Shamar Rinpoche passed away suddenly this morning in his center in Renchen Ulm, Germany, at the age of 61. The 14th Shamarpa, Mipham Chokyi Lodro, was born in Tibet and recognized and enthroned there by his uncle, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, supreme head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
Beyond the traditional education reserved for tulkus, Shamar Rinpoche simply loved learning for learning’s sake. He was keenly interested in a far-ranging variety of subjects, including neuroscience, literature, physics, music, and animal welfare. An unparalleled Mahamudra teacher, he focused on making dharma accessible to practitioners of all levels. His vision of Buddhism was vast and nonsectarian; he chose to make lojong, calm-abiding meditation, and classical Buddhist philosophy the main focus of his Bodhi Path centers the world over.
Rinpoche was a maverick: he never shied away from blazing a new path if he felt that it would be of benefit to others. His enthusiasm, originality, and spontaneous nature earned him both respect and criticism. Those of us who worked closely with him rarely knew what to expect, but we always learned and benefited from his luminous mind and boundless heart.
[Ed. Note: After the initial post, Pamela was moved to write the more personal memoriam that follows (6/13/14).]
I first saw Shamar Rinpoche, Mipham Chokyi Lodro, in the 1980s in Dordogne, southwest France. I watched him arrive at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, where a traditional welcome awaited him: incense, Tibetan trumpets, many Tibetan lamas, and an assembly of mostly European monastic disciples. I was a fledgling Buddhist; it was my first visit to Dhagpo.
I remember observing Rinpoche as he stepped out of the car and walked along the auspicious symbols toward the main house, smiling at the crowd. I thought, “We are in the presence of royalty.” He was so naturally, so comfortably regal. I immediately felt that I belonged to whatever mandala he was the center of; that near or far, my life would somehow orbit around him.
My heart teachers, Gendun Rinpoche and Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche, reinforced this certainty through their deep connection with and utter confidence in Shamar Rinpoche. I can’t say it was easy for me. Part of me yearned for more security, more predictability, more ease. I’ve always had a deep rebellious streak, and my difficult relationship with my father left me with an unreasonable mistrust of authority. Rinpoche unfailingly pushed buttons both salient and subterranean. Sometimes, often, I doubted that I had what it takes to stay close; every single time I was inches from my limit, he would reach out to me and let me know that I was where I should be, and that I mattered.
He called me “Pemala” in private but always referred to me as “Pamela White” in public. He teased me about my weight until the day I told him I could take it from him, but I wouldn’t take it from someone who was slim. He delighted in music and liked my songs. He complained about the smell of my well-worn sandals; my floral soap made him sneeze. With a gaze, he would transform the space around a crowd of people into vibrant emptiness. He once asked me if I was a vegetarian because I was a nun and therefore rigid; I said I’d never been a nun. He was the king of the karmic curve ball. He could darken the world with a frown… and then laugh like a sunburst. He told me to behave.
He loved roses. He delighted in English and enjoyed inventing terms like “pushy crowdy karma.” He was born for Mahamudra—to live it, to teach it—but spent many years doing his utmost to protect his lineage instead. One moment he would lack tact, utterly; the next he would be as subtle as a seasoned diplomat. Backstabbing bewildered him. He was versatile and readily adapted his course to the current situation; it wasn’t always easy to keep up. His integrity was bulletproof: he always championed ethics even when a wee dose of “arranging” may have led to more expedient results.
In the West, Shamarpa asked us not to prostrate, not to stand on circumstance, not to nurture traditions foreign to our mores. Instead, he said, we should meditate, study, learn why principles are important. He would talk about pure realms and other dimensions as if he’d just been there. Though emptiness was his milieu, he built and organized incessantly in fields as diverse as religion, education, human rights, animal rights, and interdisciplinary dialogue.
I last saw him three weeks ago, again in Dhagpo: a circle closed. He was wrapping up a weekend teaching on the four applications of mindfulness. Before giving refuge to a long line of people, he had come down from his elevated seat and sat directly on the dais facing relics of the Buddha that were on loan at Dhagpo. His presence was so direct, so simple and respectful that it took my breath away. After he prayed and gave refuge we lined up, group by group, for his blessing. I was at the tail end of the “lama” group. He took my offering scarf, bopped me firmly on the head with his palm, wrapped the kata around my neck and gifted me a generous smile.
As much as I’ll miss having him here—acutely, ardently—my gratitude for his presence among us will carry me through. All of the friends I speak with here and afar, from his closest disciples to new practitioners, voice just this blend of sorrow and confidence. May we continue to honor him with our dedication to his vision, in quiet strength and harmony.