A monk’s journey to find the reincarnation of his beloved teacher
Written and directed by Nati Baratz
Opened June 2009; see oscilloscope.net for theaters
DVD, Oscilloscope Laboratories
102 minutes; $29.99; available October 2009
Toward the end of the new film Unmistaken Child—a chronicle of the search for the reincarnation of the revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher Geshe Lama Konchog, who died in 2001—an SUV slowly makes its way up the winding road to Kopan Monastery in Nepal on the day of enthronement for the new incarnation, a boy not yet four years old. As we watch from inside the vehicle, the boy and the monk who identified him gaze out the window at hundreds of young monks lined up along the road, bowing low and holding out katas—offering scarves—as the car passes. It is a long, affecting scene recording the final step of an arduous quest that stretched over years, and the array of monks seems endless. When the car finally goes through the monastery gates, the line of monks gives way to a crowd of laypeople—mostly Chinese and Caucasian—holding up cameras and jostling for a look at the new master.
It is a striking sight after the first 90 minutes of the film—much of it shot in the sparsely populated Himalayan province of Tsum—and a telling comment on the financial reality of Tibetan Buddhist institutions today, which rely heavily on funding from abroad. Directly and indirectly, the film raises questions about the fate, in the contemporary world, of traditions like this one. Having barely evaded extinction after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, will they find the devotion necessary to sustain them in the now globalized tradition of Tibetan Buddhism?
Tenzin Zopa, the young Nepali monk charged with finding his teacher’s reincarnation, is the psychological focus of Unmistaken Child, and his journey from trepidation to responsibility is rendered in compelling detail. Some of the most sensational elements of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition here become moments of remarkable intimacy. We see Zopa delicately sorting though his teacher’s ashes, collecting the pearl-like relics that are taken as proof of the deceased’s spiritual accomplishment and, with more senior monks, reading signs that point to where Geshe Lama Konchog will be reborn. We see his stunned reaction to being given the assignment of finding the “unmistaken child”—the unquestioned incarnation—for which he feels unqualified. Only buddhas can recognize buddhas, he protests. We follow the earnest young monk as he wanders the countryside, stopping to evaluate every child he meets, gently questioning them and looking for any whiff of proof that this one might be his newly embodied teacher. Most movingly, we watch Zopa as he comes to love Tenzin Ngodrup, the boy he finds, with the same intense devotion he had felt toward Geshe Lama Konchog. Zopa becomes the boy’s principal guardian and tutor, traveling with him to be evaluated by the highest spiritual authorities, playing with him during down times, and comforting him when he is finally taken from his family to live at the monastery in his new role as a tulku—a reincarnate master. While it is Tenzin Ngodrup’s identity shift that is the point of all this effort, it is Tenzin Zopa’s transformation, nurtured by the depth of his devotion, that is at the heart of this film.