Tulkus 1880 to 2018 is an artwork by Paola Pivi.

It would not have been possible without the full time dedication and collaboration of Paola Pivi’s husband, the Tibetan composer Karma Lama (Culture Brothers), and the precious and generous participation of hundreds of people and institutions in many countries.

Tulkus 1880 to 2018 is bringing together photographic portraits of tulkus dating from the early days of photography right up until today. In Tibetan Buddhism, a tulku is the recognised reincarnation of a previous Buddhist master (a highly realised teacher or lama, e.g. H.H. the Dalai Lama or H.H. Karmapa) who is able to choose the manner of their rebirth and can often reveal the place of their next birth by means of cryptic clues.

This project (a work in progress) aims to achieve a comprehensive survey of most, if not all, tulkus belonging to the various Buddhist and Bonpo schools, in all the areas of the world where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced. A complete photographic archive of this kind has never been compiled before.

This project is non profit and fully funded by Paola Pivi, Karma Lama, Davide Quadrio, Artissima, Torino; Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London; Galerie Perrotin, Paris, New York, Hong Kong; Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art and AMMODO, Rotterdam; Photographic laboratory Grieger, Düsseldorf, FarEastFarWest Collection and other generous anonymous donors.

The entire project/artwork/research will be donated to the Tibetan people, no part of it is for sale.

Forewords by Davide Quadrio, the curator.

With photos by:
Daniel Kuma Bärlocher; Das Brothers; Sue Byrne; Alexandra David-Néel; Don Farber; Virginia Farnsworth; James Giabrone; Jesse Goode; Marion Griebenow; Thomas L. Kelly; Kinsey Bros; Vijay Kranti; Tracy Howard; Mr. M. Linden; Heather Lindquist; Marvin Moore; Melina Mulas; Tashi Nangchen; Sarah Orbanic; Tashi Paljor; Tenzing Paljor; Matthew Pistono; Claire Pullinger; Raghu Rai; Matthieu Ricard; Joseph Francis Charles Rock; Tim Roodenrys; Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam; David Sassoon; Sandra Scales; Jurek Schreiner; Albert Shelton; Tseten Tashi; Michelle Thuy Do; Gursed Tserenpil; David Tucker; Neal Watkins; John Claude White; David Zimmerman | and many more.

This project also benefits from the extraordinary consultation of the illustrious Tibetan historian Tashi Tsering, Director of Amnye Machen Institute, Tibetan Centre for Advanced Studies, Dharamshala, India.

It is currently believed that there are over two thousand tulkus.
Les Bains du Nord, FRAC Bourgogne, hosts the third exhibition of the project with more than 1000 photographs. This project (a work in progress) aims to achieve a comprehensive survey of most, if not all, tulkus belonging to the various Buddhist and Bonpo schools, in all the areas of the world where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced. The portraits exhibited are exactly the same kind as those that are very common in Tibetan culture and visible in monasteries, homes and shops close to monasteries: single portraits of the tulku sitting on a throne in monastic surroundings or single portraits of the face of the tulku.

These photographs hold spiritual value and are holy for Buddhists. It is believed that a photograph of the tulku has the same power as the tulku themselves.

Tulkus are collectively revered for holding the lineages of oral transmission of all of the Buddha’s teachings, which have been handed down through many generations. Most often they are referred to as Rinpoche or ‘precious one’.

Tulkus held positions of official political power in theocratic, pre-1959 Tibet, and are still generally considered to have power over the people, beyond the purely spiritual, today.

An ancient Tibetan thangka (painting) is displayed as the centrepiece of the exhibition and symbolises the origin of the tulku photographic portrait tradition. At the first two venues—Castello di Rivoli and Witte de With—the ancient Tibetan thangka exhibited portrayed Tsuglag Gyatso, the Third Pawo Rinpoche (c 1567–1630), and dating back to the first half of the seventeenth century. It was borrowed from The Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

Extensive research has been carried out in many areas of the world by a large team of researchers, reaching out to tulkus, monasteries, cultural institutions and individuals (explorers, anthropologists, scholars, photographers, collectors, archives, research societies, museums, universities, etc.).

Our research and collection will continue until 2018. After Castello di Rivoli, Museo di Arte Contemporanea and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, the show is now been hosted at Les Bains du Nord, FRAC Bourgogne.
The locations of the following seven shows planned have not yet been determined.

No profits will be made from this project. All of the photographs borrowed will be returned to their owners after the last exhibition in 2018 and all of the portraits produced specifically for the project will be donated to a single institution. This will be chosen with the stipulation that the project must belong to and be available to the Tibetan people. Advice will also be requested of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This exhibition focuses on portraits of tulkus. A tulku is the recognized reincarnation of a previous Buddhist master. The tulku, who is expected to lead a life of study and practice, is a master and is given the honorific title of Rinpoche, which means “the precious one”. In Tibetan Buddhism there are also many great masters or Rinpoches who have achieved this status through practice and education. Such masters are just as important as tulkus. Following a suggestion made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the exhibition also contains three examples of Buddhist masters who are not tulkus, but have become masters exclusively as the result of their own activity. To date we have accumulated around 1100 printed photographs and 2000 digital photographs of tulkus.

The order, position, size, quality, clarity, type and presence in the show of each tulku photograph has no purpose, meaning, nor message, and is exclusively the result of availability, artistic choice and composition, coincidence, random choices and the results of our ongoing and incomplete research.

The captions of the photographs contain, in the following order:

the tulku name and the reincarnation number, the personal name, the dates of the life, the monastery of belonging of the tulku,
the Buddhist school (Gelug, Kagyu, Bon, Sakya, Nyingma), the name of the photographer, the courtesy of the image.

The information contained in this exhibition is, to the best of our knowledge, true and accurate at the time of the installation and is solely for informative and artistic purposes. We accept no liability for any loss or damage howsoever arising as a result of use of or reliance on this information, whether authorized or not.

With the kind support of:

Office Of His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Tibetan Parliament in Exile

Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Centre for Tibetan Studies

Department of Information and International Relations

Department of Religion & Culture, Central Tibetan Administration

Who is a tulku?

A tulku is the recognized reincarnation of a previous Buddhist master.

What does this mean?

This means that there was once a great Buddhist master who practiced and studied Buddhism, achieving enlightenment during his lifetime. The skills he mastered allowed him to direct his own reincarnation: to decide in which person to reincarnate after passing away. This person is generally a baby born shortly after the death of the great master. The great master who can direct his own reincarnation is also able to give cryptic clues (before and after this death) to enable other great masters or lamas — closely connected to him during his life — to find the child into whom he has reincarnated. Once found and tested, the child is officially recognized as the tulku (the reincarnation) of the previous master, enthroned in an official ceremony and is treated as that master from that moment on. For example, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Thupten Gyatso, passed away in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1933 and reincarnated in Tenzin Gyatso, a baby born in 1935 in Taktser, Amdo, Tibet. In 1939, at the age of 4, Tenzin Gyatso was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama and was given the title “14th Dalai Lama.” He was enthroned as the new Dalai Lama in a grand official ceremony in Lhasa in 1940 at the age of 5.

Tulkus have the power to direct their reincarnation for subsequent generations.

Another example: The 10th Kirti Rinpoche, Ngag Gi Wangpo, lived from 1921 to 1942. He reincarnated in Lobsang Tenzin Jigme Yeshi Gyatso, born in 1942 and later recognized as the 11th Kirti Rinpoche. The 11th Kirti Rinpoche is the tenth reincarnation of Kirti Rinpoche to be found, recognized and enthroned. The first Kirti Rinpoche was a disciple of Tsongapa and founded the Gelugpa school. He was known as Black Tongue and lived from 1357 to 1419. He is not depicted here as this exhibition focuses on photographic portraits and photography did not exist in 1419. However, photographs of the 10th Kirti Rinpoche (1921–1942) and the 11th Kirti Rinpoche (1942–present) are displayed in this exhibition. To the best of our knowledge, no photographs of the 9th Kirti Rinpoche, who lived before 1921, exist.

The first line of the captions accompanying the photographs contains the name of the tulku portrayed and the number of his reincarnation. For example, “The 14th Dalai Lama”: the tulku name is Dalai Lama and “14th” corresponds to his position within the lineage of recognized reincarnations. For example, when you read “The 6th Jamyang Shepa,” it means the person portrayed was recognized as the reincarnation of the 5th Jamyang Shepa, who was recognized as the reincarnation of the 4th and so on, all the way back to the first.

All the people portrayed in this exhibition are tulkus (except for the three examples of masters who are not tulkus).

What is the life of a tulku like?

The life of a tulku is based on education and, from the very beginning, serves the purpose of helping all sentient beings. A tulku’s tutors and teachers are primarily the same lamas, masters or Rinpoches whom the tulku taught in his previous life. In this way there is an uninterrupted passage of oral and written knowledge over many generations.

Tulkus are strongly revered by believers as divine people.

Once recognised, tulkus take on all the property of the previous tulku and become head of the monastery or monasteries if such exist. In theocratic societies (such as pre-1959 Tibet) tulkus held officially political power. Today tulkus are generally spiritual leaders and often have strong influence over the people. The status of tulku cannot be taken away, even in the very unusual case of the person deciding to not live the life of a tulku, or to not enjoy the privileges. Even then the reverence of the people remains steadfast.

How is the reincarnated tulku found?

There are five schools in Buddhism: Gelug, Kagyu, Sakya, Bon and Nyingma. The ways of recognizing tulkus differ from school to school, are very complex and diversified, and cannot be fully explained in this text. Here is an extremely simplified explanation to give you some ideas of how it works. Please take this as a starting point for further research and not as a complete answer. In Kagyu tradition it is often the case that the previous master hides a written note that indicates the place, time, names or parts of names of the parents of his future reincarnation. Such written notes are generally found a few years after the master has passed away. In Gelug tradition, hints on where and when to direct the search are revealed to great lamas — who had been close to the master during his lifetime — in dreams and visions. A group of lamas, a “search party,” are given the duty of finding the new reincarnation. In Sakya tradition there are both recognized tulkus and hereditary titles.

Please note that women are also recognized as tulkus, though it happens quite rarely. There are only a few examples, but the tradition of female tulkus stretches back several centuries. The word “Rinpoche” is often contained in the captions. It means “the precious one” and is a title conferred to all tulkus and all other great masters.

This text was written by Paola Pivi and is intended to aid a basic understanding of the subject matter. We apologize in advance for its rather simplistic nature and limited scope, but hope it might encourage further reading and research on the subject.