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For the 2009 film, see Tulku (film).

Tulku (Tibetan: སྤྲུལ་སྐུWylie: sprul sku, ZYPY: Zhügu, also tülku, trulku) is an honorary title given to a lama recognised in Tibetan Buddhism as reincarnate, either by physical resemblance to an enlightened being or through connection to certain qualities of an enlightened being.

According to Tulku Thondup,[1] there are three main types of tulkus. They are the emanations of buddhas, the manifestations of highly accomplished adepts, and rebirths of highly virtuous teachers or spiritual friends. There are also secondary types, which include unrecognized tulkus, blessed tulkus, and tulkus fallen from the path.

Amongst the Tulkus of Tibet are those considered to be reincarnations of superior Bodhisattvas, who are able to choose their place and time of birth as well as their future parents.[2] High-profile examples of tulkus include the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa.

It has been estimated that as of 2012 there were about 500 tulkus across Tibet, although before the Chinese Communist Invasion there were probably a few thousand. Each tulku has a distinct lineage of rebirths. For example, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is held to be the reincarnation of each of the previous thirteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet, who are in turn considered to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion, holder of the White Lotus.[3] The vast majority of tulkus and lamas are men[citation needed]; a few are women.

The tulku incarnation lineage is distinct from the lineage of Buddhist masters and their disciples, which is concerned with the oral or written transmission of particular Buddhist teachings and spiritual practice from generation to generation.

Nomenclature and etymology[edit]

The word སྤྲུལ or 'sprul' (Modern Lhasa Tibetan [ʈʉl]) was a verb in Old Tibetan literature and was used to describe the བཙན་པོ་ btsanpo ('emperor'/天子) taking a human form on earth. So the 'sprul' idea of taking a corporeal form is a local religious idea alien to Indian Buddhism and other forms of Buddhism (e.g. Theravadin or Zen). Over time, indigenous religious ideas became assimilated by the new Buddhism; e.g. 'sprul' became part of a compound noun, སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་'sprul.sku' ("incarnation body" or 'tülku', and 'btsan', the term for the imperial ruler of the Tibetan Empire, became a kind of mountain deity). The term tülku became associated with the translation of the Sanskrit philosophical term nirmanakaya. According to the philosophical system of trikaya or three bodies of Buddha, nirmanakaya is the Buddha's "body" in the sense of the bodymind (Sanskrit: nāmarūpa). Thus, the person of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, is an example of nirmanakaya. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, tülku is used to refer to the corporeal existence of enlightened Buddhist masters in general.

In addition to Tibetans and related peoples, Tibetan Buddhism is a traditional religion of the Mongols and their relatives. The Mongolian word for a tulku is qubilγan, though such persons may also be called by the honorific title qutuγtu (Tib: 'phags-pa and Skt: ārya or 'superior', not to be confused with the historic figure, 'Phags-pa Lama or the script attributed to him, 'Phags-pa script), or hutagt in the standard Khalkha dialect. According to the Light of Fearless Indestructible Wisdom by Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal: designates one who is "noble" (or "selfless" according to Buddha's usage) and used in Buddhist texts to denote a highly achieved being who has attained the first bhumi, a level of attainment which is truly egoless, or higher.

The Chinese word for tulku is huófó (活佛), which literally means "living Buddha" and is sometimes used to mean tulku, although this is rare outside Chinese sources. However, according to the Dalai Lama, "this is wrong. Tibetan Buddhism recognises no such thing."[4] The Dalai Lama in interviews frequently dismissed the notion of 'living Buddha', calling it "nonsense".[5]

Meaning of "tulku"[edit]

Past and future lives[edit]

The tulku system is an extension of the logic of the Buddhist understanding of karma and rebirth according to which sentient beings come to this present life from their previous lives and are reborn after death. There are considered to be two ways in which a person can be reborn after death:

  • rebirth under the sway of karma and destructive emotions, which is the way of ordinary beings who circle incessantly through existence like the turning of a wheel.
  • rebirth through the power of compassion and prayer for sentient beings, which is the way of superior Bodhisattvas who have attained the path of seeing.[2]

In general, the term Tulku refers to a particular aspect of the Buddha (Incarnate Emanation Body) according to which Buddhas appear in various forms such as human beings, deities, rivers, bridges, medicinal plants, and trees to help sentient beings. Many, but not all, Tulkus are judged to be truly qualified Incarnate Emanation Bodies of the Buddhas. Amongst the Tulkus of Tibet there may be those who are reincarnations of superior Bodhisattvas, Bodhisattvas on the paths of accumulation and preparation, as well as masters who are evidently yet to enter these Bodhisattva paths. Amongst the Tulkus of Tibet are those who are reincarnations of superior Bodhisattvas, who are able to choose their place and time of birth as well as their future parents. Such a rebirth, which is solely for the benefit of others, is rebirth through the force of compassion and prayer.[2]

Finding a successor[edit]

A tulku nearing death may hint in writings or reveal signs, to those with the karmic proclivity, that will help determine a successor or next mindstream emanation. Sometimes a tulku will leave a prediction letter or song describing where they will be found, sometimes adding various details about their future parents, the situation of their house and so on. If such details are lacking, the monks who must find the reincarnation resort to a lama-tulku astrologer (or tsispa) for directions.[6] Prophecies, which may date forward or backward many generations, also play a role. The vetting of a potential successor often involves tests such as checking whether the child can recognize acquaintances or possessions from the previous life, or answer questions about it. According to the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, “A number of objects such as rosaries, ritualistic implements, books, tea-cups, etc., are placed together, and the child must pick out those that belonged to the late tulku, thus showing that he recognizes the things that were his in his previous life."[7] This process has been portrayed in movies such as Kundun and The Golden Child; as well as various television series, including Lost, Avatar: The Last Airbender and satirically on a King of the Hill episode entitled: Won't You Pimai Neighbor?.

The thoroughness of the testing procedure varies according to the eminence of the tulku. For minor figures, associated with a particular area or monastery only, the choice is sometimes made after a perfunctory search and often motivated by political considerations. For major tulkus such as Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas a great deal of care is taken.[8]

Usually the tulku heir has been male, that is, appeared in male form. However, discussing his own successor, the 14th Dalai Lama was quoted as saying that "if a woman reveals herself as more useful the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form".[9] He also said (when speculating about the possibility that his people might have no use for a Dalai Lama after he dies) that he "might take rebirth as an insect, or an animal".[4]


The Tibetan institution of the tulku as the emanation (often misunderstood as the rebirth)[note 1] of a lama developed during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, as various Schools of Tibetan Buddhism began to accept the possibility that exemplary figures might remain within the human world as institutional teachers, manifesting from one lifetime to the next out of compassion. At this point, the notion of nirmanakaya, or created body of a Buddha, became linked to a notion of regular manifestation (Tibetan: yangsiWylie: yang-srid). The most dramatic—and at that time controversial—innovation was the idea that a tulku could inherit the estate (Tibetan: labrang) of their previous incarnation. This rule of inheritance allowed for the rise of hugely wealthy estates belonging to the lineages of reincarnating tulkus. The first recognized tulku of this kind within the Vajrayana traditions was the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism; precisely, the first to be recognized as a manifestation was the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204–1283). The Karmapa is now in his 17th emanation.

While most tulkus historically have been Tibetans, some have been born among various other peoples with whom the Tibetans have had contact, such as the Mongols. Now in the Tibetan diaspora, tulku are being found all over the world. In modern times a few tulkus have been found among Western people, including Tenzin Ösel, born in 1985 to Spanish parents, who was recognized as the reincarnation of Thubten Yeshe, an influential Tibetan lama.

In 1988 a conference was convened at the request of the Dalai Lama at which approximately 350 tulkus and Abbots from all five Tibetan spiritual traditions—Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, and Bon—attended. The agenda was to discuss the future of the Tibetan spiritual traditions in the Indian subcontinent, Tibet and foreign countries, and the relationship with science and foreign religions.[10]

Tulku lineages[edit]

Tibetologist Françoise Pommaret estimates there are presently approximately 500 tulku lineages found across Tibet, Bhutan, Northern India, Nepal, Mongolia, and the southwest provinces of China.[11] The vast majority of tulkus are men, although there are a small number of female tulku lineages.[note 2] The most prestigious female tulku lineage is that of the Dorje Phagmo of Samding Monastery.

By far the most politically powerful tulku lineage for the past several hundred years have been the Dalai Lamas; as of 2014 there had been fourteen emanations beginning with Gedun Drub.[12] The title "Dalai Lama" was not applied to this line from the beginning: the second emanation was seen simply as the rebirth of Gedun Drub. The same was true of the third emanation, Sonam Gyatso, until he was dubbed "Dalai Lama" as an adult, after which he applied the title posthumously to his predecessors and declared himself the 3rd Dalai Lama. It was Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), the 5th Dalai Lama, who established the Dalai Lamas as Tibet's predominant political power. After their control was consolidated, recognition of some of the most important tulkus was vetted by the government at Lhasa, and could on occasion be banned if its previous incumbent fell out of favour. A notable example of this penalty was the Shamarpa, once the most powerful subordinate of the Karmapa, whose recognition of reincarnation was banned by order of the Dalai Lama in 1792. This ban remained in place until after the Dalai Lama lost power in Tibet during the 1950s, although it was later said that the Karmapa had recognized emanations of the Shamarpa secretly during the intervening period.

The Hutukhtu of the Red Sect (b. 1865) was an opponent of the 13th Dalai Lama and supported the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China.[13]

Lineages of tulkus may be interlinked—for example the Panchen Lama traditionally recognizes the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama and vice versa. In most cases there is no such relationship, but the potential candidate is always vetted by respected lamas (as described above).

Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo is an enthroned tulku within the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma tradition recognized by Penor Rinpoche. In the late 1980s, she gained international attention as the first Western woman to be named a reincarnate lama.

Controversy and Criticisms[edit]

The recognition of tulkus has sometimes involved ambiguity as well as controversy.[14] According to Tibetan historian Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, wrote in his autobiography:

The official Tsawa Kachu of the Ganden Palace showed me statues and rosaries (that belonged to the Fourth Dalai Lama and other lamas), but I was unable to distinguish between them! When he left the room I heard him tell the people outside that I had successfully passed the tests. Later, when he became my tutor, he would often admonish me and say: "You must work hard, since you were unable to recognize the objects!"[15]

In the 2009 documentary film Tulku, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche argues against the institutionalized Tulku system stating,

And now, I personally think that to hold that culture, institutionalized Tulku. That culture is dying; it’s not going to work anymore. And even if it… And if it doesn’t work, I think it’s almost for the better because this tulku, it’s going to… If the Tibetans are not careful, this Tulku system is going to ruin Buddhism. At the end of the day Buddhism is more important [than] Tulku system, who cares about Tulku... [and] what happens to them.[16]

The American film actor Steven Seagal, while already an adult, was recognized by Penor Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma school, as the reincarnation of a 17th-century tertön from eastern Tibet, Chungdrag Dorje. Penor Rinpoche notes that "such recognition does not mean that one is already a realized teacher"; Seagal was not enthroned and did not undergo the extensive program of training and study that is customary for a tulku.[17]

Osel Hita Torres is a Tibetan Buddhist tulku and aspiring cinematographer from Spain. Hita was designated soon after his birth as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe—making him one of only a handful of Western tulkus—and renamed Tenzin Ösel Rinpoche. For many years "Lama Ösel" was expected to succeed to leadership of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), the organization co-founded by Yeshe. As a university student, however, "Oz" (as he is now known) gradually distanced himself from the FPMT, and in 2009 made media statements clarifying his intention to pursue a life independent of that organization. A documentary about Hita's life, called The Reluctant Lama, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 28 September 2012.

Lama Osel expressed during a vist to Kopan Monastery in November 2012 his desire to return to his Buddhist studies at Sera Jey Monastery a few months a year. Osel has been involved in activities organised by the FPMT and led by Kyabje Lama Thubten Zopa during this year and aims to use his cinematography studies to help spread Dharma around the world.


In popular culture[edit]

  • In the 1994 film The Shadow, a mystical tulku trains Lamont Cranston to use his inner darkness to fight crime.
  • In the book Tulku, by Peter Dickinson, a young boy and his companions, fleeing the Boxer Rebellion in China, encounter Tibetan monks awaiting the birth of a tulku.[18]
  • The Green Lama was often referred to as Tulku by his associates.
  • In the expansion pack Portals of Praevus for Hexen 2, the new continent based on Tibetan culture is named Tulku.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tulku Thondup (2011) Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala.
  2. ^ a b c Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation. Website of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 24 September 2011.
  3. ^ From Birth to Exile Website of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
  4. ^ a b Tenzin Gyatso (1998) Freedom in Exile. The autobiography of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. London: Abacus.
  5. ^ His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Japan - Day 3 Website of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, June 20th 2010.
  6. ^ Alexandra David-Néel(1967) Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Souvenir Press Ltd. (originally published as Mystiques et magiciens du Thibet. Plon: Paris, 1929; English translation Claude Kendall, New York, 1932)
  7. ^ David-Neel, Alexandra. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971 (ISBN 0-486-22682-4)
  8. ^ John Powers (2007) Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications.
  9. ^ Dalai Lama Says Successor Could Be A Woman Website of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, December 13th 2007.
  10. ^ Tulkus' Conference on Nonsectarianism The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin
  11. ^ Pommaret, Françoise. Bhutan. Passport Books (Odyssey), 1998 (ISBN 0-8442-9966-9)
  12. ^ Tulkus: Incarnate Lamas of Tibet An Interview with Sakya Gongma Dagchen Rinpoche
  13. ^ Who's who in China; biographies of Chinese. Suppl. to 4th ed (SUPPPLEMENT TO THE FOURTH EDITION ed.). Shanghai: THE CHINA WEEKLY REVIEW. 1933. p. 81. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  14. ^ Tales of Intrigue from Tibet's Holy City: The Historical Underpinnings of a Modern Buddhist Crisis Thesis by Lindsay G. McCune The Florida State University College of Arts and Sciences
  15. ^ "The Great Fifth". Retrieved 2008-08-31. 
  16. ^ Dzongsar Khyentse interviewed in the movie Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzongsar Jamyang. Tulku: Diving Birth, Ordinary Life part 4/4. 21 September 2010. Online Video Clip. Youtube. Accessed 16 May 2011.
  17. ^ Statement by H.H. Penor Rinpoche Regarding the Recognition of Steven Seagal as a Reincarnation of the Treasure Revealer Chungdrag Dorje of Palyul Monastery. Palyul Ling.
  18. ^ Tulku. "Tulku: Peter Dickinson: 9780440214892: Amazon.com: Books". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-01-15. 


  1. ^ As explained by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, "Reincarnation is what happens when someone takes rebirth after the predecessor’s passing away; emanation is when manifestations take place without the source’s passing away". Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation. Website of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 24 September 2011.
  2. ^ This could be as a result of limitations on the role of Women in Buddhism or alternatively that female tulkus are rarer because tulkus keep returning in a male form (for other reasons) to benefit others.

Further reading[edit]