Tulku, the film

Tulku, the film

Today was the World Premier of Tulku, a film about the practice of recognizing a reborn Buddhist master. Sadly, I wasn’t able to see it, yet. But I thought the description of the film was notable in a number of ways.

In many ways, Gesar Mukpo leads an ordinary life. He’s building a career as a filmmaker, he’s had trouble in his marriage, and he struggles to pay his bills. But there is more to Gesar’s story. Tibetan Buddhists recognize him as a tulku, a reincarnated Buddhist master. Gesar was three when he became one of the first people born in the West recognized as a tulku. His entire life, he’s been trying to figure out what that really means. Tibetan teachers, including Gesar’s father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, began making their way to the West in the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, they began to recognize Western children as tulkus.

Suddenly, a system that ensured stable spiritual power and authority in Tibetan society for 800 years was transplanted into a completely different culture. And individual tulkus, like Gesar, were caught in the middle.

In this intensely personal documentary, Gesar sets out to meet other Western tulkus to find out how they reconcile modern and ancient, East and West. Journeying through Canada, the United States, India and Nepal, he encounters four other tulkus who struggle with this profound dilemma.

“Tulku also includes interviews with some of the greatest living Tibetan Buddhist teachers. One of them, the renowned Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, asks if it might be time to abandon the practice of recognizing tulkus. As he gathers impressions from others, Gesar reveals his own poignant story of living in the West with this unique label and legacy, endlessly scrutinized as a supposed special and monumental figure. What does it mean to carry on a role designed for an old world when you’re living in a completely new one? How will Gesar and other Western tulkus fulfill their destiny?”

This speaks to the impact the past can have on identity and expectation. Like being born the son of a great father and being expected to follow in his footsteps. Of how changes in cutural context can mess up the intent of a practice. And it points to how changes in Tibet may dramatically change their lineage. The Dalai Lama has spoken to some of that, recently suggesting a girl may be next. As in, he will chose to incarnate as a woman.

What I find curious is that a Tulku is described as an enlightened master being reborn. It seems more they are what a Buddhist might call a bodhisattva. One who is bound for but not fully awake. Fully awake, they would not be reborn or rarely, they would be reborn enlightened, like an avatar. There are examples of awareness at a young age in the young men here, but they are lacking context for meaning.

I look forward to seeing the film. Sounds like it will be on CBC TV in Canada and available on DVD.

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  1. Deanna Campbell

    And to think that the Chinese have passed a law that future tulkus can only be born in China and identified by the Chinese government!

    Perhaps a reincarnated tulku is only a master with the potential to be a bodhisattva. A choice of practice and lifestyle that must be made in each new incarnation?

  2. Davidya

    Hi Deanna
    Such designation would be meaningless. If it is not our past, what value would it be for us to be told we used to be a saint? How would we possibly fill that role?

    I am not a Buddhist but I understand a Bodhisattva is the one close to awakening but not yet a Buddha. In such a circumstance, they would be born into a life favorable to completing the task, depending of course on karma. Many spiritual people take on larger karmic loads to speed through the process. But this can mean more distractions and obstacles. Harder to deal with if there is no context.

    I suspect we’ll see considerable changes to Tibetan Buddhism within our lives. Even the Dalai Lama wondering if he should return.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Deanna Campbell

    Yes, Davidya but there is the element of free will. Being born with great opportunity and progress on the path to Buddhahood does not ensure that one will achieve it. One must maintain until the final moment, don’t you think?
    PS I am not a Buddhist either but a student and seeker among the many world religions! How does one buy the DVD?

  4. Davidya

    I’ve not yet seen a source for the DVD, only a mention of it’s release. Sometimes there can be lags due to funding, preparation, distribution, etc. Often, if there is a TV broadcast, there are short term limits on DVD distribution.

    One of the curious things about free will and choice is that it is always made from the state of consciousness we are in in the moment. And that is something we do not control. In that sense, free will and determinism are just 2 perspectives of one thing.

    Our destiny can sometimes present circumstances that would lead us in one direction, but tendencies that would take us in another. Perhaps a Tulku may be called to extend or integrate the teachings into the west. Or perhaps they are called to a western journey to complete what their past could not provide.

    As for “One must maintain until the final moment”, for myself I’ve found that this is really just a story of the ego. Ideas like you are in charge of your journey and that there is a goal to be reached.

    Awakening is Self awakening to Itself. Remember that the individual is an illusion, so how can it awaken? Some refer to grace of God or the guru. Certainly, it is valid to have a practice to open the way and prepare the ground. This comes to be a great deal about allowing and surrender for part of the journey. A practice of not doing. In the end, it is Self that unfolds and the person that dissolves.

    I’ve also found that awakening is a process rather than a goal. While there are key signposts along the way, like Self realization, the journey does not end. There are infinite steps one may take towards divinity. We are stepping back from a small point of attention into a fullness beyond comprehension. I’ve found that in the oldest traditions, they speak of multiple stages of enlightenment and an ongoing process of unfolding that is ever deepening. Thus, I emphasize not one ‘final moment’ but many. And even the maha-samadhi when the body of an awake person passes is not the end. Indeed, they have long since remembered their immortality.

    I talk about these themes regularly on this blog.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Deanna Campbell

    Well, Davidya,
    If “we do not control our state of consciouness” who does? How then is a Buddha a Buddha and a tyrant a tryant if they have not made a determination to direct their consciousness to that end. Buddha left his life of comfort and ease and with great determination and action set about to find enlightenment. His conscious choices are what set him apart. While everyone has the Buddha nature everyone will not be a Buddha until the right action is taken by conscious choice. I believe there are 8 right actions outlines by Buddha. If we are not in charge of our journey and free and responsible to make or balance karma along the way then why have great teachers like Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Yogananda etc? It seems to me people would be nothing more than empty automatons if there was not consciousness to be engaged for good or for ill. Even Buddha taught that the goal of life was to escape the endless cycles of rebirth. It seems to me that a belief that “free will and determinism are just differnent perspectives of the same thing” is a victim consciousness and a belief that would make life quite senseless and useless. I daily make choices and I am sure you do as well that have consequences for good or naught. If we are to realize our higher Self and escape the endless cycles of rebirth, we must be conscious of our choices and direct them to the highest purpose. Don’t you think?

  6. astromystic

    Hi Davidya and Deanna,
    I find a lot of validity in this discussion’s context that fit what I have learned, most of which seemed to confirm inherent knowledge/intuition.

    Davidya, I suspect Deanna might have been speaking of one’s soul attunement with one’s Self or ‘divine plan’ when saying: “One must maintain until the final moment” (of the embodiment in which one might be striving to peel away illusion to reach a more, or fully, awakened state = conscious attunement with one’s Higher Self or divinity or God-consciousness) …?

    We might consider that illusion in this world — while accepting that confusing circumstances surely cloud one’s clear perception of one’s ‘Real Self’ — does not necessarily lock a spiritually oriented soul into the apparent, sensory ‘prison’ of a spiritually corrupt/bankrupt society.

    Does that not present the ultimate challenge of ‘free will’: that each soul must choose to what degree she WILL identify with outer ‘reality’ vs. inner Reality of her Higher Self?

    In that regard, we might consider that a ‘tulku’ faces the same challenge that each of us face. Yet, can’t we all agree that living in a cloistered monastery surrounded by the vibrations of 1200 years of mantras and studied devotion to a spiritual and cultural tradition — free from Chinese disruption, violent atrocities and brainwashing — would present a much easier environment in which to maintain one’s self-elevation (salvation) to ultimate reunion w/one’s Greater/Higher Self?

    Still, I agree with you, Davidya, that one’s spiritual progress does not necessarily ‘end’ with the ‘final moment’ of enlightenment. However, can we imagine that transcending the illusions of this world could equal a large step in spiritual attainment — what some might call “immortality,” while others might call “ascension” — which might be nothing more, or less, than stepping up to higher service to those still ‘mortal,’ but from a higher level of awareness/perspective on the trappings of mortal, sensate experience …?

    We might hope that attaining such progress, or release from bondage, could eliminate the seeming conundrum of ‘free will’ and leave us ultimately free within the state of oneness with “God’s Will” aka “omniscience”…?

    Thank you, Davidya, for providing this stimulating forum!

    Marshall Haley

  7. astromystic

    P.S., Davidya:

    Back to your suggestion that the Western-born tulku might have been ‘sent’ here to accomplish what he/she could not in their previous, Tibetan (for example) environment. I believe that’s very possible, and who knows how many of us born of ‘Western’ parents might also fit that category? How else might we explain the fascination some of us have with Eastern religion ideas rather than simply settling for Christian fundamentalism or Judaism — or “sex, drugs & rock and roll” — for examples?

  8. Davidya

    Hi Deanna
    We have to be careful about not applying the truth of one state of consciousness to another. I was suggesting an alternate perspective, not a belief.

    Who is in control of our state of consciousness? We are, but not the we of persons but the we of oneness, of consciousness itself. Consciousness controls itself. (although control is a meaningless word in that context) Thus, while the person may experience free will and choice, they will later see it as determined by consciousness, then more deeply find they are both the chooser an the determiner as they are that consciousness.

    For example, for the newly awake, life seems to just happen without any personal input. Then that experience moves forward into the world.

    Also for the awake, some see the not awake as the empty automatons you describe. It’s one of the more curious things to shift from thinking you are in control to seeing you never did. How can you if the “me” was an illusion all along?

    I agree that right action is required, but the reason for right action varies by state. If you explore the actual waking experience, you discover it is not the doer that awakens. It is the doer that ceases. What awakes is not the person becoming one but the one becoming person. It is the one that wakes to itself. What does right action mean if there is no doer?

    It’s tricky as the rules change too. Right action is required to approach waking but waking itself requires non-doing. No action. No doer. Then, ideas of right and wrong fall away with the end of duality. Paradoxically, right action continues but not as opposed to wrong but simply as what is necessary. Not as choice as there is no duality but rather as what is seen to be done.

    Yes, Patajali similarly outlined 8 limbs of Yoga. It includes similar things to Buddha’s teaching.

    I’m not suggesting free will and determinism are the same thing for purposes of belief but rather to describe the reality in a specific state of consciousness. The blog is an ongoing discussion of such themes. Its difficult to frame it all out of context in comments. Apologies if I brought some confusion with the musings. Hopefully this helps clarify what I meant.

  9. Davidya

    Hi Marshall

    For the seeker, there is the goal of awakening and a sense one must peel back the illusion, sustain until the final moment. But then we wake up and discover a different perspective. That it was consciousness peeling back the layers of the person, not the other way around as it appeared.

    I don’t say these things to confuse people but to make it very clear there is not one true way or belief. None of it is true. So long as you believe you’re moving towards awakening, so too is awakening held at a distance. The me is playing a game, a role of being a seeker. Unexpectedly, our ideas about awakening or, for a few, our compassion are usually the final barriers to it.

    I also talk like this because when people awake, it’s much easier if they have a framework for their belief system to end. If they know this is just the evolution of their perspective. On the other hand, if you have some idea there is a place you’re going to and one day you will arrive, then you won’t. (laughs) No person has ever been enlightened. It’s not possible. The person is the illusion that pops when awakening takes place.

    It’s not so much that the world is an illusion but that you are an illusion and the world is the result. The ego doesn’t like to hear this though, so puts the illusion somewhere else. (laughs) Judging society as corrupt is a judgment of the mind. This may seem very obvious and much evidence can be found to “prove” this. But if you are creating your world, what is the point of believing in that?

    Awakening is very, very simple. But this illustrates why it is so hard to “do”. The illusion of the person is so convoluted and the reasons are all put on something else. Yet all you have to do is see it and the illusion ends. This is what the ego fears, hence the convolutions.

    Yes, for some people being cloistered would be a very beautiful thing. For others, not so. Ringo Starr comes to mind. (laughs) And there’s another principle here. What they call in India dying the cloth. For the colour to be fast, you have to dip the dye in the cloth, then hang it in the sun to bleach, repeatedly. In the same way, for most people, they have to step into the silence, then bleach it in the world for it to integrate. For most people, the householders path is the supreme one. In the west, we’re mostly karma yogis to some degree.

    When a person first awakens, it is a profound thing for everyone. The one Self has woken further. For the awake, it’s like waking some more. So yes, very important. I simply point out there’s more as many think that’s it. If that is the impression and they loose the seeker with awakening, they may loose the movement to go farther. That’s a shame. True enlightenment and the deeper truth of reality is still a few stages away.

    On your PS – exactly. I resonate and speak more from Indian philosophy as that is my history. Doesn’t explain the rock and roll though (laughs) – thats further back.

    I’m on the west coast of Canada. Posting time would be server time which may or may not be the time zone the servers are actually in. They used to click over the day about 5pm local time. Then it shifted closer to local time.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feedback.

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