Independent Lens: Unmistaken Child

The feeling in the dream is so joyous. With that feeling, I wake up.

— Tenzin Zopa

We are born with the nature of self grasping. We are bind to grasp the non-existence of I as existence.

— Tenzin Zopa

“There is a possibility of finding a mistaken one if the disciples lack merits. Therefore, you should be careful and meticulous. You don’t have the power to say: this is the true incarnation or not.” So instructed, Tenzin Zopa nods. His mission is impossible, but he believes. And so he knows his quest will yield an answer, the reincarnation of his master, Lama Konchog.

As he makes his journey in Unmistaken Child, Tenzin is transformed. Premiering as part of PBS’ Independent Lens on 7 April, Nati Baratz’s documentary proposes that Tenzin’s journey is also a search for balance, a reconciliation between certainty and doubt, to be human and to believe. Tenzin’s mission is premised on the Buddhist process of rebirth, or samsara, less a function of repetition, stability, and fixed knowledge than “evolving consciousness.” Geshe-La’s new incarnation will be one in a series of related lives, subject to dissolution and reformation, each conditioned, as Buddhists believe, by karma.

Even as he mourns the 2001 death of Lama Konchog. for whom he served as “Heart Disciple and faithful attendant for 21 years.” Tenzin has been given the responsibility of finding his reincarnation. This will be, he understands, a boy between 12 and 18 months, a boy who is Geshe-La returned to human form. And so he walks, from village to village in Nepal’s Tsum Valley, asking the farmers and herders he meets whether they know of “any unusual children.”

Assured that his “unshakeable bond” with his master will guide the search, Tenzin is also, briefly, “totally confused.” He speaks carefully, his face turned to the mountains beyond the Kopan Monastery. “There is a joy in hearing that Geshe-La would definitely return,” he says, “But when I hear that I have to be the main person, I don’t want.” Tenzin’s self-doubts are shaped by his faith. “I just cannot trust my feelings, I’m not Buddha,” he confesses, “If something is a visible object, of course, you can see it, but this is something that you need to see its inner quality, whether this is the same mind of Lama Konchog or not. But to know that, only Buddhas know within Buddhas. Ordinary cannot judge higher than your state.”

In fact, the film tracks a series of surprisingly ordinary encounters. Cautioned that “People will tell you many unusual stories,” Tenzin visits with many families, questioning children and showing them Geshe-La’s old rosary, speaking with parents and other disciples of Lama Konchog who see Tenzin as something of a star “When I see you,” one young monk says, nearly giddy, “He appears in my mind”). He walks and walks, his traditional red robes swirling in the wind, his red and black parka a mark of his immersion in the world today. His efforts return Tenzin again and again to a fundamental dilemma: despite his qualms and because of his faith, he can never know, he can only judge.

The film doesn’t make explicit its own effects, the ways that Tenin’s interviewees are affected by the camera crew in their homes or even his own feelings about the camera’s constant probing. At last Tenzin finds a child who responds to the rosary: the astonishingly round boy first cries at the beads and then refuses to let them go. When the child performs perfectly before a panel of lamas, selecting the Geshe-La’s personal objects one after another, they approve him as “unmistaken.” “Today,” smiles Tenzin, “is one of the shaking days for my life.”

As Tenzin appears to complete his mission, he is also reassigned. Now his life will be devoted to the child, his every waking hour given over to nurturing and teaching the boy. As they spend more time together, their interactions are a mix of ritual and play, childish delight and wrenching tears. They scamper and laugh, they struggle as Tenzin shaves the boy’s head in preparation to meet the Dalai Lama (“His Holiness wants to see him, so he must be ready,” says Tenzi. The child resists, “Don’t cut,” he whimpers, don’t cut!”).

As these moments are recorded, they are also shaped by the filmmaking process. The haircutting is rendered in a series of close-ups from multiple angles, where the meeting with the Dalai Lama — who renames the boy Tenzin Phuntsok Rinpoche — appears in shots from a more respectful distance. The child’s parents, Ahpe Ngodrup and Mochung, watch some ceremonies, also at a distance, making their own difficult judgment regarding their son’s future. Their departure is especially painful. Their choice emerges from their own faith, their thrill in feeling chosen, their love of their son and their performance for the lamas and the cameras. Their faces reveal simultaneous joy and grief, their fear and certainty that they will never see their baby again, their hope and even their conviction that he is the reincarnated lama.

Unmistaken Child observes such moments without seeming to judge, but simultaneously frames them. Pressed in close-ups, shot against glorious mountains, Tenzin’s wide-ranging travels, earnest exchanges, and sometimes Real Worldy confessionals are all performances, of self and faith, communication (he now blogs as well, providing teachings and reports on Phuntsok Rinpoche’s post-film life at the Kopan Monastery). The documentary doesn’t purport to prove or believe. Instead, it shows how self and faith might intersect and also diverge. If Tenzin’s story is framed in bright colors and grand ceremony, his search for certainty is less resolved. In the rhythms of ambiguity and change, in the developing trust between Tenzin and the child, the film finds another, more compelling story.

RATING 7 / 10