Nirvana For Sale

Tim McGirk delves into the challenges facing today’s reincarnated Buddhist teachers, known as rinpoche or tulku, “a supposedly enlightened being who continues his teaching from one lifetime to the next”:

Often, when a well-known lama dies—even if he’s not a tulku—he may leave behind real wealth: temples, property spread across various countries, a treasure of donations. The late teacher’s devotees usually have a vested emotional and, at times, material interest in keeping things as they were. And so they search for his reincarnation. Many Tibetan monks and scholars say the system is spinning out of control, growing too commercial. “In Tibet, it was more restricted to a monastic context,” said Thupten Jinpa, the scholar. “But now the control mechanisms are becoming relaxed.” No longer are the proper divinations always done, nor does the candidate have to give proof of memories of a past life.

A notable example:

[I]n 1997, Hollywood’s scowling action star and martial-arts expert Steven Seagal was declared by a well-known lama to be the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century terton.

A terton is a kind of spiritual treasure-seeker, able to find the hidden objects left behind by Padmasambhava, an eighth-century mystic and sorcerer who brought Buddhism to Tibet and who supposedly hid religious objects and texts that were to be revealed, throughout the centuries, at the right moment. Following the uproar over this announcement, Penor Rinpoche, who had anointed Seagal as a terton, had to fend off accusations that he had taken donations from the Hollywood heavy. Seagal, resplendent in a silk jacket embossed with dragons and accompanied by two surly bodyguards, was seen pacing outside the Dalai Lama’s prayer-flag-draped residence in Dharamsala, waiting for official recognition of his new mystical status from the boss. But it never came.