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A tulku (Tibetan: སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་, Wylie: sprul sku, ZYPY: Zhügu, also tülku, trulku) is a reincarnate custodian of a specific lineage of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism who is given empowerments and trained from a young age by students of his or her predecessor.
High-profile examples of tulkus include the Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas, the Samding Dorje Phagmos, the Karmapas, Khyentses, the Zhabdrung Rinpoches, and the Kongtruls.
The word སྤྲུལ or 'sprul' (Modern Lhasa Tibetan [ʈʉl]) was a verb in Old Tibetan literature and was used to describe the བཙན་པོ་ btsanpo ('emperor'/天子) taking a human form on earth. So the sprul idea of taking a corporeal form is a local religious idea alien to Indian Buddhism and other forms of Buddhism (e.g. Theravadin or Zen). Over time, indigenous religious ideas became assimilated by the new Buddhism; e.g. sprul became part of a compound noun, སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་'sprul.sku' ("incarnation body" or 'tülku', and 'btsan', the term for the imperial ruler of the Tibetan Empire, became a kind of mountain deity). The term tülku became associated with the translation of the Sanskrit philosophical term nirmanakaya. According to the philosophical system of trikaya or three bodies of Buddha, nirmanakaya is the Buddha's "body" in the sense of the bodymind (Sanskrit: nāmarūpa). Thus, the person of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, is an example of nirmanakaya. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, tülku means the corporeal existence of enlightened Buddhist masters in general.
In addition to Tibetans and related peoples, Tibetan Buddhism is a traditional religion of the Mongols and their relatives. The Mongolian word for a tülku is qubilγan, though such persons may also be called by the honorific title qutuγtu (Tib: 'phags-pa and Skt: ārya or superior, not to be confused with the historic figure, 'Phags-pa Lama or the script attributed to him, (Phags-pa script), or hutagt in the standard Khalkha dialect. According to the Light of Fearless Indestructible Wisdom by Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal: the term tülku "designates one who is 'noble' (or 'selfless' according to Buddha's usage) and used in Buddhist texts to denote a highly achieved being who has attained the first bhumi, a level of attainment which is truly egoless, or higher."
The Chinese word for tülku is huófó (活佛), which literally means "living Buddha" and is sometimes used to mean tülku, although the Dalai Lama has said that this is a mistranslation, as a tülku isn't necessarily a realized being.
Any Vajrayana practitioner can be reborn as a tülku, if they fail to reach Buddhahood or a Pure Land in the bardo of dying, bardo of dharmata or bardo of becoming.
Valentine summarizes the shift in meaning of the word tülku: "This term that was originally used to describe the Buddha as a "magical emanation" of enlightenment, is best translated as "incarnation" or "steadfast incarnation" when used in the context of the tulku system to describe patriarchs that reliably return to human form."
Pamela Logan outlines a general approach for finding a successor:
When an old tulku dies, a committee of senior lamas convenes to find the young reincarnation. The group may employ a number of methods in their search. First, they will probably look for a letter left behind by the departed tulku indicating where he intends to be born again. They will ask the close friends of the departed to recall everything he said during his last days, in case he may have given hints. Often, an oracle is consulted. Sometimes a prominent lama has a dream that reveals details of the child's house, parents, or of geographical features near his home. Sometimes heaven presents a sign, perhaps a rainbow, leading the search party to the child.
Logan describes the training a tulku undergoes from a young age:
He is brought up inside a monastery, under the direction of a head tutor and a number of other teachers or servants. He must study hard and adhere to a strict regimen. He has few if any toys or playmates, and is rarely allowed outside. Early on, he learns to receive important visitors, take part in complicated rituals, and give blessings to followers and pilgrims. Sometimes one or both parents are allowed to live near the young tulku. Older brothers are sometimes inducted into the monastery as monk-companions for the holy child. Yet his elderly tutors are the most influential people in his life, and they become his de facto parents.
The academic atmosphere is balanced by unconditional love:
Countering the bleak academic regimen is an atmosphere of overwhelming, unconditional love. During the tulku's every waking moment, monks, family members, and awed, adoring visitors, shower the youth with love. If you visit a child tulku, you will probably notice that his quarters are pervaded by a wonderful glow. Everyone beams at the tulku. The tulku beams back. If he asks for something, he is given it immediately, and if he errs, he is corrected just as immediately. Western visitors to the young 14th Dalai Lama commented on "the extraordinary steadiness of his gaze." Even when quite young, the boys have remarkable poise; they sit calmly without fidgeting, even through ceremonies that may last all day.
The tulku system of preserving Dharma lineages did not operate in India. The first tulku line of Tibet is the Karmapas. After the first Karmapa died in 1193, a lama had recurrent visions of a particular child as his rebirth. This child (born ca. 1205) was recognized as the second Karmapa, thus beginning the Tibetan tulku tradition.
Main article: List of tulku lineages
Tibetologist Françoise Pommaret estimates there are presently approximately 500 tulku lineages found across Tibet, Bhutan, Northern India, Nepal, Mongolia, and the southwest provinces of China.