How can you tell if some kid is the reincarnation of the Buddha?

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Dec. 27 2006 5:58 PM

Am I the Buddha?

How to tell if you're the reincarnation of Siddhartha.

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A teenage boy rumored to be the reincarnation of the Buddha reappeared in the Bara district of Nepal on Sunday after vanishing nine months ago. How can you tell if some kid is the next coming of the Buddha?

First, get your terms straight. Some Buddhists believe that Ram Bahadur Bomjan, the 16-year-old Nepali known as the "Buddha boy," could someday become a Buddha. But there's no way that he could ever be a reincarnation of the Buddha. That's because, according to religious teachings, all Buddhas attain the state of nirvana, or perfect enlightenment. When this happens, they leave the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and they are not reincarnated again. This applies to Gautama Siddhartha, the most recent Buddha and the individual commonly referred to as "the Buddha." According to religious teaching, then, it would be impossible for Bomjan to be the actual reincarnation of Gautama, or of any Buddha. In fact, Bomjan himself has said, "Tell people not to call me the Buddha."

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Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. Follow her on Twitter.

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Whether Bomjan could have a legitimate claim to being a new Buddha depends on your school of thought. There are two main types of BuddhismMahayana and Theravada. Mahayana Buddhists, who predominate in Bomjan's homeland of Nepal, believe that anyone has the potential to become a Buddha. To go this route, Bomjan would have to devote his life to meditating and overcoming earthly desires, angers, and cravings; once he experienced this state, known as bodhi, he would become a Buddha. Bomjan might also be a bodhisattva—a person dedicated to bodhi who has the potential to be a Buddha in a future lifetime and is dedicated to teaching others. (The Dalai Lama is considered to be a reincarnation of a bodhisattva.) In Tibet, more than 200 people are viewed as reincarnations of spiritual-knowledge seekers.

In contrast, Theravada Buddhists believe that there cannot be another Buddha until the teachings of the previous Buddha have been completely forgotten. (Most Buddhists believe that Guatama was simply the most recent and best-remembered of 28 Buddhas, many of whom lived billions of years ago.Other sects put the number of enlightened ones at five, seven, or thousands.) Because Gautama Siddhartha's teachings are still known, Theravada Buddhists would not believe that Bomjan—or any other contemporary person—could be a Buddha.

If Bomjan is trying to become a Buddha in the Mahayana sense in this life, he'll have to demonstrate that he is an old soul who possesses the 10 spiritual characteristics of a Buddha, which include being an "unsurpassed knower of the world." A Buddha would also be free from suffering and desire. There's no rigid test for these characteristics, but enlightened ones are also supposed to possess 32 signature physical characteristics, including 40 teeth and body hair that curls clockwise.

Bomjan's followers claim that before his disappearance, he spent 10 months meditating under a tree without eating, drinking, or defecating, proving his spiritual ability to overcome his body. Skeptics have noted, however, that Bomjan's followers shielded him from public view each night of his fast, making it impossible for independent observers to validate these claims. Furthermore, Bomjan has said that he intends to pray for six years; if true, this would allow his followers to draw a further parallel between him and Gautama, who spent six years on a quest for enlightenment.

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Explainer thanksTodd Lewis of the College of the Holy Cross, Donald Lopez of the University of Michigan, and Katia Buffetrille of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.