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✤ I

By Jan Cornall

t’s Tuesday night in Lygon Street, Melbourne, and the little Italy sidewalks are full of shoppers and half price movie goers. We are waiting outside Nova cinema for

the guest of honour to arrive for a sneak preview of a new documentary, My Reincarnation. There is no red carpet, no fanfare, just a small greeting party of students of the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition, some who have travelled interstate for tonight’s screening. A Range Rover pulls up and a Tibetan monk in civvies gets out and places a little wooden stool on the road next to the front passenger door. He opens the car door and offers his arm to the round bodied, grey pony tailed, kind faced Tibetan man whose legs are just too short to reach the ground. If we were in Tibet there would be crowds of low bowing, katak (silk scarf) bearing Tibetans – lamas, monks, nuns, nomad families, lining the route to greet him and receive his blessing. But here in inner city Carlton there are no clues to let passers-by know they are in the presence of a dharmaraja king. Instead of robes this lama wears a comfortable track suit, scarf, baseball cap, all in his favourite colour, California orange. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu (the

title Chogyal means dharma king) is recognised as one of the greatest living masters of the Dzogchen tradition. Dzogchen belongs to the Nyingma (old school) of Tibetan Buddhism , and is ‘a path of self-liberation that enables one

8 JUNE 2011

From Tibet to Italy with love – a reincarnation story

Come to a sneak preview of a documentary filmed over 20 years and giving a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. This is a universal father and son story – the

struggle of a Tibetan father dedicated to preserving his tradition and an Italian son who just wants to live a normal life.

to discover one’s true nature’. Once a secret teaching given only after years of preliminary study and practice, it has become more widely known through the efforts of teachers like Chögyal Namkhai Norbu who began leading retreats in the seventies. At that time he was employed as Professor of Language and Literature at Naples Oriental University, invited by Italian Tibetologist, Professor Tucci, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The small entourage moves quickly

through the early evening crowds, up the escalator and into the theatre where a packed audience awaits. Rinpoche (a respectful term meaning precious teacher) takes his seat in the cinema and the introductions begin. Director Jennifer Fox, fresh off the plane from New York, finally has the opportunity to publicly thank him for granting access to his life over the 20 year period during which filming took place. While it has screened already at several prestigious European festivals and will be shown in June at the Sydney Film Festival, this sneak preview is the first time, due to his busy international teaching schedule, that Rinpoche has been able to attend a public screening. If we were expecting a film with

reincarnation in the title to be all about Rinpoche’s past incarnations (recognised at the age of two as the mind stream emanation of the great Dzogchen master Azdom Drugpa, 1842-1924, and at five of the Shabdrung of Bhutan, 1594-1651), we realise when the film begins this is not to be. Cleverly told from the son’s point of view, it is a universal father and son

story; about a father, Namkhai Norbu, intent on saving his traditional culture, and his Italian-born son, Yeshi, who wants nothing more than to live a normal modern life. Yeshi was 18 years old when Jennifer

began filming with a high-8 camera and rudimentary radio mikes, following Rinpoche (then 49), his Italian wife Rosa and their children Yuchen and Yeshi, through their public and private lives. Jennifer always knew she wanted to document Rinpoche’s life, but for many years her ideal story line had a beginning but no ending. It began with Yeshi being recognised at the age of five as the reincarnation of Rinpoche’s maternal uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche Chokyi Wangchug, an important Dzogchen master who died during the Chinese occupation of Tibet. This was confirmed by officials in the Sakya lineage who wanted to take Yeshi to be given the traditional education of a tulku (reincarnate) in a monastery in India. Rinpoche refused, knowing how much his uncle suffered in his life, preferring, if true, to let it manifest of its own accord. This made for an odd father/ son relationship. As Yeshi complains in a very frank and open manner, “My father was not like a normal father. It was hard to be close to him. He did not treat me like a normal son.” Jennifer kept filming, however, even

while despairing in the end there would be no film, telling Yeshi one day in Rome, “I know the film I should make: it would be a story about you and your father. You would go back to Tibet and accept your

reincarnation and then you would start to teach.” And he replied to Jennifer, “Forget it – it will never happen.” Jennifer says, “He was very clear at that

time that he wanted his own normal life, with a normal job and a family, but still, he talked about the fact that he had signs of his previous reincarnation and that he was a practitioner. He just did not want to be a Master with all the trappings being a Master entails. He had watched for his entire life how hard it was for his father to be in this role.” The turning point in the film

comes when transformed from pimply teenager to university graduate/ business consultant/ married man with children, Yeshi begins practising Dzogchen in a more concrete way on the long drives between home and work. He begins to see a need for his organisational skills in the worldwide Dzogchen Community that has grown up around his father over 30 years. Then one day, completely unannounced, he takes himself off to Tibet to visit the monastery of his ‘reincarnation’. We see Yeshi arriving on horseback in a ceremonial procession, dressed in robes like his predecessor and arriving at Galenting Monastery, the seat of his father’s uncle, Khyentse Chokyi Wangchug . There is not a dry eye in the cinema as the community of faithful devotees who have been waiting all these years for the return of their teacher, greet him with silk kataks and offer their continued devotion. You realise at this point, if you haven’t already, that subscribing to the notion

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