By Abigail Lewis
Khyentse Yeshi, son of Tibetan master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, may be the reincarnation of an uncle who died in detention in Tibet, but he’s an acne-ridden young rebel when we meet him in Jennifer Fox’s movie, My Reincarnation. The film is as much about the young man as it is about his father, and as much about the human path as it is about Buddhism.
Norbu is a renowned teacher and scientific researcher in the Dzogchen tradition who fled Tibet when “the Chinese troubles” began, created a family in Italy, and continued to teach Dzogchen. Having a renowned Tibetan lama for a father might seem glamorous (especially when the Dalai Lama is a personal friend), but with Norbu traveling almost constantly and their home continually awash with students, young Yeshi longed for something more “normal.” In this film, Fox gives us an intimate glimpse into the life of this extraordinary family.
WLT: How did you feel about being filmed?
Yeshi: When you already have students in your house, it doesn’t make much difference. We were already in the public eye. Students demand the presence of the teacher. It’s not a matter of being public or private, but more accessible.
As a child, did you ever get angry at this father for your difficult family life?
There were more simple things that made us angry. For example, holding the remote for the TV. This is normal. Getting angry for something else is not correct, because each of us has his own nature.
Seeing your father’s humanity, that he naps or struggles in the water, will this serve Dzogchen?
As long as we are on this earth, teaching the teachings of Buddha or enlightenment doesn’t change our physical condition, we remain human. So seeing or not seeing doesn’t change very much.
You worked in business for a number of years before becoming a teacher. Has that been useful?
In the typical Italian business context, half of the time you are dealing with problems that are personal, not directly related to profit. So you are using holistic methods. Most of the time my activities were to make people change their organizational practice and better accept new ideas. For Italians, religion and food are more important, not how much profit we get and how efficient we are. It’s not just about money. There isn’t a distinction between work and practice, or work and spirituality.
How did you feel being honored and welcome by the Tibetan people?
The first time I went I was very young, and the people were in strong repression and could not show any kind of respect. But one day in front of the main monastery in Lhasa, we were dressed as foreigners but some older women started shouting “He’s a teacher, he’s a teacher.” After five minutes my father was almost under arrest. In 2007, without such strong conflict and repression, this kind of welcome is absolutely ordinary. When you are a teacher, they do enthronement—the teacher takes his place in his own monastery. So this is something I celebrated. It’s quite common. When a reincarnation is enthroned, takes his place in the monastery, his duty is not so much to teach, but to earn money for the monastery. This is different from teaching, it is earning money for the monastic system. I didn’t wish to do this kind of thing. Tradition relating to knowledge, this I like.
Do you think the film will help people to understand Dzogchen?
People are always searching for some deep meaning, something that transcends their condition of life and existence, but this doesn’t make much sense. Existence is already self-perfected by its own nature. Just because someone is alive doesn’t mean he needs to find a meaning. It’s a completely difference perspective, finding meaning and being happy—they have no relationship, these two things. If you are happy, you are happy; you don’t need a meaning or reason to be happy.
How do you feel about taking over leadership in the Tibetan community?
HH has already pointed out two boys who are a younger reincarnation, because he doesn’t want to continue the system of reincarnation. He prefers there be one or two persons who have knowledge and respect, take care of the future of Tibetans and so on. The world is very big; all need something spiritual. So is not important to have one unique lineage. Two teachers are better than one. Two thousand are better than two.
Color photos courtesies Luigi OttavianiBuddhism, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen, Khyentse Yeshi, reincarnation, Tibet