Artwork by Noh Sang-Kyoon
Artwork by Noh Sang-Kyoon

When the young Lhamo Thondup in Martin Scorcese’s Kundun correctly selects the eyeglasses, walking stick, and ritual bell that belonged to his predecessor, the monastic search party is certain that he is the true incarnation (or tulku) of the 13th Dalai Lama. It looks convincing, even scientific, in spite of the romantic glow of magic pervading the scene. In reality, the Tibetan Buddhist tulku system is much more complex. Intricately tied to politics and the inheritance of wealth and power, this process of recognizing and instating reincarnated teachers has often led to controversy and intrigue.

In 2008, when Ogyen Trinley Dorje, one of the two young leaders recognized as the 17th Karmapa (whose role is to head Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kagyu school) visited the U.S. for the first time, many Tricycle readers asked about the claim to the same throne by Trinley Thaye Dorje, the other recognized incarnation of the Karmapa. While the Dalai Lama has shown his support for Ogyen Trinley Dorje, Shamar Rinpoche—the leading figure in the Karma Kagyu school who is traditionally most associated with recognizing Karmapas—has recognized Trinley Thaye Dorje. (Shamar Rinpoche, known as the Shamarpa, is so closely associated with the Karmapa that he wears a red replica of the Karmapa’s black hat.) During a visit to New York in 2009, Shamar Rinpoche talked to Tricycle about how non-Tibetans might better understand the tulku system. From tips for steering clear of charlatans to questions to ask when searching for a teacher, Shamar Rinpoche offers practical advice to Westerners looking to learn more from Tibetan Buddhism without getting caught up in politics. —Alexandra Kaloyanides

In giving advice to Westerners interested in Tibetan Buddhism, you often warn them against becoming “package believers.” What do you mean by this? A package believer is a Westerner, or a Japanese or a Chinese, or some non- Tibetan who says, “I read a book on Milarepa, and, oh, did it inspire me!” Or, “I read a book by the Dalai Lama, so I want to study Tibetan Buddhism. I believe in all of it.” Once a package believer decides to follow Tibetan Buddhism, they treat everything they read in the book as the truth. But you know books. There are many, many good ones and some not-so-good ones mixed together. Even the not-so-good ones can have nice covers.

Say I’m new to Tibetan Buddhism and I read a book, and it says something about reincarnation and tulkus. How can I avoid being a package believer and look at the tulku system in a critical way? Just because someone is called a tulku doesn’t mean he’s perfect. There are tulkus in many places nowadays who are charlatans. In America there are many Tibetan charlatans. You know, these charlatans can even get newspapers and other publishers to print pictures of the tulku with the face of the previous guru. They mix it together in the computer, don’t they?

PhotoShop? Yes, there can be faking. Even in Tibet nowadays. It’s changed a lot there, with so many mixups after the Communist takeover. I heard that one lama tied a statue to his chest with a rope. He kept it tied there for a few days, making an impression in his skin. So he goes to China claiming that this image appeared naturally.

How can we tell the fake tulkus from the real?
First you should study the tulku’s background. Just my suggestion, okay? For instance, you’ve heard that I’m the Shamarpa. So now you have to investigate: Does the lineage of the Shamarpa exist in Tibetan history? Then you ask: Is he recognized by a Tibetan Buddhist school with the proper authority? A self-made Shamarpa can be out there. There was a Chinese cult leader in America in the mid-80s who wore a red hat and claimed to be the Shamarpa. So you need to know if an official school recognizes the tulku.

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