A review of the two new Karmapa books

Mar 17, 2004

Category: Book Reviews

A review of the two new Karmapa books by Mary Finnigan, March 2004

I suppose no-one with any degree of interest in Tibetan Buddhism should be surprised at the publication this year of two books about the Karmapa - and the history, mystery and intrigue that surrounds his present incarnation. Most people with an average interest in current affairs would probably not be surprised either - assuming that their memories extend back to 1 January 2000 - when the world woke up to the new millennium -- and the news that a 15 year old Tibetan boy living under close Chinese guard had managed to escape to India.

The boy who made worldwide headlines is Orgyen Trinley Dorje - recognised by mainstream Tibetan Buddhism as the 17th Karmapa - the latest in a lineage of incarnate lamas that pre-dates the Dalai Lamas and kicked off the tulku tradition. The story behind his epic escape would probably be rejected as too far-fetched by publishers of fiction. But publishers of fact were eager to jump onto the Karmapa bandwagon -- because the truth of what happened (and is still happening) encompasses so many factors that stimulate curiosity and imagination.

Two authors (both of them journalists) were commissioned by two publishers (Wisdom Publications and Bloomsbury) to write portrayals of the background and circumstances surrounding the sudden and allegedly unexpected appearance in Dharamsala, India of Orgyen Trinley Dorje. Lea Terhune is American. She wrote Karmapa - The Politics of Reincarnation for Wisdom Publications which came out in January. Mick Brown is British. He wrote The Dance of 17 Lives - The Incredible True Story of Tibet's 17th Karmapa for Bloomsbury which came out in March.

There are clues to the character of each book in the titles and after reading both I have to say that if you only want to buy one, it's a tough decision. Both authors are rigorous researchers. Both write in engaging, easy-read style. Both admit to personal connections with Tibetan Buddhism. But there are differences in content and emphasis.

Lea Terhune flashbacks into a comprehensive overview of the religion and politics of pre-Communist Tibet as a precursor to the story of the Karmapas, which she recounts in painstaking historical detail.

She is thorough, efficient and respectful. She acknowledges awkward controversies - but dodges the deeper levels of thought and motivation from the "other side". Lea's book is as close as you'll get to an authorised Karma Kagyu version of events. For a "lay" reader unfamiliar with the machinations of Tibetan Buddhist hierarchies she lays it all out, so that by the end of the book you would know a lot more about a previously opaque area of human experience. Of the two, hers is the more scholarly approach.

Mick Brown, on the other hand, is a master of the human interest interview - as anyone who has followed his contributions over many years to the UK's Telegraph Magazine would testify. Mick has an open mind. He sets out to explore facts and ends up much more interested in people than events - and not afraid to expose his own feelings as the process unfolds.

Lea Terhune is a long-time student of Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the principle players in the Karmapa drama. Mick Brown is sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhism, but not a card carrying member. So his view is simultaneously non-attached and emotionally engaged. He is willing to be awestruck, confused and delighted by the people he meets - from both sides of the Karmapa divide. Mick is even-handed, but also clearly critical in his responses to some of the dramatis personae. There's some history in his book, but it is sparingly applied and secondary to the motivation of the principal players in a fascinating esoteric controversy which remains tantalisingly incomplete. If you want warmth, humour and depth of character field - the choice is Mick.



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