My Reincarnation

My Reincarnation

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by John Prendergast

(available via Netflix streaming and DVD)

This may be one the most unusual father-son films ever made. Certainly it is the most unusual great uncle – grand nephew movie, if such movies exist. Jennifer Fox, the noted documentary film-maker, was also the personal secretary of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche – one of the first Tibetan teachers to bring Dzogchen teachings to the west. Fox was given free access to film Norbu publicly and privately over a twenty year period, including intimate scenes from his family life in Italy. She initially intended to document Norbu’s wisdom teachings, however, after eighteen years of filming she suddenly realized that she had a completely different story on her hands.

This is no ordinary family. After fleeing Tibet, Norbu settles in Naples, marries an Italian woman and fathers two children. However, being deeply dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture and spiritual teachings, he is away from home teaching for all but three or four days a year. The result is a son, Yeshe, who feels no emotional connection with his father and freely expresses his disappointment on film. Significantly complicating matters is the fact that a high Tibetan lama has told Norbu that his son is the reincarnation of Norbu’s maternal uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche, a highly venerated lama.

Yeshe wants nothing to do with it. “I don’t want to be the shadows of someone or something else. I want to be myself,” he tells the film-maker. Although at age five Yeshe had vivid visions and dreams of Tibet, as a young man he questions and discounts them. He also confides that he fears the responsibility that would come if he accepts being a reincarnation of his great uncle. To his credit, Norbu never pushes his son to study Tibetan teachings or adopt any practice. He trusts that if Yeshe is the reincarnation of Khyentse, it will manifest of its own.

Yeshe takes the path of being an ordinary householder, starting a family and becoming an IT specialist for various companies in Italy, including IBM. As his life becomes increasingly busy and stressful, he adopts Tibetan practices for peace of mind. In his early thirties he begins to help organize his father’s sprawling organization and immerses himself in Dzogchen teachings. His childhood visions resume and six years later, Yeshe very quietly agrees to go to Tibet and accept his enthronement as Khyentse’s reincarnation.

In one of the most moving segments of the film, Yeshe recognizes that many of his earlier dreams and visions were of the site he is now visiting, which had been built only three years before; he realizes that he had been seeing his future, not his past. Yeshe returns to Italy “radiant” according to Fox and begins to formally teach. Interestingly, he seems to bring a warmer, more emotionally attuned and expressive response to his western students than does his father, a lighthouse of wisdom. This seems understandable given that Norbu was separated from his family at a very young age, taken to a monastery, and introduced into a severe renunciate lifestyle that included beatings to instill discipline. Further, most of Norbu’s family had died at the hands of the Chinese.

While My Reincarnation explores the mystery of reincarnation in a compelling fashion, it also explores the greater mystery of incarnation – what it means to be a fully authentic human being. Wrestling with his unsettling visions and the desire to lead an ordinary life, Yeshe insists upon following his own path of individuation, uninterested in becoming a representative of anyone or anything else. When he eventually returns to the profound nondual teachings of Dzogchen, he is mature and ready to receive and to make them his own. In the tender final scene, the elder Norbu plays a plastic flute at home and exclaims in Italian,“Damn. I messed up…. since the beginning. Instead of being a Dzogchen teacher, I could have been a musician … It’s much easier.”Chuckling, Yeshe responds,“Young people make these mistakes. For the mistakes of your youth, you pay your whole life.”

About John Prendergast

John J. Prendergast, Ph.D. is the editor-in-chief of Undivided: The Online Journal of Nonduality and Psychology, the senior editor of two anthologies on the subject of nondual wisdom and psychotherapy – The Sacred Mirror (with Peter Fenner and Sheila Krystal) and Listening from the Heart of Silence (with Ken Bradford),  and has been a student of nondual teachings since reading the works of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj over thirty years ago and then studying with the European sage Jean Klein from 1983 until his death in 1998 and with Adyashanti since 2001. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at CIIS and a psychotherapist in private practice in San Rafael. He also leads several private self-inquiry groups. Please see for more information.

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6 Responses to My Reincarnation

  1. cam tonin says:

    i may be off but reincarnation seems to be like adding peel upon peels of skin onto an onion…it seems you get further from the source rather than getting closer to it…..most of those i have talked to seem more interested in previous lives than what they really are…stuck in the illusion of a reflection……but i guess in the end it still brings you where your supposed to be…..but it does feel reincarnation is a game we all love to play……

    • Hi Cam,

      I would agree that a fascination with reincarnation is a distraction – another layer of the onion as you suggest. What interested me most about this unusual film was the challenge of living authentically given the particular situation that Yeshe faced. Have you watched the film? If not, do so and let me know how it strikes you.

      warmly, John

  2. Thanks for this review, John, and for the Journal as a whole.
    Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Yet I also had a reaction that I hadn’t expected: a sense of discomfort with hierarchical structuring in Tibetan culture, and with the project of having so many very young people become monks even before they know whether they are ready for that or not.
    In that latter sense, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche really did an excellent job, not forcing his son before he was ready to enter the work. But still there was a strange coldness in the relationship, it felt to me, for all the perhaps greatness of the man.

  3. I appreciate your comment, Elizabeth. Norbu’s lack of emotional warmth also struck me. It is interesting that the development of profound wisdom does not necessarily translate into emotional maturity and availability. It seems to me that a full human flowering requires both. What are your thoughts, feelings and insights about this?

  4. Yes, I completely agree. We must not retreat from that even when the so-called “masters” are teaching. And we must teach ourselves about the downsides of idealization which prevents people from seeing this, and to trust their hearts. Thanks again, John.

  5. Greg Dandeneau says:

    Hello John, thanks so much for the movie review/recommendation. Fiona and I loved it and there was much to learn and ideas and assumptions to let go of. At first I was particularly interested in the reincarnation aspect of it but I loved where the movie went. It brought the glories and glamor of past lives right down to the dirty dishes and diapers of the mundane – absolutely beautiful. After my own ‘download’ of incarnations in my earlier years, I thought, hmmm. I could argue that reincarnation exists and equally does not exist because the ‘high voltage’ attachments of my past are still affecting me seriously now, although some I have been able to let go of just from the initial ‘seeing’. Past life recalls, I think, are delicate ground because of their intimate nature and a double edge sword: a valuable tool for healing and can assist in seeing through illusions and attachments but at the same time create them. The movie, for me, also helps to normalize reincarnation. But it is a topic that the ego loves to chew on, mine included, – like a huge stick of gum that really gives no life sustenance. Only interesting flavors, a sugar high, and big bubbles with hot air!
    Thanks John, love the Journal!
    And I imagine the picture is in my beloved Sierra Nevada’s?

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