KATHMANDU, Nepal—It was the kind of ceremony that the honored guest seemed to be directing from the Beyond: thousands of students and admirers, from peons to a Nepalese government minister, converging on a half-built monastery to attend the traditional cremation rite of a vajra master that, even in death, stirred up an international fuss.
They came to honor the 14th Shamar Rinpoche, Mipham Chokyi Lodro (1952–2014), a spiritual force who understood that staying true to his calling as the second-highest ranking lama of the Karma Kagyu order wouldn’t win him any dharmic popularity contests. To many, he was a polarizing figure, an uncompromising traditionalist.
But to his students and friends, especially those in the West, he was a gentle and occasionally irreverent teacher who defied convention, saw straight into our secret fears, foretold our futures, and insisted on teaching Westerners the essence of the holy dharma, untainted by sectarianism.
In other words, he was a Shamarpa without borders.
So it was only fitting that after Rinpoche died suddenly of heart failure on June 11 in Germany, the traditional 49 days of mourning would be anything but normal. His death triggered a political row about where his body would be cremated that lasted until Tuesday, July 29.
Shortly after he passed away, the Government of Nepal issued a “no objection” letter to an official request to perform the rite at Rinpoche’s new Shar Minub monastery on the edge of Nepal’s rowdy capital city. The complex, still under construction, is to be the new and extended version of the monastery that Shamarpa and his predecessors have contributed to and helped maintain atop Swayambhu, a Buddhist-Hindu religious complex in Kathmandu, for more than 300 years.
Days later the government reversed its decision, leaving hundreds of Shamar Rinpoche’s students from the Americas to Europe to the Far East with nonrefundable tickets to Kathmandu, and sending Rinpoche’s body, or kudung, on a slow trip to nowhere.
His corpse was greeted by tens of thousands of people in Renchen-Ulm, Germany; New Delhi and Kalimpong, India; and at the Royal Palace in Bhutan, where Rinpoche had an especially close relationship with the royal family. Meanwhile, Kagyu leaders huddled privately with Nepalese officials while more than 13,000 supporters signed a petition in four days to get the reversal reversed.
Rumors abounded. The prevailing one was the Nepalese government was acting at the behest of the Chinese, who wanted to prevent the cremation out of fear it would inspire political protests among Tibetan exiles living in Nepal. Whatever the reasons, the government’s reversal catapulted the cremation into the headlines. With only two days to go, the Nepalese government relented. The Cabinet met Tuesday morning and formalized a policy allowing the remains of foreigners to come into the country if they have contributed significantly to Nepal’s cultural or economic welfare.
By Tuesday afternoon, the body had arrived in Kathmandu. Tens of thousands of Nepalis and Tibetans lined the streets as the motorcade brought the kudung on its last trip to Swayambhu before depositing it at Shar Minub. The next day, a long queue of mourners braved the sweltering monsoon heat to lay katas—white ceremonial scarves—before the remains, contained in a box atop the shrine.
They came to pay their last respects to one of the most powerful figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Mipham Chokyi Lodro was born in 1952 in Derge, Tibet and was recognized at age 4 by the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. He received his monastic education at Rumtek Monastery, seat of the Kagyu order, in Sikkim.
The Karmapas and Shamarpas are the two oldest lines of reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist meditations masters—predating even the line of Dalai Lamas—and have enjoyed a unique tag-team leadership role over the centuries. They are considered two sides of the same coin: as one Karmapa dies, it is often the Shamarpa who leads the lineage while recognizing and grooming the next Karmapa, and vice versa.
Ironically, it was the 14th Shamarpa’s determination to carry on with this tradition that put him at odds with other Kagyu leaders. While they sought out the Dalai Lama’s blessing for one Karmapa candidate, Shamar Rinpoche recognized and enthroned Trinley Thaye Dorje as the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa. This in turn touched off a struggle over who should control the 16th Karmapa’s seat in exile, a fight that spilled out into public view when Rinpoche filed suit to get the seat of the order and its ancient relics back. The case is pending.
While the fight drained the Shamarpa—and marked him as Tibetan Buddhism’s bad boy—he refused to let it define him.
He was an immensely popular teacher who looked after 800 other traditional monasteries throughout Tibet and the Himalayas while helping individual students in the West clarify even their most personal decisions. He was a precocious lifelong learner, a trickster who loved to tweak his followers and even make fun of himself. Once after talking about intricate Dharma rituals to a student, Shamarpa stopped himself, widened his eyes and raised his hands. “Hocus Pocus!”
He wrote a book about reforming government corruption; started a school in rural India; founded a meditation center in Natural Bridge, Virginia; visited the oppressed Chakma Buddhists in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts; and cared deeply about animals, founding the Infinite Compassion Foundation for their humane and ethical treatment.
One of Shamarpa’s biggest causes was teaching the nonsectarian and secular practice of Buddhism as it spread to other parts of the world. To that end, he established the Bodhi Path Centers in the United States, Latin America, Asia, and Europe. He insisted that his students steer clear of the Karmapa controversy or the Chinese issue and concentrate instead on practicing lojong [mind training] and shamatha [calm abiding meditation] and learning seminal Buddhist teachings.
In the months leading up to his death, Rinpoche took on a new urgency to set his projects in order. He made a US book tour marking the publication of his The Path to Awakening. He solidified the financing for continuing construction of Shar Minub, which he began in 2003. He cleaned out his residence at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi. He had all of his clothes cleaned.
He dropped hints. He didn’t expect to grow old. He was tired of his body. He proclaimed that he would pass away quietly. He began stressing impermanence.
Out for dinner after a teaching at his Renchen-Ulm center, he ordered a second steak. “This will be my last dinner,” he told companions, who took it to mean that he wouldn’t eat after lunch. Two days later, at the breakfast table, he bowed his head and died, sitting up. Students report that his meditation lasted two days, during which his body stayed warm.
The cremation rite on Thursday, July 31 featured an unprecedented array of Buddhist leaders from all of the Himalayan orders, including the Newar community and members of the Bon religion. Representatives of the Bhutanese Royal Family and the Nepalese Minister of Information and Communication attended and paid homage.
Making his first visit to Kathmandu, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, officiated over the ceremony, circumambulating the white stupa containing Rinpoche’s remains. Led by their spiritual leaders, hundreds of monastics from the Karma Kagyu, Drukpa Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma orders performed six different rituals simultaneously before following the Karmapa up the steps of a platform atop the monastery to oversee the lighting of the pyre by a boy who had never met Shamarpa, according to the dictates of tradition.
As flames shot into the stupa and smoke billowed out, thousands of onlookers standing on the monastery roof and the surrounding hills clasped their hands in prayer, chanted, or watched silently. Some wept. Many remembered words spoken during one of the last teachings Shamarpa gave: “You don’t need to be afraid of death if you know how to practice in death.”
Shamar Rinpoche at Tricycle
“Tulku, Inc.” – An interview with Shamar Rinpoche on the perils of picking a teacher
Tricycle Talk with Shamar Rinpoche – An audio interview with Shamar Rinpoche
“Mipham Chokyi Lodro, the 14th Sharmapa, Dies at 61” – An obituary by Pamela Gayle White
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.