necessary. With the growth of population, partly due to opening of trade routes and growths of populations elsewhere settled areas tend to increase. This brings a need for a more structured administration. I think this was in part an impetus to systematize the historical Tibetan system including the introduction of the Tulku tradition. Since these religious figure were also regional administrators (Chogyam Trungpa was a governor over an area before he left Tibet. He was named a Tulku as a child) both political administration and religious direction were centered in the same place. Much like the Tibetan government in exile at present. So these religious figures had dual roles.

I wouldn’t say that historically it was “necessitated” within the Buddhist framework but there was no other alternative system in which political administration could develop at that time.

Presently, due to the Chinese invasion, that function is undergoing rapid transformation. There is still need within the Tibetan refugee community for centralized organization particularly within India. Currently there are multitudes of schools, social projects, special interest committees within the Tibetan community that both help to maintain it’s existence here and continue to preserve the cultural as well as the religious heritage.

As example, I live about 200 meters from the CST school. That is the Central School for Tibetans in Mussoorie India. It is one of many boarding schools set up by the Tibetan central authority and overseen by Dharamshala administration. It is a secular school not a religious school. (there are many monestaries near here also)

Tibetan children do not go to Indian schools. The Indian government has permitted Tibetan refugees to remain in India with a lot of conditions. One of those conditions is that they become and remain a self-supporting group. The Indian government does not give much assistance to the community beyond the use of certain parcels of land. As you must realize India has it’s own problems so actually cannot foster a large group. Tibetans are given a refugee status and even those Tibetans born subsequently in India can opt to keep a refugee status. It is permitted for Tibetans to take Indian citizenship, and some have, but any world-wide recognition as a refugee is then lost. For cultural, social, economic, emotional, historical, political and religious reasons most Tibetans here choose to maintain the separate identity the refugee status provides.

This is partly where Tulkus come into the discussion. Many are administrators within the government in exile, of temples and monesteries and as directors of cultural committees and institutions among other things.

Foreign Tulkus, it may be felt, and I am just speculating here, give some sort of anchor beyond the boundaries of India and help to provide a point of contact in many ways between the Tibetan community here and the larger world. What is a country, even one that is presently as amorphous as Tibet, without it’s international relations. I believe it is impossible to separate Tibetan politics from Tibetan religion. There may be a future “democratic Tibet” but you can be sure most of the candidates will be monks (or nuns).

One even sees that within India in Sikkim with its huge Buddhist population. There is a nationally reserved political riding there called The Sangha Seat. This person is elected by the residents of all the monesteries and nunneries in Sikkim. It is democratic, part of the Indian parliament and the candidate is always one of the Sangha members.

In this part of the world religion and politics are indivisible. Other examples include Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and particularly India. Even though India is a democracy most parties have very heavy religious ties, overtones and allegiances.

As for the selection of Tulkus that’s an interesting subject. While they are tested by various means over time I don’t think it’s quite so “mystical” as a lot of  (particularly) Hollywood would have people believe. I think of it more as something like a teacher/leader aptitude test. A bright child with some ability to discern both intellectually and emotionally what the adults doing the testing want would go a long way within that testing.

As well where children are deemed candidates at a very young age a lot of these criteria can be and are built into the education they receive. Sort of a baby combined MBA-PHD in religion program. Although I do believe that part of the system regarding very young children will eventually evolve into something quite different. That criteria are established in terms of personality, aptitudes, skills and the like, taken from the deceased Tulku or from records as well as from the needs of the community at present give quite a checklist against which a candidate can be measured.

And perhaps that is the kind of system that will be developed in the future to accommodate the Tulku tradition. More like an executive job search rather than a mystical pilgrimage.

For more on this particular Tulku story see also:

The Worst Horse blog post: Reincarnated Lama Goes Off the Rails provides a good rundown of the media coverage on this story so far, along with some well thought out caveats.

Guardian newspaper article

From Wikipedia

Additional links:

From FPMT org- the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Buddhism-the organization which recognized Osel as Tulku-Osel

Wisdom Publications blog article-Tempest in a Teapot

Barbara’s Buddhism blog at About.com has the article What’s Up With This Tulku?

Babylon magazine which had the original article the Guardian picked up-Babylon (big download pdf)

Huffington Post (Guardian reprint) with a lot of comments

Addendum: As to some of the comments on other blogs and posts (particularly at Huffington) one has to consider parents make choices for their children all the time. Some folks liken this boy’s education to being kidnapped or forced into slavery or something.

How many parents send their kids to boarding school (here in India as many as possible!)?  How many parents make their kids go to summer camp, certain schools, extracurricular activities and the like? Every day parents choose the child’s world. This child would not have gone to the Tibetan school without his parents approval and consent.  So before people get all twisted about child Tulkus consider what your parents “made” you do and what you “make” your children do. How is that different?


One comment on “What of Tulkus? (updates)

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