The Dance of Lives: The Tulku Game

The Dalai Lama in an apparent attempt to secure his country and lineage from China turning the tables on the tulku game, said he doesn't want to be reincarnated in any territory under Chinese rule. In a public talk at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, he stated that he wants to be reincarnated in a free country just in case Tibet doesn't gain freedom during his lifetime.

There are other examples of unusual sometimes, western Tulkus. An example is Zia Inayat Khan, son and designated successor of Vilayat Inayat Khan, head of the Sufi Order. (Vilayat Inayat Khan is half-Indian and half-American; Zia's mother is American.) More than ten years ago, when Zia was still a young boy, he was recognized as a tulku by Kalu Rinpoche. Because Kalu Rinpoche was held in such high esteem by the Kagyu school, this was particularly significant.

Apparently, Zia did spend some time with Tibetan teachers in India. But when he grew older, he decided that since he could not remember anything of his previous birth, it really made little sense for him to say that he was a tulku and that he would not take any active part in the tradition.

Another  is Leslie Dawson/Namgyal Rinpoche, when he met the Karmapa in Britain in 1974, he had only recently started following Tibetan Buddhism after several years as a Theravada monk in Thailand.
As Ananda Bodhi (his ordained Theravadin name), he had come to London at the invitation of the English Sangha Trust to be in charge of the Hampstead Vihara (a task he shared with Ven. Sangharakshita for a time). There were not many Buddhists in Britain in the early 1960s, so it was natural that he should meet two young Tibetan monks, Chogyam Trungpa and Akong Rinpoche, who arrived in the country in 1963. He arranged for them to purchase the house that became Samye Ling, and started practising under their guidance.

He teaches a method of meditation, developed by himself, called Holistic Cleaning Meditation, and also claims to be in communication with extraterrestrial intelligences, perhaps that is why he now refers to himself as "Star One".

Almost two years ago, Oct. 2, 2002, newswires were flashing the message “China tries to control Tibet with soul boy.” Little is known about the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, a boy named Gyaltsen Norbu, except that his parents are members of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet he ranks officially as the second-holiest spiritual leader of Tibet. His fate could determine the future of the remote Himalayan land that has fuelled obsessions among Hollywood movie stars and Western faith-seekers for decades.

Chinese bureaucrats still refuse to reveal any key details about the boy.

"He is in Beijing, learning from his tutor," a Shigatse government leader said tersely this month.

Portraits of the official Panchen Lama, looking somewhat bewildered in his Buddhist robes, have been erected in temples in the Tashilhunpo monastery.

But outside, on the city streets, it is clear that there is no public affection for the boy.

In May 1995 the Dalai Lama announced that the new Panchen Lama would be six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a boy from a nomad family in the northern grasslands of Tibet. The boy was swiftly taken into Chinese custody and has not been seen since. Human-rights groups have called him "the world's youngest political prisoner."

In a hasty 15-minute ceremony in November, 1995, with the participation of their own handpicked monks, Chinese Communist Party officials supervised a ritual in which three silk-wrapped ivory tallies were placed in a golden urn.

Now, Beijing can simply wait for the death of its nemesis, the Dalai Lama, since it knows it can use its own official Panchen Lama to control the selection of the next leader.

By the way a Western odd man out among other Tulkus is the founder of the "Institute of Theosophy" in 1990 in Reno, Simon Grines. Encouraged by the several thousand members that the Institute had in Ghana, among whom was the former head of state, General Acheampong, Grimes even tried to establish a Ghanian Buddhism.

Grines was born in Tienstin 1937. Albert Curtis Grimes, Sr, was head of the Board of Christian Missions there and knew the ninth Panchen Lama, Choskyi Nyima, who had fled to to China in 1923 because of a dispute over how much tax his monastery owned to the Tibetan government.
According to Grimes, he (Grimes) was recognized as his reincarnation by the Dilowa Kutuku, head of the Mongolian branch of the Gelug school, in 1940 (despite the fact that an official tenth Panchen Lama-Tibetan but born in China, the story is well known by now-had already been recognized by the Chinese government in 1939) and was given the name Choskyi Paldan.

Other than the Pope in Rome who resides over only one Christian sect, the Dalai Lama resides over a large amount of different sects which is not always that easy.

Giving a fresh lease of life to the Karmapa controversy, one of the claimants Dawa Sangpo Dorjee recently said he was the 17th Karmapa.

While claiming to be a victim of ‘religious conspiracy,’ he said the support extended to Urgen Trinley Dorjee as 17th Karmapa is a political move.

To put an end to the controversy, Dawa Sangpo demanded that the two other claimants including Urgen Trinley Dorjee, who has already been approved by the Dalai Lama and the Indian and Chinese governments, step down.

“Only me, the true reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa can do that without causing any harm to self,” he claimed. “Though it is being demanded for long, they are not responding out of fear of losing their position,” Sangpo added.

He said he was a victim of conspiracy ‘because he came from a poor family.’ “It all started in my childhood when after taking me from my family, they sent me to ‘Sakiya’ sect schools instead of ‘Kagyu’ sect schools to prevent me from receiving lessons in the Kagyu sect which is essential to become a Karmapa.

Moreover, I was kidnapped, my parents were beaten up. While supporting the process of preparing inventories of Rumtek Monastery properties, Dawa Sangpo said, “While doing this, religious sanctity should be maintained.” However, he expressed lack of interest in the properties of Rumtek believed to be worth $1 billion. “I shall distribute it among the poor Buddhists if I am enthroned as the Karmapa,” he said.

HH Dawa Sangpo, born in Sikkim four years before the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, considers himself a “Maday Tulku” or ‘reincarnation before death.’ His claim for the Karmapa crown received a setback with the mysterious death of his main supporter HE Jamyang Koingtrul Rimpoche in a car accident in Siliguri a few years ago.

While he lost footage in the religious battlefield, the other two gained. Sangpo failed to enter Rumtek Monastery twice due to objections raised by the pro-Trinley Lamas, in 1998 and 2001. Urgyen Trinley Dorge, fled from his Chinese controlled homeland to India where he has become the central figure in a largely political battle for the soul of Tibetan Buddhism.

Until today he has no official papers and remains under virtual house arrest, amidst tight Indian security at Gyuto Monastery.

The identity of Tibet has been given a huge boost by the Karmapa’s escape.

But his escape has rekindled the bitter resentment of a rival faction of Buddhists who are angered by the Dalai Lama’s endorsement of Urgyen Trinley Dorge as the Karmapa.

No-one knows what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies. The system of choosing leaders using the Tibetans’ traditional system of reincarnation is open to corruption and abuse.

The best-known tulku, of course, is the Dalai Lama himself. The present Dalai Lama is the fourteenth. What this actually means is that the same person- that is, the same dharmic ‘force’-supposed to have incarnated 14 times. (Of course, all beings reincarnate; but the difference is that non-tulkus do not choose their incarnation, and are therefore reborn willynilly, as it were. Similarly, all the main teachers in all four schools-the Nyingma, Sakya, Geluk, and Kagyu-are tulkus. I do not know how many there are altogether but it must be over a hundred.

Normally, a tulku is recognized when he is a young boy. (There are female tulkus but their number is tiny; this is definitely a male system.) And of course he is recognized by other, adult tulkus. It is in the nature of this system that it repeats itself seriatim, as it were: tulku A is recognized as a boy by tulku B, who is perhaps 50 years old; when tulku B dies 20 years later, it is now tulku A who will recognize the child who is tulku B’s incarnation and who will become his pupil; then when tulku A dies in his turn, it will be tulku B who will recognize his former teacher. And through all this, both tulku A and tulku B will be known by the same name each time: tulku A will be the seventh abbot of X, say, and then the eighth abbot; tulku B will be known as the tenth incarnation of B and then the eleventh and so on.

First Queen Victoria was said to be a “manifestation” of Palden Lhamo (one of the few female tulkus) and Nicholas II of Russia, a reincarnation of Tsongkapa, the reformer and virtual founder of the Geluk school. Next the first non-Tibetan tulkus were actually the sons of Tibetans who had married Western women. Probably the best known are the sons of Chogyam Trungpa (who are half-British):

Tendzin Lhawang Mukpo and Gesar Arthur Mukpo, born in America in 1971 and 1973 respectively. The sixteenth Karmapa recognized them as tulkus of two important teachers in the Kagyu school: the elder was Surmang Tendzin Rinpoche, one of the Karmapa’s own teachers; the younger was Trungpa’s main teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul, Sechen (not to be confused with Jamgon Kongtrul of Pepung, who is also a Kagyu tulku but was not Trungpa’s teacher).

Then came the first tulkus to be born in the West and also the first who could be called Western. All previous tulkus had been Tibetan or Mongolian.

The very first completely Western Tulku recognition was Macuse Sangve Nyenpa Rinpoche. He was born in Massachusetts in 1967 His father, Angus Maelise, was the original drummer in the Velvet Underground before Mo Tucker. Both his parents were attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and went to Nepal when their son was three. His mother, who was painting statues in a Kagyopa monastery, talked to the monks there and they agreed that OK could become a novice. He was about six at the time. Two years later, in 1975, she wrote to the Karmapa, about her son’s experiences. In reply, the Karmapa sent her map which had allegedly been given to him by an important tulku in the Kagyu lineage. Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, over ten years before. It was a map of the place of his rebirth and he had said it would he in the West. OK’s mother recognised the place as Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where her son had been born. In 1976, after a few traditional tests (the candidate has to select his predecessors’ belongings from a collection of similar items), the Karmapa proclaimed OK a tulku, the reincarnation of Sangve Ny enpa Rinpocltti, an emanation or talku of Manjushri and an important personage in the Kagyu school.

OK entered the Kagyn school’s main m nastery in Sikkiii and followed the traditional life of Tibetan monk-cum lit/kit. Most of this information I found in an issue from the Sunday Telegraph Magazine dated 15th May 1983 his parents stayed on in Nepal but his father died in Katmandu in 1979. Later the “Nyenpa Rinpoche” returned to America, and ceased to be a monk.

A somewhat similar path has been taken by Elijah Ary/Tenzin Sherab, horn in 1972 to Canadian parents who were students of Kalu Rimpoche. a master of the Kagyu school. (Kalu Rimpoche died 1989, and was “rediscovered” by Tai Situ Pa in 1992)

He had “dreams” as a child of what he called another planet but which he now says was Tibet. He was spontaneously recognized as the incarnation of Geshe jatse, vice-abbot of Sent monastery in Tibet, by the Dalai Lama in 1980. (Lama Yeshe in turn was recognized to be Osel)

He went to the new Sera monastery in south India in 1986, when he was 14, and spent six years there as a monk. But he left before he had finished the demanding studies that a Gelugpa tulku traditionally follows. (And through which those that recognized him got to right.)

Other Western tulkus have stayed in the tradition, however. For example, Trinlay Tulku, who was born in 1975 and has a French father and an American mother, was recognized as the incarnation of Khashap Rinpoche by Kalu Rinpoche. He spent some time at Sonada monastery, near Darjeeling, but is presently living at a Kagyu center in France, where he teaches. The center is under the direction of Lama Teunsang and is frequently visited by other Tibetan teachers and tulkus.

All these tulkus came into contact with the Tibetans who eventually recognized them via their parents, who were practicing Buddhists. And the same thing happened in the case of perhaps the most well-known Western tulku of all, Lama Osel. He is Spanish, was born Osel Hita Torres (that was the name his parents gave him) in 1985 and was formally enthroned as the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe by the Dalai Lama in India in 1987.

Lama Yeshe left Tibet in 1959, made his first visit to the West in 1974, established a number of centers both in Europe and America, and died in Los Angeles in 1986.

But he was not born a tulku. There are many stories about his yogic abilities and “tantric realizations” however. And it is said that by his death in 1984, during the cremation (in California), a cloud was seen in the shape of an arrow, pointing south, together with the Tibetan letters za, za, sa, ra. These signs were interpreted by a Tibetan tulku as possibly indicating the name of Lama Yeshe’s mother in his future incarnation. (However, his mother’s name was Maria Torres, which doesn’t seem very much like za za sa ra in any combination.

Lama Zopa, Lama Yeshe’s spiritual’ successor was asked about his rebirth and replied that he thought that Lama Yeshe “had karma with California.” (In fact, the rebirth took place in Spain.)
(This information is taken from an anonymous In Memoriam of Lama Yeshe in Wisdom, Magazine of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition/FPMT, no.2, 1984, 6-37)

Seventy two days after Lama Yeshe’s death, the story goes, two of his students, Maria and Paco Torres, conceived a child at their home in Spain. He was named Osel and according to his parents, his birth and early months were accompanied by auspicious signs.  He was born in five minutes without pain, with “eyes wide open as though he was looking, looking, checking everything”. He was a quiet serene baby and once watched an hour-long video of the Dalai Lama without becoming restless. When he met one of Lama Yeshe’s teachers, he did two prostrations to him “completely unprompted”; and when he was introduced to the Dalai Lama at the age of 14 months, he went over to a table, picked up a flower and presented it to him.

Moreover, his parents and other students of Lama Yeshe began to recognize gestures and behaviour that were exactly like their guru’s.

Meanwhile, Lama Zopa had had a dream of a baby’s face which he immediately recognized as that of Osel Torres when the two eventually met. Subsequently, Lama Zopa submitted a list of ten children to the Dalai Lama as possible candidates for the reappearance of Lama Yeshe-this included several Western children in addition to Osel. Two months later, the Dalai Lama chose Osel, who was submitted to the usual tests, which he passed. He was formally enthroned by the Dalai Lama in Nepal in March 1987. He is presently in India receiving the sort of training the tradition reserves for its tulkus. However, the fact that he is a Westerner has brought about one small change. His mother says that she will stay near him for as long as he needs her (whereas “traditionally,” the family had very little contact at all).

In fact, her understanding of her son’s role is an interesting one.
She says he will be taught Christianity as well as Buddhism and that funds are being made available for him to have a Harvard education.

What will happen remains to be seen. (You Magazine, The Mail on Sunday, 1st February 1987, 16-20; the article is written by Vicki Mackenzie)

Finally there is the story of Edouard, a French boy who has been recognized as the tulku of Western woman that of Zina Rachevsky. If you read it in a novel, you would probably think it was farfetched. She was born in America in 1931 of a Russian father (reputed to be a relative of the Romanoffs-but that is a common claim and I do not know if it is true or not) and a fabulously wealthy American mother.

She was brought up in Paris and New York-her first language was French-and went on to become an international socialite, model, and stripper. She was married several times, once to a claimant to the French throne, once to a multi-millionaire.

But at this point, the Jackie Collins plot changes.

She went to Greece in the mid-1960s, became interested in Theosophy and claimed she was the reincarnation of H.P. Blavatsky.

She went to India, taking her daughter with her and accompanied by Michael Riggs (later Bhagavan Dass, who introduced Ram Dass to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. She met Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa (whom we have already come across in the case of Lama Osel).  This was in 1965 or 1966 (I have seen both dates). She was one of their very first Western students and used her money so that they could start a centre for teaching.

Then, around 1970, she switched from the Gelugpa practices she had been doing with them and entered a retreat with a Tibetan teacher of Dzogchen (a path to enlightenment that is somewhat independent of all the four main schools hut not in essential opposition to any of them). After about a year’s intensive practice, she suddenly fell ill and realized she was going to die. She was found sitting in the meditation position in her little hut in the Himalayas in 1972.

According to Lama Zopa, another Tibetan teacher, Kari Rinpoche, predicted that Zina (and a girl from New Zealand-I don’t know who she is) would both realize emptiness directly in this lifetime. After she died, yet another lama, Takta Rinpoche, checked where Zina had incarnated and said that she was in “a pure realm” (Lama Zopa, “Introduction to Edouard, Zina’s Incarnation”).

I do not know how it was decided that she had the necessary dharmic qualities to become a tulku-or who decided it. (It is interesting that she reached this state by her own efforts, so to speak, just like Lama Yeshe, her main teacher, who has also reincarnated as a Westerner.)

In any event, some time afterwards, Edouard’s mother started to have dreams of Zina while she was pregnant. (Edouard’s father is a somewhat distant cousin of Zina’s, which is where the connection comes from.) After the boy was born, Sakya Trizin Rinpoche, head of the Sakya school, told his parents that he was Zina’s incarnation. A Western boy as the tulku of a Western woman definitely a first.

The recognitions of Perceval and Edouard do have some instructive features. Both of them were discovered by the personal initiative, so to speak, of Tibetan teachers and their connection with the tradition as a whole has been built up afterwards. That is, they were not actively sought by the tradition (or by a particular school).

But back to the Karmapa question, October 2002 the faction of the Rumtek monastery is still controlled by the administration of the 16th Karmapa but has taken the row to the court. The Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, the seat of power of the Buddhist Kagyu sect, is home to the ecclesiastical Buddhist icon, the ‘Black Hat’ or the ‘Vajra’ crown supposed to possess magical powers. So for sure the matter will be in the news again in not to long.


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