On Shamar Rinpoche’s death and the future of Karmapa

Thierry Dodin
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.

NOTE--  Thierry Dodin is a Tibetologist linked to the University of Bonn in Germany. From the 1990s on, he has been a contributor and later a trustee and executive director of the Tibet Information Network, London. Since 2005, he has been the founding director of TibetInfoNet.


  1. There are many versions of stories that Karmapa Orgen Thinly Dorjee barred from entering into Rumtek, of course the above is the common one among public understanding. There are two counterparts including late Shamarpa and present Situ Renpoche who actually remained on suspicion and fierce relationship.
    Demise of Shamarpa would be a sad thing but it opens a new way for which Karmapa could lead Tibetans unitedly in both politically and Tibetanness. I pray that the controversies and legality problems be solved soon

  2. The stated inclusion again of China smacks of china bashing.
    The whole schism within the kagyupa is an entirely internal problem propagated by greed within their top ranks.
    China just happens to be part of the background and was never a major player.
    Look within the whole Tibetan Buddhist organization and their leaders for the problems plaguing them and stop blaming india or china.

  3. Perhaps it would be a good time for Buddhists around the world to thank Mr. Modi for his positive attitude?

  4. It is laughable how the author can so easily imply or say that Shugdenpa are playing Chinese card. is there any proof to date that Shugdenpas has any sort of connection with china - despite Guru chela relationship ? I totally agree with Mr Patr - all these unsettling situation within Kagyu sects & gyeluk sect is deliberate work of CTA and some Mega Lama. lol
    Can you imagine - if they( CTA ) are serious about Penchen Lama they could have easily smuggled him from Tibet by delaying the announcement of his finding in Tibet. They can always recognize him as incarnation once he is in exile. Change is inevitable - sooner or later Truth will prevail.

  5. How credible can an article be, when the author hasn't done a proper resarch. Situ Rinpoche never went to Malaysia in late 2012 as claimed by the author.

  6. "Along with devotion to your study and practice, and sincere openness toward others, there is another attitude to maintain: simply, no political games." These words of the 16th Karmapa, spoken out in an interview in the USA in 1980, still is one of the most important guidelines for the centres under the spiritual authority of H.H. Karmapa Thaye Dorje and the late Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche.

    Some of the thoughts Thiery Dodin expresses in his article are interesting, but most are merely speculation. The author looks upon the matter from a political, not a spiritual perspective. Due to the fact that Ogyen Trinley Dorje was pushed as a Karmapa title holder by political authorities clearly outside the traditionally independent Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan buddhism (communist China and the Gelugpa-dominated Tibetan government-in-exile), he could never act as a free person - until today. At a talk in Berlin on June 4 the brave young Lama admitted that he was not a very happy person and felt under pressure.

    Contrary to him, Trinley Thaye Dorje was recognized and educated as a free Karmapa within the frame of the tradition of his School and without any political interference. Buddhists in more than 930 centres, monasteries and other institutions in 69 countries - including the Diamond Way, Bodhi Path and Dhagpo Kagyu networks - consider him as their spiritual head. His consequent refusal to engage in political games may be one of the reasons why the Buddhist movement led by Karmapa Thaye Dorje probably is the most successful one world-wide.

  7. About 'India is entering a new political era': Isn't it true every country in the world, India including, enters into a new political era every year? If this thing has a name, it must be Fool's Rhetoric.

    About 'facilitate the young Karmapa’s life': if that is a liberal, moral ideal, or imperative, then every Western democratic government should legalise 'four-wife marriages' so that it can facilitate the Islamic life-style. Is that sensible?

  8. About 'Role of Shamar Rinpoche', and 'deep suspicion among an Indian security community':
    I don't think Indian Security are simpletons. They have their own intelligence network. So what if their intelligence corroborated with SR in, for example, the context or background behind the violent takeover of Karma Kagyu's Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim in 1992 by a paid mob hiding in robes? The author should do research on this area to broaden his views.

    Re author's Chinese invasion:
    It's hard to imagine the Chinese are sitting on their hands at the front line - rain or shine - ever since 1962 waiting for invasion-day! Or are they more smart than our author thinks, by contrast to the US invasion of Iraqi in 2003? I suspect there is some people stereotyping there.

  9. every member of the Karma Kagyu lineage prayed and is still praying for Shamar Rinpoche...I know because I am one of those students who prayed for him as well when asked to and invited to pray with the Abbot of KTD Monastery in Woodstock NY..This was a true testimony to me that this lineage is not only what it claims to be..It is much more than that. HH Karmapas work is spreading across this globe like a wildfire..Can we now not just put aside our differences and pray for the benefit of all sentient beings? Isn't this the purpose of becoming a Buddhist in the first place? We are not here for politics but Dharma. So..please everyone..enough of this. I am a very dedicated student of the Karma Kagyu lineage and my Root Guru is Orgyen Trinley Dorje. but I would pray for anybody ..AND DO! because of the words of my perfect teacher..Please lets all be good practitioners and allow what will happen to happen naturally. No more fighting..Please..Karmapa Chenno!

  10. The Late shaman Rinpoche and his brother (late) Toga Rinpoche seized the opportunity to have Rumtek & Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi under their wings after the the passing away of HH gyalwa 16th Karmapa. Even During the lifetime of HHK16th; His two nephews were always at loggerheads with the late General Secretary Dhamcho Yongdu – mainly about power & control. But they never dared to undermine his position - it was all behind the scenes whispering and bad mouthing. Tibetans in the know are not unfamiliar with late Shamar Rinpoche’s ‘too smart for his own good’ behavior even during his ‘growing years’. Other’s might have taken for this to be his ‘maverick’ nature.
    The position in Rumtek was Shamar and Topga versus the other 3 of the 4 ‘heart sons” Tai Situ Rinpoche; Jamgon Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche.
    Shamar & Topga not only propped up Trinley Thaye Dorje as ‘their’ Karmapa –take control of KIBI (N Delhi) and being nephews of the late 16th HHK - ‘inherit’ most of the dharma centers & disciples mentioned by historix108 - But with their very deep pockets they took the worse step. That was the whispering campaigns against HK Ogyen Trinley Dorje to certain quarters in the GOI. (Back in those upheaval times -amongst exile Tibetans it was known that Shamar used to say something to the effect that if you repeat a lie a 1000 times it will become a ‘truth’).
    Unlike the author I do not think either of the 2 camps will ‘defect’ to China.
    Now with the passing away of Shamar Rinpoche let’s hope & see if Trinley Thaye Dorje comes to his own.
    HK Ogyen Trinley Dorje has displayed tremendous maturity and wisdom despite the obstacles placed by you know who.