Thursday, August 20, 2009

More On Tulkus

Yesterday Namkhim left a comment asking about the origins of the Tibetan tulku concept (25th June). So here goes. Now I'm venturing into an area here which is not really my forte, so someone can correct me if I'm wrong. But this is my understanding. The tulku system evolved in response to a problem, the problem of political succession. For some centuries the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism held power in Tibet. Being lay rulers, the male heir of the earlier ruler inherited the throne. At one point, a power struggle resulted in two branches of the family assuming the throne in turn, a system that still prevails. In the late 16th century the Gulupa sect became the dominant power in Tibet with the help of their Mongol enforcers and after a good deal of killing and sacking of monasteries, let it be said (The Chinese communists were certainly not the first to destroy Tibetan monasteries and murder monks). But this created a quandary. As the head of the Gulupa sect (later to be called Dalai Lama) was a celibate monk, he would have no natural heirs. This problem was solved by ‘recognizing’ where the former head had been reborn and ‘reinstating’ him. This was, one would have to admit, a rather ingenious solution - it fitted reasonably comfortably with the doctrine of rebirth and also with the idea that a bodhisattva would be willing to be reborn again and again to help sentient beings, in this case by being their ruler. Unfortunately, it also had one very serious drawback. As the new ruler would always be a child, it would be at least 20 years before he would assume power. This interregnum gave whoever was appointed regent time to establish his own power base before the new Dalai Lama came of age. The reason why most Dalai Lamas ‘left their bodies’ while still young was so that the regents could hold on to power. Apparently, the tulku system existed before it was institutionalized by the Gulupa, but only intermittently and mainly within individual monasteries. Today, most positions of power in Tibetan Buddhism – abbots of monasteries or heads of sects – are filled by persons who are supposedly their predecessors reborn. These positions are often monopolized by certain families and occasionally involve a great deal of political wrangling (e.g. the two Kamapa Lamas). Tulkus are, in effect, petty medieval monarchs - their births are accompanied by miraculous signs, they are ‘enthroned’, their position is legitimized by being officially ‘recognized’ by another high lama, the sons of married tulkus inherit their position, and their writ is presented as a ‘Dhamma teaching’. In imitation of ancient Indian monarchy, many tulkus also claim to be deities or ‘emanations’ of deities; Avalokitesvara, in the case of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa lamas, Amitabha in the case of the Panchen Lama, etc. Some of the more powerful and influential tulkus (or those who aspire to it) effect all the splendor and rituals that are usually associated with monarchs. As is well-known, Chogyam Trumgpa had his own private army, the so-called Vajra Guards, by no means the first tulku to do so.
As a cultural phenomena, the tulku system is a fascinating one. But I’m not at all sure the best way to transmit the insights of the Vajrayana tradition to the West is through the medium of medieval Central Asian power structures. I also have very strong doubts that someone must be a great Dhamma teacher simply because he was born into a particular situation. Did not the Buddha say ‘No one is born a brahman’? When a Westerner becomes a Buddhist should he or she have to buy into all the trappings of traditional Asian culture - be it Tibetan, Thai, Japanese or Sri Lankan? Shouldn’t I be able to practice vipassana without believing in nats as the Burmese do? Why can't I develop Bodhicitta without spinning a prayer wheel like a Tibetan? Can’t I practice the Five Precepts without reciting them in Pali with a Thai accent? During the 19th century Western missionaries in Asia insisted that their converts wear trousers, eat with a knife and fork and swear allegiance to Queen Victoria, in short, become an Englishman. They mistook their culture, which is limited in time and space, with the Gospel, which is universal. They finally realized that this approach did not work. It’s a lesson many Asian Buddhist teachers in the West and their Western disciples still have to learn.
In 2007 when I was in Dharmasala I witnessed something which epitomized to me one of the problems of the transmission of the Dhamma to the West. As I stood on the side of the main road watching the crowds go past, I saw two young Tibetan monks greet each other by giving a ‘high five’. A matter of moments later a Western woman walked passed wearing Tibetan dress, her hair in plats like those worn by Tibetan women, a prayer wheel in her hand and even imitating that Tibetan swaying way of walking. Again I ask – can’t a Westerner practice the Dhamma without becoming a Tibetan, Thai or Burmese clone?

17 comments:

Vasile Andreica said...

and so the wheel of life is spinning...

Konchog said...

Nice try, Bhante. The tulku system did not originate in the Gelugpa tradition (which is headed by the Ganden Tripa (abbot of Ganden), btw, not the Dalai Lama), but rather much earlier, in the 12th c., through the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa: http://www.kagyuoffice.org/karmapa.background.tulkutradition.html

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Konchog,
You must have missed the part where I mentioned that ‘the tulku system existed before it was institutionalized by the Gulupa, but only intermittently and mainly within individual monasteries’ although perhaps I should have added ‘and certain sects’. However, any other corrections or comments on the general idea I have discussed would be welcome.

Ben said...

Dear Bhante,
Some remarks on the tulku: A tulku is not a realized teacher, a tulku is not automatically a high lama, a great buddhist, holy or whatsoever. As a historical example consider the sixth Dalai Lama who even refused to become a monk twice and left his residence at night to meet with women. When he was 23 he disappeared on a journey and was probably murdered. No one is born a brahman neither tulkus are, but it is said that they have a high potential which does not mean that they use it or if they try to have success.
Does not the legend say about the Buddha that when he was born prophecies where made, saying that he either would become a great king or if he follows the spiritual path overcome all suffering and become a great spiritual teacher? So was he born as a brahman?
Some remarks about the political aspects of tulkus: Surprise, surprise - the tulku-system is misused for political purposes, to gain or remain power. We all know that even buddhists can be greedy a become a victim of corruption. Wouldn't it be astonishing if the tulku-system would be free from that and would only serve only higher purposes? I think it would be a miracle! (Think of the consequences and what it would say about Buddhism.) I don't think that it is only (or mainly) a political instrument, as said before the Karmapa was the first tulku and I don't see any political ambitions behind that-mainly because I don't know much about the exact circumstances about his first reincarnation. Furthermore, the oldest school of Tibetan buddhism the Nyingma also has tulkus, but does not need them to order its power. So there is no need for establishing a tulku system due to a lack of alternatives. And that is also what happens today - the Dalai Lama is not sure whether there will be a No. 15 or if his successor is found on a different way. (Also maybe the Chinese have abducted a Panchen Lama)
A a final comment on Westerns who become Tibetans: Yes, I also think that Buddhism from Tibet comes with a lot of cultural "ballast" which is sometimes hard to distinguish from the buddhist teachings and sometime people just don't want to. Maybe because they are lazy, maybe they want to fly into another identity. I learn and practice Buddhism in my own language, so it works without becoming a clone.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ben,
It is true that the Buddha’s future as either a great Dhamma teacher or a great king was prophesized. But interestingly enough, when he did become a great Dhamma teacher he did not affect all the symbols of kingship –‘enthronement’, crown, gorgeous silk robes, etc. And more interestingly, although he was ‘born a brahman’ he did not actually start teaching the Dhamma for another 35 years.

no said...

I believe whenever religion and politics are united, it will be a sure combination that brews trouble. A government which also patronises a religion will create so much temptation for greed and power to play out their corrupting influence in religious positions and undertakings. Just look at the record of Roman Catholicism in times past. In the present, there is still no lack of examples in all the major religions, sad to say.

Ben said...

Dear Bhante,

I don't even think that Siddhartha was born a brahman, like Dipamkara and his 23 friends as well as Maitreya. That would be lot of exceptions to 'nobody'. Do you think he was born awakened?

No, Buddha did not need these symbols and a lot of the Tibetian ceremonial stuff is of dubious origin, e.g. the size of the hats results from competition between the lamas - some of them wanted to be larger than other ones. That is Tibetian and I am glad that it is identified as that. Lamas here wear plain clothes.

Do you think this tulku thing is completely absurd? High accomplished masters have to be reborn somewhere, why shouldn't they see where this could happen? Ian Stevenson, a Canadian psychologist, interviewed children who claimed to have memories from pervious lives, so why shouldn't it be possible that a small child says that he is the reincarnation of a high lama? He also investigated a case where a mother lost two children and later gave birth to twins which were regarded as their reincarnations (Pollock-case), maybe with intention? What makes tulkus so implausible for you?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ben,
I certainly do not think that the tulku system is ‘absurd’, on the contrary, it is/was an interesting way of solving a particular problem and it served Tibetan society fairly well for many centuries. The point of my post is this ‘Can a system that evolved in an isolated medieval Buddhist culture be meaningful and relevant in modern post-industrial societies?’
It may be possible for a highly developed individual to decide where they are going to be reborn. My problem is with two aspects of such a scenario, (1) was the guy who just died really ‘highly developed’ and if so who are we going to know?’ and (2) is the child who has been ‘recognized’ really the highly developed teacher who died, and if so how can we know?’

luke.jmo said...

Bhante,
As a Buddhist (of the Tibetan persuasion) I think, though as Konchog pointed out you got some facts wrong, your final analysis is a bit hard to disagree with. Even though I really do believe that certain tulkus are the real article, the "tulku system", as distinct from allowing the possibility of tulkus to exist, will probably become more and more problematic for the Tibetan tradition. Certainly it is exotic and alluring, but... you know, it's exotic and alluring. Vajrayana does not equal tulku lineages (cf. India, Japan) anyway. Of course, the problem is, a lot of people see the problem, but its always a problem with the system (and not MY lama!) haha. Just my ramblings. :) oh also your characterization of medieval tibet as being isolated is off, as your recounting of the mongolian-gelugpa alliance shows (prior to that was the chinese-kagyu alliance, the sakya-mongolian alliance, etc.) also, there is a useful distinction between those who are "just recognized" and those who are self-recognized, for instance the 2nd Karmapa. A true tulku does not need recognition, for good reason. But oy vey this topic gives me a headache. :)

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Luke,
Thanks for the comments. Oh, and incidentally. Its sitting around in your room in your undies that causes the headaches, not thinking about tulkus.

gustav said...

I think it is pretty obvious that the tulku system had developed in Persian Sangha and it was well known in the middle east too, because in the bible we can read that some petty king decided to kill all the new born babies because he feared some new reincarnation ! Also there is the story about the three wise men from India or Persia, a search party looking for the new incarnation of arhat Yashas.
When reincarnation was ruled an anthema all of the existing history was wiped out concerning reincarnation in any of its forms.
I think there are more traces of institutionalized search for new reincarnations in the history books of the occident, if you want to see it that way,

gustav said...

About the "clones", as there are hundreds of different cultural movements where it is normal and even essential to dress in the fashion of the movement, I don't understand why you have to hate anybody that dresses in japanese, tibetan or vietnamese style ?? Why don't you also hate those who dress like country & western music fans, those who dress like austrian walz enthusiasts, the punk rockers, the heavy metal moshers, the polka dancers, etc...?? and there are hundreds or a thousand different movements of this kind, both for adults and the youth.
The attitude you express really beats me !

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gustav,
I do not ‘hate’ people who dress in different styles, I have not said I do, nor have I said we should. I do however; think that expensive and elaborate attire is inappropriate for Buddhist monks. I also think that if one’s spirituality qualities are real that they should not need to be buttressed with outward trappings.

gustav said...

What you are in effect saying is that you could dress as a civil cervant or as a derelict bum, and still people would treat you the same because your inner qualities are obvious to everyone ??

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gustav,
You keep reading into my words things I don’t say. I have not said monks should dress like a civil servant or a derelict bum. I have said that I think expensive and elaborate attire is inappropriate for Buddhist monks, which is another way of saying that inexpensive, simple attire is appropriate.

R.J. Bullock said...

Sir, can I point out a few things... One, regarding some tulkus being the emanation of Buddhist deities, that's just a relative understanding. There are no such deities and to the extent that there are, we are ALL emanations of Chenrezig, Amitabha, Manjurshri, etc, as all of those principles manifest in everyone of us. However, until a person realizes this, it's helpful to at least recognize the divinity of other beings like oneself as a form of inspiration and devotion.

Secondly, while the tulku system might just be entirely political in it's origins, I think there's something skillful and beautiful about it, about continuing the work of one being's life over hundreds or thousands of years...

Who am I any way? If, when I was born, somebody labeled me "Dalai Lama" and I was given the education appropriate to such a spiritual leader and I carried out such and such roles in this life... Why, what's wrong with that? Lineage and tradition are important. What the mechanism is - rebirth or cultural invention, or a mix of both - what difference does that make?

dollarability said...

I found your article quite interesting because it addresses some of the issues I address in my book, Buddhist Self-Ordination: A Dharma Strategy for the West (http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/buddhist-self-ordination-a-dharma-strategy-for-the-west/16248290). That said, I do think you should distinguish between the essential concept of tulkus and the historical-political use of that concept.