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Reincarnation Lie? On the Empowerment of a Young Spaniard and the Tulku System of Tibet

posted by Ethan Nichtern

This is interesting. The Dalai Lama empowered a young Spanish boy as an incarnate Lama. Now 24, the young man, Osel Hita Torres,is moving in another direction with his life (update on the Shambhala Sun blog). Lots of good questions on how 21st Century Buddhism might unfold within this story.

Dalai Lama, Osel Hita Torres, Reincarnation


This case certainly highlights the difficulties of bringing the incarnate lama (tulku) system of lineage from Tibet
into the 21st Century. Personally, I don’t think the tulku system will
survive in the 21st century world for more than a generation or two. It
is simply too at odds with democratic, science-based society to
survive. Also, historically, there is nothing that necessitates it in
either the larger Buddhist lineage framework, or even in the system of
Tantric Buddhism, which survived in India for a long while before
anyone came up with the idea of reincarnated teachers.

Thanks to Rod Meade Sperry at the excellent blog The Worst Horse for the link.



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gza

posted June 1, 2009 at 3:17 pm


Good riddance to the tulku system, asap.



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Duncan McNaught

posted June 1, 2009 at 3:51 pm


I’ve read about what these children are like when young, and it’s pretty amazing – not crying at all, picking their belongings from line ups, knowing what to do at sacred sites and empowerments.
The tulku system also enables children to get to study and practice with the best teachers at an early age. This is also possible if it is the child of the teacher, but then the teacher must have a family – not true of all traditions or for example the Dalai Lama.
The previous incarnation often leaves very specific instructions about where their next incarnation will be found.
I’ve heard that many of us have characteristics of our past lives when we are young, but as we get older these get overridden and/or forgotten. In this case the very young boy seemed very much like his past incarnation, but it seems that now he is a different character and wants different things.
This article might point more to the problems of training a tulku who was born in the west, or who wants to live in a more modern way.



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JayhooRay

posted June 1, 2009 at 4:35 pm


I don’t know if the Tulku system will survive or not but its greatest threat is actually the Chinese. They will attempt to use the system to highjack Tibetan Buddhism and bring it under the control of the state. The are already doing so and certainly will attempt to “locate” the next Dalai Lama.
In the west, science may be currently unable to grasp reincarnation, and certainly in a culture where individuals trust only their own opinions Tulkus will have a hard time. I certainly was a doubter, as dismisser even, and still find it hard to have faith in a divine system that seems to have very worldly outcomes. But it is important when looking at Torres to recognize that one person does not legitimize or de-legitimate and entire tradition. There were a number of ineffective or less than impressive Dalai Lamas. Human embodiment comes with human limitations. As we say where I practice, “for all sentient beings, according to their capacities for the common and uncommon vehicles, please turn the wheel of Dharma.”



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Sonam

posted June 1, 2009 at 5:57 pm


Tashi Delek, Namaste, Aloha!
This issue is actually beyond just the current condition of a democratic society or technology. Due to some past karmic conditions which ripened in this lifetime, this is Oz’s path that he must walk. Sakyamuni Buddha spoke of 84,000 different dharma doors to relieve various sufferings. The Buddha also said that the dharma is taught in many, many different ways–all depending on your karmic condition.
Oz made a choice to explore a different path but that doesn’t mean he won’t come back to it. He could be part of a new wave of Buddhadharma teachers that are manifesting to further the dharma teachings in arenas of modern life. Imagine if he took his film experience and started to film small vignettes of passages from sutras. Or directed an animated version of the Heart Sutra! That would be truly incredible and a blessing for all. The end result would be a new medium to transmit the traditional teachings without straying from the original message, just repackaged for a more modern Sangha.
Bodhisattvas are the explorers. The ones who break tradition and go against the grain to bring about the maturity of sentient beings. They will reincarnate within the depths of the hell realms for the sake of one being. The Navajo American Indians of the Southwest believe that the Holy Ones crossed the rainbow bridge and came back to this world to teach what they had learned. The Sanskrit term for this would be upaya or skillful means.
Then, perhaps, Oz will return to teach when he is ready. It might not even be this lifetime but he’s obviously got the potential. But then again, according to the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, we all have this seed of bodhi.
Many Blessings to Oz! May you find the peace and freedom you seek….
Mahalo!



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Dharmashaiva

posted June 1, 2009 at 8:45 pm


I was particularly happy to see the news of Osel Hita Torres and can add a few more details. I understand from another Tibetan Buddhist lama incarnation by the name of Gomo Tulku, now 20 years old (he was born, BTW, at 8 minutes past 8 on the 8th of the 8th, 1988!), that Osel (who prefers to be called simply “Oz”) completed a 3-year course in cinematography at the University of Madrid last year, and being best friends the two of them hope to embark on careers as hip-hop megastars, promoting the Buddha’s message on a vast scale through this medium in the language of young people nowadays.
http://www.overgrownpath.com/search?q=Torres



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MU

posted June 1, 2009 at 11:01 pm


An animated version of the Heart sutra? I suspect you have in mind not the Heart sutra per se but rather one or both of the sadhanas of the tantra section of the Tibetan canon. Indeed, the Prajnaparamitasadhananama ascribed to Darikapa (one of the 84 siddhas, known for his association with prostitutes) might serve as a nice visualization, though admittedly the mandala is quite spare.



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Sonam

posted June 2, 2009 at 1:48 am


Actually, no. I’m referring to the Mahayana text, the Prajnaparamitahridayasutra and the visual conception of the discourse between the arhat Sariputra, the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Avalokiteshvara and Sakyamuni Buddha–tadyata om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.
But this thread is about Oz, not prajnaparamita. :)



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clasqm

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:40 am


Indeed, Tantrism started out as a reaction against polite, ordered society with its rules and robes and hierarchies. In rejecting his supposedly predestined position, Torres may be acting more in concert with that original spirit of Tantra than he knows. He may yet become a greater teacher than his original sponsors ever intended, just as Krishnamurti did.
Or he may end up as just another celebrity bum. What, you think life has to be fair?



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brigitte

posted June 2, 2009 at 7:17 am


Dear Sirs,
I wish to put on your attention that Lama Yeshe was not a reincarnated Lama (TULKU) .
In fact wasn’t even a Lama and not even a Geshe, but only a monk invited by Pomaia Institute in Italy through his disciples.
So in fact it doesn’t exist a tibetan lineage of reincarnated Lama before Lama Yeshe.
I wish you will investigate better on this matter.
Thank you and best regards
Brigitte



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Ethan

posted June 2, 2009 at 8:22 am


Update:
The Worst Horse is pointing out various inaccuracies with the story:
http://theworsthorse.com/2009/06/reincarnated-lama-goes-off-the-rails/
Regardless, it’s a good conversation about the tulku system.



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MU

posted June 2, 2009 at 9:57 am


Knowledge of the two sadhanas associated with the Heart sutra is rather limited, which is unfortunate since the mandala inhabited by the principal figures of the sutra (in this case, the goddess Prajnaparamita surrounded by the four speakers of the sutra: Sakyamuni Buddha, Avalokitesvara, Sariputra, and Ananda), once set in visualization, far surpasses, as theater, the Heart sutra itself. One imagines “Oz” too would find the Heart sutra less appealing for translation to moving images than an imaginative reworking of the relevant sadhanas.



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gza

posted June 2, 2009 at 11:00 am


Brigette, no one on this site claimed that Lama Yeshe was a tulku.
There was a huge discussion of the relative merits of the tulku system on esangha
http://www.lioncity.net/buddhism/index.php?showtopic=85208&hl=
I happen to think that the downside outweighs the good and it just isn’t sustainable. The problem is not just Western tulkus not manifesting as teachers. It is the constant and never ending scandals around money and power that discredit the tulku system. It seems that these days nearly every tulku recognition has competing candidates – the 17th Karmapa, but also Tulku Ugyen, the Drukpa Khamtrul Rinpoche, and those are just the first that come to mind. All of these scandals threaten to discredit the Tibetan tradition entirely.
In the long run, it would be better off with well trained Geshes, Khenpos, Loppons and yogis, and leave the tulku system behind. It worked for Nalanda and Vikramashila.



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Your Name

posted June 2, 2009 at 3:31 pm


While you drew the same conclusion as Worst Horse, you left out some important details of the post.
“But again: don’t believe everything you read. First of all, there are various “small” details in the stories that show research wasn’t done. “Lama” is defined in the Guardian piece as “one of a lineage of reincarnated spiritual leaders.” Actually, a lama is simply a teacher. (The word that should have been used is tulku.) Whether a lama is also a reincarnated spiritual leader or not is another matter.
Far more important, though, is this: the story just doesn’t paint a full picture. It’s been known for years now that Osel was going to quietly pursue film and explore life as a non-lama. (And while the news here suggests that he’s still addressed as “Lama,” he isn’t; the FPMT folks have been happy to address him as he wishes.) So why would someone who wants to quietly pursue their own thing knowingly seek publicity? And why would that person seek publicity that might damage his relationship with the FPMT, which, from all I’ve heard about, is just fine?
And what seem to be Osel’s complaints about being essentially kidnapped don’t wash, either — the young Osel often visited his family, and his father and his brother even lived with him for a time at Sera Monastery!
One dear friend suggests that perhaps Osel was caught in a “Phelpsian moment.” Only, where Michael Phelps let his guard down and had a big ol’ bong hit with a camera present, Osel instead let his guard down and perhaps said some things that were taken wildly out of context. Was this lazy journalism? Was it somehow agenda-based?Whatever it was, this will be an important story to watch, because it should create discussion: about how we think about reincarnation (especially within the framework of Tibetan Buddhism), and how we think about the media, especially when it’s about Buddhism. Perhaps the FPMT (a wonderful organization from all the contact I’ve had with it, and from all I’ve ever heard about it) will even see this as an opportunity to lead us toward a smarter and more balanced discussion. (I mean, they should have been interviewed by El Mundo to begin with!) At the very least, it reminds us that there’s never just one side to a story. We Buddhists should be watching closely when it comes to how the mainstream media covers and treads into our world.”
It matters a great deal whether or not the DL actually claimed that he was a tulku; if so, it’s far more of a problem.
This doesn’t mean I don’t agree with you about how Buddhism must adapt to modern society See Thich Nhat Hanh’s many writing on the subject. It’s a great part of his mission. When I heard the DL speak here in California a few years back, he was also saying the same sorts of things.



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Ethan

posted June 2, 2009 at 3:48 pm


@Your Name. I already linked to a comment verifying some missing details in the post.
Regardless, it’s an opportunity to talk about the tulku system, which I believe should eventually be replaced by a merit-based system in the 21st century world.
Thanks so much for posting.



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joe

posted June 2, 2009 at 3:50 pm


Go Beyond Words has just posted a link to the original interview and the tone is a whole lot different than what has been reported here.
check the link to see what Osel really said.
http://gobeyondwords.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/tempest-in-a-teapot/



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gza

posted June 2, 2009 at 3:53 pm


@your name – He didn’t leave those details out, they weren’t in the original post. When worst horse updated their post Ethan pointed that out and linked to it three comments above yours.



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Ethan

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:14 pm


It occurs to me that my main Buddhist teacher (Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) is considered the incarnation of Mipham the Great, one of the most famous 19th Century Tibetan Buddhist Teachers, and quite frankly, I couldn’t care less.
He only impresses me in terms of who he is now. His incarnation story is backstory, and to me, it’s not that interesting. And I’m a huge fan of narrative saying this.
What purpose does the tulku system serve in a democratized society where the barriers to in-depth Buddhist training are much lower than they were in tibet? It just makes the Tantric tradition look medieval and overly mystical.



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Your Name

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:36 pm


Actually, I am not surprised that this happened. As a Mahayana Buddhist, I have never understood Tibetan Buddhists’ deification of Tibetan Lamas, obsession with lineage, or reverence for their Lamas as anything more than teachers. In Mahayana Buddhism, our “Lamas” are called “Shifu”, which means simply “Teacher”. They look and act like plain folk, “plain” in the humblest sense of the word. But Shifu’s wisdom and kindness and compassion and strength is where they really shine and stand out as leaders. Humility is the key element I find missing in the Tibetan way.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:46 pm


@ Your Name: There’s a lot more to the Tibetan system than lama deification, and when it’s well-done the Guru relationship benefits many folks.
The tulku system, I believe, is a distinct issue.
Generally, Tibetan Buddhism can look weird from the outside. One of the problems is that it attracts a lot of people who are INTO the mystical quality, so they don’t always “get” how unapproachable the system can sometimes seem to an outside eye.
Anyway, that’s my take as a skeptical long-time Tibetan Vajrayana Practitioner.



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MU

posted June 2, 2009 at 5:36 pm


Given the tulku system’s political function as disseminator of Tibetan Buddhism, it is far from moribund. The system has been a significant factor in the spread of Tibetan Buddhism since the time of the 4th Dalai Lama, when it began to play an increasingly important role outside of Tibet. “Oz” is hardly alone; the number of western children identified as tulkus exceeds (conservatively) a hundred. The political motives here are transparent. Financial motives also play a role, remarkably more so with wealthy/famous western adults (e.g., Steven Segal) recognized as tulkus.



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Yeshe

posted June 3, 2009 at 5:18 am


Makes me wonder, how do we gauge who is an authentic teacher? Many people use titles (Rinpoche, Geshe) as a way of validating someone and their ability to teach dharma. My teacher is not a Rinpoche, nor is She male or asian, I only came to see Her ability to teach me by being ‘up close and personal’ with Her for the past 5 years. Many people don’t have this luxury (and believe me it’s bliss being with the teacher). I too think the system will fade out and I think we can see from Osel Hita (and people like Gesar Mukpo) that those Holy beings who were famous and titled in the past will let it go for what ever will be of the most benefit for living beings. I’m sure we’ll adapt.
I don’t really have a point. I really enjoy this blog and all the writers. Thank you.



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Benson

posted June 3, 2009 at 11:19 am


I agree, the focus should be on what people are *now.* In this life.
Not what they have been in the past, whether great sages, or great scoundrels. Someone called it an “interesting sidenote” and that is a good way to put it IMO.



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ks

posted June 3, 2009 at 11:33 am


The tulku “system” isnt the problem. The problem is misunderstanding what a tulku is and over-emphasis on their recognition.
Major tertons and heads of lineages should be recognized (if that is the practice of those lineages, for example the Sakya lineage has few tulkus and the Mindrolling lineage is a family line) other than that the training of teachers is what should count.
It is my opinion that so many “western” Buddhists rail against the tulku “system” because they have no idea what a tulku is, either that or they think very highly of themselves and wish that they were given some kind of recognition for being such rational and intelligent Buddhists.
On another note, the title given to the original blog post here should be edited or at least an update should be given now that we know that Osel’s words were taken out of context. Just because the original posters dont support the tulku system doesnt mean they should propagate rumors and exaggerations.



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Ethan

posted June 3, 2009 at 11:53 am


@ KS. I have just had a chance to update the initial post. I want to be exceedingly clear that my critique is ZERO about the guru lineage system, and all about the tulku incarnation system, which is solely a TIbetan phenomenon and – I would argue – is not integral to the tantric system.
I don’t think the problem is one of Western arrogance. I don’t find most westerners to be particularly arrogant about their spiritual prowess; much more often people seemed paralyzed by fear that they can’t understand Buddhist philosophy fully. We are self-centered for sure, but self-deflating rather than inflating. Personally, I already have all the titles I need, but they are all based on a meritorious rewards system (or more cynically, my ability to convince people I am worthy of being a professor, a teacher, a writer, an organizational head, etc :~) I would NEVER want the burden of tulku-ship. I know a few western-born tulkus (not well), and I imagine how hard it must’ve been for them growing up, having every action measured on an ungraspable scale. That’s a type of pressure I’d never want to know.
A merit system is at the heart of our cultural philosophy (obviously, some would argue that this is a myth, and they’d have a point), and I think this is where Buddhism will have to move, especially Vajrayana Buddhism, to thrive here.
Logistically what I mean is very simple. I love studying with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, but my eyes glaze over when I’m supposed to care who he supposedly was in the 19th century. Thankfully, the Shambhala tradition of which he is the head does a good job of not over-emphasizing his “incarnate”-ness, and focused instead on the fact that he – right now – is a great teacher. And that’s what people who study with him or get interested in studying with him care about.
That’s what I’m talking about.
Seems to be already happening.



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Your Name

posted June 3, 2009 at 12:19 pm


I don’t know anything much about corruption in the Tulku system, but that corruption is rampant whhere power or prestige occurs, thats human nature.
But I thought the whole point of the tulku’s return was the power of their compassion? That their wisdom mindstream and compassion might continue to benefit all beings. Their bodhicitta. This is not something I would wish gone.



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Arnold Hammerschlag

posted June 3, 2009 at 12:33 pm


I think the main thing is to be aware of the personalities, inclinations and capabilities of people who are born or to be born, perhaps through you. I think re-incarnation is a helpful concept for inspiring caring for others. Tulku principle represents very high intention, focus and motivation (emphasis on that, rather than on the system itself). I enjoyed very much the book on the seventeenth Karmapa, “Music in the Sky” by Michele Martin. Wow! Inspiring! I’m always telling people to read that book.



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JayhooRay

posted June 3, 2009 at 1:00 pm


I’m all in support of merit and recognizing people for their current capacities. And there is plenty of this within how the Tulku system tends to operate. As Americans with an activist and social justice focus were are definitely going to have high standards and a suspicion of power. But Ethan, as you point out, the “merit” system has its own mythology and is quite often a facade painted over the same old machinery of power and privilege. Is it really just the best and brightest that get into Stanford or Harvard? Or can we still make some pretty damning conclusion that privilege and access to economic resources makes this possible?
I love when the conceptualizations start to fall apart but we want to put new ones back together. hee hee!



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gza

posted June 3, 2009 at 2:26 pm


@KS – ad hominem attacks don’t add much to the debate.
@12:19 – No one is saying they don’t want bodhisattvas to return to the world to benefit beings. The tulkus system is superfluous to that.



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Your Name

posted June 3, 2009 at 3:57 pm


The Boddhisattva’s vow and the Tulku system are related but not the same. The Boddhisattva promises to always “come back” to give a hand to sentient beings, but that does not mean that he or she is going to necessarily reincarnate in our specific Jambudvipa human realm. They can go anywhere, and be born here or as a mosquito or as another type of human, or all and more of the above, depending on the power they have developed to benefit beings.
As far as I understood, the Tulku system was developed to provide higher beings with the best conditions for their development early on in their lives, in order for them to achieve their aim: to help certain beings in a given world. As somebody pointed up here, it’s only human that any situation related to power tends produce the natural corruption of the eight worldly dharmas, because those who surround the young Tulkus are not necessarily Boddhisattvas and have their own self-cherishing agendas.
Another interesting point here is that the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are not omnipotent, they don’t have the power of “taking with their own hands” people’s bad karma in order to eliminate it. Not only this, their actions are -like everything else in the world- depending arisings. So their actions do not arise exclusively from their own pure intention but also from the good karma of beings. It seems that they’ve come and incarnated as Tibetan Lamas because up until now the system has proven stronger than the natural corruption of anything human. The good karma of many beings has cooperated with their holy and pure intention and thus they’ve been able to benefit a bunch of those beings.
To transplant the Tulku system to the West might prove difficult but not specifically difficult. Buddhism in the West has suffered much more from the double role, political and religious, of the person who has been considered -à tort ou à raison- the “face” of Buddhism, the D.L.. Still today there is much confusion, many assuming that the political future of Tibet is a Buddhist matter, or a cause for which one should become a militant in order to be a good Buddhist. This is just an example of a field where several issues have brought enormous obstacles to religion.
The Tulku system can survive, it’s a possibility. If people with for it to survive it will. But politics should play a much lesser role for it to really bloom.
May the desires of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas be accomplished.



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Palzang

posted November 28, 2009 at 10:35 am


I don’t know why everyone is making such a big deal about this. Lama Osel has explained the reasons why he is doing this, and he has made it clear he is not abandoning his “calling”. Quite the opposite. He is trying to understand the culture he lives in so that he can better serve the sentient beings in it. This is exactly what a tulku should be doing, not hiding away in a monastery somewhere basking in the glory of being a tulku. What good would that do for anyone? And the FPMT is fully behind him.



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tiffany necklace

posted October 18, 2010 at 1:05 am


Your article was good, ah, I love it. Hope to have more words for us to read! I wish you all the best! ! http://www.tiffanyco-us.org/tiffany-necklaces.html



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LeliaGutierrez

posted December 8, 2010 at 8:16 am


I would like to propose not to hold back until you get enough cash to buy goods! You can take the loans or just car loan and feel comfortable



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