Tulku, what future for the age

by Francesco Pullia

Some time ago, responding to those who questioned him about his next reincarnation, the Dalai Lama affirmed, half-jokingly, that after his death he could return to this world in the guise of a beautiful girl and to the West. At first, his speech can be taken as a provocation, especially if one considers the propensity of the Tibetan spiritual guide for easy jokes, for joking, for frank and contagious laughter. In reality, behind this statement lies the intention of escaping the interference, even in the religious sphere, of the People’s Republic of China. As we know, in fact, in 1950 Tibet was invaded by troops sent from Beijing, becoming, over the years, the scene of violence and violations of all kinds, in other words of a real cultural (and not only) genocide. The Dalai Lama himself was forced in 1959, with a daring and dramatic escape among the snowy Himalayan altitudes, to follow the path of exile in an attempt to recreate in the Indian town of Dharamsala a state form in some way attributable to that of Tibet before the ‘occupation. What the Chinese rulers set themselves is the annihilation of the millennial legacy of the Snow Country. It is no coincidence that, due to the colonialist policy adopted by China, the Tibetans are now reduced to being in their own land a minority of about seven million compared to an ethnic Chinese majority han, composed mainly of soldiers and traders. Tibetans cannot speak or study their own language, fly their own flag, have the image of the Dalai Lama, in short be themselves. Although after the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, attention to the fate of the Roof of the World increased in world public opinion, the People’s Republic of China, strong in its predominant position in the economy, continues to manage the Tibetan question so dismissively, arrogantly, as an internal affair. In seven years, starting from February 2009, 151 Tibetans, mostly young, have chosen to resort to the most dramatic form of protest in the history of humanity, sacrificing themselves with fire. Beijing does not intend to give up and controls every aspect of their lives, even meddling in religious matters. Worth noting, among all, is the case of the new Panchen Lama. Recognized as the eleventh reincarnation directly by the Dalai Lama in 1995, he was kidnapped at the age of six, made to disappear with all his family and replaced with a man of the same age, coincidentally the son of communist officials, suitably indoctrinated. The Chinese state agency had the effrontery to announce that Gaincain Norbu, the name of the young man imposed by Beijing, has been appointed a member of the National Committee of the People’s Political Assembly (CPPCC), the country’s largest consultative body. That’s why the Dalai Lama’s is not a boutade at all. His successor, as he keeps repeating, will be reborn in the West, preferably in Italy or Germany and will be a very attractive woman because, according to him, women have an edge over men, a greater potential «of love and compassion». But how does one reincarnate and how and when did this fascinating custom become grafted onto the Tibetan tradition? A valuable contribution is given to us in this regard by the volume Tulku, the mystical incarnations of Tibet recently published by Grafiche Leone (Dolo, Venice) with texts by Piero Verni, an inveterate traveller, one of the world’s leading experts on the life and history of Tibetans as well as the official biographer of the Dalai Lama (remember his The smile and the wisdom. Dalai Lama, authorized biographypublished by Nalanda in 2021 with a preface by the same Buddhist authority Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1989), and beautiful photographs by Giampietro Mattolin.

The book, as the authors themselves state, was born from the impression that «although it has been talked about in the media for decades, there is still no effective clarity among the general public on this peculiar element of the Buddhist culture of Tibet». To be able to fully understand the reality of the tulku (bodies of emanation) it is necessary, however, first of all to accept the conception of saṃsārathat is, of the continuous succession of birth, life, death, rebirth to which we are subjected due to the karma accrued (law of cause and effect which causes each of our actions to be the product of past actions and a prelude to future actions). THE tulku they are realised, masters who voluntarily renounce their total liberation to come back among us and help us free ourselves from pain through the example and teaching of right knowledge. From a historical point of view, their tradition begins in Tibet in the 12th century when, shortly before leaving his body, the first Karmapa, Dusum Kyenpa (1110 – 1193), gave one of his direct disciples detailed instructions about his imminent coming, predicting , with extreme clarity, date, place, name of the parents. From then on, other masters did the same thing. It is said that prodigious events occur in conjunction with these rebirths, such as rainbows in clear skies, thunder in the absence of storms, showers of flowers, diffusion of scents in the air, bewitching sounds. For a child to actually be recognized as tulku however, it is necessary that he pass several complex tests. The case of the current Dalai Lama is, in this sense, extremely significant. As soon as the XIII Dalai Lama, at that time the political and religious leader of Tibet, left his material body in 1935, the search for his next incarnation began. The Regent, according to the provisions of the Tibetan tradition, went to the sacred lake of Lhamo Lhatso to see images and indications of a certain usefulness on its surface. He saw three letters of the Tibetan alphabet, Ah, Ka and Ma, accompanied by a monastery with a green and gold jade roof and a house with turquoise tiles. As a result of that vision, lamas and dignitaries were dispatched to all regions of the plateau in 1937. One party, under the guise of a merchant caravan, ventured into the Amdo region where they found a place which seemed to fit the description. The wayfarers immediately ran towards a child who recognized, as his own, a rosary that belonged to the XIII Dalai Lama. The recognition of other objects, together with careful examinations, gave the certainty of being in front of the reincarnation sought. This explained the three letters glimpsed in the Lhamo Lhatso: Ah stood for Amdo, the name of the province; Ka for Kumbum, one of the largest monasteries in the vicinity and Ma for Karma Rolpai Dorje Monastery, the green-and-gold-roofed monastery on the mountain above the village. On 22 February 1940, little Lhamo Dhondrub (this was his original name) was officially invested in Lhasa with the title of Dalai Lama and renamed with the names of Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Ocean of Wisdom). His education, scrupulously followed by a tutor, began when he was six years old. In 1950, following the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese military, full powers were attributed to him in a hurry. He was just fifteen years old. We know the rest.

THE tulku are subject to the limits of the condition they have re-assumed. However, on a more subtle level they possess traces of previously developed wisdom, so much so that they show more vivid memories of their previous life in early life. Sometimes it can happen that the emanations are not all concentrated in the same subject but manifest themselves in the separate forms of body, speech and mind. In this regard, see the film Little Buddhashot in 1993 by Bernardo Bertolucci, in which three children are respectively recognized as reincarnations of the body, speech and mind of an important Bhutan lama.

Then there are masters who, by virtue of special powers, manage to transfer their “stream of consciousness” while they are still alive (ma-dhey). It happens very rarely. Furthermore, there are cases of masters who do not want to reveal themselves, preferring to act anonymously in the world, or of others who are not officially recognized. Finally, there are reincarnates who seem to elude expectations. This is the case of the VI Dalai Lama (1683 – 1706), who went down in history because he preferred women, hunting and above all writing songs and love poems to religious practices, or, to come to the present day, of the Spanish Osel Hita Torres, now thirty-one and aspiring director, recognized as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935 – 1984), who after spending his childhood and adolescence in a Nepalese monastery decided to do without the monk’s clothes to return to Spain (he now calls himself Oz and professes to be an agnostic) or, again, by Gomo Tulku, a Canadian consecrated rebirth of Gomo Rimpoche (1921 – 1985) who preferred rap and hip hop music to tantric studies.

Verni dedicates a chapter of the book to some reincarnated Westerners among which the figure of Paljin Rinpoche stands out, the first Italian to be formally recognized as the reincarnation of an important master of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in 1941 in Addis Ababa to Piedmontese parents, Paljin Rinpoche, before discovering himself, in the years of his maturity, the reincarnation of Je Paljin, who lived in the early seventeenth century and was revered for his spiritual achievements, was called Arnaldo Graglia was a manager and has worked for the main international car manufacturers in the role of marketing director of Seat Italia. Now he has given birth to the Samten Ling Mandala Center. “It is not so much individuals who reincarnate“, points out, “but their qualities that, through the mental continuumenter the new existential dimension».

Verni, with great refinement, traces the story of the reincarnated up to the moment of his official recognition. Paljin Rinpoche can also be found in a documentary, also made by Verni on a USB computer support that can be requested from the site www.heritageoftibet.comfeaturing interviews with the Dalai Lama and testimonials from Chetsang Rinpoche, Kandro Rinpoche and Kirti Rinpoche.

What will be the future of tulku in a Tibet subjected to Chinese domination and, more generally, in an increasingly convulsive world dedicated to distorting and commodifying everything, even the undeniable need for spirituality? We don’t know, we can’t know. Certainly, the tradition, if it continues, will be destined for significant changes. And, after all, the possibility that one day, who knows, the next Dalai Lama might look like an attractive girl is not at all farfetched…

Tulku, what future for the age-old Tibetan tradition?