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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In Tibetan Buddhism, a variety of interrelated names have been adopted to describe religious leaders. The basic term is lama, which is equivalent to the Hindu term guru, or teacher. In most religious traditions, however, teachers are not simply knowledgeable persons who spend their days sharing information; they are people who have special cosmic attributes who speak from a state of spiritual attainment.

Most lamas are also tulkus. A tulku exists as the physical manifestation of a deity or other enlightened being, such as a buddha. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha had three bodies: the higher dharma-kaya, the bhoga-kaya (enjoyment body), and the nirmana-kaya or transformation body. The last of these is seen as a projection of dharma qualities into physical being. Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who assist in the liberation of humanity, are seen as having an abundance of dharma qualities to the extent that they can be manifested as a physical body.

Identified with a deity figure, lamas are regarded by believers as semi-divine beings. Such beings, once incarnated, are destined to reincarnate, and the search for the next incarnation is a vital part of maintaining the lineage of leadership within Tibetan Buddhism. By far the most famous tulku is the Dalai Lama, who is believed to be the emanation of Chenresi (know elsewhere as Kuan Yin, Avilokiteshvara, Kannon, etc.)

Following the death of a lama/tulku, Tibetan leaders believe in the necessity of engaging in a search for the tulku’s reincarnation. Most commonly, they would create a list of candidates, usually children born a short-time after the death of the former tulku. Such children would be put through a series of tests, including being asked to pick out objects that belonged to the deceased lama from among other equally possible objects. At the same time, those who had known the former lama would look for signs of recognition.

Over the centuries, the recognition of tulkus has largely been a Tibetan and Mongolian practice. All tulkus resided in either Tibet or Mongolia, and the search for their successors was carried out among the children of those lands. However, the incorporation of Tibet into China in the 1950s, the subsequent suppression of religion in China, and the voluntary exile of many of the tulkus to other countries has had a profound effect upon traditions in Tibetan Buddhism.

In the years following the religious persecution of the Cultural Revolution in China (1966–1976), tolerance of Buddhism has returned. The result, though, has been the rise of competing authorities who debate the naming of successive tulkus both inside and outside China. The most famous case concerns the Panchen Lama, who is considered the second highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The Tenth Tibetan Panchen Lama died in 1989. Subsequently, two distinct searches began for his successor. One occurred within Tibet and was sanctioned by the Chinese government; the second was conducted among exiled Tibetans. The Dalai Lama announced the result of the latter search in May 1995. In December of that same year, Chinese officials announced their own candidate for the office. It was thatlama who was formally enthroned in Tibet. These two candidates continue to vie for the support of the Tibetan community, however.

Through the last decades of the twentieth century, Tibetan Buddhism has spread to most western countries, where it has attained a large following. The question has since been posed as to whether tulkus could incarnate among western followers. As early as 1976, O. K. MacLise, the son of rock drummer Angus MacLise, was recognized as the reincarnation of Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, an emanation of Manjushri, who was a leader of the Kaygu Karma School of Tibetan Buddhism. In succeeding years, a variety of western children, mostly the sons of Buddhist parents, have also been recognized.

Possibly the most interesting of the western tulkus is Alyce Zeoli (b. 1949). Zeoli was not only a female but also an adult at the time she was recognized as a lama. She grew up in Brooklyn, married, and bore several children. She also became the head of a New Age group, the Center for Discovery and New Life. She met the head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism in 1985, H. H. Penor Rinpoche, when he came to the United States. Following their meeting, he declared that, even without being familiar with eastern beliefs, Zeoli was nevertheless teaching Tibetan Buddhism. He came to believe that she was a tulku, and thus instigated a formal effort to determine if that was so. Two years later Zeoli was recognized as the reincarnation of Ahkon Norbu Lhamo, a tulku who had not reincarnated for three centuries. She was formally installed in 1988.

In general, the leaders of the various Tibetan Buddhist schools and sub-schools are seen as tulkus. An uncounted number of others, possibly as many as two hundred who now lead western Buddhist organizations, are also considered tulkus.


Coleman, Graham. A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1994.
Hilton, Isabel. The Search for the Panchen Lama. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Mackenzie, Vicki. Reborn in the West: The Reincarnation Masters. London: Marlowe & Company, 1996.
Rawlinson, Andrew. The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1997.