In 2015, Khenpo Sodargye published a collection of sayings by his teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (b. 1933 d. 2004) on—among other things—the Tibetan ‘tulku boom’ and the proliferation of self-declared Buddhist teachers:
‘As we look at current trends, we see that some people have the title of Khenpo or Tulku, but in reality they do not cherish the Buddhadharma. They only know to pursue various worldly pleasures. Those who have compassion for living beings are as rare as stars at dawn. The ones who purport to be eminent monks and virtuous masters frequently cheat living beings with various excuses, and boldly amass wealth. Yet many people actually start to jostle to make offerings to these so-called masters without examining them closely. These people even boast of their “merit” everywhere they go.
This phenomenon is truly the sorrow of Buddhism, the sorrow of the monastic sangha, and the sorrow of the faithful! It is exactly these repellent actions that have propelled the Buddhadharma into the Dharma age of degeneration, and destroyed Buddhism’s noble place in people’s hearts. (…)
In this day and age, there are very few authentic spiritual mentors with the characteristics of a dharmic person. Instead, proper conduct that accords with the Dharma has become a target for public censure.
Look around us. Many temples have turned into lay community centers and are no different from any noisy place in a city. If the conditions for study, reflection, and practice do not exist in a Buddhist practice center, how can it be called a sacred place for liberation? Some Dharma teachers in these lively temples do not try to spread the Dharma to benefit beings, nor do they observe pure precepts; instead, they greedily amass followers who make monetary offerings. In this way, how can one see hope for the spread of the authentic Dharma?
There is another group of people, who have never followed any teacher or cultivated any practices, but publicly peddle “Buddhadharma” to others. This is like stumbling around in the pitch-dark night with your eyes shut, yet also harboring a misleading intention of “guiding” others. Nowadays, there is a glut of these Dharma teachers who appear to be virtuous masters. They deceive themselves and others, talk carelessly without restraint, and have guided innumerable believers down wrong paths.
The main reason for this phenomenon is that people today do not value the Buddha’s true teachings at all. Their understanding of the Buddhadharma is based only on their discriminating minds’ judgments; they almost never rely on the teachings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. This has allowed some ignorant and incompetent people to wedge themselves into the cracks and deceive beings everywhere. (…)
Some monks and nuns will become self-righteous and arrogant beyond measure when they gain a little fame in society. They believe their conduct is entirely correct and they no longer need anyone’s criticism or advice. These people tend to be shallow and ignorant, and they are unworthy of their titles. Yet quite a few blind followers have gathered around them.
As I see it, most people today do not really have the ability to discriminate between the wise and the foolish. Very few have the wisdom to recognize able people. Why is this so? It is because people no longer value the inner realization and merit of Buddhadharma. Instead, they only set store by a master’s appearance and reputation.
With the passing of time, this has become the rule. Monastics who stray from the precepts and behave improperly are often seen as free and unrestrained enlightened ones. When their behavior clearly violates the precepts, some insist that these are unique skillful means. Cunning and devious characters are seen to possess extraordinary wisdom; fierce and cruel ones are even praised as being “full of heroic spirit”; those who maliciously slander others and sow discord are perversely lauded as eloquent and expressive.
In truth, the only way to evaluate spiritual mentors is to examine their inner wisdom and compassion. Do they have the compassion to sacrifice themselves for all beings under the sky, the wisdom that realizes the true nature of the expanse of reality? Regrettably, the world always deviates from this standard; intentionally or not, it is swayed by ignorant and deluded views. (…)
Nowadays, sometimes ordinary people become great tulkus overnight. How can this be? Please ask these people, ”Are you truly the reincarnation of an eminent monk or master?” If they are, then it is perfectly understandable that they are recognized as tulkus. If however, they clearly know that they are not but continue to deceive living beings sanctimoniously, then they have definitely broken the precept against major lies. In ancient India, for example, until practitioners had attained the realization of an arhat, they were not permitted to sit on a yellow floral cushion.
These days, we frequently hear that this or that person is a tulku. The truth is, there are genuine ones and fake ones among these tulkus. People acknowledge fake tulkus either because they hope to exploit the connection for their family and friends or to gain social status. Even some monasteries recognize tulkus just to pursue fame, fortune, and the rest of the eight worldly dharmas.
These so-called tulkus have little practice experience, but after their title is bestowed, they become self-righteous and do not behave like practitioners at all. In contrast, some khenpos clearly are reincarnations of tulkus, but they never admit it. Adopting a low profile in this way is very good.
In fact, tulkus are divided into several types:
1. Before dying, sometimes eminent monks and masters give blessings to their future rebirth Through prophecies or dream omens, they bless someone who is not actually their reincarnation to be their nominal tulku. But this is not a tulku in the true sense.
2. Some people are not tulkus, but to benefit beings or for other hidden purposes, they are recognized as tulkus through certain methods.
3. There are also some tulkus who adopted it as the path during the bardo.
4. Some tulkus are under the influence of Mara. For instance, a demon who killed a teacher in a former life takes the form of the teacher, then directly changes into someone, or blesses someone and says, ”This is the reincarnated tulku of our teacher.”
In short, it is best that someone who is not a tulku does not masquerade as one. If you are truly virtuous, no one will belittle you But if you believe that by just mimicking well you can really become a tulku, that is taking it too far!
Many worldly people today like to pay respect to tulkus. While this activity has its merit, I hope that before you follow a tulku, you will carefully assess this tulku from several aspects. Do not readily believe whatever talk you have heard.
People say that I am the reincarnation of Tulku Lerab Lingpa. But I have never—not in the light of day or even in dreams—thought myself that I am this accomplished master. There are plenty of people who are as inferior as I am, some even more pathetic. In reality, what purpose is there for one to receive an undeserved title of Tulku? I hope some of you will reflect on this carefully.
In the past, many masters were honored as tulkus, but they did not then become pleased with themselves. They just quietly protected their virtue and merit. Other masters did not wish for the title of Tulku, but their teaching to benefit beings flourished unimpededly. There are people today, however, who believe themselves to be “tulkus” and smugly bask in others’ praise. They go as far as drinking and smoking all day, craving women frequently, and satisfying their greed with the funds they obtain. To witness this abominable image of worldly defilement truly inspires pity.
Some immoral characters shamelessly boast of being tulkus in order to win respect and obtain offerings. They say to others, “Tulkus are the most noble! A tulku’s status in Tibetan Buddhism is the highest!” Many people end up being taken in by these claims and believe that they can follow anyone who is a “tulku,” even if this so-called tulku has not the slightest virtue. But when these people meet a teacher without a tulku title—no matter how sublime the teacher’s virtue or how vast the teacher’s knowledge, and even if all the Dharma characteristics of a spiritual guide are present—they cannot feel a drop of respect for this teacher. This phenomenon is rather common in the Han regions and has now become a complex issue. Some fake tulkus have indeed inflicted deep and lasting harm on Tibetan Buddhism.’
Source: Khenpo Sodargye (Ed.). (2015). Always Present: The Luminous Wisdom of Jigme Phuntsok. Boston: Snow Lion. (Excerpts from Chapter 9: ‘Who is the true field of merit?’, pp. 98-110)