Karmapa-Shamarpa Lineage

The lineage of the Karmapas was prophesied by Shakyamuni Buddha who said that approximately 1600 years after his death an emanation of Avalokiteshvara (aka Chenrezig) the Bodhisattva of Compassion would be born. Karmapa literally means ‘one who manifests buddha activity’ and his activity is to preserve and spread the essence of the teachings of all the Buddhas. The Buddha predicted the Karmapa would propagate the teachings during the course of many successive incarnations. As well, the Buddha predicted, “In the future, a great bodhisattva with a ruby red crown will come to the suffering of the multitude, leading them out of their cyclic bewilderment and misery.” In the Karmapas and the Shamarpas, the Buddha’s predictions were fulfilled.

The first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193) founded the Karma Kagyu School of Vajrayana Buddhism. Before he passed away, Dusum Khyenpa predicted his own rebirth as the 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi. Thus, Dusum Khyenpa began the lineage system of incarnate lamas or tulkus in Tibet, with Karma Pakshi becoming the first reincarnate tulku.

The Karmapas became known as the Black Hat or Black Crown Lamas of Tibet when the 5th Karmapa Deshin Shegpa (1384-1415) was presented with a black crown by his disciple the Chinese emperor Tai Ming Chen. The emperor, a great bodhisattva himself saw the mystical crown made from the woven hairs of 100,000 dakinis above the Karmapa’s head during an empowerment. Realizing the crown was visible only to him due to his advanced spiritual attainments, the emperor had a copy made that would be visible to all. This black crown has been used by each successive Karmapa incarnation in the course of special ceremonies since that time. It is said this vajra crown has the tremendous power of liberating all beings who behold it.

The 2nd Karmapa presented the 1st Shamarpa Khedrup Drakpa Senge (1283-1349) with a ruby red crown – the exact replica of his own black crown and bestowed upon him the name, ‘Shamarpa,’ which literally means red hat (sha/hat; mar/red), or ‘the one with the red crown.’ The red crown was to be a symbol of the sameness and inseparability of their mind-streams. For the exemplary disciple Shamarpa was in every respect the Karmapa’s equal, being as unsurpassed in realization as he was in accomplishment.

The 4th Karmapa Rolpe Dorje & the 2nd Shamarpa Khacho Wangpo (16th c.) & The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje & The 14th Kunzig Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro Central to the transmission of the 900-year old Karma Kagyu Lineage are the alternating rebirths of the Karmapas and the Shamarpas. Before he died, the 2nd Karmapa predicted that henceforth he would be reborn as two human forms whose activities would be inseparable and that they would reincarnate one after the other, alternately serving as teacher and student in order to preserve and continue the lineage without interruption. “These miraculous human forms are not to be thought of as one, being distinct and separate in identity; neither are they to be considered as totally unrelated entities. For in absolute purity of mind they may not be measured quantitatively. You are the one manifestation, the Karmapa affirmed, while I am the other. The responsibility therefore rests equally on me as it does on you in upholding the line of continuity in the Kagyu Teachings.” Thus, the Karmapa formally made the Shamarpa his second-in-command both temporally and ecclesiastically.

The Shamarpas lead and protect the lineage during the minority years of the Karmapas. However, about 200 years ago a conflict occurred between the Gelugpa-controlled Tibetan government and the Karma Kagyu School that resulted in the 10th Shamarpa being exiled from Tibet and all future official recognitions of the Shamarpa incarnates were to be banned. As great Bodhisattvas cannot be repressed, subsequent Shamarpas were recognized in secret and protected by the ensuing Karmapas. Three of the next four Shamarpas were born into the same family of the Karmapas, i.e., the 14th Karmapa was the brother of the 11th Shamarpa; the 15th Karmapa was the father of the 12th Shamarpa; and the 16th Karmapa was the uncle of the present 14th Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche.

The official ban of the Shamarpas was lifted when the 14th Shamar Rinpoche was formally recognized and enthroned in 1963 by the 16th Karmapa at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa invited all the dignitaries of the kingdom of Sikkim to the enthronement and publicly proclaimed Shamarpa as spiritual head of the Kagyu lineage, second only to himself. As a courtesy the present 14th Dalai Lama, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile gave his blessing for the official reinstatement of the Shamarpa lineage.

The 14th Shamarpa remained with the 16th Karmapa until his death in 1981 and thereafter devoted his efforts to fulfilling numerous projects initiated by the Karmapa. In 1994, Shamarpa as second-in-command of the Karma Kagyu Lineage and in accordance with its centuries-old spiritual tradition recognized and confirmed Trinley Thaye Dorje as the authentic 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, the genuine Holder of the Black Crown.

The 1st Karmapa
Dusum Khyenpa
1110-1193

The 1st Shamarpa
Drakpa Senge
1283-1349

The 4th Karmapa
Rolpe Dorje
1340-1383

The 16th Karmapa
Rangjung Rigpe Dorje
1924-1981

The 14th Shamarpa
Mipham Chokyi Lodro
1952-2014

The 17th Karmapa
Thaye Dorje
1983-Present