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

Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche explains that there are many different categories of tulkus. Tulkus may be emanations of great bodhisattvas© Gerard Truffandier who take human form, such as the Karmapas, incarnate masters of varying degrees of realization, or people who may or may not have great spiritual potential but who have been recognized for political reasons. He thinks that in terms of keeping the dharma alive, the tulku system is expendable; other schools of Buddhism get along fine without it, and a great number of celebrated Tibetan masters have attained great realization without being part of it. It does, however, have its advantages. An authentic tulku will have an inherent spiritual potential, a power that blossoms under proper training, thus ensuring effective transmission of the teachings. Perhaps, then, it is the pomp and circumstance surrounding the tulku system that are somewhat expendable.

“Traditional Tibetan society has by and large ceased to exist, and generally, a tulku now needs to earn the respect that would have been his due in the past. When you look at today’s prominent reincarnate lamas, they are all people who have qualities that earn them this esteem. Anyone can build a lofty throne, sit on it, and call himself Rinpoche, but the quality of a person’s realization is the real criterion,” he says.

Most, but certainly not all, of the Tibetan lamas who have had a real impact in the West have been reincarnates. While some of these correspond perfectly to our idea of what a holy person should look and act like, others most decidedly do not. Where we expect celibacy, we may learn of healthy sexual appetites; where we imagine teetotalers, we may see carousers; where we picture earnest decorum, we may witness occasional bouts of absolutely unpredictable behavior. Tibetan Buddhism is like that—great masters come in all trappings. The common denominator is their spiritual might and ability to guide students in their development of compassion and wisdom.

The fact that there is no Government Approved Rinpoche Model to go by has led to a great deal of confusion, head-scratching, and even despair among sincere practitioners. How should one choose one’s guru? How should one relate to him or her? Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche thinks that to answer these questions one must first take a precise look at what one’s expectations are.

“The idea of the master-disciple relationship is simple, really: one person is helping another to help him—or herself. In the West some practitioners may misconstrue what this entails. They haven’t sat down and read the biographies of the great master-disciple relationships, yet they’re convinced that they urgently need to find a root guru. But what we mean in Vajrayana, the school of Buddhism that is practiced throughout Tibet, Mongolia, and so forth, by an authentic master-disciple relationship is one where both parties are very highly qualified.

“What we have in the West is more of a teacher-student relationship. To properly practice the dharma, we need to be guided by a proper teacher. All authentic teachers have three basic qualities: they have knowledge and experience based on their own training, they abide by the Buddhist code of ethics according to the vows they have taken, and they are motivated by love and compassion rather than by any worldly desires.

“If you study with such a person, you might learn something. He or she may help you generate bodhicitta—awakened mind—and understand emptiness, give you complete instructions on meditation practice, bestow empowerments, and so forth. Ultimately, he or she may lead you to recognize the nature of mind. According to the tantras, these are the qualities that define a root guru. But it’s up to you to first become a good disciple, then the root guru will manifest naturally.”

When he teaches, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche often focuses on the importance of the foundations of practice. He discourages beginners from immediately diving into the deeper esoteric teachings. “Many Westerners receive empowerments and instruction on advanced visualization-based practices without having trained properly beforehand,” he says. “Their difficulties with these practices come less from cultural barriers and the 'foreignness’ of the approach than from a lack of preparation—they don’t really know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. To relate to the tantras you need to have developed refuge, bodhicitta, and a certain understanding of emptiness. Otherwise, tantra is meaningless. Many Westerners who have laid a proper practice foundation can and do relate to this kind of training, often with very positive results.”

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