Music in the Sky Revelations of a Tibetan monk by Michele Martin Reviewed by Tsering Namgyal, 23 December 2003 Asian Times
When the teenaged Karmapa Lama fled from Tibet to India in January 2000, he renewed the hopes of many Tibetans exiled in that country. Orgyen Trinley Dorje is recognized - at least in some quarters - as the reincarnation of the widely popular 16th Karmapa - head of monastery - of the important Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, which has its headquarters in Sikkim, a small state run by India but claimed by China.
The story of his birth to nomadic parents in eastern Tibet, his enthronement at his headquarters in Tibet and the anecdotes of his miraculous spiritual powers have captured the world's imagination. But while nearly four years have passed since Karmapa arrived in India, readers had yet to see a full length book focusing on this awe-inspiring story. Thus, the recent publication of The Music in the Sky: The Life, Art and Teachings of the Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje by Michele Martin is timely and propitious.
The first part of the book tells the story of the search for the present Karmapa and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his birth. These signs included highly auspicious dreams of his parents, singing sparrows on the top of the family tent and the blasting noise of conch shells, during the time of his birth, all of which were enough to convince the parents of the importance of their new-born baby. These observations and many others are cross-checked with the interviews with those present at the scene, including the 17th Karmapa's sister, Ngodup Pelzom, who is currently in India.
In the close circles of the students and the followers, the Karmapa's spiritual powers are often discussed and widely written about, the most well-known of which includes leaving codified letters predicting his next birth.
Before the 16th Karmapa passed away while in exile in Zion, Illinois in 1981, he, too, is said to have left a letter predicting his next birth, in the custody of a close disciple and a high lama of the Kagyu tradition, Tai Situ Rinpoche, in 1981 in Calcutta, now called Kolkata.
As the author maintains, the letter, which is also included in the book, was clear in its message. It contains the first words of both parents names, the name of the township, and the year in which the child was born.
In the second part, Martin moves into investigative journalism to detail the harrowing escape to India - following the paths of thousands of Tibetans who flee to India every year - and the gaining of the political asylum, his spiritual education and his pilgrimages within India.
After arriving in India, the young lama lived up to his reputation. During his first formal press conference given in August 2001, the 15-year-old dazzled the scores of international journalists in attendance with his maturity and confidence.
When asked by reporters about a Chinese government claim that Karmapa wrote in a letter he left behind that he went to India to get his ceremonial Black Hat, his denial was flat - and not without humor. "I did not in the letter mention the Black Crown [Hat]," he said. "Why would I want to retrieve that from India and bring it back to China anyway? The only thing that would be served by so [doing] would be to place the Hat on [President] Jiang Zemin's head."
Clearly, his activities helped boost the morale of the fellow Tibetans, forcing a leading Tibetan filmmaker to compare Karmapa's presence as a "reviving gust of fresh air which blew away the confusion and inertia". The third part of the book carries an English translation of his poetry collection, the most famous one of which he wrote while escaping and was widely circulated on the Internet. The poem was later adapted into a song by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, in India, the exiled headquarters of the Dalai Lama.
While skeptics would chose to differ, the three poems from the 16th Karmapa, the translation of which are also included in the third section, should be lauded for their amazing prophetic accuracy. In the most famous poem written when he was just 17 in 1940, he predicts the Chinese occupation of Tibet (which happened in 1950) and his eventual flight to India 19 years later - in 1959:
Not now, but on a distant tomorrow, it will be decided. Both the vulture and I know here to go. The vulture soars into the depths of space; We people do not stay but go to India.
Unfortunately, as expected for a religious leader of such stature, the 17th Karmapa is no stranger to controversy. Rival factions continue to contest in the Indian courts his role as a legatee of the 16th Karmapa, contesting that there is another young claimant to the Karmapa throne, Karmapa Thaye Dorje. On December 19, the Delhi High Court issued a summons to the Dalai Lama and the Indian government claiming the declaration of Urgyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa was illegal, and called for his expulsion from India. The case, filed by Lama S N Singh, alleges that the Dalai Lama was wrong in backing the recognition of Orgyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa, and claims that his birth date in 1985 is wrong, saying that medical records indicate that he is much older.
While he is still banned from visiting the grand international headquarters of the Karmapas in the Indian state of Sikkim, which borders China, he is relatively free to travel to other parts of the country. He currently lives near Dharamsala, where he gives weekly audience to visitors from all over the world.
Despite the author's deep knowledge of Buddhism, Martin did not turn the book into a spiritual treatise, and definitely has all readers in mind. The writer deftly resists the hagiographic tendency often seen in religious biographies, while remaining sincere to the subtle underpinnings of the tradition. By writing the biography of this impressively inspiring teenaged monk, Martin has done as a signal service to all those interested in reading this fascinating story.