Opening at Rossi & Rossi Hollywood Road on 18 December 2021, Precious Ones: Tibetan Tulkus examines the representation of tulkus in the Himalayan tradition of image-making. The exhibition is comprised of photographs of Tibetan tulkus from acclaimed British-Belgian photographer Martine Franck (1938–2012) as well as a selection of classical bronzes and paintings depicting Buddhist spiritual masters from a wide range of historical periods in Tibet.
A vernacular expression, tulku literally means ‘phantom body’ or ‘emanation body’. One who holds the title is commonly addressed as Rimpoche (‘Precious Jewel’) and counted in the Tibetan tradition as a lama or a guru (spiritual guide). As embodiments of boundless compassion and beneficence, tulkus willingly take on recurring births in order to spread out their good acts and, thus, benefit as many sentient beings as possible with each reincarnation.
As soon as a spiritual master passes away, he is expected to return to his followers by purposefully assuming a new birth in a chosen family. According to tradition, a group of his immediate disciples therefore sets out to search for his rebirth. They rely on certain religious objects, visions or prophetic indications of the deceased master to identify a young child as his reincarnation. The child, usually no more than three to six years old is, in turn, expected to be able to recognise the objects previously owned by the late master. This is a sign that he is the true continuation in the line of rebirths.
Once a child is acknowledged as the reincarnation of a late master, he is raised in a monastery. Tender in age, tulkus depend on the care of their monastic entourage, whose members act as both parents and mentors. Franck’s photographs capture the childlike innocence of young tulkus. She first travelled to the Himalayas in the late 1990s to attend the enthronement of the reincarnation of Kalu Rimpoche (1905-1989). Over the subsequent years, she photographed many young lamas in monasteries in Tibet, Nepal and India. Some of these photos, such as Tulku Khentrul Lodro Rabsel with his Tutor, Lhagyel, at Shechen Monastery, Bodnath, Nepal (1996), candidly depict the mutual affection between a reincarnated novice and his immediate attendants. In the work, the serene pupil smiles shyly at the camera, whilst his tutor gently leans on him; they pose shoulder to shoulder. Other works on view in Precious Ones show the two at home as well as performing their ritualistic duties, as in Yangsi Khyentse Rimpoche during His Enthronement at Shechen Monastery, Bodnath, Nepal (1996). The continuity evoked in Franck’s photographs reveals a psycho-physical continuum made up of recurrent stream-of-consciousness moments; these ultimately link one state of being in the world to another in the cycle of rebirth.
Tulkus are revered in Tibet and throughout communities of the Tibetan diaspora. Eminent ones include the Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas and the rulers of Tibet. For centuries, pupils and followers of these religious masters have commissioned portraits of their teachers both during their lifetimes and afterwards as a type of religious veneration. Portrait of Dragpa Sherab (1310–1370), for instance, offers a stunning 14th-century example of such image-making from Tibet. Seated in padmasana, or Lotus pose, on a double-lotus base, the teacher positions his right hand in vitarka mudra (the gesture of teaching) at his chest. In his left hand, he holds two books – one miniature and one bound in wood – symbols of enlightened wisdom and the transmission of knowledge. His serene expression is framed by short-cropped hair and pendulous, pierced earlobes. He wears a kasaya, or patchwork robe, exquisitely incised with intricate geometric and floral motifs.
Another highlight is a Tibetan thangka from the 18th or early 19th century. Painted with ground minerals on cotton, it represents Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche (‘Precious Teacher’). He holds a longevity vase and a skullcap filled with nectar in his left hand, and an ornate staff rests against his left shoulder. Dressed in robes of various patterns that reflect the three schools of Buddhism – Vajrayana, Mahayana and Theravada – the guru sits atop a sun and moon disc that is situated above a multicoloured lotus blossom rising from the calm waters of Dhanakosha Lake, where he was born.
Precious Ones offers a rare glimpse into the depiction of Tibetan spiritual guides. Their unique practice, which involves repeated reincarnation, has spread both their teachings and their benevolence. Whether in their youth or adulthood, in human or deified form, these masters of Tibetan Buddhism have fused an unbroken link that safeguards the inheritance of tradition, knowledge and lineage of Buddhist learning to this day.