The University of San Francisco: College of Arts and Sciences
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Tibetan Reincarnation Symposium
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Paper Titles, Abstracts, and Bios

Elijah Ary (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris)

Paper Title: "So what's it like to be a Tulku?" Western Reincarnations and their Roles within the Tibetan Tulku Institution

Abstract: The influx of European and North American travelers to India and Nepal in the late-1960’s to early-1970’s brought Tibetans who had resettled in these areas following the events of 1959 into greater contact with Western cultures, and subsequently engendered the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to Western countries. Shortly thereafter the first Western Tulkus were recognized. Western Tulkus were expected to “return” to their monastic communities just as their Tibetan counterparts did. Yet only a small number have actually undergone the course of study traditionally set out for them, and none have completed it in its entirety. Also, none have chosen to remain monks. Furthermore, though they do not always choose to follow a traditional path, most Western Tulkus would seem to nevertheless feel a strong sense of moral responsibility to guide and help other beings; the very role that is traditionally expected of them. This paper will explore the place Western Tulkus occupy within the institution and what their role is, if any, as both Westerners and Tulkus. It will explore how they themselves perceive their place within the system, and special attention will be paid to how some Western Tulkus have chosen to articulate their traditionally expected responsibility of guiding and “being of benefit to other sentient beings” in non-traditional ways.

Bio: Elijah Ary is both a Western Tulku and an academic. Recognized at age eight by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of a renowned Tibetan scholar, he spent six years from 1986 to 1992 studying Buddhist philosophy at Sera Monastery in South India. He holds a Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University, and currently teaches Tibetan religious history at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, France.

Anya Bernstein (Harvard University)

Paper Title: Buddhist Politics: Life, Death, and Reincarnation in Transnational Eurasia

Abstract: This paper focuses on an emergent phenomenon of Tibetan incarnate lamas understood to have Buryat-Mongol “roots.” These lamas are Tibetans who either had prominent Buryat masters as teachers or who are reincarnations of past Buryats. Such lamas often express desire to reconnect with their Buryat “homeland” either by settling in Buryatia (south Siberia, Russia) permanently as part of small but influential Tibetan emigration or traveling there often to conduct tantric empowerments. At the same time, Buryats have appropriated these lamas in the narratives of nationalist revival, where these “hybrid” lamas are inscribed in the Buryat body politic as material proof that Buryat Buddhism is recapturing its past greatness in the wake of socialist persecution. By looking at two cross-ethnic reincarnation and discipleship lineages that began in 1920s Soviet Siberia, crossed over to Tibet, Nepal, and India, and eventually came back to Buryatia in the 1990s, I theorize the institutions of reincarnation and tantric discipleship as characteristically Buddhist “body politics,” which enabled Buryat Buddhists to maintain their long-standing mobility—across the spatial borders of nation-states, temporal horizons between life and death, as well as across multiple sites of belonging.

Bio: Anya Bernstein is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her forthcoming book, "Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism" (Chicago, edp 2013), explores the transformation of Buddhist practice among a Siberian indigenous people known as Buryats, foremost through their post-Soviet renewal of transnational ties with their fellow co-religionists across north and south Asia. To capture these issues ethnographically, Bernstein conducted multi-sited field research in Buryat communities in Siberia as well as in Tibetan monasteries in India where some Buryat monks currently receive their religious education. Bernstein holds a PhD in Anthropology from New York University. From 2010-2012 she was a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan

Suzanne Bessenger (Randolph College)

Paper Title: Deity Emanation and the Legimization of Sonam Peldren

Abstract:This paper analyzes Tibetan beliefs in deity emanation (Tib: sprul sku) and the role those beliefs play in the legitimization of an otherwise idiosyncratic religious character. Drawing on descriptions of the life of the saint Sonam Peldren (Tib: bsod nams dpal ‘dren, 1328-1372, tentative) in her unpublished biography, this paper claims that the deity emanation hermeneutic serves as what Gyatso and Havnevik call “an authorizing referent”: that is, it provides a socially established template, serving both subject and audience, for explaining how the divine can manifest in this world. In this regard, the paper will analyze Sonam Peldren’s biographers’ use of divine female imagery such as the “Great Mother” emptiness and Vajrayogini when describing the saint’s origins. It will also analyze a passage of the biography that describes Sonam Peldren dancing naked while giving a religious teaching to her husband, suggesting that the saint herself may have been physically referencing Vajrayogini/Vajravarahi iconography.

Bio: Suzanne M. Bessenger is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She completed her doctorate at the University of Virginia, and is currently working on a book about the biography of Sonam Peldren.

Benjamin Bogin (Georgetown University)

Paper Title: The Tulku as Prodigy: Reflections on the Childhood of the Tenth Karmapa

Abstract: As with the biographies of most tulkus, the life stories of the Tenth Karmapa open with accounts of the wondrous signs that accompanied the subject’s conception and birth and tales of his extraordinary precocity in childhood. This paper will focus on the literary representations of the signs of precocity that are such a standard feature of the biographical literature on tulkus by focusing on Lingpön Karma Tenzin Gyatso’s The Excellent Vase of Nectar, a unique biography of the Tenth Karmapa up to the age of fourteen which offers a very detailed portrait of these tumultuous early years (many of which were spent as a hostage in the northeastern borderlands). In considering the Tenth Karmapa's precocious childhood, I will suggest an interpretive model based on psychological studies of child prodigies as an alternative to theories that erase the active role of children in the tulku system by emphasizing their status as reincarnate lamas or as the passive objects of political manipulation.

Bio: Benjamin Bogin is an Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Theology Department at Georgetown University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. (Buddhist Studies) from the University of Michigan and spent six years living in Kathmandu, Nepal where he directed study-abroad programs in the Himalayas for students from American high-schools and colleges. His primary research interests are Tibetan Buddhist autobiography and the intersections of visual art, narrative, and sacred geography in Buddhist cultures.

José Cabezón (UC Santa Barbara)

Paper Title: How Tulku Lineages Are Constructed: The Case of Khöntön Peljor Lhundrub and the Lineage of the Changkya Incarnations

Abstract: Tulkus, or at least "high" tulkus (bla ma che khag), are usually part of a lineage of past incarnations, the kutreng (sku phreng). This paper seeks to understand the construction of incarnation lineages by focusing on one example: that of Khöntön Peljor Lhundrub ('Khon ston dpal 'byor khun grub, 1561-1637), a teacher of the Fifth Dalai Lama. In his biography of Khöntönpa, the "Great Fifth" suggests what the previous incarnations of his teacher were. The later Gelug tradition then incorporates this lineage into that of the famous Chankya (Lcang skya) lamas. The paper explores the logic and motives for each of these instances of lineage construction.

Bio: José Ignacio Cabezón is Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies, and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara. He has published some twelve books and almost 100 articles and essays on various aspects of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. His most recent books include the edited volume Tibetan Ritual (Oxford, 2010), Meditation on the Nature of Mind, with the Dalai Lama (Wisdom, 2011), and The Buddha's Doctrine and Nine Vehicles (Oxford, forthcoming). Cabezón is currently completing a doctrinal study of Buddhism and sexuality based on classical Indian and Tibetan sources

Jessica Falcone (Kansas State University)

Paper Title: A Transnational Tulku: the Multiple Lives of a Spanish-born Tibetan Buddhist Lama

Abstract: When Westerners began flocking to them with a desire to learn Buddhist philosophy and practice in the 1960s, Lama Yeshe, and his disciple, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, co-founded the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. A few years after Lama Yeshe died, Lama Zopa Rinpoche found and recognized Lama Osel Hita Torres (born to Spanish parents in February 1985) as his teacher’s reincarnation. For several years, Osel was educated Tibetan monastery as befits a reincarnate lama, but he eventually left. During my fieldwork period studying with FPMT from 2005-2007, Lama Osel was largely out of the public eye as he pursued a Western education sans FPMT responsibilities. However, my FPMT informants from California to Bodh Gaya often talked about Osel and the possibilities of his future with the organization. This paper will address Osel’s many lives within the FPMT social imagination, and as such it is primarily concerned with the ways that a new transnational Buddhist group has engaged with its most transnational tulku.

Bio: Jessica Marie Falcone graduated with a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Cornell University. Her dissertation project, "Waiting for Maitreya: Of Gifting Statues, Hopeful Presents and the Future Tense in FPMT's Transnational Tibetan Buddhism," was a cultural biography of a 500-foot statue of the Future Buddha that is currently being planned as a gift to India by a community of international converts to Tibetan Buddhism. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University

Daniel Hirshberg (UC Santa Barbara)

Paper Title: A Post-Incarnate Usurper? Guru Chöwang's Claim to the Patrilineal Inheritance of Nyang

Abstract: Prior to the institutionalization of reincarnates, Nyang-rel Nyima Özer (1124-1192) relied on the recollection of an unbroken sequence of preincarnations as the karmic basis for his recovery of the material texts and relics deemed "treasure." As the heir to orally transmitted lineages of tantric practice as well as those that were only recently recovered, Nyang-rel entrusted the continuity of this legacy to his son, Namkha-pel, who subsequently passed it to his son, Ngadak Loden Shérab, as had been done for generations of Nyang clan adepts. And yet despite this clear line of transmission, Guru Chöwang (1212-1270) introduced himself as an heir to that inheritance by declaring that he was the reincarnation of Nyang-rel himself, thereby challenging the authority of Nyang-rel's descendants and instigating what appears to be the first conflict between patrilineal and reincarnate inheritance in Tibet. This paper considers the ways in which Guru Chöwang constructed his claim through the remembrance of his preincarnations, the typology of his tulku status, and his displacement of Nyang-rel in prophecies concerning an enlightened treasure revealer.

Bio: Now a postdoctoral Faculty Fellow in Tibetan Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Daniel A. Hirshberg recently completed his PhD at Harvard University in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies. Titled Delivering the Lotus-Born: Historiography in the Tibetan Renaissance, his dissertation explores the innovations of Nyang-rel Nyima Özer (1124-1192) that enabled him to compile the first complete narrative of the 8th century tantrika, Padmasambhava, and effectively revise how Buddhism was established in Tibet. In continuing with the genealogy of the Padmasambhava narrative, Dan's current research focuses on the recensional process of what became its most renowned version, The Testament of Padma (Padma bka’ thang), in order to clarify how it was amended by countless authors, tradents, copyists and note-writing readers to become the emic history of Tibet’s golden age.

Nancy Lin (Vanderbilt University)

Paper Title: Birth-Stories of the Fifth Dalai Lama

Abstract: The Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) was a key figure in establishing the joint spiritual and political authority of the tulku institution in Tibet. As previous scholarship has shown, his identity as an emanation of the bodhisattva Chenrezig (Skt. Avalokiteśvara) and as a uniquely positioned incarnation lineage was articulated and reinforced through ritual, literature, art, and architecture. In the course of my research, it has become clearer to me that the Fifth Dalai Lama and key members of his court also took great interest in sponsoring and promoting birth-story narratives of the buddha Śākyamuni through teaching, publication, art, and poetry. In this paper I explore texts recounting the rebirth lineage (’khrungs rabs) of the Fifth Dalai Lama, most of which were written to accompany thangka paintings depicting the same subject. In particular, I investigate the process by which such texts were adapted from earlier narrative sources such as the “Son Teachings” (Bu chos) section of the Book of Kadam (Bka’ gdams glegs bam) and birth stories (Tb. skyes rabs, Skt. jātaka) of the buddha Śākyamuni.

Bio: Nancy G. Lin specializes in South Asian Buddhism, with focus on the cultural history of Tibetan Buddhism during the early modern period. Her research interests include Buddhist hagiographical literature and art, the innovative interpretation of canonical tradition amidst social change, and Tibetan engagement with other courtly cultures of South and East Asia. Her current book project examines how Tibetan monastic and courtly culture intersected during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially through productions of the Wish-Fulfilling Vine (Skt. Avadānakalpalatā, Tb. Dpag bsam ’khri shing), Kṣemendra’s Sanskrit anthology of Buddhist narratives. Professor Lin’s other research projects address Tibetan re-imaginings of the Buddha’s life and the development of classical Tibetan poetry and poetics from Sanskrit models in institutional, material, and ritual contexts.

Derek Maher (East Carolina University)

Paper Title: The Bodong Trulku: Reincarnation in Exile

Abstract: The Porong (spo rong) kingdom, tucked between Nepal's Langtang Range and the Tibetan area stretching from Kyirong (skyid grong) to Lhatsé (lha rtse) in Tsang, has long regarded itself as a semi-autonomous jurisdiction, maintaining strong ties with Lhasa, but enjoying a distinct character and a separate political status. Its most famous son, Bodong Paṇchen Choklé Namgyel (bo dong paN chen phyogs las rnam rgyal, 1375/6-1451), one of the most productive scholars in Tibetan history and a luminary well-known in western Tibet during his own lifetime, has served as the defining figure of that regional identity. After his death and his assumed achievement of Buddhahood, there could be no subsequent incarnations to carry on his lineage, but the Bodong tradition was perpetuated in an attenuated form by associated lineages of trulkus. By the seventeenth century, both Bodong's heritage and the Porong region were in decline, and by the time of the calamitous events of the mid-twentieth century in Tibet, the Bodong tradition was no longer studied and the lodestar of Porong self-perception was eclipsed.

Beginning in the 1990s, a dramatic revival has taken place in both the study of Bodong Paṇchen intellectual and spiritual tradition and in the self-identity of the people of Porong, both in Tibet and in exile. This renewal was initiated and elaborated by the identification of a new incarnation of one of Bodong's primary teachers, Paṇchen Sonam Gyeltsen (b. 14th century). This paper-based on historical and biographical writings on Bodong Paṇchen, extensive interviews with the principal contemporary figures, and documents connected to the identification of Bodong Paṇchen's new incarnation-explores some of the processes and strategies through which Tibetans are recovering lost traditions in a post-occupation and exile experience. It will be argued that the recent developments in the Bodong revival are possible only because of the identification of the new incarnation who reinforces the connection to the definitive figure of Bodong Paṇchen Choklé Namgyel.


Bio: Derek Maher earned a PhD and MA in the History of Religions: Tibetan Studies from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, and a BA in Philosophy and BS in Physics from Evergreen State College. He is an associate professor of religious studies at East Carolina University and director of the Religious Studies Program. He teaches courses in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Methodology, and Religion and Violence. His research interests include Tibetan biography, history, philosophy, politics, and especially religion. In particular, he is working on a series of biographies to see how they enact religious, philosophical and political agendas.

Jann Ronis (UC Berkeley)

Paper Title: The Rise of Tulkus in the Nyingma Sect: An innovation of the large scholastic monasteries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Abstract: Tulku domination of monastic administrations came relatively late to the Nyingma school and began in Kham. This paper will present a case study of the rise of tulkus at Katok Monastery in the eighteenth century. For centuries monks ruled Katok, some of who rose through the ranks because of scholastic achievement and others because of family connections to retiring abbots. In the two decades just prior the advent of tulkus at Katok, however, a non-monastic treasure revealer and his extended family briefly ran the monastery. Despite the family's control of the monastery for over a generation, tulkus quickly replaced them at the head of the monastery. In fact, most of the ascendant tulkus were rebirths of the treasure revealer's family members of students. This paper will explore the agents behind the successful rise of tulkus at Katok and its broader socio-political context in eighteenth century Eastern Tibet.

Bio: Jann Ronis (UVA 2009) is currently the Shinjo-Ito Postdoctoral Fellow in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley.He researches the histories of Buddhist monasteries in Kham in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He focuses on developments in liturgical, academic, and historiographic practices, as well as relations between the polities of Kham and local monasteries. His regional and sectarian specialties are the Degé Kingdom and the Nyingma school.

Tsering Shakya (University of British Columbia)

Paper Title: Contestation over the succession of the Dalai Lamas in the 17-18th Century

Abstract: The general narrative of the successions of the Dalai Lamas is presented as a seamless transition. This paper will examine the historical and political controversy over the succession of the Dalai Lamas in the 17-18th century. After the death of the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso in 1688, till the selection of the 9th Dalai Lama, the succession to the throne of the dGa' ldan pho brang was contentious and marked by power struggle between Manchus, Mongols and the Tibetans.

Bio: Tsering Shakya is a historian and widely cited expert on Tibetan literature and modern Tibet and its relationship with China. He is currently Canadian Research Chair in Religion and Contemporary Society in Asia at the Institute for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia where he teaches in the Master of Arts Asia Pacific Policy Studies (MAAPPS) program, and also works for Radio Free Asia. He was born in Lhasa and moved to India after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. He convened the first International Conference on Modern Tibet Studies in 1990. He taught at the Centre of Refugee Studies at the University of Oxford. From 1999 to 2002 he was a research fellow in Tibetan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Elliot Sperling (Indiana University)

Paper Title: Qing Organization of the Incarnation Process: The Broader use of the Golden Urn

Abstract: The paper discusses the official register of incarnations compiled for the amban at the beginning of the 19th century, with particular attention to the question of which ones were recognized through the use of the Golden Urn ceremony.

Bio: Elliot Sperling is Associate Professor of Central Eurasian Studies and an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University. He has served as the chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. In addition to teaching and writing on Tibet’s historical and contemporary relationship with China he has also been the recipient of MacArthur and Fulbright Fellowships. Aside from his scholarly writing he has provided op-ed and analytical pieces to The New York Times, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Janes Intelligence Review, and other publications.

Nicole Willock (University of Denver)

Paper Title: Ethics and Education: Gelukpa Narratives on Reforming the Tulku Institution in the Deng Xiaoping Era

Abstract: This paper looks at the importance Gelukpa scholars placed on ethics and education in the reestablishment of the tulku institution in the Deng Xiaoping era. In the wake of economic and social reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gelukpa scholars including Tséten Zhabdrung Jigmé Rigpé Lodrö argued for moderate reforms to the tulku institution drawing upon Tibetan intellectual histories. By analyzing discourse on the system of incarnation in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography Fine Silk Cloth, the Third Jamyang Zhepa Jigmé Gyatso’s biography and Sumpa Pandita Yeshé Peljor’s autobiography, Tséten Zhabdrung Jigmé Rigpé Lodrö promoted the importance of both morality and education in the recognition process for young tulkus. After Tséten Zhabdrung Jigmé Rigpé Lodrö’s death in 1985, his recommendations impacted the process of recognition for the co-throne holders of Tséten Monastery in Qinghai Province in the early 1990s.

Bio: Nicole Willock is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. Her primary research interests are in Sino-Tibetan relations, and the dynamic processes of state-driven secularization and Tibetan ethno-religious identity in 20th century China. She is currently revising the manuscript, “A Tibetan Buddhist Polymath in Modern China,” for publication and is in the final stages of writing a bilingual primer on Tibetan poetics co-written with Indiana University lecturer Gedun Rabsal. Willock also began a new research project underwritten by a 2012 Columbia University Libraries Research Award on "Secularism and 'Superstition' in Tibetan Intellectual History", using the Tharchin Collection at the C.V. Starr East Asian Library. At the University of Denver she teaches on politics and religion in modern China, religions of Tibet, and Buddhism in the USA from global and local perspectives.