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The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet's 17th Karmapa    by Mick Brown order for
Dance of 17 Lives
by Mick Brown
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Mick Brown tells the story of the enthroning of a young boy as the 17th Karmapa at the Kagyu ancestral Tsurphu monastery in Tibet in 1992. It's notable as 'the first time that Beijing had formally approved the recognition of a reincarnate since the Chinese had assumed absolute control of Tibet.'

Ironically, though the Chinese and the Dalai Lama were in rare accord, there was dissension amongst the 'heart sons' of the 16th Karmapa on the identification of the reincarnation. This encompassed wild rumors, a suspicious death, accusations of forgery, and the promotion of a rival contestant by Shamar Rinpoche in 1994. It gets even more complicated, as the 17th Karmapa (the one officially recognized by the majority of senior members of the Kagyu order and by the Dalai Lama) fled Tibet for Indian exile in 1999, to the consternation of Indian officials. Concerned about the Chinese response, they have kept the young man under guard at Gyuto Monastery near Dharamsala and denied him access to the Karmapa's rich Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim.

Brown explores what it means to be selected as an incarnate (tulku) - separation from family, intensive study, and the expectation 'to perform with suitable bearing and gravitas religious ceremonies that to any other child would seem interminable.' The Karmapa is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu. They were traditionally travelling teachers - the 3rd, 4th and 5th taught Emperors of China, and incarnates have been spiritual teachers to the royal families of Sikkim and Bhutan. They have also been social administrators, reformers, and renowned as 'great miracle workers'. The author gives insights into the life of the charismatic 16th Karmapa, who left Tibet in 1959, visited Europe and America in the 1970s, and died in 1981. He explores the development of Western interest in Tibetan Buddhism, and discusses the Chinese occupation of Tibet, alternating between barbarism and more liberal policies, linked with attempts to control the region's religious life.

Though I found some of the time shifts in the presentation of material confusion, I recommend The Dance of 17 Lives as a fascinating portrayal of a major Tibetan Buddhist figure. It reveals turbulent politics underlying the serenity of religious life, as well as current issues regarding the Karmapa's future role (the Dalai Lama, now in his sixties, has stated he will not be reborn in an occupied Tibet).

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