Tibetan Tulku Lines and Networks

Tulku Lines in the TBRC Library

We are systematically researching and tracking tulku lines (skye brgyud) to build successive multi-generational networks of incarnation relations amongst Person records in the TBRC Library. To date, we have recorded over 110 tulku lines with more than 1700 tulku titles. These are now arranged alphabetically in Tibetan. You may view this list from the navbar tab: click on Persons, “Tulku Lines” and you will retrieve the Lists of Tulku Lines. These listings are extensions of data that you will notice in Person records, under the tab Associated Persons, where we organize Previous Incarnations and Subsequent Incarnations for each particular person. Each tulku includes a Tulku Title under their name variant in their Person record.

Literary Sources for Tulku Lines

Successive systems of reincarnation or tulku (sprul sku) are fascinating sources for the study of the social history of Tibet. The tulku, predicated on Buddhist metaphysics of rebirth, is a phenomena in which a person is recognized as embodying a previous person, in their own current body. This is technically referred to in Tibetan as one who is “recognized as having returned to existence” ( yang srid ngos ‘dzin or sprul sku ngos ‘dzin).

There are hundreds of multigenerational tulku lines in Tibet. By looking at when such tulku lines were declared, within which contexts, patterns of interpersonal relations, institutional alliances, and regional practices emerge. We are given new visions of these trans-generational social networks and the weblike worlds in which tulkus function.

Tulku lines are sources that we in the Department of Literary Research have taken an interest in researching, recording, and displaying in the TBRC Library. Our work on tracking these lines of incarnation (skye brgyud / sku phreng) is part of a broader project that we have undertaken to track lineages of transmission and affiliation in Tibet. Though we started this work several years ago under Gene’s guidance, it is only now coming to the foreground.

It is common to read that the Karmapas were the first tulkus in Tibet. In fact popular Tibetan tradition often states that tulku lines were spawned at the moment Karma Pakshi (1206-1283) recognized himself as the reincarnation of Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), declaring the First Karmapa. Recent research however shows us different realities. There are several instances of individuals being identified as emanations of deities such as Manjushri and Avalalokiteshvara. A well-known example is Atisha’s (982-1054) recognition of Dromton (1004/5-1064) as Avalalokiteshvara. Though later, the most famous case of this deity identification is Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) being identified as Manjushri. Besides individuals being identified as deity emanations, there is also evidence of other tulkus during the 13th century. As Leonard van der Kuijp has pointed out, the earliest accounts of Tibetans representing themselves as other Tibetan masters was in the Kadam order during the latter half of the 12th century (van der Kuijp, 28-29).

There are of course precedents in Buddhist literature for such tulku phenomena. The most popularized is the Jataka Tales or birth stories of the Buddha in his previous incarnations as a bodhisattva, coming back again and again in various life forms. In Tibet, from the 11th century, we have the identification of the “Three Protectors of Tibet” with the imperial rulers; the legendary association of Songsen Gampo as Avalalokiteshvara, Trisong Detsun as Majushri, and Ralpachen as Vajrapani. Such trilogies find a groove in Tibetan culture, so much so that there are parallels in the Kadam, Kagyu, and Sakya orders. With the rise of the Geluk in the 15th century, and the establishment of Drepung Monastery, we have what becomes the most well-known set of three referred to simply as “The Three Tulkus of Tibet” ((bod kyisprul sku rnam gsum).

It probably goes without saying that the majority of the first incarnations in a line were identified as such posthumously. Hence the literal meaning of the term is “to incarnate again” (yang sprul). This does not mean however that individuals were not self-identified. There are numerous cases in which individuals claimed their own tulkuhood. One thing that it does suggest is that tulku lines are retrofitted. That is, the inauguration of a tulku line is typically a generation or further after the initial individual in the line. A fascinating case of this reckoning that we have written about is with the Panchen Lama Enumerations. For tracking social and historical trends of tulku lines in Tibet, this is an important interpretive point. The outstanding exception to this would be the relatively bizarre species of those known as the “tulku who does not pass beyond” (ma ‘das sprul sku), referring to the phenomena of a reincarnation before death. Though an anomaly, there are a handful of cases recorded in Tibetan history.

Literary sources for tracking these tulku lines is largely based on local histories, chronicles of transmission, and monastery records. One useful survey of tulku lines is,  Bod kyi gal che’i lo rgyus yig cha gdams bsgrigs, conducted during the Qing Dynasty in the year 1819. This source gives coverage largely of lines in U-Tsang as well as Barkham and to a lesser extent, other eastern regions in Amdo.

Introducing his input from this source, Dan Martin writes:

“This list of over one-hundred and thirty reincarnations was evidently ordered to be compiled in a Wood Dog year (1814, with little doubt) for the Tibet-resident Amban Hu-zhang (perhaps this is the Amban Hu’u-zhang who was in Tibet from 1823-1827, although note that there was no Wood Dog year during his tenure). It was compiled on the basis of previous such lists. Evidently someone updated the list 6 years after it was first made (in 1820?), and added intralinear numerals to indicate the then-current age of the incumbent Rinpoches.”

Page citations are made in notes to Person records in TBRC where this source was consulted.

*Updates are being made regularly.


Chab spel tshe brtan phun tshogs and Mi ‘gyur rdo rje.  Bod kyi gal che’i lo rgyus yig cha gdams bsgrigsW19220. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dbangs dpe skrun khang, 1991.

Martin, Dan. “A List of Recognized Reincarnates.” Unpublished.

van der Kuijp, Leonard. “The Dalai Lamas and the Origins of Reincarnate Lamas.” In The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History, 15-31. Ethnographic Museum of Zurich. Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2005.

*A special thanks to Gray Tuttle of Columbia University for his correspondences and collaboration with this project. 

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