12/28/2012 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Personal Reflections on Making 'Yangsi: Reincarnation is Just the Beginning'

In December 1997, I was invited to film the enthronement of the Yangsi, the reincarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, in Boudhanath, Nepal. Khyentse Rinpoche was a pre-eminent Tibetan Buddhist Lama of the 20th century, "a master of masters." He was a teacher of my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and someone with whom I had felt a very close connection. If there is such a thing as a truly enlightened being in this world, then to my mind Dilgo Khyentse was it. The word Khyen-tse combines words for "wisdom" and "compassion," both of which Khyentse Rinpoche embodied in every fibre of his being. In the West, we would say, he was a "great saint."

When I started making this film, I had no particular concept in mind. As John Houston once said, "the best documentaries are made up as they go along." Nonetheless, I did have certain questions. The theme of a previous film I had made on Tibetan Buddhism, "The Lion's Roar," was impermanence. Even the Buddha passed away. As I began this filming project, I found myself interested in exploring continuity (rgyud in Tibetan), continuity within the obvious truth of impermanence. In other words, if there is enlightened mind, and enlightened mind is the only thing not subject to impermanence, according to the Tibetan tradition, how does it manifest within this world of constant change? In the world of Tibetan Buddhism, one answer to this conundrum is the "tulku system." It is said that an enlightened being can choose the circumstances for his next rebirth, so that his activity can continue lifetime to lifetime, until all beings have been freed from suffering. A tulku, the epitome of a bodhisattva, is one who reincarnates, who embodies and brings into this time, the compassionate and wakeful energy from a previous life.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche lived the life of a yogi in the medieval world of Tibet, spending more than 20 years in mountain retreat, before he was forced into exile in Bhutan by the Chinese Communist occupation of his homeland. His tulku, the Yangsi, "the one who has come again into existence," faces a radically different set of circumstances. His enthronement took place in front of 10,000 people, including great lamas of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Hollywood luminaries, and disciples of his predecessor from all over the world. He was just 4 years old, with big shoes to fill. And there I was, pointing a camera at him.

When I started this film I had quite a lot of skepticism about the tulku system (a skepticism even shared by some tulkus that I know). I did not see how all that is claimed was possible. And I still cannot claim to understand it. I also had thoughts about its relevance to the western Buddhist world I inhabited. Perhaps it was just an outmoded relic of a vanishing Tibetan worldview, just part and parcel of an antiquated and obsolete belief system? Nonetheless, I wanted to approach it with an open mind.

Before his enthronement, and through the generosity of his parents, I spent an afternoon, in almost total privacy, filming the Yangsi. This was our first encounter. Whether he was a tulku or not was initially beside the point. I felt an immediate connection with this delightful and playful little boy. And then something very unexpected dawned on me. This was actually Khyentse Rinpoche. The high forehead, the slightly crooked grin. And more than that, his demeanor. There are rare and precious moments in filming, moments when you quite simply get goosebumps. This was such a moment. The previous Khyentse was enormous, well over six-feet tall and amply proportioned, and here he was in this little pint-sized Khyentse. This is something I cannot rationally explain. In looking at the footage in my room afterwards, I thought to myself, "OK, we have a film here."