Clarification of the Term ‘Heart Sons’ by Shamar Rinpoche

Posted on Posted in Arguments

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

For reasons that I cannot fathom, recent books on the Karmapa controversy by two supporters of Tai Situ Rinpoche, Lea Terhune and Mick Brown, employ the term “Heart Sons” to describe four Karma Kagyu lamas—Shamar Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.

This is confusing to me because this term did not come down to us from the ancient tradition of the Karma Kagyu; nor was it given by the late 16 th Gyalwa Karmapa. Instead, the term “Heart Sons” was coined in 1997 by my cousin Topga Rinpoche, the general secretary of the late Karmapa. And what’s more, Rinpoche used the term ironically, as part of a detailed critique of the behavior of Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches.

Topga Rinpoche was a gifted writer and learned scholar blessed with a strong sense of right and wrong and a keen wit to match. In the finest Tibetan literary tradition, Rinpoche was not afraid to target his sharp pen and his irony at behavior that failed to meet his high moral standards.

It was in this spirit that Topga Rinpoche sarcastically applied the term “heart sons” to Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches. It is curious to me that Brown and Terhune would employ a term invented specifically to criticize their lamas. And it is confusing that these writers do not cite the source of this term, nor explain the context in which Topga Rinpoche first used it.

To understand why this term is so confusing to me, let me explain how Topga Rinpoche came to use it.

An Official Lineage of Spiritual Fathers and Sons

Before the establishment of the Dalai Lamas as the secular rulers of Tibet , the country was governed by a dynasty of kings sympathetic to the Karma Kagyu order, the Tsangpa Dynasty. In the 17 th century King Tsangpa Dhesid wanted to institutionalize the spiritual primacy of the Karma Kagyu within the nation. Thus, he designated the ninth Karmapa “Dharma King” of Tibet , and he also established an official, government-sanctioned hierarchy for the highest lamas of the Karma Kagyu.

In language adopted from the Indian tradition of spiritual fathers and sons started by Marpa and Milarepa, this hierarchy was known as the Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say or “Victorious Lineage of Spiritual Fathers and Sons.” In this system, the main reincarnate lamas were placed in an order of authority from the highest on down. The top lamas were listed as follows:

  1. Gyalwa Karmapa Black Hat
  2. Gyalwa Karmapa Red Hat (Shamarpa)
  3. Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche
  4. Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche
  5. Pawo Rinpoche
  6. Teho Rinpoche

This hierarchy parallels the system in the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order, the Jey Yab Say Sum with Tsongkhapa at the top and Khedrup Je and Gyalstab Je below, and theGyalwa Yab Say Nampa Nyi with the Dalai Lama at the top and the Panchen Lama just below.

The Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say became a kind of ruling cabinet for the Karma Kagyu School and established a lasting order of the highest lamas with only one exception. Informally within the Kagyu tradition, because Gyaltsab was involved in a long-standing legal dispute with Gyalwa Karmapa himself that distanced Gyaltsab and Karmapa, Situ moved up to take Gyaltsab’s place in the #3 position.

The ban that the Lhasa government placed on Shamarpa reincarnations from the late eighteenth century until 1956 had no effect on the hierarchy; the number #2 position remained officially empty. Neither Gyalwa Karmapa nor the government of Tibet transferred Shamarpa’s rank to any other lama.

Formulated by the Tibetan government of the Tsangpa kings and then reconfirmed by the government of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say was adopted by the Karma Kagyu School itself and remained in force into the twentieth century. Then, the 16 th Gyalwa Karmapa made his own temporary ranking of Karma Kagyu lamas that paralleled the Gyalwa Yab Say . These two rankings provided the only terms used to describe the hierarchy of our lamas until the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981.

The Brief Life of “The Four Regents”

At the late Karmapa’s death, the Karma Kagyu School found itself in the extraordinary situation of running its affairs in the interregnum between Karmapas while in exile from Tibet . Recognizing the potential for disorder in this situation, the late Karmapa’s general secretary, Damchoe Yongdu, created a group of four “regents” consisting of myself, Situ, Gyaltsab and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoches. With some reservation, I naively accepted this situation to preserve harmony within our school. At the time I didn’t realize that I myself had no authority to change the Kagyu system. And sure enough, within a few years it became clear that this arrangement created more problems than it solved. In particular, the secretaries of each rinpoche’s administration began throwing their weight around based on their lama being a “regent,” which created resentment among the administrations of other lamas.

Therefore, I dissolved the regent group in 1984, with the agreement of the other three rinpoches. We all agreed that the term “Four Regents” should cease to be used in any official communications of the Karma Kagyu in general or the late Karmapa’s seat at Rumtek Mona stery in particular. Accordingly, the Rumtek office reverted to the original terminology of the Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say .

Topga Rinpoche’s Coup de Plume

In 1992 the unfortunate conflict within our school began. The sad history of those years is known to us all, though we may disagree about who was in the right. In the heat of this discord, in 1997, Topga Rinpoche published a book criticizing the behavior of Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches. Topga criticized the two rinpoches in particular for attacking Rumtek Mona stery and forging their Karmapa prediction letter. Written in Tibetan language and titledTam Na Tsog Kuntok Gi Rimo , the book detailed how the two rinpoches collaborated with corrupt politicians “to loot the ancient relics of the Karmapas.”

Topga Rinpoche’s book became famous among Himalayan scholars for its indignant critique supported by impeccable logic, impressive evidence and Topga Rinpoche’s signature wit and sarcasm.

In his book, Topga Rinpoche borrowed a term used by other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, thug sey . Translated as “heart sons,” this term was used historically to describe various groups of close disciples of famous Nyingma and Drukpa Kagyu lamas, much as Christians use the term “apostles” to refer to the closest followers of Jesus.

Here, Topga used the term thug sey ironically to refer to the four lamas who were supposed to have had a special connection and loyalty to the late Karmapa. Arguing that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches had used their position of trust to betray the institution of the Karmapas, Topga gave the term Heart Sons an ironic tinge. Perhaps this would have been like calling Judas “the good disciple.” Topga Rinpoche certainly meant to say that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches had acted like Judases towards their guru the 16 th Gyalwa Karmapa.

Needless to say, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches were not pleased by Topga Rinpoche’s book, or by its popularity among Himalayan Buddhists. But this did not stop Situ Rinpoche from removing the term Heart Sons from the ironic context in which Topga Rinpoche had used it and applying it to himself and the other lamas as a kind of badge of honor.

The Precious Gift of Our Unbroken Lineage

For my part, I prefer the traditional terms of our lineage. I was never comfortable with the term “regent” and was glad to see it go. And I am confused that Situ Rinpoche should want to call himself a “Heart Son,” given the origin of this term.

In any event, I would like to request here that Situ Rinpoche not include me in this newfangled designation.

I am satisfied with the nomenclature of our tradition and with the hierarchy laid out in the Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say . This was good enough for seven Karmapas and all other Kagyu lamas since the 17th century, and it is good enough for me. Neither of the late general secretaries of Gyalwa Karmapa, Damchoe Yongdu or Topga Rinpoche, had the authority to change this structure. The terms “Four Regents” and “Four Heart Sons” have no history in our lineage; they appear in no documents generated by the administration of the late 16th Karmapa; and I can’t see that these terms add any value. Indeed, these terms were circulated only after the death of the late Karmapa, in a time of disorder, by people who wanted to take advantage of the temporary lack of authority to enhance their own political positions.

For these reasons, I would like to ask all followers of our lineage as well as journalists and others interested in Tibetan Buddhism to abandon the terms “regents” and “Heart Sons.” If writers need to refer to the work that the four rinpoches did together during the period from 1981 to 1992 to locate the reincarnation of the late Gyalwa Karmapa, then they may refer to us as the Karmapa Search Committee of Four Rinpoches.

The beauty and power of Buddhism comes from its preservation of the original teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni unchanged over eons. Of course, the cultural forms through which the precious Dharma is expressed can and should change to suit different times and places. But we would be ill-served to change the heart essence of the teachings. And for Tibetans, the way we have preserved the heart essence of Buddhism has been through the unbroken, authentic lineage of Mahamudra. Marpa the Translator transmitted this lineage to his student Jetsun Milarepa who in turn transmitted it to Gampopa. Gampopa’s students then handed down the teachings through successive Karma Kagyu lineage-holders to the present day, from teacher to student, from spiritual father to spiritual son.

This unbroken lineage is our unique gift to the world, a world that needs authentic spiritual wisdom today more than ever before. It is the duty of all Karma Kagyu practitioners to preserve this precious lineage so that future generations may enjoy the blessings of genuine, pure Dharma.


Shamar Rinpoche