Curren, who has been a practicing Buddhist for ten years, tenders a rather depressing account of fractious scheming in Tibetan Buddhism’s major school.
All is not well in the house of Karma Kagyu, the most widespread of Tibetan Buddhism’s four schools. There’s a dispute over the identity of the 17th Karmapa, the highest lama in the branch, but it’s a dispute that reeks of religious politics and sectarian rivalries. Up front, the author notes that he is a student of one of the controversy’s main characters, the lama Shamar Rinpoche. Yet Curren’s examination of the dispute is unsullied by bias, and his concern–the health of Tibetan Buddhism–feels genuine. To provide sufficient background, he first offers a history of Karma Kagyu, with special emphasis on the role of tulku–reincarnated lamas who postpone the bliss of enlightenment to continue their teaching–and in particular, the Karmapa, whose lineage traces back farther than that of the Dalai Lama. With the advent of the Karmapa, power shifted to the lamas, no longer vested in aristocrats vying for control and disrupting the religious work of the monks. The current imbroglio came to pass when two important figures in the school backed different candidates: one the product of an engaged Buddhism, which strives to address universal political and social issues, the other a more conservative figure, principally concerned with teaching and keeping religion free of politics. While these grand visions are certainly at play, writes Curren, there is also much seedy business occurring in the background. Exiled communities are prone to intrigue–without the traditional strictures of life in Tibet, the Karmapa saga has become a showcase of greed, revenge and naÃ¯ve credulity. Spiritual leaders have tarred themselves with episodes of violence, deceit and–surprise, surprise–litigation.
A sad story smartly told. (twenty illustrations, not seen)