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Father and son: joined yet separated by their faith

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TV review: ‘My Reincarnation.’ 86 minutes. Airdate: 10 p.m. eastern time on PBS (check local listings).

Detachment is the route to nirvana, according to the Buddha. But in a western Buddhist family, it’s also a road into the generation gap.

My Reincarnation, kicking off the 21st year of PBS’ POV series, is a quiet yet classic look into the meaning of life and human nature, told through the story of a Tibetan Buddhist guru and his Italian-born son. In the process, it explores issues of destiny versus autonomy, heritage versus individual freedom.

Namkhai Norbu explains the meaning of the Purba (ritual knife) to his son, Yeshi. (Zohe Film Productions Inc.)

Director-cinematographer Jennifer Fox gives us an extraordinary, 30-year look at the life of Dzogchen Buddhist master Namkhai Norbu and his son Yeshi, living in Italy. Yeshi has the simultaneous fortune and misfortune to be the son of a revered teacher — a Rinpoche, believed to be a reincarnated master. Better (or worse), Namkhai comes to believe his son is his own reincarnated master and quietly tries to steer him into Buddhist practice.

As do many western sons, Yeshi resists and resents his father’s wishes for him. We see him starting in 1989, more interested in girls than gurus. He also resents how Namkhai flits to various seminars, charming large audiences, while holding his own son at arm’s length.

As Yeshi grows into manhood, he reaches his goals: He marries, has two children and becomes a businessman, often driving around Italy to this or that meeting. Yet the more he achieves, the less it means to him. He even finds himself reciting mantras to a CD as he drives.

He begins sharing his managerial knowledge with his father’s organization, which is experiencing growing pains. And perhaps he gains some understanding of Namkhai’s dilemmas. As he notes in the film: As an organization grows, it puts more distance between a guru and his followers.

Filmmaker Jennifer Fox (Zohe Film Productions Inc.)

Yeshi decides to visit the Tibetan monastery where his alleged previous self taught. He is overwhelmed by the greeting: the colors, the music, the rituals, the elderly followers who have been awaiting the Rinpoche’s return.

That seems to be the tipping point as Yeshi accepts the mantle of teacher. He becomes a close copy of his father, traveling constantly to minister to a growing following. Oddly, it doesn’t draw father and son closer: Namkhai doesn’t applaud Yeshi’s turn of vocation, and the two find little time in their busy schedules to spend together. Tibetan religion and tradition are better for Yeshi’s choice. Personal freedom and happiness, maybe not.

Is this good or bad? Happy or sad? To her credit, filmmaker Fox doesn’t indicate. She leaves the bottom line to us. That’s remarkable for someone who spent four years as Namkhai Norbu’s secretary.

Although My Reincarnation is an outstanding achievement — what sociologists would call a “longitudinal case study” — it leaves one chapter unwritten. What of Yeshi’s own two children? As he emulates his father, flitting around to minister to his followers, do they understand his sense of mission? Or do they feel neglected, abandoned, as he did?

And when they grow up, what will they choose? A life of Buddhist detachment? A western-style pursuit of rewards and relationships? Something else altogether? And will they feel manipulated if, like their dad, one or both are marked as reborn masters?

Jennifer Fox was right. My Reincarnation is not only about the difference in eastern and western values, but about the struggle between father and son. What is life for? Building and nurturing relationships? Or engineering the escape known as nirvana? Do we need to find ourselves or lose ourselves?

You can learn more with these links.

For more on the documentary, including pictures and a description of Dzogchen Buddhism, click the film’s website.

For more on the Norbus, including their schedules and local centers, click this link.

For more on the POV series — and apps to watch My Reincarnation on iPad and iPhone — click here.

James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

June 18, 2012 at 2:41 am

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