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
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
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
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?