Sunday, June 07, 2009

Modern Buddhism - On the Reincarnation of Tulkus

The story of Tenzin Osel Rinpoche, now known by his birth name of Osel Hita Torres, has been making the rounds in the news of late. Here is a brief recap from Time, which has also pocked up the story:
Last month, however, the magazine Babylon confirmed that the shaggy-haired Hita had long-ago dropped out of his Tibetan University, and that he no longer even considers himself a Buddhist. He was quoted more pointedly in the newspaper El Mundo as saying, "I was taken away from my family and put in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie."

Britain's Guardian then added the delicious factoid that at one point the only people Hita saw were Buddhist monks and Richard Gere. Last Monday, a statement attributed to Hita appeared on the FPMT website calling the press reports "sensationalized," and insisting "there is no separation between myself and FPMT." Still, his confirmation of his career change in the same posting in fact suggests a major rift.

Toward the end of the article, they quote Robert Thurman on the issue, who makes a crucial point that seems to have been ignored in all the other coverage I have seen.
Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar, former monk and friend of the Dalai Lama, recounts that when told years ago that Hita was to receive a traditional Buddhist education in India he expressed concern. Thurman's argument: "If he wanted Tibetan traditional [education] he could have reincarnated in a Tibetan family in exile." The result of the misplacement, he says, is that Hita "has broken away in a full-blown identity crisis." Thurman thinks that after some time in our "busy postmodern world," Hita may see the value of the Tibetan tradition, "which he will then be able to approach or not, of his own free choice." And, he adds, "More power to him!"
I don't know that I buy into the whole reincarnation thing to begin with, but Thurman's point stands nonetheless as a cogent statement about the process - it neglects the cultural component of the chosen children.

As Tibetan Buddhism spreads and becomes less Tibetan and more modern, it will have to take into account that when Western children are chosen as tulkus there will have to be some accommodations made for their cultural identity. Even the Dalia Lama has joked that he will incarnate as a Western woman.

Thurman's concerns about the young Osel went unheeded and now the young man has left the tradition he was chosen to lead. What might have happened if he had been raised within a more Westernized Buddhism, a more modern version of the traditions?

As Buddhism adapts to becoming a more global religion, as it must, it will have to become more sensitive to the cultural identity of its adherents. As more and more of its leaders are reincarnated in the West, as is sure to happen, the traditional approach of raising the young tulkus in a very strict and isolated environment is going to have to become more tolerant of modern and postmodern culture.


Steve said...

You say that you don't know that you "buy into the whole reincarnation thing." Do you find ANY part of it even remotely plausible, and do you think it's likely that you ever will? And how important do you see the belief in reincarnation as being to Tibetan Buddhism and its practice? Do you think that one can effectively take up the Tibetan Buddhist path without believing in reincarnation?

william harryman said...


I don't see reincarnation as important to ANY form of Buddhist practice. And while there is some circumstantial evidence, I have yet to be convinced. So I remain agnostic in that regard, with no real concern of resolving it.


Anonymous said...

I have no difficulty accepting the premise of rebirth and the idea that realized can choose when, where, and how to reincarnate. I do, however, think there are going to be more and more situations like this one if the Tibetans in exile trying to maintain the tulku institution out of its traditional context in Tibetan culture. Thurman gave an excellent critique from within the view: If he'd wanted to be educated in India, he could have been reborn there.

Steve said...

Mamadar, who or what do you think makes the choice of "when, where, and how to reincarnate" and subsequently has that choice realized?