Born to be a Buddhist master

The PBS documentary "My Reincarnation" tells the story of a young man believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist master.
The PBS documentary "My Reincarnation" tells the story of a young man believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist master.
Posted: June 21, 2012

PBS initiates the 25th season of its always-provocative documentary series POV with a film at once prosaic and hypnotic.

My Reincarnation, from documentarian Jennifer Fox (Beirut: The Last Home Movie), is the story of a man who wants his only son to take up the family business.

It's somewhat complicated because the man, Choegyai Namkhai Norbu, is an exiled Tibetan master, a renowned teacher of the Dzogchen path of Buddhism.

His son, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai, grows up in Italy with very different values than his father. Everyone tells him how lucky he is to have Norbu, who is hailed rapturously as "Rinpoche" (Precious) everywhere he goes, as a parent.

All Yeshi knows is that his father is on the road lecturing all the time and that in those rare times he is home, they barely speak. Rinpoche was taken from his own parents when he was 6 and placed in a strict monastery, so he's not the bonding type.

To compound that, conversation gets even trickier when your spiritual masters inform you that your acne-battling son is, in fact, the reincarnation of your uncle Khyentse, a highly revered teacher of Dzogchen who died while imprisoned by the Chinese.

Somehow, "You feel like going out for gelati?" just doesn't cut it.

What makes My Reincarnation extraordinary is its immersive quality. Fox patiently tracks the father-son dynamic over the course of 20 years, filming them together and apart in 1989, 2002, 2007, and 2009.

We watch the men travel their own journeys, wanting to be heard while trying to respect each other's choices. There are also two charming cameos by the Dalai Lama, who passes through their lives, chortling.

Because of his Western upbringing, Yeshi, now 42, has the more dramatic passage through time, beginning with his dashing student days.

"What I want to do is be a photographer and play music," says the watchful young man, who bears a facial resemblance to George Harrison's son Dhani.

What he ends up as is a doting father, taking a stressful job with IBM to pay the bills. Constantly on the road for work, he begins listening to devotional Buddhist materials in the car. Mantras on Tape: For the busy seeker on the go.

It is the beginning of a sea change, as is being a grandfather for Norbu. You can see him delighting in Yeshi's children the way presumably he could not in his own.

So over the course of many years, the father and son each become more of the man the other had hoped he could be.

There is a grand, unexpected climax to My Reincarnation, when Yeshi travels back to Tibet. But to truly relish that, you have to earn it by walking this goat path with Choegyai Namkhai Norbu and his son.

I mean, his uncle.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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