Lion's Roar

Magical Emanations

The Unexpected Lives of Western Tulkus

ELIJAH ARY SEEMED LIKE A typical Canadian kid. He lived in Montreal with his mom and dad and two sisters, he loved playing hockey, and he didn’t like school. But something set him apart: according to the Dalai Lama, he was the reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist master.

When Elijah was a child, his parents ran a meditation center, and renowned Buddhist teachers and scholars often visited the family home. Elijah didn’t take much interest until, one day, a new visitor came: a monk named Khensur Pema Gyaltsen.

Almost immediately, four-year-old Elijah began talking about people he said he used to know—people with Tibetan names—and he described a house in the mountains that belonged to one of them and the yellow bears that lived in the area.

Elijah’s parents were charmed by their son’s imagination, but for Pema Gyaltsen, Elijah wasn’t being cute or creative. “I know these people he’s talking about,” the khensur exclaimed.

Pema Gyaltsen investigated the boy’s past life, and eventually it was determined he’d been Geshe Jatse, a monk who’d died in the 1950s. Soon a letter arrived from a monastery in India. Addressed to Elijah’s parents, the gist of it was: You have our teacher. Please return him as soon as possible.

ELIJAH, NOW AGE FORTY-EIGHT, IS ONE OF THE handful of Westerners who in childhood were recognized as tulkus. Literally meaning “magically emanated body,” a tulku is a person—almost invariably male—who’s said to have been a realized Tibetan teacher in a past life.

In virtually all cases, those who are recognized as tulkus are of Tibetan heritage. But there are exceptions, including the three Westerners—all now adults—who talked with me about the unique turn their life took when they were recognized as tulkus. Their experience has not always been easy, let alone magical.

The tulku system, which emerged in Tibet around the twelfth century, is based on the belief that bodhisattvas are reborn again and again to help sentient beings, and that their reincarnations can be identified. While the most high-profile tulku lineages are those of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, there are many others.

Buddhist scholar Amelia Hall notes that the enthroning

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