The Dance of 17 Lives by Mick Brown $220 Bloomsbury Forget high hats, pure thoughts and mystical reverie. Mick Brown's look at leadership in Tibetan Buddhism has all the intrigue and subterfuge of an American presidential race. It begins in 1981 with the death at 58 of the 16th Karmapa, the spiritual leader of a major Buddhist school called the Kagyu. He left a void awkwardly filled by a 'rotating regency' of disciples known as the Four Heart Sons. Wheels turned slowly until 1992, when one of the quartet, Tai Situ, presented a traditional 'prediction letter' from the 16th Karmapa disclosing the whereabouts of his next incarnation. The letter led to a ruddy-cheeked seven-year-old Khampa boy, Ogyen Trinley. Enter Shamar Rinpoche, another of the Four Heart Sons, who claimed the letter was forged. The Dalai Lama and most members of the Tibetan Buddhist establishment backed Tai Situ. So did Beijing in an extraordinary alliance. As a result, before the end of 1992, Ogyen Trinley was enthroned at Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa. Shamar struck back, announcing Indian-born Tibetan Thaye Dorje as the true Karmapa. He was enthroned in 1994 in Delhi. Six years later, Ogyen Trinley jumped from a monastery window, ran to a waiting jeep, and escaped to India. The Karmapa and the bespectacled pretender were interviewed by Brown, a former columnist for Britain's Sunday Times newspaper who has a fascination for power and the occult. His previous books include Richard Branson: The Inside Story and The Spiritual Tourist. So, which of the feuding parties, whose supporters came to blows, is right? Brown avoids a verdict. However, he suggests that Thaye Dorje simply fails to measure up. 'There was little sense of the authority so apparent in Ogyen Trinley,' he writes. 'Rather, Thaye Dorje had the shy, polite air of a Tibetan English-language student.' Brown highlights a striking resemblance between Ogyen Trinley and his forerunner: 'The same broad face, the same steady expression with a suggestion of sternness in the eyes; the same big-boned physique.' Observations such as this tend to get lost in the wealth of background detail. The Dance can read like an unexpurgated sacred text, without the refinement. The book is also hampered by the Karmapa's inaccessibility and reticence. Two-thirds of the way through his 300-odd pages, Brown writes: 'My meetings with him would be restricted to tantalizingly brief windows in his regular audiences - 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there.' The reader may wonder whether, even under ideal circumstances, given his youth, the incumbent would have had much to say. Either way, aside from Brown's reflections on his impressively mature air of command and gimlet gaze, the Buddhist boy god evades elucidation as neatly as he did the Chinese authorities. Now based at 'the Shangri-La of the Himalayas', Sikkim, he remains an enigma, shrouded by minders.