In February of 1997 I recognized my student, Steven Seagal, as a reincarnation (tulku) of the treasure revealer Chungdrag Dorje. Since there has been some confusion and uncertainty as to what this means, I am writing to clarify this situation.
Traditionally a tulku is considered to be a reincarnation of a Buddhist master who, out of his or her compassion for the suffering of sentient beings, has vowed to take rebirth to help all beings attain enlightenment. To fulfill this aspiration, a tulku will generally need to go through the complete process of recognition, enthronement and training.
Formal recognition generally occurs soon after a tulku has been identified, but only after other important lineage masters have been consulted. The newly identified tulku does not take on any formal responsibilities at the time of recognition.
The next step of enthronement may or may not occur for a tulku, depending on the circumstances. Enthronement formally invests the tulku with the responsibility of furthering the activities associated with their particular tulku lineage. Thus, if there are specific teachings and practice traditions associated with their lineage, and if there are perhaps monks, nuns, monasteries, retreat centers, lay communities and so forth for which the tulku traditionally takes responsibility, then the tulku is formally vested with those responsibilities at the time of enthronement. In the event that an enthronement ceremony is conducted, it may take place soon after recognition or some years later. If the tulku is too young to assume their responsibilities upon enthronement, others may be entrusted to take on those responsibilities until the tulku is ready.
Finally, a tulku needs to complete a formal course of training which includes years of study and meditation. This training reawakens the tulku’s powers of insight and compassion and develops their skillful means for helping others. It is only after such training that a tulku is ready to take on the role of a teacher.
In the case of Steven Seagal, he has been formally recognized as a tulku, but has not been officially enthroned. He has also not undergone the lengthy process of study and practice necessary to fully realize what I view as his potential for helping others. When I first met him, I felt he had the special qualities of a tulku within him. According to the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) of the Buddhist tradition, all beings have within them the potential for becoming Buddhas. With Steven Seagal I perceived this potential to be particularly strong as accords with being a tulku. In the past, whenever I have met someone that I feel is a tulku, I have always consulted with other masters of the Nyingma lineage such as Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and other senior lineage holders. Similarly, after my experience of meeting Steven Seagal, I consulted with another important Nyingma master and with his concurrence, recognized Steven Seagal as a tulku.
With regard to the particular circumstances of Steven Seagal’s recognition, while it is generally the case that tulkus are recognized young in life, this is not always so. For example, the great master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö remained unrecognized for many years while he was an ordained monk at Kathok Monastery. He was over 30 years old, perhaps 35, and had completed his monastic education when he was recognized and enthroned as the first reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Wangpo. In his case, he had devoted his life to study and practice and was thus prepared for taking on the full responsibilities of being a tulku at the time of his recognition.
Prior to my recognition of Steven Seagal I myself recognized another tulku late in his life. Kalsang Yeshe Rinpoche, a monk originally from the Palyul branch monastery of Shibo in Tibet and later at Namdroling Monastery in India, was recognized and enthroned in 1983 at the age of 51. He too had spent his life studying Buddhism and meditating before he was recognized as a tulku. Because he had cultivated his potential through many years of diligent study and meditation, he was able to become a teacher and is currently the head of our Palyul Center in Singapore. So, in short, in the Tibetan tradition there is nothing unusual about recognizing a tulku late in their life. In fact, the recognition of a tulku who has been born in the West is especially likely to occur later in their lifetime because it will generally take much longer for all the conditions that are necessary for such a recognition to come together.
Steven Seagal has been recognized as a reincarnation of the 17th century hidden treasure revealer (tertön) Chungdrag Dorje (khyung brag rdo rje) of Palyul Monastery. Chungdrag Dorje founded a small monastery called Gegön Gompa near his native village of Phene in the Kutse area of Derge in Eastern Tibet. Though there are no monks there now, the small monastery building still exists and is well known in the area for its beautiful religious wall paintings.
As a tertön, Chungdrag Dorje rediscovered teachings and sacred objects hidden by Padmasambhava in the eighth century. Such treasures (terma) were concealed with the intention that they would be discovered and revealed at a later date when the circumstances were such that they would be of particular benefit to sentient beings. Texts of the teachings discovered by Chungdrag Dorje have apparently not survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Sacred objects discovered by Chungdrag Dorje include an unusually shaped bell, a phurba (ritual dagger), the syllable ‘A’ carved in stone and pigments used to create the sacred wall paintings in his monastery mentioned above. Several of these objects have been preserved and are still kept at Palyul Monastery today.
In the Nyingma tradition it is said that there are a hundred main treasure revealers and an even greater number of secondary treasure revealers. Among the latter it is not uncommon for the line of their teachings to eventually lapse. Though they were beneficial during the time they flourished, for various reasons some tertön teaching lineages have ceased. This would seem to be the case with Chungdrag Dorje.
Now with regard to Steven Seagal, he was born centuries after the death of Chungdrag Dorje. It is not uncommon for there to be a lengthy span of time between the death of a master and the appearance of his or her subsequent reincarnation. My own tulku lineage is an example of this. There was a 130 years hiatus between the death of the First Pema Norbu in 1757 and the birth of the Second Pema Norbu in 1887. This is common in all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. As for how these gaps come about, while tulkus are understood to have vowed to be continually reborn to help beings, it is not necessary for them to take rebirth in a continuous sequence of lives in this world. It is believed that they can be reborn in other world systems where they continue their compassionate activities, returning only later to this world system. This is how such lapses in tulku lineages are understood in Tibet.
As for Steven Seagal’s movie career, my concern is with the qualities I experienced within him which relate to his potential for benefiting others and not with the conventional details of his life which are wholly secondary. Some people think that because Steven Seagal is always acting in violent movies, how can he be a true Buddhist? Such movies are for temporary entertainment and do not relate to what is real and important. It is the view of the Great Vehicle of Buddhism that compassionate beings take rebirth in all walks of life to help others. Any life condition can be used to serve beings and thus, from this point of view, it is possible to be both a popular movie star and a tulku. There is no inherent contradiction in this possibility.
As the head of the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma School and more recently as the Head of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, I have had the responsibility of recognizing numerous tulkus. The first time I recognized a tulku, I was ten years old. This tulku was the incarnation of the great Khenpo Ngaga. He is still living in Eastern Tibet and continues to strive, to this day, to promote the welfare of others. Since that time until now I have recognized over one hundred tulkus. In addition I have overseen the training and enthronement of over thirty khenpos (learned scholars) and I am responsible for the welfare of the many thousands of monks belonging to the Palyul tradition. My concern in seeking to nurture these tulkus, khenpos, monks, as well as sincere lay people, has been to benefit all sentient beings. It is out of this intention that I have recognized tulkus in the past and will continue to recognize them in the future as appropriate.
In the case of my student Steven Seagal, I initiated the decision to recognize him as a tulku based on my own feelings about him. Neither I nor any of my monasteries have received or sought any sort of substantial donation from him. What is important to me are the qualities I have seen in my student. For this reason I feel confident that recognizing him as a tulku will be of benefit to others as well as to the Buddha dharma.
Whenever there is a new incarnation born or recognized, I personally feel very happy because it is like you have one more brother or sister. I take delight in such occasions as they seek to further compassionate activity for others. Being recognized as a tulku is an acknowledgment of one’s potential to help others. Such recognition does not mean that one is already a realized teacher. The degree to which tulkus have been able to actualize and utilize their potential depends upon how they have been able to use their past circumstances and how they currently use their present circumstances to develop their potential. Each tulku must work to develop themselves to the best of their ability. The essential point is that a tulku should strive to help others in whatever life situation they find themselves. It is out of such an aspiration to help all sentient beings that I have recognized many tulkus in my life and it is with this motivation that I recognized Steven Seagal as a tulku. If all beings seek to have this motivation, what need will there be for controversies and confusion over the motivations of others?