The Dance of 17 Lives:
The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s
17th Karmapa

Mick Brown
New York: Bloomsbury, June 2004
320 pp.; illustrated; $25.95 (cloth)

The Politics of Reincarnation

Lea Terhune
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004
308 pp.; illustrated; $14.95 (paper)

Consider the plot line: an unusual teenager—intense, magnetic, perhaps with X-powers—daringly eludes his vigilant guards. His captors have strictly controlled his movement in a remote, picturesque location, preventing him from fully enacting his role as an important leader. Imagine a treacherous escape route across nine hundred miles of icy, mountainous terrain. Imagine disguises, horses, helicopters, near misses, near connections—and, at last, our exhausted hero reaching apparent safety. No sooner is his escape accomplished, however, than he faces another challenge: a youthful rival, two years his senior, who claims to be the true leader. Is our teenager a pretender or the genuine article: a spiritual powerhouse destined to take up a pivotal role in Tibetan Buddhism, as His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa?

This blockbuster tale is no movie, but a true story that continues to unfold in real time. The teen in question is eighteen-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje, to most of the Buddhist community the latest in the long line of Tibetan lamas serving as spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism with a large Western following. When the highly revered Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, died, in 1981, it fell to his four main “heart sons”—his closest disciples and lineage holders—to find his next incarnation. What happened next is an intricate tale of politics and power—spiritual and mundane—that could provide enough material to fill several screenplays. We’ll have to wait for the movies, but two new books join a growing shelf of works that attempt to shed light on the ritual and intrigue surrounding this charismatic young man.

The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa, by British journalist Mick Brown, begins with a “Cast of Principal Characters”—a nod to the drama and complexity of the story. Brown, author of The Spiritual Tourist, tells a tale that educates, fascinates, and ultimately disquiets. He lays the groundwork with a primer on Tibetan history, sociology, and politics that includes a few pertinent pages on the tulku system—the practice initiated by the first Karmapa in the twelfth century of recognizing reincarnate masters—and reveals why the title of rinpoche (“precious one”) does not an enlightened being make. (Like power positions everywhere, most rinpoche jobs are filled according to genuine aptitude, but a very small percentage is given to political appointees, to cement relationships or reward allies.)

Brown moves on to a juicy recounting of some of the main players who brought the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to the West. Here he ranges—perhaps too broadly and erratically—from Bhagavan Das (the American sannyasin who introduced Ram Das to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba) to Chögyam Trungpa to the young Ponlop Rinpoche. He has also gathered stories from early students of the Sixteenth Karmapa, describing many of his mysterious, precognitive, and apparently magical acts, such as making rain for the drought-ridden Hopis, remaining radiant and painfree despite a cancer-riddled body, and leaving his heart and tongue conjoined in the ashes of his funeral pyre.

All too soon the tale turns murky and disturbing. Although nearly everyone, including the Dalai Lama and, in a baldly political maneuver, the Chinese government, acknowledges Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the latest incarnation of the Karmapa, one of his heart sons, Shamar Rinpoche, puts forth another candidate, a shy boy called Tenzin Khyentse, whose monastic name is Thinlay Thaye Dorje. Through luck, karma, and persistence, Brown manages to interview both young men. In the passages recounting these conversations, he hits his stride: they are revealing and unexpectedly touching. At one point Brown is surprised by Thaye Dorje’s offhand reference to “the other Karmapa.” Does he think Ogyen Trinley is, in fact, the Karmapa? Brown asks him. “Saying I am and he’s not is quite stupid, I think,” the teenager answers. “In a way that would be quite selfish. So it’s depending on the people whom they choose to see in this way.” Thaye Dorje comes off as a wistful, albeit self-possessed boy, willing to take on the job of Karmapa (“my main purpose is to teach”), while pursuing the pastimes of a typical teen: cricket, video games, music, and wildlife photography.

Ogyen Trinley, by contrast, is formal and intense, his life already that of a spiritual leader. His days are devoted to study, meditation, and audiences with followers; he is also an accomplished artist and poet. When Brown asks if he’s ever missed being a regular boy, his response is poignant, if unsurprising: “When I have that thought or feeling that I want to go out, like a normal boy, at the same time I remember and understand that there is a benefit for the spiritual reasons in the way I have been brought up, and a very important responsibility for me to benefit all beings.”

Brown is a good, if uneven, writer, and the machinations, deaths, and cover-ups he describes are entertaining, depressing, and bound to keep you turning the pages in a kind of appalled fascination. As he outlines it, neither side in this campaign has been forthright. Early on in the search for the new Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley’s group alluded to a letter, said to have been left by the Sixteenth Karmapa before his death, that was guiding them in their search for his new incarnation. In fact, such a letter was not found until several years later, resulting in one of those messes that are unavoidable when one coverup is needed to clothe another. In the other camp, the Shamarpa, chief promoter of Thaye Dorje, engaged in so many feints, lunges, retreats, and repositionings that it became hard to determine his real intentions.

Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation covers the same material in a more methodical way. Its author, Lea Terhune, is a former CNN correspondent in Asia. Her prose, less vivid than Brown’s but still very readable, lays out a comprehensive, footnoted examination of the history and politics of the Karmapas, from the twelfth century to the present. Terhune’s systematic approach to the material includes a glossary, an index, and several appendices. One appendix describes the Black Hat ceremony, at which the Karmapa is believed to transform himself into Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Another contains Ogyen Trinley’s letter to the Indian government stating his reasons for leaving Tibet (among them, to study with his teachers) and requesting refuge in India.

Like Brown, Terhune delivers the low-down on the rather nasty schism within the Karma Kagyu that arose from the competing claims: to this day small but vocal factions continue to promote Thaye Dorje’s cause. Ogyen Trinley’s followers accuse the Shamarpa of spinning out conspiracy theories, while Thaye Dorje’s supporters level counter-accusations at the Karmapa’s group, particularly Tai Situ Rinpoche, another of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s heart sons. China continues to support Ogyen Trinley, in the hope that he will return to Tibet. Meanwhile, certain factions in the Indian government are curtailing his movements, most notably by not permitting him to visit Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, seat of the Karma Kagyu in exile.

Terhune’s book seems most likely to appeal to readers who already know something about Ogyen Trinley and the circumstances surrounding his recognition, and are looking for the details. It is likely to rankle supporters of Thaye Dorje. In the introduction, Terhune acknowledges the difficulty of presenting an even-handed account of the situation, and makes no secret of her long and close association with Tai Situ (they collaborated on two books).

Unless we are devotees of Ogyen Trinley, or Thaye Dorje, or any other Tibetan Buddhist lineage, the question remains: Should we care who serves as leader of the Karma Kagyu? The answer is yes. The Dalai Lama, with his almost preternatural charm and power, has attained an iconic role on the world stage that serves Tibetans and Tibet sympathizers well. But what happens when His Holiness dies? Even if his next incarnation is quickly located, infants don’t have what it takes to rivet world attention on themselves or what they are presumed to represent. China and others are poised to exploit such a power vacuum. Traditionally, the Karmapa stands high in the Tibetan hierarchy. The present Panchen Lama (who would outrank him) is still a child, and a Beijing appointee. Ogyen Trinley is the most likely person to step into the leadership role, at least temporarily: he’s charismatic, wise beyond his years, and, from all indications, has the X-powers to make sure the Tibetan cause remains big-screen, front-page material.

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