The Karmapas

Since the 12th century, a succession of Buddhist teachers known as the Karmapas have led the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The name “Karmapa” means “he who performs the activity of a buddha.” The current Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is the seventeenth incarnation.

The Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism traces its origins to Shakyamuni Buddha through Marpa the Great Translator, who traveled to India to bring back authentic Buddhist teachings to Tibet.

Marpa’s most famous student was the great yogi/poet Jetsun Milarepa, who passed the teachings on to Gampopa, who in turn transmitted the teachings to the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. Since then, the Kagyu Lineage has been headed by a succession of incarnations of the Gyalwang Karmapa.

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The 16th Karmapa

The 16th Gyalwang Karmapa was born in Tibet in 1924 and discovered through a letter left by his predecessor predicting the circumstances of his next rebirth. He was enthroned and given the name Rangjung Rigpe Dorje — “the wish fulfilling gem.” From an early age he received rigorous training in meditative practices and he performed the selfless activity of a buddha throughout his lifetime. After the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in 1959, he reinstituted the Kagyu order in Sikkim, establishing a new monastery in Rumtek. He was the first Karmapa to travel to the West, giving the blessing of the ‘Black Crown’ ceremony in Europe and North America in the 70s and 80s.

Karmapa is depicted by the statue at the top front of the Tashi Gomang Stupa. The stupa contains his relics, as well as those of all the main forefathers of the Kagyu lineage.

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The 17th Karmapa

The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was born in 1985 in Eastern Tibet. Karmapa was recognized and brought to Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa, the seat for the Karmapas. He came to India in 2000, and has subsequently traveled the world in his responsibility as head of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

Like many earlier incarnations, the 17th Karmapa is an accomplished artist, working with drawing and painting, sculpture, calligraphy, poetry and the printed word.

Two issues that he has particularly championed are women’s rights and environmental protection. He has instituted numerous practical programs for the environment as a way of caring for future generations, and has personally committed to ensuring that in the future, women will have the opportunity to receive full ordination as nuns within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

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