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)

Karmapa:
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.)

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