East is West

Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche was born in France to an American mother and French father. Recognized as an incarnate lama at the age of two, he was raised by some of the last century’s greatest Tibetan masters. What can he teach us about ourselves?

Pamela Gayle White

When they were in India, Trinlay Tulku stayed with Kalu Rinpoche at his monastery, Samdrup Tarjay Chöling, in Sonada, near Darjeeling, and Anne lived nearby. She saw her son nearly daily; she says that if at any moment she had felt that things weren’t going well, she’d have “swooped in and grabbed him.”

Courtesy  of Trinlay Tulku RinpocheWith Kalu Rinpoche, Trinlay received traditional tulku training, replete with tutors, teachers, and a rather severe disciplinary monk. Surrounded by adults, he admits that he sometimes felt like a little prince. “I could also be a bit mischievous, but everyone was awfully kind to me.” He says that he liked playing with other kids from time to time but didn’t always understand their priorities. It wasn’t that he felt cut off from the outside world, it was just that study and his personal practice were his main focus.

Trinlay joined Kalu Rinpoche for rituals and traveled with him when he went on teaching tours. His life on the road was quite a contrast from his life in India, where he slept on a hard bed, washed with cold water and ate plain food. Accompanying Kalu Rinpoche in Southeast Asia, the United States, or Europe, he would plow through endless banquets, sit through marathon ceremonies, and visit with his relatives. He was learning to be a cultural chameleon, to accept and adapt to whatever situation he found himself in. At all times, he says, Kalu Rinpoche showed him the deepest kindness and helped him ponder the great questions of life and death. His situation suited him perfectly. “My childhood was very different from that of Western kids who grow up experiencing one culture only,” he says. “In the same context as theirs I would have been miserable. Out of place.”

When Trinlay was ten he joined other tulkus in Darjeeling for a year of study, and then was sent to a dharma center in the French Alps, where his education continued in the hands of Lama Teunsang, a highly respected lama from eastern Tibet, whom he describes as “stern, but just.” Parallel with his rigorous dharma education, tutors taught him French and English and gave him a concentrated Western education that led to his passing the Bac—the demanding French equivalent of a high school diploma—although he had never studied in a school setting. He made national news by being the first person in France to request Tibetan as his second language for the Bac.

For as long as Trinlay could remember, his main wish was to deepen his understanding of the dharma, but he was also interested in Western science and philosophy. He imagined becoming a bridge between the two worlds, East and West. After completing the Bac, Trinlay divided his time between studying with learned Tibetan scholars in India and studying at university in France. His appreciation of the classical philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, continues. “They have a lot in common—more than is generally thought—with the great Asian masters. They all ask the same questions: Who are we? How do we define reality? What is mind? How should we live our lives? How can we face death? What happens after we die? While all schools of thought use reason, logic, and sophisticated language, their conclusions may be radically different. There is some common ground, but Buddhism has its particularities: the Buddhist view of emptiness or essencelessness is an obvious example.”

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