My Reincarnation builds its story through a creative weave of archival film, still photographs, and over 900 hours of High-8 and DVCAM footage shot from 1988 to the present. The film is a journey across the globe documenting one man’s unusual effort to transplant his spiritual heritage, including footage from over thirteen countries. By any measure, it’s a massive undertaking.
We caught up with Jennifer Fox about My Reincarnation as she was completing editing in Zurich, Switzerland; here, in her own words:
I met Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche in 1985 when I was twenty-five years old and became his student. At age twenty-eight, I took a much needed hiatus from filmmaking to travel with him on and off for four years as his secretary. During that time, I began to film his everyday life—his family, his teaching, and his Western students—from an insider’s perspective. In 1992, I went back to work to make my next film and put aside the early footage of Rinpoche while I remained his student. I didn’t feel I had enough of a story to make a film, and I questioned how to convey the spiritual on film. After many requests to continue this film, I finally agreed to pick up the camera again years later, in the new millennium. Rinpoche had suffered many illnesses. I knew there weren’t many years left to tell his story, nor would he allow another filmmaker inside his private life and family. It was clear I was the only one who could make a film about him.
There was also another change on the horizon. When I filmed Rinpoche from 1988 to 1992, I filmed his son Yeshi as well, from age 18 to 22. When Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche escaped Tibet, he settled in Italy, where he married and had two children; Yeshi was the first. Yeshi was recognized as the reincarnation of Rinpoche’s uncle, a famous Dzogchen master, who had died after Rinpoche escaped and the Chinese invaded Tibet. Yeshi grew up in Italy and never wanted to have anything to do with this legacy. He didn’t want to be a teacher like his father, nor did he want to return to Tibet and the monastery of Rinpoche’s uncle, to meet the students waiting for him since his birth. Yeshi and I discussed this dilemma during this period. I thought the best container for the film would be a father-son story and told Yeshi so. But Yeshi insisted that the father-son story I wanted to tell, in which the son rejects his father’s spiritual heritage only to return to Tibet and “awaken,” would never happen.
The years passed, and Yeshi went on to do exactly what he said he wanted to do, have a normal life. He married, had two children, and became a business consultant. I filmed him along the way as he intersected with his father’s life, never expecting that anything would change. But now, amazingly, the story I dreamed of has begun to happen, and by filming over so many years I have been able to capture it. It is now a story that can be told on film. I know that with this last dramatic turn of events in this father-son story, I have a unique “story container” to carry the issues of cultural survival in exile and to demonstrate the value of this rare spiritual tradition.
I feel this film is extremely important today for three main reasons. First, the question of whether spiritual culture can be transplanted is foremost in many people’s minds as they watch Chinese rule forcefully eradicate Tibetan culture and autonomy. This film answers that question and gives hope for the survival of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Second, there is a real thirst for stories that offer an alternative to a world fraught with violence and fear, and it has come to my attention that there are almost no good spiritual films today. The difficult challenge remains: to convey the nature of spirituality, thus allowing the audience to appreciate the value of a spiritual path, in the context of a compelling story. Third, now is an important moment for Tibet, as the last of the great non-monastic Tibetan trained reincarnate teachers (called “Rinpoche”) remain alive; if we don’t capture some of their true spiritual heritage now – more than just a few esoteric scenes, but a living tradition – it will be lost forever.
CHOGYAL NAMKHAI NORBU
Born in Tibet in 1938 to a nomad family, Norbu was recognized as the reincarnation of the Dharmaraja of Bhutan at age five and taken to the royal palace in Derge to be trained as a spiritual leader. He went through the traditional course of rigorous monastic study and became a renowned scholar at the young age of thirteen. But driven by the desire for a more profound spiritual understanding, at seventeen he met the man who would become his “root guru” in an unusual village of lay practitioners. Changchub Dorje would help him awaken to the real meaning of Dzogchen. From that moment on, Norbu began to understand the failings of the hierarchical monastery system, often driven by intellectual knowledge, prestige, money, and power, rather than real spiritual development. After only one year with his teacher, the Chinese invasion forced him to flee his homeland, leaving behind Changchub Dorje, his family and friends, and delivered him to his unlikely destination, Italy.
In the West, Norbu shed the usual roles of a Buddhist master, refusing to teach any spiritual practices. Determined not to support himself from the Dharma, he took an ordinary job as a university professor, married, and had a family. But after years of requests from students all over the world and motivated by the fear that his sacred Dzogchen teachings would be lost forever, he finally accepted his calling. He vowed to teach Dzogchen as he had learned from Changchub Dorje, in the most essential way, without the hierarchical trappings of the system with which he had grown up. He refused to make a barrier between himself and his new students. He sat with them, ate with them, worked with them, and taught them all hours of the day and night.
We see Rinpoche working an ordinary job as a Professor of Eastern Languages in Naples, at home in a small two room apartment with his family, greeting growing crowds of students in counties across the world, preparing and welcoming his friend H. H. the Dalai Lama, facing cancer, considering his coming death, liberating through spiritual practices, and teaching at all times, with endless methods, and in all circumstances – in cars, trains, planes, at lunch, in the water, at play, at work, and at home.
Young Yeshi feels his father pressured him to take up the mantle of his uncle, yet Norbu Rinpoche says the opposite: Seeing his son’s rejection of his role only further convinces Norbu that he is in fact his reincarnation – since, when alive, his uncle hated the role of teacher in the monastery system. Namkhai Norbu pledges to wait for his son’s change of heart and continued relentlessly on his mission to pass on the Dzogchen teachings.
When Rinpoche’s efforts seem to be failing most, his son Yeshi finds himself changing; he begins to have signs of his own reincarnation. He decides to return to Tibet to the monastery waiting for him since his birth. There he has a spiritual awakening and realizes the necessity to become a teacher himself and help save his father’s work. He begins to travel and teach Dzogchen, providing a powerful narrative twist at the end of the story.
Buddhist Film Foundation, Inc. is a fiscal sponsor of My Reincarnation.