Google “reincarnation” and you’ll get over 16 million hits.
I think we are fascinated by the prospect of reincarnation because it provides a possible a meaning for our lives. While our lives may feel mundane and difficult, reincarnation allows us to imagine that there was a past life of romance, mystery and greatness.
Reincarnation-fascination cuts across numerous religious and philosophical views — from Christianity to Hinduism and Paganism to New Ageism. Even the great captain of industry Henry Ford is purported to have believed in reincarnation.
And then there is reincarnation in Buddhism.
My first encounter with Buddhism and the mystery of reincarnation was when my mother returned from a trekking expedition in the Himalayas with a first edition copy of Seven Years in Tibet, purchased in a used book store in Kathmandu (with “out of print” penciled on the inside cover). I was drawn in by Heinrich Harrer’s stories of the Dalai Lama, the reincarnate Buddhist master forced to flee Tibet before the Chinese communists. A few years later I stumbled upon Born In Tibet, the autobiography of Chogyam Trungpa, another Tibetan Buddhist master. After that I found Alexandra David-Neal’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet, which is filled with stories of Buddhist masters who have attained such a high level of realization that, after death, they could direct where and when they would be reborn. The Tibetans even have a name for these reincarnated masters: Tulku.
The belief — or non-belief — in the existence of reincarnated masters has been the topic of some debate among North American Buddhists. Reincarnation as a tenet of Buddhism is pretty much limited to Tibetan sects. Sects that developed in other Asian countries either don’t discuss the existence of reincarnated past masters, or deny that they exist.
In North America and Europe, some young children have been identified as reincarnations of deceased Tibetan Buddhist masters. The documentary Tulku: The Movie, produced by Gesar Mukpo, chronicles the lives of some young North Americans who were identified as reincarnations of past Tibetan Buddhist masters. As a young child, Gesar Mukpo — the son of Chogyam Trungpa — was “recognized” as the reincarnation of one of his father’s teachers.
Is reincarnation for real?
And is it a necessary part of the Buddhist path? Or is reincarnation simply a Tibetan cultural appendage to Buddhism — useful for the support and continuity of Buddhism in classic Tibetan culture, but not useful in the modern age? Some people have questioned whether continuing a process of identifying reincarnated masters might be counter-productive in contemporary Buddhism. They suggest that it distracts one from the idea of Buddhism as a serious spiritual path that provides human beings an authentic way to be “at peace” in the midst of a life of continuous ups and downs. Instead, reincarnation in Buddhism leaves people believing that Buddhism is just another general catch-all for snake oil, “woo-woo” New Age charlatans, and that Buddhists sit around all day chanting, in the hopes of getting a new Cadillac.
A Path Strewn With Flowers & Bones, A Memoir With Reflections by Tulku Sherdor is a unique arrival in the conversation surrounding reincarnation and the development of Buddhism in America.
Tulku Sherdor’s name can be a little misleading. As he lets us know early in the book, he is Canadian-American. His story stands apart from the rest of the reincarnate Buddhist teacher canon. It is unlike the stories in Magic And Mystery In Tibet, from “long ago, in a mysterious land far away.” Likewise, it is differs from the stories in Tulku: The Movie, in which the young men who were declared to be reincarnated masters at a very young age are not quite sure what to do with that designation.
Sherdor’s story is not that different from my own story
The story of the many of us born and raised in North America in the last sixty years. He was not identified as a “special being” at a young age — only a bright, precocious kid from a middle class, Jewish family in Montreal, asking the usual “what is this meaning of life” and “what happens when we die” questions. He recounts traveling around in the 70’s, attending Vipassana retreats, sleeping on floors and eating Spaghetti-O’s. He even happened through Boulder during early sessions at Naropa, but did not attend any of Trungpa’s lectures as he was out canvassing for Greenpeace.
While a student at Vassar, Sherdor traveled to Nepal in a semester abroad program. In Kathmandu he met the renowned Tibetan Buddhist Teacher Tulku Urgyen, and began studying with him and other famous Tibetan Buddhist masters. In his stories about his time in Nepal, you get the impression that he began these studies with a dose of skepticism that he worked through with regular meditation practice. Upon returning to the United States, he had become so committed to Buddhist practice that he did a traditional three-year retreat at one of Kalu Rimpoche’s centers.
Sherdor tells of a dream he had during the three-year retreat. In the dream he was an elderly Tibetan Buddhist teacher, teaching a group of young monks. The teaching was interrupted by a group of Chinese soldiers who proceeded to slaughter the teacher and students. After that, the dream continued and he saw himself as a disembodied spirit, hovering over a dark Montreal street (the corner of Cavendish Boulevard and Cote St. Luc Road).
After Sherdor completed the traditional three-year retreat and a subsequent solitary one year retreat, he was faced with the great dilemma that confronts may contemporary Buddhists: if you go into retreat for many years to develop realization, how do you support yourself when the retreat is complete?
Sherdor’s response was to go to law school.
He attended Columbia Law School — concurrently completing and publishing an English translation of a Tibetan Buddhist text — and then got a position as a clerk for a Federal District Court Judge. This is no small feat; the competition for these positions is fierce and the positions go to the top graduates of the top law schools. If you can get one of these positions, you accept it — even if it means relocating to a place you have no connection to. Sherdor — a Montreal boy with roots in New York — moved to Alabama. As he was then in a serious relationship with a lady in Manhattan, this was an opportunity to experience a long-distance romantic relationship.
Sherdor joined a prestigious law firm, worked on very high-profile cases, got married and got divorced.
In the midst of all this, he was sought after for his translation skills by various Tibetan Buddhist teachers. In his memoir, he goes into great detail about the time he spent with a particular elderly Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Kusum Lingpa, who, from the picture Sherdor paints of him, seems to have been cut of the same cloth as the masters whom Alexandra David-Neal’s describes in Magic and Mystery In Tibet.
He recounts an occasion early in their relationship when Kusum Lingpa turned to him and asked him off-handedly, “you’re a Tulku, aren’t you?” As this relationship progressed, the Tulku question kept coming up. One gets the impression that Sherdor had moments of skepticism about these pronouncements and that he was not sure what to do with them.
It was during a journey with the Buddhist master to his monastery in Tibet that Kusum Lingpa insisted on having Sherdor enthroned as a reincarnate Buddhist teacher.
However, the book is not just an interesting tale of a bright, high-energy guy who does a three-year retreat, goes to law school, and then runs off to Tibet to be enthroned as a Tulku. What makes the book particularly compelling is that, throughout it, Sherdor does a solid job of presenting and teaching the Buddhist view of life, and does so in an English with a contemporary bent.
For example, early in the book, setting up issues of birth, death and reincarnation he explains:
“The Buddhist view rejects all conceptions of an enduring, personal identity, even in this life, let alone in others. Therefore, previous lives are more like earlier bends and twists in the rushing stream of action and perception. This continuous change and movement is itself identifiable as a causal process, but there is no body on a raft floating down a river as it were.”
Here we have a glimpse of reincarnation from a Buddhist point of view.
Conventionally, people look to reincarnation as an affirmation of self existence. “I exist because, in the past, I was this or that.” Sherdor instead describes how reincarnation is part of a process in which there is no identifiable self. For example, when a fellow passenger on a plane asks him to complete the sentence: “Enlightenment is —” Sherdor says:
“…the reconciliation of the manner in which we perceive ourselves and our world to exist, with the manner in which we and our world actually exist.”
He goes on to say:
“In fact, our perceptions and beliefs ordinarily are not in accord with the reality of our existence. Again, this is called ignorance, or lack of awareness. The Tibetan is ‘ma.rig.pa.’ It means that we don’t get it.”
There is a cultural disconnect between the Tibetan “reincarnate master” concept and the Buddhism of the West.
While identifying someone as a reincarnation of a previous great master may have been useful in classical, feudal, Tibetan society, it runs up against Americans’ strong belief in self-determination and meritocracy. The notion of someone being born into the leadership role feels suspicious — like kings ruling by God’s mandate. The young men we meet in Tulku: The Movie seem to have an “out of context” experience of having been identified as a reincarnate master. They do not necessarily fit into the traditional molds for training a reincarnate master, and so they appear to be wandering — unsure what to do with the Tulku appellation. I understand that even in classical Tibet they knew it was not enough for a child to be recognized as a reincarnated master; the child also needed to study the doctrine and spend time practicing meditation.
Sherdor’s story, on the other hand, is of someone who did a lot of work prior to his “identification.” And, perhaps this reversal — work first, identification later — allows for a context to develop, in which the title becomes a service to the propagation of Buddhism.
For anyone who is serious about understanding Shakyamuni Budda’s message, discovering what enlightenment might be and then putting in the effort to actualize it their life, the development of native American English-speakers who have put in countless hours on the meditation cushion and also seriously studied the doctrinal materials is helpful. These teachers have a huge impact on Buddhism gaining mainstream legitimacy here in America; they make Buddhism’s promise available as a genuine tool for coming to grips with their humanity.
In A Path Strewn With Flowers & Bones, Tulku Sherdor takes his place among that emerging group of homegrown teachers.
In Sherdor’s words:
“We all get stuck and tend to cling too long and too tightly, in quite personal and idiosyncratic ways. Therefore, none of us possesses the secret shortcut to leaving the realm of suffering behind for good. Even if we did, that shortcut wouldn’t necessarily work for anyone else. It is not as if you could get lucky and have someone identify you at birth as the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
Selection of the Dalai Lama is not a lottery, where the winner gets to grow up joyful, wise and compassionate. You actually have to have made the journey of the Dalai Lama, with all of its twists and turns, peaks and valleys, in order to be the Dalai Lama. If you actually knew how hard it has been and is to walk in his shoes, you would realize just how far you have yet to journey to be able to last for an hour, or a moment, as him. I know I have.
The Dalai Lama makes it seem entirely effortless to radiate genuine concern for the welfare of others at all times. That is a measure of his mindboggling accomplishment. It is the result of hard work and total dedication for years and lifetimes. It is utterly miraculous that such a person could walk among us, but not at all mysterious how he got here.”
A Path Strewn With Flowers & Bones: A Memoir with The Reflections of Tulku Sherdor is available online.