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.

The third question you ask is: Is he a well-trained Buddhist teacher? Meaning, where did he study? Westerners should know that they can inquire about these things. They might learn that yes, this person studied Buddhism quite well, and he is recognized by the authorities. Then you want to find out whether he is skilled only in philosophy or whether he is also a good meditator. Many non-Tibetan students want to learn meditation. So they have to find out if a teacher is accomplished in meditation.

How is the Tibetan tulku system separate from the political system? For example, at the end of the 18th century, the political leaders in Tibet banned the Shamarpa lineage. It wasn’t recognized again until the 1960s.
This is a problem. The tulku system has been sometimes used for purely spiritual means, but sometimes for politics too, and that’s not good. When you become a monk, you should renounce worldly life. So you should not get into politics. Ideally, the tulku system should be completely free of politics.

But sometimes an incarnate lama will stand to inherit monasteries, wealth, and power from his predecessor. How could that be separate from politics?
This is also a problem. The tulku is a kind of symbolic king, and so people use him for their own prestige. This can lead to competition, fighting.

Are you suggesting that there should be a change in how tulkus are recognized? There’s no harm in recognizing tulkus. A tulku is a being who has committed to coming back to this world again—someone who vows to return to carry on the Buddha’s teachings. If he comes back and becomes a politician or a general, this is different from a spiritual leader or a spiritual teacher.

So if somebody’s recognized as a tulku and they grow up and engage in a worldly life, then they should not be considered a Tibetan Buddhist teacher? Right, these people should not be considered religious teachers. A Buddhist reincarnation can be a monkey too, you know. There can be fish tulkus, dog tulkus. Then they’re not good teachers, are they? But if a tulku reincarnates as a human and becomes well-educated and a spiritual teacher, then we should treat him as a real teacher. If he’s human but doesn’t develop these other qualities, then we should just treat him as a respectable monk, or whatever. [Laughs.]

A tulku can be an absolutely ordinary person? The system does, in fact, produce teachers who are extraordinary. Yet you are suggesting that a tulku could grow up and just decide to be a lawyer or a doctor. I think tulkus should have their own choice. That’s why when I recognized a tulku in Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago, I said to his parents, “You should send him to a normal American school. And when he comes to age 18 or 19, then he will decide by himself.”

This sounds simple, but the tulku system is part of a very complex history, and we often see unresolved issues, such as the current debate over which Karmapa is the true one. Do Western students need to get involved in all of this?
No, because Western people who really want to study Buddhism should not follow celebrities. Of course, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a great master. And of course people can receive his teachings. That’s no problem. But if somebody wants to be a good student, they might look for a learned teacher, and among the learned lamas, one that has renounced. “Renounced” means he’s an accomplished meditator and is low-key, with a low profile. Learned teachers who have meditation experience and are not so involved in ceremonial issues or politics are the safest guides.

Tricycle contributing editor Alexandra Kaloyanides is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University.

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