Asian philosophy

Miscarriage, Auspicious Birth, and the Concept of Tulkuhood in Tibet

By guest contributor Kristin Buhrow

The selection of successors to political and religious leadership roles is determined by different criteria around the world. In the Himalayas, a unique form of determining succession is used: the concept of Tulkuhood. Based in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, Himalayan communities, especially in Tibet, operate with the understanding that gifted leaders with a deep and accurate understanding of Buddhist cosmology and philosophy will, after death, return to their communities and continue as leaders in their next life. Upon the death of a spiritual or community leader, his or her assistants and close followers will go in search of the next incarnation—a child born shortly after the previous leader’s death. When satisfied that they have found the new incarnation, the committee of assistants or followers will officially recognize the child, usually under five years old, as a reincarnation, and the child will receive a rigorous education to prepare for their future duties as a community leader. These people are given the title “Tulku.”

This system of succession by reincarnation is occasionally mentioned in Western literature, and is always lent a sense of orientalist mysticism, but it is important to note that in the Tibetan cultural sphere, Tulku succession is the normal, working model of the present day. While Tibetan religious and political leadership structures have undergone great changes in recent years, the system of Tulku succession has been maintained in the religious sector, and for some top political positions was only replaced by democratic election in 2001. Large monasteries or convents in the Himalayas, which often serve as centers of religion, education, and local governance, are commonly associated with a Tulku who guides religious practice and political decision making at the monastery and in the surrounding area. In this way, Tulkus serve a life-long (or multi-life-long) appointment to community leadership.

Like any other modern system of succession, Tulku succession is the subject of much emic literature detailing the definition of Tulkuhood, discussing the powers of a Tulku, and otherwise outlining the concept and process. And, like any other functioning system of succession, some details of the definition of true Tulkuhood are hotly debated. One indication given special attention is that Tulkus go through birth and death under auspicious conditions. These conditions include but are not limited to: occurring on special days of the Tibetan calendar, occurring according to a prophecy that the Tulku himself made previously, unexplainable sweet smells, music issuing from an unknown source, colored lights appearing in the sky, dissolving or disappearance of the mind or body at death, flight, or Buddha images visible upon cremation. While these auspicious conditions of birth or death may go excused or unnoticed, it is thought that all Tulkus are born and die in such circumstances, whether or not the people around them notice. Considering this common understanding, we now turn to one particular Tulku, who makes a controversial and easily politicized assertion: that one of his previous incarnations is that of a miscarried fetus buried beneath his monastery.



A map showing the Pemako region (now called Mêdog) within Tibet

In the mountainous region of Pemako, to the east of Lhasa, there is a small town called Powo. According to Tibetan oral history, it was here, in 641 C.E., that the Chinese Princess Wencheng buried her stillborn child. After being engaged to marry the King of Tibet, Princess Wencheng was escorted from the Tang capital of Chang ‘An (present day Xi’an), to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, by the illustrious Tibetan minister Gar. Along the way, Princess Wencheng became pregnant with Minister Gar’s child—a union oral history remembers fondly as the result of a loving relationship that had developed over the course of the journey. Some versions of the history assert that Minister Gar intentionally took Wencheng on the longest route to Lhasa so that she could have the baby along the way, but she suffered a miscarriage in Powo. While there was no monastery in Powo at the time, Wencheng, who was an expert Chinese geomancer, recognized the spiritual power of the location. After carefully selecting the gravesite, Wencheng buried her stillborn child, then left to meet her intended in Lhasa.

He Liyi Illustration

Aiqing Pan and Zhao Li, “Wencheng and the Tibetan Envoy,” from He Liyi, The Spring of Butterflies and Other Folk Tales of China’s Minority Peoples.


While some sources assert that Princess Wencheng constructed the Bhakha Monastery on top of the grave with her own hands, another origin story exists. Over one thousand years after Wencheng and Minister Gar passed through, a Buddhist teacher who had risen to prominence came to Powo near the time of his death. This teacher was recognized as a reincarnation of the powerful practitioner Dorje Lingpa, who was himself a reincarnation of Vairotsana, a Buddhist intellectual and influential translator. When this teacher came to Powo, he found the same spot where Wencheng had buried her baby, and he planted his walking stick in the ground, which miraculously grew into a pine tree. It was then that the Bhakha Monastery was built in the same vicinity. Regardless of the accuracy of these oral histories, it is clear that the presence of the infant grave was a known factor when the monastery was named, as Bhakha (རྦ་ཁ་ or སྦ་ཁ་) means “burial place”. The teacher whose walking stick demonstrated the miracle became known as the first Bhakha Tulku. We are now, as of 2017, in the time of the tenth Bhakha Tulku, who still has influence over the same monastery, as well as related monasteries in Bhutan and the United States.


The Tenth Bhakha Tulku (photo credit: Shambhala Center of New York)

In addition to the list of renowned former lives mentioned previously, the Bhakha Tulku has also claimed Wencheng and Minister Gar’s child as one of his past lives. While this claim to such a short and seemingly inauspicious life is unusual for a Tulku, it is not an impossibility according to the standards of Tulkuhood in the Nyingma sect, to which the Bhakha Tulku belongs. In the Nyingma tradition, and all other Vajrayana sects, life is considered to begin at conception. By this principle, a stillborn fetus constitutes a life, making it possible that that life could have been part of a Tulku lineage. According to a description by Tulku Thondup, a translator and researcher for the Buddhayana Foundation and contemporary Tulku associated with the Dodrupchen Monastery, in Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet, the primary role of a “Birth Manifested Body Tulku” is “to serve others […] in any form that leads a being or beings toward happiness, peace, and enlightenment, either directly or indirectly” (13). With this perception of Tulku leadership, the controversy surrounding the idea that a life culminating in miscarriage could be worthy of the title of Tulku is easily understood.

Some individuals participating in this debate assert that a miscarried fetus could not fulfill the requirement of compassionate servitude. Cameron David Warner goes so far as to argue that the emotional pain that miscarriage necessarily brings to the mother renders the life of that child devoid of any positive outcome—its only effect being a mother’s grief. However, one key idea posited by Tulku Thondup is that a Tulku’s life can help the spread of Buddhism and compassion, not only directly, but also indirectly. When viewed in the context of history, it is possible that the death of this child, for this life to go no further, was a course of events that allowed Buddhism to spread further into Tibet.

At the time of Wencheng’s arrival in Tibet, Buddhism was fairly uncommon in the area, the most common religion being a form of animistic shamanism called Bon. Both Tibetan and Chinese historiography cite Wencheng among the first foreigners to bring Buddhist artifacts into Tibet (see Blondeau and Buffetrille, Slobodnik, Kapstein). It is possible that if Wencheng were to arrive in Lhasa with a child that the Tibetan king, Songstan Gampo, would have reacted negatively, potentially harming Wencheng herself or the larger relationship between the Tibetan Empire and Tang China. While this is merely conjecture, it does present an argument in which a Tulku could have demonstrated compassionate servitude in this unusual form.

Interestingly, while the Bhakha Tulku’s claimed past life has inspired controversy, this particular assertion is not mentioned in official profiles or other monastic materials. This decision to avoid such a sensitive topic in public texts could be an attempt to smooth over controversy within the religious community (where the debate continues). Alternatively, this choice could be motivated by a desire to avoid politicization by Chinese government officials, who have been altering the historical narrative surrounding Wencheng’s life in Tibet to model a positive relationship between the generous paternal state of China and Tibet, its vassal. While the Bhakha Tulku currently devotes his energies to other issues, this unusual past life serves not only to symbolically connect China and Tibet, but also challenges the traditional notion of what it means to be a benevolent public servant.

Kristin Buhrow is a graduate student at the University of Oxford pursuing a Master’s degree in Tibetan & Himalayan Studies.

Global History of Ideas: A Sea for Fish on Dry Land

by guest contributor Dag Herbjørnsrud

A remarkable example of how ideas migrate across so-called cultural borders and change minds in unknown ways happened in the German city of Bremen on October 8, 1930. There, Martin Heidegger gave a speech based upon his masterwork Being and Time (1927). Afterwards, he and several of Bremen’s citizens gathered at the home of a wholesaler. During the evening, Heidegger suddenly turned to his host and asked, “Mister Kellner, would you please bring me the Parables of Zhuangzi? I would like to read some passages from it.”


Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time; 1927)

Martin Buber (1878–1965) had already translated these parables of a founder of Daoism (Taoism) in 1910 with the help of Chinese collaborators, one of his first acclaimed books, Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse (Leipzig, 1910). Buber’s afterword connects Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu/莊子 369–286 BC) with his reading of the Bible, and this can be seen as advance notice of sorts for his later philosophy of “I and You” (“Ich und Du”). It was this book that Heidegger demanded.

The tradesman didn’t hesitate but went to his library and returned with a new edition of Buber’s translation. Heidegger started reading from Zhuangzi’s chapter 17, which in this context might be seen as a follow-up to his own speech “On the Essence of Truth”. Heidegger read from the passage where Zhuangzi says to the thinker Hui Tzu, known for his Zeno-like paradoxes, as they walk by a river:

Do you see how the fish are coming to the surface and swimming around as they please? That’s what fish really enjoy.”

“You’re not a fish,” replied Hui Tzu, “so how can you say you know what fish really enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said: “You are not me, so how can you know I don’t know what fish enjoy.”

The people of Bremen could relate to this 2200-year-old Chinese conversation. As an eyewitness described it: “The deep meaning of the legend cast a spell on all who were present. With the interpretation he offered of that legend, Heidegger unexpectedly drew closer to them than he had with his difficult lecture….”

Heidegger’s and Buber’s dialogue with the thinking of Asia seems to prove that Arthur O. Lovejoy was right when, in the first issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1940, he pointed out that “ideas are the most migratory things in the world.” Human thoughts are like fish that swim as they please. There are no borders underwater. The connections in our minds transcend modern categories in unknown ways, and thus our ideas migrate across ages and seas – from Zhuangzi’s ancient town of Meng in eastern China to Kellner’s modern home in northern Germany.

Heidegger seems to have proved that ideas are the most migratory things in the world long before he became internationally famous. When he studied in Freiburg with the philosopher Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941) from Japan, Heidegger read Edmund Husserl’s major work with him and other East Asians once a week, as he stressed in one of his late major texts, “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache. Zwischen einem Japaner und einem Fragenden” (1959) (“A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer”) – set out as a conversation between two professors. By that time, in 1921, transcripts of Heidegger’s classes were already translated into Japanese, which might be regarded as the first recognition of his groundbreaking philosophy. Indeed, Japanese was the first language Being and Time was translated into – in 1939, a staggering twenty-three years before the first English translation.


The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 3rd century BC)

If we re-read Heidegger’s 1927 work from such perspectives, we might understand why many East Asian philosophers feel more at home in his thinking than most Europeans.  As he concludes: “One must seek a way of illuminating the fundamental question of ontology and then go this way. Whether this is the sole or right way can be decided only after one has gone along it.” This insistence on finding and going the way in order to seek the essence of being, might be hard to grasp with a so-called Cartesian or modern perspective, trying to make philosophy a part of science, but it seems all the more natural from Zhuangzi’s point of view and the way of thinking about the Way (Dao).

After the Nazi era, Heidegger concludes much of his wandering in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959) (On the Way to Language). In that work he explains his 40-year-long quest for a deeper, pre-philosophical source which connects us as beings across time and space: “The word ‘way’ probably is an ancient primary word that speaks to the reflective mind of man. The key word in Laozi’s poetic thinking is Tao, which ‘properly speaking’ means way […].” He concludes: “The lasting element in thinking is the way.” In this way the thinking of China and Japan breathes in Heidegger’s philosophy. Europe’s foremost thinker of the 20th century cannot be properly understood without knowledge of Asia’s philosophy.

Heidegger’s universal quest might also be something for our times. Heidegger was seeking a thinking experience which would assure “that European-Western saying and East Asian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source.” And he walks the walk in the dialogue with his friend, as when he finds out that the Japanese word for language, ‘koto ba,’ is the best way to better understand his own language, German.

Thus, both Zhuangzi and Heidegger formulated central challenges and opportunities for the 21st century. Zhuangzi by asking us to see “the Others”, understand what they enjoy, and acknowledge it. Heidegger by asking us to seek a way to understand his thinking, his transcultural roots, and his search for a common human ground. Or as professor Reinhard May puts it: “In order to gain a new perspective from this ‘Heidegger case’,” we will have to devote ourselves to other people’s thinking “as thoroughly as to that of our own tradition, not least since Heidegger has, in his own special way, demonstrated the necessity of transcultural thinking.”

In this light we can also see how Heidegger questioned the basis of our modern thinking in Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ (1947) (Letter on ‘Humanism’): “Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses prestige and validity if it is not a science,” Heidegger wrote. And again he returned to a fish metaphor: “Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the natures and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land. For a long time now, all too long, thinking has been stranded on dry land.”

He didn’t write it explicitly, but this metaphor seems to be a reference to another of Zhuangzi’s parables (number 6): “When the springs dry out, the fish are found stranded on the earth. They keep each other damp with their own moisture, and wet each other with their slime.”

Vital parts of our migratory history of ideas have become stranded on dry land since the encounter in Bremen. At the same time, a new awareness might be dawning of the importance of our long-forgotten global interconnectedness – as can be seen from Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s Global Intellectual History (2013) or Jonardon Ganeri’s “Why Philosophy Must Go Global: A Manifesto” (2016). The history of ideas can also learn lessons from the new insights now being presented in the field of global history and the de-centering of perspective, or from earlier times: The “universalism” of Mozi, or the argument for “world literature” by both Goethe and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The world is not just connected by trade, as Hajime Nakamura pointed out in A Comparative History of Ideas (1975). Even more importantly, humans are bonded by those migratory ideas that transcend national and cultural borders. And as Heidegger showed, we don’t have to meet physically in order to face each other. In the global history of ideas we can rather stand face to face through texts across ages and seas.

Such a history of ideas has the potential to give us new and fresh ways of looking at our world, as the participiants at the gathering in Bremen found out. This is not just because “there is no such thing as western civilization,” or eastern civilization for that matter, as Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it. It is also because new research frequently proves that our cultural heritage is often not what we are taught to believe. Heidegger’s critique inspired the Algerian-born Jacques Derrida to develop the German term “Destruktion” into the French concept of “déconstruction”. As the time and being of the 21st century drags on, it might be about time to add reconstruction to deconstruction.

A reconstruction of our natural and common global history of ideas can be seen as a fulfillment of the thinking of Zhuangzi, “the first deconstructivist”. He disavowed the ideologies of rulers and the hierarchies of scholars that imprison the human mind, leading individuals astray from their own innate nature (hsing). The stringent argument that we are being taught is logic is far too often nonsense – because, rather, eclecticism is all. The eclectic, comparative, and inclusive way of thinking pours water over stranded fish, making reconstruction a flow of the natural way (wu wei 無爲). If we follow the way of Zhuangzi and read the classics anew, we can reconstruct our past based not on an ethnocentric take, but rather on a comparative and transcultural perspective – placing weight on our migratory ideas. Instead of studying history of ideas within a national or ethnic framework, we might re-orient and be on the way to reconstruction with the help of three ‘C’-terms: Contact. Comparison. Complexity.


John Adams concluded that the democracy of the US resembled that of Phoenician Carthage more than any other republic

We might for example see the way Thomas McEvilley has shown how the pre-Socratics and Plato were influenced by the thinking of India, a country where the secular and materialistic Lokayata (Carvaka) philosophy has prevailed for over 2500 years (Contact). Such global and comparative perspectives on the world of ideas can release us from the ethnocentrism that has left our thinking stranded on dry land for all too long now. If we follow such channels of thought, we discover that it was not Athens, nor any Greek city-state, that Aristotle hailed as the best-governed or most democratic. Instead, in Politics, he held up Phoenician Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, as the state with the best constitution, the most stable rule – which was not prone to tyranny – and as the place where the people had the most say when it came to electing politicians (Comparison). As the second US president John Adams pointed out in A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (1787): “This government [of Carthage] thus far resembles those of the United States of America more than any other of the ancient republics, perhaps more than any of the modern…” (Complexity).

Thus, the reconstruction of a global history of ideas makes the founding fathers and the basic documents of our past ripe for rereading from a comparative and non-ethnocentric perspective. Man is not an island and neither is the world – nor have they ever been. Rather, man is a fish, ever in danger of being stranded on dry land. But the springs can be refilled, opening up new channels of thought so that more fish can swim as they please – just as a simple question taught the merchant Kellner, Heidegger, and their guests how to enjoy swimming in the vast seas of the global history of ideas.

Dag Herbjørnsrud is a historian of ideas from the University of Oslo with a cand. philol. thesis on the late philosophy of Robert Nozick. He is the author of the book Globalkunnskap (2016, “Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment”) at Scandinavian Academic Press, and the founder of the recently established Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI).