“My Reincarnation” has its TV premiere on PBS June 21, 2012 and is available on-demand from June 22 to September 20, 2012. The DVD is available through Netflix and Amazon.com.
By Jana J. Monji
My friend once subjected me and a few other classmates to a long afternoon playing a Japanese board game about reincarnation. Each player started out as a single-celled organism and after two hours, none of us had achieved the level of a mammal or even being human. The lesson? Becoming human isn’t easy and staying human isn’t either in Buddhist thought. Once you get to that level, you want to make an effort to stay there. To a certain extent, Jennifer Fox’s engrossing documentary, “My Reincarnation,” is about how one earns one’s right to remain human as well as where does one go from there, but on a more intimate level, this documentary is about a father and son and the transmission and preservation of a spiritual and cultural tradition.
“My Reincarnation” is the kind of documentary that took shape over two decades of observing its subjects without a particular theme in mind. In 1985, the 28-year-old Fox decided to take time off from filmmaking. Over the next four years, she worked as Dzogchen teacher Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s secretary. Although she went back to making documentaries such as the 1987 “Beirut: The Last Home Movie” which won the Grand Jury Prize and Cinematography Award at Sundance, she returned sporadically to film Norbu, and in doing so, also captured the maturing and transformation of Yeshi, Norbu’s oldest child.
Japanese Buddhism has given Americans a handy term for using intuition and becoming one with an activity as in the zen of anything. Zen Buddhism actually originated in China as Chan and Zen is the Japanese pronunciation. Yet Buddhism originated in India and only came to Japan in 552. Buddhism came to Tibet in 173 and eventually divided into four main schools: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Nyingma is the oldest of the four, beginning in the eighth century. In Japan and Tibet as well as other Asian countries there were holy wars fueled by rivalry between the original native religion and Buddhism, and later, between different schools of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhist Lama Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal unified various warring kingdoms into a single nation state of Bhutan in the 1630s and attempted to establish a separate cultural identity for the Bhutanese, apart from Tibet. Although Bhutan was dominated by Kagyu sects under Shabdrung there was religious tolerance to the extent that the Nyingma sect was allowed to continue practicing and in 1627 when the Portuguese Jesuit priests were his guests, he offered to support their teaching (although they decided to push on to Tibet).
Gelug was founded in the late 1300s and rose to be the dominant school in Tibet during the 16th century. In his 14th incarnation, the current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso is the high lama of the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also believed to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
After winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, he was the subject of Martin Scorsese’s 1997 biopic “Kundun,” For most Americans, he is the face of Tibetan Buddhism.
Two other movies in the 1990s dealt Tibet. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1993 “Little Buddha” provided moviegoers with a glimpse of Tibetan Buddhism with its fictional story that used real Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders such as the late Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen (Gelug) as an actor and Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (Sakya) as the movie’s consultant. The story was about an American boy who is found to the reincarnation of a Buddhist teacher.
The 1997 Brad Pitt movie, “Seven Years in Tibet” was based on the true experiences of Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter who were in Tibet between 1944 and 1951. Harrer taught the Dalai Lama English and geography and remained friends with him after they both fled Tibet.
In exile, commonalities often outweigh differences and this might be the case with Tibetan Buddhism. The title of Chögyal signifies that Namkhai Norbu is recognized as the mindstream emanation of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Namkhai Norbu is Tibetan for Jewel of the Sky. In the documentary, you’ll also hear the term rinpoche used, which means “precious one” and the term refers to Tibetan lamas and respected teachers, especially reincarnated lamas.
Recognized as the mindstream emanation of a famous Dzogchen teacher at age 2 and then as the mindstream emanation of Shabrung at 5, Norbu was taken from his family to live and learn in a monastery. The experience must not have been pleasant because in the documentary Yeshi recalls that when he was bad, Norbu threatened to send Yeshi to a monastery.
Norbu was in Sikkim, India, when the current Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, and the Communist Chinese cracked down against the Tibetan anti-Chinese uprising in 1959. Professor Giuseppe Tucci invited him to teach in Rome. In 1962, Norbu moved to Naples where he taught Tibetan studies until 1992.
Instead of becoming a monk, Norbu met and married an Italian woman and had a son, Yeshi, and a daughter. He also began teaching Dzogchen. Dzogchen is the natural condition of the mind according to Tibetan Buddhism and means “great perfection.” It is the central teaching of the Nyingma school and is supposed to be the highest path to enlightenment. Not all Tibetan schools of Buddhism agree with the teachings Dzogchen, but the Dalai Lama who appears in the documentary has supported Norbu’s efforts.
Although the Dalai Lama has created controversy by stepping into an internal dispute between two sects of Kagyu, and for his relationship with the CIA, he and Norbu both work to preserve the Tibetan culture. Norbu comments, “I must save my culture and Dzogchen teachings.”
Such a spiritual and cultural crusade has its price. Yeshi, who along with Norbu narrate this film, remembers that he used to see his father about once a year for three or four days and explained that Norbu “doesn’t understand the concept of being a father and son.” His father, he complains, treats me like the son of a master and “not like father and son of an Italian family.” When his father was home, “it was like a happening,” and there were always many people visiting them.
Yeshi was recognized as the reincarnation of his father’s uncle, Khyentse, who died in a Communist Chinese prison. Raised learning both about Buddhism from his father and Catholicism from Italian nuns, the young 18-year-old Yeshi in 1989 rejects notions of reincarnation and even his Tibetan heritage. He tells Fox, “I don’t want this responsibility mostly. I’m afraid of it. ”
One revealing moment we see the pained look in Norbu’s face when he asks his son, “Do you know what it means in Tibetan?” and the callous Yeshi replies, “I don’t care.”
Yet as time passes, Yeshi finds a corporate job, he marries and has children. The stress from his work takes its toll and he decompresses in the manner his father taught, through Buddhism. As a father, he begins to understand his father. Without the hierarchy of the traditional Tibetan institutions and monasteries, Yeshi also sees the potential problems in the organizational structure of his father’s Dzogchen teachings and is able to bring corporate structure in an attempt prevent splintering into different schools and the alienation resulting from increased distance between student and teacher.
The protagonists of “Little Buddha” and the “Seven Years in Tibet” were outsiders looking at Tibet, and “Kundun” was less a portrait of a man, but more of what Roger Ebert called “an act of devotion.” Ebert complained, “there is rarely the sense that a living, breathing and (dare I say?) fallible human inhabits the body of the Dalai Lama.”
As Norbu advises, “Everything is an illusion, just a dream” and we must open our eyes and see our true selves. Fox shows us the true selves of Norbu and Yeshi.
With “My Reincarnation,” we see Tibet from the eyes of the exile Norbu and then from the viewpoint of a man who is both outsider and insider, his son Yeshi. Fox’s access into the private lives of Norbu and Yeshi allows us to see their disappointments, their moments of joyful tenderness, their simplicity while performing mundane tasks, and their frailty when facing obstacles.
In Buddhism, those who attain enlightenment can chose not to enter nirvana and instead, act as bodhisattvas and help others along the path. Being the reincarnation of a great teacher carries a heavy responsibility. Now 73, Norbu’s time on earth is drawing to an end and the continuity of both his knowledge of Dzogchen as well as his understanding of Tibetan culture will depend upon Yeshi. Fox’s “My Reincarnation” records a personal story of Tibet and a father and son and their faith in Buddha and each other. Being human is an honor and it isn’t easy.