June 01, 2009

Mistaken Child?

This weekend, New York City's Rubin Museum of Art hosted the premiere of Unmistaken Child (mentioned in an earlier post), a wonderful film about a young monk in search of the reincarnation of his recently deceased master. On the advice of senior lamas, the young monk travels by foot from village to village in hopes of finding a toddler who fits the bill.

While the young monk's joy at discovering his master again is quite moving, it is somewhat disturbing—at least for a Western audience—to watch the child taken from his consenting but seemingly ambivalent parents. At the end of the film, several of the audience wondered aloud about the wisdom of removing the child from his home (upon his parents' leaving, the child wails, "Now I have no friends.").

It remains unclear whether the parents consider their child's fate to be an honor or a loss—or both. Still, the separation is tough to watch.

Here's another story about a tulku: a Spanish child recognized at infancy as the reincarnation of the late Lama Yeshe has recently publicly renounced his status.

"They took me away from my family and stuck me in a medieval situation in which I suffered a great deal," says Osel Hita Torres, 24, now a film student in Madrid.

A sad outcome, to be sure. All the more reason to see Unmistaken Child, which provides an unflinching look into the traditional protocol for locating and recognizing incarnate lamas. The film makes no judgments but its Western audiences may. Perhaps one day the tulku-turned-film-student will tell a story of his own.

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Chris's picture
Chris's picture

Coming to this conversation late but to address "Robbie" and "Jen" and this rediculous book "The Buddha from Brooklyn", the primary source for this was from a disgruntled ex-nun who later recanted just about all of what she had told Sherrill and is what the newspaper journalist used to kickstart her writing career (this was her first book). Unfortunately the recant occurred after the publication and distribution of the book. It would be well-advised for those following the Buddhist path to gather information for themselves and make their own informed decisions before passing casual judgement on a Nyingmapa Tulku recognized and enthroned by HH Penor Rinpoche.

The recant can be found at the url below.

Craig's picture

That story about Osel Torres seems to be a bit of classic newspaper sensationalism. Here's the response from the man himself, which seems very mild and far from "turning his back on the order".


Keith's picture

Having seen the film at it's U.S. Premier in Minneapolis I found myself with a completely different take on this. This process was not a brief one. It took years before the child was taken to the monastery and enthroned.
The Dalai Lama personally reviewed the selection. The child appears very happy amongst the monks. The parents are naturally sad but there is complete consent in the choice. In fact if you go to Phuntsok Rimpoche's website you see many pictures where he is smiling and happy.
I think it is a bit presumptuous to judge the Tibetan tradition by modern U.S. cultural standards. Instead I would like to see the U.S.
cultivate a higher degree of Buddhist standards.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I recommend it to all.

Jen's picture

Robbie, thanks for the link and the book suggestion...very interesting stuff.

Robbie's picture

Another famous 'found' reincarnate in the west would of course be Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo. A very interesting story, well documented in Mattha Sherrill's book "The Buddha From Brooklyn". I believe the Tibetans decreed some sort of a moritorium on naming Westerners as Tibetan reincarnates shortly after that. We are not ready.

chodon's picture

doesn't think Osel has turned back on Buddhism; rather, has turned back on the past in order to approach future needs of sentient beings.

Robbie's picture

The National Post in Canada just published a front page story on reincarnation (ok, it was in their weekend edition). I found it to be pretty interesting, it will especially so of course to those of us professing Buddhism:


The kids in the stories do not seem to be reincarnated from former clerics, but rather just from ordinary folks. You don't have to be holy... but if you want to come back as a human, no doubt it helps.... And if you want to be found, it would help to have someone looking for you.

Jen's picture

I've heard about this process, but I'm still a little unclear. How do they find out if a child is a reincarnation? Is there some sort of question protocol? Also, how do they go about finding the specific children they're looking for? This movie sounds interesting, I hope it comes to Los Angeles soon. Thanks for posting.