Article #1: “His Master’s Voice”

Posted on Posted in Arguments

Welcome to the first in a series of responses to Mick Brown’s The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17 th Karmapa (Bloomsbury , 2004).

Three Books, One PurposeWriters interested in the Karmapa issue have been quite busy lately. First, in 2003 Michelle Martin put out a wide-eyed tribute, Music in the Sky: The Life, Art and Teachings of the 17th Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje (Snow Lion Publications). Then, this year came a book by Lea Terhune, Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation (Wisdom Publications, 2004).


The book by Mick Brown
Terhune is the long-time secretary of Tai Situ Rinpoche, the major supporter of would-be Karmapa Orgyen Trinley. Her book is a mixture of history of past Karmapas, part hagiography of Orgyen Trinley à la Martin, and part angry polemic against those who would doubt Orgyen Trinley’s authenticity.

Now, we have just seen the publication of yet a third book on the Karmapas, Mick Brown’s The Dance of 17 Lives: the Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17 th Karmapa.

Before we discuss Brown’s text, we might ask, why have supporters of Orgyen Trinley published so many books in the last year? We should remember that supporters of Karmapa Thaye Dorje have won significant legal victories in this same period. The largest of these was the decision of the High Court in New Delhi affirming that the Karmapa Charitable Trust is the sole legal administrator of the Karmapa’s seat at Rumtek Monastery (see “Setting the Record Straight” number 2). If this decision is upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court, then ultimately, it will mean that Karmapa Thaye Dorje will be able to take his place at Rumtek. This would deal a serious blow to the candidacy of Orgyen Trinley.

Tai Situ Rinpoche and his associates must realize the danger that their cause faces now. Perhaps they are concerned that their followers might lose hope in the face of such a defeat in the courts. So we think that their publishing frenzy might be an attempt to win in public relations what they stand to lose in the Indian courts. What better way to boost the morale of their followers than to have three books published supporting their case?

Formerly, a Real Journalist

We believe that Brown’s book is the latest morale-builder for Situ Rinpoche’s allies and followers.

Brown brings credibility that Martin and Terhune do not. He comes to the subject of the Karmapa controversy with respectable credentials. He has done considerable research. And he recounts arguments both pro and con.

But in the end, readers hoping for an objective account of the Karmapa controversy will be sorely disappointed by Brown’s book. In the spirit of the other two books, Brown’s story is little more than advocacy for Orgyen Trinley and his supporters.

Brown presents himself as an open-minded spiritual tourist. But it is clear from the beginning of his narrative that he must have brought a strong prejudice to his research. Like Martin and Terhune, he has woven a tale intended less to inform than to persuade. We see a clear agenda in Brown’s story. He wants to convince readers that:

  • Orgyen Trinley is the true Karmapa
  • Tai Situ Rinpoche, Akong Tulku and other supporters of Orgyen Trinley have acted selflessly and faithfully in the best interests of the Karma Kagyu lineage
  • By contrast, Shamar Rinpoche and those who support Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje have acted only in their own self-interest


On the Surface, More Convincing

There are some differences between Brown’s book and the other two to be sure. Unlike Martin, who presumes to be no more than the devotee that she is, or Terhune, who pretends to be a journalist but is really just a devotee, Brown trades on genuine journalistic credentials.

He is the author of four previous books, including the well-loved title The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief ( Bloomsbury , 1998). Not surprisingly, Brown’s narrative is more urbane and sophisticated than Martin’s loving portrait and more restrained, judicious and apparently objective than Terhune’s acidic screed.

It would be understandable for readers to find Brown’s account more reliable than Terhune’s. He supports most of his major claims with quotes from lamas deeply involved in the controversy. And unlike Terhune, Brown interviewed the major players from both sides of the Karmapa controversy, including both Shamar and Situ Rinpoches. He seems to give both sides of the story.

But readers should not be fooled by Brown’s credentials, his research or his facility with the conventions of journalistic objectivity. In the end, his narrative is deeply flawed writing: 

  • His major sources are unreliable, lack authority and in some cases, are seriously misinformed
  • He uses material that disagrees with his thesis in a selective, one-sided way
  • As a result, Brown makes many embarrassing errors on facts large and small that are widely known to those with a deeper knowledge of the Karmapa controversy


Indeed, Brown makes so many little errors that to target them all would be just like shooting fish in a barrel. Therefore, in a future installment of “Shooting Fish in a Barrel” we will discuss only a few of these small errors, just as examples. But our main task will be to answer the major ungrounded conclusions in Brown’s argument.

But first, it is important to understand Brown’s probable motivation. Why would an experienced journalist produce such a flawed account? We believe that it was not from lack of skill, but by design.

Now, a Devotee First, and a Journalist Second

Like Martin and Terhune, Brown is a devotee of Akong Tulku, one of the main architects of the strategy to promote Orgyen Trinley. We know this from Brown’s life story: For two decades, he has been a member of the Samye Ling Buddhist center in Scotland. There, he became a student of Akong, formerly Tai Situ’s general secretary. From the beginning of the controversy until the two lamas fell out a few years ago, Akong and Situ Rinpoche were partners in planning a rebellion against the authority set up by the late 16 th Karmapa before his death.

For those of us who have been involved in the Karmapa controversy since its beginning, it is clear that despite all his research, Brown is really just speaking in his master’s voice. Given that Brown’s master is Akong Tulku, do we hear the tone of the master in the words of the student?

Unfortunately, we do. This is bad news for an otherwise competent writer like Brown. In the world of Tibetan Buddhism, it would be hard to find a source for information on the Karmapa controversy who is less reliable, less informed or less objective than Akong Tulku.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

To his supporters, Akong Tulku is a charismatic, energetic teacher who applies his considerable energy to spreading Tibetan Buddhism in the modern world. To his detractors, Akong is a Machiavellian poseur who has not let law, shame or religious principles stand in the way of his ambition to become a rich and powerful Tibetan lama.

We won’t pretend to be objective on the subject of Akong. We believe that Akong has misused his position as a Buddhist lama to gain power and wealth for himself. Nonetheless, we will try to state the facts of Akong’s life and his attempts to trade on a connection with the late 16 th Karmapa as we know them. We will draw all our information from first-hand accounts by qualified sources.

We are certain that once these facts are known, readers will see for themselves that Akong is no authority on the Karmapa issue. If Brown used Akong as his primary source, he must have had very poor quality material to work with indeed.

In our next installment, we will relate “The Secret History of Akong Tulku.” It is a tale of ambition, greed, revenge and betrayal. We hope that it will help readers judge whether Brown should have relied for his account of the late 16 th Karmapa on such an informant.


Lama Karma Wangchuk

International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization