Directing Rebirth: The Tibetan Tulku System

This evening I was asked to speak about how to direct our rebirths. This is not in the sense of being able to direct it so that we can be reborn in a nice comfortable villa by the sea and be wealthy and have lots of servants, but rather it’s in the context of the system that we find in Tibetan Buddhism of reincarnate lamas. These are called tulkus (sprul-sku) in Tibetan; and they’re known by the title Rinpoche (rin-po-che). Not all rinpoches, however, are reincarnated lamas who have directed their rebirth, because abbots of monasteries also get the title Rinpoche.

Historical Background

It’s quite interesting that we find this system of lamas (bla-ma, great teacher) who are able to direct their rebirths not only in Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan form of Buddhism, but we also find it in Bon as well, which is the native religion of Tibet. And much to my amazement, I found when I was traveling in Kazakhstan – which is one of the Central Asian republics not too far from Tibet – that they have a similar system of reincarnate teachers with Sufis, a form of Islam.

This system of directing one’s rebirths is something that is very much connected with Buddhist practice, specifically with the practice of tantra. It’s found not only in Tibet itself, but in all the regions that have Tibetan Buddhism. We find it in all the Himalayan regions and all the areas where the Mongols live. It’s through the Mongols, actually, that the Sufis adopted it in Kazakhstan. And when we find it in the Bon system, their way of practicing is very similar to the Buddhists. So we’re talking about a large cultural area, and within that, this system of reincarnate lamas developed. These reincarnate lamas are usually considered the greatest teachers within this area and usually they will have a monastery that is under their control. They’re the head lama; they are the main teacher of the monastery.

Gaining Control over Rebirth

There are many, many things that we can discuss about these reincarnate lamas, but let’s begin with how you do it. In Buddhism, we always speak about how everybody continues to take rebirth, and that this is something that normally we have no control over. We take rebirth in accordance with the type of mind and states of mind that we’ve had during our life and particularly at the time of death and also specifically by the force of the types of actions, the types of behavior that we’ve engaged in. So it’s a bit compulsive in the sense that we’re just drawn to certain situations of rebirth based on our previous types of habits, our previous types of patterns of behavior. But if we really want to be able to help others, which is our aim in Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, then we don’t want to be drawn into situations just by our habits. We want to be able to go in the future into situations where we can be of best help to others.

You know how sometimes somebody can have very good intentions, but the football game is on the television, and because they have such a strong attachment to football, even though they have this strong desire to help do something in the house or help the children with their schoolwork, they’re just compulsively drawn to that television? So likewise we may have a strong desire to help others in future lives, but if we have very strong attachment and very strong habits, then like the magnetic attraction of this person to the football game on the television, we’re drawn compulsively into all sorts of rebirth situations that might not be so conducive to helping.

So we could be drawn like that compulsively into a very pleasant type of rebirth situation or into one that’s not so pleasant at all. It depends on what we’re habituated to. It’s like when we’re drunk. When we’re drunk, then we’re really not in control, and we can either get drawn into a very jolly time, singing with our friends, or we can be drawn into a fight. It really depends on our habits. Likewise, when we die, we also become very much out of control – it’s much more difficult than being drunk – and if we haven’t done anything to prepare ourselves at that time, again, based on our habits, we could be drawn into a more pleasant situation or a worse situation in our future lives.

So if we want to really be able to help others, we need to somehow gain control over this process of death and rebirth so that we can continue in the future to be in situations that are most conducive for being able to help others. However, it’s not necessary to be Buddha, a completely enlightened being, in order to be able to do this, in order to be able to have some sort of control over our rebirth state. There are many stages at which we can be in our spiritual development that would allow us to direct our rebirths. So let’s look a little bit at the theory of how it’s done, because it’s quite interesting, and also it gives us some sort of encouragement that we could perhaps do that as well.

The Bodies of a Buddha

As a Buddha, which is what we’re aiming to be, we have what’s called various types of body (sku, Skt. kaya, corpus). In terms of our minds, they become a body of knowledge or a body of wisdom. And we also would have physical types of bodies with which we help others. The example that’s often used for this is that of the sun or the moon. So, for instance, we have a sun or a moon which can appear in the sky. There’s the basic light, warmth, and so on of the sun, and it has an appearance. There’s light, there’s warmth, there’s energy, all of which is part of the sun, and it has the appearance of the sun. That appearance of the sun or the moon in the sky would be like a primary appearance, and then we would also see the appearance of the sun or the moon reflected in various bodies of water on the ground.

So when we look at the physical appearances of a Buddha, we have a primary appearance, which is known with the Sanskrit word Sambhogakaya (longs-spyod rdzogs-pa’i sku, longs-sku, corpus of full use), which is a physical body that literally can make full use of all the teachings. But this is a very subtle appearance that a Buddha has, and it’s very difficult for most people to see. You have to be on a very high level of attainment to actually see it. But the emanations of that, like the example of the reflections of the moon or the sun in bodies of water, are things that people would be more easily able to see. And those emanations or reflections of this primary body, this more subtle body of a Buddha, are called in Sanskrit Nirmanakaya (sprul-sku, corpus of emanations), which is the same word as the word for incarnate lamas, tulku. So these reincarnate lamas, then, are some sort of manifestation or emanation. Now, they’re not all Buddhas. In fact very, very few of them are Buddhas.

Actually there are many types of practices that we can do which will enable us to achieve these types of bodies of a Buddha. For instance, just so that we can relate a little bit to this – the analogy isn’t exactly accurate – it might be difficult to actually see someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama in person, but many people could see him reflected on the television. So that’s this idea that there’s a certain type of appearance, like on a television or in somebody’s memory or so on, that’s more accessible than the primary appearance. So what we want to do is to be able to generate ourselves in such a way that we can be of help to others in a very primary type of form but also in a more widespread type of form. Like you can help by teaching a few people, but if you write a book that millions of people read, you can appear and give help to many, many, many more people on a grosser level.

Achieving the Bodies of a Buddha through Anuttarayoga Tantra Practice

So we want to be able to practice in such a way that we will achieve that state of a Buddha where we have this mind that is aware of all things, knows how to help everyone, and sees reality, and then we want to be able to appear in very direct ways and then in more widespread ways. The technique that is used to achieve this is a technique in the highest class of tantra practice, which is the most sophisticated and demanding type of practice. What we look at is how there is a basic structure that happens ordinarily in life that is parallel to these different bodies of a Buddha:

  • This parallel is most evident with death. When we die, we get down to a very, very subtle state like a mind of a Buddha.
  • And then we have a period of time in between births, which is known as the bardo (bar-do) in Tibetan, and in that bardo period we have a subtle appearance.
  • And then when we are born, starting with the moment of conception, we have a grosser appearance.

This is also parallel to the process of going to sleep:

  • When we go to sleep, there’s a transformation – the mind gets very subtle.
  • Then when we dream, we have a very refined, special type of appearance in the dreams.
  • And then when we wake up, we have a grosser appearance, which comes from that subtle appearance.

So what we try to do in the tantra practice is to practice developing these different bodies of a Buddha that can appear in different ways by doing a practice that is similar to the process of death, in-between state, and rebirth.

We have two stages of this practice. On the highest of those two stages, called the complete stage (rdzogs-rim), what we’re doing is working with the subtle energy system of the body. What we want to do with that subtle energy system is to concentrate it to a very, very fine point and then emanate it into one type of form and then to a grosser type of form. And that grosser level of it is also referred to by this same word, tulku – the word for the incarnate lamas. And on the beginning stage of this tantra practice, which is called the generation stage (bskyed-rim), we do this whole process in our imagination. So we imagine that our energy gets more and more subtle and concentrated and then takes on a more subtle appearance and then a gross appearance. And that gross appearance is also called tulku, the same word.

If we’re able to do this type of practice and if we’re going to do it properly, it’s not just a matter of manipulating the energies; we have to combine it, as with all Buddhist practices, with compassion and wisdom. So we need to have a certain motivation of compassion: we wish to help others by gaining mastery over this whole process. And also we want to use that opportunity of the mind getting very, very subtle to have the clearest understanding of reality. If we want to become a Buddha by this process of tantra, then we use that basic structure which is similar to the process of death and rebirth as a means for achieving that Buddhahood.

So we strongly want to help others. To help others, what we need to do is overcome our own confusion and the compulsiveness of our lives, right? If I’m so under control of the television and football, I can’t help others. So we have to have a very strong wish to help others, and we have to have a certain deep level of wisdom to see “Well, this is only a game, and it’s not the most important thing in the world. It’s not that my whole identity is going to be reaffirmed by my team winning and that my whole sense of value as a human being depends of whether or not this team wins.” So how do I want to overcome this, this compulsiveness of being drawn to the TV? Well, I have to somehow collect my mind and get it very focused. My mind is going all over the place; it’s out in the football field. So we want to get down to a very, very subtle type of mind that’s withdrawn from all these almost like magnets that draw us. That’s similar to what happens when you die or what happens when you fall asleep; you withdraw from the compulsive involvement in the wild things that are happening around you. Then when you’re very focused and very composed on this very subtle level, you can in a sense generate your energy in a certain way: “Okay, I’m now going to help my child.” So the energy sort of takes on a shape. The energy of the mind takes on a certain shape within us. And then because of that shape of the energy, the way it’s formulated within us, we get up and we actually do on a grosser level what we had in mind to do – help the child.

So we have a parallel structure here of doing this in our imagination, doing this with the energy system (but we can’t really sustain it very well), and then doing it totally as a Buddha. In all these examples, then, either doing it in the imagination or with the energy system or as a Buddha, the gross appearance level is called a tulku. That’s, as I said, the word for an incarnate lama. So when we talk about these incarnate lamas, these tulkus, this is somebody who has been able to generate this type of emanation on any of these three levels. It could either be that they were able to do it with the imagination, or with the energy system, or they’re actually a Buddha. And while they were alive, they would do this in meditation practice and working with the sleep and dream states, where you have a similar type of situation of getting fine and then getting grosser and grosser. While you’re alive, you do it in relation to meditation, meditating similar to the death process, or working with sleep and dreams. And by working with this while one is alive, then when something very similar happens at the time of death, one is able to use that situation with some degree of control.

We’ve been meditating and practicing what it’s like for the mind to get really subtle, using that for seeing reality, and then having the mind take on a certain level of appearance and then a gross appearance. That’s what we’ve been practicing in our meditation. And during our life we’ve used the opportunity of sleep to practice it because the mind naturally gets more refined when we fall asleep, naturally we have a certain subtle appearance when we dream, and naturally a grosser appearance when we awaken. It happens naturally during that process of sleep, dream, and getting awake.

So we go through that process of sleep and so on in a very conscious way, and then we use that situation to help us further our practice of trying to become like a Buddha, to put it very simply, where we have the very subtle mind of the Buddha that has all these different levels of appearance. So then when we die, because of familiarity with this process in meditation and sleep we’re able to do the same type of practice during the process of dying. We can experience death and the in-between state and rebirth in a similar type of way to the way that we were experiencing sleep, dream, and waking up while we were practicing in this life. So this enables us to direct our rebirths in the context of these reincarnate lamas.

There is of course the possibility that somebody could actually be a Buddha. As a Buddha, you can emanate yourself in various appearances and take birth in various ways, so you don’t have to actually do a meditative practice at the time of death because you’re totally in control. But as I said, very, very few people are Buddhas. But if you are practicing on the path of tantra to become a Buddha, then you can’t be totally in control of this whole process, but you can have a large degree of control over the process, and most tulkus are on that level.

Prerequisites for Generating a Line of Tulkus

If we’re not already a Buddha, we basically need three things in order to generate a line of tulkus (i.e. reincarnate lama number one, then the next life, the next life, the next life, etc.). We need first of all very, very strong bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is this motivation with which all our mind and heart and energy is directed at becoming a Buddha in order to be able to help everybody most fully.

Then the second thing that we need is to have very strong prayers or wishes sort of pushing our energy in the direction to be able to continue to appear in the best circumstances to be able to help others. In order for it to happen, you have to want to do it. Prayer here means a directing of our energies in a certain direction, and that direction is to come back in the next lifetime in a form that’s going to be in a situation, a family, and so on, where all the opportunities will be the best for being able to help others. Prayer doesn’t mean that we pray to God or to Buddha or to somebody external. It’s simply a directing of our own energies: “May I have the clarity of mind to understand and help somebody.” We’re not asking somebody external to give that to us. We’re making up our mind very strongly to develop it ourselves. It’s not so alien, actually, to our way of thinking. We do that normally. It’s not so foreign. Like, for instance, when we are tired or something like that, but our child needs us, and in a sense we are able to get our energy back up by a very strong wish. We may not formulate that wish very consciously, but we say, “I’ve got to take care of my child.” We get our energy together. It’s a strong intention in a certain direction. That’s literally what a prayer is from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view.

So we need this strong motivation of bodhichitta and prayer. And then the third thing is some sort of skill or level of accomplishment on either the generation stage of the practice of tantra, which means being able to do what we’ve been describing on the level of imagination, or on the complete stage, which means we’re actually able to do it with our energy system. And that’s sufficient to be able to then do this practice at the time of death and have a certain amount of control of one’s rebirth. That’s enough.

So we don’t have to be a Buddha to be able to do this. We don’t even have to have the direct understanding of voidness or reality to be able to do this. I mean, obviously we have to have some understanding but not the direct nonconceptual understanding of voidness. So being able to generate a line of tulkus is not that difficult to do, because there are about a thousand of them in the Tibetan Buddhist family, the most well-known being the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and so on.

When you look at it, probably the most difficult of the prerequisites is really very, very full bodhichitta. That’s probably the most difficult. Really, really everything is directed at enlightenment: “I’ve got to become a Buddha to help everyone. I’ve got to be able to take control over my rebirths.” Because that will allow us to overcome fear at the time of death, which is normally what upsets most people and makes them lose control. We could be very technically skilled in doing these visualizations, or even technically skilled in manipulating our energy system, but without that bodhichitta we can still get frightened at the time of death and lose control. But if our heart is so moved by the difficulties that people face in the world that our mind is totally filled with this idea that “I have to keep calm during the process of death,” then we’re going to be able to do it and help others. Then we won’t have the fear at the time of death which would cause us, even if we had the technical skills, to just get so lost and do nothing. And we make many prayers, which means that over and over again we try to direct our energy in that way: “May I be able to do this. I’ve got to get my energies together to do this.”

Gaining Control over Everyday Situations

We could just look at this lecture as some interesting information about the Tibetan social system of tulkus. But if we want to take it on a different level, we can see that this is a very important point that we can apply to ourselves, because this is giving a very clear indication of how we can overcome fear. The way to overcome the fear is with bodhichitta and very strong prayers.

For instance, there could be a fire in the house, and we’re very frightened of the fire, but our child is caught inside the house. Now, if we have full concern and care for the child, then although the fire is a frightening thing, we won’t be afraid of it; we’ve overcome the fear. So in that situation – it’s like this example of drawing the energy in and then emanating it out – you take a deep breath and collect yourself, then there’s a structuring of the energy to go out, and you run into the fire to rescue the child. So that’s similar to going into death. And we don’t need such a traumatic situation, like a fire, in order to be able to do this in our lives.

There are many situations that are very frightening that we face in our lives, very simple ones that so many people face. You have a newborn baby. The first time you hold it, the first time you take the baby home, you’re completely frightened: “I don’t know what to do. I may drop the thing.” But that doesn’t mean that you don’t overcome that fear. And how do you overcome that fear? It’s with this strong wish to help the baby. Or with any type of difficult situation – at work, in a relationship, or whatever – a lot of fear comes up, and what we’ve been discussing indicates the way to overcome that so that we can emanate ourselves in a manner that is going to be the best for helping in that situation. We shape our energy, and by shaping our energy we shape what we actually do with our physical body. So we’re working on a subtle level and then a grosser level. We are able to shape our energy by first collecting ourselves through having some sort of feeling of reality: “There’s nothing to be frightened of. There’s this child in the house,” and so on. Then you’re able to shape the energy. And to be able to do that at all, we have to have this strong motivation beforehand – love, concern, compassion and so on.

So this is something that we can learn from this system of tulkus. It’s not so foreign to us. There’s a method of how it’s generated.

Relating to Tulkus in the West

We have to differentiate quite clearly between the Buddhist way of relating to a teacher, and in this case a tulku, from the Tibetan cultural system. The traditional Tibetan society was medieval. And medieval doesn’t necessarily mean something that’s negative, but this was the reality. The main principles in medieval society are relationships between people of different levels which are based on loyalty and service on the one side and protection on the other side. These tulkus in Tibet were in charge of a monastery or in charge of a district. Most of them were monks, but not all of them were monks; it was not necessary to be a monk. And although most of them were men, not all of them were men; some were women as well. They were in a position of being like a medieval lord, offering spiritual protection and sometimes material protection also to people of their locality. People would go to them for advice and for help with various problems they might have, and their relationship would be very much a medieval one of being very loyal and very obedient. So that became mixed with the Buddhist teaching of how one relates to one’s teacher as a Buddha.

In the case of Western people relating to Tibetan teachers now, whether they are tulkus or not, it’s very important to follow the Buddhist aspect of this, and there’s no need at all to follow the medieval aspect of it. That’s not saying that the Tibetan medieval way is negative. It functioned very well in their society, but it’s not appropriate in our societies and for our relationship with these tulkus.

There are many, many more things that we can discuss about tulkus within the context of Tibetan society. First of all there can be confusion, as I said. Not all of them are Buddhas – hardly any of them are actually Buddhas – but that’s a completely different discussion from the discussion of seeing one’s own teacher as a Buddha. That’s a completely different discussion, and that’s a topic that we’ll discuss at the weekend, but I’ll just say a few words about that now.

If we want to become more realistic and practical in our Buddhist practice, one of the main things we need to be clear about is the relationship with our teacher. When one is seeing one’s teacher as a Buddha, basically it’s a contract with that teacher where we say that it doesn’t matter really what they’re doing or why they’re doing what they’re doing, but for me they’re a Buddha. That means that I’m going to look at everything the teacher does as if it’s a teaching. That doesn’t mean that now I’m a private in the army – “You’re the general, and I just take orders” – but rather “I’m going to see everything that you do as a way to help me to grow to become a Buddha myself.”

The classic example: In a previous life, Buddha was studying with a teacher who told all the disciples to go out and steal. And everybody said “Yes, sir!” and went out and stole for him, except the Buddha, who just went to his room. And the teacher came to Buddha and said, “Why don’t you go and steal for me? Don’t you want to make me happy?” And Buddha said, “How can stealing make anybody happy?” And the teacher said, “Aha! You’re the only one who understood the lesson.”

So even when the teacher tells us to do something that is completely improper and harmful, regardless of what the motivation of the teacher might be, we see it as a lesson: “They’re teaching me not to do that.” And one would relate to one’s teacher this way whether the teacher is a tulku – who are the most well-known teachers in many cases – or whether the teacher is not a tulku. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same principle, how you relate.

Young Tulkus

Now, just a few words about how tulkus are found. Those who are on very, very high levels can actually predict where they’re going to be reborn and give an indication – like the Karmapas leave a letter. In most cases, one looks for indications either from dreams of very highly realized beings or from some supernatural means, like an oracle who goes into trance and gives some sort of indication of where to find the child. Or there’s a lake in Tibet where certain highly realized beings can go and look in it and receive certain visions. Often the Dalai Lamas are found in that way – they see some vision in the lake – but that just gives an indication of where to look. What’s very important is for the child to give an indication from his or her side of who they are. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says this is the most important factor. Usually people will bring some of the actual possessions of the former lamas plus replicas of them, and then the child identifies the correct objects. This is the most reliable sign of identifying who this reincarnation is, not just relying on some dream or some oracle.

Sometimes we find very dramatic indications, like in the example of my own teacher Serkong Rinpoche, who was one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama. He died in a certain region in India on the border of Tibet and was reborn in that same region. The previous Serkong Rinpoche was the main lama of that area, and everybody had a picture of him in their house. And so when this small child was old enough to be able to talk, he would point to the picture in his parents’ house and say, “That’s me!” And when people from the former household came looking for him and they came to the house, he ran into the arms of his former attendant – he knew one of their names – and from that moment on, he only wanted to go with the former attendant and had no interest in staying with his parents and his family. He was three years old. So this is an example of a very clear, strong indication from the side of the child.

Now, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says the only definite thing you can say about these tulkus is that they are children who are born with a tremendous amount of positive potential from their previous life. However, it requires positive circumstances for those talents and habits to be able to develop in this lifetime. Remember, hardly any of these tulkus from an objective point of view could be said to be enlightened Buddhas, regardless that their disciples would see them as Buddhas. That means that although these tulkus have positive potentials, they haven’t gotten rid of all their negative karma, and if the positive circumstances aren’t there – to educate them properly, and so on – then these positive potentials won’t develop and negative ones will develop.

Sometimes we find that tulkus act in very non-Buddhist, unenlightened types of ways. They might even just completely leave any type of religious life. That’s not to say that they aren’t really tulkus or that they don’t have all these positive potentials. It just means that the circumstance was not conducive for it to develop. We see something similar with Buddhas. There are many examples of Buddhas appearing during dark ages where nobody is receptive to them, and so they only stay for a moment and then they leave. Just to appear for a moment will have a certain positive influence, but to stay any longer is a waste of time, so they leave. A Buddha doesn’t have any negative karma, so negative things don’t arise from these negative circumstances. But we can see that it’s similar – that you need the positive circumstances in order for either a Buddha or a tulku to be able to develop and work to help others. So that means that we have a great deal of responsibility with these young tulkus, especially the ones that are born in the West (and there are many of those now). It’s very important that we provide the positive circumstances of them getting the proper Buddhist education, getting the proper upbringing, and so on, so that their positive qualities can develop.

One has to realize that these young tulkus are children. They’re not gods. The tulku system isn’t like the Hindu system of avatars, and it’s not that here’s a little god or a son of a god. It’s not like that at all. But rather these are children who have a tremendous amount of positive potential, and although they have a continuity of positive potentials from their predecessor in their last life, they’re not the same, identical person with the same personality. I’ve had the privilege of knowing a number of these tulkus in two lifetimes, and one of the things young tulkus hate is when they’re treated as if they’re the predecessor. They want to be treated like themselves. So if we treat them obviously with a great deal of respect but also give them what a child needs in terms of a stable home, a stable situation, a good education, and so on, then their positive qualities can develop and we can all benefit a great deal.

Also I should mention that when a tulku turns away from a religious life because of the negative circumstances, that doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the line of tulkus. The positive potential from the rebirth in which the line was started is still there. And so even if there’s sort of a fall in lifetime number two or if they don’t do any meditation practice at the time of death, it doesn’t matter. By the force of that original positive potential and that original gaining control of the system, there will be a certain reincarnation in a certain form that will again have those positive potentials that can be developed.

So when we think in terms of directing our rebirths, there could be a stage, depending on our level of attainment, where we could direct it specifically at this family or this situation. But usually it’s not like that. Usually it’s towards a general conducive situation – it doesn’t matter what the name of the family is. And usually if we’re going to choose a family to be reborn in, that’s where the power of prayer comes, because then you direct your energies very strongly to “May I be reborn as a child in this particular family.” That’s a shaping of the energy, making a very strong connection, so that would be part of the mechanism of how one would direct it to a specific family. But one has to have a great deal of foresight to be able to know that this is really a conducive situation. It’s much safer to make it generic: “May I be reborn in a conducive situation, and it doesn’t matter what family it is.” That’s much safer. Because if you are practicing this and you don’t have the direct perception of voidness, then you still have some attachment, and so that choice of that family would be mixed with attachment, which could cloud your judgment.

That’s an important point when we think in terms of working with compassion and helping others and trying to free our efforts as much as possible from attachment. We can think “May I be able to help others by means of having a large Mercedes-Benz so I can drive them in it.” Well, that may be mixed with a little bit of attachment. So it’s better to have it open – “May I just be able to help them in whatever way is possible” – that way you avoid the danger of attachment by specifying the situation too tightly.


So this is a general introduction to this system of tulkus, these reincarnate lamas. And as I say, we shouldn’t just look at this as an interesting lesson in sociology about some foreign culture. It gives us a lot to think about in terms of our own lives, deaths, and rebirths. We’re all going to be reborn, so rather than being drawn to things compulsively – like being drawn to the football game on the television – it would be much more beneficial to have some control over the process. And we don’t have to be discouraged and think, “Well, I have to become a Buddha before I’m able to do this.” It’s something that we can achieve in a much earlier state. It’s not easy of course, but it’s not so far distant that it’s unattainable. And it doesn’t matter if anybody looks for us or not or if anybody recognizes us or not. That’s irrelevant. But if we have this very strong wish to always be able to help others and to always be able to be in situations where we can help others, then we will be able to face our death and experience our death without fear, because we have a very strong aim in mind of what we want to do during this process of dying and after. And as I said, that can help us face situations that are fearful in our lives as well, not just death. So it all comes back to bodhichitta, this full intention to develop ourselves to the fullest state possible so we can really be of help to others.


Can a tulku have several forms at the same time?

Yes, it is possible for tulkus to reincarnate in several forms simultaneously, but that’s a very high level. It depends on the level.

What happens when twins are born? Do they share the same mind?

The minds or, more specifically, the mental continuums of twins are not the same. If one twin eats, it doesn’t fill the stomach of the other – it doesn’t satisfy the hunger of the other. They have separate mental continuums.

How long is the bardo period?

We read in the texts that normally the time between incarnations is a period of bardo that could be seven days or fourteen days, etc., up to forty-nine days. But it doesn’t have to be exactly units of seven; it could be any time during those forty-nine days. There’s the case of Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher. He was reborn nine months exactly from the day that he died, so there was no bardo, or bardo for just a couple of minutes. But it was exactly nine months to the day. He didn’t want to hang out in the bardo. No rest. That indicates a very strong determination. There are others where it’s much longer than forty-nine days. It could be several years. With the line of Karmapas – I forget which number – there was a period where there was a few years between incarnations. That also happens. In that case, they would explain that “Well, they went off and took birth in some Buddha-field or some other place where it was beneficial.” There are some examples of the reincarnation taking place in less than nine months. That’s more difficult to understand.

But is it possible for the bardo period to last longer than forty-nine days?

Everybody would appear in some sort of form after forty-nine days. Now, if you’re a total Buddha then this whole system of bardo and so on is not necessary. They can appear whenever they want to. But if we’re talking about before Buddhahood, then the maximum would be forty-nine days, and then you have to appear as something somewhere (not necessarily in this world).

Is the Dalai Lama a Buddha or a tulku?

The Dalai Lama is a tulku. But as I said, a tulku could be any stage. So as a Buddha, it also could be a tulku. Now the question is: Is the Dalai Lama a Buddha? As my teacher, he is a Buddha. But objectively is he a Buddha? Well, only a Buddha would be able to recognize another Buddha. So it’s very difficult for anybody on our ordinary stage to be able to say definitively, “This person is a Buddha.” That means it doesn’t matter. I mean, we wouldn’t be able to recognize it, in any case. But certainly His Holiness is one of the most highly developed beings that I’ve ever met, so that’s enough.

It’s a very interesting question. Whether it’s directed to the Dalai Lama or to the Karmapa or whoever, it’s an interesting question. Are they really a Buddha? As Western people, we tend to want to make things very concrete. So, for instance, we might look at a Tibetan text, a Buddhist text, and say, “Well, what does it mean?” A Tibetan teacher will say, “Well, from this point of view it means this. And if you interpret it from that commentary, it means that. And on this level, it means that,” and they’ll give you the whole menu of possibilities of what it could mean. And then as a Western person we say, “What does it really mean?” I think it comes from the whole Western religious training that there’s one God, one truth: “This is the way that it is.”

So it’s the same thing when you talk about “Well, is this person actually a Buddha?” That has to be understood within the context of voidness, because everything is dependent on context: If you talk about it from the point of view of this person being your teacher, then that’s one thing. From the point of view of what your level of attainment is and seeing your teacher as this or as that, that’s another thing. So you can’t get a definite answer to that question, just as you can’t get a definite answer to “What does the text really mean?” It’s the same issue. That’s difficult, though, for Western people to accept. That’s why the only answer that one could say is “Don’t worry about it.” What matters is one’s own relationship to that teacher and then seeing that teacher within the context of that relationship.

Let’s end with a dedication. Whatever understanding and whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Postscript, June 2013

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explained, specifically in reference to his own line of Dalai Lamas, that successive members of a tulku line are not necessarily successive members of the same mental continuum. Persons who have a strong connection with a great spiritual teacher, such as being his or her close disciple, can, on the basis of strong bodhichitta, prayers and a great store of positive potential, reincarnate as a tulku emanation of that teacher. Their prayers would be, for instance, to be able to carry on the work of that teacher.

Thus, when great spiritual masters reincarnate in several bodies at roughly the same time (such as in body, speech, and mind aspects), these tulkus would undoubtedly be individual beings with individual mental-continuums. They would all be persons with a strong spiritual connection with that master and would have had the intense wish to continue that master’s spiritual work.

Furthermore, His Holiness has explained that when some lines of tulkus are considered emanations of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Amitabha and so on, they may in fact be emanations or they may merely be conduits of the strong inspiration from these Buddhas to act on their behalf in this world.