By Thierry Dodin
June 24, 2014
Occurring in Germany when the Karmapa was touring there, the untimely death of Kunzig Shamarpa inevitably gave rise to some speculations. Shamar Rinpoche, referred to as the “Red-hat Karmapa,” was a lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, and had played a part in some controversy.
More important than the coincidence of the death of Shamar Rinpoche in the same country where the Karmapa was visiting, and associated elaborations about karma or even magics, is what implications his death has for Tibetan politics in general. Central is that it remixes the cards in a dispute which has been going on in Tibetan exile society for more than two decades, and has considerably constrained the radius of action of the 17th Karmapa Lama after his arrival in Indian exile, fourteen years ago. That it happens at a point in time when India is entering a new political era makes it potentially even more significant.
Arguably, India’s foreign policy establishment has been since Nehru’s time more inclined to search for common ground with China than to be supportive of Tibet. To say the least, it certainly did nothing to facilitate the young Karmapa’s life. China itself, though irrevocably recognizing Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the rightful Karmapa, did its best to entertain ambiguities around his embarrassing flight from China to asylum in India, in a move designed to save face for China in the first place, and also to leave the back door open for a possible later return of the Karmapa.
Role of Shamar Rinpoche
Still, it was Shamar Rinpoche who understood best how to play on residual China angst and instil deep suspicion among an Indian security community which was so prone to paranoia that up to the 1990s it rejected infrastructure developments in border areas out of fears they could facilitate a possible Chinese invasion. With that, Rinpoche could lame the young Karmapa’s movements in India while effectively barring him from travelling abroad.
Shamar Rinpoche certainly was more efficient than China in “containing” the Karmapa. However, despite his opposition to Dharamshala and contrary to others (think Shugden) he never “played the China card” by moving politically closer to Beijing. For one he was practical, not opportunist, but any move in this direction would have ruined the good relationship he entertained with the security establishment in the Darjeeling/Kalimpong region anyway.
Despite all his efforts and very determined supporters, Shamar Rinpoche had been losing ground lately, as the visit of the Karmapa to the US and now to Europe demonstrate, and, even more so, the trip of his arch-rival Situ Rinpoche to Malaysia in late 2012. Even the Chinese propaganda apparatus started some months ago to take a more distant and increasingly critical course towards Karmapa. Shamar Rinpoche’s sudden death, however, likely marks the beginning of a new era for Karmapa.
With all his skills and dexterity, there is little indication that Shamar Rinpoche, though well-acquainted with Buddhist notions of impermanence, has taken much thought of his succession. His strengths were the verve and determination typical of the Khampa chief he was — like some other Tibetan politicians. His power relied on personal charisma and a good knowledge of the terrain. His weaknesses lay in little ability to translate this into durable structures, and the lack of trust and confidence necessary to groom an adequate successor.
With that, his disappearance leaves a vacuum his entourage will find hard to fill. Even Trinley Thaye Dorje, his protégé whom he worked with for two decades to establish as the rightful Karmapa, has not come across so far as a strong personality, and in fact never really came out of the shade of his mentor.
Future roles of India and China
Much will now depend on the new Modi administration as well as Modi himself. India’s recently-elected PM has already shown a special interest in the Himalayan border regions, as well as a keenness to stand up to China. This could translate into a new, more positive approach to Karmapa, although on the other hand the nationalist circles who surround Modi are typically more inclined to scepticism. In any case, Modi already stands under pressure from Indian Buddhists to come out in support of Karmapa, in the first place from Pawan Chamling, the Chief Minister of Sikkim, who was quick to clarify one more time that he wishes Karmapa to visit Sikkim and reintegrate Rumtek monastery, the seat of the Karmapa school which has been stuck in legal disputes. Even Modi could not single-handedly forestall or override pending court decisions, but he could set a symbol by allowing Karmapa into Sikkim. China cannot have an interest in a strengthened position of a Karmapa it doesn’t control. In that, if Shamar Rinpoche was no ally, he was certainly convenient.
The question remains as to how China may react now. One thing it could do is encourage the finding of a new Shamarpa incarnation in Tibet and so try to progressively lure the following of the late Shamar to its side and against Karmapa, although without endorsing Shamar’s choice. But it could also choose more wisely to do nothing, and simply wait and see how the two camps sort out their differences, hoping to be able to benefit from in-fighting among Tibetans and perhaps attract one or the other defector.