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What does the name Karma pa  mean?

It is the Tibetan for a Sanskrit expression meaning "the one who functions as the manifestation of Buddha-activity."  Transliterated into English, the Sanskrit term for such a manifestation is karmaka. (The unmodified root is karman, and the -ka ending turns it into a noun that emphasizes one's dedicated activity leading to mastery; that is, "the fulfiller of karma".)  The term was rendered into the Tibetan language as Karma.pa meaning "Master of Karma."  

As the 17th Karmapa said in an interview at Gyuto Monastery, Siddhpuri, India, on March 25, 2000, "I am the manifestation of the activities of all the Buddhas.  I spread the Buddha Dharma in the ten directions of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. I cannot say where the Dharma will go."  That is, he is a product of the karma of all Buddhas.  

In Chinese, the significance of Karmapa is transferred by the expression, Rasuso Huwang meaning, "King of the Precious Dharma."   For instance, when the Ming (14th C.) emperor sent a royal seal to Karmapa, the engraving read, "Ming authorized this jade seal of the King of the Precious Dharma."

Who are the Karmapas?

The Karmapa is the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of the Kagyu denomination. There are other notable  lineages, most notably the Drikung Kagyu and the Shangpa.  At a conference of exiles in India in the 1960s, it was determined, for the protection of the continuity of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, that it would be beneficial to designate certain individuals as leaders of the various "schools."  The Karmapa was chosen to represent the Kagyupas.

The Dalai Lama tells us, "In the Bhadrakalpa Sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni prophesied that a thousand buddhas would manifest during the current kalpa, or universal cycle.  He further predicted that the sixth of these enlightened beings, known as Drukpa Senge [Senge = lion, or in Sanskrit, Simha, cf. Swahili, Simba] would incarnate as a bodhisattva during the periods in which all the other buddhas were active, in order to help spread their teachings and free sentient beings from suffering."

Prediction and Prophecies

As compiled by Rinchen Palzang (The All-Illuminating Mirror: An Index of Tsurphu Monastery) some other prophecies are:

  • Samadhiraja (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:
    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 (Manifesting in 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 (Root of Mañjushri) Tantra:

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

That bodhisattva is called Karmapa because he embodies the karma or Activity of all Buddhas.  He is also the lineage head of the branch called the Karma Kagyu, "the practice lineage." 

According to Tibetan tradition, this 10th level bodhisattva, who is considered of the same category as Saraha, actually attained enlightenment long ago when he was the Buddha called Shenpen Namdrol. He will again manifest as the sixth Buddha, at a future time known as Fortunate Eon, when he will be called Trukpa Senge.

Therefore, he is inseparable from Buddha Shakyamuni, the "historical buddha." 

Chogyur Lingpa's Vision

At Karma Monastery in Nangchen, East Tibet, non-sectarian master Chogyur Dechen Lingpa (1829-70) had a vision of twenty-one Karmapa incarnations. (He was contemporaneous with the 13th and 14th Karmapas, so the vision actually "predicts" only the 14th through 21st.)  He described it to Karmai Khenchen Rinchen Tarjay, the abbot, who painted a representation of each of the Karmapas on silk.  The disciples of Chogyur Lingpa also wrote down the oral descriptions which were later printed by means of woodblock at renowned Mindroling monastery. 

Lingpa himself believed he would be reborn as the personal steed of the 18th of the Karmapas.

The First Karmapa

One of Gampopa's disciples was Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193) who became known to history as the first of the Karmapas.   The Karma Kagyu originates with him. He became known as the 1st Karmapa after attaining enlightenment.  He is The One With Buddha Activity predicted by Buddha Sakyamuni.

The First Karmapa built Karma Densal Temple, after which the denomination received its designation, Karma Kagyu. 

  • A drawing of the 1st Karmapa found inside a consecrated 14th-C. Buddha taken by Younghusband and now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Britain.

Dusum Khyenpa had received teachings from Milarepa's other famous disciple, Rechungpa and many others, but the main oral instructions of Profound Mahamudra, the famous Kagyu technique, he received from Gampopa.  In middle-age, Dusum Khyenpa attained enlightenment after months of fasting and solitary meditation. 

"After four years of continual practice, Dusum Khyenpa realized the natural emptiness and radiance of his own mind, and immeasurable compassion toward all beings arose in his stream of being. After his meditation remained stable for six months, Gampopa told him, he had completely severed the bonds of existence, and bestowed on him the essential transmissions of the Kagyu lineage ... . 

At the age of eighty-four, he entrusted to his foremost disciple, Drogon Rechen, a letter of prophecy describing the conditions under which he would next take birth.  He thus became the first Tibetan tulku (nirmanakaya in Sanskrit), known to take rebirth intentionally for the benefit of sentient beings ... ." (Karmapa 15)

It was Gampopa who encouraged him to impart his realization to others.  So, in his early 70's, Dusum Khyenpa founded Tsurphu Monastery in Central Tibet. and two other Karma Kagyu centres.

Tolung Tsurphu, not far from Lhasa, is thought of as the mind-mandala of the Karmapas.  Karma Gön is the speech mandala, and Kampo Nenang is the body mandala.  Tsurphu became the main seat when Dusum Khyenpa passed away there in 1193.  It was left to the care of his disciple Drogön Rechen, along with a letter predicting the circumstances of his rebirth thus establishing the tulku tradition.  Dusum Khyenpa had written that 10 years after his death he would be reborn, and he was -- as Karma Pakshi.

First Intentional Human Incarnation

The 2nd Karmapa was Karma Pakshi (1203-1283) the first consciously incarnated lama in Tibet.  His teacher was Pomdrakpa, the principal disciple of Drogon Rechen. 

Pomdrakpa had recognized him based, not only on the prediction letter, but on a vision he had in which Dusum Khyenpa appeared to him to identify the boy.

Karma Pakshi grew to spend years in China at the Mongol Court of Kublai Khan, who was impressed by his feats of magic.  Marco Polo mentioned the Karmapa's amazing abilities in the diary of his travels. 

Legend has it that the dakinis bestowed upon him a vajra crown woven out of the hair of a hundred thousand of their kind. This is the Black Crown that appears to devoted people in a visionary form over the head of all Karmapas.

Karma Pakshi traveled in Tibet and China, spreading the Dharma. Later, with the wealth he received from his patrons he had Tsurphu Monastery rebuilt as it had been destroyed in local wars.

According to legend, Karma Pakshi had thrown offerings into a spring near Shang Tu before leaving China. Two years later at Tsurphu, the objects turned up in a nearby pool.

It is the reputation for this kind of spiritual ability that contributed to the political power the Kagyupas had until the rise of the Fifth Dalai Lama when in 1642, Tsurphu monastery was sacked by the Mongols. 

Before he passed away in 1283, The 2nd Karmapa prophesied that his next incarnation would come from a westerly direction. Until then, the lineage was left to Urgyenpa.

Moon Manifestation

The 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) also visited the Chinese court, and officiated at the installation of one of the Emperors. The heir and successor, Taghon Temur (1333-1368) became one of his disciples.

Rangjung Dorje spent a life of meditation in caves, notably the one above Tsurphu Monastery called Pema Chodzang.  There it is said, he saw the planets and stars of the inner and outer spheres resolve themselves.  Later, his treatise on astrology became famous as the Tsurphu or Tolung System.

He is also famous for another treatise, The Hidden Meaning [Zabmo Nangdon].  He brought together the famous Kagyu Mahamudra teachings and the essence of the Nyingmapas, Maha Ati (Tib. Dzogchen).   He said:

"The true nature of beings is always buddha. 
Not realizing that, they wander in endless samsara. 
For the boundless suffering of sentient beings 
May unbearable compassion be conceived in our being. 

When the energy of unbearable compassion is unceasing, 
In expressions of loving kindness, the truth of its
essential emptiness is nakedly clear. 
This unity is the supreme unerring path. 
Inseparable from it, may we meditate day and night." 

~ Shenpen Osel Choling on-line.

On a second visit to China in 1339, he died, and it was widely reported that his face was clearly visible on the full moon. 



The  Golden Rosary

The phrase Golden Rosary, Garland or Chain, of the Kagyu-s  is often used to refer to the interlinking of the transmission of teachings in which Mahamudra is the predominant technique, from one generation to the next.  It is headed by successive reincarnations who personally select the lineage holder to ensure the integrity of the teaching. 

Since His Holiness Karmapa is a bodhisattva with the capacity of perceiving the true nature of others, he has the ability of selecting his own guru or teacher.  This person (or persons) may be an eminent reincarnate, or an exceptional practitioner with no special status in the hierarchy of the labrang [monastic institution.]

The Kagyu tradition is the one which first made known the existence of reincarnate spiritual beings known as tulku in Tibetan.  Therefore, Karmapa can determine a successor while he is still living, or by predicting the identity of a future incarnation. 

By the way, though the Karmapa is most often a celibate monk, this has not always been the case.  Nor is celibacy considered a requirement for the "office," -- some of the Karmapas have had consorts, who are usually themselves accomplished practitioners.

The Karmapas of Our Day

Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1923-1981) was the 16th Karmapa.  Some time after the Chinese communists took control of Tibet, he was faced with a difficult choice.  Finally, in 1959, he went to India with his entourage, just like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, some other senior lamas and about 100,000 other Tibetans. 

The then Chogyal (Dharma-King) of Sikkim offered Karmapa his choice of several sites, and he established a new seat near the old Rumtek Monastery, built during the life of 12th Karmapa Jangchub Dorje (1703-1732.)  The link between Sikkim and the Karmapas dates at least from that time, the reign of Gyurme Namgyal, fourth Chogyal, who was a devotee of the 12th Karmapa.  He had built the first Kagyu monastery at Ralang, South Sikkim, in 1730 and in 1740, two more: at Phodong in North Sikkim and at Rumtek, East Sikkim.

In the 1970’s, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, envisioned for North America an authentic Tibetan monastery with quarters for monks, nuns and visiting students. It would also have facilities for the traditional closed 3-year retreat.  Sadly, the temple was not completed in his lifetime, as he died in 1981.   

What Dies is Only the Body: Tai Situ Rinpoche on the death of 16th Karmapa Rigpe Dorje.

An effigy enshrining relics is there at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, on a mountaintop in the township of Woodstock, upstate New York.  Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is the highly-esteemed abbot of KTD.  He is the author of Dharma Paths, an invaluable book for beginners. His teachings are readily available at the KTD bookstore online

There is a stupa in Crestone, Colorado that also contains relics of the 16th Karmapa, along with those of Trungpa Rinpoche. 

Karmapa Today

Today, the head of the Karma Kagyu is Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje.  He is the 17th in this 900-year old unbroken lineage.  Until January 2000 he resided at the seat of the Karmapas in Tsurpu, in Tibet.  In 2012 he will be 27 years old.  He is still living in temporary quarters in India due to the vagaries of Tibetan refugee status in that country.  He has recently been able to visit the USA twice.  Tens of thousands attend his teachings, most notably at the gathering that takes place on the site of the historic Buddha's enlightenment.  He is also an accomplished linguist, poet, calligrapher and musician, and is no stranger to modern technology. 

The 17th Karmapa was first called "Apo Gaga," when he was born June 26, 1985 at Bakor village, in Lhatok district, Kham, East Tibet, to parents, Dhondrup Tashi and Loga.  All aspects were in accordance with the letter of prediction written by the 16th Karmapa and found by H. E. Tai Situpa Rinpoche.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama conferred a letter of recognition known as a Bukhtham Rinpoche, on June 30, 1992.  This was in accord with well-recognized principles of the tradition first established in the Kagyu denomination, and by the early Karmapas.

See the remarkable resemblance between the young 17th Karmapa and the young 16th Karmapa at www.namoguru.org 

At the end of 1999, the 17th Karmapa had to make the same terrible decision as his predecessor.  When questioned at the Apr. 27, 2001 news conference, he stated, "no one told me to go and no one asked me to come to India." 

He was interviewed not long after his arrival and asked what his life had been like before he emerged from Tibet, he responded succinctly that he had been in his mother's body, then grew up and now he was . . . here! 

"It is not important what makes me, as an individual, smile; it is important what makes humanity smile. Humanity smiles the moment our motivations and actions are the same." That was the response to the obvious question by Urgyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, in an interview in March 2000.  The sophisticated interviewer bent on revealing an "inner child" must have been taken aback to discover that there was none!

The 17th Karmapa was accorded a haven in India because, as H. H. the Dalai Lama says, "The Gyalwa Karmapa is a supreme master of Buddhist teachings in general, a magnificent lama of Tibet and in particular, of the Kagyu tradition's Karma Kamtsang lineage ... . "

Karmapa's Activity

The oral transmission of the Kagyu lineage has continued unbroken via the Karmapas for more than 890 years.  Not only is it a remarkably effective system, but it is a unique world heritage and as such, merits effort towards its conservation.

The activity of the Karmapa is of a special enlightened nature that is born of complete self-knowledge within the context of the highest wisdom.  It is pure, free, genuine and honest compassionate activity, whose objective is the final end of suffering for all sentient beings.

Karmapa chen-no or  Karmapa kyen-no !


The 14th Dalai Lama (Karmapa: The Sacred Prophecy. New York: Kagyu Thubten Choling Publications Committee, 1999 iv)  The name of the prophetic scripture could be translated as Age of Defeat.  

In Karmapa: The Black Hat Lama of Tibet (Luzac: 1976) by Nik Douglas & Meryl White there is a footnote, p. 34 , identifying the prophesy in Tibetan as mDo-Ting-'Chin-rGyal-po.  It was Je Gampopa and two other great 12th century masters, Lama Sakya Shri from Kashmir and Lama Shang, who recognized that Dusum Khyenpa was indeed the Karmapa, as foretold in the prophecy.

avatara: The Sanskrit term meaning "descent" refers to an embodiment of the Divine.  Since Buddhism does not recognize any eternal, unchanging Deity or deities, we would not normally call Karmapa an avatar.  The term "continuum" is a convenient European word for what it is that travels through existences, since it does not have the same connotation of permanence as the word "soul."

fulfiller: cf. sadhaka, a similar kind of noun that, according to the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, has a range of meanings such as: effective, efficient, productive of (gen. or comp.), accomplishing, fulfilling, completing, perfecting, finishing.

termas: recovered, or envisioned, teachings. 

samadhi: the most profound meditative state characterized by absorption in Emptiness.

Stupa: a traditional Buddhist shrine with dome and spire known as chorten (cheuten) in Tibetan. 

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