From the Playbill: Recognizing a Reincarnation
by Julie McCormick
In Buddhist philosophy, all unenlightened beings are trapped in samsara: the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. We all have led many thousands of past lives and after we die, we will be reborn in another form. Our actions in one life (karma) determine where we end up in the next.
In the Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhist tradition, high-ranking lamas known as tulkus choose their own reincarnations in order to pass along a specific lineage of teachings. From the soul’s vantage point in bardo (a spiritual limbo between one life and the next), the tulku chooses the form that will best allow it to continue its previous life’s work.
Guided by dreams and oracles, the tulku’s students seek out his reincarnation, usually in the form of a very young boy. After a series of tests to determine whether this is in fact their teacher, the boy is then taken to a monastery and trained to become a lama.
An increasing number of tulkus are choosing rebirths outside of Tibet. Following Chinese occupation, Tibet is no longer as hospitable a place for Buddhism as it once was. Because lamas in Tibet have held political as well as spiritual leadership since the 17th century, the Chinese government has also been accused of attempting to interfere with the identification process and install their own, government-approved Dalai Lama.
Though a large number of Tibetans live in exile around the world, some tulkus have chosen Western rebirths to non-Tibetan families. Since the 1970s, about 25 lamas have been found in mostly European and North American families. Most identified tulkus have been young boys; in very rare cases it will be a woman or girl.
The path of a western tulku and their family is not an easy one. To be ordained and enthroned as a tulku, the young lama must undergo years of rigorous training in a monastery, often living at great distances from their family. They must give up a typical childhood and adolescence, and cope with the pressures of negotiating two different cultures and very high expectations. Many have left their training to rejoin secular life; others continue their monastic lives. Still others seek non-traditional ways to share the Dharma in a Western context.
For Further Consideration
- Do you believe in reincarnation? How would that knowledge change how you live your life?
- What is a parent’s responsibility: to keep their child safe at any cost, or to release their child to live their own lives?
- Do you identify with the mother in the story? What would you do in her situation?
- Why do you think the Oldest Boy is portrayed through puppetry? How does that choice influence your understanding of the story?
- The full title of this play is The Oldest Boy: A play in three ceremonies. What are the ceremonies? How do they shape your experience of this play? How do ceremonies and rituals inform your daily life?
- Who have been the significant teachers in your life? How have they changed your worldview? What makes your relationship with them memorable?