The Seventeen Karmapas

To date, there have been 17 Karmapas. The first Karmapa was born in Tibet in 1110. Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Seventeenth Karmapa, was born in 1985 in Tibet, but now is living in India.

The Buddha is an example of a human being who has gained enlightenment. After gaining enlightenment, the Buddha spent the next forty years teaching; his essential message was that everyone has the ability to gain enlightenment if they wish so to do. Each Karmapa has carried this simple message through his example, his teaching and his activity. Throughout the centuries, the Karmapas have modelled the accomplishment of the Buddha: enlightenment.

The Karmapa conveys the teachings through the traditions of the Kagyu school, one of the four major Buddhist schools of Tibet. The lineage of the Kagyu emphasizes the continuity of oral instructions passed on from master to student, from whence the name "Kagyu" derives. The extensive written teachings of the Buddha and Buddhist masters must be properly understood; the teachings and experience passed on orally and from the presence of living master and student with each other, passed along from teacher to student -- from the original enlightenment of the Buddha to the experiences of present day masters -- is the key to this proper understanding.


Historical Background

Alleviating Suffering Through the Enlightened Mind

The Karmapas are part of the living heritage of the Buddha's teachings of enlightenment. The Buddha's activity is made manifest in the example of the Karmapa's own realization. The role of "one who would embody the activity of the Buddha" was predicted in some of the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha Sakyamuni and his primary disciples:

From The King of Samadhi Sutra:

Two thousand years after my passing,
The teachings will spread in the land of the red-faced ones,
Who will be the disciples of Avalokita.
[At that time,] the bodhisattva Simhanada, known as "Karmapa", will appear.
Possessing mastery over samadhi, he will tame beings
And establish them in bliss through seeing, hearing, recalling and touching.

From the Lankavatara Sutra (Descent Into Lanka Sutra):

Wearing monastic robes and a black crown,
He will perform unceasing benefit for beings
Until the teachings of one thousand buddhas disappear.

From the MulamaƱjushri Tantra (Root Tantra of MaƱjushri):

Endowed with a name beginning with "Ka" and ending with "Ma",
There will appear an individual who illuminates the teachings.

Demonstrating the Continuing Availability of the Teachings of Enlightenment (1110 to present)

A depiction of Chenrezik in the posture of resting within the nature of mind

The Karmapas have been central figures in the history of Buddhism in Tibet. The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje engaged in a key role in the preservation and development of the Nyingma lineage. The Fourth Karmapa Rolpe Dorje recognized the outstanding qualities and potential of Je Tsongkhapa and became the first preceptor to Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelukpa school. The Third through Fifth Karmapa were teachers of the Emperors of China and were instrumental in bringing an era of peace and internal growth to Tibet. The scholarship and realization of the Seventh through the Ninth Karmapas contributed to the preservation and continuation of the key written and oral lineage of the Kagyu school. The Tenth was a great artist and founder of a new style of painting in Tibet. The Fourteenth Karmapa took part in the preservation and continuation of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, which was at the brink of becoming extinct, and also had the vision of non-sectarian movement in Tibet, which he encouraged his heart disciple, Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, to continue. The Fifteenth Karmapa Khakhyap Dorje partook in the preservation and continuation of the Terma traditions of the Nyingma lineage. And the predecessor of the current Karmapa, the great Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, has been one of the most remarkable Tibetan Buddhist masters of our time, critical to preserving and continuing the various Tibetan buddhist lineages in exile.

His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, who escaped from Tibet to India in 1959, visited America three times and passed away in 1981, dedicated a major part of his activity to the preservation of the Tibetan records of the Buddha's teachings: starting with the set of volumes of the translated words of the Buddha (approx. 108 volumes), and the set of volumes of the translations of the commentaries to the words of Buddha by the Indian masters (approx. 214 volumes). His Holiness reprinted the Derge edition in New Delhi and distributed the Kagyur freely to all the Tibetan monasteries in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and USA, and Tengyur at the basic costs of printing to all the monasteries. This was a historic deed of His Holiness - no Tibetan masters of the past ever distributed the Kagyur freely to all the monasteries. His Holiness also undertook the work of preserving the writings of great Tibetan masters, including all the works of Karmapas that were available, and propagated them in exile India through teaching, giving transmissions, and printing the scriptures.

The 17th Manifestation

hhk teaching hand gesture

His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is the leading Tibetan master in the post-1959 era of Tibetan history. His Holiness is the first reincarnate Lama in world history to be recognized by a communist government. After being recognized to preside at Tsurphu, His Holiness contributed mightily to the development of Buddhism in Tibet in the 1990's. During this time, His Holiness rebuilt and fully developed the Tsurphu Monastery, the main seat of the Karmapas that was completely destroyed during 1959 and the '60's Cultural Revolution.

As a 14 year old, His Holiness decided that his responsibilities as Karmapa required him to pursue his studies in India, where he could receive traditional teaching and transmission from the Kagyu lineage masters living in exile there. He secretly left Tsurphu at the end of 1999, and he fled to India. His arrival in Dharamsala on January 5, 2000 surprised everyone; overnight the Karmapa captured the imagination of the world. Stories of his escape and arrival were printed throughout the international press.

In India, the Karmapa has now fully assumed the mantle of the Karmapa. His Holiness is in India, now temporarily living in Gyuto Monastery in the Dharamsala region, and continues to receive the full lineage transmissions and to benefit countless sentient beings. Thousands of Tibetans, Indian, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Asians, and Westerners visit His Holiness year around. His Holiness grants public and private audiences as well as special practice interviews for higher lamas.

In recent years, His Holiness has become increasingly concerned about the environment and is a leading voice in the community for environmental protection. The Karmapa is one of the young leaders of the Tibetan community in exile, and has become a spokesman for the community; his remarks are increasingly being given attention by the interntional press. In 2008, His Holiness made a ground-breaking tour of the United States, his first trip outside Tibet and India.

As the current Karmapa, His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje now carries the responsibility of a Karmapa, the one who manifest the Buddhas' enlightened activity. The activity of his life will speak for itself.