On Shamar Rinpoche’s death and the future of Karmapa

By Thierry Dodin

Occurring in Germany at a time the Karmapa was touring there, the untimely death of Kunzig Shamarpa inevitably gave rise to some speculations. More important than this coincidence and associated elaborations about karma or even magics is, however, what implications his death has on Tibetan politics at large. Central is that it remixes the cards in a dispute which lasted on the Tibetan exile society for more than two decades and considerably constrained the radius of action of the Karmapa after his arrival in Indian exile, a fourteen years ago. That it happens at a point of time India is entering a new political era makes it potentially even more significant.

14th Künzig Shamarpa 14th Künzig Shamarpa

Arguably, India’s foreign policy establishment has been since Nehru’s time more inclined to search common ground with China than be supportive of Tibet. To say the least, it certainly did nothing to facilitate the young Karmapa’s life. China itself, though irrevocably recognized Urgyen Thinley Dorje as the rightful Karmapa, did its best to entertain ambiguities around his embarrassing flight, in a move designed to save face in the first place, but that also left the backdoor open for a possible later return. Still, it was Shamar Rinpoche that understood best how to instrumentalise residual China angst and instill deep suspicion among the Indian security community, a community 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, he could lame the young Karmapa’s movements in India while effectively barring him to travel abroad for many years.

The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

Shamar Rinpoche certainly was more efficient than China in terms of ‘containing’ the Karmapa. However, despite his opposition to Dharamsala 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 Darjeeling/Kalimpong region anyway.

Despite all his efforts and very supportive followers, 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. His sudden death, however, likely, sounds the knell of a fully new era for Karmapa.

Shamar Rinpoche’s Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje17th Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje

By all his skills and dexterity, there is little indication that Shamar Rinpoche, though well-acquainted with Buddhist notions of impermanence, has taken much of dispositions towards 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 weakness was his 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 he worked two decades to establish as the rightful Karmapa, did not strike so far as a strong personality and in fact never really came out of the shade of his mentor.

Much will now depend on the new Modi administration as well as on Modi himself. India’s recently elected PM has already shown a special interest in the Himalayan border regions as well as a keen intent to stand up to China. This could translate into a new, more positive approach to Karmapa, although on the other hand the flag-waving circles who surround are typically more inclined to skepticism towards Karmapa. 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 fast in clarifying 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-handidly forestall or override pending court decisions, but he could set a symbol by allowing Karmapa into Sikkim.

China was never keen on a strong Karmapa since he escaped their control. In so far, if Shamar Rinpoche was no ally, he was certainly convenient. Remains the question 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 followership of the late Shamar to its side and against Karmapa, although without endorsing Shamar’s choice. But it could also chose more wisely to do nothing and simply wait and see how the two camps sort out their differences, hoping to be able to benefit one more time from in-fightings among Tibetans and perhaps attract one or the other defector.

The article is a slightly revised version of “On Shamar Rinpoche’s death and the future of Karmapa” posted in Tibetsun.
Copyright © 2014 Thierry Dodin

About the author

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


Karmapa Controversy