Living Buddhas Out of Control
A Survey of "Living Buddhas" in Tıbetan Buddhism on the Chinese mainland
by Deng Li / Phoenix Weekly
Many tourists who travel to Tıbet make it a point to purchase objects that have been blessed by "living Buddhas" [活佛, also known as tulkus*] and to receive a blessing themselves. However, what they do not know is that the those tulkus may not be approved by the government and may be even be frauds.
Data from the mainland's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) website shows that China's more than 3000 Tıbetan Buddhist temples have more than 1700 living Buddhas.
But according to Zhang Weiming, vice-director of the Sichuan Tıbetan Buddhist Cultural Institute, once you take into account those tulkus who were present before the restructuring of the ethnic regional autonomy system in 1956, those approved by the government since the reforms, those independently recognized by sects and temples, and fake "living Buddhas" of various stripes, the number of tulkus in ethnic Tıbetan regions topped 10,000 long ago.
On 1 September, 2007, the mainland released the Administrative Measures on the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tıbetan Buddhism (hereafter "the Measures"). The twelve articles of the Measures include the goals of the legislation, principles of reincarnation, conditions for reincarnation, the approval process, organization of Buddhist groups, and punishment for violations. The Measures stipulate that the reincarnation of tulkus shall not be subject to interference from any foreign individual or organization. Reincarnations must apply for approval; those positions that are highly influential must report to SARA and the State Council for approval.
The SARA website says that these regulations are aimed at problems involved with the reincarnation of tulkus at presen—young tulkus have been unilaterally recognized in violation of historical practices and the rites of religion, and without approval from the government, and this has disrupted the normal order of Tıbetan Buddhism, provoking a strong reaction from Tıbetan Buddhists who have called upon the government to strengthen its administration.
Those that destroy our faith wear our robes
Sakyamuni once prophesied: "Those that would destroy our faith wear our robes."
In 2006, after completing an investigation into the status of tulkus in ethnic Tıbetan regions, Zhang Weiming wrote an article bluntly pointing out the abuses of the tulku reincarnation system. He wrote in the article, "The single problem that has received the most active, concentrated, and prominent reaction from the temple administration, the government, senior monks, and the faithful, is the present system of living Buddha reincarnation."
"Many 'living Buddhas' should be put in quotes—they've reached the point where they've practically bought their certification," said Zhang. "The Tıbetan people are relatively confident in the authenticity of the major living Buddhas, but they don't really believe in the more recent ones."
Because of the special economic and political position of tulkus, and because of Han superstitions about them, investing in tulkus has become quite a profitable enterprise.
"I once participated as a translator in two cases. A certain master in Anhui who had lots of money came to a temple saying that he wanted to be the reincarnation of Vajradhara. The temple had never had such a reincarnation. After the master brought out 100,000 yuan, the temple gave him a certificate attesting that he was the reincarnation of Vajradhara." Zhang said that another Han monk gave tens of thousands of yuan to another temple, and then went to beg for alms in central China carrying the temple's certification that he was a tulku.
"A standard living Buddha title is worth 100,000-200,000 yuan (US$13,300-$26,600). A mid-level title can be bought for hundreds of thousands, and major living Buddhas are even more expensive."
"Tıbetans are probably more concerned with the living Buddha's historical background, but in the rest of China, people look at his skills and whether or not he's a money-maker." Hence, many temples recognize as tulkus those young monks with social skills, organizational and management abilities, or a mind for business.
"Those living Buddhas don't hold to their vows. They don't study culture, and they don't cloister themselves for religious cultivation. Nor do they study religion. They play all day—shooting pool, drinking, making money, and even chasing women." Some people call them "project living Buddhas" (项目活佛).
A Beijing property developer was once wholly trusting of a tulku. He gave him lots of money and became his disciple, studying scripture with him. But before long, the tulku was caught in a scandal and acquired a venereal disease.
Wang Lıxiong, a scholar of Tıbet, wrote of his friend's experiences traveling through Tıbet: a tour group of more than thirty people was taken to a certain temple. The first part was fine—the temple was old and was home to imposing statues of Buddhas. Incense wafted around, lamas chanted scripture, and everyone waited in anticipation for the tulku to place his hands on them. Then they were notified that the tulku could not speak Mandarin, but fortunately there was a senior monk there that day who could. He told the future of each person.
The "senior monk" met each tourist individually. He spoke fluent Mandarin and, using the vocabulary of Chinese mediums, told each person practically the same thing, nothing more than "Your forehead is large and you have the visage of a nobleman; you will become rich and powerful." And then the conversation shifted to frighten the individual with some misfortune that would befall him in the near future, such as entrapment by some evil character. Should they wish to avoid trouble, they must burn incense. The outcome hinged on how sincere they were, and their sincerity was expressed in how much money they spent. As little as 3,000 or as much as 30,000, the more the better. The "senior monk" then agreeably pointed out, "We can swipe your card here."
Wang Lıxiong recalled another incident: The great hall of one of the most important temples in the Kham region of Sichuan contained a sales stand. A notice on the stand said that one must purchase a khata to offer to the tulku; each khata cost 10 yuan. The stand had other items that had been blessed by the tulku, with prices ranging from 5 yuan to 80 yuan.
For many years, that temple had a procedure for the tulku to lay hands on visitors. The khatas could be re-used, just like double-billing. After the tulku blessed tourists, they would usually give more money. The tulku's attitude toward the tourists depended upon how much money they gave. The ones who gave more money might receive a khata or prayer beads; the ones who gave less might only get a cord. Because the tulku earned quite a substantial income from blessing tourists, mass violence sometimes broke out within the temple over who would occupy that position.
One Tıbetan guide told Wang Lıxiong that not long before, when he had taken a foreign tourist to a certain temple, a fight had broken out between two monks in the great hall. A knife was pulled, blood was spilled. The foreigner was shocked.
In Zhongdian [aka Shangri-La], the fiercest gangster is one of the monks from the temple. Capo Monk, as he is known, goes into the city in plainclothes and spends his time at entertainment venues. Wherever there are fights, he can pick up the phone and call upon the assistance of a slew of plainclothes monks.
And even though he lives with the monks keeping watch over the temple, his conversation is nearly always about income from different projects, how to exploit various resources, and how to upgrade the temple complex. The study of Buddhist doctrine and the improvement of the people's livelihood are seldom mentioned.
Origins of reincarnation
The reincarnation of tulkus is unique to Tıbetan Buddhism and was begun by the Karma Kagyu school. In the mid-13th Century, Karma Pakshi, the head of the Karma Kagyu school, was honored by the Mongolian Mongke Khan with the title Master (国师) and given a black hat and gold seal. In 1283, Karma Pakshi passed away. According to the rules of the Karma Kagyu school, the leadership could not pass to a blood relative; to extend the special position of the school, it operated according to the idea that "consciousness is not extinguished in the cycle of life and death; they can be reborn as they wish." A child was found to be the "reincarnated soul child" of the Karma Pakshi.
The reincarnation of tulkus transplanted the secular inheritance system into religion, and added to it the mystery of Buddhism. This resolved the inheritance issue in a legal and traditional context, as well as that of political station and property. From then on, all schools of Tıbetan Buddhism took up this practice.
With the rise of the Gelug, who were highly influential in China, the political station of living Buddhas grew higher and higher and split into several levels. The Dalaı Lama and the Pаnchen Lama occupied the top positions and had the authority to over conferring titles, teaching, the recognition of young tulkus in all Gelug temples and other major temples. The Qing Dynasty issued a document calling him the "overseer of the Buddhist faith on earth (Tıbet)."
The position of the Dalaı Lamas in Tıbet was little different from that of emperor, and they met similar unnatural deaths. The 4th Dalaı Lama died at 28; the 6th at 24. The 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th died under mysterious circumstances in the Potala Palace at age 11, 22, 18, and 20, respectively.
There has been no verdict reached as to the cause of those early deaths, but it is very likely that were poisonings. Starting with the 13th Dalaı Lama, the Dalaı Lamas have had a trusted official taste their food first. This practice has continued until today.
Second only to the Dalaı Lamas and the Pаnchen Lamas were other lineages of tulkus: Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the leader in the Khalkhas, and Changkya Khutuktu (章嘉呼图克图), the top-ranked living Buddha in the Inner Mongolian region. In 1911, the 8th Jebtsundamba declared "independence" at the instigation of Tsarist Russia. He proclaimed himself "Emperor of Mongolia"; when he died, his lineage was halted.* And although the Karmapa was a spiritual leader, he did not hold any political power.
Because the Dalaı Lamas found were always young, they were unable to handle government matters. During the Qing Dynasty, Tıbet had a regency government, which held that before the Dalaı Lama turned 18, a tulku serving as regent would handle affairs. The regent was just below the four major tulkus.
Then came the tulkus in charge of the monasteries, the Khutuktus in Beijing, the teachers of the Dalaı and Pаnchen Lamas, and the leaders of mid-size temples.
Ordinary tulkus occupied the lowest rung. They came from many areas: some achieved the "living Buddha" title through an exam; secular nobility often paid for the title in cash. Before the liberation, the Youning Monastery in Qinghai had nearly one hundred of this sort of tulku, and Ta'er had sixty or seventy. They were unregistered during the Qing Dynasty and the numbers could rise or fall; they could reincarnate, or they could choose not to.
In addition to male tulkus, there are also female tulkus. Men can reincarnate as women, and women can reincarnate as men.
The search for the reincarnate child is usually conducted according to instructions given by the tulku before his death, and employs divination, communion with spirits, appeals to sacred lakes, and so forth to determine the general direction of the birth of the next generation. Then the search commences.
Predictions include last words, dreams, words in praise of particular areas, and oral or written prophecy. Tulkus who die suddenly without leaving any indications behind are subject to divination and communion with spirits. When the 13th Dalaı Lama passed on, his head was oriented toward the northeast, so people believed that he would reappear in Qinghai. In addition to this, tulkus are also found by casting lots, or through divinations by senior monks, directives by secular authorities, and joint recognition by monks and secular authorities.
Before conducting the search for a reincarnate child, the time of reincarnation is calculated according to the date the former tulku passed away. This process takes about one year, sometimes up to two or three years or even longer. According to files from the Republican era, seven years was the upper limit.
But the vast majority of tulkus' prophecies and last words are ambiguous, and hundreds or even thousands of children may be found. This then requires an oracle to indicate who is the tulku.
This oracle is in fact a way to allow a personal opinion to be expressed in the guise of a spirit possession. The Story of Changkya Rolpai Dorje says that the search for reincarnated tulkus always took place among families of means, regardless of what the oracle or the deceased tulku had indicated. There was no concern for the truth; rather, the determination was made through collusion. Even during the divination process, aides and oracles could be bribed to issue whatever prophecy was desired, and documents could be falsified as well.
Therefore, many tulkus appeared in the families of the nobility or among the relatives of the Dalaı and Pаnchen lamas. The tenth Shamarpa was the brother of the sixth Pаnchen Lama, another brother was a tulku at the Tashilhunpo Monastery, and a niece was a tulku at the Samding Monastery.
Because of the special esteem accorded to tulkus in Tıbetan society, where politics and religion were one, secular leaders always controlled reincarnation. When the first Jebtsundamba died, the Tüsheet Khan [Jebtsundamba's father] sought all over in the hopes of finding a reincarnation among his family, but the Setsen Khan thought that it ought to be his family's turn. Ultimately, the Yongzheng Emperor decided that the reincarnation would be found in Tüsheet's family. The problem remained unresolved for all later incarnations, causing headaches for the emperor of the Qing.
To stem the tide of abuse, in 1793 the Qianlong Emperor issued the Ordinance on Improving Governance in Tıbet and fabricated two golden bowls, placing one in the Jokhang Monastery for the selection of tulkus in Tıbet and Qinghai, and the other in Beijing's Yonghe Temple for the selection of tulkus in Mongolia and Beijing. This action established the central government's supreme authority over the reincarnation of tulkus. At the same time, the court could abolish or re-establish tulku titles, and suspend, terminate, or approve the reincarnation of any particular tulku.
How a tulku is tempered
Unlike Han visitors to Tıbet who bow and donate money when they see a tulku, ordinary Tıbetans who believe in reincarnation place more emphasis on the tulku's practice of Buddhism.
Reincarnated tulkus are typically found when they are under five years of age, and are then recognized by a sufficiently qualified master. After recognition, they are given special education, administration, and training, in which they are typically supported by a chamberlain, a scriptural master, and a meditation master. Only after a strict regime of study and religious cultivation do they truly become worthy of the title "living Buddha."
"I've met a few living Buddhas who've told me, 'I'm not a living Buddha. I'm just a religious practitioner. Only the Han call us living Buddhas'," said Chen Yuting, host of the documentary The Legend of the Karmapa. Chen is from Taiwan and once spent three years in a monastery. He has many tulkus as friends.
Zhang Weiming explained that in more culturally developed parts of Tıbetan regions, more belief and honor is accorded khanpo (highly educated senior monks), while in culturally-backward regions, tulkus are more revered.
"A living Buddha is just a child who doesn't have much fun. He has to study hard and the monastery places strict demands on him. He must have full command of all religious practices and all scriptural dogma. And he learns all of that for the believers, not for himself," Chen said. "One living Buddha once said that if he had a choice, he would rather be a director. He was a living Buddha for the believers. But he was a celebrity in Buddhist circles in Taiwan."
Chen Yuting explained that in addition to the traditional scriptures, tulkus also study computers, driving, urban development, and international affairs. Many are fluent in English and Tıbetan, though their Chinese is poor.
The 11th Pаnchen Lama, however, could not remain ignorant of Chinese. His class schedule includes studying and expounding on the scriptures, Chinese, English, Tıbetan, Sanskrit, and computers. In his off-time, he also reads popular science and newspapers, and he watches the Network News every night. In addition, he has a desktop and a portable computer, on which he does all of his homework.
Historically, if a tulku did not fulfill the demands of his position, then he would be compelled to return to secular life and a new tulku would be recognized. And even if he retained the title "living Buddha," it did not equate to enthronement or the ability to preside at religious functions.
The 6th Dalaı Lama Tsangyang Gyatso was reproached for the romantic poetry he wrote in an attempt to chase after secular love. Subsequently, he met his end in a political struggle and became the first Dalaı Lama to be deposed.
Chen Yuting believes that tulkus today are facing ordeals today far greater than those in the past. They are "given no choice about studying scripture when they are young, and after they grow up and encounter entertainment and the world outside, they may face temptation. Some living Buddhas repress themselves; though they may enjoy those things, they still follow the wishes of the masses and continue their religious training. Others follow the wishes of their heart even though the believers are not happy about it."
He said that tulkus have many choices these days. The tulku Trungpa Rinpoche spent three years and three months in retreat when he was young, but later went to England to lecture on meditation. Subsequently he married a blond-haired beauty and emigrated to America where he hung out with the hippies and worked with lots of artists.
Gejie Rinpoche: A dreamboat monk (more
Chen Yuting provided two other examples. One is Gejie Rinpoche, a handsome icon online. "I want to bring Buddhism into the fashion world, to connect Buddhism and fashion so that it reaches every fashionable person. " He has recorded an album of Buddhist songs: "Andy Lau's and Jacky Cheung's songs are pretty good. And in addition to exciting action films, I'm also interested in emotional films, although I won't be stirred up."
Another handsome tulku is Singa Rinpoche, who uses pop music to spread the scriptures. His album I Want You To Be Happy caused a stir when it was released, and he was invited as a vip on Taiwan entertainment programs like Kevin Cai Kangyong and Love in Tao Garden. He truly became a "fashionable living Buddha."
A dilemma in the secular world
The Cultural Revolution was a time of destruction and suppression of religion in Tıbet as well as in the interior. At the beginning of the 1980s, the central government resumed its policies governing religious faith, and religious activity in Tıbet, which had been banned and driven underground, was suddenly freed, as was suppressed religious feeling. Old religious practitioners reclaimed their positions, and new ones were swiftly added to their ranks. Document 39 of 1991 contained relatively strict limitations on the recognition and total number of reincarnated tulkus.
But in practice, tulkus in Tıbetan Buddhism varied considerably. There were temples with many tulkus, and major temples without a single one; a major figure could return as many reincarnations, while many other masters might be reborn in the guise of a single individual. These all clashed with the language of government policy.
Zhang Weiming said, "Former government policy contained numerical limitations, and did not permit new lines to be established. A large temple could have three living Buddhas, a mid-sized temple two, and a small temple one. Each county in ethnic Tıbetan regions had a team set up to search for reincarnate living Buddhas—this was under the religious affairs bureau. But all of this was in name only; the actual search fell to the temples themselves." In Dege County, for example, there are 198 tulku lineages handed down by tradition, but the government has only approved of 27.
Therefore, local administrative departments came under a lot of pressure: "The limitations on the number of reincarnate living Buddhas brought about a number of new problems. We have a lot of living Buddhas here that are unapproved by the government, but the temples and the people have approved them. You can't simply run into a temple and say, 'You aren't a living Buddha! The government has not approved you!' and tear him from his throne. Behind the living Buddha are his thousands of followers," a local religious affairs official said.
This problem ultimately drove domestic tulkus underground or, following Tıbetan tradition, out of the country for recognition from the Dalaı Lama.
"The limitation on living Buddhas has led many living Buddhas chosen by temples and Buddhist to seek support from overseas exile groups, and has directly led to the Dalaı Lama's exile community [aka the "Dalaı clique"] infusing considerable support," wrote Zhang in the survey report Abuses and Their Influence in the Contemporary Living Buddha System. Zhang is uneasy about the Dalaı Lama's community in exile and its influence on the reincarnation of domestic tulkus.
"Essentially, however many living Buddhas there are on the mainland, they'll have the same number overseas. When the mainland recognizes a reincarnation, the Dalaı Lama will recognize one, producing two sets, two living Buddha recognition systems," he said.
But the restrictions on reincarnations and the number of tulkus on the mainland is only one side of government policy. More favorable measures mean that once a tulku is recognized by the government, he enjoys a high position in both society and politics, which today implies a continuous stream of cash.
Zhang believes that one failing of the current tulku system is a lack of oversight. Historically, tulkus who did not perform their duties were forcibly returned to secular life and a new tulku was recognized. And even if he retained the title "living buddha," it did not equate to enthronement or the ability to preside at religious functions. But today, many tulkus sit in the provincial People's Congress and People's Political Consultative Conference, positions far above the rank of a county religious affairs officer. Nor can local temples govern those high-level tulkus. "Living Buddhas have become slippery old fish that neither the temples nor the government can control."
Therefore, many people will spare no expense and will take advantage of power and connections to obtain or manipulate tulku recognition. The power to recognize tulkus has become an enterprise that can be bought and sold.
Zhang said that one particular county had more than twenty tulkus approved by the government, and some of them "had the hat handed down from above (meaning that the upper-levels specifically directed the local leaders to act in a certain way). They said, 'Oh, send in the papers on that lama!' This opened up a back door to reincarnate living Buddhas. It's just like promoting officials: if someone has good connections and the leadership makes a call, then he can become a living Buddha."
In some areas there are even strange sights such as the sale of tulku offices and the recognition of the children of government officials as tulkus or khandromas. Zhang said that in the northern Kham [an ethnic Tıbetan region in Sichuan Province], the governor of one county got involved in a bitter quarrel with the governor of another county over whose son would become the reincarnation of a tulku at a major local temple.
Ironically, the tulkus that neither the temples nor the government can restrain are the very ones that were recognized from the top down.
"It's not impossible to be recognized as a living Buddha. It's entirely possible to bribe religious affairs officials, obtain a recognition certificate, and go around defrauding people of their money." Wang Lıxiong's impression of tuklus and the chaos of Tıbetan Buddhism was similar to Zhang Weiming's.
"The majority of temples are relatively traditional and uncommercialized, except for a few tourist spots." Compared to Zhang, the scholar, Chen Yuting the believer was rather more optimistic: "On the surface, the Tıbetan people venerate living Buddhas, but they may not feel the same way in their minds. If a man loses a yak, he'll go to a living Buddha to divine where the yak got off to, but if the living Buddha is wrong, he won't believe in him anymore."
Zhang, who has studied Tıbetan Buddhist education, says that there is much to discuss about modern tulku education. Many tulkus attend Buddhist institutes at various departmental levels, Tıbetan-language higher-level Buddhist educational institutions, or training classes. Those may be venues for social interaction, but no one there will learn much about traditional Tıbetan Buddhism. A tulku cannot be educated simply by completing a few training sessions; he must be trained starting right when he is discovered, taught how to manage a temple, while at the same time coming under supervision himself. Otherwise, after taking a few training courses and returning with a vocational college diploma and a seat on the People's Political Consultative Conference, all he will have learned is how to cultivate connections with politicians and businessmen.
Chen Yuting acknowledged the lack of supervision over tulkus on the mainland: "In the past, they had their own weeding-out system; whoever didn't perform well would simply not be venerated."
"They should receive a traditional education in their own temples, just like in the past," Zhang agreed.
In Zhang's eyes, the government ought to address the relationship between administrative and religious authority. In many areas, such as the honor accorded to the spiritual leader, the control that major temples exercise over their subordinates, and the ability of major tulkus to recognize tulkus at temples within their purview, traditional Tıbetan Buddhism is quite similar to the Catholic Church. The government could investigate how the Vatican installs archbishops in various countries across the world, particularly socialist countries.
In regard to the new Measures, Zhang told Phoenix Weekly, "The articles of the new regulation are a definite change from the old regulation, although it's not entirely obvious." Its importance lies in the replacement of the old system of documents and policies with a new, legal framework for the management of the tulku reincarnation system.
In a document issued at the same time that the Measures were publicized, the SARA said that the Measures were issued to carry out the Regulations on Religious Affairs and provided more detailed implementations of the rules contained in that document.
Zhang said that the problems that exist concerning tulkus and Tıbetan Buddhism will be resolved on in a more general context, in a discussion of the future direction of the tulku reincarnation system, for example. "When the tulku reincarnation system has reached a certain point in development, it will either fade away or become standardized," he said.
"The living Buddha system is rotten, so why not let it rot away? The religious sector has long been unable to resolve this problem. Just let the whole living Buddha system fade away; otherwise, it will destroy the entirety of Tıbetan Buddhism," said Zhang. "I'm not just being an alarmist."
Note 1: In the text, the term 活佛 is translated as "living Buddha" when it appears in direct quotations or as a title applied by Han Chinese, and as "tulku" everywhere else. The transliterated names of individuals have been cribbed from various places on the Internet, but given the variety of renditions in both Chinese and English-language sources, corrections would be greatly appreciated.
Note 2: The 8th Jebtsundamba died in 1924; there is a 9th currently living in India. See the Wikipedia article for more information.
Links and Sources