An Interview with Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche
Rebirth is a belief common to all Buddhist traditions, although in Tibetan Buddhism, a belief in reincarnation—the reappearance of a great master, known as a tulku— developed in the late 13th century C.E. The tradition continues amid much discussion of its contemporary relevance. Here, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, a Western-born tulku, discusses with Pamela Gayle White the traditional Tibetan view of reincarnation and answers some of the more common questions skeptical Westerners ask.
Westerners interested in Buddhism are often more attracted to its myriad meditation methods than its religious-sounding scriptures and canons. I regularly hear people say that they would gladly espouse Buddhism if it weren’t for the “ism,” the dogma: doctrines on karma; the idea that a human might be reborn as a pig and vice versa; confirmation of the existence of worlds and beings invisible to us; and so on. So what about reincarnation? Is belief in reincarnation central to Buddhism? What exactly are we talking about when we consider rebirth?
Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche struck me as being just the person to shed some light on this ticklish subject. The son of an American mother and a French father, young Ananda was recognized by the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa as being the reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist master. As a small boy, his parents entrusted him to Kalu Rinpoche, with whom he began receiving the classical education reserved for tulkus alongside a select circle of his Tibetan and Himalayan peers. (His story is told in the Summer 2005 issue of Tricycle). Thus the framework of reincarnation has shaped Trinlay Tulku’s life and informed his choices much more directly than it has for the rest of us.
Now in his thirties, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche lives in Paris with his wife, Giselle, a native of California, and Moksha, their shamelessly pampered Pekinese. A very busy young man, he splits his time between academic research, retreat, teaching, and translation—he’s fluent in Tibetan, English, French, and Nepali, and understands a bit of Hindi and reads a bit of Sanskrit as well.
His teaching takes him all over the globe—he loves to travel and take photographs, which he enjoys developing himself. Other interests include poetry (he’s particularly fond of Poe), opera, hiking in the great outdoors, and yoga. Though his life choices and hobbies have a decidedly Western slant, and despite the chestnut hair and deep blue eyes, when Trinlay Tulku discusses philosophy, he’s a Tibetan Buddhist teacher—no doubt about it. We spoke about reincarnation in Paris and Dordogne, France, last year.
—Pamela Gayle White
Can you be a Buddhist or practice Buddhism without believing in reincarnation? Belief in reincarnation is not what defines us as Buddhists; taking refuge in the three jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—is. That said, most religions and spiritualities, including all of the Buddhist schools, adhere to the idea that we are more than just our physical body and that a part of our being continues after death. However, you can certainly take refuge, practice meditation, and follow Buddhist moral principles without believing in reincarnation. You would, I think, get the same benefits. The fundamental aim of Buddhist practice is not belief; it’s enlightenment, the awakening that takes place when illusion has been overcome. It may sound simple, but it’s probably the most difficult thing of all to achieve. It isn’t some kind of magical reward that someone can give you or that a strong belief will enable you to acquire. The true path to awakening is genuine discernment; it’s the very opposite of belief.
What did the Buddha have to say about rebirth? The Buddhist canon, considered to be the record of the Buddha’s words, is full of anecdotes about rebirth. For example, the Buddha recounts his past lives in the Jatakas to illustrate the relation between our actions and our becoming. A very strong moral incentive is connected to the notion of reincarnation, which apparently was widely accepted in the Buddha’s time.
In the West when we talk about reincarnation, there’s usually an idea of a soul that continues on. Yes, we tend to think that some immaterial and permanent or eternal thing that we consider to be our “true self” survives at death and reincarnates in a new body. Buddhists would have a problem with that theory, because the nonexistence of a permanent self, soul, or atman is one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.
The Buddha explained that self is baseless. For example, “I” seems to refer to a single and permanent entity, the possessor of my mind and body as well as that thing which might possess another body when this one dies, right? But have we ever seen this “I?” What color and shape is it? We could say that it’s immaterial, so we can’t see it. In that case, how do we know it exists? We might say that if it weren’t for “I,” we would be nothing; it’s that thing that makes up its mind, wants this or that, and distinguishes us from others. If that were the “I,” it clearly couldn’t be a single and permanent entity, because it’s always changing. Perhaps we’re mistaking our mind for “I,” but our mind is very different; it is not a single, unchanging, permanent thing. We might argue that we don’t really think of ourselves as being one and eternal, but if we look carefully, these are exactly the various attitudes and feelings that arbitrarily give rise to a sense of self.
And we identify with this? Yes, as something independent and enduring that’s specific to me and that I cherish more than anything else. It’s a generally unnoticed conviction; all of our thoughts and actions are based on this unspoken presumption and feeling of “I.” But when we look, we can’t find anything that corresponds exactly with this feeling. “Self” is a figment of our imagination, a concept that isn’t consistent with any ultimate reality.
Buddhism seems paradoxical because it denies the existence of a self, yet rebirth is a central theme of its teachings. Buddhists aren’t nihilistic: we don’t say, “We are nothing and all of this is nothingness.” Obviously we’re not in some kind of vacuum: we sense this body and the world around it. What enables that? Our mind! There is truly no means of knowing the world independently from the mind that knows it. If it weren’t for mind, we wouldn’t know or sense anything.
Reincarnation really makes sense when we recognize the preponderant role that mind plays in how we see life and everything we experience. What we think and do determines what we become.