The yangsi (ཡང་སྲིད་) or trülku (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་) tradition of recognizing young children as a reincarnation of a former personage is a practice widespread in the Buddhist Himalayas.
It is based on the general Buddhist belief in rebirth and Mahāyāna Buddhist concept of enlightened beings appearing in the world to rescue sentient beings. The term yangsi literally means being born again or repeating existence. It refers to a person taking birth again in the cycle of existence, purportedly to continue the spiritual project of the previous life. Bhutanese use another term, kukye (སྐྱེ་བ་), which denotes rebirth of a former figure. The term kyetha (སྐྱེ་མཐའ་) or final birth is also used indicating that the spiritual person is taking birth in the cycle of existence for one final time.
The term trülku or nirmāṇakāya in Sanskrit has a more profound and complex denotation. In the context of the trikāya theories of the tripartite corpus of the Buddha’s enlightenment, trülku refers to the diverse forms emanating from the Buddha’s state of enlightenment to benefit the sentient beings. It is the incarnation of the Buddha’s omniscient and compassionate spirit in order to help the world in myriad forms. A trülku can appear in the form of a person such as the historical Buddha or in the form of objects such as bridges, lamps, food, drink and clothes. As emanations of the state of enlightenment, they transcend individuality and any singular line of succession.
Based on these religious ideas of rebirth and incarnation, the practice of considering some specific people as rebirths of former persons and some holy persons as incarnations of Buddhas and deities existed in both India and Tibet. The Jātaka tales and many Buddhist birth narratives and biographies are filled with such accounts of reincarnation and emanations.
However, the practice of formally identifying a young child as a reincarnation of a former person and installing him as spiritual heir in the seat of the former person started in Tibet in the 13th century. Historians often claim that the first instance of a child being formally recognized as the rebirth of a former lama started with the recognition of the five year old Rangjung Dorji (1284-1339) as the incarnation of Karma Pakṣi (1203/4-1283) in 1289 by Ogyenpa Rinchen Pel (1220-1309). Rangjung Dorji is also said to have made the claim himself. He was, thus, considered the third Karmapa, and his alleged precursors Karma Pakṣi and Dusum Khyenpa were retrospectively presented as the second and first Karmapa respectively.
The recognition of the young children as rebirths of the previous lamas was primarily motivated by socio-political considerations among the lama’s followers to retain the religious influence and the assets of the labrang, which functioned as religious corporate under the lead lama to run both the estate and religious affairs. Thus, the trülku or yangsi tradition as a socio-religious institutional practice started effectively in the late 13th century in Tibet. Some scholars allege that Rangjung Dorji was recognized and installed as rebirth of Karma Pakṣi in order to retain the position and influence he had in the court of Mongol leader Kubilai Khan.
The practice of searching, recognizing and installing young children as successors to the religious position and estate of important lamas spread in the Tibetan Buddhist world across all schools in the subsequent centuries. It became the most well known mode of religious succession and today forms one of the most unique features of Himalayan Buddhism although it also comes with its own share of problems. Most leading religious institutions in Bhutan and the Himalayas were led by successive incarnations of lamas such as the Zhabdrung and Pema Lingpa incarnations in Bhutan, and the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama lines in Tibet. Some of these lineages were retrospectively extended back into past by including in the line prominent figures from earlier times.
As the concept of incarnation throws the floodgate wide open to a vast range of claimants, unlike the hereditary or master-disciple line of succession, the yangsi institution remained rife with multiple claimants and often conflicts among them. Although the lamas have devised various methods of recognizing the candidates such as using personal effects for identification, consulting oracles and diviners, and relying on prophecies and predictions, there is still no reliable system of verification. Recognition, the 5th Dalai Lama pointed out in his memoirs, is often based on deliberate deceptions or subjective interpretations. This has lead to major religious conflicts such as the one between the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and his rival in the 17th century, which led to many wars and the foundation of Bhutan, and the late 20th century conflict between two rival Karmapa incarnations, which have bitterly split the Karma Kagyupa world.
When a candidate is accepted as a yangsi, the child is ceremoniously installed on the throne of the former master. After this, personal tutors are appointed to give him proper training in Buddhist sciences and religious rituals. The child is generally taken under the custody of the religious elders instead of leaving him under the full care of his parents. Disciples and devotees shower the child with gifts and adoration often leading the child to grow in a superficial world of self importance. Viewed as individuals who have reached spiritual heights, they are revered in a pious Buddhist society. They enjoy both a privileged social position and a generous economic benefit in the form of offerings and fees for prayers and blessings. Thus, many parents in Bhutan and the Himalayas aspire, and in some cases also craftily plan, to make their children trülku. However, such upbringing and the public veneration have also increasingly led to trülku facing social and emotional difficulties when they turn into adults, and consequently relinquishing their position.
Today, there are several thousand trülku in Bhutan and the Himalayas. Due to their proliferation and popularity, the Bhutanese state at the turn of the 21st century once formed a committee to verify the authentic ones but this initiative has turn out to be ineffective and impractical. In China, the state continues to regulate the status of their trülku or living Buddhas, as they call trülku. With the rise in number of trülku and interest of parents to make their children trülku, and also of trülku abusing their position and failing to live up to the spiritual expectations of the devotees, many senior lamas have openly criticized the trülku institution. There is also growing critique that incarnations of lamas are often found in important and powerful families with an intention to reinforce their own power base and religious and political influence. In spite of the criticism and controversies it has provoked on many fronts, the trülku practice continues to thrive in a traditional Buddhist world driven by devotion and peity.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.