Reincarnation and the Dalai Lamas: Background information when reading The Incarnations

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The Incarnations

A Novel

by Susan Barker

The Incarnations by Susan Barker X
The Incarnations by Susan Barker
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 384 pages
    May 2016, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Reincarnation and the Dalai Lamas

This article relates to The Incarnations

Print Review

Susan Barker's The Incarnations explores the five lives of one man who, in his present life, is a taxi driver in Beijing. The highest-profile example of reincarnation is that of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet – 14 in all, so far. The Dalai Lamas come from the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhists, which was founded in the late 14th century, devoting itself to restoring discipline in a monastic life. They believe that each Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the original.

Gedun DrupaGedun Drupa was the first Dalai Lama, born in 1391. However, the title of Dalai Lama was not adopted until the 1570s, so Drupa and his successor, Gedun Gyatso, were considered abbots in their lifetimes. Sonam Gyatso, the third Dalai Lama, was the first to hold the title, bestowed upon him by Altan Khan, the Mongolian king. The title means "Ocean of Wisdom," although Tibetans also use Gyalwa Rinpoche, which means "Precious Conqueror."

Finding the next Dalai Lama after the previous one has died is not like choosing the next Pope, with Cardinals gathering to vote among themselves. Instead, the death of the Dalai Lama marks the start of a long and rigorous search to find his reincarnation. The process, which takes years, is entrusted to the Tibetan government and the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhists.

Lhamo LhatsoA great example of this search process was for the 14th - and current - Dalai Lama. After Thupten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, died in 1933, the Tibetan government followed mystical clues. While Gyatso's body had lain in state, his head turned to the northeast from the south, so the government believed that the future Dalai Lama would be found in that Tibetan region. Then the abbot of Reting Monastery (who has had an historical role in selecting the new Dalai Lama) had a vision of Lhamo Lhatso, the sacred lake, which reflected the letters Ah, Ka, and Ma. He interpreted this as a sign for Amdo, a northeastern province. Later he had a vision of a three-story monastery, with a tiny house in its shadow. It wasn't until 1937, that a search party was dispatched to Amdo, and they found the house.

The party disguised themselves as travelers and stayed the night with the family of Lhamo Thondup, who was two years old. There were signs that Lhamo Thondup might be the future Dalai Lama, one of them being that he was dead set on going to Lhasa, Tibet's traditional and spiritual capital, packing and pretending to mount a horse, exclaiming, "I'm going to Lhasa!"

Kewtsang Rinpoche, the leader of the search party, was certain that this child was the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. Lhamo immediately recognized Kewtsang as a monk and knew which monastery he belonged to. A formal visit to the family's home a few days later confirmed it when several items belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama were brought out along with decoy items. Right away, Lhamo identified every item that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama with the declaration, "It's mine." Soon after, Lhamo was sent to Kumbum, the monastery near the house, and then to Lhasa. In 1940, he became Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and is the face of Tibet today.

Lhamo LhatsoIn May 2011, this Dalai Lama retired as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, separating spiritual considerations from political ones. He has also decided that when he turns 90, he'll consult the Tibetan people, followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and the high lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to decide if the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue. If it is determined that there is a need for a 15th Dalai Lama, officers of the Dalai Lama's Gaden Phodrang Trust will be responsible for finding him - or her, based on the Dalai Lama's 2007 comment that his reincarnation could be a woman.

Gedun Drupa, courtesy of Davin7
Lhamo Thondup, as a boy, courtesy of Themadchopper
Lhamo Thondup, courtesy of Fountain Posters

Article by Rory L. Aronsky

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Incarnations. It originally ran in September 2015 and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback edition.

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