Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Dance of Seventeen Lives, by Mick Brown

This intelligent and well-written biography-cum-travelogue explores the life of the 17th Karmapa, the teenage lama who fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 2000 for India. Brown, a freelance journalist who began the book as a magazine article after the lama's daring escape, traces the Karmapa's story but also uses the account to give Western readers a quick sketch of the nature, history and perennial conflicts of Tibetan Buddhism. Unlike other Western writers who tend to romanticize Buddhism in Asia, Brown evenhandedly paints it as a religion that is as rife with political considerations and human foibles as it is with miraculous incarnations and incomparable teachers. At times the early historical chapters can be too detailed, but Brown's balanced tone serves him well, and the writing is superbly accessible. He is particularly interested in the 11 years that elapsed between the 16th Karmapa's death in 1981 and the recognition of his seven-year-old successor in 1992; Brown shows these years to be characterized by feuding and accusations among the 16th's closest disciples. In the later chapters, he also chronicles China's mid-1990s crackdown on Buddhist practitioners in Tibet who remained loyal to the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government labeled a dangerous villain. Far from being a mere report on the 17th Karmapa and his exodus, this is an excellent history of modern Tibetan Buddhism on a broad scale.

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