top of page

Being reborn in Tibetan Buddhism

Recognition of Reincarnations in Tibet

The practice of recognizing who is who by identifying someone’s previous life occurred even when Shakyamuni Buddha himself was alive. Many accounts are found in the four Agama Sections of the Vinaya Pitaka, the Jataka Stories, the Sutra of the Wise and Foolish, the Sutra of One Hundred Karmas and so on, in which the Tathagata revealed the workings of karma, recounting innumerable stories about how the effects of certain karmas created in a past life are experienced by a person in his or her present life. Also, in the life stories of Indian masters, who lived after the Buddha, many reveal their previous places of birth. There are many such stories, but the system of recognizing and numbering their reincarnations did not occur in India.

The system of recognizing reincarnations in Tibet

Past and future lives were asserted in the indigenous Tibetan Bon tradition before the arrival of Buddhism. And since the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, virtually all Tibetans have believed in past and future lives. Investigating the reincarnations of many spiritual masters who upheld the Dharma, as well as the custom of praying devotedly to them, flourished everywhere in Tibet. Many authentic scriptures, indigenous Tibetan books such as the Mani Kabum and the Fivefold Kathang Teachings and others like the The Books of Kadam Disciples and the Jewel Garland: Responses to Queries, which were recounted by the glorious, incomparable Indian master Dipankara Atisha in the 11th century in Tibet, tell stories of the reincarnations of Arya Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. However, the present tradition of formally recognizing the reincarnations of masters first began in the early 13th century with the recognition of Karmapa Pagshi as the reincarnation of Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa by his disciples in accordance with his prediction.

Since then, there have been seventeen Karmapa incarnations over more than nine hundred years. Similarly, since the recognition of Kunga Sangmo as the reincarnation of Khandro Choekyi Dronme in the 15th century there have been more than ten incarnations of Samding Dorje Phagmo. So, among the Tulkus recognized in Tibet there are monastics and lay tantric practitioners, male and female. This system of recognizing the reincarnations gradually spread to other Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and Bon, in Tibet. Today, there are recognized Tulkus in all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Sakya, Geluk, Kagyu and Nyingma, as well as Jonang and Bodong, who serve the Dharma. It is also evident that amongst these Tulkus some are a disgrace.

The omniscient Gedun Drub, who was a direct disciple of Je Tsongkhapa, founded Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tsang and took care of his students. He passed away in 1474 at the age of 84. Although initially no efforts were made to identify his reincarnation, people were obliged to recognize a child named Sangye Chophel, who had been born in Tanak, Tsang (1476), because of what he had to say about his amazing and flawless recollections of his past life. Since then, a tradition began of searching for and recognizing the successive reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas by the Gaden Phodrang Labrang and later the Gaden Phodrang Government.

The ways of recognizing reincarnations

After the system of recognizing Tulkus came into being, various procedures for going about it began to develop and grow. Among these some of the most important involve the predecessor’s predictive letter and other instructions and indications that might occur; the reincarnation’s reliably recounting his previous life and speaking about it; identifying possessions belonging to the predecessor and recognizing people who had been close to him. Apart from these, additional methods include asking reliable spiritual masters for their divination as well as seeking the predictions of mundane oracles, who appear through mediums in trance, and observing the visions that manifest in sacred lakes of protectors like Lhamoi Latso, a sacred lake south of Lhasa.

When there happens to be more than one prospective candidate for recognition as a Tulku, and it becomes difficult to decide, there is a practice of making the final decision by divination employing the dough-ball method (zen tak) before a sacred image while calling upon the power of truth.


Rinpoches (an honorary term meaning “precious ones”) are senior lamas or the head lamas at monasteries. They are generally regarded as reincarnations of the monastery's first lama. He (and, rarely, she) is trained from childhood in Buddhist study, practice, and ritual, and takes over the responsibilities of the previous incarnation when the training is complete. This is the most common form of succession in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Occasionally, exceptional practitioners are given the title Rinpoche later in life to honor their accomplishment (and are often retroactively recognized as tulkus). The honorific Rinpoche is distinct from the title lama, which means “teacher” and is bestowed after the completion of a program of meditation, study, and retreat. They often enjoy a level of comfort and luxury not afforded other monks. As a symbol of their rank they sit on cushions higher than everyone else.

Rinpoches are lamas who are revered and honored as holy men who have progressed beyond the status of monk through reincarnation. If lamas are the equivalent of priests, rinpoches are like bishops. The Dalai Lama is a sort super Rinpoche.

They are usually selected by their ability to pick out religious objects in a large group of things, and recognize certain people in a crowd. Certain auspicious signs usually indicate the birth of lama or rinpoche.

There are several ways to confirm that he is the reincarnation of a great master. Since he was very young, he would talk a lot about his previous life. Also, he was born with the umbilical cord draped over his chest like a monk’s robes. That, for them, was a sure sign.

Every rinpoche has a strange birth. They believe, in Tibetan Buddhism, that the mother of a rinpoche always nearly dies before she gives birth ― and his mother was warned that she might die if she gave birth to this child.

The young boy also speaks about certain recollections from his past life. The big lamas in his community and in the surrounding area were able to check and confirm that these memories match with the life of a previous great lama.

The monks also have books that list auspicious dates. That helps confirm he was born at certain times that allow for reincarnation according to their belief system.


Related Posts

See All
bottom of page