Interview with Shamarpa Rinpoche, the 14th reincarnation of the Red-Hat Lama

2 November 2011

It’s not every day that you meet a Lama, not to mention the Red-Hat Lama. Shamarpa Rinpoche was only 3½ years old when he was recognized as being the fourteenth reincarnation of one of the more prominent and unusual hierarch in the Himalayan history. Although born in Kham province (Eastern Tibet), Shamarpa Rinpoche represents less a “Tibetan” lama than a modern spiritual teacher. Very much akin to the western way of life, his life is dedicated to developing pragmatic ways to improve the global understanding of the main Buddhist truth such as appreciating the precious human life which is for sure not given for ever, thinking about our own responsibilities in the chain of cause and effect we all create every day, knowing how to tame our mind through meditation, especially when it develops thoughts and actions causing more suffering. Shamarpa is concerned about the well-being of all sentient beings including animals and has created the “Infinite Compassion Foundation” for the sake of their protection. Based on his philosophical knowledge and his own experience around the world, he has recently published a book of reflections on new models of democracy. We had the chance of meeting him during his short visit to Geneva, and to find out more about himself and his views. So now we leave the floor to him.

Q: What does it mean to be the Red-Hat Lama?

Formerly in Tibet, there were two famous Lamas who were the first so-called “reincarnations”. They were known as Karmapa and Shamarpa, both alternatively the head of the Karma-Kagyu lineage. They had a great influence in the way Tibet was governed from the fourteenth century up to 1642 when the dynasty of the Dalaï lamas was established by the Mongols.

Q: Why the two colours –– red and black?

The Red-Hat has to do with the sunset color, symbolizing the direction of the pure Land of the Buddha of Infinite Light, called “Amitabha”. The Black Hat is supposed to have been made mystically out the hair of Dakinies or celestial goddesses but was visible only for people who developed a very pure mind. One day, the Yongle Emperor, who was the prince of Yan and the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, saw it above the head of his teacher, the Fifth Karmapa, and decided to craft it as a crown to be offered to him as homage. In those times there was no opposition to China.

Q: You are the fourteenth reincarnation of the Red-Hat Lama.

I am holding the position of the fourteenth Shamarpa. The Shamarpas’ main seat was in Yangpachen, in the North of Lhassa, until the tenth Shamarpa had to move to Nepal in 1792 and established his institution there. It was mainly due to some political pressure from one regent of the Dalaï lama administration. So I am following in that line, my institution belongs more to Nepal and therefore I am more spiritually independent. However, I do still have connections with Tibet, but it is not in the same administration as the Dalai Lama.

Q: How does it feel to be recognized at the fourteenth reincarnation of the Shamarpa?

The Karmapa Lama has to recognize the Shamarpa Lama, and when the Karmapa Lama passes away, his reincarnation has to be recognized by the Shamarpa Lama. That was the rule. So I was recognized by the Karmapa Lama.

I was only 3½ years old and visiting the centre of Tibet when a nomadic group of lay people came by. They were travelling with mules and yaks. I was being carried by my Mama, and I said that these people were my monks, even though they were not in monk’s robes at all. Indeed, they came from the Shamarpa’s Monastery. This was the reason why I was targeted as the possible reincarnation of the Red-Hat Lama –– I recognized these monks. While travelling across Tibet, they had changed their robes to lay clothes as the custom permitted it. They then approached the Black-Hat Lama and said that this child must be the reincarnation of our Lama. Then few more tests involving my memory were made successfully.

Q: What is it like to be a Lama?

Well, it is quite difficult, because it was not my choice –– the people appointed me. When you grow up, you acquire a lot of responsibilities, many of which you may not like. If you do not carry out these responsibilities well, people do not realize that you have been forced into this position and it should be therefore understandable if you avoid some of them. No, they do not say that; they say you are guilty of irresponsibility. Everybody will blame you, the Lama, if you do not perpetuate the same system. So that’s the reason why I do not like the old system so much.

Q: You have written a book.

Although I live in Nepal, I have to look after the monastery founded by the late XVI Karmarpa in an Indian State called Sikkim. Since the passing away of the Karmapa and before his new reincarnation has been found, I frequently had to go there to look after his monastery and his affairs. In each state in India, there is an elected chief minister. The Chief Minister of Sikkim at that time became very corrupt, and one could even say that he became a dictator in his own state. Even though the parliament had thirty-two members, they all belonged to his party, so he had no opposition. Those who opposed him were put in prison. I had some experience of dealing with him. Later, he started to interfere in the monastery’s affairs because he needed money.

Sikkim was a small kingdom incorporated into India in 1975. The people are very gentle and kind and up to recently there has been no corruption there. Then, this man introduced corruption through his cabinet; he did the people of Sikkim a very great disservice. I was very surprised. I asked why and how India, which is such a large democratic country, can tolerate that by winning all the seats in parliament, you can indeed become a “dictator”. So this was one of my inspirations. Later, I saw the same kind of problems in other countries. Then I thought that although the Common Law democracy of the United Kingdom has been one of the most influential in the world. It has influenced the United States, Canada and India, such a system is perhaps getting too old. This encouraged me to investigate more and more, and then finally I came to write this book.

Q: How do you see this new model of democracy?

In my book, it’s shown that you can form a complete democracy without campaigning for the leaders, without political parties, just civil society. Since I was in India at that time, I stayed in a small town, Kalimpong, with 60,000 inhabitants. I started my writings there, and used Kalimpong as an example of a district. If you have sixty-four districts, you have a state or province. Each district has a mayor, and she/he is elected by the people. If each state is composed of sixty-four districts, the state is run by its sixty-four mayors. They appoint a secretary-general, just like the United Nations Secretary-General, and the secretary-general has to carry out the policies according to the decisions made by the mayors in the parliament.
India is a large country and it gives the opportunity to have more than 1,000 provinces.

Q: From the level of the province, how do you see things further up?

At the federal level, as in Washington or New Delhi, there is also one central parliament. Each province sends one representative to the federal parliament which is for the whole country. Then again at the provincial level, whatever decision is made in the parliament for each district, the budget will be distributed accordingly. Each mayor may use it during his period in office. It is very easy to control then, because the mayor is under control. So from the bottom-up no election is needed, except the mayor.

Q: Do you think you will be able to reduce corruption, because human beings in general …

You cannot eradicate corruption, but with this system you can reduce it to a level that is acceptable.

For example, each province’s money comes from the federal government and is being watched by sixty-four mayors, who are not belonging to any political party. These mayors will discuss how to use these funds within the district depending upon the suggestions made by each of the mayors. If I am one of the mayors, I will receive funds for my district, and I have to distribute these funds in my area, etc. Once the report describing the work that I submit to my parliament is adopted, I will receive the budget, and then I have to use it for the work stated in the report.

Q: On one side, if I may put it this way, you are a political lama, and on the other side you are a spiritual leader.

I’m not really involved in politics and I’m not working for that. It is for this reason that I say religious leaders should not become involved in politics. Spiritual leaders should not touch politics and this is clearly stated in my book. I wrote this book as a Buddhist philosopher who is able to write on any subject that is good for society. Here, I chose this one. So I wrote this according to Buddhist ethics. I wrote this book on how to form a good democratic governance free of corruption, unfortunately involving each political party. In the system I propose, you cannot easily play politics for personal reasons.

Q: Please tell us about your work as a spiritual leader.

I teach meditation a lot, and I have also written a handy meditation book for everybody, called Path for Awakening.

Q: A Norwegian said almost 100 years ago that, if people stopped meditating, you will see an increase in all kinds of cancer. Something that has proved to be true. Do you think this is one of the reasons why people should meditate?

In my understanding, curing cancer patients is not eased when they are either very lonely or mentally stressed, or both. You may be very involved in society, but you may have a lot of stress. Or you may be very lonely and meditation can also help.

Meditation is usually used for improving mental skills, to obtain peace of mind and to control the negative thoughts in your mind. The essence of mind is wisdom, and it is true that meditation can lead to this.

Real Buddhist meditation is not concerned with religion. It is no part of worship. Meditation is only technical. Concentrating on breathing is the initial step on how to train your mind to meditate, but that’s just the beginning. Then you go from there to something deeper –– there are many steps of meditation. The small book I wrote about it is totally free of religion. I only give the steps for meditation.

Q: You have also set up the Infinite Compassionate Foundation?

The starting point was to teach people not to be brutal on animals, like it can be seen in China. When people are brutal towards animals, it is important to teach them that animals too feel pain, that they have feelings. I write books on the subject. It’s the same for chickens, cows, etc.

My theory is the following. One cannot turn the whole of the world’s population into vegetarians, but you have to think that if you are buying meat the animal in question should have had a good life first. Pig, chicken, cow, whatever you eat, you must give them a good life until a certain age. This is the reason why one should ban veal meat because the animal is too young. If you must then slaughter them, this should be done humanely and without pain. So this is the work of the foundation.