Shamar Rinpoche

Shamar Rinpoche is the 14th Shamarpa, or Red Hat Lama of Tibet. While the Shamarpas are the second-oldest reincarnate lineage, what earlier incarnations have done or not done does not define the subsequent Shamarpas. The current Shamarpa has said, "Since every incarnation is a new life, credit from great deeds in the past is not transferred automatically to each new incarnation. Likewise, one cannot blame any reincarnate Lama for not being as great as his or her previous incarnation. Boys or girls are recognized as tulkus at a young age, placed in monasteries and given a tremendous amount of responsibility. They do not choose this life for themselves. This is true of every Tibetan reincarnate lineage. Greatness must be earned anew in each life."

Many of the Shamarpas were great scholars. In particular, the 1st Shamarpa Khedrup Trakpa Senge (1284-1349), 2nd Shamarpa Kachö Wangpo (1350-1405), 3rd Shamarpa Chöpel Yeshe (1406-1452), 4th Shamarpa Chökyi Trakpa Pal Yeshe (1453 -1526), 5th Shamarpa Könchog Yenlag, (1526-1583), 6th Shamarpa Chökyi Wangchuk, (1584-1629), 8th Shamarpa Palchen Chökyi Döndrup, (1695-1732) and 10th Shamarpa Chödrup Gyatso (1742-1792), stand out in terms of their intellectual contributions. The 4th Shamarpa even ruled Tibet for 12 years towards the end of his life.

The history of the Shamarpas becomes especially dramatic during and after the lifetime of the 10th Shamar, Chödrup Gyatso (1642-1692). For that reason it is useful to explain his life in more detail here. The brother of the 3rd Panchen Lama Palden Yeshe (1738-1780)- a highly ranked Gelukpa Lama - the 10th Shamarpa had a very poor relationship with the Gelukpa government of Tibet based in Lhasa and directly ruled by the Chinese Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). Tsomonling Ngawang Tsultrim, the imperial Chinese representative in Lhasa at that time, was especially opposed to him for a number of reasons. First of all, he belonged to the Karma Kagyu school and claimed that that the Kagyus were the former rulers of Tibet. Second, he was on friendly terms with the British government in India, a state of affairs that had come about because his mother was a princess of Ladakh. Both of these facts made the Emperor's government very suspicious. Fearing censure or punishment from the governments of both Tibet and China, the 10th Shamarpa fled to Nepal. He lived there comfortably until, in 1788, a war broke out between Tibet and Nepal over the minting and circulation of counterfeit coins. The 10th Shamarpa was used by the government of Nepal as a mediator in the peace talks with Tibet, and as a result the government of Tibet informed the Emperor Qianlong that the Shamarpa had taken the part of the Nepalese in the conflict. The Gelukpa Tibetan government then requested that the Shamarpa institution be banned. The ban was effected upon the death of the 10th Shamarpa in 1792 and remained in effect until the 20th century.

From 1792 until 1963, no Shamarpa reincarnation was enthroned, although the 11th, 12th, and 13th Shamarpas were secretly recognized during that time by the Karmapas. In 1963, the 14th Dalai Lama and the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa formally restored the institution of the Shamarpas, enthroning the current, 14th, Shamarpa.

The 14th Shamar Rinpoche was born in 1952 and spent many years studying in India with Buddhist scholars. He began to travel and teach in various Buddhist centers throughout Asia and the west starting in 1980, and in 1982 went to U.C. Berkeley to study English for ten months. In 1996 he started to organize the Bodhi Path Buddhist Centers, a network of centers based on a non-sectarian approach to Buddhism. The curriculum of Bodhi Path centers is grounded in the teachings of the 11th century Indian Buddhist master Atisha, as they were transmitted by Gampopa. Atisha's methods are the most effective for taming the mind and deepening wisdom, and in addition can be taught and employed in a secular way.

Shamar Rinpoche does not encourage most of his students to become monks and nuns, instead emphasizing the ideal of being a lay person who studies and practices Buddhism. This is because becoming a monk or nun requires virtuosic dedication and discipline, and should not be undertaken by those unwilling to follow the full set of guidelines explained in the vinaya (the code of conduct). For monks that mean 253 rules, and for nuns 364. In order to provide a shining example of how the renounced followers of the Buddha are really supposed to live, in 2005 Shamar Rinpoche founded the retreat center of Shar Minub in Kathmandu, Nepal. At Shar Minub, twenty resident monks strictly maintain the full 253 vows of the vinaya. These monks are total renunciants and dedicated meditators. Shar Minub is at the present time the only monastery among the many in the Himalayan regions where the monks are fully committed to the Buddha's vinaya discipline.

In January, 2009 Shamar Rinpoche founded the Infinite Compassion Foundation to promote animal rights. The Infinite Compassion Foundation was formed to promote the humane treatment of animals that are raised for consumption of their meat and other products (especially dairy and eggs). Instead of promoting vegetarianism, Shamar Rinpoche advocates a transformation of the meat industry, such that animals will no longer be forced to live and die in brutal conditions.

Shamar Rinpoche is also the author of two books. Creating a Transparent Democracy: a New Model, the first book written about democracy by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, lays out a framework for establishing a genuine democratic system of governance that promotes the welfare and prosperity of a population. This model proposes a system of democracy based on the decentralization of political power, the promotion of political literacy among the population of democratic states, and an end to campaigning. It is Shamar Rinpoche's wish that this new model of democracy will inspire volunteers to dedicate themselves to improving the lives of their fellow citizens through sincere engagement with the structures of their governments.

In The Path to Awakening, Shamar Rinpoche provides an extensive commentary on Chekawa Yeshe Dorje's Seven Points of Mind Training. Chekawa's text was based on the Mind Training (lojong) teachings brought to Tibet by Atisha in the 11th century, and Shamar Rinpoche's commentary elucidates the inner meaning of Chekawa's Seven Points. It is both a guide to living a fulfilling life as a Buddhist and a comprehensive manual of meditation techniques.

For information on the history of the Shamarpas, please click here.

Written by Lara Braitstein, as requested by Jay Landman (Bodhi Path Buddhist Center assistant).