Reborn Master of Tibetan Buddhism: a Tulku

His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama holding fire
Dalai Lama. Mark Downey Getty Images

The word  tulku is a Tibetan term meaning "transformation body," or "nirmanakaya." In Tibetan Buddhism, a tulku is a person who has been identified as the emanation of a deceased master. The lineages can be centuries long, and the system offers the principle means by which the teachings of various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The tulku system does not exist in other branches of Buddhism.

There is an elaborate system for identifying and educating the young master.

Upon the death of an old tulku, a group of respected lamas gathers together to find to the young reincarnation. They may look for signs that the dead tulku left messages indicated where he would be reborn. A variety of other mystical signs, such as dreams, may also be considered. Tulkus are most often identified when they are young children. Most, but not all, tulkus are male. There are a number of tulku lineages in Tibetan Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa.

The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in a lineage that began in the year 1391. Born in 1937 as Lhamo Döndrub, the 14th Dalai Lama was identified as the tulku of the 13th Dalai Lama when he was only four years old. He is said to have successfully identified items belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama, claiming them as his own. 

After being identified, the tulku separates from his family and is raised in a monastery by teachers and servants.

It is a lonely life as he learns complicated rituals and gradually assumes the duties of the previous tulku, but the atmosphere is one of devotion and love for the young master. 

Tulkus are often called "reincarnated" masters, but it is important to understand that the master is not a reborn or transmigrated "soul," because according to Buddhist teaching the soul cannot be said to exist.

Instead of a reincarnated soul, the tulku is thought to be a manifestation of the enlightened master in nirmanakaya form (see trikaya).

People often confuse the term tulku with lama. A lama is a spiritual master who may, or may not, be a tulku.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Reborn Master of Tibetan Buddhism: a Tulku." ThoughtCo, Jul. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/tulku-449869. O'Brien, Barbara. (2017, July 24). Reborn Master of Tibetan Buddhism: a Tulku. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tulku-449869 O'Brien, Barbara. "Reborn Master of Tibetan Buddhism: a Tulku." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tulku-449869 (accessed January 19, 2018).