Said Egbert Asshauer in 2006…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn
8 minutes

In 2006, German author Egbert Asshauer shared the critical perspective of two Tibetan politicians in exile on the proliferation of Tibetan tulkus—i.e. formally instated (re)incarnations—during the past decades:

‘A tulku represents the potentials of the mind come to maturity. Each of us possesses this potential, which we call our Buddha nature. Even though most in the laity are not conscious of it, there is a very intimate relationship that develops between them and their Rinpoches. They identify with them and honor them all, regardless of the tradition to which they happen to belong. We were able to observe this very clearly in our Tibetan guides. While. always full of respect, they approached even high‐ranking Rinpoches with a high degree of self‐confidence. It did not matter whether they belonged to the same or to a different school. They received the blessing—and paid their 100 rupees for it.

There are many, widely divergent opinions on how many generally recognized tulkus there are. As far as we can tell, it is probably around 500. Now, when Penor Rinpoche states on his Web site that he recognized his first tulku at age ten and, since then, has discovered hundreds more, one does not naturally doubt his ability to do so, though one wonders about the sense of it all. Tai Situ Rinpoche, too, in an interview some years ago said that he has discovered at least 100 tulkus. Indeed, the abbot of the Tsuphur monastery in Tibet said in 1992 in another interview that Tai Situ Rinpoche identified and confirmed fully 160 tulkus in Tibet alone in 1991. Now, are all of them really bodhisattvas or, more likely, yangsis or even ”fake” tulkus, placeholders for a gap in the lineage?

The close relationship between the laity and their Rinpoches naturally also generates criticism. Nearly all the Tibetan laymen we asked believed that there were too many tulkus, among them many bad tulkus. We discussed the subject with Pema Lhundup, then vice president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest Tibetan political organization. He used to be a teacher, as is the case with many politically engaged Tibetans. He spoke very openly with us about his view on the Tibetan tulku system. Such openness is rather unusual among Tibetans.

“The whole system has become less important in modern times—and I say this as a young Tibetan with a modern education—than it used to be. It does not help us in achieving our political and social goals. In the past, we used to have many large monasteries with so many Rinpoches and even the politicians seemed more interested in religion than in politics—to say nothing of the common people. In the end, this was of great benefit to the Chinese, contributing to the ease with which Tibet could be occupied. In the future, we should think and act more realistically and not lose ourselves in religious practice. Insofar I do not support the tulku system at all. Once again, there are today too many Rinpoches. There should never be more than a few—just the best, and they should be very well educated.

“Nowadays, relatively few people come to our political events. But, when religious instruction takes place, all the seats will be occupied and you will not even find a place to stand. The fixation on religion is unbelievably strong. When you try to speak about politics to the older generation of Tibetans, who grew up in Tibet, you meet with a total lack of understanding. They do not even know what it is. They never learned to think politically. But they can talk for hours about religion. The young people, however, are somewhat more awake.

“What are your concrete complaints about the Rinpoches?”

“Tulkus are often very rich. They inherit the entire fortune that belonged to their predecessors. In Tibet, in fact, they were extremely rich, even as landowners. If you ask a Tibetan for a donation for political use, you may get five rupees. But a tulku gets 100 rupees without even asking. Thus, even in exile, the Rinpoches automatically get rich. The people pay 100 rupees for a Rinpoche to bless them, even though it is questionable whether the blessing actually will help them if they do nothing else. Many tulkus have followers in the West. Many have taken off the robe and married after having gone to Europe. There, they enjoy all the luxury of this world. We don’t have numbers, of course,we don’t even know how many tulkus we have here. Many of the lamas in the West—this I saw myself—drink wine. They say that without a glass of wine at bedtime they simply cannot fall asleep. That is unbelievable! The Europeans have ruined many tulkus. Just look at Trijang Rinpoche. His reincarnation lives in Switzerland and is totally spoiled: he watches videos, swims, does sports…”

“We don’t consider any of that to be luxury, Pema‐la!”

“That may well be. But he should be using all of his time for his studies—that is what I think. India is the best place to educate young tulkus. There is more discipline here and there are many geshes who can educate them well. All that is too difficult to accomplish in the West. There are too many distractions.”

“What do you think about the large amounts of foreign money that flow into the monasteries instead of to the orphanages, old‐age homes and simi‐ lar welfare organizations?”

“Yes, there are only a few people in the West interested in supporting these institutions. Many foreign Buddhists, even those in Asia, would rather give money to the monasteries. We can’t change that. These people have a blind faith in Buddhism, even when they do not understand much about it. They look for help from the lamas in dealing with the problems they have to live with.”

“What do you think should happen to the lands formerly held by the monasteries when Tibet becomes autonomous?”

“We wish to build a new and better democratic system in Tibet. There will not be any big landowners. They have no place in this system. We are trying to get our people used to democratic thinking. Until recently, there still was serfdom in Tibet. Just because of this the Chinese were able to say that they liberated the Tibetans.”

Voices like this can be frequently heard, especially in Dharamsala, where, on the one hand, there are many well educated young people and, one the other, the honors paid to the Rinpoches, particularly among Westerners, sometimes take on extreme forms. Mrs. Ngawang Lhamo is a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile and is one of the ten members of its Working Committee. She was formerly president of the Tibetan Women’s Association and is deeply engaged in programs promoting public welfare. Her criticism centers primarily on what she perceives as the unwillingness, particularly of the incarnate lamas of the monasteries, to take on social responsibility for the Tibetan community in exile. Her views, as we found on earlier visits to Tibetan settlements along the Himalayas and in southern India, are shared by the local authorities.

“Mrs. Ngawang Lhamo, what is your opinion of the Tibetan tulku system asit currently exists?”

The tulkus have had a very specific role in our tradition. Formerly, in Tibet, where there was no general education, the monasteries, whose spiritual leaders were always tulkus, played avery important educational role. The tulkus, therefore, were a kind of teacher or educator of the people.

“I used to be a teacher and, in my experience, the mentality of the Tibetans is somewhat different from that of people in the West. For example, when I told my older pupils and their parents that the children should participate in sports, they just laughed and did not listen. The same suggestion coming from a tulku, however, would meet with a completely different response. Unfortunately, the Rinpoches do not care about such banal things.

“In Tibet, bad tulkus were the exception. That is not the case today. We therefore no longer have the same great respect for tulkus as we once had. We now judge them on the basis of what they do for the public welfare, whether they are useful to the people—not only from a religious standpoint. A tulku must be an example. Today, we tend to respect people who help their fellowman in a practical sense more than we do a Rinpoche. In our culture, religion is a part of our life. Now, tulkus are an important part of our religion and we believe in the high lamas. Today, however, there are simply too many Rinpoches, most of them are important only to their own group, to their monasteries.”

“I understand your points very well, however, I must say that the young tulkus we interviewed have greatly impressed us with their discipline, their intelligence and their willingness to seme. Is this not a basis for a real hope for the future?”

“That may well apply to the very high lamas, but what about many of the others? And what about the ordinary monks and nuns? For example, we attempted to convince the nuns to take on social welfare responsibilities, like their Christian sisters, to become nurses or midwives, to care for children and the elderly, but without much success, even though His Holiness is of the same opinion. In the same vein, the great Rinpoches, who have so much money, should be building hospitals, schools and old-age homes—that is what we should expect from them today.

“The monasteries in exile are today again so Wonderful, with their gigantic statues, woodwork, frescos, everything gold plated, carved and painted. All the money goes to that, but nothing is left for the poor, the old, the sick and for the children. They do not give anything to anybody. Where is their social responsibility? Where is their responsibility for the Tibetan community?”

“How is it with the young Tibetan girls? Do they still think very traditionally or are they more ambivalent, such that they wear traditional clothing while in the office but, after work, walk around in jeans?”

“That depends on their family and where they live. In the Tibetan settlements, they are certainly very much bound up with their religion, with the local monastery and its tulkus. The lamas give the children a name, they bless the people, perform Mo, whenever the people request it. And they take money for everything.

“Things are different in larger towns, like here. The girls do not often go to the lamas. They only go when His Holiness or another high-ranking lama gives instruction. This applies certainly to all the young people and also to the middle-aged generation. We also do not really understand the real meaning of the instructions and what the lama is actually trying to say. He speaks a language we no longer understand.”

Every coin, so it seems, has two sides. The critics do not have a problem, as such, with the existence of the tulkus. Their objections center instead on what they consider an excess of tulkus and on the monasteries over which the tulkus preside, which, despite the enormous influx of money from the West, do not share the wealth with ordinary Tibetans outside the monastery walls.

The ordinary Tibetans frequently live at the edge of poverty. Although every child does receive a primary education, those who cannot find sponsors to subsidize more advanced studies are out of luck. In southern India, the Tibetan Youth Congress estimates that about 10,000 young Tibetans are unemployed, while the number of young people who turn to drugs or even engage in drug trafficking has been increasing steadily over the last two to three years. The government in exile has simply failed to create opportunities for vocational training. In Tibet, this, too, used to be a function of the monasteries. Nowadays, they simply hire Indian tradesmen and field workers. These are all significant problems, though they do not touch directly on the subject we are discussing.’

Source: Egbert Asshauer. (2006). Tulkus—The Mystery of the Living Buddhas: Conversations, Encounters, Backgrounds. Ulm: Fabri Verlag. (pp. 156-162).

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.