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Searching for a reincarnated Buddhist master

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DVD Review: ‘Unmistaken Child.’ Written, directed and produced by Nati Baratz. 90 minutes.

Does a baby really know he has lived before? And that he’s a spiritual master?

That’s the question asked — but not necessarily answered — in Unmistaken Child, a documentary on the death and purported rebirth of Geshe Lama Konchog, a revered Tibetan Buddhist monk. The story aired on PBS’ show “Independent Lens” in 2010, but you can get the DVD via amazon.com.

Tenzin Nyudrup examines a Buddha statuette in 'Unmistaken Child.' Courtesy Independent Television Service

The film opens on a young monk scampering up a hill, avoiding large tree roots and ducking horizontal lines of prayer flags. Tenzin Zopa isn’t just wandering: He arrives and kneels at the large stone grave of his mentor, Konchog, who has just died. After two decades, Zopa is left alone.

He goes to Dharamsala, India, and tells a superior of perceived “pearl relics” and patterns in the ashes after the geshe’s cremation. The man then commissions Zopa, as Konchog’s closest disciple, to find the child. Zopa is surprised and uncertain but accepts.

He consults the abbot of the Kopan Monastery near Kathmandu, Nepal, where Konchog spent his last 16 years. The abbot in turn asks advice from an astrologer on Taiwan. The man consults charts and maps — and writes on an Etch-A-Sketch — and decides that Konchog will be reincarnated in the Tsum Valley, a region of Nepal bordering Tibet where Konchog used to live in a cave. It’s also where Zopa was born.

So begins a four-year trek, by helicopter as well as by foot. As we follow the monk, director-producer Nati Baratz treats us to sights of the ancient yet wild land: gray rocks splashed with greenery, narrow footpaths on the sides of rugged mountains, narrow bridges crossing rushing streams. Peasants gather hay or plant rice on neatly terraced hillsides.

Zopa methodically pursues his duties, visiting sturdy, low-roofed houses, handing out candy and blowing up balloons for children. He asks around for who has had a child in the last year and a half. He asks the children if they recognize prayer beads that belonged to his master.

Only once does he let his feelings show, when he visits the abandoned cave Konchog inhabited. He starts to comment, then stops and hides his tears in his hand.

Finally he gets an apparent “hit,” as he shows the beads to a young boy, Tenzin Nyudrup. The kid immediately cries and reaches for them, then keeps a grip on them when Zopa tries to take them back.

The boy’s parents bring him to the monastery in Nepal, where two rinpoches — who themselves believe they are reborn Buddhist masters — lay beads, handbells, hand drums and vajras on a table. Tenzin’s father asks him to pick up the items he used in his previous life. He does choose the right ones, but wait: Did the father guide his hand? Hmmm.

But the Dalai Lama accepts the rinpoches’ recommendation, and Zopa brings the child to southern India, where the Buddhist leader is teaching. In songs and elaborate ceremonies, Tenzin is enthroned on a large pillow and renamed Tenzin Phuntsok.

Back in the Tsum Valley, the tactful Lobsang shows the Dalai Lama’s confirmation letter to the the young parents and asks if they could release Tenzin to life in a monastery. They reluctantly consent, then bring him to the Kopan Monastery near Kathmandu, Nepal, where he is seated on a golden pillow for a reception.

How does the kid take all this? With bewilderment. He knits his brow at the adulation. He howls as his scalp gets a monkish shave. And he cries as his parents leave him at the monastery, perhaps never to see him again. He does enjoy the Christmas-size load of toys he gets at the monastery.

His main companion now is Zopa, who “discovered” him in the first place. The film ends with an odd role reversal, the disciple serving as guide and guardian of the young child his master has become.

Unmistaken Child is at once evocative, intriguing and troubling. Evocative in showing the human side of Tibetan Buddhism. Intriguing in showing the complex efforts of finding a new leader. Troubling in showing the emotional wrenches of the process, both for the child and his parents.

Still, it’s been a way of life in southern Asia since before the birth of Christ, and people just accept it. I recently met a Tibetan who became a Buddhist monk 22 years ago — at the age of 10. He insisted he chose freely, even at that age.

“You grow up with temples and monasteries all around you,” he explained. “You see monks and respect their way of life.”

And the new rinpoche does seem to have adjusted. An epilog, shows him talking amicably with Zopa. The guardian shows him photos of Lama Konchog as a man and a child. “Both of them are me,” the boy says confidently.

Tenzin Phuntsok Rinpoche is still at Kopan Monastery and even has his own blog, although it’s apparently written by someone else. The blog says the boy, now 9 years old, loves budhas and stupas, recites a mantra to put himself to sleep, and shows “compassion and concern” for the sick and the poor.

You can see more on PBS’ Unmistaken Child webpage. The film has its own website as well.

James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

March 11, 2012 at 4:27 am

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