Rebirth is a belief common to all Buddhist traditions, although in Tibetan Buddhism, a belief in reincarnation—the reappearance of a great master, known as a tulku— developed in the late 13th century C.E. The tradition continues amid much discussion of its contemporary relevance. Here, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, a Western-born tulku, discusses with Pamela Gayle White the traditional Tibetan view of reincarnation and answers some of the more common questions skeptical Westerners ask.
Westerners interested in Buddhism are often more attracted to its myriad meditation methods than its religious-sounding scriptures and canons. I regularly hear people say that they would gladly espouse Buddhism if it weren’t for the “ism,” the dogma: doctrines on karma; the idea that a human might be reborn as a pig and vice versa; confirmation of the existence of worlds and beings invisible to us; and so on. So what about reincarnation? Is belief in reincarnation central to Buddhism? What exactly are we talking about when we consider rebirth?
Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche struck me as being just the person to shed some light on this ticklish subject. The son of an American mother and a French father, young Ananda was recognized by the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa as being the reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist master. As a small boy, his parents entrusted him to Kalu Rinpoche, with whom he began receiving the classical education reserved for tulkus alongside a select circle of his Tibetan and Himalayan peers. (His story is told in the Summer 2005 issue of Tricycle). Thus the framework of reincarnation has shaped Trinlay Tulku’s life and informed his choices much more directly than it has for the rest of us.
Now in his thirties, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche lives in Paris with his wife, Giselle, a native of California, and Moksha, their shamelessly pampered Pekinese. A very busy young man, he splits his time between academic research, retreat, teaching, and translation—he’s fluent in Tibetan, English, French, and Nepali, and understands a bit of Hindi and reads a bit of Sanskrit as well.
His teaching takes him all over the globe—he loves to travel and take photographs, which he enjoys developing himself. Other interests include poetry (he’s particularly fond of Poe), opera, hiking in the great outdoors, and yoga. Though his life choices and hobbies have a decidedly Western slant, and despite the chestnut hair and deep blue eyes, when Trinlay Tulku discusses philosophy, he’s a Tibetan Buddhist teacher—no doubt about it. We spoke about reincarnation in Paris and Dordogne, France, last year.
—Pamela Gayle White
Can you be a Buddhist or practice Buddhism without believing in reincarnation? Belief in reincarnation is not what defines us as Buddhists; taking refuge in the three jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—is. That said, most religions and spiritualities, including all of the Buddhist schools, adhere to the idea that we are more than just our physical body and that a part of our being continues after death. However, you can certainly take refuge, practice meditation, and follow Buddhist moral principles without believing in reincarnation. You would, I think, get the same benefits. The fundamental aim of Buddhist practice is not belief; it’s enlightenment, the awakening that takes place when illusion has been overcome. It may sound simple, but it’s probably the most difficult thing of all to achieve. It isn’t some kind of magical reward that someone can give you or that a strong belief will enable you to acquire. The true path to awakening is genuine discernment; it’s the very opposite of belief.
What did the Buddha have to say about rebirth? The Buddhist canon, considered to be the record of the Buddha’s words, is full of anecdotes about rebirth. For example, the Buddha recounts his past lives in theJatakas to illustrate the relation between our actions and our becoming. A very strong moral incentive is connected to the notion of reincarnation, which apparently was widely accepted in the Buddha’s time.
In the West when we talk about reincarnation, there’s usually an idea of a soul that continues on. Yes, we tend to think that some immaterial and permanent or eternal thing that we consider to be our “true self” survives at death and reincarnates in a new body. Buddhists would have a problem with that theory, because the nonexistence of a permanent self, soul, or atman is one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.
The Buddha explained that self is baseless. For example, “I” seems to refer to a single and permanent entity, the possessor of my mind and body as well as that thing which might possess another body when this one dies, right? But have we ever seen this “I?” What color and shape is it? We could say that it’s immaterial, so we can’t see it. In that case, how do we know it exists? We might say that if it weren’t for “I,” we would be nothing; it’s that thing that makes up its mind, wants this or that, and distinguishes us from others. If that were the “I,” it clearly couldn’t be a single and permanent entity, because it’s always changing. Perhaps we’re mistaking our mind for “I,” but our mind is very different; it is not a single, unchanging, permanent thing. We might argue that we don’t really think of ourselves as being one and eternal, but if we look carefully, these are exactly the various attitudes and feelings that arbitrarily give rise to a sense of self.
And we identify with this? Yes, as something independent and enduring that’s specific to me and that I cherish more than anything else. It’s a generally unnoticed conviction; all of our thoughts and actions are based on this unspoken presumption and feeling of “I.” But when we look, we can’t find anything that corresponds exactly with this feeling. “Self” is a figment of our imagination, a concept that isn’t consistent with any ultimate reality.
Buddhism seems paradoxical because it denies the existence of a self, yet rebirth is a central theme of its teachings. Buddhists aren’t nihilistic: we don’t say, “We are nothing and all of this is nothingness.” Obviously we’re not in some kind of vacuum: we sense this body and the world around it. What enables that? Our mind! There is truly no means of knowing the world independently from the mind that knows it. If it weren’t for mind, we wouldn’t know or sense anything.
Reincarnation really makes sense when we recognize the preponderant role that mind plays in how we see life and everything we experience. What we think and do determines what we become.
Are you saying that it’s mind that’s reborn? As long as we cling to an “I,” we will continue to perceive conditioned existence and take rebirth within it, but that doesn’t mean that there is a truly existing thing called mind taking rebirth in a truly existing world. Buddhists maintain that neither the mind nor the world ultimately exists; our experience is described as being illusory or dreamlike. We tend to think that what we perceive is an accurate image of what’s out there, but the Buddhist view is that our mind is constantly interpreting our world. Ignorance isn’t passive; it actively misperceives reality and takes it for something it’s not.
One problem we might have with the idea of reincarnation comes from believing the body to be the cause of mind: mind as a by-product of matter. Our brain may support the mind, but it is not the ultimate cause of consciousness. We can actually observe that the natures of mind and matter are diametrically opposed: mind is characterized by awareness or consciousness whereas material objects lack any awareness whatsoever. Mind therefore can not arise from matter. Mind is a flux or series of instances of consciousness in which each instance of consciousness is enabled by the preceding instance of consciousness that just vanished.
And this begins where? The cycle of conditioned existences, or samsara, is said to be without beginning. If you look at causality, this human body of ours is a consequence of a number of conditions and causes. Each cause has a cause which has a cause: you can go on infinitely and never find a real beginning. Phenomena always arise based on causes and conditions; otherwise things would appear out of nothing.
What about the mechanics of the whole thing? Why am I a donkey in one life and the talented daughter of a rich tycoon in the next? We could consider that this present body is the materialization of our past actions and habits. What we do today or in this life conditions what we will become in the short and long terms. You could think of the mind as a field: whatever you do and think—all of the actions that will lead to happiness or suffering—are like seeds or imprints that you plant in it. When conditions are ripe, a seed will sprout into an experience like the life of Pamela Gayle White. And during that life you’ll sow new seeds, which may be the seeds of another Pamela-type life or some other type, a Rinpoche or a Moksha [Rinpoche’s dog]. However, it’s very important to realize that this doesn’t mean that everything is predetermined—certain things are determined, others aren’t. Otherwise enlightenment would be impossible unless it was predestined. We may be influenced by what is determined, yet we always have the possibility to act and behave differently. Our spiritual practice can change the way karma ripens. And ultimately we could be free of all this, because it’s just a dream based on confusion and beliefs.
Isn’t that good news! Can you be a Buddhist without believing in karma? Again, I would say that “good Buddhists” shouldn’t just believe; they should try to know. The Buddha advocated genuine knowledge and not belief, saying that we should examine his words and accept them not just through respect toward him, but because we find them to be true. We often erroneously see karma as some kind of force, independent of ourselves, which forms our destiny. The word karma simply means action. Actions have consequences.
Could we imagine karma without reincarnation? We can have a sense of karma as causality with regard to the results of our actions within this lifetime; we clearly see that wholesome habits developed through our present intentions and actions lead to happiness, whereas unwholesome habits lead to unhappiness. But the traditional Buddhist view is that there is life after death and that there was a life before our present birth. However, if it were conclusively proven that rebirth is impossible, then Buddhists would certainly have to accept that.
In basic terms, what happens when you die? When you pass away, the switch of your body, the support that your mind was attached to, is turned off. If you’re a practitioner, at the moment of death you can settle in mind’s natural state and advance toward enlightenment.
What usually happens is that the habitual patterns acquired through our actions and thoughts create tendencies that push the mind to attach itself to an embryo consistent with those tendencies. It’s a complex process that’s explained in texts like the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
So we die, the mind goes into a bodiless state, and its tendency is to want to experience itself materially?The confused, dualistic mind, which doesn’t know its true nature and clings to an “I,” assumes there’s an external world that it has to be part of somehow. But fundamentally, mind and matter are both simply
What time frame are we looking at between two physical bodies? In general, conception for the next existence is said to take place within seven weeks. But in fact there is no definitive rule about the time frame for this process: it can take place right after death or hundreds of years later.
What happens during that intermediate period, the bardo [in Tibetan Buddhism, the period between death and rebirth]? Do we say hello to each other? Are we sharing dreams? It may be interesting to look at the bardo through a perspective of practice, but to say, “Okay, I’ll die and I’ll be in this state, and then I will experience this, and then I will feel that” is not necessarily helpful.
Yes, but we’re talking about reincarnation! We’re curious about what Buddhism has to say about it. Like, what happens when two people are having sex and a bunch of bardo beings are attracted to that moment? Who wins? Who gets to incarnate? (Laughs.) Those are all interesting questions, but I don’t have answers. It could be my lack of knowledge. Maybe one of them has a stronger karmic relation to those parents in particular; the necessary circumstances are present, and so on.
Every time we make love, are there bardo beings hovering above us? (Laughs) I guess there are probably bardo beings everywhere!
So once we get a new dream or existence going, why is it that some people remember their past and others don’t? It seems there is amnesia between one life and another in most cases. The whole process of taking rebirth is such an important attachment, such a strong identification to a new life, that the past life is forgotten. There have been some interesting, but controversial, studies about rebirth and memories of past lives. Maybe the reason certain people remember is a strong attachment to the former life, and this might be due to the circumstances in which they died. Some other people who are more aware of the process of life and death—like very advanced meditators—might also have past life memories due to their spiritual progress.
Let’s talk about tulkus. The Tibetan word tulku originally designated the physical manifestation of a Buddha, translating the Sanskrit nirmanakaya. Later it came to be used to refer to the rebirths or manifestations of important Buddhist masters as well. In Tibet and areas under its cultural influence, the recognition of tulkus became associated with the transmission of spiritual and material patrimony. This system began in the 13th century with the recognition of the 3rd Karmapa and was eventually adopted by all Tibetan Buddhist orders.
Now that it’s become an institution in Tibetan Buddhism, how does the recognition process take place?Generally, tulkus are officially recognized by the main spiritual authority of their lineage as being a new manifestation of their late teachers, [or by] very close disciples or dharma brothers.
Rarely dharma sisters. Rarely sisters, but not never.
When we see the movies, we see young children choosing the bells, statues, and other belongings of their predecessors. Tulkus are often subjected to a numbers of tests to make sure there is no error, particularly when a candidate is contested. Children who claim to be the rebirth of a great master may be asked to prove it by recognizing his objects or recalling names of past disciples, and so on. Sometimes several authorities each recognize their own candidate, which can lead to disputes. In the 17th century, disagreement over the reincarnation of the great master Pema Karpo of the Drugpa Kagyu order eventually led to the birth of the Kingdom of Bhutan.
What about masters who leave behind letters indicating where they will take rebirth? It can happen. For example, the Karmapas have often left clear prophetic instructions indicating who their future parents would be and when and where they would be born.
Actually, I’ve been told that before my direct predecessor passed away, he wrote a poem indicating that he would take rebirth in the West. So I guess that’s how I got my U.S. citizenship without having to apply for a green card. (Laughs.)
There’s a lot of criticism in the modern world regarding inherited positions of hierarchy and privilege in general. How would you look at the tulku system from that point of view? Well, if you look at the tulkus of the Dalai Lama, for instance, they have inherited the “Throne of Tibet” since the 17th century. Through the clairvoyance of masters known for their spiritual powers, a child from any social class could be chosen for his aptitudes and then trained from a very young age specifically for that function. Many still argue that it’s the best possible system— that of the “philosopher king” described by Plato—but personally I find it obsolete. I believe in what we call the separation of church and state; I don’t think the temporal and the spiritual should be mixed, for they are opposed in nature.
Of course, most tulkus don’t inherit such powerful positions. Generally, a tulku’s primary obligation is to fulfill a function within an establishment or a lineage of transmission, most often the function his predecessor carried out. But he has to prove himself able through his spiritual qualities, integrity, knowledge, capacity to keep his vows of triple ordination, and so on. In that sense I see the tulku system as more of a meritocracy. Regrettably, however, people often give too much credit to young tulkus who have yet to prove themselves and earn peoples’ confidence.
How were you recognized? I was recognized by the 16th Karmapa and the former Kalu Rinpoche. My predecessor, Karma Trinlay Khakhyab, was a young tulku who passed away in his teens. His predecessor, a disciple of the 15th Karmapa, was a highly accomplished practitioner who oversaw a monastery in Western Tibet. Today I have no memory of my past life and only rare memories even of my childhood. Apparently when I was very young I told a number of lamas who I was and who they were; subsequently I was recognized as Karma Trinlay Khakhyab’s tulku.
I’ve always felt a very strong attraction toward Buddhism and a certain familiarity with its practices, which I explain as a continuity from past lives. And ever since I can remember, kindness and compassion have been the qualities that I cherish the most.
You had a natural inclination for spirituality. Would you say that for children who are, say, musicalWunderkinder, it’s the same? Of course. People aren’t blank pages when they’re born. Some people have natural talents, and we all have a genetic potential which isn’t necessarily explained by past lives. But if you accept the role that the mind plays, the thoughts and actions coming from a mindstream’s immediate past could be the reason why those potentials arise and bloom in an individual’s experience.
What about bodhisattvas? As bodhisattvas develop compassion and wisdom, their motivation, practice, and the results of their practice all focus on accomplishing the benefit of others. They deliberately choose to take rebirth again and again for the sake of others. That’s a defining characteristic of the Mahayana path.
Some Western tulkus have criticized their education process and decided to lead ordinary lives. Well, life isn’t always happy and beautiful; other people and situations aren’t always perfect, and we all wish things were different sometimes. But thanks to the karma and wishes of my predecessors, I’ve had the privilege to study with great teachers. I’m extremely grateful to my teachers for everything I’ve learned from them, and I try my best to live up to the high standards of altruism and wisdom they’ve inspired in me.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.