The concepts of tulku reincarnation and re-birth in Tibetan Buddhism: HH 17th Karmapa on the terms ‘tulku’ and ‘yangsi’ (December 2019)

HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje with HH 14th Dalai Lama.

Last week, in Dharamsala, India a meeting was held with lamas and masters from all the different lineages within Tibetan Buddhism, to discuss the reincarnation of HH 14th Dalai Lama.  For this event, as HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa was unable to attend [HE 12th Gyaltsab Rinpoche attended as his representative], HH composed a letter giving his advice and opinion on the reincarnation issue (I have posted the letter in full below).  To date, this letter has not been officially translated in English. However, I thought I would share some of what HH says in it (my own translation) in relation to his explanation about two oft-used words in Tibetan Buddhism connected to reincarnation, as it is of interest not only philosophically but also from a translation perspective as well.

First a little introduction, the Tibetan word tulku (sprul sku) is the Tibetan term for the Sanskrit word nirmāṇakāya. It is a combination of two Tibetan words, the first ‘tul’ (sprul) means to ‘manifest’ or ‘emanate’, the second ‘ku’ (sku) is an honorific term for ‘form’ or ‘body’ (the Sanskrit term is kāya). So it literally means a form that ‘manifests’ or ‘emanates’.  It is often used to describe reincarnate lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  The word ‘yangsi’ (yang srid) is also a combination of two words ‘yang’ and ‘si’. Yang means ‘again’ and ‘si’ means ‘existence’ or ‘becoming’ [samsaric existence].

HH 17th Karmapa on the meaning of ‘tulku’ and ‘yangsi’ and the history of the tradition in Tibet
Here is an excerpt from HH 17th Karmapa’s letter written on 27 November 2019:

“In the Mahayana, tulku  is the actual name [gngos ming] of one of the categories  of the Buddha’s ‘form’ (sku). It is the form/body kāya aspect[1] of Buddha that manifests for the benefit of others. Within that category, there are also several divisions[2]. In relation to Noble Arya Bodhisattvas, it refers to those who appear in various manifestations (sprul) for the benefit of all. For ordinary beings also, in dependence on the power of samadhi, manifested forms radiate out. As for the definition of tulku, even though it is nothing other than Buddha, I think that due to reasons of similarity and connections the word ‘tulku’ is designated to all names.

As for yangsi, that is different. Ordinary beings, due to the influence of afflictive mental states, take rebirth again and again [the word ‘yang’ means again].  In terms of Noble Bodhisattvas, they take rebirth [again] due to power of aspirations and compassion. Buddha’s way of manifesting is effortless ‘arisal’ [‘birth’] for the benefit of others. Also, ordinary sentient beings, at the instant of  taking life and propulsion to die, with the force of strong aspirations and devotion, can take re-birth in pure lands like Dewachen. This is taught clearly in the Sutras and texts and so on.

In summary,  past and former rebirths are accepted by all Buddhists. In the common vehicle scriptures, they refer to the previous lives of the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. There are various scriptures and teachings about his previous lives as different beings. It is not only Tibetans who recognised, or newly invented, former and later incarnations. However, the maintenance of the tradition of recognising sacred and noble beings who take rebirth again and again in order to continually benefit beings and the teachings is renowned as being newly instituted by HH Choje Karmapa.

Gradually, this tradition became widespread in Tibet in all the old and new [Nyingma] and in the greater and lesser schools of tenets. After the lama has passed away, it was said that if the tulku does not arrive there is great suffering. Some tulkus are recognised due to their strong memories of previous lives and by the last testaments written by the former tulku. Some by the realisations and scriptures of great beings or dakinis. There are other methods such as rituals like ‘tag dril’ and ‘zin dril’ and so on. Likewise, what need to mention the different levels of recognised tulkus as excellent, average and lesser. One is able to know that the majority are of total benefit to beings and the teachings by the continuity not having disappeared.”

Jed Verity states that the term ‘tulku’ should generally be used for intentional reincarnation and not an ordinary (uncontrolled) re-birth:

“The “emanation body” definition is used sparingly in the Blue Annals, despite it being the first definition in the bod rgya. This is certainly because the Blue Annals doesn’t concern itself as much with the stories surrounding buddhas, and thus doesn’t have the opportunity to employ the term in the sense that it is preponderantly employed in other literature. There are very few cases where one could make an argument for its usage where Roerich otherwise translated “incarnation.” It is interesting to note, however, in the example on page 689, that Roerich translates “incarnation” and then puts “nirmāṇakāya” in parantheses. For him, there is not much distinction, and a literal translation of terms supports this perspective. The patterns of usage make it clear, however, that there is indeed a distinction, with skye ba being used for basic rebirth incarnation, sprul pa’i sku being used for enlightened and/or intentional incarnation, and sprul pa’i sku being used to describe the worldly activity of buddhas.”


One could assert,  based on HH’s explanation here, that the term ‘tulku’ should not be used at all for ordinary reincarnation and only the term yangsi should be used for that.

Tulku lineages

Names of masters who recognised the Karmapa tulku lineage

Generally, a ‘tulku’ in terms of that within a tulku lineage is considered to be the ‘same mind’ or ‘consciousness’ as the previous tulku holder.  That is why so much effort goes into finding the new one and tests are given to the child when it is thought that they are the one, such as showing them previous objects of the former tulku and them picking the correct ones and so on.  It is certainly not the same as a political appointment, or an elected representative of a lineage at all. HH 17th Karmapa himself has recognised several tulkus.  He talks about his recognition of the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche in this 2014 video interview here.

In an excellent article here about the Karmapa lineage and how the tulku is recognised, it explains:

One skillful means by which that bridge is built is the practice—initiated by Dusum Khyenpa himself—of leaving behind instructions indicating the Karmapa’s next place of birth. Such instructions are generally left in the hands of close disciples or, on occasion, trusted attendants. The letter that the Fifteenth Karmapa wrote and gave to an attendant inside a protection amulet included not only the date of his next birth, but a description of the house and name of the family into which he would be reborn. Although not every Karmapa writes letters giving such clear guidance, when they do, such prediction letters provide dazzling displays of the Karmapa’s extraordinary powers. Another unique means whereby the Karmapas have supported disciples in their search for the next reincarnation are what are known as the intermediate deeds, or nam thar bardoma—exceptional signs that will take place between the passing of a Karmapa and their next birth. The fact that the Karmapas can predetermine not only the site of their next rebirth but also the conditions of their transition from one life to the next attests to their basic control over the process of their own death and rebirth. Further, it confirms what has long been said of the Karmapas—that they have a special ability to perceive the future as well as the past and present.

Karmapas have not always left their indications in such explicit forms as prediction letters. In the absence of such letters, their chief disciples might consult with one another to determine whether prophetic statements are contained within correspondence any of them received from the Karmapa or in any of the sacred songs (Tibetan: gur) or other poetic works composed by the Karmapa. The disciples might also take into consideration predictive comments made during the life of the previous Karmapa, and they would also watch their own dreams for further signs.

For example, here is HH 14th Dalai Lama talking about the reasons why he also recognised HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley:

Listed here are also the textual/verbal prophecies and materials that were used in connection with the recognition of the current 17th Karmapa.  A prediction letter was written by the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje and given to HE Tai Situ Rinpoche in an amulet in 1981, which he did not open until 1990. See here for information about the letter and its contents:

Sacred prediction letter of HH 16th Karmapa regarding his reincarnation as the 17th Karmapa.

The tulku system and female rebirth

Some say that the tulku system started in Tibet with the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa and the Karmapa lineage. The Kagyu Lineage was brought from India by Marpa in the 10th century and continued through the activities of his principal student Milarepa, the great yogi. Milarepa’s main student, Gampopa, passed the lineage on to many students, the foremost being Dusum Khyenpa, the 1st Karmapa. The lineage of Karmapas, successive reincarnations of Dusum Khyenpa, protected and expanded these teachings in an unbroken line down to His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.

The Karma Kagyu refuge tree and lineage

Whatever the case may be,  in terms of the tulku system itself, recently there have there have been more and more critical voices of it as outdated, sexist, patriarchal and so on.   For example, in the 2009 documentary film Tulku, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche states:

”And now, I personally think that to hold that culture, institutionalized Tulku. That culture is dying; it’s not going to work anymore. And even if it… And if it doesn’t work, I think it’s almost for the better because this tulku, it’s going to… If the Tibetans are not careful, this Tulku system is going to ruin Buddhism. At the end of the day Buddhism is more important [than] Tulku system, who cares about Tulku… [and] what happens to them.”

Certainly the majority of tulkus recognised historically, and currently, are male, which itself has ensured that Tibetan Buddhism remains patriarchal and with a massive gender inequality in terms of power and influence within the institutional and cultural domains. The Tibetan word for ‘woman’ is kyemen (skyes man) which literally means ‘lower birth’ and traditionally women have been viewed as being of ‘inferior’ or lower birth than men not only in Tibetan Buddhist society, but globally. This is one of the possible reasons so few women historically were recognised as tulkus or lineage heads in Asia.  Times are-a-changing though.  As the late Prof. Rita M Gross eloquently asserts in ‘The Man-Made Obstacle: Distinguishing between problems of human birth and problems of human making’:

Traditional Buddhist texts actually acknowledge, though not explicitly, that the real obstacle faced by beings with a female rebirth is male dominance, not their female bodies. The traditional lists about what’s wrong with women include the “three subserviences” and the “five woes,” which all involve either social male dominance or male evaluations of women’s biology that may not be shared by women. Commonly in such thinking, what is cultural—namely, male dominance—is confused with nature itself, as if it were necessary and universal.

HH the 17th Karmapa has also publicly questioned the use of the term ‘kyemen’ for women and ‘ani’ for nuns, at a recent teaching at Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s nunnery:

“He expressed his preference for “tsunma” as opposed to “ani” (meaning “auntie”) the colloquial term commonly used for nuns in Tibetan, saying it was not the best choice and commented that he himself did not know where the use of the term “ani” had originated. He reminisced that in the area of Kham where he was born, people used the term “jomo” to refer to nuns. Jomo was a high term of respect, reserved in ancient times for queens.”

It is clear that the original term ‘tulku’ was never meant to be reserved only for those in male forms yet it has sadly become like that. Nonetheless, whether female tulkus have been recognised or not, the activities and manifestations of the Buddha in female forms remains regardless.  Ultimately, a tulku should, and can only be judged by their benefit to beings and the teachings, their Dharma activities and not by their big name, worldly power and followers alone.

Adele Tomlin, 5th December 2019.


[1] There are generally said to be three (or four) kāyas, the other two are the Saṃbhogakāya (longs spyod rdzog pa’i sku) and dharmakāya. There are considered to  two types of nirmāṇakāya – the Supreme nirmāṇakāya and the ordinary nirmāṇakāya. The first type can be seen only by those who have pure karma, and the second can be seen by anyone. In general, Buddhas manifest in many different forms and, although the aspect of some of these emanations is mundane, in essence all Buddha’s emanations are fully enlightened beings.

[2] These different categories:

  1. Nirmāṇakāya through birth, such as Shakyamuni Buddha who previously took birth in the heaven of Tushita as the son of the gods, Shvetaketu (Skt. Śvetaketu; Tib. Dampa Tok Karpo).
  2. Supreme nirmāṇakāya (Skt. uttamanirmāṇakāya; Tib. མཆོག་གི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་, Wyl. mchog gi sprul sku), such as Shakyamuni Buddha who displayed the twelve deeds here in Jambudvipa.
  3. Diverse nirmāṇakāya (Skt. janmanirmāṇakāya; Tib. སྐྱེ་བ་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ, Wyl. skye ba sprul sku) that manifest in order to tame various beings from Indra to a young girl.
  4. Craft nirmāṇakāya (Skt. śilpinnirmāṇakāya; Tib. བཟོ་བོ་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་, Wyl. bzo bo sprul sku) such as the manifestation of the lute player in order to tame the gandharva Rabga, and as good food, bridges, pleasure gardens, and islands, as well as sculpted forms, paintings, woven images and cast metal statues.

2 thoughts on “The concepts of tulku reincarnation and re-birth in Tibetan Buddhism: HH 17th Karmapa on the terms ‘tulku’ and ‘yangsi’ (December 2019)

  1. Yes, rebirth is happening moment to moment in this life, in this Bardo so why not in all the other moments of time and space? But there can be confusion or mistakes in the beginning but the actual proof will show Dharma or Samsara manifestation. It actually couldn’t be much easier to recognize the 17th Karmapa since he looks so similar so familiar to his prior face. Actually each one of us has made the transfer of consciousness into our Mother’s Womb so why couldn’t a realized yogi do what ordinary beings do?
    What’s more difficult is finding the reincarnation and identifying him. but there are checks on that process also…the main ones are the manifestation of “view, meditation and conduct “!

    1. Sorry, I should have said “him or her” when referring to a Tulku with a pronoun. My mistake, there are many wisdom women on the planet Earth. In USA, there may be more women in the Dharma with great devotion than there are men.
      Perhaps we also need to include the pronoun “it” since based upon Shantideva’s Aspiration Prayer often repeated by HH Dalai Lama and traditionally by whoever wants to make this Bodhisattva Aspiration to be reborn to benefit beings as a bridge, or as a medicine or whatever is serving the needs of beings.

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