The lives of transnational tulkus

On the subject of Tibetan Buddhism’s impact in and on the US, here is a story from on “Buddhism’s Lost Lamas”. This long and interesting article details the often unexpected courses taken in the lives of several young members of the Tibetan diaspora who have been designated as tulkus, reincarnations of high-ranking lamas.

To an extraordinary degree, America has been colonized by Tibetan Buddhism. At the core of the community are maybe 100,000 die-hard practitioners around the country. Beyond that is a larger circle of several million spiritual travelers who may pick up the Dalai Lama’s best sellers or attend his talks. (He’s achieved rock-star status, having drawn a crowd of 65,000 to New York’s Central Park just to hear him speak.) Helping fuel the phenomenon is the soft (but real) power that makes it a cause célèbre and a second religion to the self-help set: the Hollywood stars like Richard Gere in the Dalai Lama’s American entourage, the late Beastie Boy (and practicing Tibetan Buddhist) Adam Yauch‘s star-studded concerts for Tibet, not to mention the Buddha statuettes, thangka paintings, and prayer flags that adorn corner yoga studios and health clubs across the country.

For the hundreds of Tibetan tulkus who came of age after the Chinese takeover of their homeland in 1959, India may be where they serve in the monastery, but the West is where the students, the press, and the money are. Yet it’s unclear whether the tulku system—which, since its origins in medieval times, has been more about the transfer of monastic power than the recognition of spiritual genius—can continue to advance the Dalai Lama’s engagement with the West. The young Karmapa, the heir apparent to the Dalai Lama’s mantle as the global face of Tibetan Buddhism, languishes in northern India because of political tensions involving China. In his absence, the young, Westernized tulkus may be the key to turning a new generation of Americans on to Tibetan Buddhism. The problem is, these cosmopolitan tulkus, skeptical of the notion that they’re deceased lamas, aren’t sure they want the job.

Reading this article also made me think of Abraham Zablocki’s (2009) article on “Transnational Tulkus”.  In it he details what he calls “tulku envy” — the desire on the part of various western devotees to have themselves, or their children, recognized as tulkus. For Zablocki, this phenomenon is indicative of the fascination of devotees with not only Tibetan Buddhism which extends to the desire to literally be Tibetan. At the same time, tulku-ness becomes one of the coins in a transnational karmic economy by which Tibetans negotiate their relationships with Western practitioners and, in a sense, extend the boundaries of Tibetan-ness. As in all such economies, authenticity is contested and desire for tulku status coexists with the suspicion that it is being traded for instrumental purposes.


Zablocki, A. “Transnational Tulkus: The Globalization of Tibetan Buddhist Reincarnation”. In Bhushan, N., Garfield, J.L. & Zablocki, A. eds., 2009. TransBuddhism: Transmission, Translation, and Transformation 1st ed., Univ of Massachusetts Press.

About Jovan Maud

I'm a lecturer in the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Georg-August University, Göttingen, Germany. Interests include: transnational religious networks, popular religion in Thailand, religious tourism and commodification, and digital anthropology.
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