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

Burgundy, France, summer 1984. Students are gathering from all over Europe and beyond to receive the Kalachakra empowerment© Gerard Truffandier from Kalu Rinpoche, one of the most influential twentieth-century masters of Tibetan Buddhism. The center’s temple is humming with preparatory activities; the general atmosphere is solemn and celebratory. Suddenly a door slams, and everyone looks to see who is breaking the spell. A tow-headed boy and his dark-eyed friend race through, laughing and chattering away in Tibetan, quickly followed by an older monk who shoos them out. My neighbor informs me that the fair-haired boy is Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, a nine-year-old incarnate master who accompanies Kalu Rinpoche everywhere. He is said to be something of an imp, and he looks the part.

When the empowerment is actually held a couple of days later, Trinlay Tulku is participating. Dressed in traditional monk’s clothes, he is seated near Kalu Rinpoche and joins in the general recitations. He doesn’t fidget or fuss during the length of the event; suitably serious, he seems perfectly at home.

Dordogne, France, spring 2004. Three pretty young Frenchwomen circumambulating a stupa arm in arm are talking about their dharma teacher. “It’s true that he’s really got a flair for making difficult concepts seem simple,” says one. “Yeah, but how to concentrate?” retorts her friend, “he’s so attractive.” “Get over it and listen,” says the third, laughing. “You might just learn something!”

Now twenty-nine, Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche is explaining basic Buddhism to a hundred and fifty people. He is seated simply on a low throne under a large tent, sporting chic French clothes and a stylish haircut. He communicates with his attitude, his hands, and his smile. Although he speaks French and English with equal ease, he occasionally slips up in both languages, the odd word hinting that his mother tongue is elsewhere. While Trinlay Tulku’s mother was pregnant with him, she felt certain that she was carrying a Buddhist teacher, a monk. Although not yet a Buddhist herself, Anne [I give his parents’ first names only, per Trinlay Tulku’s request] was something of a free spirit, a product of the American sixties and seventies. She had studied Eastern philosophy at school, and Buddhism appealed to her. Trinlay’s father, a member of the French parliament, was familiar with the main tenets of Buddhism and was interested in learning more. A few days before his son’s birth, Jean-Louis was in a Parisian hotel. There he saw signs indicating that the Sixteenth Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, was giving the Black Crown Ceremony on a lower floor. It is said that whoever sees the Karmapa wearing the Black Crown receives a great blessing and will eventually attain enlightenment. Intrigued, Jean-Louis followed the notices and entered the hall where the ceremony was about to begin. He took refuge on the spot and left deeply impressed, yearning for more contact.

When their child was born, the young couple named him after the Buddha’s cousin Ananda. One year later, the family left for India on holiday, hoping to see more of the Karmapa, although they weren’t sure just where they would find him. They first went to Darjeeling, India, where they learned from friends that although the Karmapa was in Nepal, the great master Kalu Rinpoche, head of the Shangpa lineage, was staying nearby. They sought him out, and Anne took refuge from him, then requested that he also give refuge to her son, Ananda. Kalu Rinpoche refused, saying that it was not for him to be giving the boy refuge. Perplexed by this, they left shortly for Nepal to see the Karmapa. When they found him, Ananda, then fourteen months old, ran to him and jumped into his arms. The Karmapa said that he would give the boy refuge immediately, and so he did. Ananda became Trinlay. “Somehow, I intuitively understood what the Karmapa was telling me,” Trinlay now says. “The Buddhist precepts made perfect sense to the child I was, and my greatest desire was to uphold them. I trusted in the Buddha and his teachings, and wanted to strive for enlightenment. Also, my predecessor’s tendencies began cropping up and I yearned to go live in a monastery.”

The family rented a house in Nepal, where they would return for frequent holidays. Whenever they were there, Trinlay nagged at his parents to take him to stupas and temples, and repeatedly asked to be left with monks. His mother says he began to recognize people he had never met and to experience memories from another life. When he was two, he decided that enough was enough, packed a little suitcase and ran out the gate. His mother saw him go and shouted; people came running to catch him. As they took him back he yelled, “I want to leave, let me go!”

Shortly thereafter, Trinlay was officially recognized by the Karmapa as being the physical incarnation, or tulku, of Khakyab Rinpoche, a Karma Kagyu master from western Tibet who had died young. Before departing, he had written a poem stating that he would be reborn in the West. Khakyab Rinpoche had been very close to Kalu Rinpoche, and when Trinlay had worn his parents out with repeated requests to be allowed to go live with the monks, Kalu Rinpoche took the boy, then three years old, under his wing. During his early childhood, the boy’s time was divided between periods spent with his family and periods with Kalu Rinpoche. When he was four or five, he began to accompany Kalu Rinpoche on his travels and see less of his parents.

Anne, his mother, says that as a small child Trinlay spoke often and convincingly of his previous life, and she believed him. Once he was recognized as a tulku, it seemed obvious that he needed special instruction to be able to realize his potential. Although their decision to entrust him to Kalu Rinpoche shocked some people—“How could you do this to your child?” Anne was asked—she and Jean-Louis were convinced that growing up with Kalu Rinpoche and the other lamas was the best education he could possibly receive.

“I grew up in a very privileged milieu,” Anne says, “among millionaires, debutantes, rock stars, politicians. None of them were particularly happy. It was the lamas who had the key to real happiness. Through them, my child could learn what most people need a lifetime to catch a glimpse of. I wish someone had given me to Rinpoche when I was three!”

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