Tulkus: Incarnate Lamas of Tibet

An Interview with Sakya Gongma Dagchen Rinpoche

An excerpt from Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus; A Research among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile by Danial Barlocher, Opuscula Tibetana, Rikon-Zurich, August 1982. (Interview translator: Cyrus Stearns).

Answer: Rinpoche is sometimes able to recognize who is a 'yangsi' and sometimes not. An example of one who is both a yangsi and a Tulku is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is because he is a yangsi in the sense of being the rebirth of the first Dalai Lama: from the first to the fourteenth, the present one. He is considered a Tulku in the sense of being an emanation of Chenrezi, Avalokiteshvara. So he is a unique example of being considered both. And whether this is something recognized or not is depending upon the strength of the spiritual vision of the perceptor: if one does not have clear vision, clear perception, one may simply see a monk. If one however has clear perception, clear vision, then one can perceive the presence of Chenrezi and perceive that this is the same being that has continued to be reborn through the series of fourteen. So often the recognition or the ability to see what the being is, is based entirely upon the power of pure vision, called 'dagnang.' If a person has dagnang, for example you and I, anyone; if we have dagnang, pure vision, we can tell, we can see that this person is for instance Chenrezi or a re-birth - whereas if you do not have that, you have impure vision, then you are able to see another person or a monk or something.

Question: Talking about the Sakya: when Rinpoche is asked to recognize and to confirm a boy among candidates as a yangsi of a certain predecessor: how is the proceeding?
A: To begin with, if a Tulku is recognized, the first thing that is done is recognizing someone as a Tulku - and then following that would be the additional recognition if it was the case that someone is a Yangsi. One would come first: the Tulku recognition would be the first. And Rinpoche says that in the Sakyapa, Gelugpa, Kagyu and Nyingmapa schools there are no significant differences in the manner in which this would be done. There is no certain way that he would be recognizing someone inside of this school that would vary from the other schools. There was one occasion in which he was - in eastern Tibet - travelling and he went to one monastery which was called 'Dsa Shishugon.' It was a very big Gelugpa monastery which had about four thousand monks. He was invited and stayed there for about a week, giving teachings and initiations. There had been a very great Lama in that monastery who had been the throne-holder. His name was Ngawang Lobsang Yishe Gyatso. He had passed away. So while Rinpoche was there the monks came to him and asked him to locate the rebirth, the Tulku of this monk. And he somewhat protested, saying: I am not familiar with the area, I don't know the people or any of this and this. And they insisted that he attempt to locate the rebirth for them. So he requested them to write the Lama's full personal name; to write the exact date: the year, the month, and the day in which he passed away and some other information like this. Then he spent one evening praying to Manjushri, his special deity. And when he went to sleep that night he had a dream. In the dream appeared a figure that said: "I am the rebirth of Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso; I am to the east of the monastery in a small family in which there are mother and father, two sons and a daughter. I am the youngest of the two sons." The next day then he said this to the monks and they went and searched for the one that fitted the description. When they located the boy and the family as described, they brought him to the monastery and Rinpoche examined him. He laid out the various implements that he had possessed in his past life, such as his rosary and his bowl and his dorje and the bell and put them together with others. Then he said to the child: take your bowl and your Dorje - and the child immediately went around and picked up his. And in this way then he was recognized as the rebirth of the previous throne-holder in the monastery.

Q: Concerning the situation in exile: would Rinpoche say that there are any changes in these methods of recognition?
A: No. There is no difference.

Q: To explain in a functional way what a Tulku is; his task, his purpose: could Rinpoche briefly explain the difference between a learned Geshe who acts as a teacher and who has disciples to whom he is also a Guru - and a Rinpoche, a Lama, who does the same thing?
A: (Rinpoche laughing). In a conventional sense you say this one is a Geshe and this one is a Lama, an incarnate Lama - but as far as he is concerned there is no difference between the two because it is said that great beings can appear in any number of guises, any number of manners. They may appear as dull people, even seem to be stupid, seem to be mad and crazy or they may seem to be like great teachers or Geshes, they may seem to be incarnate Lamas: they can take all different types of forms and different types of ways to fit certain situations and in order to be of benefit for the living beings in the greatest manner or the greatest way. So for instance if someone is a great Geshe - even though he is not a Tulku - he can very well be said that he with his great wisdom and ability to teach has been graced by the Bodhisattva Manjushri. Whereas a Tulku he can maybe be said that he has been empowered by the strength of his yidam. But either way - in a conventional sense this may be what is said, where as essentially it comes down to it the individuals are not - as far as Rinpoche can tell - they are not different. They may be great teachers in either way; some way even turn out to be or to act stupid in order to lead along those who are not so bright. It really varies a lot and just depends entirely upon the situation, and a Bodhisattva can take any type of disguise.

Q: What does Rinpoche think about the fact that these lineages of Tulkus, that Tulku as a system only came up in Tibet? Why did this originate in Tibet?
A: Of course they exist throughout the universe but in Tibet the Buddhist teaching was extremely strong - Rinpoche thinks the strongest in the world. It completely dominated the culture. And as such the institution of the Tulku was used to really strengthen the presence of Buddhism in the culture. And on top of that, although Buddhism is very strong in some other countries such as Japan and Burma and Thailand, some of these countries: in Tibet it was Tantra that was very strong. This is the difference in many of these other countries. The concept (of Tulku) was used there (in Tibet) in the Tantric sense and it was used to strengthen and spread the Buddhist doctrine. That's probably why there was this system.

Q: The Tibetan Tulkus in a future outlook, what will be the changes?
A: (Rinpoche with a big laugh). Rinpoche is certain there will be great changes and the reason is that the Buddhist doctrine is approaching the end of its duration in the present. He sees it as for instance the sun passing the sky when the day is going by: you can see the morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. The Buddhist doctrine is beginning to set. In the future it is not seen that there will be a great use or there will be a great deal of Tulkus.

Q: Does that mean the Tulkus are becoming manifest more and more anonymously, without being called Tulkus?
A: (Rinpoche amused, laughing). As long as there are living beings there will be in some way Buddhism, the presence of spiritual teachings. The living beings and the Buddhas are like wisdom and means; they go together, they are complementary, they are like a pair. And so as long as there is one there will be the other. And it is the same in a sense with the Tulkus, because as long as there will be Buddhism there will be in some manner the Tulkus present.

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