The young Kalu Rinpoche, the reborn ‘tulku’ of a respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher, has posted a video  detailing his sexual abuse at the hands of Buddhist monks, his tutor’s attempt to murder him and his descent into drug addiction and alcoholism. His testimony should lead us to question the whole tulku system and the adulation that blinds us to its problems

In recent posts I have been touching on issues that concern me in the way Tibetan Buddhism has been viewed, taken up and practiced in the West. Even though the NKT does not regard itself as practising ‘Tibetan’ Buddhism, I think it has its own version of these issues. I want to continue the theme, even at the risk of appearing as if I am campaigning in some way because there are issues here that Buddhists need to discuss frankly.

This week I watched a video posted on Youtube by the young Kalu Rinpoche, the tulku (the term colloquially rendered as ‘the reincarnation’) of the previous Kalu Rinpoche, who was one of the most important figures in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism to western countries, especially France. He was an accomplished meditator, sometimes called ‘the modern Milarepa’, and a gifted teacher. I’m embedding the video here:

Mary Finnigan posted a piece on the video and its effect on the Tibetan Buddhist world in the West on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog. She concludes, ‘The intensity of his experiences so far highlights the cultural dissonance between Tibetan tradition and the challenges of 21st-century life in the developed world. Kalu is probably seen as a loose canon by older lamas, but he gets away with it because of his status. In one sense he is a victim, but perhaps he will turn out to be a pioneer. Or a bit of both.’ What she doesn’t say, and what really needs saying, is that the young Kalu Rinpoche’s experiences and views could be paired with the experience of other tulkus, and the questions they raise concern the whole tulku system and westerners’ responses to it.

Bestselling books and the popularity of the Dalai Lama attest to the allure of the tulku system. Personally, I share much of the general admiration of the Dalai Lama, but I find it hard to rest that admiration on his reborn status. Consider the long list of credulity-testing claims you have to accept in order to believe that a child really is the rebirth of a departed master:

  1. Rebirth occurs.
  2. Certain individuals who would otherwise escape rebirth through their realisation can choose to embark upon it, predicting their destination and possibly directing it. Some essential aspect of their identity can be carried over into a new life. This is despite the fact that no Buddhist traditions outside Tibetan Buddhism believe this or practice it themselves.
  3. Divination is a reliable source of information and we can trust the directions for finding tulkus that come from casting lots and shamanic trances. By implication, we should believe in the gods, spirits, protectors etc. associated with oracles and divination.
  4. Any indication that the tulku system doesn’t work reliably should be ignored. For example, there are many examples of political intervention in the process of finding tulkus.
  5. Not only is this process reliable, it is desirable to choose a future religious leader in this way rather than, for example, considering the merits they actually display in adulthood or electing the best qualified individuals for these roles.
  6. It is also desirable for the child identified as the tulku to be thrust into this position with all the demands and privations required of them (such as leaving their families and, in Kalu Rinpoche’s case, doing a three-year retreat aged 15), if they are to fulfill the expectations that have been placed upon them.

If you are willing to believe all this, then it seems to me that your faith will literally allow you to believe anything at all. Reason and concern for evidence must be left far behind and you will enter a spiritual world where another kind of thinking prevails: one that cannot be challenged.

The troubled young man in this video has been elevated to a position of status and power only to find that, on the one hand, he receives adulation and devotion and, on the other, that he has been exploited sexually and caught in murderous power games. He makes a plea to be regarded as a human being and suggests that neither the devotees nor the authorities do this. I would add is that his problems are associated with the tulku system.

Reverence for an infant tulku requires the kind of thinking that, in the West, we associate with a subject’s reverence for a monarch. British MPs must swear to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’ because her authority has been ordained by birth and sanctified by God. If that seems archaic, identifying a infant tulku as your teacher is positively medieval.

Like Britons’ fealty to their monarchs, Tibetan history and current testimony, such as this video, show that loyalty is often honoured in name but ignored in practice. Because tulkus inherit wealth, influence and therefore power, they prompt others to attempt to seize or manipulate that power. The corruption of the system goes deeper. Important tulkus are often born to wealthy families meaning that an aristocratic caste controls both private wealth and the wealth of the monasteries. Some other tulkus are born as the children of powerful individuals in the religious institutions that were headed by the departed teacher, allowing them to continue to control matters in the next generation.

For many Tibetans the tulku system is unquestionable, just as, until recently,British people automatically revered the monarchy. However, I find it strange and sad that so many westerners, who have left behind feudal thinking in our own society, have bought in to the Tibetan version of it. I’m not suggesting that Tibetan teachers are not wise people and effective Dharma teachers, just that we should not assume they are because they have grand titles and make the claim to be the reborn heir of a great teacher. The proof of their merit is their character and their practice in this lifetime.

Why do westerners love the glamour of a tulku title? It’s a big subject and my thinking has most affected by Peter Bishop’s book Dreams of Power: Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Imagination and Donald Lopez’ Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Both show how Tibetan Buddhism touches powerful, irrational impulses and archetypes in western culture. Tibetan lamas fill a pre-existing space in western psyche, promising to embody the sacred, magical and timeless dimension of existence. Whatever the reason, when I see western followers of Tibetan Buddhism embroiled in conflicts such as the dispute over the rival Karmapa tulkus, I reflect that these issues are irrelevant to what Buddhism actually has to offer us in the West.

Even if you accept the belief system underpinning the tulku system a modest reform would be to separate it entirely from issues of money and institutional control. Tibetan Buddhist organisations need to find ways of managing themselves that do not rely on tulkus. By all means let tulkus receive a religious education if that is what their parents want, but then they should make their own way in the world, deciding how they want to live and practice as adults. If, as mature practitioners, they show the necessary qualities that would seem the time to consider whether they can take a leadership role.

Kalu Rinpoche’s sad testimony is just the latest examples of the breakdown of the tulku system in modern times. It’s time for Tibetans and westerners to fundamentally rethink their responses to it.

Read more Wise Attention Posts on Tibetan Buddhism