Said José Cabezón and Penpa Dorjee in 2019…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

In their recently published Sera Monastery, José Cabezón and Penpa Dorjee had this to say on traditional views on the ranking and reputation of formally instated (re)incarnations (trülkus) and monastic teachers (lamas) within the Tibetan Geluk tradition:

‘Incarnate lamas were ranked by the Tibetan government according to whether they were trulkus of the Great Assembly Hall, the highest rank, or of their respective college, a lower rank. Lamas were also ranked as small, middling, or great (chung ‘bring che khag), depending on various factors: whether or not they had served as a regent, the antiquity of their lineage (how many previous incarnations could be identified), the preeminence of their predecessors, how many monasteries they controlled and how large these were, the wealth of their estates , their learning, and so forth. There was another position in the monastery called chöndzé (chos mdzad) that had many of the same privileges as trulkus. One became a chondzé—literally, a “Dharma doer”—on the basis o f a financial contribution to the college, usually in the form of a tongo, or feast, with money offerings to each monk. Khamtsens relished having trulkus and chondzés both because of these monks’ status and because of their wealth. Sera Jé’s Lawa khamtsen was especially renowned for its many trulkus. On the debate ground, all monks were equal, and even recognized incarnations were often teased during debates. But outside of chöra, trulkus were shown deference, and they enjoyed certain entitlements and privileges. A trulku’s rank determined his place in the monastery’s seating arrangement, the rooms he got, the special dispensations (spyan gsal) he was granted, the offerings he received from the laity, and soon. Some trulkus were very rich, and their residences at Sera—for example, the Purchok, Tsemonling, and Radreng labrangs—were large, the size of small khamtsens.

Not all incarnate lamas were wealthy, however. As a rule, trulkus experi‐ enced less financial hardship than common monks, but they also had many more financial obligations. At the lower end of the trulku hierarchy were the incarnations of recently deceased geshe’s and abbots, and at the higher end the gyaltruls (rgyal sprul), the incarnations of Tibet’s regents. A lama’s official tank was not set in stone, for the Dalai Lamas or the Tibetan government could promote or demote him. We also need to make a distinction between a trulku’s official rank and his standing within the community. A relatively minor trulku could achieve a very high standing by virtue of his erudition and charisma. The famous Sera Mé lama Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo is a good example of a low‐ranking trulku with a very high status; although he was the reincarnation of a learned geshé, he had hundreds if not thousands of disciples, including many high lamas. Vice versa, high-ranking lamas who failed to live up to their name were considered a disgrace to their lineage (zhabs ‘dren). Protocol may have required that they be treated with deference, but they were not respected by the monks. Materially, the life of trulkus was easier than that of most ordinary monks, but trulkus’ lives were difficult in other respects. Their activities were closely monitored, they had little freedom of movement, they had to receive lay visitors and patrons, and of course they were under pressure to perform in their studies. Today, in exile, there is a certain ambivalence about trulkus. This is partly due to the fact that many of them have disrobed, and partly due to the large number of minor trulkus being recognized. In exile, when a geshé passes away, it is quite common for his students to search for his reincarnation—much more common than it was in Tibet. This has led to a large increase in the number of geshé incarnations in the densas. Monks joke that at this rate, the number of trulkus will soon surpass the number of ordinary monks. Densa monks, as we’ve mentioned, use the terms trulku and lama (the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word guru) interchangeably. This makes it seem as though all trulkus are advanced adepts or gurus. But as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is fond of saying, the relationship between trulku and lama is a fourfold one. There are lamas who aren’t trulkus, trulkus who aren’t lamas, monks who are both, and monks who are neither. The upshot is that being a trulku may give one certain status, but being a lama—a qualified teacher—is a position that is earned through hard work. Not all trulkus are therefore lamas, but throughout history many Sera trulkus have lived up to their names and become great scholars and practitioners. We have already encountered several of them in these pages. In the next chapter we will encounter several more, but there we shall also see that even the highest of trulkus, the gyaltruls, could succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and fall from their positions of privilege.’

Source: Cabezón, José. Ignacio & Penpa Dorjee. (2019). Sera Monastery. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. (pp. 346-348).



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.