In a widely circulated Trike Daily post, Dzongsar Khyentse has opened a door on a much needed conversation. His courage (and outrage) led him to say publicly what many people have observed and felt privately.

How tulkus are raised is one of the many challenges that Buddhist teachers face today in balancing the traditional with the modern. Yet Khyentse touches on just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In focusing on the deficiencies in the ways many tulkus are trained and the seeming exploitation of them for economic and political advantage, he does not take into account the origin, evolution, and place of the tulku system in Tibetan culture as a whole.

“Tulku” is the Tibetan word for nirmanakaya, the form aspect of a buddha. In modern times the term has come to refer to a person who is recognized as the reincarnation of a former spiritual teacher.

The tulku system is unique to the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Broadly speaking, it is a system of identifying and developing spiritual talent to provide for the continuity of the tradition, control of real estate, multiple revenue streams, and the assurance that the gods are alive and well and part of the society they oversee. It is a brilliant solution to this complex of challenges, but it worked only in the isolated society of pre-diaspora Tibet. Dzongsar Khyentse’s criticism of the current training of tulkus is but one manifestation of the difficulties that traditional cultures have when transitioning to the modern world.

Any lineage must ensure continuity from generation to generation. For a variety of reasons, many societies have chosen to have lineage, authority, and property pass from father to son or from parent to child. Rulers and leaders all over the world generally like to keep things in the family and in Tibet. Marpa the Translator (1012-1097), for instance, intended that his son, Dharma Dode, take over his spiritual lineage as well as his property. Only when Dharma Dode was killed in a riding accident did Marpa acknowledge Milarepa as one of his spiritual heirs.

The father-son succession, however, does not work in a monastic system with celibate teachers. Thus, Tibetan ruling families adopted an uncle-nephew succession: the abbot’s successor was his eldest brother’s eldest child. When an abbot died, his nephew was hailed as the late uncle’s tulku or reincarnation. Again, this is not what the word “tulku” actually means but what it has come to mean. The uncle-nephew succession survives to this day in the Sakya lineage.

Not all nephews wanted the role. Kyergangpa (1143-1216), the third patriarch in the Shangpa tradition, wanted to devote his life to meditation. After being named the successor after his uncle’s death, Kyergangpa went against the wishes of the monastery and withdrew to a nearby cave. The monks were so angry that they threw stones at him whenever he tried to leave for food and supplies—an attempt to starve him into submitting to his culturally ordained role.

This uncle-nephew succession was largely replaced when the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283) predicted his own rebirth. On the basis of several visions, Karma Pakshi’s teacher had publicly proclaimed him to be the tulku of Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa. When Karma Pakshi died, he left a letter describing where he would be reborn. The child was found, brought to the monastery along with his family, and trained as a spiritual teacher. He became the great Third Karmapa and the Karmapa tulku lineage was established. This was the first tulku lineage in Tibet and it initiated the recognition of children as reincarnations of previous teachers.

This practice quickly spread to other lineages and legitimized the succession in ways that the uncle-nephew transmission could not. It also made the lineage succession more secure because the child was now under the complete control of the monastery. As an adage attributed to the Jesuits says, “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.” Perhaps because these children received the best in spiritual education, this form of succession produced a remarkable number of extraordinary spiritual teachers over the centuries.

Talent will out when it is important to the culture, whether the talent be in mathematics, music, football, soccer, or mysticism. It is not unreasonable to suppose that spiritual teachers were often able, through dreams, visions, omens, or other methods stemming from Indian Buddhism and Central Asian shamanism, to identify children who might have great spiritual potential. It is quite possible that the success rate of the Tibetan teachers in identifying spiritual talent was on par with the success rate of NBA scouts in identifying basketball talent.

Spiritual succession was not the only rationale. Real estate was also important. Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, was once asked, “What do you do when a great teacher dies?” He replied, “Take care of the real estate while you wait for the next great teacher.” The recognition of a child assured that control of the real estate remained with the monastery or the senior administrators of the monastery. Even though the child’s parents and family might be brought in, they became dependent on the system and were thus under its control. This aspect of tulku succession sometimes gave rise to intense conflict, even assassination, as various parties vied to have their chosen child recognized as the tulku or were reluctant to give up control of the power and immense wealth amassed by the monastic estates.

Buddhist monasteries in both China and Tibet became expert in the conversion of spiritual capital into financial capital, and in Debt: The First 5000 Years, author David Graeber characterizes them as the first truly capitalistic institutions. By the ninth century in China, monasteries had drawn much of the metal coinage in China out of circulation and used it to build statues. Emperor Wuzang of Tang was compelled to raze the monasteries, seize the statues, melt them down, and reissue the coinage in order to pay for his wars.

Historically, the relationship between Tibet and China was a trade in merit or, to put it bluntly, luck. The accumulation of merit is an important element of Mahayana Buddhism. In the Asian mind, merit is essentially a form of good luck—good things tend to happen to people who do good. Luck is important in Chinese culture as it is associated with prosperity. Many people, whether rich or poor, support monasteries, teachers, and their projects in order to increase their store of merit or luck. This trade is straight spiritual materialism, of course, and it goes back at least to the sixth century as we know from the following famous exchange between Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma:

Emperor Wu: “How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”

Bodhidharma: “None.”

By producing great and powerful spiritual teachers generation after generation, the tulku system made Tibet the spiritual center of Asia, and, by extension, the center of the trade in luck.

Every human society creates its own gods. Once created, human beings want their gods to walk among them. In today’s world, we see this phenomenon played out as fandom that embraces all the behaviors of traditional religions. People want politicians to kiss their babies (a form of blessing), or they make a yearly pilgrimage to Warren Buffet’s home in Omaha. They mourn the passing of technology gods such as Steve Jobs and they perform various rituals to ensure that their team will win the World Series or the Super Bowl. The Tibetan tulku system endowed chosen children with a god-like status and trained them to be gods, but in a far more substantial way than the Devi Kumari (child goddesses) in Nepal.

Now, facing the powerful forces of modernism, this unique system is crumbling. Tulkus cannot be secluded during their training in the way that they could be in Tibet. As far back as 1970, my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, told me how sad he was that only one or two of the senior tulkus of the Karma Kagyu tradition had done the traditional three-year retreat. As Dzongsar Khyentse points out, the predominant feeling was that because of their training in former lives, tulkus did not need the retreat training and their role in holding the culture together was deemed more important.

Perhaps Dzongsar Khyentse is right, and the tulku system is being undermined by the people who seek to capitalize on it. He is certainly right about the ludicrous adoption of the title “His Holiness.” This adoption is based on competition among the different tulku lineages and is similar to the recognition of children as tulkus initiated by Karma Pakshi: it is a way of establishing pedigree.

Tibetan tulkus regularly visit Hong Kong and Taiwan and continue the trade in luck or merit, where an elusive and prized commodity attracts the great wealth in these communities. That same wealth causes other problems in its pursuit of luck, notably the threatened extinction of rare animals such as the rhinoceros. As for the display of wealth by some tulkus, if one is in the business of dispensing luck and prosperity, it only makes sense to display one’s own luck and prosperity.

As Dzongsar Khyentse also notes, there are always people who want to have living gods who walk among them. In Tibet, the tulkus were presented with very few alternatives. Trained from a young age, they accepted their privileged roles in Tibetan society. But in the modern world they have endless other possibilities. It’s hard to keep them down on the farm, so to speak. The Fourth Kongtrul is interested in becoming a doctor. Dzongsar Khyentse himself took advantage of his position and the resources made available to him to become an award-winning filmmaker.

As a refugee society, Tibetans had to make the most of the few resources they could bring out of Tibet. The tulku system is one such resource and an important one. It is small wonder that they have capitalized on it to establish a foothold in the modern world, since the very existence of their culture was threatened.

What will become of the tulku system in the years ahead is anyone’s guess, but the problems go far beyond just the raising of these potentially talented children. All of us who have taken up the challenge of teaching—regardless of culture, society, training, or position—have had to find our own way of balancing the traditional and the modern. It is the cultural predicament of being a Buddhist teacher in today’s world.

Read Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s essay, “Time for Radical Change in How We Raise Our Tulkus” 

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