Friday, November 11, 2011

"Who would give their child up for nothing?": Unmistaken Child and the sacrificing of parenting

Tenzin Phuntsok Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Geshe Lama Konchog, contemplates a statue of the Buddha in this still from Unmistaken Child. Wikipedia entry. Trailer (which contains (highly intriguing) images not in the DVD release). Image found here.

Most parents would say that they cannot imagine any circumstances under which they would give up their children. Yet they do all the time, in symbolic ways at least: to marriage, to formal education, to jobs or the military. Far rarer, in Western culture, is the giving up of children--especially very young children--as an act of religious faith, as a gesture of belief in something far larger and unknowable than we are, and those few stories we do have can make us extremely uncomfortable if we ponder them long enough. Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 might be the one that comes to most people's minds, but one that might not is the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple. Look in particular at vv. 48-50 at the link, with its clearly different meanings of "father." What does it mean that, at least in the canonical Gospels, Joseph is never mentioned again? In the apocryphal gospels that record stories from Jesus' childhood, Joseph is much more prominent, but/and in these stories, it's pretty clear that Joseph, um, has his hands full (have a look at the Infancy Gospel of Thomas; you won't have to read long before you see why this one didn't make the canonical cut). Despite the near-absence of stories from Jesus' childhood in the canon, it seems to me worthwhile to ponder Joseph's role as Jesus' parent and, for that matter, his disappearance from the Gospels after Luke 2. This can seem ominous--Joseph no longer remains emotionally invested as Jesus' parent--or it can signify a kind of (positive) letting go of his role as parent in favor of what appears to be Mary's deeper understanding of this child.

It hadn't been my intention, and still isn't, to raise these questions in my students by showing this film.

In my Comp II classes this semester as part of a unit on film analysis, I've been showing Unmistaken Child as an example of a documentary (the other films I'm showing are Rear Window and Koyaanisqatsi). I initially chose it because it presents a world that, not just for my students but for almost all of us in the West, is very nearly unknown, and because, editing aside, it presents the story of Tenzin Zopa's five-year search for the reincarnation of his master in as unmediated a manner as I've ever seen (aside from some text at the very beginning that establishes the religious and historical contexts for what follows, there's no narration or explanation of what we're seeing apart from Zopa's occasional reflections on his dead master, the importance of his task, and his own felt inadequacy for performing it; if you're curious, here is more information on Zopa's own upbringing). The viewer, immersed in a world in which all the participants s/he meets take as given the truth of what is shown and said, is left to make of all this what s/he will. And, I figured, if nothing else, we'd have a whole lot of beautiful scenery to look at.

My students' response to this film has been overwhelmingly positive and thoughtful, in the sense that they are engaged in Zopa's quest; in their recognition that, as they see young Tenzin undergo the tests intended to prove he is the reincarnation of Geshe Lama Konchog, something is going on that we find difficult to explain even as we watch these things happen; and in the drama of Zopa's asking young Tenzin's parents to give the boy up to be raised in a monastery, perhaps never to see him again. This is not the same thing as saying that my students approve of the parents' choice, but the moment has caused at least some of them, no matter their own beliefs or lack thereof, to think more deeply about the idea of faith: that faith has to be more than "just" belief, that at some level faith requires action. As Ahpe, Tenzin's father and clearly the more reluctant of the parents (though neither is eager to make this choice), says, "If he is to be a blessing to all sentient beings, I can give him up. Who would give their child up for nothing?"

It's a devastating question. He is absolutely right, and yet it's also very tempting to reply, But that's exactly what you're doing. But I'd argue that Tenzin's parents are confronting a version of the mystery that confronts all parents, really: The giving-away of a child is a sacrifice of self on behalf of something better for the child or, in this film, for all conscious things, that is, still, unseen. The Dalai Lama's assertion that this boy is the reincarnation of a revered monk, or our marrying off a child to some relative stranger: at some level, there's really no difference in what is demanded of parents in either instance.

Notice that I've not tried to make a case for reincarnation. But then again, neither does the film. It's less interested in "proving" anything than it is in documenting Zopa's extraordinary search and its fruits. I'll just say this, though: There may be some rational explanation for what we see in the scenes in the testing of the boy; but let's just say that reminding myself that this little boy is no more than five years old by the end of the film makes me realize that if "coincidences" is all we have in the way of explanation, "coincidences" gets a really thorough workout over the course of this film.

See this film. You will be challenged to examine what you think you know about the nature of faith . . . or what it means to be a parent.


So, yeah: I'm back "here," at least for the moment. We're well, just busy--me with teaching, and the Mrs. with trying out new recipes. She has always been a good cook; of late though, she's become a pretty serious cook. Here's a little sample of just how serious: a while back, she spent, quite literally, most of a Saturday making mole negro oaxaqueño. Moles, for those of you who don't know, are thick, complex sauces that blend chocolate and peppers and other goodies and are served over chicken or pork; some are sweet and some are spicy, but this one balances the two and adds a smoky taste to the mix. If someone loves you, s/he will make this for you at least once in your lifetime.

I think the Mrs. really loves me, because she says she will make this again sometime.


R. Sherman said...

Glad you're back, and the mole does sound good. I've made a few and especially like them as a braising liquid for chicken.

As for the main post, good thoughts. I'm actually off to church, so I'll have more when I get back.


R. Sherman said...

Ok, a lot going on this post and a response/comment would be a post of its own. Forgive the rambling nature of this.

I. Jesus childhood. My feeling about Thomas' "Gospel," I suppose is tempered by my understanding of Gnosticism as same relates to Salvation. That is, as opposed to the Pauline view that Salvation is Grace through Faith, salvation comes from some mystical Gnosis. Interesting that you reference it in light of the film you discuss, inasmuch as Buddhism requires one to seek something similar during one's
hike through life.

I tend to think that Joseph knew from the time that the Angel appeared to him when Mary was his fiance but obviously pregnant, that his role was to be minimal, at best.

(Fun Google Spellcheck Fact: It doesn't recognize "Gnosis." We must move to a better neighborhood.)

II. Parenting. Um, yeah. Letting go is the hardest part. You get your kids to the place where they like you and are actually fun to be with, instead of being merely alimentary canals with no responsibility at either end, then they hate you for a few years, then they're gone. It sucks, but we all have to do it, hoping when we do so, that we've done enough.
The Tibetan Buddhist who send their children to monasteries are confronting the same thing. I wonder whether it's similar to the Western Middle Ages, where parents prayed their children would be taken into an Abbey or Convent to save them from the cruelty of the Medieval Age.

Obviously, I don't buy reincarnation, but I wonder how much confirmation bias played a role in the "discovery" of this lad.

III. I'm going to see the film. Thanks for the recommendation.

IV. Disclaimer: As always, I'm probably full of crap.


John B. said...


Sorry for the long delay in responding; I've been earning a living and stuff.

III. first: I don't know if you have Netflix, but that's how I saw it the first time. Amazon is streaming (some) films, too, but I don't know anything more about that than what I just told you.

Re confirmation bias: I suppose that that can be an issue, no matter one's belief system. I honestly don't know how to answer that with regard to this film. Obviously, the monks are invested in finding Gesh-La's reincarnation, but there's a scene in which Zopa is receiving counsel from another monk which acknowledges that sometimes people will invent stories in hopes that their children will be determined to be reincarnations, and that in the past, children who were thought to be reincarnations turned out not to be. (It would be interesting to hear a bit more about those stories.) Also, there's a scene in which a mother seems, to my mind, to be willing to invent a story about her child designed to serve as a sign that he is the reincarnation. Finally, the search for and confirmation of the child take a total of five years, so there's no rushing to judgment here. As for reincarnation itself, I don't know what to think about it, one way or the other. I have to be honest about that.

Camille said...

Its been too long since I have visited your blog. I am reminded hoow much I like it. I wish I could linger longer, but a 6 week old infant is screaming in my ear at the moment.