The documentary Unmistaken Child offers a rare, intimate look at one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most mysterious rituals, the discovery of a Tulku, or reincarnate Lama. (See the review.) Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz accompanied a young monk, Tenzin Zopa, on his four-year search for the reincarnation of his beloved teacher, Geshe Lama Konchog, who died in 2001. For Baratz, as well as for Zopa and the boy he found—now a six-year-old named Tenzin Phuntsok Rinpoche—the journey was life-changing.
While in New York for the film’s opening in June, Baratz recorded a podcast for tricycle.com with Tricycle reviews editor Joan Duncan Oliver. Here are highlights of their conversation. (Listen to the podcast here.)
How did you decide to tackle such difficult subjects— reincarnation and the tulku system—for your first feature-length film?
In 1993, while backpacking in Tibet, I fell in love with the Tibetan people and developed a strong sense of moral responsibility toward their situation. In 2002, I went to Asia to find a movie connected in some way to Tibet. One day I went to a talk by Tenzin Zopa about life with his master, Geshe Lama Konchog, who had recently died. At the end of the talk Tenzin asked us to pray for the swift return of his master. I thought, “Oh, good: he’s going to look for the reincarnation of his master. This is the movie I must make.”
Do you believe in reincarnation?
The idea is for the audience to observe and decide for themselves. But I want them to consider it as a valid option. For me, the story is less about reincarnation than about Tenzin and his amazing story of maturation. For 21 years, the young monk never left his master’s side—his master was everything to him. During the movie, Tenzin goes from servant to spiritual leader, eventually bringing the treasure back to the Tibetans.
Where is Tenzin now?
Tenzin has completed his geshe degree—the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy. Now he teaches in Malaysia and also in Singapore and Taiwan. He’s still responsible for Tenzin Phuntsok Rinpoche’s education. He chooses his teachers and every chance he gets, he returns to [the boy]. They’re in constant communication.
It’s difficult to watch the separation of this young child from his parents. How did they feel about giving him to the monastery?
To give up your most precious thing is very hard, no matter how much faith you have. The father returned to the monastery every 2 months: it took 4 days of walking and 20 hours on the bus. To me the child sometimes looks very lonely. He’s not allowed to play with regular kids, only tulkus. But I also think the tulku system works very well—look at the Dalai Lama and others. Who am I to judge? They’re taking a child from a very poor place, and he’s getting the best education available. He’s trained all his life to benefit others. I cannot see this as such a horrible thing.
How has this film changed you?
Being with Tenzin was a teaching every day. I was with him on the happiest and the saddest days of his life, and I never saw him blame any external circumstance. I learned that I can do much more than I think by watching Tenzin: he’s working 22 hours a day, always caring for others. He never says no.
What would you like people to take away from this film?
I would like people for 102 minutes to be able to dive into a different way of thinking and to gain the essence of the Mahayana teaching—that benefiting others is the greatest thing you can do for yourself.
I also had to learn to accept everything with a happy mind. At one point, I waited for two weeks for an interview with the abbot of Kopan Monastery, Lama Zopa. And then he looked at me and said, “Let’s not do it this time.” If I had not been with Tenzin, I would have said, “What are you talking about? I came all the way from Israel with 200 kilograms [440 pounds] of equipment.” But I just started to laugh and said, “OK, this is the way it should be.” Eight months later, when I came to the monastery, the abbot took me by the hand and walked me around. He wanted to show people they could trust me. Then he gave me the interview.