The only difference between a “tulku” and everyone else is a tulku is known to be a reincarnation of a specific person, and we lack that knowledge. The system began with the first Karmapa, Dusom Khyenpa (1110-1193) and now we are on the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley.
Although things went smoothly for a few centuries, during the last century the system saw major cracks, cracks so severe that the last few years HH Dalai Lama has called for the complete dismantling of the tulku system and stated that he himself will break with the system, in fact stating his current incarnation as the 14th Dalai Lama will be his last. (Footnote 1)
The degeneration of the tulku system is not to be blamed on the recent sex scandals surrounding them, though this has brought the issue to prominence. The real issue turns on two key points, knowledge, and motivation. Knowledge has to do with how we “know” someone is a tulku, and motivation is exhibited by the conduct of a tulku and his family. Until recently tulkus were discovered by undeniable prophesies and visions. The current Karmapa, for example, HH 17th Karmapa Ogden Trinley Dorje, was discovered by a note left by the 16th Karmapa detailing the date, place, parents name and so forth of his next rebirth, and placed in an amulet given to his regent, Tai Situ Rinpoche, with instructions when to open it.
Tai Situ wore the amulet and didn’t open it until the date instructed, four years after the 16th Karmapa’s passing. Due to political reasons, Situ Rinpoche was restricted to go to Tibet and instead sent several monks to Tibet to search for the child, which they found according to the instructions. They confirmed all the details with his parents, who were peasants, and brought him to his previous monastery, Tsurphu, in Tibet when he was old enough to travel.
The current Dalai Lama, the 14th Dalai Lama, has written many such notes based on visions which accurately described the place, date of birth, parents name, and other details of a whole generation of tulkus. These are invariably linked to their previous lives as heads or high lamas of their sect of Buddhism. It should be acknowledged that His Holiness does not have bias toward his Gelugpa school of Buddhism, which he heads, but equally serves all four main sects, the Nyingma, Kagyupa, Sakyapa, and their sub-schools, and not all are from Tibetan origins, for a sprinkling of American and European tulkus have also been named.
Historically the system of tulku was inherently pure. Given the difficulty of establishing knowledge of a tulku’s incarnation, a Master must be a kind of wizard to find a tulku or predict the arrival years in advance. To do it with 100% accuracy, both in the prediction itself, and how things pan out over as the chosen tulku grows and matures is an additional confirmation of an authentic pick. Great Masters have demonstrated that the proof is in the pudding. Until recently.
Aside from knowledge, motivation is the other key point which we will turn to in just a moment, but first let’s look at why the Dalai Lama is fed up with the system, and as far as I know. many other masters who are genuine tulkus themselves.
Initially many tulkus lived secluded lives out of the spotlight, often in monasteries, where they dedicated their lives to teaching sincere monks, nuns, and lay disciples. Many dedicated their lives to teaching, study, meditation, and renunciation, the last, renunciation, a key defining quality of many tulkus. Tulkus were brought up from around five years of age and taught by the greatest teachers of their time. The education was relentless. The first twenty years of their study often included a three year, or longer, completely closed retreats. In short, they carried the lamp of their predecessors who were well deserving of their spiritual reputation and capable teachers as attested to large followings they gathered about them throughout their lives.
Today the situation is quite different. Tulkus have proliferated and many counterfeit tulkus have appeared. The motivation has demonstrated itself as a desire for wealth, fame, and power. Wherein a century back there may have been less than a hundred tulkus, today there are thousands who claim the title. Unlike traditional tulkus who were often born to beggars, headers, and peasants (the current Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley was born in a peasant family) unrelated to anyone connected with the lineage, new tulkus often appear in an existing tulku family. Trust fund tulkus, one may say.
Trust fund tulkus’ lineage is dubious because often they are self-proclaimed and without any uncanny predictions from omniscient masters, but only the certifications of their families. Because the tulkus are so young when selected, it is hardly possible to blame them. The blame falls either with their families who want to keep wealth flowing from the faithful into their family, or selfish disciples of deceased abbots anxious to name someone in their place. Both lack third party certification from an enlightened master. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often serves as a third-party verifier, but other lineage masters do, as well.
Today’s tulkus are wonderful when you find the real thing, but you must dig deep. The majority today is no different from everyone else desiring wealth, sex, and power, except that in doing so they create a far more serious offense in that they do it under a false spiritual pretense. Fraud comes to mind.
Pretending to be what you are not, to claim that you have experienced spiritual states that you have not, is the training many tulkus have received from a young age, five and younger. We cannot just proclaim them useless frauds across the board. Even “fake” tulkus sometimes receive incredible educations and are taught by wonderful teachers. If they don’t follow a self-gratifying lifestyle, a big if, they may be good teachers, and some are, and we can learn from them. We may find a fine teacher amongst “tulkus” who themselves may feel uncomfortable with the title. But, otherwise, do your homework before taking up with a “tulku,” offering your devotion, and wealth, and trust. “the custom of recognizing reincarnate lamas may have had its day.” The Dalai Lama says that the reincarnation system has never existed in India, and there are no recognized reincarnations of great Indian Buddhist masters like Nagarjuna, or the Buddha himself.
The Dalai Lama said that the system of recognizing reincarnate lamas — called tulkus — is connected with Tibetan feudal society, and questioned the existence of such a tradition in a democratic society.” https://www.lionsroar.com/dalai-lama-suggests-ending-tibetan-reincarnation-system/)