Film Update

Namkhai Norbu and Yeshi with purba

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu explains the meaning of the Purba (ritual knife) to his son, Yeshi.
Credit: Zohe Film Productions, Inc.

POV: Where are Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and Yeshi (now Khyentse Yeshe) today? What is their relationship like now?

Jennifer Fox: The two of them are very close even though they do not see each other much due to their teaching and work schedules. They write letters and make a point to see each other whenever possible. Rinpoche, as always, is travelling around the globe teaching. He's basically in a different country every three to four weeks, in response to an enormous number of requests that he tries to fulfill in different countries. Right now, he's about to start on an American tour. He actually hasn't taught in America for about three years, and it's a complete coincidence that it coincides with the broadcast of the film. Yeshe (as he is now known) has been teaching ever since the end of the film. He usually goes to places where Rinpoche cannot. They coordinate so they can fulfill as many teaching requests as possible. Additionally, Yeshe is back working a professorship, teaching religion, to have a normal income. Overall, he's really stepped into the role of a Buddhist master.

POV: Has it been shown in Tibet? How have international audiences reacted to the film?

Jennifer Fox: The film hasn't been shown in Tibet, but it has been shown in Singapore and Hong Kong. Currently, we are hoping to make a version with Tibetan subtitles as well as Chinese subtitles. In fact, there is a big rise in the following of Tibetan Buddhism all over China. In terms of the rest of the world, the response has been phenomenal. The film will be on TV in seven to eight countries. It's still in the middle of a theatrical release in Germany and Switzerland, and semi-theatrical in Italy. A DVD version with Spanish subtitles is currently in the works for a Spanish distributor, and there is interest to create a French, as well as a Russian-subtitled version as well. It's been incredibly well-received all over the world.

POV: How has the film been received by other religious communities?

Jennifer Fox: We did something very special with our theatrical campaign. We decided, city by city, to ask other religious groups to co-host screenings of the film. We had Catholic priests, Zen Buddhists (vs. Tibetan Buddhists), Jewish rabbis, everything from liberal to Orthodox rabbis, and many others. All religious communities agreed to hosting screenings, inviting their members. At the end of the screenings, we hosted compare-and-contrast discussions, sometimes with a student of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and another religious leader together. What really struck me was that the core of real spiritual practice is very similar through different types of religious groups. The core esoteric teachings are all very similar to what is in the film. All people talked about presence, permanence, facing death — all of the things Norbu and Yeshe talk about in the film. So, it had a wide resonance with lots of audiences, and I was thrilled to see that. People are hungry to investigate the things they struggle with in their minds, and psychology sometimes isn't enough. It has been very encouraging to see how the film opens spiritual discussion and lets people make connections to their own faith. It makes them think, "Maybe I want to go back to my Jewish faith," or, "Maybe there is more in my Christian faith."

POV: Your Kickstarter campaign for the film was extremely successful. What effect has that had on your distribution?

Jennifer Fox: In reference to distribution, crowdfunding is a great way to build an audience before a film is finished, which is just as important as the money itself. Our campaign was so successful and engaging that it built a web of very strong and active supporters of the film. The success of the campaign also raised awareness of the documentary within the smaller film community. The film was put on the map in an new way. Because Kickstarter didn't fund our theatrical release, when went to raise money for this release, the campaign was a huge help because theater owners and donors had all heard about the film. For a relatively unknown film, there was suddenly people asking to our distributor asking to book it.

POV: You've been filming Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and Yeshe for 20 years now. Have you seen any changes in their methods of outreach with the advent of digital platforms?

Jennifer Fox: Namkhai Norbu's community has become incredibly technologized. He loves cutting-edge technology. He likes to be thinking forward, which is funny for someone who grew up in a tent by a fire, who never saw a plane till he was 17. He was the first to teach Dzogchen openly in the West. He's always a maverick, and in the film you are seeing a very unique teacher who's always a bit radical in the way he approaches his spiritual teachings. He's embraced the Internet, and the whole community connects through listservs around the world. Rinpoche does something very unique. I think he's one of the first — I would assume the first because he usually is first to do many things — who started doing web teachings. People connect in and watch him teaching around the world. Every week, you can actually become part of a live-streamed teaching. The Tibetan Buddhist lineage is based on oral transmission. Many Tibetan Buddhist practices cannot be done without an oral transmission to you from a master who has had that same transmission from a prior master. So, every time you learn a practice, you are actually learning it from someone who has a direct lineage from its source several hundred years ago. People can actually get this oral transmission from him live through web streaming, and because of that will be able to do practices that normally would not be able to unless they met him personally.