[The summarised version of this can be seen at https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2015/05/brief-review-what-if-you-are-a-tulku-recognised-reborn-master]
Who is a tulku? A tulku is anyone who is formally recognised by proficient Buddhist masters to be another Buddhist master reborn. Directed and hosted by Gesar Mukpo, a recognised tulku himself, the documentary ‘Tulku’ presents a thought-provoking probe into how four other modern and relatively young western tulkus grapple with the tension between living lives that seem sensible to them, versus meeting others’ expectations of their religious roles.
Below are some interesting quotes from the conversations featured, followed by comments on them. There are also quotes from Gesar Mukpo’s teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (also a tulku), who quipped that ‘We’re still waiting for him [Gesar Mukpo] to do what he is supposed to do.’ He was referring to all with hopes that Gesar Mukpo, aged 34 at the time (in 2009) the film was made, will take up a more significant spiritual role. Lastly, is a conclusion section with several important lessons gleaned from the film.
Ashoka Mukpo (a recognised tulku): I don’t think that my role is to be a teacher, to be wearing robes and up on a throne. And if that makes me a failed tulku, then maybe that’s just my karma. But I still think that I can be of some kind of benefit to somebody. And that’s what I think being a Buddhist is about. I work at Human Rights Watch, which is a non-profit organisation that monitors human rights conditions in different countries around the world.
Comments: As we see throughout the documentary, Ashoka Mukpo is not the only tulku who does not feel at home with playing a deeper religious role for a larger community – even despite being recognised as being reborn monastic masters. Perhaps there was a vision to be born in the West out of compassion, while lacking a clear plan for advancement with enough wisdom? The truth is, we are not karmically destined to fail at any task. We fail only when we lack the necessary motivation, understanding and efforts to accomplish it. However, it is true that we can benefit sentient beings in many other non-religious ways too.
Gesar Mukpo: When I was a child, the idea of being a tulku seemed completely normal. By the time I hit my teens, I started to find the whole thing crazy, and I wondered if someone was playing some kind of joke on me. It wasn’t unusual to have one of my father’s students ask me for advice, when I was only 11 or 12 years old. I’ve always felt that I have some kind of obligation that people expected from me, but I could never figure out what exactly it was. And how could I fulfil this obligation if I am just an ordinary person?
Comments: When younger, there is a higher tendency to have clearer memories, if any at all, of who one was in the previous life. When older, any such memories tend to fade if the mind is not further sharpened via training. This is when others’ claims of one being special might even seem to be pranks. Even extraordinary wisdom, that is of great value, as acquired by the unenlightened in a past life, that is useful for advising others might seem amiss now, due to existential forgetfulness spurred by the interruption of death.
Gesar Mukpo: All of the [western] tulkus that I’ve met have the similar feeling of being lost, or alone, and [there is] no one that they can talk to… When you grow up as a tulku in the West, you can sort of completely flip, not believe, or completely believe it, and you can flip back and forth.
Comments: This problem probably arises from the West lacking a solid supportive and systematic syllabus in nurturing its tulkus. Coupled with high expectations of them, it becomes more confounding as to what is best to believe in and how best to accomplish it.
Wyatt Arnold (a recognised tulku): The tulku who is recognised is supposed [sic] to be an eighth level Bodhisattva, who has power over karma, power over rebirth, power over time. They can defy the laws of physical science, because their minds are so great, so precise.
Gesar Mukpo: … I try not to think of it in those terms, because that is just sort of, too unbelievable.
Comments: Not all tulkus are great Bodhisattvas with great powers as stated, because if they truly are, they would also have great clarity of wisdom, that does not backslide or diminish, which is the opposite of having much confusion, that the western tulkus in the documentary present.
Reuben Derksen (a recognised tulku): When I was young, I had memories of the previous life, and so my mother was writing those down, and kind of keeping a journal of what I was saying. And I described the monastery that I grew up in or that I taught in, in my previous life, and some of the events that went on. And I have no memory of this whatsoever now…
Comments: Existential disconnection from life to life due to fading memories is one of the main reasons why we spiritually backslide from life to life. This applies to tulkus too, especially those who are not great ones.
Gesar Mukpo: (on being disillusioned by bad ‘Buddhists’, paraphrasing Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) There is a difference between Buddhism and Buddhists, and you’d better recognise there is a difference between in order to make any sense out of it. Just because someone is studying Buddhism does not mean that they represent the values of what they talk about. Do you consider yourself a Buddhist still?
Reuben Derksen: No.
Comments: Despite Gesar Mukpo’s attempt to help Reuben Derksen sift true Buddhism from the poor ‘Buddhists’ who let him down, the latter probably still could not see the difference, which is why he says he is no longer a Buddhist? If he truly studied and practised Buddhism more deeply, he would be able to see the true value of Buddhism and remain a Buddhist. We should always look to the Buddhas as role models; not Buddhists who are poor examples.
Gesar Mukpo: At 16, after spending a year in the monastery, I was feeling homesick and decided that I didn’t want to be there for the rest of my life. I called my mother, and she arranged for me to come back immediately. I’ve often wondered if I had made the right decision.
Comments: As above, even tulkus, especially not great ones, can face self-doubt, time and again, and even retreat from formal Dharma study and practice, possibly leading to regret later.
Gesar Mukpo: Whether I’m a tulku or not is insignificant. I have a tremendous connection to this monastery and these people, a tremendous connection to my father and this heritage. They will always be a part of me, no matter who I am, what I do. I’ll never know for sure what my father [also a tulku] had in mind [for my future]. There will always be a certain ambiguity. Still, I can’t help but feel that he knew I would figure it out by myself. Having spent time with these [western] tulkus, I found that we have much in common. There’s no certain path for any of us, other than the path of self-discovery. It can be a lonely path, but in the end, it’s the only way anything meaningful is born.
Comments: However, as in the case of Reuben Derksen, who decided that he is not even a Buddhist anymore, his connection to Buddhism has seriously weakened. Will he discover the meaningful path back to Buddhism again in this lifetime? If he does not, will he drift further away? Perhaps the spiritual path will not be so lonely if one’s uncomfortable tulku title is dropped, so as to better integrate with other Buddhists to relearn Buddhism? Without high expectations, of oneself and from anyone else, would it be better or worse?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Tibetan lamas, especially high lamas, like the [17th] Karmapa [and others]… beginning to find tulkus in the West is very encouraging. This actually shows there is no sort of nepotism, like you know, the tulkus will always… you know… Westerners, you’re all doomed, you’ll never be a Buddhist reincarnation [tulku]… And this is a great thing. I think there should be more… if it was done properly. Because, from two points, from reincarnation’s point of view, reincarnation does not… you know… like the Tibetans only end up being Tibetans. Transmigration happens everywhere. In fact, some of the high lamas [Dharma masters], for the benefit of sentient beings, they must reincarnate as a bird, or a lizard. But we human beings don’t want to really think in terms of enthroning a lizard as the seat-holder of your big monastery, do you?
Tibetan monasteries, they are very big institutions you know. They own a lot of properties. They are a very big thing in the social structure in Tibet. And wherever there is money, wherever there is power, there is corruption. And there is also fear… You have to have management. So it [i.e. recognising tulkus] could be for the purpose of managing a big institution… this happens to be unanswered in our society like Tibet. In the West, you elect the big guy in the White House, but it doesn’t really happen in places like Tibet.
I don’t think something [i.e. recognising tulkus] like this existed originally in Buddhism. In the sutras and sastras [Buddhist scriptures and commentaries], we never hear or read about Kasyapa [(a disciple of the Buddha), and others, who]… died and then a bunch of monks trying to find their reincarnations. There are mentions of Asvaghoṣa [and others]… who reincarnate, but the actual institution of the culture, the tradition of trying to find the tulkus and enthroning them – all of that is a bit of a Tibetan thing. Started much later I think. And now, I personally think that to hold that culture to institutionalise tulkus, that culture is dying. It’s not going to work any more. And if it doesn’t work, I think it’s almost for the better. If the Tibetans are not careful, this tulku system is going to ruin Buddhism. And at the end of the day, Buddhism is more important than tulku system. Who cares about tulkus, what happens to them?
 Unless they are accomplished masters with great non-retrogressible attainments (i.e. being no longer subject to spiritual backsliding), due to existential forgetfulness spurred by the interruption of death, young tulkus’ (recognised reborn masters) memories of their previous lives might quickly fade without adequate (re-)training. With less spiritual motivation than before, it can become very challenging trying to spiritually build upon the past life with the present life’s efforts.
 Reborn far away from where they used to be, without comprehensive Dharma re-motivation and re-education support systems, some tulkus thus feel uneasy and disconnected between their previously executed and presently expected spiritual roles for the masses. Perhaps there were aspirations to be born beyond their comfort zones out of compassion, while lacking a steady plan powered by enough wisdom for spiritual progression?
 Ironically, while there are enough existential connections for some recognised tulkus to ‘return’ to the fold of the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), there might not be strong enough connections to regain or deepen the same connections due to changing karmic circumstances and attitudes.
 While interviewed tulkus’ remembrance of their past lives speaks proof of the reality of rebirth, their later forgetfulness of their own lives speaks of the ‘terror’ of backsliding. In one shocking case, a tulku became so disillusioned by wayward ‘Buddhists’ encountered when younger, that he says he is no longer a Buddhist. Regretfully, some tulkus might have enough doubt in the Dharma and self-doubt to retreat from Dharma study and practice. However, this can be reversed with further study and practice of authentic teachings of the Buddha via authentic Buddhist teachers.
 If even some recognised tulkus with some spiritual support to quickly re-nurture them might backslide, the rest of us, who are not even tulkus surely have much more potential to backslide! Since we are not tulkus, there would be no one keen to look out for us life after life. This means we are in a much more spiritually precarious state! In fact, backsliding can occur within this single lifetime if we do not diligently and continually learn and practise the Dharma.
 To solve the dangerous problem of repetitive backsliding from life to life, all Buddhas, as stated in the Immeasurable Life Sutra and Amitabha Sutra, repeatedly urge beings of their worlds to seek birth in Amitabha Buddha’s (Amituofo) Pure Land, where we will all crystal clearly remember all our past lives, while being in the best Dharma school for swiftly training towards Buddhahood, with no more possibility of backsliding. This does not forsake other beings still in Samsara, as it is wise to train well on the Bodhisattva path by learning from a Buddha in person, so as to most efficiently guide everyone else!
 As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche mentioned, the institution of recognising and enthroning tulkus is part of Tibetan culture that arose much later after the Buddha’s time. ‘If the Tibetans are not careful, this tulku system is going to ruin Buddhism… Buddhism is more important than tulku system.’ He was warning about how attachment to power (due to spiritual status) and money can spur corruption. (Think the communist Chinese government’s insistence of the 14th Dalai Lama to be reborn at their will.) While there is clearly great value in maintaining the tulku system, there is also value in forgoing it? Without searching for and having high expectations of ‘special ones’, will they fare spiritually better or worse personally and for the world? Due to the complexities of each case, there is perhaps no universal answer.
Introduction To Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding Amituofo Via The Amitabha Sutra
Beware Of Fake ‘Reborn Masters’ (False ‘Tulkus’)
An Open Letter To Buddhist Practitioners
Are You Recycling Yourself Every Three Lifetimes?
How Death Hinders Progress To Liberation
How To Sabotage Yourself In This & Future Lives?
About The Film ‘Tulku’