Do Tulkus Matter?
As we have pointed out before, there is a movement afoot amongst certain Western Buddhists who study in the Tibetan tradition to do away with the tulku system of reincarnated lamas, those highly realized teachers who take birth again and again for the benefit of sentient beings. They claim this system is a relic of old Tibet that has no relevance in the West and opens the door to abuse. Is this a valid statement? Do tulkus no longer matter or have relevance?
Let us examine the case of one Western tulku who is no stranger to controversy and who has received more than her share of abuse from the doubters. We are speaking, of course, of Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, the first Western woman recognized as a tulku, the reincarnation of Genyenma Ahkön Lhamo, a Tibetan saint who, along with her brother, Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, founded the Palyul lineage of Nyingma over 300 years ago. This was a difficult pill to swallow for some people. First of all, Jetsunma is a woman, a Western woman, with no formal training in Buddhism. She didn’t look like what some people thought a lama should look like, nor did she always behave like they thought a lama should behave. She could be earthy and blunt, which some people, especially men, found threatening. She taught directly from her mindstream, which upset those who think that the only way to gain knowledge is through formal education and who don’t really believe in the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth.
But what do other Tibetan lamas think? Jetsunma was recognized by none other than His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, the head of the Palyul lineage at the time and later the head of the entire Nyingma school. She was also recognized by His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, then head of the Nyingma, and the recognition was also confirmed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These lamas, widely respected by all practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, expressed complete confidence in Jetsunma and her ability to teach without receiving any formal training in this life. They recognized that she had incorporated the Dharma into her mindstream in previous lives to such a degree that it made up the very fabric of her mindstream and would survive even death. They knew what is beyond the ken of ordinary sentient beings because they themselves have attained enlightenment. What it boils down to is you either believe that the teachings of Lord Buddha can produce something we call enlightenment or you don’t. That is the root of it. If you do accept the teachings of Lord Buddha as true, then there can be no doubt in your mind as to the authenticity of a tulku like Jetsunma or anyone else who carries the title and who has been recognized by an authentic lineage holder.
Jetsunma has invited many Tibetan lamas to come to her center, Kunzang Palyul Chöling (KPC), and teach. Many of these lamas are featured in a new video we found on You Tube called Got Devotion? We have embedded the video here for your enjoyment.
Featured in the video are His Holiness Penor Rinpoche and the Venerable Gyaltrul Rinpoche (who was Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab in a past life, Jetsunma’s brother). They both are Jetsunma’s root teachers in this life and have always supported her activities fully. Gyaltrul Rinpoche in particular guided Jetsunma as she adjusted to life as a recognized tulku after growing up as an American woman. He visited KPC many times, including coming to Sedona in 2000, 2002, and 2005. In 2002 he gave an extensive teaching on Peaceful Calm Abiding, a teaching which his translator and close student Sangye Khandro described as the most comprehensive teaching she had ever heard him give.
Other well-known and well respected lamas who have visited over the years are also shown, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mugsang Kuchen Rinpoche (one of the three Heart Sons of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche), His Holiness Jigmey Phuntsok (a major tertön, or treasure revealer, who visited on his only trip to the West during his lifetime), Tulku Rigdzin Pema (a master stupa builder who guided the construction of the Migyur Dorje Stupa at KPC), Dzongnang Tulku (a classmate of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche), Tulku Tubsang (another classmate of His Holiness and current abbot of Palyul Monastery in Tibet/China), His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche (throneholder of the Drikung Kagyu lineage), His Holiness Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche (another tertön who revealed a terma about Jetsunma the moment he set foot in the temple), Ngakpa Yeshe Dorje (the “Dalai Lama’s weatherman”), Dhungse Thinley Norbu (son of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche and an outstanding lama in his own right), and His Holiness Ngawang Tenzin (the Dorje Loppön of all Drukpa Kagyu monasteries in Bhutan). And this is just a sampling of the lamas who have visited KPC to teach over the years.
These lamas came to KPC not out of a sense of duty, nor a desire to get rich from speaker fees. They came because they wished to support Jetsunma in her activity in bringing Dharma to the West. They had no problem with the fact that she is a woman or that her teaching methods are at times nontraditional. They understood that the activity of the dakini (female enlightened being) is nontraditional by nature and that Jetsunma was engaged in such activity. They also understood that the Dharma cannot be properly established in a new country without the activity of the dakini. And they further understood that Jetsunma’s activity was always dedicated to the liberation and salvation of sentient beings, not to personal agendas or the desire to bilk her students, as is true of some who claim to be tulkus but who lack any credibility or lineage.
It is true that in Tibet the tulku system was at times abused for political or personal gain. It is also true that there have been those in the West who have also tried to abuse the tulku system for the same reasons. That is why the Buddha taught that each student should examine their teacher carefully so that authentic confidence and devotion can arise in their minds. It doesn’t matter who a tulku is, what kinds of honors they have accrued, who they know, how famous they are, or any ordinary things like that; what is important is that their teacher leads them to enlightenment, the end of suffering. With a teacher such as Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, her students will attest that she is that kind of lama. This is the true meaning of Guru Yoga.