When the 16th incarnation of the Karmapa was dying at a hospital in Illinois in 1981, his doctor observed that his compassion for those around him seemed to burn even brighter. It was, the doctor recalled, as though he had come to hospital just to cheer everybody up. Devotees, who can be expected to experience intense emotion near their guru, often say such things, doctors less often. Whatever qualities the 16th Karmapa possessed, they clearly touched a wider circle than those already faithful.
There are many such anecdotes in Mick Brown's lively and judicious account of the Karmapas, a story that begins in 12th-century Tibet and reaches its climax in modern India with a violent dispute over the succession to the 16th Karmapa. In between, the narrative roams across territory as wide as the reach of the Karmapas' influence - from Woodstock and Dumfries to Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh.
The battle over the succession that began with the death of the 16th Karmapa still continues. There are two pretenders - one recognised by the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government and most of the Karmapa's followers; the other championed by a dissident lama (the nephew of the previous incarnation) and his retinue of largely foreign activists. The story of the dispute is both a primer in the darker aspects of Tibetan theological politics and a sobering account of what happened when Tibetan Buddhism went west.
The dispute itself is a minefield of conflicting passions and perceptions. A less skilled guide might have trodden on any number of explosives that lie just beneath the surface, but Mick Brown picks his way unscathed through this landscape of good intentions, cynical plots, individual heroism, exotic tradition and esoteric practice, pointing out the path for his readers in good-humoured fashion.
The Karma Kagyu were the first school of Tibetan Buddhism to search for tulkus - reincarnations of great teachers. When a teacher dies, the identification and subsequent education of the tulku is the primary task of his close followers. Both intellectually and spiritually, the transmission of the accumulated knowledge of the lineage depends on the chain remaining intact.
The Karma Kagyu were a powerful school in Tibet, but lost out to the Gelugpa in the 15th century when the 5th Dalai Lama became king. In 1959, the 16th Karmapa fled into exile in India together with the current Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of religious and lay Tibetans. The Dalai Lama settled at Dharamsala, the Karmapa at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, from where the Karma Kagyu line began a vigorous and successful expansion into the west. By the time of the 16th Karmapa's death, it was the wealthiest and best-established of the schools in exile.
It is the tradition of the Karmapas to leave written instructions on where the next incarnation will appear, but this time the instructions could not be found. Four regents were appointed from among the young lamas closest to the 16th Karmapa, but years went by without a resolution. Then, in 1989, Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the four, claimed to have discovered the prophecy in a pouch given to him by the Karmapa. A fellow regent, Shamar Rinpoche (Shamarpa), disputed it. In 1992, a third regent, Jamgon Rinpoche, who was due to travel to China to try to locate the new Karmapa, was killed in a car crash.
Ogyen Trinley Dorje, widely recognised today as the 17th Karmapa, was found in China in 1992 and, with the approval of the Chinese government, installed at Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa, the Karmapas' traditional seat. There he stayed until his dramatic escape and arrival in India in January 2001. Shamarpa, however, had never accepted him and in 1994 announced that he had found his own young candidate, Thaye Dorje, whom the Chinese authorities permitted to leave Tibet for India without difficulty. Shamarpa's western followers launched a media war against Tai Situ and his candidate. Supporters of the two lamas slugged it out in the courts, on the streets and on the internet.
In India, Ogyen Trinley found that he had escaped from one oppression only to be placed under virtual house arrest on the orders of the Indian government, which thought that he and Tai Situ were agents sent from Beijing to stir up trouble. He was unable to visit Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, or to claim the most important insignia of his office, the black hat that was now under armed guard at Rumtek.
The Shamarpa had been in trouble before. In the 18th century, the 10th Shamarpa accompanied his brother, the 6th Panchen Lama, to Beijing, where the Panchen died of smallpox. The emperor made a generous gift of gold coins to the dead man's family. As the funeral cortege wound its way back to Tibet, the Shamarpa quarrelled over the treasure and then fled to Nepal, where he incited the king to send his army to invade Tibet. The Tibetans had to call for the assistance of Chinese imperial troops and the then Dalai Lama, incensed by Shamarpa's behaviour, forbade his reincarnation and buried his crown under the courthouse steps in Lhasa - which, for a Karma Kagyu lama, is about as bad as it can get.
It was nearly 200 years later that the 14th Dalai Lama was prevailed upon to lift the ban and the present incarnation was recognised formally. To his opponents, Shamarpa is as greedy and ambitious in the 21st century as he was in the 18th. Then he turned to Nepal for support; today, he relies largely on foreign devotees, some of whom have taken up his cause with a militancy seldom seen outside Trotskyite cells.
The dispute over the Karmapa's reincarnation might have been just another arcane row. But the Karmapa's escape to India and his growing presence as a charismatic religious leader has given the affair a new dimension. The Dalai Lama is fast approaching 70, and the influence of the next most important Gelugpa lama, the Panchen Lama, is compromised by a dispute with Beijing: the Dalai Lama's candidate has been detained since he was seven; Beijing's candidate is not respected. The Dalai Lama has made a point of embracing the young Karmapa and of trying to overcome the sectarian disputes that divide the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Exiled Tibet needs a figurehead, and it is no longer unthinkable that the 17th Karmapa might play that role, in the absence of the Dalai Lama, or during the minority of the next incarnation. For that possibility to come to fruition, however, it would be better if the dispute were settled. For now, neither candidate has absolute sway - over the followers, the monastery at Rumtek or, most important of all, over the crown woven of dakini hair that is the symbol of the Karmapa's authority.
Isabel Hilton is the author of The Search for the Panchen Lama (Penguin)