Tulku Buddhism


Tulku (Tibetan: སྥྲུལ་སྐུ་, Wylie: sprul sku, ZWPY: zhügu) - in Tibetan Buddhism, a being who manifests in human form through many successive incarnations, unlike other beings who are reborn consciously, although not always remembering their previous lives.

The best-known example of a tulku is the Dalai Lama, who is considered an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion - Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig). Followers of Tibetan Buddhism believe that he has been reborn 14 times since 1391.

According to that portion of Buddhists who believe in the existence of tulku, the first consciously reborn being of this type, whose lineage continues to this day, was (and is) the karmapa, the most famous master and authority of the kagyu school, now in his 17th incarnation.

Recognizing a tulku

A tulku close to death may leave clues about his next birth. Sometimes these are predictions about where to look for his next incarnation. Candidates for tulku are recognized by the highest teachers of the particular lineage of transmission of teachings that the tulku has given.

A child who is suspected of being an incarnation of a teacher is given items from a previous life to check out, or asked about things about which only those closest to the previous incarnation may know the answers.

There are also relationships between tulku who recognize each other. Thus, in the gelug school, the dalai lama is mainly recognized by the panchen lama and the panchen lama by the dalai lama, while in the kagyu school, the karmapa is mainly recognized by the shamarpa and vice versa.


The word tulku translates from Tibetan སྤྲུལ་སྐུ (Wylie: sprul sku) as "reincarnated body, emanation body." It is synonymous with the Sanskrit term nirmāṇakāya.

Reincarnation is a key term used in Buddhism and is associated with teachings such as the causal law of karma and the twelve links of interdependent origination.

The concept of conscious rebirth appears only in Mahayana teachings, and is especially emphasized in Vajrayana and is only possible for bodhisattvas.

In Vajrayana, explanations of bodhisattva rebirth are closely related to the theory of Buddhist tantras, the practice of which ultimately enables the practitioner to transform his or her own dying process, intermediate state after death (bardo) and rebirth into the world again, into the realization of the three buddha bodies, respectively.

Tulku, according to this approach, corresponds to the tantric transformation of this rebirth of the practitioner. For more see Supreme Yoga Tantras.

Chinese government decision

The Chinese government has demanded control over the tulku recognition process. Monasteries claiming to have discovered the reincarnation of a tulku must, as of September 2007, request permission from their province's religious affairs department to recognize it as a fact.

Known tulku lineages

Dalai Lamas
Panchen Lamas

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