“Unmistaken Child” - by Nati Baratz (2008)

Many of us have a fascination and sympathy with the notions of Buddhism, in general, and with Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, but we are curious to know more. Certainly, the Dalai Lama seems to be an enlightened and widely revered figure who is able to understand and converse with scholars and thinkers from East to West. Heinrich Zimmer, commenting on the worldwide cultural contribution of yab-yum which is the symbolic understanding that began to have influence around the seventh or eighth century CE that male-female romantic union represents the mystical union of wisdom and compassion, said [1]:
One thinks immediately of Eleanor of Aquitane and the Provencal courts of love, four centuries later, when the aristocratic circles of the Occident were being touched by the magic of the Orient, in the period of the Crusades. Simultaneously, in Mahāyāna-Buddhist Japan, the lords and ladies of the Imperial court of Miyako wee enacting their poetic romance of the “Cloud Gallants” and “Flower Maidens”, while Persia was singing the songs of Omar, Nizami, and the Sufi poets. A line of Hafez might be taken as the motto of the movement: “Love’s slave am I and from both worlds free.” From the castles of Portugal to those of Japan, the civilized world, for some five centuries resounded to this song; and the echoes are still be heard in the cloisters of Tibet. The basic Indian doctrine – the doctrine of transcendental monism, which merges opposite principles in timeless union – finds no more striking symbolization anywhere than in the lamasery cult of the icon of the holy bliss (mahāsukha) of the united couple.
But the centers of Tibetan Buddhism are particularly remote, both physically and culturally, from the West. So when the documentary film, Unmistaken Child (2008) came out purporting to show some of the secret practices of Tibetan Buddhism, I looked forward to seeing it with enthusiasm.

The story of Unmistaken Child is focused on the ritual process of identifying a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist tulku lama. A tulku lama is an enlightened lama and Bodhisattva who chooses to be reincarnated in human form in order to assist other humans towards the path of Buddhahood. The most well-known example is the Dalai Lama (the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso). According to the practice, when a tulku lama dies, certain signs and omens are interpreted by other respected lamas and their appointees, and from these signs potential candidate infants are identified and then tested to see if they are able to recognize artifacts that once belonged to the recently deceased lama. The process was dramatized in the film Kundun (1997), but some of the authentic, realtime vetting activities are presented in Unmistaken Child.

The tale begins in 2001 when the revered Geshe Lama Konchog passed away at the age of 84. His chief disciple and attendant for over twenty years, 28-year-old Tenzin Zopa, was appointed by the Dalai Lama to the task of discovering the child that would embody the reincarnated soul of the late lama. The film respectfully follows Tenzin Zopa’s search for the next four years to locate and unmistakably identify the child in the remote reaches of Nepal. This includes meetings with various Tibetan Buddhist theologians and masters. In order to find out the general direction in which to search for the reincarnation, there are first consultations about the direction of the smoke that emerged from the Lama Konchog’s funeral pyre and the diagnostic interpretation of a perceived fresh footprint in the ashes. This is then followed by a video-conference consultation with an astrologer in Taiwan, who determines that there is a 95% probability that the holy child’s father’s name begins with ‘A’, and that the birthplace most probably has a name beginning with ‘TS’. All of this leads Tenzin to conclude that he must seek out the Tsum Valley near the border between Nepal and Tibet. There he makes numerous and lengthy treks on foot to remote, almost inaccessible, villages in order to interview parents of children who may have candidate children of the requisite age and characteristics.

When a suitable child is located, he is asked to identify a rosary, a hand drum, and a bell that belonged to the late lama. The recognition actions appear ambiguous to me, but the authorities seem convinced that this is the “unmistaken child”. For ecample the authentic rosary selected is certainly much shinier than the other two candidates offered. And note that by this time it was December 2005, and the candidate child is not such an infant anymore – he would have been susceptible to coaching, or he might simply have attempted to guess what the authorities wanted him to do. Anyway, the next steps is to have the identified child finally confirmed by the Dalai Lama, himself, who gives him the name “Phuntsok Rinpoche” and later sends a confirmatory message:
“My observations in various signs as well as my divination also came out very auspicious. I feel very comfortable and confident identifying Tenzin Nyudrup as the unmistaken reincarnation of the late Lama Konchog.”
There is finally the task of persuading the child’s parents of the rural village to give up their child forever so that he can be raised as an enlightened lama. The parents are saddened but feel it is their duty to hand the child over to the religious authorities.

All of this has a certain interest, because the authentic events are filmed as they happened, and we get to see traditional rural Tibetan life as it is lived in the rugged and beautiful Nepalese landscape. So the subject matter is definitely of interest (to me, at least), because it might shed more light on the fascinating subject of Tibetan Buddhism and its mysteries. How, for example, are we to reconcile the combination of seemingly incompatible elements of (a) the Dalai Lama, who has an understanding and appreciation of Western natural science, and (b) the utter nonsense of making predictions based on astrology, which is not mystical divination but is instead a demonstrably false pseudoscience? But what writer-director Nati Baratz has made of this material, despite his four-year quest to go to the source and film the interesting activities, falls short in the two key areas of documentary filmmaking: the cinematic expression and the film narrative.

1. Cinematic expression. There are two key problems in this connection.
  • One was the decision to shoot the film employing a cinema vérité style. This style eliminates an onscreen narrator or an offscreen narrative voice-over, and it thereby attempts to present a fly-on-the-wall picture of what was happening. The implicit idea is to make the camera an invisible witness, so that the film appears to be completely “objective”, with the filmed actions uninfluenced by the present of the film crew. This can work in some situations, but it doesn’t work here. Since the events are strung out over four years, the film desperately needs a narrative guide to provide more background information and continuity. That narrative guide could have been Tenzin Zopa, and there are in fact a few revealing interviews with him. But the narrative guidance that might have come from him is essentially absent. Instead we just have the camera traipsing after Tenzin as he wanders about Nepal looking for the unmistaken child.
  • A second failing is due to the cinematography and editing. For much of the film, the hand-held camera work is extremely shaky, as the cameraman plods along in the company of Zopa. This jostled-camera effect is worsened by the efforts to maintain the frame in closeup much of the time. For example there are amateurish camera movements as the photographer films a conversation by awkwardly trying to pan back and forth between the two interlocutors. It would have been much better simply to employ more conventional over-the-should camera work in such situations. Of course, sometimes a cameraman does find himself in an opportunistic setting and must capture the scene in an ad hoc fashion, but many of the conversations seen in the film appear to be somewhat staged, anyway, so I believe that much better camera setups could have been employed.
2. Film narrative. The basic narrative line is, of course, the search for the reincarnated lama. But there are other narrative themes that are left unexplored. Tenzin Zopa is on his own journey of self-discovery, but this is only briefly touched upon. He has lived most of his life in the shadow of Geshe Lama Konchog, on whom he has relied for all important decisions. With his master’s passing he expresses some self-doubts concerning his own abilities to make carry out such a critical task for the monastery, and we get a glimpse that he may have other doubts, too. He seems, and would be expected to be, quite reflective, but this voyage of self-discovery is mostly missed. Instead, we get many shots of him playing with village children that look more like home movie material than elements to the story. All that appears is surface material, with no pointers to the deeper spiritual mysteries that lie within. For more first-hand accounts and written material (though perhaps less objective) about the esoteric process of identifying the unmistaken child of Geshe Lama Konchog, you may find it interesting to consult this Web site.

The human story of the parents having to give up their child is interesting, too, although it admittedly probably would have been difficult to get more material on this aspect.

It would also have been better to see more commentary from the Dalai Lama, himself. Of course, his availability may be quite limited, but since this film would offer an important opportunity to expose Tibetan Buddhist culture to a wider audience, he might have been interested in offering his thoughts. Having spent some time in Dharamsala and having attended both the Dalai Lama’s monastery there and another in Himachel Pradesh, I can attest that there is much of interest to explore in Tibetan Buddhism. The listening and the gaze of the practitioner is perpetually directed towards the mysteries of consciousness and being -- and how to follow the path to enlightenment. But this film, interesting at times though it is, showed little of this and did not satisfy my appetite.

  1. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (1951), Bollingen Series XXVI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA, pp. 558-559.

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