In the spiritual hierarchy of the Karma Kagyu school, the Shamarpa is second only to the Karmapa.
He is the emanation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Limitless Light: a living example of the appearance of Amitabha in our world in the form of a Mahabodhisattva.
The Tibetan title of Shamar means “the lama of the ruby-red crown”, named after the replica of the Karmapa’s own crown which he bestowed on the Shamarpa. The successive incarnations of the Shamarpas are also known as the “Red Hat Karmapas”. The 4th Karmapa affirmed to the 2nd Shamarpa:
“You are the one manifestation, while I am the other. Therefore, the responsibility to maintain the continuity of the teachings of the Kagyu lineage rests equally on you as it does on me.”
In the Bhadrakalpa Sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni prophesized; “in future, a Mahabodhisattva with a ruby-red crown shall come to the suffering multitude, leading them out of their cyclic bewilderment and misery.” In the Shamarpa, the Buddha’s prediction was fulfilled. The activity of the Shamarpas as a successive incarnation line has been to preserve the entirety of the Buddha’s legacy, especially the teachings coming from the great Indian mahasiddhas and Tibetan masters. Over centuries in the Kagyu lineage, the Karmapas and Shamarpas have reciprocally recognized each other, their relationship being that of a master and disciple.
Birth and early life
The 14th Shamarpa was born on the 27th October, 1952 in the Kingdom of Derge, Eastern Tibet. In 1956 he travelled with his brother, Jigme Rinpoche, to Tsurphu Monastery, the main seat of the Karmapas, where they stayed for two years.
In the summer of 1956, at four years old, he revealed his identity as the Shamarpa by recognizing old monks from Yangpochen monastery, the ancestral seat of the Shamarpas. Later that year, the 16th Karmapa and his entourage, including Shamar Rinpoche and Jigme Rinpoche, travelled to Bodh Gaya, India where they had been invited to participate in the 2,500th Buddha Jayanthi celebrations.
Having travelled for several months in India and Nepal, they returned to Tibet, visiting Yangpochen monastery on the way. It was the first time in this incarnation that Shamar Rinpoche had set foot there. The monastery had been converted to the Gelugpa sect during the time of the Tibetan Government’s ban on the institution of the Shamarpas. The statues of the former Shamarpa incarnations remained, however it is said that their red hats had been replaced with yellow ones. Pointing to the statues, the young Shamar Rinpoche exclaimed, “This is me,” and placed on his head a red hat that had rested in the lap of one of the statues.
The institution of the Shamarpas
On the 16th Karmapa’s request, the 14th Dalai Lama had informally agreed to reinstitute the Shamarpa, and in 1958 in Tsurphu, the 16th Karmapa privately enthroned him. Known at that time only as “Dorje Rinpoche”, his identity still had to be concealed.
After the Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, Shamar Rinpoche joined the Karmapa on his flight into exile, first crossing into Bhutan and then settling in the Kingdom of Sikkim at the invitation of the Chogyal. From the beginning of the 1960s, Shamar Rinpoche started his education and training at the old Rumtek Monastery established in the time of the 9th Karmapa. In the following years he received the complete teachings and transmissions of the Karma Kagyu school from the 16th Karmapa.
1964 marked the official lifting of the ban on the Shamarpa institution by the Tibetan Government in Exile. Shamar Rinpoche was officially enthroned and placed by the 16th Karmapa as a lineage holder on the highest position after himself. The 16th Karmapa considered the reinstatement of the Shamarpas after a ban of 170 years to be one of his main achievements.
In the same way, following the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, Shamar Rinpoche stood as a single figure – for truth and against the overwhelming political might of great nations, to find the genuine incarnation of the 16th Karmapa and preserve the authentic Karma Kagyu lineage. In the same way, in conformity with the spiritual traditions of the lineage, he formally recognized Trinley Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa, enthroning him in the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (KIBI) in New Delhi in 1994. In the following years, he returned to Karmapa the entirety of the lineage transmission, fully training and empowering him.
Upon the tragic news of His master’s passing, His Holiness Karmapa Thaye Dorje, writing from KIBI, evoked the Buddha’s core teaching on impermanence, but also proclaimed that while Shamar Rinpoche’s physical manifestation has left this world, his role as a teacher continues, and his aspirations and blessings will remain forever.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, sincere messages of condolence for Shamar Rinpoche’s students and family, particularly for his brother Jigme Rinpoche, streamed forth from many eminent Buddhist figures with whom Shamar Rinpoche held a close bond. From Nepal, the lamas of Ka Nying Shedrup Ling monastery, led by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, echoed the feelings of countless Dharma practitioners everywhere: “It is as though the blackness of night has suddenly swallowed up our world.”
On the direction of Karmapa Thaye Dorje, hundreds of Karma Kagyu centres and monasteries worldwide commenced the practice of Amitabha, the Buddha of Limitless Light. Lama Ole Nydahl addressed his students and friends in Diamond Way Buddhist Centres worldwide:
“We just had the deep loss of HH Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche from this world. However, as a Bodhisattva of unique qualities—both during and between his incarnations—he offers indestructible opportunities for many to absorb aspects of his immense blessing and insight. Therefore: till we have the chance of meeting him in an incarnate situation again, let us remember him while invoking the Buddha of Limitless Light: OM AMI DEWA HRIH. He was truly a unique teacher and great example.”
Rinpoche had recently been visiting Europe to teach in numerous Buddhist centres in the Karma Kagyu Dharma family, including Dhagpo Kagyu Ling in Dordogne, France (the main European seat of the Karmapa), Kagyu Ling in Manchester, UK (the main centre of the Dechen Community), the Beaufoy Institute in London, which would become the final Diamond Way Buddhist Centre he would visit in this incarnation, and finally Renchen Ulm, the European Headquarters of his own network of Bodhi Path centres, which he had worked to establish since the mid-1990s.
The Kagyu Crisis
Shamar Rinpoche was perhaps most widely known for the role he played in the crisis that engulfed the Karma Kagyu lineage following the death of the 16th Karmapa, a role that earned him both immense gratitude and bitter condemnation. He protected the Karma Kagyu tradition and his students in ways many cannot even comprehend, freeing them from sectarian hegemony and the mire of Sino-Tibetan geopolitics. And in doing so, he triumphed over unimaginable adversity.
For a Tibetan Rinpoche he was very unusual: he was not a man of compromises. He refused to play games or tolerate manipulation. Unafraid to challenge anybody if he felt it correct, he stood without concern for his own reputation or any personal agenda. Honesty, courage, and absolute fearlessness defined his personality; stable like a rock, unwavering in commitment to his ideas, and unchangeable no matter how big the obstacle, always continuing and always looking ahead.
Being fully aware of his position as Shamarpa, he never fell into pride or arrogance, combining his gravitas with humility. Possessing a natural gentleness and compassion, he could also be bold and direct in his communication, especially when it came to the complex matters of the Kagyu crisis. This was encapsulated in his 2006 open letter to Professor Robert Thurman, who had ventured into the problems of the Karma Kagyu school. In the letter, Rinpoche coined the term “package believers” to refer to Buddhists who fail to examine the details of situations and fall prey to fanaticism. In reference to “proof” presented to the Tibetan Government in Exile regarding the recognition of the 17th Karmapa, Shamar Rinpoche explained:
“There exists no tradition of asking for proof of such types of recognition. This is because the process is beyond what people can perceive with their normal senses. So I myself, being a Shamarpa, I am the proof of the authority to recognize Karmapa according to the traditions of the Karma Kagyu lineage.”
It is true that, in conformity with his role as the lineage holder he had no choice other than to devote his life to defending the embattled Karma Kagyu tradition, but he was much more than that role or that institution. Regarding tulkus, Shamar Rinpoche had stated:
“Since every incarnation is a new life, credit from great deeds in the past is not transferred automatically to each new incarnation… Greatness must be earned anew in each life.”
Shamar Rinpoche’s activity
Beneath the Red Crown there was indeed a great man. Far beyond his responsibility in the Karmapa crisis and his formal status in the Karma Kagyu school, he was an exceptionally realized lama, but was also able to display his activity on so many worldly levels.
Shamar Rinpoche was a great humanist and philanthropist. His book “Creating a Transparent Democracy,” which lays out a framework for establishing a genuine democratic system of governance that promotes the welfare and prosperity of a population, was written from the motivation that someone might use its ideas to help a small country like Nepal. Rinpoche was not concerned with politics per se, but generally in the happiness and well-being of humankind at individual and societal levels.
Shamar Rinpoche really could be called a genius. His love of learning and constantly inquisitive mind endowed him with exceptional knowledge of the world. He was hugely respectful to academics and those who studied. His ability to explore, deeply analyze and reflect on everything, from culture, science, physics, history, and politics, combined with his deep intelligence, enabled him to connect all information he gathered in life to arrive at very particular, individual conclusions. His interest in all outer disciplines and inner emotional phenomena gave him great insight into the universe and people.
Rinpoche’s concern for the happiness of others was not limited to humans, but also towards animals and the planet itself. He founded the Infinite Compassion Foundation to promote the humane treatment of animals raised for consumption of meat and other products such that they will not be forced to live and die in brutal conditions. Seeing animals caged in unpleasant conditions would move him to personally intervene to improve their conditions, and feeling the power of his compassion, sick animals in the wild would intuitively come to him for help.
Shamar Rinpoche’s passing is such a tremendous loss, not only to his students but also to history. With Rinpoche’s departure, a great part of the Himalayas’ history has ended. Without a doubt, he was one of the main actors and most influential figures in the Himalayas in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
As a member of the noble Athub family, from an early age Shamar Rinpoche had intimate access to the 16th Karmapa as well as the highest religious and political dignitaries of the Himalayas, including the Royal Family of Bhutan. Nobody held the same insight into the 16th Karmapa, his connections and the roles that different lamas played in the times of exile. Rinpoche’s extraordinary memory, combined with an encyclopaedic understanding of the history of the Himalayas in this period was unparalleled, because he experienced it all first-hand; it happened with his participation. In common with the great Lopön Tsechu Rinpoche, who was his close friend and confidante, Shamar Rinpoche’s immersion in Himalayan culture, history, and its network of social relationships provided him with the skill to link together and decode all apparent messages to reveal the meaning behind them.
Shamar Rinpoche was like a treasure chest, always able to surprise with something totally new and outstanding. Although he would not talk about it, he was also a very talented artist. He could draw beautifully and was able to play the flute very well.
Projects and teachings
Shamar Rinpoche took over the spiritual responsibility for the project to build the largest stupa in Europe. Incepted by Lopön Tsechu Rinpoche and constructed in cooperation with the Spanish local government, it stands at 33 meters tall in Benalmadena on the southern Spanish coast. After Lopön Tsechu Rinpoche’s passing, Shamar Rinpoche saw the project to its completion, inaugurating the stupa in 2003 together with Lama Ole Nydahl, representatives of the Bhutanese Royal Family and government, and Spanish local authorities.
As a teacher of Dharma, Shamar Rinpoche was a fountain of knowledge and practice. His vision of Buddhism was vast and non-sectarian; he chose as his main emphases Mind Training (lojong), Mahamudra, Calm-Abiding meditation and classical Buddhist philosophy. He sought out and received the transmissions of Calm-Abiding and Insight meditation from the masters of all Tibetan lineages. His teachings were most often associated with Mahamudra, which he expounded with unsurpassed mastery. His approach to Dharma was precise and scientific, and he practiced exactly in the way he taught: setting an example of not simply believing, but analysing and testing the validity of the teachings for oneself.
On top of this, the immense power of his blessing could be experienced particularly through the initiations he gave, for example into Amitabha, the Buddha of Limitless Light, whom he would manifest unmistakably in person, introducing to his fortunate students the timeless radiance of his realization. Even in such settings Shamar Rinpoche’s non-sectarianism was evident, for example during the unique and profoundly concept-breaking Guru Yoga initiation of the Third Karmapa, given in the Europe Center in 2009. The transmission belonged to a Nyingma Terma, which he had received from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche at the age of 15, and it was the first time he had passed it on in this life.
Connection to Hannah and Lama Ole Nydahl
Shamar Rinpoche’s bond with Hannah and Lama Ole Nydahl was deep and abiding from the time he transmitted the Bodhisattva Promise to them in 1970. In a public teaching in Kassel in 2006, Shamar Rinpoche said of them:
“In 1973 the 16th Karmapa ordered Ole Nydahl and Hannah to teach, and predicted that they would be very successful in spreading the Buddha’s teachings in the West… They kept their samaya without any doubt, following and fulfilling Karmapa’s wish.”
Over the following years, Hannah in particular through her work as a translator and bridge between the East and West, became one of Rinpoche’s closest and most trusted disciples.
In the darkest times of the Kagyu Crisis in 1994, it was the unbreakable bond of trust between Shamar Rinpoche, Hannah and Lama Ole, and their effective cooperation that led to the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje and his family being brought out of Chinese-occupied Tibet, surmounting perilous obstacles to arrive safely in the free world.
In 2007 in the last days of Hannah’s life, when she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Shamar Rinpoche flew to Copenhagen specifically to say his last farewell to Hannah and give her his final teachings before she passed away.
Of the many wonderful qualities Shamar Rinpoche manifested, one of the most touching was his love of the beauty of nature. In particular he loved to be in the surroundings of his Bodhi Path centre in Virginia, USA, and especially the picturesque and peaceful environment of Renchen Ulm, Germany. It was here he chose to be at the end of his life, and where His Holiness Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje, Lama Ole Nydahl, many high Rinpoches and lamas of the Karma Kagyu school, and Shamar Rinpoche’s students from all over the world came to pay their last respects and make wishes for his swift return.
Shamar Rinpoche was a truth-holder, beyond any manipulation, and as such he could know everything. In full consciousness, with clarity and foresight, in the final teaching before his passing, he said: “You don’t have to be afraid of death if you know how to practice in death.” Of his great deeds and projects too numerous to mention, the final ones were left by Rinpoche to his disciples to finish.
When it is said that Shamarpa is an emanation of Amitabha, it should not be misunderstood to mean that he is a meditator who, life after life, performs great achievements on the way to enlightenment. It is by the Shamarpa’s own choice that he appeared, and by his own nature that he is reabsorbed into his own pure land of Dewachen, which he himself created. Shamar Rinpoche’s unique manifested qualities will be missed. In such degenerate times, we are rare and blessed to have met them, and to have understood for ourselves just how vast they were.
Like all previous Shamarpas, his next manifestation will be authenticated in accordance with the principle of reciprocal recognition, by the Karmapa that he himself recognised, i.e. Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje. In the same way as the Shamarpa’s recognition of Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje, this process will proceed as an internal, spiritual matter within the authentic Karma Kagyu lineage. As such, it will be not influenced by third parties seeking to bring forth a candidate for political objectives.