Reincarnated masters of Tibetan Buddhism
A tulku is a Tibetan Buddhist Lama ("Spiritual teacher") who has taken the Bodhisattva vow of helping all other sentient beings to escape Samsara (the wheel of suffering) and has consciously determined to be reborn to continue his particular lineage. The lineages can be centuries long, and the system offers the principle means by which the teachings of various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The tulku system does not exist in other branches of Buddhism.
The institution of the tulku as developed during the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, as various Tibetan schools of Buddhism began to accept the possibility that exemplary figures might remain within the human world as institutional teachers, manifesting from one lifetime to the next out of compassion.
There is an elaborate system for identifying and educating the young master. Upon the death of an old tulku, a group of respected lamas gathers together to find to the young reincarnation. They may look for signs that the dead tulku left messages indicated where he would be reborn. A variety of other mystical signs, such as dreams, may also be considered. Tulkus are most often identified when they are young children. Most, but not all, tulkus are male. There are a number of tulku lineages in Tibetan Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa.
After being identified, the tulku separates from his family and is raised in a monastery by teachers and servants. It is a lonely life as he learns complicated rituals and gradually assumes the duties of the previous tulku, but the atmosphere is one of devotion and love for the young master.
Tulkus are often called "reincarnated" masters, but it is important to understand that the master is not a reborn or transmigrated "soul," because according to Buddhist teaching the soul cannot be said to exist. Instead of a reincarnated soul, the tulku is thought to be a manifestation of the enlightened master in nirmanakaya form.
People often confuse the term tulku with lama. A lama is a spiritual master who may, or may not, be a tulku.
There are presently approximately 500 tulku lineages found across Tibet, Bhutan, Northern India, Nepal, Mongolia, and the southwest provinces of China. The vast majority of tulkus are men, although there are a small number of female tulku lineages.