When Gesar Mukpo walks into a room, he towers over most people in stature, and the sound of the filmmaker's deep, booming laughter bounces from wall to wall. What strikes you most, however, is Mukpo's gentle, unassuming nature. He speaks slowly and carefully, as you would expect of someone the Tibetan community sees as the reincarnation of one of their spiritual masters. But he also has a dry, almost cynical sense of humour, jokes about auctioning off his Buddhist title on eBay, and has chosen partying and motorcycle rides over a monastic education.
In Mukpo's latest documentary, Tulku, which premieres as part of the Atlantic Film Festival, 7:10pm at Park Lane on September 24, he captures the unique, often under-looked experience of a small handful of Western tulkus. Tulkus are people that Buddhist masters, called "rinpoches," recognize as the reincarnations of former spiritual leaders (the Dalai Lama is the most famous example). Since the 1970s, Buddhist teachers have been recognizing Westerners as tulkus. This new wave of tulkus has grown up, and is now straddling, often uneasily, the demands of two cultures. Not all tulkus are what you'd expect: Some, like actor Steven Seagal (who some Buddhists believe to be the reincarnation of a 17th century Tibetan master named Chungdrag Dorje), don't quite fit the mold of a traditional tulku.
Mukpo, who is a tulku himself, has little faith in the tulku system and wouldn't necessarily describe himself as Buddhist. "There's definitely no place for the tulku system in the Western world because people don't want to be told to follow people," he explains.
"I don't think Buddhists should call themselves Buddhists when they're in the western world," he continues. "If the world is going to become a better place, people need to be able to mix all our ideas together and take what comes out of that."
The narrative tying the film together is Mukpo's own story. His father, Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan rinpoche, was known as much for his love of drinking and women as he was for what practitioners call his "crazy wisdom," bringing Shambhala Buddhism to Halifax and teaching famous renegade thinkers such as Allen Ginsberg. His mother, Lady Diana Mukpo, eloped with Trungpa at 16, to the initial horror of her aristocratic British family, who sent detectives to follow the newlyweds across India. In his film, Mukpo struggles to find his place in a community where his destiny is already slated out for him, while being true to both his eastern and western roots.
Mukpo features a cast of characters, including a young man named Wyatt Arnold. Arnold seems to take the responsibility of being a tulku seriously, but also appears completely tripped-out by the concept of being a reincarnated spiritual guru, grappling with huge questions like whether or not he could hypothetically control time.
Mukpo also travels to India to visit his teacher, Dzongsar Rinpoche, who's otherwise known as the filmmaker Kyentse Norbu. Though a modern thinker in many ways, Norbu sounds like an exasperated parent when he chastises Mukpo at the dinner table, exclaiming, "We are still waiting for him to do what he is supposed to do!"
"I never had that intense scholarly focus, and that's what annoyed my teachers. I'd be really serious for a while and then go on a motorcycle ride to Kashmir or something" he says, laughing.
Mukpo's Buddhist teachers might see his life as a cautionary tale, but it's evident that he's trying his best to adapt his Tibetan values to his western reality. His documentary is both inspiring and, like Mukpo, endearingly down to earth.