The Tulku system & the preservation of Dharma lineages
A tulku is a reincarnate custodian of a specific lineage of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism who is given empowerments and trained from a young age by students of his or her predecessor.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Reincarnation in Buddhism
- 2 - Tülkus in Vajrayana Buddhism
- 3 - Tülku identification methods
- 4 - Origin of Tulku Lineages
- 5 - High-profile examples of tulkus
- 5.1 - Karmapa
- 5.2 - Tulku
- 5.3 - Shamarpa
- 5.4 - Sakya Trizin
- 5.5 - Karma Chagme
- 5.6 - Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
- 5.7 - Thubten Zopa Rinpoche
- 5.8 - Thubten Yeshe
- 5.9 - Lama Gonpo Tseten
- 5.10 - Sakyong Mipham
- 5.11 - Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche
- 5.12 - Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
- 5.13 - Chime Tulku
- 5.14 - Tsoknyi Rinpoche
- 5.15 - Namgyal Rinpoche
- 5.16 - Mipham Chokyi Lodro
- 5.17 - Tenzin Delek Rinpoche
- 5.18 - Nenang Pawo
- 5.19 - Orgyen Tobgyal
- 5.20 - Samdhong Rinpoche
- 5.21 - Tenzin Jigme
- 5.22 - Wangdrak Rinpoche
- 5.23 - Bokar Tulku Rinpoche
- 5.24 - Lobsang Pelden Tenpe Dronme
- 5.25 - Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche
- 5.26 - Choseng Trungpa
- 5.27 - Jamphel Yeshe Gyaltsen
- 5.28 - Dulduityn Danzanravjaa
- 5.29 - Goshir Gyaltsab
- 5.30 - Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
- 5.31 - Kyabgön Phakchok Rinpoche
- 5.32 - Tarthang Tulku
- 5.33 - Chime Rinpoche
- 5.34 - Tulku Dakpa
- 5.35 - Trungpa tülkus
- 5.36 - Dodrupchen Jigme Trinle Ozer
- 5.37 - Drikungpa
- 5.38 - Alak Jigme Thinley Lhundup Rinpoche
- 5.39 - Khentrul Jamphel Lodrö Rinpoche
- 5.40 - Sakya Trizin Ngawang Kunga
- 5.41 - Ogyen Trinley Dorje
- 5.42 - Khandro Rinpoche
- 5.43 - Khenpo Shenga
- 5.44 - Jalsan
- 5.45 - Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai
- 5.46 - Diluwa Khutugtu Jamsrangjab
- 5.47 - Jamyang Zhepa
- 5.48 - Jebtsundamba Khutuktu
- 5.49 - Changkya Khutukhtu
- 5.50 - Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal
Reincarnation in Buddhism
Reincarnation, also known as rebirth or transmigration, is the philosophical or religious concept that the non-physical essence of a living being begins a new life in a different physical form or body after biological death.
It is a central tenet of the Indian religions such as Buddhism, most Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism.
As opposed to Hinduism, Buddhism introduces the idea that during rebirth there is no permanent self and no irreducible ātman (soul) moving from life to another and tying these lives together.
According to Buddhism there is impermanence, all compounded things such as living beings are aggregates, they dissolve at death and consequently reincarnates.
In this short video Charok Lama explains with simple and kind words the meaning of aggregates in Buddhism:
Different traditions within Buddhism have offered different theories on what reincarnates and how reincarnation happens.
One theory suggests that it occurs through consciousness or stream of consciousness upon death, which reincarnates into a new aggregation.
This process is similar to the flame of a dying candle lighting up another.
The consciousness in the newly born being is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream in this Buddhist theory.
Tülkus in Vajrayana Buddhism
Higher Vajrayana practitioner can be reborn as a tülku, who have attained siddhis and mastered the bardo of dying, bardo of dharmata or bardo of becoming.
The term was originally used to describe the Buddha as a “magical emanation” of enlightenment, is best translated as “incarnation” or “steadfast incarnation” when used in the context of the tulku system to describe patriarchs that reliably return to human form or “emanation body”.
Tülku identification methods
When an old tulku dies, a committee of senior lamas convenes to find the young reincarnation.
The group may employ a number of methods in their search.
First, they will probably look for a letter left behind by the departed tulku indicating where he intends to be born again.
They will ask the close friends of the departed to recall everything he said during his last days, in case he may have given hints.
Often, an oracle is consulted and sometimes a prominent lama has a dream that reveals details of the child’s house, parents, or of geographical features near his home.
Sometimes heaven presents a sign, perhaps a rainbow, leading the search party to the child.
Origin of Tulku Lineages
Historically, the tulku system of preserving Dharma lineages operated in Tibet with the first being the Karmapas.
After the first Karmapa died in 1193, a lama had recurrent visions of a particular child as his rebirth.
This child (born ca. 1205) was recognized as the second Karmapa, thus beginning the Tibetan tulku tradition.
We estimate that there are approximately 500 tulku lineages found across Tibet, Bhutan, Northern India, Nepal, Mongolia, and the southwest provinces of China.
Some examples of lineages are:
- Dodrupchen tulkus – the main custodians of Longchen Nyingthig
- Dudjom tulkus – the main custodians of Dudjom Tersar
- Chokling tulkus – the main custodians of Chokling Tersar
- Khyentse tulkus – the main custodians of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo
- Kongtrul tulkus – the main custodians of the Jamgon Kongtrul
- Samding Dorje Phagmo tulkus – the highest female incarnation lineage in Tibet
High-profile examples of tulkus
High-profile examples of tulkus include:
- the Dalai Lamas
- the Panchen Lamas
- the Samding Dorje Phagmos
- the Karmapas
- the Khyentses
- the Zhabdrung Rinpoches
- the Kongtruls
This is a non-exhaustive list of identified Tulkus and their lineages.
Karmapa is the head of the Karma Kagyu, the largest sub-school of the Kagyupa, itself one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Düsum Khyenpa, 1st Karmapa Lama (1110–1193), was a disciple of the Tibetan master Gampopa.
A talented child who studied Buddhism with his father from an early age and who sought out great teachers in his twenties and thirties, he is said to have attained enlightenment at the age of fifty while practicing dream yoga.
He was henceforth regarded by the contemporary highly respected masters Shakya Śri and Lama Shang as the Karmapa, a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara.
A tulku is a reincarnate custodian of a specific lineage of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism who is given empowerments and trained from a young age by students of his or her predecessor.
The Shamarpa, also known as Shamar Rinpoche, or more formally Künzig Shamar Rinpoche, is a lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and is regarded to be the mind manifestation of Amitābha.
He is traditionally associated with Yangpachen Monastery near Lhasa.
Sakya Trizin is the traditional title of the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Sakya school was founded in 1073CE, when Khön Könchog Gyalpo a member of Tibet’s noble Khön family, established a monastery in the region of Sakya, Tibet, which became the headquarters of the Sakya order.
Since that time, its leadership has descended within the Khön family.
The 41st Sakya Trizin, whose reign spanned more than fifty years, was the longest reigning Sakya Trizin.
The current Sakya Trizin is Gyana Vajra Rinpoche, officially known as Kyabgon Gongma Trizin Rinpoche, the 43rd Sakya Trizin Gyana Vajra Rinpoche.
The name Karma Chagme refers to a 17th-century Tibetan Buddhist (Vajrayāna) lama and to the tülku lineage which he initiated.
Including the first, seven Karma Chagme tülkus have been recognized.
The Neydo Kagyu sub-school of the Karma Kagyu was established by the first Karma Chagme, Rāga Asya.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is a Tibetan teacher and master of the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.
He has authored two best-selling books and oversees the Tergar Meditation Community, a global network of Buddhist meditation centers.
Thubten Zopa Rinpoche
Thubten Zopa Rinpoche is a Nepali lama from Khumbu, the entryway to Mount Everest.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche is a Gelugpa lineage holder, having received teachings from many of the great Gelugpa masters.
His Root Guru is HH Trijang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso since he was a young boy studying in Buxa, India.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche is a devoted student of the 14th Dalai Lama and has outlined that offering service to the Dalai Lama as much as possible and to be able to fulfill his wishes is the highest priority for the FPMT organization.
Thubten Yeshe (1935–1984) was a Tibetan lama who, while exiled in Nepal, co-founded Kopan Monastery (1969) and the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (1975). He followed the Gelug tradition, and was considered unconventional in his teaching style.
Lama Gonpo Tseten
Gonpo Tseten Rinpoche (1906–1991) was a Dzogchen master, author, painter, sculptor, and teacher of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Among Lama Gönpo Tseten’s artistic works are two murals in Clement Town, Dhera Dun, India: “Amitabha in Dewachen” at Tashi Gommo Gelugpa Monastery, and “Mount Meru and the Universe System” at the Nyingmapa Lamas College.
He also painted a large thangka of the Longchen Nyingtik Refuge Tree and smaller thangkas of Padmasambhava and Vajrakilaya, some of which he gave to Thinley Norbu Rinpoche.
Subsequently, the main figure of Guru Rinpoche of Lama Gönpo’s painting was used as the cover for the Padmakara Translation Group’s translation of White Lotus by the 1st Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche.
Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Jampal Trinley Dradul is the head of the Shambhala lineage and Shambhala, a worldwide network of urban Buddhist meditation centers, retreat centers, monasteries, a university, and other enterprises, founded by his father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is a high lama in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. In July 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche stated that he is stepping back from his duties due to an investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct.
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche
Chagdud Tulku was a Tibetan teacher of the Nyingma school of Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism. He was known and respected in the West for his teachings, his melodic chanting voice, his artistry as a sculptor and painter, and his skill as a physician. He acted as a spiritual guide for thousands of students worldwide. He was the sixteenth tülku of the Chagdud line.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was a Buddhist master of the Kagyü and Nyingma lineages who lived at Nagi Gompa hermitage in Nepal.
Urgyen Rinpoche was considered one of the greatest Dzogchen masters of his time.
Tulku Urgyen was the author of the two-volume As It Is, which deals with the subject of emptiness.
His main transmissions were the Chokling Tersar and the pointing-out instruction.
Chime Tulku Rinpoche is a Buddhist Tulku. Rinpoche was born in 1991 into the family of Jamyang Khechog, an official at Surmang Namgyal Tse monastery.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche or Ngawang Tsoknyi Gyatso is a Nepalese Tibetan Buddhist teacher and author, and the founder of the Pundarika Foundation. He is the third Tsoknyi Rinpoche, having been recognized by the 16th Karmapa as the reincarnation of Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He is a tulku of the Drukpa Kagyü and Nyingma traditions and the holder of the Ratna Lingpa and Tsoknyi lineages.
Namgyal Rinpoche, Karma Tenzin Dorje (1931–2003), born Leslie George Dawson in Toronto, Canada, was a Tibetan Buddhist lama in the Karma Kagyu tradition.
Mipham Chokyi Lodro
Mipham Chokyi Lodro, also known as Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, was the 14th Shamarpa of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Shamarpa is the second most important teacher of the Karma Kagyu school after the Karmapa. The Karmapas are sometimes referred to as the Black Hat Lamas, referring to their Black Crown.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche
Lithang Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche or Tenzing Deleg was a Tibetan Buddhist leader from Garze, Sichuan. He was born in Lithang, Tibet. He was arrested on April 7, 2002 during a raid on Jamyang Choekhorling in Garze, Sichuan, China. He was accused of being involved in a bomb attack on April 3, 2002 on the central square of Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu.
Nenang Pawo is one of the highest lamas of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Pawos form a lineage of tulkus, of which the first was born in 1440. They were traditionally the heads of Nenang Monastery in Ü-Tsang.
Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, also called Tulku Ugyen Topgyal, is a Tibetan Buddhist lama who was born in Kham in Eastern Tibet in 1951, living in exile in India.
Samdhong Rinpoche is a Tibetan religious title. Rinpoche means “precious one”. The current Samdhong Rinpoche is Lobsang Tenzin, who is considered by Tibetan buddhists to be the reincarnation of the 4th Samdhong Rinpoche.
Tenzin Jigme was a Tibetan tulku and the sixth Reting Rinpoche.
Wangdrak Rinpoche is the abbot of Gebchak Gonpa, holding responsibility for the nuns’ spiritual training and their material well-being.
Bokar Tulku Rinpoche
Bokar Tulku Rinpoche was heart-son of the Second Kalu Rinpoche and a holder of the Karma Kagyü and Shangpa Kagyü lineages.
Lobsang Pelden Tenpe Dronme
Lobsang Pelden Tenpe Dronme was a clergyman of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and the 7th Changkya Khutukhtu. He was the highest person of Tibetan Buddhism in Inner Mongolia and the fourth highest lamas of Tibetan Buddhism in general. He supported the Kuomintang and accompanied the Republic of China Government to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War in 1949. He was awarded titles by the Kuomintang and also received living expenses until his death.
Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche
Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and meditation master.
He is the abbot of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.
He is the author of several books, founder of meditation centers around the world, and acclaimed teacher teaching internationally.
Choseng Trungpa Rinpoche is the 12th and current Trungpa tülku.
He was born on February 6, 1989 in Pawo village, in Derge, eastern Tibet, and recognized by Tai Situ Rinpoche in 1991.
He was enthroned a year later at Surmang Monastery at a ceremony presided over by Domkhar Rinpoche, a high Kagyu lama and Choseng’s uncle.
The monastery’s late abbot, was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Jamphel Yeshe Gyaltsen
(Thubten) Jamphel Yeshe Gyaltsen or Thupten Jampel Yishey Gyantsen, Tibetan: ཐུབ་བསྟན་འཇམ་དཔལ་ཡེ་ཤེས་རྒྱལ་མཚན་, Wylie: thub-bstan ‘jam-dpal ye-shes rgyal-mtshan was a Tibetan tulku and the fifth Reting Rinpoche.
Dulduityn Danzanravjaa was a prominent Mongolian writer, composer, painter, Buddhist scholar, physician and was the Fifth Noyon Khutagt, the Lama of the Gobi. His name is a Mongolian adaptation of the last part of the Tibetan name Lobsang Tenzin Rabgye given to Danzan Ravjaa by the 4th Bogd Gegeen, on his visit to the Mongolian capital, Urga in 1812 where Danzanravjaa was also recognized as an Incarnate Lama. There are several versions concerning the origins and use of “Dulduityn”. He was the 5th incarnation of the Gobi Noyon Hutagt, which is the title of a prominent line of tulkus of the Nyingmapa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia and was found by the personal attendant of the 4th Noyon Hutagt in 1809. It was not possible to enthrone Danzan Ravjaa as the 5th Noyon Hutagt because of the ban from the ruling Manchu (Qing) Dynasty on recognition of this line of incarnations. Mongolia at the time was under Manchurian Qing control. He was enthroned as the Avshaa Gegeen in Ongiin Gol Monastery by Ishdonilhudev Rinpoche. He is primarily famous for his poetry, but is also known for his prophecies, and treatises on medicine, philosophy, and astrology.
Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche is a leading incarnate lama (tulku) in the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He is believed by his followers to embody the activity of Vajrapani.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
The 7th Dzogchen Ponlop is an abbot of Dzogchen Monastery, founder and spiritual director of Nalandabodhi, founder of Nītārtha Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, a leading Tibetan Buddhist scholar, and a meditation master. He is one of the highest tülkus in the Nyingma lineage and an accomplished Karma Kagyu lineage holder.
Kyabgön Phakchok Rinpoche
Phakchok Rinpoche is a teacher of the Nyingma lineage and chief lineage holder of the Taklung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He is Vajra Master of Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling monastery, abbot of several monasteries in Nepal, and assists monasteries and practice centers in Tibet. In addition, he serves as Director of the Chokgyur Lingpa Foundation, a nonprofit organization engaged in a wide range of humanitarian projects.
Tarthang Tulku is a Tibetan teacher (lama) who introduced the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism into the United States, where he works to preserve the art and culture of Tibet. He oversees various projects including Dharma Publishing, Yeshe-De, Tibetan Aid Project, and the construction of the Odiyan Copper Mountain Mandala. Tarthang Tulku also introduced Kum Nye into the West.
Lama Chime Tulku Rinpoche is a Tibetan Buddhist, Tulku and Dharma teacher. Chime Rinpoche was born in 1941 in Kham, Tibet. In 1959, due to the occupation of Tibet, he was forced to flee to India via Bhutan into exile. Gaining British citizenship in 1965. He taught extensively throughout Europe and established Marpa House, the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre in England. His students include American author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön and musicians Mary Hopkin, David Bowie and Tony Visconti.
Tulku Dakpa Rinpoche སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་གྲགས་པ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ is a lama in the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism,. He was recognized by His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche as a reincarnation of Drupwang Rogza Sonam Palge, a hidden yogi of eastern Tibet. He has graduated from the Mindrolling Monastery’s University of Tibetan Buddhism as a certified lineage holder of both sutra and tantra.
The Trungpa tulku are a line of incarnate Tibetan lamas who traditionally head Surmang monastery complex in Kham, now Surmang. The three heads of the Zurmang Kagyu are known as GharTengTrungSum, and the lineage holder of the Zurmang Kagyu is Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche. There have been twelve such Trungpa tulkus. Mahasiddha Trungmase, 1st Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche, was the teacher of Künga Gyaltsen, 1st Trungpa Tulku.
Dodrupchen Jigme Trinle Ozer
Dodrupchen Jikmé Trinlé Özer was a Nyingma tertön who was the “heart-son” of Jigme Lingpa, for whom he became the “principal doctrine-holder” ( ) of the Longchen Nyingthig terma cycle. Jigme Trinle Ozer was recognized by Jigme Lingpa as the mindstream embodiment of one of King Trisong Detsen’s sons, Prince Murum Tsenpo.
The Drikungpa, or more formally the Drikung Kyabgön, is the head of the Drikung Kagyu, a sub-school of the Kagyu, itself one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Alak Jigme Thinley Lhundup Rinpoche
Alak Jigme Thinley Lhundup or Alak Jigme Lhundup Rinpoche was a Tibetan Tulku, as well as the former speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile and former Minister with the exile Tibet administration.
Khentrul Jamphel Lodrö Rinpoche
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Sakya Trizin Ngawang Kunga
Sakya Trizin Ngawang Kunga served as the 41st Sakya Trizin, the throne holder of the Sakya Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, from his appointment in 1952 until his retirement in 2017. His religious name is Ngawang Kunga Tegchen Palbar Trinley Samphel Wangyi Gyalpo. After passing the throne of the Sakya lineage to his elder son Ratna Vajra Rinpoche who became the 42nd Sakya Trizin on 9 March 2017, he is now known as Kyabgon Gongma Trichen Rinpoche. He is considered second only to the Dalai Lama, in the spiritual hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism.
Ogyen Trinley Dorje
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Khenpo Shenga Rinpoche, also Shenpen Chökyi Nangwa (1871–1927) was a Tibetan scholar in the Nyingma and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jalsan was a politician, scholar, and Buddhist leader (tulku) in the People’s Republic of China. He was of Mongol ethnicity.
Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai
Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai is the 11th Qamdo Pagbalha Hutuktu of Tibetan Buddhism and a politician of the People’s Republic of China. He is a Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and the Honorary President of the Buddhist Association of China. He also formerly served as a Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress, Vice Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and Vice President of the Buddhist Association of China. As a Tibetan tulku, he is notable for his willingness to work in the Chinese government, except during the Cultural Revolution.
Diluwa Khutugtu Jamsrangjab
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Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal
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