Burgundy, France, summer 1984. Students are gathering from all over Europe and beyond to receive the Kalachakra empowerment from Kalu Rinpoche, one of the most influential twentieth-century masters of Tibetan Buddhism. The center’s temple is humming with preparatory activities; the general atmosphere is solemn and celebratory. Suddenly a door slams, and everyone looks to see who is breaking the spell. A tow-headed boy and his dark-eyed friend race through, laughing and chattering away in Tibetan, quickly followed by an older monk who shoos them out. My neighbor informs me that the fair-haired boy is Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, a nine-year-old incarnate master who accompanies Kalu Rinpoche everywhere. He is said to be something of an imp, and he looks the part.

When the empowerment is actually held a couple of days later, Trinlay Tulku is participating. Dressed in traditional monk’s clothes, he is seated near Kalu Rinpoche and joins in the general recitations. He doesn’t fidget or fuss during the length of the event; suitably serious, he seems perfectly at home.

Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, age 6, with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (left) and Kalu Rinpoche. Courtesy of Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche.
Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, age 6, with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (left) and Kalu Rinpoche. Courtesy of Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche.

Dordogne, France, spring 2004. Three pretty young Frenchwomen circumambulating a stupa arm in arm are talking about their dharma teacher. “It’s true that he’s really got a flair for making difficult concepts seem simple,” says one. “Yeah, but how to concentrate?” retorts her friend, “he’s so attractive.” “Get over it and listen,” says the third, laughing. “You might just learn something!”

Now twenty-nine, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche is explaining basic Buddhism to a hundred and fifty people. He is seated simply on a low throne under a large tent, sporting chic French clothes and a stylish haircut. He communicates with his attitude, his hands, and his smile. Although he speaks French and English with equal ease, he occasionally slips up in both languages, the odd word hinting that his mother tongue is elsewhere. While Trinlay Tulku’s mother was pregnant with him, she felt certain that she was carrying a Buddhist teacher, a monk. Although not yet a Buddhist herself, Anne [I give his parents’ first names only, per Trinlay Tulku’s request] was something of a free spirit, a product of the American sixties and seventies. She had studied Eastern philosophy at school, and Buddhism appealed to her. Trinlay’s father, a member of the French parliament, was familiar with the main tenets of Buddhism and was interested in learning more. A few days before his son’s birth, Jean-Louis was in a Parisian hotel. There he saw signs indicating that the Sixteenth Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, was giving the Black Crown Ceremony on a lower floor. It is said that whoever sees the Karmapa wearing the Black Crown receives a great blessing and will eventually attain enlightenment. Intrigued, Jean-Louis followed the notices and entered the hall where the ceremony was about to begin. He took refuge on the spot and left deeply impressed, yearning for more contact.

When their child was born, the young couple named him after the Buddha’s cousin Ananda. One year later, the family left for India on holiday, hoping to see more of the Karmapa, although they weren’t sure just where they would find him. They first went to Darjeeling, India, where they learned from friends that although the Karmapa was in Nepal, the great master Kalu Rinpoche, head of the Shangpa lineage, was staying nearby. They sought him out, and Anne took refuge from him, then requested that he also give refuge to her son, Ananda. Kalu Rinpoche refused, saying that it was not for him to be giving the boy refuge. Perplexed by this, they left shortly for Nepal to see the Karmapa. When they found him, Ananda, then fourteen months old, ran to him and jumped into his arms. The Karmapa said that he would give the boy refuge immediately, and so he did. Ananda became Trinlay. “Somehow, I intuitively understood what the Karmapa was telling me,” Trinlay now says. “The Buddhist precepts made perfect sense to the child I was, and my greatest desire was to uphold them. I trusted in the Buddha and his teachings, and wanted to strive for enlightenment. Also, my predecessor’s tendencies began cropping up and I yearned to go live in a monastery.”

Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, 2004. ©Gerard Truffandier
Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, 2004. ©Gerard Truffandier

The family rented a house in Nepal, where they would return for frequent holidays. Whenever they were there, Trinlay nagged at his parents to take him to stupas and temples, and repeatedly asked to be left with monks. His mother says he began to recognize people he had never met and to experience memories from another life. When he was two, he decided that enough was enough, packed a little suitcase and ran out the gate. His mother saw him go and shouted; people came running to catch him. As they took him back he yelled, “I want to leave, let me go!”

Shortly thereafter, Trinlay was officially recognized by the Karmapa as being the physical incarnation, or tulku, of Khakyab Rinpoche, a Karma Kagyu master from western Tibet who had died young. Before departing, he had written a poem stating that he would be reborn in the West. Khakyab Rinpoche had been very close to Kalu Rinpoche, and when Trinlay had worn his parents out with repeated requests to be allowed to go live with the monks, Kalu Rinpoche took the boy, then three years old, under his wing. During his early childhood, the boy’s time was divided between periods spent with his family and periods with Kalu Rinpoche. When he was four or five, he began to accompany Kalu Rinpoche on his travels and see less of his parents.

Anne, his mother, says that as a small child Trinlay spoke often and convincingly of his previous life, and she believed him. Once he was recognized as a tulku, it seemed obvious that he needed special instruction to be able to realize his potential. Although their decision to entrust him to Kalu Rinpoche shocked some people—“How could you do this to your child?” Anne was asked—she and Jean-Louis were convinced that growing up with Kalu Rinpoche and the other lamas was the best education he could possibly receive.

“I grew up in a very privileged milieu,” Anne says, “among millionaires, debutantes, rock stars, politicians. None of them were particularly happy. It was the lamas who had the key to real happiness. Through them, my child could learn what most people need a lifetime to catch a glimpse of. I wish someone had given me to Rinpoche when I was three!”

When they were in India, Trinlay Tulku stayed with Kalu Rinpoche at his monastery, Samdrup Tarjay Chöling, in Sonada, near Darjeeling, and Anne lived nearby. She saw her son nearly daily; she says that if at any moment she had felt that things weren’t going well, she’d have “swooped in and grabbed him.”

With Kalu Rinpoche, Trinlay received traditional tulku training, replete with tutors, teachers, and a rather severe disciplinary monk. Surrounded by adults, he admits that he sometimes felt like a little prince. “I could also be a bit mischievous, but everyone was awfully kind to me.” He says that he liked playing with other kids from time to time but didn’t always understand their priorities. It wasn’t that he felt cut off from the outside world, it was just that study and his personal practice were his main focus.

Trinlay joined Kalu Rinpoche for rituals and traveled with him when he went on teaching tours. His life on the road was quite a contrast from his life in India, where he slept on a hard bed, washed with cold water and ate plain food. Accompanying Kalu Rinpoche in Southeast Asia, the United States, or Europe, he would plow through endless banquets, sit through marathon ceremonies, and visit with his relatives. He was learning to be a cultural chameleon, to accept and adapt to whatever situation he found himself in. At all times, he says, Kalu Rinpoche showed him the deepest kindness and helped him ponder the great questions of life and death. His situation suited him perfectly. “My childhood was very different from that of Western kids who grow up experiencing one culture only,” he says. “In the same context as theirs I would have been miserable. Out of place.”

When Trinlay was ten he joined other tulkus in Darjeeling for a year of study, and then was sent to a dharma center in the French Alps, where his education continued in the hands of Lama Teunsang, a highly respected lama from eastern Tibet, whom he describes as “stern, but just.” Parallel with his rigorous dharma education, tutors taught him French and English and gave him a concentrated Western education that led to his passing the Bac—the demanding French equivalent of a high school diploma—although he had never studied in a school setting. He made national news by being the first person in France to request Tibetan as his second language for the Bac.

For as long as Trinlay could remember, his main wish was to deepen his understanding of the dharma, but he was also interested in Western science and philosophy. He imagined becoming a bridge between the two worlds, East and West. After completing the Bac, Trinlay divided his time between studying with learned Tibetan scholars in India and studying at university in France. His appreciation of the classical philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, continues. “They have a lot in common—more than is generally thought—with the great Asian masters. They all ask the same questions: Who are we? How do we define reality? What is mind? How should we live our lives? How can we face death? What happens after we die? While all schools of thought use reason, logic, and sophisticated language, their conclusions may be radically different. There is some common ground, but Buddhism has its particularities: the Buddhist view of emptiness or essencelessness is an obvious example.”

Today, at thirty, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche’s home base is right-bank Paris. He spends part of the year teaching, giving conferences and leading retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The bulk of his remaining time is spent practicing, studying, and doing research. Leisure moments may be spent at the opera or the movies, or tooling about town on his old-fashioned bicycle. When with Tibetans, he blends right in. He is always given a place of honor and addressed in formal Tibetan language, as befits his tulku status. Many of his French peers naturally tend to use “vous” with him instead of the more familiar “tu.” He is exceptionally polite and considerate, and sometimes so serious that he misses the joke. An impassioned teacher with a talent for clarifying difficult philosophical points, he has a particular blend of plain-speaking and ingenuous enthusiasm that reflects his distinctive background and reaches out to philosophers and practitioners of all horizons.

Trinlay believes that Buddhism appeals to Westerners because it doesn’t demand belief per se; instead, it gives matter for reflection and allows for individual development based on personal experience. He is convinced that modern thought—science and philosophy—and Buddhism are highly compatible. “Take quantum physics, for example: the analysis of infinitely small particles has led to the same conclusions about the nature of reality as the Buddha came to twenty-five hundred years ago, and it is now understood that one cannot confirm that reality has an objective existence independent of the observer.

“It’s relatively easy for Westerners to understand Buddhism, to relate to the teachings, but they have to learn how to become Buddhists; they tend to assimilate a lot of information but need to be shown how to put it into practice. For example, they understand why lovingkindness and compassion are positive values, but are somehow perplexed about how to apply them. This obviously has nothing to do with adhering to a different culture or becoming a Tibetan and changing your name to Tashi—some Westerners are confused about this. The Buddha’s teachings aren’t geared towards one particular ethos,” Trinlay explains. “Buddhists have historically adapted to cultural contexts as different as those of India, China, Afghanistan, and Indonesia.

“Potential pitfalls are the same for everyone, regardless of nationality or lifestyle. We’re all threatened by the fangs of impermanence and death; negative emotions and confusion afflict all of us, creating ever more difficulties for ourselves and the world. This is true whether you are from Tibet, Canada, Nigeria, or anywhere else.”

While it is certainly true that we all have to deal with the same obstacles and veils, the tulku system is said to have developed as a shortcut around them. Trinlay’s definition of a tulku is “someone who is reborn like everyone else, but who is free from the arbitrary nature of rebirth. It’s as if we don’t have to start at Go.” After death, a tulku’s spiritual maturity allows him (or her, but female tulkus are few and far between) to choose a new physical vessel that will allow him to continue helping others.

Tulku lineages originated in Tibet with the Karmapas of the Kagyu school. Before he died, the great accomplished master Dusum Khyenpa (1110—1193), the First Karmapa, foretold his own rebirth as the Second Karmapa, Karmapakshi (1204—1283), who was thus the first tulku to be formally recognized as such. Hence the oldest institutionalized, unbroken line of reincarnated, realized masters is that of the Karmapas. In comparison, the Dalai Lama line could be said to have begun with the second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso, nearly three centuries later.

Recognition of tulkus can be based on many different factors, including written instructions left behind by the predecessor, visions seen by other enlightened masters, and the famous “choosing the practice instruments of the previous incarnation” test. The latter has traditionally been used for the highest lamas, but apparently it is common for the attendants of a tulku’s previous incarnation to put the young child to the test behind closed doors, “just to make sure.” Many tulkus assert themselves as children, telling those close to them that they are, in fact, such or such a lama. The whole system has been the target of some controversy, even among those who don’t doubt the plausibility of controlled rebirth, since it contains potential for error or manipulation for political purposes. The illustrious master Jamgön Kongtrul the Great (1813—1899) reported in his autobiography that he himself was recognized as an incarnate to ensure that “head-hunters” from other monasteries wouldn’t spirit him away from Pelpung.

Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche explains that there are many different categories of tulkus. Tulkus may be emanations of great bodhisattvas who take human form, such as the Karmapas, incarnate masters of varying degrees of realization, or people who may or may not have great spiritual potential but who have been recognized for political reasons. He thinks that in terms of keeping the dharma alive, the tulku system is expendable; other schools of Buddhism get along fine without it, and a great number of celebrated Tibetan masters have attained great realization without being part of it. It does, however, have its advantages. An authentic tulku will have an inherent spiritual potential, a power that blossoms under proper training, thus ensuring effective transmission of the teachings. Perhaps, then, it is the pomp and circumstance surrounding the tulku system that are somewhat expendable.

“Traditional Tibetan society has by and large ceased to exist, and generally, a tulku now needs to earn the respect that would have been his due in the past. When you look at today’s prominent reincarnate lamas, they are all people who have qualities that earn them this esteem. Anyone can build a lofty throne, sit on it, and call himself Rinpoche, but the quality of a person’s realization is the real criterion,” he says.

Trinlay Tulku, age 26, 2002. ©Gerard Truffandier.
Trinlay Tulku, age 26, 2002. ©Gerard Truffandier.

Most, but certainly not all, of the Tibetan lamas who have had a real impact in the West have been reincarnates. While some of these correspond perfectly to our idea of what a holy person should look and act like, others most decidedly do not. Where we expect celibacy, we may learn of healthy sexual appetites; where we imagine teetotalers, we may see carousers; where we picture earnest decorum, we may witness occasional bouts of absolutely unpredictable behavior. Tibetan Buddhism is like that—great masters come in all trappings. The common denominator is their spiritual might and ability to guide students in their development of compassion and wisdom.

The fact that there is no Government Approved Rinpoche Model to go by has led to a great deal of confusion, head-scratching, and even despair among sincere practitioners. How should one choose one’s guru? How should one relate to him or her? Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche thinks that to answer these questions one must first take a precise look at what one’s expectations are.

“The idea of the master-disciple relationship is simple, really: one person is helping another to help him—or herself. In the West some practitioners may misconstrue what this entails. They haven’t sat down and read the biographies of the great master-disciple relationships, yet they’re convinced that they urgently need to find a root guru. But what we mean in Vajrayana, the school of Buddhism that is practiced throughout Tibet, Mongolia, and so forth, by an authentic master-disciple relationship is one where both parties are very highly qualified.

“What we have in the West is more of a teacher-student relationship. To properly practice the dharma, we need to be guided by a proper teacher. All authentic teachers have three basic qualities: they have knowledge and experience based on their own training, they abide by the Buddhist code of ethics according to the vows they have taken, and they are motivated by love and compassion rather than by any worldly desires.

“If you study with such a person, you might learn something. He or she may help you generate bodhicitta—awakened mind—and understand emptiness, give you complete instructions on meditation practice, bestow empowerments, and so forth. Ultimately, he or she may lead you to recognize the nature of mind. According to the tantras, these are the qualities that define a root guru. But it’s up to you to first become a good disciple, then the root guru will manifest naturally.”

When he teaches, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche often focuses on the importance of the foundations of practice. He discourages beginners from immediately diving into the deeper esoteric teachings. “Many Westerners receive empowerments and instruction on advanced visualization-based practices without having trained properly beforehand,” he says. “Their difficulties with these practices come less from cultural barriers and the ‘foreignness’ of the approach than from a lack of preparation—they don’t really know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. To relate to the tantras you need to have developed refuge, bodhicitta, and a certain understanding of emptiness. Otherwise, tantra is meaningless. Many Westerners who have laid a proper practice foundation can and do relate to this kind of training, often with very positive results.”

He explains that this foundation begins with contemplating the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. “We’re not saying that this is the fantasy that you should have of the world, so you should become a pessimist and see everything in a negative light. What we’re saying is that you have to see reality for what it is without telling yourself stories about it. Once you’ve done this, you’ll have taken the first step towards freedom. If you continue to tell yourself stories about reality, you are choosing to remain chained to your confusion, your illusions. Our goal is to be set free, to sever these chains; ultimately, it is to attain liberation and become a Buddha.

“This does not entail declaring yourself to be a this Buddhist or a that Buddhist—if you really want to transform yourself, there’s only one path. The architecture and language may vary according to which tradition you practice, but basic reality must be faced whatever the school. If you call yourself a Buddhist but keep lying to yourself, if you think that samsara can become a desirable state, if you’ve got some ulterior motive, then you are just telling yourself more stories, even if you think you’re taking refuge.

“Refuge is a basic principle that is common to all Buddhist traditions. It allows us to confront reality and turn our minds from that which is unreliable towards that which is reliable. One of the basic points of refuge is just that: acknowledging samsara, taking a long hard look at the world and seeing it for what it is.

“If you wonder what Buddhism has to offer you, the answer is: nothing. If you think that becoming a Buddhist will bring you all sorts of goodies and fringe benefits, forget it. There’s no dream prize, no paradise with vestal virgins,” he says with a grin. “What it can help you do is cut through your confusion, your neuroses. It can help you understand yourself in the here and now and hopefully prepare the ground for a more positive future. Buddhism is incredibly pertinent to the world today. It’s twenty-five hundred years old, but it’s still the most intelligent answer to human needs.”

Whether bicycling through Paris or bestowing blessings, whether debating with friends or joining other high lamas in rituals and empowerments, Trinlay gives the impression that he is home. It seems that Rudyard Kipling was wrong when he wrote, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” In Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, wherever he happens to manifest, the twain have met.

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