Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 08 December 2022

The Reincarnation System in Central Asian Buddhismlocked

The Reincarnation System in Central Asian Buddhismlocked

  • Ruth GambleRuth GambleDepartment of History, La Trobe University


Reincarnation lineages, their traditions, and their institutions have been central to Tibetan religion, culture, society, and politics since the 13th century. They developed incrementally, dependent on doctrines from India and local precedents. From their Indian-Buddhist forebears, they took the tradition of past-life storytelling, the belief that celestial bodhisattvas constantly manifested to aid beings, and the practice of guru-yoga, which encouraged them to see their teachers as nirmāṇakāya (“creation bodies”; trülku [sprul sku] in Tibetan).

From the 10th century in Tibet, they recognized an increasing number of beings as either bodhisattva emanations or prominent beings’ rebirths. Claiming rebirth status was particularly evident in the Nyingma school’s treasure tradition, whose visionaries claimed to be the rebirths of the 8th-century mahāsiddha Padmasambhava’s students. Treasure texts also contended that the celestial bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, constantly manifested in Tibet.

During the 11th century, Kadam and Kagyü yogis made themselves jātaka protagonists, and the number of beings from all schools claiming to be emanations of celestial bodhisattvas increased. The Nyingma visionary Nyangrel Nyima Özer (Nyang ral nyi ma ‘od zer, 1124–1194) became the first to describe a series of his previous lives. The second and third Karmapas (13th century) developed on these precedents, adding future-life prediction and child recognition and linking rebirths to monasteries and inheritances. They combined the two ideas of rebirth and incarnation, claiming that the reborn Karmapas were a series of Avalokiteśvara’s emanations. After the Mongol emperors became the Karmapas’ students, their model was copied across Tibet.

In the 16th century, the Dalai Lamas, aided first by Mongol rulers and then the Manchu-Qing Emperor, gained political supremacy in Tibet. This also enabled their school, the Geluk, to proselytize widely in the Mongol world and establish further guru-patron relationships. After an argument between two aristocratic reincarnates led to the Sino-Gurkha War in the late 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor mandated that Geluk reincarnates be chosen by drawing lots from a Golden Urn. The Geluks used the Golden Urn to establish many new reincarnation lineages but resisted its use to decide the Dalai Lamas or other highly ranked reincarnates. The Manchu-Qing had little influence on the non-Geluk lineages, who developed strongholds in the Himalaya and Kham in Eastern Tibet.

After the Qing Empire fell, the thirteenth Dalai Lama declared Tibet independent. He did not live to see its dissolution into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s. During the Mao period in Tibet and the Soviet period in Mongolia, reincarnates were first co-opted and then outlawed. They became refugees, and several became famous internationally. When the Soviet Union fell, and China opened, some reincarnates re-established their monasteries, but the PRC retained the authority to recognize reincarnates, including the next Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, whose reputation underpins the entire reincarnation system, has refuted this claim. But as he single-handedly defends his institution against the PRC state and attempts to deal with a series of abuse and corruption scandals involving reincarnates—as perpetrators and victims—it appears certain the Dalai Lama’s next interregnum will challenge the entire reincarnation system.


  • Buddhism

You do not currently have access to this article


Please login to access the full content.


Access to the full content requires a subscription