In a recent statement, the Dalai Lama has attempted to demystify the seemingly esoteric system of reincarnate lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. Here is a look at the system’s spiritual roots, and why the Dalai Lamas of Tibet might soon become a part of history.
“I am held to be the reincarnation of each of the previous thirteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet, who are in turn considered to be manifestations of…the Bodhisattva of Compassion… I am often asked whether I truly believe this…when I consider my experiences during this present life, and given my Buddhist beliefs, I have no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas…and to the Buddha himself.”
– Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama ofTibet
Reincarnation inTibetis not only a matter of religious belief. It has struck deep roots in its lived culture and led to a unique system of spiritual leadership most popularly exemplified by the Dalai Lama. Eminent teachers of Tibetan Buddhism are believed to re-enter the world upon death, in fresh bodies, to carry on their work. In a statement released on 24 September 2011, the Dalai Lama explains this phenomenon, “There are two ways in which someone can take rebirth: under the sway of karma and destructive emotions, and rebirth through the power of compassion and prayer.”
The ‘conscious reincarnations’, called tulkus, are identified through an elaborate process that includes clues left by the predecessor, divination, a search among plausible children taking into account auspicious events at birth, and an examination of selected candidates through signs such as familiarity with the deceased’s belongings and attendants.
The recognised child, usually three or four at this time, is installed in his predecessor’s position with much celebration. Then begins a rigorous course of study – training in spiritual disciplines, scriptures, philosophy and practices particular to the lineage. Once the tulku matures in age and understanding, he takes over the responsibilities of his predecessor.
It might be argued that any child put through a couple of decades of concentrated spiritual training will grow into a wiser human being. While this may be so, little tulkus usually display a keen aptitude for scriptural study, metaphysics and meditation, as also equanimity, balance and quality of concentration not common in other children of their age.
The Dalai Lama, who has an abiding interest in modern science, has said that he is willing to consider scientific proof that debunks reincarnation but that until then he would continue to believe in it. He has talked about his tutor, Ling Rinpoche’s reincarnation, who, at age two, crawled to the Dalai Lama’s room on his own and laid a ceremonial scarf on the bed!
The key to understanding conscious rebirth is a word the Dalai Lama uses in the opening quote – ‘bodhisattva’. In his words, “Superiorbodhisattvas, who have attained the path of seeing, are reborn…due to the power of their compassion for sentient beings and based on their prayers to benefit others.”
The Buddhism ofTibet– Vajrayana – itself a branch of Mahayana, is essentially the way of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the Buddha-to-be, who has chosen to delay his release from samsara for the sake of everybody else. Nirvana for oneself is unthinkable when countless others continue to suffer, and the bodhisattva in his deep compassion, chooses to return with only one motivation – to help as many beings, in as many ways, as he can.
For the young tulkus, it is an inspiring focus to develop in life. Where one’s raison d’etre, reason for being, has nothing to do with personal ambition, high-flying careers, or even families and children, like most of us. Every practitioner of Vajrayana, in fact, attempts to cultivate this attitude of compassion and dedicates his spiritual practice for the welfare of all beings.
Recognising the potential for manipulation in the tulku system, suitable checks and balances were put in place. These, along with everything else in the matrix ofTibet’s culture, were dealt a massive blow with the invasion ofTibet and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama out ofTibet in 1959.
One reason that has prompted the Dalai Lama’s recent statement is his concern about the politics that will be played with his reincarnation. His concern at the imminent subversion of a spiritual ideal that lies at the very heart of Tibetan Buddhism has prompted him to consider ending the institution of the Dalai Lama.
“When I am about ninety I will consult the high lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism,” he says in the statement, “and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.” Because a bodhisattva operates from a motivation of concern and service to the other, the Dalai Lama seems to have handed over the choice of his reincarnation to the other as well.
In one of the last decisions of his present life, he once again evinces what has been a lifelong commitment – pointing to the need to innovate with tradition, let go of aspects that are no longer tenable, and keep an open mind to the endless possibilities of life.
The Dalai Lamas of Tibet face an uncertain future. But they carry a valuable message for us in this age of materialistic greed, encapsulated in this prayer the Dalai Lama recites every day:
For as long as space endures,
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide,
To dispel the misery of the world.
This article appeared as cover story in the October 16, 2011, edition of The Speaking Tree newspaper.