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.