The Dance of 17 Lives by Mick Brown

Lamas and their karma
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In a memorable passage in Tristes Tropiques, that arch-structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss plotted the relations between politics and successive "world religions". He sketched a progressive accommodation between the two most contentious fields of human concern. In essence, he suggested that Buddhism, coming first, simply declined to engage in politics. Christianity represents a halfway house, drawing a clear demarcation between faith and government: "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's". In sharp contrast, Islam represents a total bonding between religion and politics; in its ideal form, the social and the religious communities are the same. Finally, in Marxism, Levi-Strauss identified a fourth and culminating position: a creed stripped of any theological content.

The strength of this analysis lies in its willingness to examine any religious system in ideological terms: something much easier to do 50 years ago than today, when a combination of cultural relativism, political correctness and a certain nervousness wrought by recent events makes it difficult to look any religion in the face. To suggest that monotheism in general might well be past its sell-by date would cause more than religious enthusiasts to palpitate.

From a descriptive viewpoint, Lévi-Strauss used too broad a brush. In Sufism, Islam hosts a practice that has often shunned politics in its search for spiritual truths, while the history of Christian nations is pitted with attempts to amalgamate the divine and temporal, down to South American liberation theology. Secularism may still be on the make, but its triumph looks less assured now than at any time in the past 100 years.

Tibetan Buddhism is another case in point. Mere mention of it can cause critical faculties to shut down. Yet no other religion is so ostentatiously theatrical in its apparent pursuit of release from worldly cares. It is a vast, swirling ballet of ritual and omenising superstition whose vibrant colours and musical accompaniments can easily blind the observer to its political viscera.

Emerging about 1300 years ago, it seized upon the Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of rebirth, adroitly turning it into a means of perpetuating an unrivalled style of theocracy. Many high lamas apart from the Dalai Lama are "discovered" among new-born males: reincarnations of predecessors likely to manifest, because of the cryptic means of discovery, in high-born families. Sometimes, though, a dead lama resurfaces in humbler circumstances, replenishing the stock of the ruling class, and dangling the carrot of inclusivity before the downtrodden. As a result, Tibet became besotted with an extraordinary, faintly homoerotic cult of the boy that prevents women from fulfilling their potential in Tibetan society.

All this is brought beautifully home in Mick Brown's study of a particular reincarnation and its ramifications. It is told as a wickedly engaging yarn, set against the dismal backdrop of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The lineage of the Gyalwa Karmapas, leaders of one of three "Red Hat" sects, stretches to the 12th century, before the "Yellow Hat" Dalai Lamas, who established their ascendency in Tibet in the 17th century.

In 1981, the 16th Karmapa died in exile. Eight years later, his reincarnation was found in eastern Tibet: the four-year-old Apo Gaga, renamed Ogyen Trinley Dorje. But already, the four regents entrusted with the management of the sect until the 17th Karmapa came of age had fallen out. One of them, Shamar Riponche, hotly contested Ogyen Trinley's legitimacy, advancing a rival claimant to the third most important throne in the hierarchy.

These are the bare bones of what quickly balloons into an astonishing saga of unholy intrigue and arcane back-stabbing. Determined to reassert the autonomy of his sect, Shamar challenges not only his colleagues, but the Dalai Lama himself. At monasteries in Tibet, Sikkim and India, monks clash violently as the hapless 17th Karmapa is accused of being a Chinese agent, even though he has risked life and limb to flee Tibet.

The fun of the thing is in the sometimes phantasmagoric, sometimes lurid detail, for which Brown has an unerring eye. Or would be, were the present plight of the Tibetans not so desperate. That their leaders should still indulge in such shenanigans adds to the plight, but also helps explain it. Such is the hold lamaism has over the Tibetan mind, that a more contemporary liberation politics flies out of the window.

Yet Brown delivers much more than a cautionary romp. As journalistic sleuth, he eschews the theoretical as and when he can, but also adroitly avoids overt condemnation of those whose antics he purveys. Eerily, the "real" 17th Karmapa emerges as a preternaturally shrewd intelligence. Meanwhile, beyond his gaudily tattered scenarios, Brown affords us regular glimpses of Buddhism's deeper, and abiding, humanism.

Justin Wintle's 'Rough Guide History of Islam' is published by Penguin