Memories, Immortality, and Tulkus

Bodies are memories, constantly remembering how to recreate and repair themselves, with slight deviations, gradually noticed as age.

Bodies – appendages, organs, cells, and genes – also retain a memory of millions of years of evolution, passed offspring to offspring.

Even rocks retain memories of ancient sediments deep in long-gone oceans or in churning fiery depths inside the earth.

Organizations are memories, also remembering how to constantly recreate, repair and maintain, all while learning to adapt.   There are restaurants in China that are thousands of years old, governments and their agencies, corporations and their offspring and mutations, all persistent memories.

Without memories, no continuity, no underlying stability, no identity.

During sleep I forget, forget who I am, and dream of strange new identities and settings, shifting from one to the next.  I lapse into deep sleep and forget even my dreams.   I wake.  My body is still here.  All my memories are still here – reminding me of my identity, my ambitions and desires, my plans, my worries, my friends and enemies, and what’s in the refrigerator.   From  nothingness during the night, each day “I” am reincarnated.

And via the Internet we can find how many times and how many people have recorded variations of these thoughts.   Together we are the memory of our species.

Now to the most recent reason I started thinking about this:

Tulkus – Passing Memory and Identity from Life to Life

I recently read a book that explained in more detail than I had known before, about tulkus, reincarnations of Tibetan lamas.   The most famous tulku is the Dalai Lama, who is considered to be the 14th reincarnation in a line that began with the first Dalai Lama, born in 1391.

The book I recently read (and quote from below), The Dance of 17 Lives, by Mick Brown, 2004, is about the most ancient line of tulkus, the Karmapa lamas, and especially about the 16th and 17th Karmapas.   The first Karmapa was born in 1110 AD; the 17th was born in Tibet in 1985, and also recognized and installed there as a child.  He escaped, under the noses of the Chinese, in the last few days of 1999 and fled to Dharamsala, in India.

From reading about tulkus, it is clear that much more than myth and untestable belief are involved in making this amazing system work.   Whether one believes or not in reincarnation of old souls into new bodies is not of great importance.   What is most interesting is how the system is able to transmit a huge body of personal memories, teachings and understanding,  relationships, and, in effect, entire identities from one incarnation of body and mind to another.

As stated by one lama interviewed by the author, “The Dalai Lama says that being a tulku is like a raw diamond – not worth much. You have to cut and polish it.  You have to study and practice.  Being recognized as a tulku is the beginning of the process, not the end of it.’”

The description of the training of newly recognized tulkus is especially interesting (p. 29):  “Like a young king, the tulku was therefore at the centre of an elaborate court of attendants, teachers and administrators, the object of enormous care and attention, and of an investment in manpower and money which would last for many years. … such attention would, in normal circumstances, be expected to turn any child’s head; but the teachings the young tulku received were specifically designed to counteract this and to develop the qualities of humility, self-effacement and a detachment from the worldly wealth and power which surrounded him.  …Only after years of such training would they be considered ready to assume their role as a teacher.”

In the case of the Karmapas, the book describes how there is a very large core of knowledge and teachings, called the “Golden Rosary” and dating back 900 years, that have been transmitted by the Karmapa to a few of his closest followers.  These closest followers are themselves high tulku lamas that serve the Karmapa, life after life, making the relationships especially meaningful and close. When a Karmapa dies, these core followers then assume responsibility for teaching the tradition to the next Karmapa, so that  the link is never broken. As stated by one of the Karmapa’s closest followers, “’The teachings of the Golden Rosary comprised innumerable different practices, and there was a lineage for every one of them – for each initiation, every ritual, for a multitude of meditation practices.’”

As indicated, this type of reincarnation requires an immense, interconnected system of traditions, teachings, devoted followers, and accumulation of wealth.   It is a system that created and maintained one of the most remarkable and inspiring cultures in the world, lasting many centuries, and still surviving.  Tulkus are obviously not just people, but great social and spiritual institutions that are maintained in unbroken lines.   Unlike kings and popes, a tulku does not just inherit a title, teachings, and devoted followers, but an actual personal identity and a set of close personal relationships.

In modern societies, we have evolved similar yet secular institutions:  Governments with their constitutions and offices, corporations with their charters and offices, agencies with their mandates described in legal codes.    Even though our governments and cultural institutions are largely secular, great principles are often involved, passed down, fought over, and fought for.

Corporations, with their continually reincarnating identities, are recognized officially as citizens with full rights, and often enormous power.    Yet there seems to be no adequate system for also ensuring that these institutions will also continually reacquire the wisdom and concern for the common good that should accompany such power.   Though recognized as citizens, they seem instead to be expected, and even legally required to behave in self-interest above all.    But this seems to be getting into another subject.

Let us build good memories to pass on.


1 Response to “Memories, Immortality, and Tulkus”

  1. 1 Cindy November 22, 2009 at 2:12 am

    Really fascinating and very well expressed, Duncan. Cool. Thank you.

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