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A tulku (Tibetan: སྤྲུལ་སྐུWylie: sprul sku; ZWPY: Zhügu, also tülku, trulku) is an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist lama who has, through phowa and siddhi, consciously determined to take birth, often many times, in order to continue his or her Bodhisattva vow. The most famous example is the lineage of Dalai Lamas; the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is held to be the fourteenth mindstream emanation, the first being Gendun Drup (1391–1474). It is held in the Vajrayana tradition that the oldest lineage of tulkus is that of the Karmapas (spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage), which began with Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193).

Nomenclature, orthography and etymology

The term tülku is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit philosophical term nirmanakaya. According to the philosophical system of trikaya or three bodies of Buddha, nirmanakaya is the Buddha's "body" in the sense of the bodymind (Sanskrit: nāmarūpa). Thus, the person of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, is an example of nirmanakaya. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, tülku is used to refer to the corporeal existence of enlightened Buddhist masters in general.

In addition to Tibetans and related peoples, Tibetan Buddhism is a traditional religion of the Mongols and their relatives. The Mongolian word for a tulku is qubilγan, though such persons may also be called by the honorific title qutuγtu (Tib: 'phags-pa / Skt: ārya), or hutagt in the standard Khalkha dialect.

A recent Chinese word for tulku is huófó (活佛), which literally means "living Buddha". Thus, the term Living Buddha is sometimes used to mean tulku, although this is rare outside of Chinese sources. Also, modern Chinese sources typically refer to a young incarnation of a (presumably male) tulku as a "soul boy" (traditional Chinese: 靈童; ||pinyin]]: língtóng).


The Tibetan institution of the tulku as the emanation (often misunderstood as the rebirth) of a lama developed during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, as various Schools of Tibetan Buddhism began to accept the possibility that exemplary figures might remain within the human world as institutional teachers, manifesting from one lifetime to the next out of compassion. At this point, the notion of nirmanakaya, or created body of a Buddha, became linked to a notion of regular manifestation (Tibetan: yangsiWylie: g.yang-srid). The most dramatic—and at that time controversial—innovation was the idea that a tulku could inherit the estate (Tibetan: labrang) of their previous incarnation. This rule of inheritance allowed for the rise of hugely wealthy estates belonging to the lineages of reincarnating tulkus. The first recognized tulku of this kind within the Vajrayana traditions was the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism; precisely, the first to be recognized as a manifestation was the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283). The Karmapa is now in his 17th emanation.

Usually the Tulku heirs have been male, that is, they appeared in male forms.

By far the most politically powerful tulku lineage for the past several hundred years have been the Dalai Lamas, which has seen a total of fourteen emanations beginning with Gedun Drub. Note that the title "Dalai Lama" was not applied to this line from the beginning: the second emanation was seen simply as the rebirth of Gedun Drub. The same was true of the third emanation, Sonam Gyatso, until he was dubbed "Dalai Lama" as an adult, after which he applied the title posthumously to his predecessors and declared himself the 3rd Dalai Lama. It was Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), the 5th Dalai Lama, who established the Dalai Lamas as Tibet's predominant political power. After their control was consolidated, recognition of some of the most important tulkus was vetted by the government at Lhasa, and could on occasion be banned if its previous incumbent fell out of favour. A notable example of this penalty was the Shamarpa, once the most powerful subordinate of the Karmapa, whose recognition of reincarnation was banned by order of the Dalai Lama in 1792. This ban remained in place until after the Dalai Lama lost power in Tibet during the 1950s, although it was later revealed that the Karmapa had recognized emanations of the Shamarpa secretly during the intervening period.

The recognition of tulkus has sometimes involved ambiguity as well as controversy.[1] According to Tibetan historian Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, wrote in his autobiography:

The official Tsawa Kachu of the Ganden Palace showed me statues and rosaries (that belonged to the Fourth Dalai Lama and other lamas), but I was unable to distinguish between them! When he left the room I heard him tell the people outside that I had successfully passed the tests. Later, when he became my tutor, he would often admonish me and say: "You must work hard, since you were unable to recognize the objects!"[2]


Tibetologist Françoise Pommaret estimates there are presently approximately 500 tulku lineages found across Tibet, Bhutan, Northern India, Nepal, Mongolia, and the southwest provinces of China. The vast majority of tulkus are men, although there are a small number of female tulku lineages.

Lineages of tulkus may be interlinked—for example the Panchen Lama traditionally recognizes the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama and vice versa. In most cases there is no such relationship, but the potential candidate is always vetted by respected lamas. This often involves tests such as checking whether the child can recognize acquaintances or possessions from his previous life or answer questions only known to his former life-experience. According to the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, “A number of objects such as rosaries, ritualistic implements, books, tea-cups, etc., are placed together, and the child must pick out those which belonged to the late tulku, thus showing that he recognizes the things which were his in his previous life.[3] This process was portrayed in the movie Kundun.

As a tulku nears death, they may hint in writings, or reveal signs to those with the karmic proclivity that will help determine his or her next mindstream emanation. Sometimes, a tulku will leave a prediction letter or song describing where they will be found. Prophecies, which may date forward or backward many generations, also play a role.

While most tulkus historically have been Tibetans, some have also been born among various other peoples with whom the Tibetans have had contact, such as the Mongols. Now in the Tibetan diaspora, tulku are being found all over the world. In modern times, as Tibetan Buddhism has attracted followers across the world, a small number of tulkus have been found among Western people. Perhaps the most religiously significant such tulku is Tenzin Ösel (born 1985), the child of Spanish parents, who has been recognized as the reincarnation of Thubten Yeshe, an influential Tibetan lama.

The American film actor Steven Seagal, while already an adult, was recognized by Penor Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma school, as the reincarnation of a 17th century tertön from eastern Tibet, Chungdrag Dorje. Penor Rinpoche notes that "such recognition does not mean that one is already a realized teacher"; Seagal has not been enthroned and has not undergone the extensive program of training and study that is customary for a tulku.[4]

Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo is an enthroned tulku within the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma tradition recognized by Penor Rinpoche. In the late 1980s, she gained international attention as the first Western woman to be named a reincarnate lama.

Dalai Lama

An example of one who is both a yangsi and a Tulku is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is a yangsi in the sense of being the rebirth of the first Dalai Lama: from the first to the fourteenth, the present one. He is considered a tulku in the sense of being an emanation of the boddhisattva Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara).[5]

Tulkus' conference in December 1988

"The conference was convened at the request of His Supreme Presence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and organized by the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs, Dharamsala, and the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath. Approximately 350 Incarnate Lamas (Tulkus) and Abbots attended from all five Tibetan spiritual traditions - Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, and Bon. Several foreign observers were invited as well. The agenda was to discuss the future of the Tibetan spiritual traditions in the Indian subcontinent, Tibet and foreign countries, and the relationship with science and foreign religions." [6]

List of tulku lineages

  • Arjia
  • Bardor
  • Beru Khyentse
  • Chagdud
  • Changkya Khutukhtu
  • Dalai Lama (Wylie: Tā-la’i Bla-ma) (on the 14th incarnation)
  • Demo
  • Dhardo
  • Dilowa Gegen
  • Drepung Zimkhang Gongma
  • Drikung Rinpoche
  • Dudjom (extinguished in 1987)
  • Dzigar Kongtrul (on the 2nd or 3rd incarnation)
  • Dzogchen Rinpoche (on the 7th incarnation)
  • Dzogchen Pönlop (on the 7th incarnation)
  • Goshir Gyaltsab (on the 12th incarnation)
  • Gungthang (Chokyi Dronma)
  • Gyalwang Drukpa (on the 12th incarnation)
  • Jamgon Kongtrul (on the 4th incarnation, disputed)
  • Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (extinguished in 1959)
  • Jamyang Shêpa (on the 6th incarnation)
  • Javzandamba (on the 9th incarnation)
  • Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo
  • Kalu Rinpoche (on the 2th incarnation)
  • Karmapa (Wylie: Karma-pa) (on the 17th incarnation, disputed)
  • Khamtrul
  • Khandro Rinpoche
  • Khenpo Shenga
  • Kirti Tsenshab
  • Kundeling
  • Kyabje Gelek
  • Ju Mipham
  • Lawudo
  • Mindrolling Jetsünma
  • Noyon Hutuktu
  • Panchen Lama (Wylie: Pan-chen Bla-ma) (on the 11th incarnation, disputed, one appointed by Chinese government)
  • Pawo (Wylie: Gnas-nang Dpa’-bo) (on the 11th incarnation)
  • Patrul
  • Reting (on the 6th or 7th incarnation, disputed, one appointed by Chinese government)
  • Ringu
  • Samding Dorje Phagmo (Wylie: Bsam-lding Rdo-rje Phag-mo) (on the 12th incarnation, another Dorje Phagmo line in Bhutan)
  • Samdhong
  • Shabdrung (Wylie: Zhabs-drung) (on the 14th incarnation)
  • Shamarpa (Wylie: Zhwa-dmar-pa) (on the 14th incarnation)
  • Shenphen
  • Sogyal
  • Tai Situpa (Wylie: Tai Si-tu-pa) (on the 12th incarnation)
  • Taktra
  • Taktser (extinguished in 2008)
  • Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche
  • Tenzin Delek
  • Terton Kunjang Dechen Rinpoche
  • Thrangu (on the 9th incarnation)
  • Thubten Yeshe (on the 2th incarnation, rejected by current tulku, who is committed to spiritual discovery in a post-modern context)
  • Traleg Kyabgon (on the 9th incarnation)
  • Trungpa (Wylie: Drung-pa) (on the 12th incarnation)
  • Trungram Gyaltrül
  • Tsem Tulku (Wylie: Tshems Sprul-sku)
  • Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (on the 2th incarnation?)
  • Yongey Mingyur
  • Zurmang Drukpa (4th incarnation)
  • Zurmang Gharwang (12th incarnation, lineage holder of Zurmang Kagyud)
  • Zurmang Kunzang (2nd incarnation)
  • Zurmang Tenga (12th incarnation, second person in Zurmang Kagyud)
  • Zurmang Zaptang (7th incarnation)

In popular culture

  • The TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender uses a similar concept, where the Avatar Spirit is continually reborn into human form with new incarnations picked by selecting the objects of previous Avatars.
  • In the King of the Hill episode "Won't You Pimai Neighbor?," Bobby Hill is believed to be a reincarnation of a Buddhist lama.
  • In the film The Shadow (film), a mystical tulku trains Lamont Cranston to use his inner darkness to fight crime.
  • In the book Tulku (novel), by Peter Dickinson, a young boy and his companions, fleeing the Boxer rebellion in China, encounter Tibetan monks awaiting the birth of a tulku. [1]


  • 'Tulku' Divine birth, ordinary life. [2]
  • Unmistaken Child [3] details the search for the reincarnation of the gelugpa lama, Geshe Lama Konchog in modern-day northern India

See also

  • Kumari - a Nepalese Hindu goddess lineage with similar selection processes
  • Rebirth
  • Reincarnation Application
  • Bodhi, Speech and Mind
  • Avatar
  • Incarnation
  • Namarupa



  • Campbell, June (1996). The Emperor's Tantric Robes Winter 1996 issue of "Tricycle" magazin
  • Logan, Pamela (2004). "Tulkus in Tibet". Harvard Asia Quarterly 8 (1) 15-23.
  • Ray, Reginald A. 1986 "Some aspects of the Tulku tradition in Tibet." in The Tibet Journal 11 (4): 35-69

Further reading

cs:Tulku eu:Tulku ja:化身ラマ pt:Tulku ru:Тулку simple:Tulku sk:Tulku sl:Tulku fi:Tulku vi:Hóa thân (Phật giáo) zh:活佛