The Incredible True Story of Tibet's 17th Karmapa

By Mick Brown. Bloomsbury. 304 pp. $25.95 Many adolescents used to welcome their 18th birthday because they could finally drink legally. Ogyen Trinley Dorje, however, has received a different sort of present since turning 18 last year: not one but three major biographies telling his life story. A dozen bios might not be so farfetched, for Ogyen Trinley's life seems a real-world fairy tale, his story a last chance to enter a lost era of wonders.

Who is Ogyen Trinley? He is the 17th Karmapa, which leads to the further question: Who or what in the world is a Karmapa? The Karmapa is -- if not historically, then certainly at present -- the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, just behind the Dalai Lama. In January 2000 the 15-year-old Karmapa made newspaper headlines everywhere by engineering his own escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet -- an escape that for drama and daring makes most Hollywood fare pale by comparison.

Even without the adventure, the 17th Karmapa's story is something the world will likely never see again. Ogyen Trinley represents the first -- and the last -- time the Dalai Lama and the Chinese communists agreed on anything. In 1992, the Dalai Lama, relying on traditional methods of divination, recognized the young boy, then located in Tibet, as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa. The Chinese authorities denounce Buddhism, reincarnation and all religion as reactionary superstition, yet, astoundingly, they certified Ogyen Trinley as a "Living Buddha." They thus hoped to keep this key Buddhist figure in a gilded cage and to teach him to sing their song.

In The Dance of 17 Lives the English journalist Mick Brown is less interested in Sino-Tibetan politics than in the religious and human astonishments that the Karmapa's life keeps unfolding. The story as Brown relates it began long ago, in the 12th century, when the first Karmapa determined that, after dying, he would direct his consciousness-stream into the embryonic infant body that could best help others. Nine centuries and 16 lifetimes later, the Karmapa is, putatively, still doing just that. The obvious problem was how was anyone to recognize the young toddler for the majestic reincarnation he supposedly is?

The method is unique even in Tibetan Buddhism: Before he dies, a Karmapa writes a letter detailing where and under what circumstances he will be reborn. Yet for eight puzzling years after the 16th Karmapa's death in 1981, no such letter could be found. Finally Tai Situ, a leading disciple, remembered an amulet that the Karmapa had given him. Opening it, he found a letter that gave a woman's name, "Lolaga," a man's name, "Dondrup," and specified where in remotest Tibet to look for the new reincarnation. A search party set out for that far terrain, which nomads named Dondrup and Lolaga indeed used for pasturing, only not at that time of year. But their young son kept beseeching them to go to the pasture early, and, yielding to his inexplicable insistence, they started off and thus ran smack into the search party. The rest, as they say, is history -- the very peculiar history related in The Dance of 17 Lives.

A reader curious solely about Ogyen Trinley may well prefer Michelle Martin's biography of him, Music in the Sky, for it is more succinct, more dramatic and beautifully written. Martin is a disciple, though, while Mick Brown is not a Buddhist (his next book will be about legendary record producer Phil Spector), and his neutral journalistic tone is useful for reporting so much that seems incredible. Brown's canvas is also wider, and in fact the most fascinating part of The Dance of 17 Lives does not concern the 17th Karmapa but rather his amazing predecessor.

Brown has in effect written a dual biography, in which it is the 16th Karmapa who had a full lifetime to show what a Karmapa can do. Everyone Brown interviewed commented on the earlier Karmapa's joie de vivre, charisma and radiance, typically observing, "If ever there were a living god, Karmapa is it." Certainly his doings appear hardly those of an ordinary man. When he visited Arizona, for example, a Native American chief complained about the drought, and the Karmapa said he would pray about it. Within an hour a downpour drenched the parched reservation. Later, when the Karmapa was dying in Chicago, ravaged by cancer and tuberculosis, he claimed he felt no pain and acted as though he were in the hospital solely to cheer up the patients and staff. One doctor insisted on giving him morphine, however, and with his mind no longer able to control his body, his vital signs immediately plummeted. Before he died, he forbade any expression of grief, promising he would return "more powerful, much greater, much more learned."

The teenage 17th Karmapa, whether a reincarnation or not, does give every indication, Brown argues, of outpacing and outshining his great predecessor -- a young man who already radiates "a sort of primordial power . . . like a force of nature." "There is something dazzling about him," Brown continues, "a regal quality, an air of self-assurance and authority uncommon in anyone, and all the more extraordinary in one so young." Much is at stake in whether this continues to be so. The Dalai Lama is now 70, and when he eventually dies, the 17th Karmapa will likely become the rallying point and unifying symbol for Tibetan exiles now scattered like straws across the globe. The strangest thing about this strange tale, Brown suggests, is that this young man is already equal to the responsibility that shall befall him. *

Jeffery Paine is the author of the recently published "Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West," as well as "Father India" and "The Poetry of Our World."

Ogyen Trinley, Tibet's 17th Karmapa