Said the Dalai Lama in 1979…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

In 1979 the fourteenth Dalai Lama shared the following observations on the (de)merits of the formal instatement of (re)incarnations with Swiss researcher Daniel Bärlocher. They were published in his Ph.D. dissertation in 1982:

“Q: Do you think there are still people, Tibetans in India maybe, who remember their past lives?

A: Yes, a few people that His Holiness knows very well.

Q: Do you think I could meet them?

A: O yea.

A child about three, four, five: that period is the best period to remember, clearly remember (something) of the past life. Afterwards that (ca­pacity) greatly diminishes as the new physical structure becomes stronger and stronger. The new memory is increasing, the old memory goes away. So you see, (the age of) a child who just speaks, who just began to speak; that period is period for a clear memory of the past.

Q: Only one past life—or many?

A: It depends on the sharpness of the mind of the child. It depends on the mental development of the individual if one remembers one life or more than that: two lives, three lives or hundred lives or infinite lives.

Something like this, you see; even in this life there are some people with a very strong memory. Somebody can remember something that happened many years ago; he remembers clearly a small, slight thing. That depends on how strong his memory is.

Q: What is the purpose of this coming again and re­membering?

A: It’s like asking what is the purpose of the grass growing – or something like that!

Q: But it can help other people?

A: That depends on (one’s) motivation.

Q: So you think it is happening even outside the Ti­betan people?

A: Of course! You see, I think someone who researches about these things according to his knowledge .. (could find out these facts); some Eskimo family, some Christian family and also some Hindu family in India or some Muslim in India—(even their child shows a clear remembrance. Like that!

Q: Yourself, Your Holiness, as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara: that is also in a row of Sangye. Is that comparable to what some call a ‘Living Buddha’?

A: No, no. In the period of one teaching there cannot be two Buddhas or two The Buddhas; it is written in the scripture.

There are of course manifestations of Buddha and there are also beings completely sort of blessed, appointed by Buddhas and also sort of successors to Buddhas in different names.

In the manifestations of Avalokiteshvara there are certain beings which are truly incarnations of Ava­lokiteshvara and as well there are others who are completely sort of blessed by Avalokiteshvara, with a strong, fortfying influence of Avalokiteshvara. .. And sometimes in place of Avalokiteshvara’s incarnation there is a Manjushri incarnation, as a representative.

Sometimes there is just one stream of the consciousness of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva or an Arya Bodhisattva incarnating—and sometimes one stream of a Buddha- or Bodhisattva-mind is manifesting in many forms simultaneously. ..

Q: What is the purpose of a Tibetan tulku today, in the west?

A: There is invitation, (His Holiness laughing); there are people who invite. The purpose of the invitation must be known to those who invite.

In any case now, you see, the world is becoming smaller, smaller, smaller, economically also. And also in the fields of culture and different faiths(we) now come closer; that is good so, is very useful. We Buddhists must learn from the others: Christian philosophy and also, (what is) highly necessary to learn, modern psychology, technical things. I think this is worthwhile and very useful to learn. And in the meantime the scientists, the doctors, (western) people ought try to learn Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist psychology.

Q: There is a big problem I have faced in my studies: something that is natural and normal for yourself, like these Tulkus and people’s rebirth and all that,is for many westerners, also scientific people, something like parapsychology or something very exotic, not something real. How do you think that the communication can happen with these very different points of view?

A: Time, a question of time. It will get clearer and clearer as the time goes.

Q: For westerners?

A: Yea. Westerners, through scientific means (they will do) more research, more research, more research.

Q: And what will they find?

A: Now, you see, there are certain (things) like rebirth, continuation of mind; we believe that this is fact. If through scientific means (it could be) clearly proved that there is no next life and no continuation of mind—then why (should) we not accept it? The Buddha himself told us: You must follow fact. If a certain point is not a fact you should not accept it. 

So like that; it is open, is vast to investigate unbiasedly. Then (through) more scientific research and more meditation: same fact, one point, one fact. One way (goes through) external means, that is the scientific method. (Another includes) meditation and these things (as the) internal method. They both reach the same point.

Q: That implies that this question is concerning not only Tibetans and not only people who are within religious sciences, but everybody, because everybody.

A: But everybody should not necessarily accept everything, (His Holiness laughing). Everybody in the world cannot become a scientist, that’s impossible, nor can they (all) become a Buddhist or a religious person. So I think that’s the way of the world, (laughing). In any way (it’s) very interesting to research further. Eastern mentality, western mentality: at present there is some difference in certain cases. These, I mean, (are) due to a lack of information, a lack of contact.

Now gradually more Tibetan are becoming more and more like Swiss and some of the Swiss more and more become like a Tibetan, (His Holiness laughing). Then afterwards it is half-half (and they) then gradually and clearly understand each other. It’s a matter of time.

Fact is something fact; time goes and (through) more investigation (things become) more clear. If something is completely conceptualized, if it is a mere conception and not a fact nor useful—then it may collapse, may fail good. It’s better (for such a thing) to collapse soon, sooner the better, (laughing). So like that.

Q: Now the education of the Tulkus; how does one respond to the changed way of living today in exile?

A: The Tulku’s main function is the same: to serve the society, the beings and the Dharma. You see, a Tulku is not meant for doing land-business; he is not meant to be a landlord or to accumulate wealth. He is meant to serve the sentient beings and the Dharma.

So in the past there have been some Lamas, some Tulkus who had a big establishment, some of them were big land-owners. That is not there today and it is not necessary. Lord Buddha himself gave up all these things.

Q: As a monk.

A: Hm! And of his followers in India many just lived as simple monks.

Q: When a Tulku wants to go to the west and to acquire some western knowledge he has to leave his tutors and teachers; is he completely on himself?

A: That depends on each indivdual, on how well he is (spiritually) developed. Like this Rinpoche who is now studying in Ladakh, one head of the Kagyü sect; he remained seventeen years under the Chinese, many years in prison. Then he went to the United States to meet his parents and stayed there about two years. Then he returned. His latest settlement is in Ladakh. There he is practising, learning. So like that: wherever he goes he remains a Lama, a qualified Lama. And some weaker ones, some weak people—as soon as they mix, as they meet (other people) or reach a new environment they can’t keep it up.

Q: What is happening to the traditional ranks, the Tulku hierarchy now in exile?

A: This is minor, this may change!

Q: The ranks are abandoned?

A: In the monasteries they maintain this still now, but His Holiness pleads that this is a minor thing.
os Whether it remains or not is not so important.

Q: How do you think about the many lay Tulkus who, mainly in the west, settled down with a family and who are mostly in secular employments?

A: They don’t have any connection with the monastic discipline because they have already given that up. As soon as they have disrobed themselves they have no more connection and have cut themselves from the monastic discipline.

Q: They remain Tulkus?

A: They still retain that name. They are the incarnation. If the person was a real Tulku then he will continue to remain Tulku. If not, if the selection was wrong from the beginning.

Q: If he is a real Tulku he will still be of benefit for the sentient beings? Even though he has no more spiritual functions?

A: That depends on the individual’s actions and his motivation. Until a Tulku reaches a certain level you can have those who in the beginning could be good and then later become bad, or in the beginning they could be bad and later become good. Both ways are possible.

Q: And how do you face an eventual appearance of non-Tibetan Tulkus in the west?

A: That’s possible. They can be qualified Tulkus. There is no discrimination or distinction regarding this if they are qualified. And it is possible that someone of the west could be an incarnation.

Q: Even an accepted one?

A: If the search of that type of Tulku was qualified (and the candidate) proved, according to all the normal experiments, tests, then we can even have a blond Tulku, (His Holiness laughing).

In the past we had Mongolian Tulkus with blondish hair and green eyes. So now again, (laughing), we might have Tulkus with green eyes. The importantthing is that these Tulkus are properly selected; that’s important.

Q: According to the traditional proceedings?

A: Yes, and also with clear indications. It’s not only according to the system (of confirmation); His Holiness says some clear indications by the Tulku himself are more important.

Q: Speaking about Tulkus going to the west for teaching Dharma; is there a difference between a learned Tulku and a learned Geshe?

A: Generally speaking: I usually prefer a Geshe. He is better than Tulku.

Q: Why?

A: Why? Hm, I mean we must speak realistically; there is a Geshe (and) whether he is a high being or not he has actually studied and is tested and qualified (to teach Dharma).

Among the Tulku group there are (also) people who are really qualified and who are really respected, who have world-wide respect (as scholars). And at the same time there are Tulkus who, even though they may not have the qualifications, can take ad¬vantage of certain things because of their name (and title) of Tulku. So I prefer a Geshe.

Q: As teachers?

A: Yes. And among the Tulkus there are those who are also qualified Geshes (but) to go only by a name is not sufficient.

Q: A Tulku in the west, facing western psychology which is concentrated only on one life and very individually orientated, while he himself is within this lineage, this spiritual heritage.

A: Hm, these are all Buddhists, all practitioners; that problem would be similar for all who believe in rebirth.

Q: Yes. But I was especially thinking of a Tulku; he knows about his predecessors and is himself in this lineage as one of the Tulkus. Then at the same time he has his own character, his own personality in this present life. That makes it like two for himself—could be a problem, no?

A: No, no. That identity would be of the past life; it has nothing to do with this present life, so there is no clash between the two. It is the same—like even in one lifetime a person might be leading one kind of lifestyle at the beginning and entirely a different kind of lifestyle later in his life. The two may not necessarily have to clash, psychologically, even within one lifetime.

Q: How do you see the future social and political role of Tulkus within the new democratic constitution of Tibet?

A: Just the same as any other Tibetan. And depending on each individual’s qualification. No special status.

Q: That would be a change.

A: Tulku is something purely related to religion; it has nothing to do with the social aspect of the Tibetan way of life (according to the Draft Constitution of Tibet).

Q: That means the role of the Tulkus is now completely within religion and not as before.

A: (His Holiness laughing): only from a social point of view is the constitution for a future Tibet. There will be no special status or rank (for the Tulkus). But then (of course) people with faith, people believing in say Tulkus and religion, out of their own respect and belief (will honour the Lamas as traditionally).
Buddha in all his teachings has never mentioned any special status, only qualification.

(Regarding) the Tulku system there was some connection with the social system of Tibet in the past. And some of this will change. As mentioned earlier, in the past there were Tulkus with big land and wealth; such things will change.

His Holiness says it will change with the time, there is nothing to plan. He had not even given thought about it. This Tulku system evolved in the Tibetan society, so it will go on its own evolution and changes. Basically it has nothing to do with the teaching.

Q: With Chö?

A: Hm! Chö: rebirth is there, reincarnation is there. But not the lineages. Whether the lineages (of Tulkus) continue or not will depend on the circumstances.

Even with the Dalai Lamas: if the lineage continues or not depends on the circumstances. If it is beneficial it will continue, if it is not beneficial it will not continue. So like that!”

Source: Bärlocher, Daniel. (1982). Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus: A Research among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile: Volume I: Materials. Tibet-Institut, Rikon. (pp. 112-125).

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.