I met Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche in 1985, when I was 25 years old. At age 28, 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 — moments with his family and his teaching — 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.
I kept filming Rinpoche over the ensuing years, but I never felt the hours of footage I was amassing had the makings of a movie, and I wasn’t sure the medium was capable of conveying the spiritual. After many requests from the Dutch Buddhist Film Foundation to continue this film, I was convinced. By then, we had entered a new millennium. I felt ready to face the challenge and, due to Rinpoche’s age, I knew there weren’t many years left to tell his story. He had made clear that no other filmmaker would be allowed access to his private life and family. I was the only one who could make a film about him.
The moment was auspicious, too, because there were changes on the horizon. When I started filming Rinpoche in 1988, I also began filming his son Yeshi, who was then 18. Although it was common wisdom that Yeshi was the reincarnation of Rinpoche’s uncle, a great Buddhist master, Yeshi adamantly resisted that idea and wanted to be left alone to live a normal life. One day in 1989, Yeshi and I were walking together in Rome. Excited by the natural drama of Yeshi’s story, I discussed the potential of filming him returning to Tibet to visit the monastery of his prior self and the people waiting for him since his birth. He was emphatic: “You can film as long as you like, but it will never happen. I will never go back to the monastery in Tibet.” I believed him.
The years passed, and I continued to film Yeshi — who had a growing family and a business career — in the moments when his path intersected with his father’s, never expecting that anything would change. But Yeshi’s story took an amazing turn.
As the father-son relationship evolved, a unique story about cultural survival in exile developed — one that demonstrates the value of this rare spiritual tradition. My aim is not to show Rinpoche’s saintliness (nor his son’s) but both men’s essential, profound humanity and the rich and irreplaceable tradition that they embody as one man inches toward maturity and the other inches toward his inevitable death.
This is a crucial moment for Tibet: Rinpoche is the last of the great non-monastic Tibetan-trained reincarnate teachers. If we don’t capture this spiritual heritage now — not just a few esoteric scenes, but a complete testament to the living tradition — it will be lost forever.
Religion and spirituality are hot button-issues in America and around the world today; all one needs do is to watch the nightly news to see how this is true. In such challenging times, however, it is imperative that a safe space be provided for interfaith discourse, in which the emphasis is placed on unifying those of varying faiths and spiritual paths, rather than dividing them. While My Reincarnation is about a Tibetan Buddhist family, it also explores universal, non-sectarian issues of father-son relationships; the meaning of dreams; death and dying; and the importance of our time on Earth. Buddhism, widely accepted in the West and considered by many to be a spiritual practice or philosophy rather than a religion, is an ideal place from which to start asking the big questions.
— Jennifer Fox, Director/Co-producer/Cinematographer