In 1982, Daniel Bärlocher published the two volumes of his groundbreaking dissertation Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus: A Research among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile. In the first volume, Bärlocher provided verbatim transcripts of interviews with more than forty Tibetan informants, most of them (re)incarnate Lamas affiliated with the Géluk sect. This quotation about trülkus—that is, formally instated (re)incarnated masters—is my translation from the French of remarks by Dagpo Rinpoché (b. 1932) in an interview held on 17 September 1980.1
‘Question (Q): (…) Do you believe, generally speaking, that tulkus have a future in this form, as a system by which they are sought out, confirmed, all of that? (…)
Answer (A): You know, actually, there is something very important for you to be aware of; you know very well what it means that there are several levels in the tulku category.
Tulkus of Buddha; they are Buddhas (incarnate on earth)—they are the real tulkus, aren’t they?
Also there are tulkus of bodhisattvas.
And there are tulkus of other (previous) persons—who are less advanced, spiritually.
But, really, we ourselves cannot judge this from the outside.
So, I could be a tulku of a buddha, a tulku of a bodhisattva, tulku of a non-bodhisattva; of a person who has not realized bodhichitta, the bodhi thought, but has reached a high spiritual level nonetheless. (…)
So there are several levels. (…)
But in our time—we might see errors as well.
Among the tulkus there are some people who are recognized as tulkus, but who are not.
Q: Because of errors by the people who searched, confirmed?
A: Yes, yes. Also there is bad faith, manipulation: it happens; it happened in Tibet. You don’t have to believe that all tulkus are real, you know. Consider this a (general) observation.
Now I’m talking about myself: I was recognized as the reincarnation of this master—but personally I’m not sure if I am or not; I really don’t know that.
I do not remember. It seems that I had memories when I was very young. They observed me saying things, well…
Q: When you, if you must explain (the fact that you were confirmed as Dakpo Rinpoche) you will say that it is must be your good karma—could I say that?
A: Yes, surely I got the right karma; that’s for sure, that’s confirmed. (…)
But I don’t think I’m really the reincarnation of this master; I don’t remember anything.
Q: Everything that you’ve heard about him—is this like an inheritance, an obligation?
A: That is to say, officially I am this master’s heir. Generally speaking, everyone agrees: this is the tulku of Dakpo Rinpoche.
I carry his name.
Q: It’s the same namshe.2
A: But—I don’t think that myself.
Q: But, let’s say, looking from the outside: if the Dalai Lama confirmed this to you—then if you accept that he was right, you must agree that it is the same namshe.
A: Yes, normally speaking—if I were his real reincarnation.
Q: Aren’t you doubting the judgment of the Dalai Lama then?
A: Yes, maybe—but no, I don’t think so. I won’t say there was an error of judgment by the Dalai Lama. But he may have had other reasons for choosing me.
There might be another reason: suppose the real master, my uncle, would not want to return any more—return to this world, that is—and should rather stay elsewhere, so that we need someone to replace him, find a replacement to play his role.
So, among these three boys (candidates), perhaps he chose me because I would be able to play this role better; so that I was chosen for this reason.
Q: Let’s admit this possibility: if the real tulku goes elsewhere, maybe to a ‘Buddha-Field’, then the Dalai Lama, takes over the responsibility?
A: Yes. Let’s say that under these circumstances the Dalai Lama would tell the monks awaiting the investigating, let’s suppose he said: your Lama will not return.
They would be very disappointed.
Q: But then he’s cheating them a bit.
A: No, he’s not cheating, because he chooses a person who can play a useful role for those people all the same—you see?
Although he might not be the same person, he can play a useful, important role for others. If he is up to the task, whether he is real or not, it is the same.
Q: But it could be that for the boy so chosen, it’s too heavy a role for, because—
A: —But when he chooses, he always chooses someone who is capable. This he knows, of course.
Q: (…) (Otherwise) it could be a tragedy for the boy.
A: Yes, absolutely, for him it would be catastrophic.
Someone who is able to choose such a reincarnation, will always choose the person who is the most capable of the three (in the case of the Dakpo Rinpoche), won’t he?
So I think this must likely be true, because—I won’t say I’m more capable than the rest—my cousin died very young and the other boy, it seems he died too. The one who lived, is me.
Had I remained in Tibet (as per tradition), I surely would have passed the Geshe exam already, and all of that. And I would have played almost the same role (as my predecessor).
So surely he chose me for this.
Q: Sociologically, it is the labrang and the people, the faithful, the disciples of the tulku, who also participate in making the tulku who he is, by helping him play his part and all that.
A: Yes, of course, yes, yes. That is to say, first of all they take a lot of precautions in educating the tulku. They choose a very good teacher who can prepare him for this role.
Generally, everyone takes great care in this sense. So, they tend to provide the tulku with many facilities (concerning his studies and his way of life).
But he has to do a lot of the work himself. (…)
Q: And, traditionally, he was very isolated compared to other boys his age.
A: Yes. Yes, but it depends on the college. For example in my college—that is, the second college: Dakpo Datsang—everybody is the same, this college makes no exceptions. Everyone abides by the same rules.’
- Bärlocher, Daniel. (1982). Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus: A Research among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile: Volume I: Materials. Tibet-Institut, Rikon.. (pp. 250-254). See also Bärlocher, Daniel. (1982). Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus: A Research among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile: Volume II: Appendices. Tibet-Institut, Rikon.
- Wylie: rnam shes, Sanskrit: vijñāna, (stream of) consciousness.