issue 21 autumn 03
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The Life, Art and Teachings of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

Author: Michele Martin
Snow Lion 2003, $18.95/£12.95 p/b

In 1999 a 14-year-old boy fled Tibet for India. The 17th Karmapa, spiritual leader of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, had chosen to leave his country clandestinely and to take up a life of exile. Still a teenager, he now lives and teaches in the Indian Himalayas. Michele Martin's Music in the Sky is the first major book dedicated to the Karmapa's life, teachings and art. The first part of the book is biographical. The second is a collection of the Karmapa's teachings, poetry and drawings, and concludes with a history of the entire lineage. There is much in this book that will satisfy the devotee. The second section is perhaps the most interesting, for here we are introduced to the Karmapa through his own words, and this makes sometimes compelling reading. One cannot but be impressed by the assurance with which one so young writes. The material is clear, heartfelt and steeped in considerable learning. When the 17th Karmapa finds his own voice amid the clamour of the tradition, it will be clearly a voice to be reckoned with.

It is a shame, however, that Martin has offered a hagiography of the Karmapa rather than a more considered biography. The account given emphasises what Martin calls 'unusual phenomena': auspicious signs, miracles and wonders. I find claims of such phenomena more suspicious than auspicious, and cannot but believe they obscure more than they illuminate. A more sober and well-researched life story would have made more fascinating reading.

Will Buckingham