My Reincarnation tells of the tireless work of exiled Tibetan Buddhist Master Namkhai Norbu to transmit the highest path of Tibetan Buddhism — called Dzogchen — around the world. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (“Rinpoche” is a Tibetan honorific title for Reincarnate Teachers meaning “precious one”) feels enormous responsibility for keeping an ancient spiritual and cultural tradition alive in the face of a 50-year long diaspora that threatens Tibetan identity.
But Fox’s film goes beyond reporting on the state of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. It enters Namkhai Norbu’s story in unprecedented fashion. Filmed over 20 years, My Reincarnation follows a long, gentle, sometimes amusing, yet intense struggle between him and his Italian-born son, Yeshi. Namkhai Norbu, along with the Tibetan Buddhist community, is convinced Yeshi is the reincarnation of his own master and destined to take up Namkhai Norbu’s work. Yeshi, however, was raised in Italy and feels and looks more like an up-and-coming young businessman than anybody’s spiritual master. Yet he can’t quite turn away from his father’s legacy. There are physical proofs of his reincarnation according to Buddhist tradition and his own spiritual yearnings. And there is the quiet, implacable determination of his father.
Yeshi Namkhai being brought to the monastery of his previous reincarnation where he will be enthroned during a large ceremony. Credit: Luigi Ottaviani
Fox began filming Namkhai Norbu in 1988 when, as a filmmaker and student of the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, she took a four-year sabbatical from filmmaking and worked as his secretary. She started out recording his everyday life, including his work, family and travels, intent on documenting a spiritual life to which she’d been given unusual access. She returned 13 years later, and periodically after that, until 2009, amassing more than 1,000 hours of footage from Italy and the family’s travels all over the world, including Venezuela, Russia and the United States (in Massachusetts and New York).
Using this footage plus archival material, My Reincarnation achieves a remarkably intimate and vivid account of Namkhai Norbu’s life and work. Fleeing Tibet in 1959 in the wake of the Chinese takeover, along with thousands of other Tibetans including the H.H. the Dalai Lama, he settled in Italy, married an Italian woman, Rosa, had two children and began the work that brought him worldwide recognition as a Spiritual Master and Scholar. The film shows 20 years of constant travel as he lectures, counsels, leads ritual Buddhist observances and Tibetan gatherings and hosts the Dalai Lama. He ages, of course, but also appears to take on an extra burdens — not only the hopes, fears and challenges of spiritual seekers and Tibetans scattered in foreign lands, but also the survival of Tibetan Buddhism itself.
And so a movie-within-the-movie unfolds, because the struggle to preserve Tibetan Buddhism — to pass it on as a living legacy — extends to Namkhai Norbu’s family. Tibetan Buddhism depends greatly on unbroken lines of reincarnated lamas, who continue to teach and interpret the scriptures. Namkhai Norbu is himself a reincarnate master, and Yeshi, his first-born son, was recognized from birth as the reincarnation of his great-uncle, another famous Buddhist master, who died imprisoned by the Chinese after their invasion of Tibet. Various traditional proofs of reincarnation, particularly involving a child’s familiarity with the late lama’s objects, convinced not only Namkhai Norbu but also other Tibetans that Yeshi is a reincarnate master. The only one who isn’t convinced is Yeshi himself.
Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in his favorite pastime, swimming in the water. Credit: Zohe Film Productions, Inc.
Yeshi is first seen in My Reincarnation as an intense, intelligent 18-year-old (he ages to 39 and Namkhai Norbu ages from 49 to 70 in the film) listening to his father’s teaching or helping with ceremonies, but hanging on the margins of events. Later, he’s an intense, intelligent young man on a fast-track to business success and all the things this can bring in Western society. Alternately amused and awe-struck by his Tibetan status, he can’t quite shake the overwhelming implications of it. He’s drawn along in his father’s wake but resists all the way. He doesn’t want to take up Buddhist study or teaching or to go to Tibet, as his father urges. Yeshi is especially unnerved by the idea of visiting the very monastery where his great-uncle had been master and where students await Yeshi as their master’s reincarnation.
One of the delights of My Reincarnation is sharing Yeshi’s views of his father and thoughts about the spiritual legacy to which he is heir. Even more striking is witnessing Yeshi’s spiritual evolution, the highlight of which is his visit to the Tibetan monastery of his great uncle, where the local monks and villagers greet him with ancient ceremony and respect as their reincarnate Master. Such a profound demonstration of faith and spiritual continuity cannot help but have a great impact on Yeshi, and begins to awaken the heir to Namkhai Norbu’s great mission.