Tulkus, Titles, Disagreements — Succession by Reincarnation in Tibetan Societies

The Tibetan conception of consciously reborn bodhisattvas as so-called tulkus in a successive line of recognised incarnations seems unique within Buddhist cultures. Even more remarkable is how such tulku positions became institutionalised and lasted over centuries, sometimes with considerable religious and political influence – thus also becoming prone to manipulation and disagreement. While some initial research about the origins, benefits, and problems of such a system has been undertaken, its manifold dimensions and numerous textual sources still await further investigation.

After introducing the tulku as a form of succession with religious, legal, and social implications, this lecture discusses some salient case studies from the 13th to 16th centuries, the period in which the Tibetan tulku system emerged and became established institutionally. Some of the questions addressed are: Why has this system become so prevalent in the Tibetan cultural sphere? What sources and methods are available for its study? What are its many dimensions (such as spiritual, political, cultural)? Is it possible to identify common “regulations” or practices across Tibet’s religious traditions? The lecture concludes by asking how research into the different dimensions of the tulku system can help us move towards a more differentiated understanding of religion in the Tibetan cultural sphere and beyond.