The current Shamar Rinpoche, Mipham Chokyi Lodro, is the fourteenth incarnation of a realized being. A great bodhisattva of the same class as Gyalwa Karmapa, he is an emanation of the Buddha Amitabha, "Boundless Light." The first Shamarpa appeared in 1283. Like the Gyalwa Karmapa, he established an uninterrupted lineage for the good of all beings. In general, the Shamarpas have ensured the continuity of the Karma Kagyu lineage, ruling during the transition period between two incarnations of the Karmapa.
They have often been responsible for finding and recognizing the new Karmapas and then guiding them. The Karmapas and Shamarpas have been so strongly connected throughout the centuries that the historical texts speak of the Shamarpas, Holders of the Red Hat, as being manifestations of the Karmapas, Holders of the Black Hat.
The tradition of a successive line of reincarnations originated in twelfth century Tibet with the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa. The lineage of the Shamarpa reincarnations dates back to the same century and that lineage is the second line of successive reincarnations in the history of the Kagyu tradition. The Shamarpa lineage of reincarnation began during the time of Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa who presented his principal disciple, Khaydrup Tragpa Senge, with a ruby-red crown while conferring the status 'Shamarpa' which means 'Holder of the Red Crown'.
That red crown is a replica of the black crown worn by the Karmapas, and it exemplifies the close relationship that exists between these two lines of reincarnation in that the Karmapas and the Shamarpas are emanations of the same mind-stream and that they are therefore regarded as inseparable. The second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, said: "Future Karmapas will manifest in two forms". That statement was later clarified by the fourth Karmapa, Rolpe'i Dorje, when he designated the Shamarpa reincarnates as a second manifestation of himself.
Tibetan historical records refer to the Karmapa as 'Karma Shanagpa' which means 'Karmapa, Holder of the Black Crown' and the Shamarpas as 'Karma Shamarpa' which means 'Karmapa, Holder of the Red Crown'. These designations are found in the historical records authored by several well-known Tibetan Buddhist masters, such as Golo Shonnu Pal (1392-1481), Pawo Tsuglag Trengwa (1504-1516), the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozang Gyamtso (1617-1682) and the eighth Situpa Chokyi Jungnay (1700-1774).
It is important to understand that the crowns are simply symbols of the activity to accomplish the welfare of beings; the crowns do not denote separate lineages. Both 'The Black Hat Lama' and 'The Red Hat Lama' are of the Karma Kagyu Lineage.
Mipham Chokyi Lodro was born in Derge, Tibet. Just as the Fifth Shamarpa, Kunchok Yenlak had foretold, the Fourteenth Shamarpa manifested as the nephew of the Sixteenth Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. Long before the Shamarpa was born, there was anticipation in the monastic communities that there was soon to be an auspicious birth in the Karmapa's family. The Karmapa sent black pill and a special protective cord for the unborn baby to his sister-in-law, when no one was aware that she was an expectant mother.
At the age of four Mipham Chokyi Lodro was recognized by the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje as the thirteenth Shamarpa reincarnation.
Most of the great Tibetan lamas made a pilgrimage to India at the invitation of the India Mahabodhi Society and the Karmapa and the Shamarpa visited the Dechen Yangpachen Monastery upon their return. In its main temple were the statues of all the previous Shamarpas. The young child approached them and identified them one by one without any prompting . He tried on the crowns saying "These are my hats". At the time he was only four years old.
At the age of six, the young Rinpoche saw some Yangpachen lamas coming towards Tsurphu Monastery from a distance "They are from my monastery", he exclaimed in delight. This was remarkable because the Sharmarpa had overseen the Dechem Yangpachen Monastery in his previous incarnations. This prompted a plea from the lamas for a formal recognition of their Rinpoche, however, for political reasons the Karmapa did not think it prudent to do so.
Over the next few years, the political situation in Tibet deteriorated further, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa and the eight year old Shamarpa left Tibet to settle in the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim.
The Karmapa sought official recognition of the Kunzig Shamarpa from the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. Upon the Karmapa4s request the Tibetan Government withdrew its one hundred and fifty nine year old ban of the Shamarpas. The Dalai Lama made an official statement that granted the request and the enthronement took place in 1964 at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim.
The Shamarpa remained in the monastery for a course of intensive study. He received all the instructions of the Kagyu lineage from the Karmapa and studied traditional arts and sciences, the sutras and the tantras under Thrangu Rinpoche. He also received teaching from Kalu Rinpoche. These were very hard years for the Tibetans and no special privileges usually accorded to a high incarnate were given. The special qualities of a true Mahayana teacher fully matured under the vigilant eyes of his Guru despite the harsh conditions. He completed his studies and left for Nepal as Chief Representative of the Kagyu Lineage in the Himalayan nation.
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, called for a meeting of the most senior Tibetan lamas at Varanasi, India in 1988. Its aim was to ensure a better future for the Tibetan people. Throughout Tibet's turbulent political history, the lamas had ruled over the fortunes of the country and held primary responsibility for temporal and spiritual matters. This social structure had become untenable following the Chinese invasion. An undemocratic political structure had left Tibet's national security in the hands of a spiritual hierarchy. This antiquated political apparatus left Tibet politically isolated with few friends in international diplomatic forums at the time when crisis swamped the country in 1959. The Shamarpa identified the linkage of religion with politics in Tibet as a major weakness in the structure of its government. He saw that the solution to this problem lay in religious leaders confining themselves to spiritual matters, leaving the running of the state in the hands of politically attuned lay people. The Shamarpa courageously expressed this view before the gathering in Varanasi and stood by the Dalai Lama as he presented his controversial 'Five Point Proposal' to the Chinese government.
Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche remained with the 16th Karmapa receiving the entire cycle of Kagyu teachings from him, until his death in 1981. Since the 16th Karmapa's death, Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche has devoted his efforts to the many projects initiated by the late 16th Karmapa. He has completed the reprinting of the "Tengyur" a body of two hundred and fourteen volumes in which prominent Indian and Tibetan masters elucidate the teachings given by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Shamar Rinpoche also supports and offers guidance to Rumtek Monastery, the seat of H. H. the 16th Karmapa. He co-founded and brought into being the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (KIBI) , New Delhi, India.
In accordance with the wishes of His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, KIBI operates today as an institute for higher learning in the Buddhist tradition. Its aim is to foster greater wisdom and compassion. The Institute currently offers courses in Buddhist studies for both monastic and lay students. The Shamarpa envisages a renewal of the essential teachings of the Mahamudra. The origins of the Kagyu teachings are being retraced and many important treatises of the mahasiddhas are being researched and revised, including the Seventh Karmapa's pivotal work - 'The Treasures of Mahamudra'. A Mahamudra teaching centre is currently in the planning stages that will eventually give special emphasis to the teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage in order to ensure their future preservation.
Shamar Rinpoche frequently travels abroad where he teaches at the many Kagyu centers world-wide. He reportedly also plans to establish an institute for higher Buddhist studies and a retreat center in Nepal.
(1) 'The Garland of Moon Water Crystal' authored by Situpa, Chokyi Jungne and Belo Tsewang Kunkhyab.
(2) Yeshe Dronma Narrates: The Reincarnations of the Kunzig Shamarpa - The Red Crown Lama of Tibet. Dorje and Bell Publications, 1992