Reincarnation Article 1: The Tibetan Teacup
An icy jet stream combs out curls of flying snow around the twin heads of a mountain that stands as a lofty sentinel at the valley entrance. The mountain’s backdrop is not the deep purple, Martian-blue of modern travel brochures, but the faded sepia washes of an old photograph that chronicles a bygone colonial age.
From the snowline, melts a narrow human stream that meanders, through a steeply-sloping labyrinth of boulders, down to a monastery far below which offers welcome sanctuary from the starlit darkness and frost-biting teeth of the approaching Himalayan night. Forty years have passed since a vintage plate camera captured this image of a Tibetan yak caravan.
I return the photograph to my casual acquaintance who had been a fellow commuter for over a year. The day before, as we disembarked at London Victoria, he commented. “I see you are reading “Tibetan Tantric Buddhism” – strange reading matter for a science postgraduate. If you like, I’ll show you some material tomorrow that I think you’ll find of some interest. I just hope you can find a rationale, scientific explanation for something that has haunted me for the last forty years.”
With that cryptic comment, he grabbed his civil-service attaché case and rolled umbrella from the rack above his seat, plunged into the cascade of city workers pouring out of the train, and headed for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The next day my acquaintance kept his word and, as the train pulled out of Horsham Railway Station, pulled a tattered manila folder from his case, placed it on his razor-creased pinstripe trousers, and began to tell me an amazing tale from his youth.
“I felt very guilty at the time,” he began his strange story, “but in at the height of the great depression in 1933, as a fresh Cambridge graduate in my early twenties, I joined the Royal Navy survey ship HMS Beaufort to literally plumb the depths of the Pacific and Indian Ocean and chart coral and palm-fringed desert Islands for His Majesty’s Geographical and Hydrological Surveys. Seizing the chance to see even more exotic corners of the world, I saved up my annual leave and rather, as was the expected norm for my fellow matelots, heading back to UK, my closest friend and I planned our own two to three-month exploratory trips.
One particularly madcap scheme was to jump ship in Bombay, hitch through Sikkim to Gangtok and the high-altitude Nathu-La Pass, on India’s border with western Tibet. In the unlikely event of fooling the Tibetan border guards with our navy uniforms, diplomatic passports, and a dubious dispatch translated into Tibetan from his Majesty the King to the Panchen Lama, the then head of all things political, we planned to trek, across western Tibet to the forbidden city of Lhasa, before making our escape through the Kham Province in eastern Tibet, across Bhutan and Assam, to finally re-join our ship in Calcutta. The official dispatch folded neatly in a diplomatic pouch owed infinitely more to the then high-tech reprographic equipment aboard the HMS Beaufort than to the Foreign Office in London from which it proclaimed itself to have originated.
To our amazement, after considerable argument at the border, our ruse worked and one crisp but sunny morning, we found ourselves with a train of five horses, a Tibetan translator, and a local guide, in the legendary land of eternal snow.
Much to our amazement, the land of eternal snow proved itself in summer to be a natural wonderland: cool mountain breezes winnowed flower-laced waves of tall luxuriant grass across valley floors. In the distance, snow-capped mountain ranges marched across the horizon below a backcloth of azure blue and flotillas of pure white, billowing, cumulus clouds.
Depending on the steepness of the trail that climbed ever higher up into the Himalayas, we covered ten to fifteen miles a day staying in village travel lodges, monasteries and guest rooms where we could, but camping out in the wilderness were no such accommodation was available. Four days of tiring but exhilarating trekking brought us to the hidden valley you saw in the photograph.
A yak caravan was the last thing we wanted to see that afternoon. Using a rather inappropriate biblical turn of phrase in this staunchly Buddhist land, my travel companion commented that there would now be ‘no room in the inn’. Extracting my powerful, navy-issue binoculars, I focused my gaze on the marching column that was now close to the high, metal-studded monastery gates. There were yaks, yes, but interspersed between these rugged, shaggy haired, long-horned beasts were smaller pack animals of a rather uncertain equine pedigree. To me, the diminutive breeds of Tibetan steed looked more like ponies than English stud-book horses. It was, however, the lead horse that caught my immediate attention because of the glaring mismatch in size between the diminutive rider and his white stallion mount. This was no adult guide, but a young boy who, in spite of looking only three or four years of age, held the reigns with the horsemanship of a seasoned cowboy as he led his party down to the monastery gates.
“Tulku” whispered our translator fearful that his voice would carry to the boy who banged confidently on the wood gate with a staff demanding, not requesting entry. By the time we reached the monastery, we just had time to slip into the temple courtyard with the last of the boy’s entourage before the gates slammed shut. That one word – tulku, Tibetan for the transformed or reincarnated one, clarified the situation immediately. I had read many accounts written by British district commissioners describing how supposed reincarnations of dead lamas were found and tested before being reinstated as the abbots of their former monastery. As a Roman Catholic, I immediately dismissed these unbelievable tales, but had always been puzzled why government employees would risk their professional reputation and credibility by reporting such bizarre events in foreign lands.
Our guide and interpreter shepherded us into the excited queue waiting to pay homage to the boy who we soon learn had lived all the first, tender four years of his life as the son of a poor wheat farmer and yak herder in a small village two day’s ride to the north of this hidden valley. At the age of two, his parents started to be worried when the studious human cuckoo in their humble nest began to describe, in fluent Tibetan, his real home in a monastery over the mountain. It was then six years since the former abbot of the monastery had died. Astrologers were consulted, search parties dispatched, until one day, a migrating herdsman passed the monastery gate by chance and noticed the building’s layout was very similar to one described by the strange young boy he had encountered a few days before. I knew from my reading that the idea that incarnations, if indeed they exist, are not born the instant the previous abbot died – that is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Emissaries were detached immediately and returned with their incarnation candidate by chance on the very day we arrived in the hidden valley.
As many previous accounts have reported, the boy’s adult behaviour that late afternoon was unnerving; the translator described him speaking with the extensive vocabulary and turn of phrase only to be expected after many years of adult learning. I could see with my own eyes the confident way the boy treated the crowd that had come to greet him as their returning abbot. Before, however, he could take his elevated seat in the yak-oil lamp lit shrine room, he had to be tested.
My reading had prepared me for what was to follow. Tension in the air suddenly replaced the exuberant joy of the boy’s welcome. One long line of wooden trestle tables were quickly arranged down the centre of the temple courtyard since night, with the truncated twilight of the mountains, would soon fall. Across the table’s width, the yellow-robed monks laid rows of monastic objects like frets across the finger board of a giant guitar. First came a row of five meditation cushions, followed by a row of five small, ceremonial drums, then came a row of brass, silver and gold altar lamps. The pattern continued for nine further rows to the far end of the table: five example of each type of object placed in twelve separate rows. The boy crouched, as Shakespeare put it, like a greyhound in the slips at the table’s head eager to complete the formalities of his challenge. Dropping his adult persona for a few minutes, the tulku raced down the table’s length, grabbing one item in each row after another without the slightest hesitation. He dropped each selected item onto a pile that, to ensure that the boy was not guided in his choice, was only seen and checked by senior monks and his reputed former personal servants at the experiment’s end. Many of the selected items were old and tattered and not the new, brightly coloured items that would be likely to attract a four-year-old boy. The new items were, I learnt after the test, deliberate decoys. The boy’s final perfect score was sixty correct ‘hits’ out of a choice of sixty items. I reckoned that the chance of this happening by sheer chance was millions to one against.”
“One chance in thousands of millions – one fifth to the power of twelve.” I interjected into pause he allowed for dramatic effect.
“The formal test completed,” my narrator continued, “the atmosphere relaxed again. and the boy could now be greeted by his new honorary name, Tulku Zasep Rinpoche. As the first oil lamps began to twinkle around the courtyard and in the monastery’s unglazed windows, the new Tulku had time to greet his unexpected foreign visitors. Much to my translator’s surprise, the new abbot of the Hidden Valley Monastery, read and understood our Tibetan dispatch asking intelligent questions which we fielded as best we could about the purpose of our mission to Lhasa. He concluded our audience by summoning a personal servant who was clearly delighted by the return of his previous master. Through the interpreter he joked that he knew of the Englishman’s liking for tea and ordered a pot of real Indian tea, not the evil brew concocted from mixed black tea, rancid butter, yak milk and salt known as po cha -Tibetan tea. Invited into his private quarters on the ground floor of the stone tower that rose from one corner of the monastery wall, we perched ourselves rather uncomfortably cross-legged on red cushions around a small carved sandalwood table. The tea dually arrived and was poured into willow-pattern teacups. Before the servant could finish pouring, however, he was interrupted by Tulku Zasep Rinpoche reverting once again for a few moments into the petulance of a four-year old boy.
“No! I want to drink the tea out of my old Chinese cup, the one with three pilgrims crossing a bridge, two swallows facing each other and a boat carrying one fisherman in the sky. Don’t you remember, my cup has a crack running down from the bottom of the handle?”
The servant made a hasty retreat to search everywhere in the kitchen and storage cupboards for the missing cup but without success.
“Master”, the servant blurted out in Tibetan on his breathless return,” there is only one last place to look. We packed the last of your belongs after you death six years ago in a tea chest up in the attic. May I go and look up there?”
“I’m coming with you,” ordered the Tulku.
“We have some powerful torches you can use if we can come with you,” I volunteered pulling some large aluminium-cased naval torches from a saddle bag next to me. Determined not to miss the action, we jumped to our feet and set off in pursuit of the young abbot and old servant. The torches were a useful excuse to be in the vanguard of the search party which wound its way up the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the tower. I wanted to check the loft’s wooden floor before we searched for the tea chest. The combined light of a full moon rising over the mountains and our torch beams, illuminated dust dunes carpeting the attic that bore no trace of footprints. The undisturbed festoons of spider-web that draped down from ancient wood-wormed rafters made an ideal set for a Dracula movie and provided additional evidence that the room had not been visited for many a long year. Hurrying in front of me, the servant crossed to the far side of the loft, and pulled back an untidy shroud of sail cloth to reveal an old tea chest. Moonlight glinted on the metal strips that strengthened the chest’s vertical edges and a probing torch beam revealed the neatly stencil inscription “Finest India Tea” on chest’s plywood sides. I watched the servant very carefully to ensure he didn’t plant a concealed cup in the chest to subsequently ‘discover’. Hastily delving downwards through newspaper-wrapped strata of assorted items, one particular tightly wrapped bundle caught the servant’s attention. Peeling back onion-skin layers of newspaper wrapping, he triumphantly hoisted a dusty old cup into the air. We had found the missing willow pattern cup. Three pilgrims crossed a stone bridge; two swallows facing each other flew above the bridge.
A small fishing boat bizarrely floated in mid-air over an island. Most tellingly of all, a fine crack ran down the side of the cup from the bottom of its handle to its base just as the Tulku had described. I flicked the torch light over one sheet of the cup’s wrapping. The newspaper page was dated 1925 and carried the old twin-elephant logo of The Times of India. I hoped the paper’s motto “Let Truth Prevail” had come to pass.
“Well that’s my story”, my narrator concluded. “I am hoping you can give me a rational, scientific explanation. I once made the mistake of mentioning my experience to my priest during a confessional session. I was threaten with a litany of Hail Mary’s and excommunication for eternity, if I dared mention the ‘pagan, satanic’ ritual ever again. I saw the evidence with my own eyes, but common sense and my religion tells me it was all a lie. I cannot believe, and yet I cannot not believe what happened.”
It was several long seconds before I could decide on a reply.
“I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is the best evidence for reincarnation I have ever heard. Let’s look at it as a detective story. The crime could be deception. To find the potential criminal, we need both opportunity and motive. As for the opportunity, your story makes it clear that nobody at the monastery knew foreign visitors would be arriving that evening. The lack of footprints in the undisturbed attic also makes it highly unlikely that the tea cup was ‘planted’ for you to find while you chatted with the new abbot.
Then of course, there is the matter of the scientific-style experiment used to test the young boy’s claim to be the reincarnated abbot. The double-blind, controlled textbook experiment conformed to the strictest scientific protocols.
There is also no conceivable motive for the subterfuge. Who would gain? What would they gain? The only remote possibility is that they intended to blackmail you after suspecting that your travel documents were fraudulent. If that was the case, why stage such an elaborate charade? The perpetrators could have simply threatened you that that they would notify local authorities unless you gave them money or valuables before letting you continue your journey to Lhasa.”
I felt sad not to have seen any way to solve my fellow commuter’s religious dilemma, but at the same time, I was happy to have gleaned such an important piece of evidence from someone I rated as the best possible type of witness – an obviously very intelligent, highly education, initially sceptical, member of ‘the establishment’. If I had heard the same tale from a long-haired, ex-drug addict or multiple-body-pierced hippie, I would have been a hundred times more sceptical.
The manila file also turned out to be packed with supportive documentary evidence and photographs. There were copies of newspaper articles in both the London and Indian Times with photographs of the two young naval officers, maps of their route and detailed accounts of their journey through Tibet. He also produced his long out-of-date diplomatic passport with vintage border stamps, and the original English and Tibetan versions of his dispatch from “His Majesty.” I could not but believe the story of the young Tibetan boy who had been reborn to live again.
A Sceptic’s View
The multiple choice of items offered for the boy to identify as belonging to him in his previous life obviously qualifies as a rigorous scientific test. This fact, together the boy’s amazing patience and mature behaviour far beyond his years, and the description of the tea cup hidden for years in a crate in the monastery loft, leaves only fraud as an alternative explanation for this first reincarnation story.
A sceptic would point out three points were fraud could be involved:
- I might have fabricated the entire story the civil servant supposedly related to me the story of the events at the monastery. I know for certain of course, that this account of reincarnation is exactly the story that I heard as a postgraduate science student while commuting to London.
- A second possibility might be that I have retold the story accurately, but my witness lied about the events and might never have even visited Tibet. Again, this is not a valid rebuttal in view of the wealth of documentary evidence such as passport stamps, the Time’s article and other documentation I examined carefully. Another important point is the character and religious beliefs of the witness: he had worried for years about the conflict of his experiences with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of which he was a devout member – he hoped his possible case for reincarnation could be disproved. As a senior civil servant he qualified as an ‘establishment figure’ who was typically British and orthodox in his views. Finally, what would be his motive for concocting the story that he told me – there was clearly none?
- The last fraud possibility if that both I and witness are telling the truth, but the events at the monastery were concocted for some obscure reason to impress a foreigner. Since their arrival at the monastery was completely unplanned and unannounced this explanation can also be discounted. The witness noted a lack of footprints and undisturbed cobweb festoons in the monastery loft so it would seem extremely unlikely that the willow pattern teacup was planted in the wooden box shortly before their arrival. Again, a key point is what possible motive could the monastery have in enacting this elaborate charade?
This story confirmed the many cases I had read about the identification of tulku in books authored by western visitors to Tibet.
The only conclusion I could draw from my witness’s experiences in a Tibetan monastery was that previous lama’s consciousness and memories had survived death to be reborn into a new body.
This is the link to the second reincarnation story.