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.
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