Sometimes we called him Mr. Universe. Dilgo Khyenste Rinpoche was a towering and charismatic epitome of enlightened realization, a teacher to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as well as Trungpa Rinpoche’s advisor and confidant during his years of presenting Dharma in the West. Just glimpsing Khyentse Rinpoche step from an automobile was enough to stop one’s discursive mind and open a vast and unfathomable space in one’s heart.
In Yangsi, Mark Elliott has directed a soft-spoken, intimate film. Yangsi, which means rebirth in Tibetan, is a chronicle of the life of Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche, the now twenty-one year-old incarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The film begins in 1997, when Yangsi Rinpoche is four years old and recently recognized as a tulku. Narrated in his own words, Yangsi Rinpoche explains, “Every living being is a yangsi because it’s reborn in this world again and again, nonstop. But, from this rebirth there is one particular type of rebirth called incarnation or tulku, because it has a reason to be reborn: to serve and help all sentient beings.”
Yangsi is a candid look at Yangsi Rinpoche’s life from age four to age nineteen, depicting the poignant life of a tulku, who must not only master the extensive forms and inner meaning of Tibetan Buddhism, but must endure separation from his parents and family of origin. “I loved my long hair,” Yangsi wistfully explains in a scene showing his hair-cutting in preparation for enthronement as a Tulku. When he arrives at Sechen Monastery he is put under the tutelage of Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, the grandson of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who becomes his second father, showering Yangsi with a gentle and utterly devoted love and who also steers him along a different course of study than the strictly traditional one. Rabjam Rinpoche includes the introduction of English while leaving time for basketball.
Above all, Yangsi depicts the archetypal challenge of becoming a responsible human being. All of Yangsi’s training is devoted to this end with the added responsibility, magnified by the expectations of thousands of students-in-waiting, of representing his predecessor, an enlightened master. As a child of four, Yangsi is beautiful and confident. At seventeen he is a bit pudgy and admittedly shy on his first speaking tour. “Why did they choose such a weird boy like me,” Yangsi quips in one scene.
In Yangsi, Mark Elliott has produced and directed a film that moves slowly, but that is not to say it is slow. The film, somewhat inexplicably, mirrors the mind of its subject, moving respectfully and honestly through a wealth of footage that elegantly depicts the challenges and successes of Tibetan Buddhism in the modern world. It should be noted that much of the film is shot in the beautiful Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.
I was not able to participate in the 2010 American tour of Yangsi, but through Mark Elliott’s film I’ve been introduced to Yangsi in a way that brings his life intimately alive.