It is a common practice worldwide to transfer property or other material assets to someone either in one’s lifetime itself or leave a Will to do so after one’s death. But is it possible to transfer one’s personality or non-material assets such as knowledge or thoughts to another person or persons, either in one’s lifetime itself or after one’s death? The answer is an amazing “yes”. How? Through a process called “emanation”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “emanation” as: to come out from a source, to send something out : to give out something. Moreover, that it applies to the coming of something immaterial such as a thought from a source. According to Wikipedia, one early Buddhist text, the Samaññaphala Sutta, lists the ability to create a “mind-made body” or manomāyakāya or as one of the “fruits of the contemplative life”.

Commentarial texts such as the Patisambhidamagga and the Visuddhimagga state that this mind-made body is how Gautama Buddha and arhats are able to travel into heavenly realms using the continuum of the mindstream or citta-santāna and it is also used to explain the multiplication miracle of the Buddha as illustrated in the Divyavadana, in which the Buddha multiplied his emanation body or nirmita into countless other bodies which filled the sky. A Buddha or other realised being is able to project many such nirmitas simultaneously in an infinite variety of forms in different realms simultaneously. The Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu defined nirmita as a siddhi or psychic power developed through Buddhist discipline, concentrated discipline or samadhi and wisdom in his seminal work on Buddhist philosophy, the Abhidharmakośa.

It is believed that enlightened minds can emanate in many forms, animate and inanimate, at the same time. For instance, the current 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader-in-exile, is considered to be an emanation-reincarnation or tulku of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  The mindstream of Chenrizig can emanate it is said as the incarnation of the current 14th Dalai Lama, and at the same time, this mindstream of Chenrizig can emanate as an incarnation of another lay person somewhere else or another object concurrently.

The Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia says that one of the powers of an enlightened mind is the ability to spontaneously emanate itself through the power of its altruistic intention. Hence, Manjushri, a Bodhisattva associated with prajñā or insight in Mahayana Buddhism could simultaneously emanate as Kalarupa, Yamantaka, Lama Tsongkhapa, Dorje Shugden and countless millions of emanations throughout the 3 realms.

Called Nirmanakaya in Sanskrit, there are two types—the Supreme Emanation Body and the ordinary Emanation Body. The first type can be seen only by those who have pure karma, and the second can be seen by anyone.  In the Meeting of Father and Son Sutra Buddha Shakyamuni says: Buddhas manifest in many different aspects such as Brahma, Indra, and sometimes even as a mara or in the aspect of an evil person, but worldly people do not recognise these emanations.

Enlightened minds have been known to emanate even as a bridge to help people. There is the oft cited story of how, at one time the great Indian Master, Yogi Phadampa Sangye, journeyed to Tibet. When Milarepa, one of Tibet’s most famous yogis and poets, heard of this great Yogi’s visit he decided to test his realisations. He went to the border and waited for Phadampa Sangye. When he saw him approaching he transformed himself into a flower to see whether Phadampa Sangye had the clairvoyance to see through his disguise. Phadampa Sangye, however, walked past Milarepa, seemingly unaware of his presence. Milarepa thought to himself “This so-called Yogi has no clairvoyance”, whereupon Phadampa Sangye turned round and kicked the flower. ‘Get up Milarepa!’ he said, and Milarepa, delighted to discover that Phadampa Sangye was a genuinely realised being, sprang up in his usual form to greet him.

People often ask whether emanation and reincarnation are the same or different. There is a clear distinction between reincarnation and emanation. Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, a renowned teacher, scholar and tertön of 19th-century Tibet, said: “Reincarnation is what happens when someone takes rebirth after the predecessor’s passing away; emanation is when manifestations take place without the source’s passing away.”

According to Wosel Tenzin who has initiated many incisive discussions on spirituality and Buddhism on the internet and elsewhere, “An emanation is a duplicate of its original.  In Buddhism, for example, we believe that the mind stream of the Dalai Lama is an emanation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion meaning that the Dalai Lama’s mind stream is the same with that of Chenrezig. An incarnation on the other hand is the continuity of a mind stream from previous lives in current life.  For example, the 14th Dalai Lama who is an emanation of Chenrezig is currently in his 14th incarnation in human form. It means that the emanation of Cherenzig took rebirth 14 times in human form.”

Even incarnations such as the Dalai Lama can have emanations. In 2011, the current 14th Dalai Lama suggested for the first time in 600 years his successor might be an emanation and not a reincarnation. Robert J. Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University in New York, commented that “The concept of emanation is not a new theory or practice and is already well known in Tibetan Buddhism, with many high lamas also considered to be emanations.”  Many, including Barnett believe that for the Dalai Lama, emanating rather than reincarnating might be preferable because it is more flexible. A successor could be identified while the Dalai Lama is still alive, since a lama can have multiple emanations during a lifetime. An emanated successor may be recognised in one of three ways, explained Barnett: belonging to the same mind stream as his or her predecessor, having close connections through karma and prayers, or being appointed. Today, some futurists are focusing on downloading the mind’s thoughts without the physical body being present while scientists are preserving brains and searching for ways to resurrect a dead person’s mind with all its thoughts and memories. Without doubt, such exploratory endeavours would gain from interacting with living masters or actual representatives of age old phenomena like emanation. As the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia points out, there is no limit but the limitations of our tiny minds.