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The Seventeen Karmapas (1110 - present)


Karmapa means "the one who carries out buddha-activity" or "the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas." The Karmapas have incarnated in this form of nirmanakaya, or manifestation body, for seventeen lifetimes, as of the present, and all have played the most important role in preserving and propagating the Buddhist teachings of Tibet. The arrival of a master who would be known as the Karmapa was been prophesied by the historic Buddha Shakyamuni and the great tantric master of India, Guru Padmasambhava. Throughout the centuries, Karmapas have been the central figure in the continuation of the vajrayana lineage in general and Kagyu lineage in particular, and have played a very important role in the preservation of the study and practice lineages of Buddhism.

Historical Background

The Prophecies

The Lord Buddha Shakyamuni has foretold the coming of the Karmapa in various sutras and tantras. Only a few of the buddhist masters are prophesied in the sutras and tantras and the Karmapa was certainly one of them.

The following prophecies were compiled by Rinchen Palzang and appear in his work entitled The All-Illuminating Mirror: An Index of Tsurphu Monastery.

From the Samadhiraja Sutra (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 Mulamañjushri Tantra (Root Tantra of Mañjushri):

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

The Karmapa's arrival was also prophesized by the great Indian mahasiddha, Padmasambhava in various termas.

The Buddha Karmapa

From the viewpoint of the ultimate essence, it is said that the Karmapa has attained enlightenment long time ago, as a Buddha in the past called Shenphen Namrol. He will be the sixth Buddha of this fortunate eon in the future, who will be known as the Trukpa Senge and he is inseparable with the present buddha, Shakyamuni.

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

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

From the relative point of view, he manifests as the tenth level (bhumi) Bodhisattva and an emanation of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezik. The Karmapas have manifested in countless different emanations through the centuries.

Some of the most prominent manifestations of the Karmapas are the Great Brahmin Saraha and Padmasambhava in India and many other emanations in Tibet, who upheld and propagated the teachings of the Buddha and benefited countless beings all over. However, only one nirmakaya form of the successive incarnations appeared in different times and they all have been the most outstanding master in Tibetan buddhist history. He is the first lama whose successive reincarnate lines were recognized, and he manifested from the 11th century to continues to manifest today.

The Buddha Activity

The Karmapas have not only played an instrumental role in the Kagyu lineage, but also in other Vajrayana Buddhist schools of Tibet. For example, the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje engaged in a key role in the preservation and development of the Nyingthik tradition in 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 Seventh through the Ninth Karmapas contributed to the preservation and continuation of the Sutras, Tantras, and Mahamudra lineages of the Kagyu school, 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 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 dedicated a major part of his activity to the preservation of scriptures: staring with the Kagyur, translated words of the Buddha (approx. 108 volumes), and Tengyur, 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.

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. He was eventually forced to leave Tsurphu at the end of 1999, and he fled to India. His Holiness is now temporarily living in Gyuto Monastery in the Dharamsala region, where he is receiving the full lineage transmissions and benefiting 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.

One of the most unique attributes of the Karmapa's is the Black Crown, which symbolizes the activity of the direct lineage of the Karmapas. For more information on each Karmapa, click on the the names in the table at the top right of the page. Or go to the page for Dusum Khyenpa, the First Karmapa.