by John Prendergast
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.”