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?
Today, at thirty, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche’s home base is right-bank Paris. He spends part of the year teaching, giving conferences and leading retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The bulk of his remaining time is spent practicing, studying, and doing research. Leisure moments may be spent at the opera or the movies, or tooling about town on his old-fashioned bicycle. When with Tibetans, he blends right in. He is always given a place of honor and addressed in formal Tibetan language, as befits his tulku status. Many of his French peers naturally tend to use “vous” with him instead of the more familiar “tu.” He is exceptionally polite and considerate, and sometimes so serious that he misses the joke. An impassioned teacher with a talent for clarifying difficult philosophical points, he has a particular blend of plain-speaking and ingenuous enthusiasm that reflects his distinctive background and reaches out to philosophers and practitioners of all horizons.
Trinlay believes that Buddhism appeals to Westerners because it doesn’t demand belief per se; instead, it gives matter for reflection and allows for individual development based on personal experience. He is convinced that modern thought—science and philosophy—and Buddhism are highly compatible. “Take quantum physics, for example: the analysis of infinitely small particles has led to the same conclusions about the nature of reality as the Buddha came to twenty-five hundred years ago, and it is now understood that one cannot confirm that reality has an objective existence independent of the observer.
“It’s relatively easy for Westerners to understand Buddhism, to relate to the teachings, but they have to learn how to become Buddhists; they tend to assimilate a lot of information but need to be shown how to put it into practice. For example, they understand why lovingkindness and compassion are positive values, but are somehow perplexed about how to apply them. This obviously has nothing to do with adhering to a different culture or becoming a Tibetan and changing your name to Tashi—some Westerners are confused about this. The Buddha’s teachings aren’t geared towards one particular ethos,” Trinlay explains. “Buddhists have historically adapted to cultural contexts as different as those of India, China, Afghanistan, and Indonesia.
“Potential pitfalls are the same for everyone, regardless of nationality or lifestyle. We’re all threatened by the fangs of impermanence and death; negative emotions and confusion afflict all of us, creating ever more difficulties for ourselves and the world. This is true whether you are from Tibet, Canada, Nigeria, or anywhere else.”
While it is certainly true that we all have to deal with the same obstacles and veils, the tulku system is said to have developed as a shortcut around them. Trinlay’s definition of a tulku is “someone who is reborn like everyone else, but who is free from the arbitrary nature of rebirth. It’s as if we don’t have to start at Go.” After death, a tulku’s spiritual maturity allows him (or her, but female tulkus are few and far between) to choose a new physical vessel that will allow him to continue helping others.
Tulku lineages originated in Tibet with the Karmapas of the Kagyu school. Before he died, the great accomplished master Dusum Khyenpa (1110—1193), the First Karmapa, foretold his own rebirth as the Second Karmapa, Karmapakshi (1204—1283), who was thus the first tulku to be formally recognized as such. Hence the oldest institutionalized, unbroken line of reincarnated, realized masters is that of the Karmapas. In comparison, the Dalai Lama line could be said to have begun with the second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso, nearly three centuries later.
Recognition of tulkus can be based on many different factors, including written instructions left behind by the predecessor, visions seen by other enlightened masters, and the famous “choosing the practice instruments of the previous incarnation” test. The latter has traditionally been used for the highest lamas, but apparently it is common for the attendants of a tulku’s previous incarnation to put the young child to the test behind closed doors, “just to make sure.” Many tulkus assert themselves as children, telling those close to them that they are, in fact, such or such a lama. The whole system has been the target of some controversy, even among those who don’t doubt the plausibility of controlled rebirth, since it contains potential for error or manipulation for political purposes. The illustrious master Jamgön Kongtrul the Great (1813—1899) reported in his autobiography that he himself was recognized as an incarnate to ensure that “head-hunters” from other monasteries wouldn’t spirit him away from Pelpung.