The 17 Gyalwang Karmapas

1. Düsum Khyenpa (1110 – 1193)

He was born in East Tibet, receiving his first religious training from his parents. During his youth, he received teachings from various teachers. At the age of twenty, he took full monastic ordination, at thirty he left for Gampopa’s monastery to receive instructions from him. Gampopa and two other important masters of this time recognized Dusum Khyenpa to be the one about whom it was written in old scripts: sixteen hundred years after Buddha Shakyamuni’s passing from earth, a man with great spiritual abilities and immeasurable compassion would be born. He, by the name of Karmapa, would found a lineage and install a succession of incarnations.
After having received all necessary instructions from his teacher, he entered retreat and later received the complete transmission of the secret teachings of the Kagyu tradition. Again, he entered solitary retreat to recognize the decisive insight into the inseparability of samsara and nirvana. Dusum Khyenpa, knower of past, present and future had attained complete enlightenment.
Dusum Khyenpa founded Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa and reaching the end of his life he wrote a letter with complete details concerning his next incarnation, bestowing it to his main disciple Drogon Rechen, predecessor of the Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche lineage.

2. Karma Pakshi (1206 – 1283)

Karma Pakshi was born into an aristocratic family. He was the first recognized Tulku in Tibet. His birth was accompanied by auspicious signs and in his youth he excelled with his studies. At the age of only ten years for example, he could recite a dharma text by heart, having read it only once. At the age of eleven he received his first precepts and spent the next ten years in intensive, uninterrupted meditation and the study of the most profound texts. Due to the difficult political situation, Karma Pakshi had to leave the area and founded Tara Gon, a great monastery in East Tibet. Then he travelled throughout the country to teach and visited all those monasteries that had been founded by Dusum Khyenpa. After eleven years he returned to Tsurphu which had been destroyed meanwhile. The reconstruction took six years. His fame spread so far that the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan invited him to his court. But only the second visit was successful. Deeply touched by Karma Pakshi’s abilities, the emperor set prisoners free and promised, according to the wish of Karma Pakshi, not only to support the Karma Kagyu tradition but all other Buddhist lineages. Five months before he passed away, he informed a young couple who were on pilgrimage, that he would be reborn as their son. So passed all instruction concerning his reincarnation to his main disciple Urgyenpa who was to become the teacher in his next life.

3. Rangjung Dorje (1284 – 1339)

As predicted, he was born as son of the two pilgrims in southern Tibet. The newborn baby sat in meditation posture and said “the moon has risen”. The mother who had already forgotten the prophecy, considering this to be a bad omen, washed his mouth with ash. Rangjung Dorje remained silent for the next three years. At the age of three years, he let his playmates build a throne out of turf for him which he mounted as soon it was finished and gave his first teachings to them. When Urgyenpa came to hear about the child and after having had several visions, he prepared everything for the reception of his teacher’s reincarnation. After the successful mastery of all examinations the child was recognized as Karma Pakshi’s reincarnation and enthroned. At the age of seven, he received his first precepts and at seventeen he entered a retreat. Rangjung Dorje not only received all transmissions of Kagyu but also all Nyingma transmissions, marking the very beginning of the Rime tradition. Rangjung Dorje studied medicine and astrology and reformed them. He also visited all his predecessor’s monasteries and accepted an invitation to the Chinese court. Arriving there, he found the emperor dead as he had already forseen it in a vision. So he enthroned the emperor’s younger brother Toghon Temur who bestowed on him the title “Omniscient of religion, Buddha Karmapa” and was to become one of his most devotional disciples. Karmapa finally passed away at the age of fifty-five years and that very night he was seen sitting in the circle of the full moon.

4. Rolpe Dorje (1340 – 1383)

According to the prophecy, Rolpe Dorje was born in Kongpo. His mother had auspicious dreams during the pregnancy. After the birth, the child declared “OM MANI PEME HUNG HrI – I am the Karmapa”. Tsurphu’s search party reached the house soon and so he was brought to the monastery that Gampopa had once founded. At the age of eleven, he received his first precepts and in his youth he received the complete formal transmissions of both Kagyu and Nyingma. At the age of nineteen he accepted Toghon Temur’s passionate invitation to the Chinese Court where he performed many miracles. Seeing the coming of the emperor’s passing, he deemed it advisable to leave the country so as not to get involved in future political turmoils. On his way back to Tibet, he founded several monasteries and gave the first precepts to a special boy whose great importance for Buddhism in Tibet he foresaw. It was Tshongkhapa who was to later found the Gelugpa tradition, know for the line of Dalai Lamas. As the emperor had died, the Mongolian Yuan dynasty came to an end and so the Chinese emperor of the Ming dynasty entered the throne. He also invited Karmapa who did not accept the invitation but instead sent representatives. Fairly young, Rolpe Dorje passed away which hindered the Chinese troups from invading Tibet. During the cremation of his body rainbows could be seen and his image was seen in the sky in the middle of a circle, surrounded by a rainbow, riding on a lion carried by the sun, moon and stars.

5. Dezhin Shegpa (1384 – 1415)

He was born in southern Tibet and also his birth was also accompanied by auspicious signs. As his predecessors he declared to be Karmapa. Soon this news was heard in Tsurphu so he was recognized with the help of the prediction letter and enthroned. He spent his childhood in intensive study and meditation and received his first precepts at the age of seven years. He was also invited to the Chinese court and accepted the invititation together with his main disciple, the first Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and many other lamas and monks. Again the court was impressed by Karmapas miraculous deeds, offering Dezhin Shegpa to help the Kagyu lineage to become the most important tradition. But Karmapa disagreed and convinced the emperor of the diversity’s importance. The emperor, Yunglo, became a devoted student of Karmapa and reached the level of a bodhisattva. During a ceremony he once envisioned the black vajra crown, woven with the hair of hundred thousand dakinis. In order to help all people to see this crown, he decided to have it made which is today kept in Rumtek, Sikkim. Karmapa finally passed away in the Potala palace, leaving clear instructions leading to the discovery of the next incarnation.

6. Tongwa Döndän (1416 – 1452)

He was born as predicted, near Karma Gon monastery. Again, the parents had auspicious dreams during the pregnancy. When Tongwa Dondan was born, he sat upright and smiled at his mother. At the age of two years, he declared, he was freed of all names, places and was the glory of all beings, leading many to liberation. At the age of three he was recognized and enthroned and at the age of nine received his first ordination. He was known as the composer of many prayers and developed a liturgical system for Karma Kagyu. His two main disciples were the second Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and the first Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. Knowing that his incarnation would not remain too long on this earth, he made Gyaltsab Tulku his regent and gave all instructions concerning his next birth to him.

7. Chödrag Gyatsho (1454 – 1506)

Chodrag Gyatsho spoke when born and astonished his parents in his earliest childhood with the most profound statements about all being. After having been brought to Gyaltsab Rinpoche, he was recognized at the age of nine months. The most important teachers of the sixth Karmapa were the second Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and the first Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He received his first precepts at the age of nine years. His complete life was marked by his peacemaking activities, and several times he could prevent wars. He established a shedra, a sort of Buddhist university at Tsurphu which was known throughout the whole of Tibet. When the time had come, he gave the prediction letter to Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and declared the time of his passing to be near.

8. Mikyö Dorje (1507 – 1554)

He was born in Eastern Tibet and as his predecessors declared to be Karmapa. Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche was told this news and confirmed the child to be the new incarnation. At that time there was also a second candidate but after having brought both candiates to Tsurphu, only seeing him, Gyaltsab Rinpoche spontaneously prostrated himself in front of the previously confirmed child. The child was then enthroned and received his first ordination from Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, a disciple of the seventh Karmapa. The eighth Karmapa was a famous scholar, one of the most distinguished philosophers and an outstanding artist who created the Karma Gadri style of thangka painting. He recongnized the fourth and fifth Shamar Tulku and the fourth Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche whom he enthroned and who became his main disciple. Later he recognized the fourth Gyaltsab Rinpoche. At the age of only thirty-nine years he foresaw his imminent passing away but was requested by his disciples not to leave them yet, so he extended his lifespan for another eight years. When he finally left his body, many auspicious signs were seen in the sky and many precious relics were found in the ashes.

9. Wangchug Dorje (1556 – 1603)

He was born in East Tibet. While still in his mother’s womb he was heard reciting the Mani Mantra, the mother had prophetic dreams. Again, the child remained in meditation posture for three days and declared to be Karmapa. Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche recognized the child as the ninth incarnation of Karmapa, bestowing on him his first initiation of Amitayus. At the age of five years he received his first monastic precepts. Most of the time in his life, he spent in monastic travelling camp, emphasizing meditation. He was the first incarnation to be officially recognized by worldly rulers. He played an important role as peacemaker during the politically troubled times in which he lived. Wangchug Dorje was invited by the Bhutanese king which he accepted, marking the beginning of the Karmapa’s close connection with the Bhutanese court. He also received an invitation from the Sikkimese court which he didn’t accept. Instead he sent representatives. As a consequence, three monasteries were founded in Sikkim which were blessed by Karmapa from Tibet. One amongst them was Rumtek which was to become Karmapa’s Seat in exile, outside of Tibet seven incarnations later. Before passing away, he left a letter of prophecy, containing all the instructions.

10. Chöying Dorje (1604 – 1674)

He was born in Kham, East Tibet, and also declared he was Karmapa. The region’s monarch who came to hear the news had the boy brought to his court so the child was given the education of an aristocrat. Finally the sixth Shamarpa recognized Karmapa and enthroned him at the age of eight years. Shamar and Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche became his main teachers. The politically troubled times let Choying Dorje often act as peacemaker – for example he prevented the invasion of the Chinese Army to Lhasa with his meditative powers. Finally he left the country for Bhutan and returned to Tibet after a couple of years. At the age of seventy years he declared his imminent passing and handed on the prediction letter to his attendent.

11. Yeshe Dorje (1676 – 1702)

He was born in Kham, also declaring to be Karmapa and as a newborn crossed his legs into meditation posture. The child was soon after discovered, brought to Tsurphu, enthroned and performed his first Black Crown Ceremony. He received his first precepts from Shamar Tulku who had discovered him together with Gyaltsab Rinpoche, in accordance with the prediction. Yeshe Dorje reestablished many of the monasteries which were destroyed during the Mongolian invasion. Most of the time of his life he spent in deep meditation. Before passing away, he gave the prediction letter to the eighth Shamarpa whom as well as the seventh Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche he had discovered.

12. Jangchub Dorje (1703 – 1732)

He was born in Kham, declaring he was Karmapa at the age of two months. Shamar and Mingyur Tulku proceeded to the place of birth and witnessed a white rainbow which ended on the roof of the house where the child had been born. After the examinations all results were sent to Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche who then joined them to welcome the new incarnation. Jangchub Dorje’s main teacher was the great eight Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche, Situ Chokyi Jungne. The lifetime of the twelfth Karmapa was a politically troubled time. So he left Tibet and accepted an invitation to the Nepalese court and settled in Nepal together with Shamar, Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche in Nepal. The group travelled to many holy places and the young Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche impressed innumerable Indian scholars with his eloquencey, erudition and knowledge of many different languages. As a direct consequence many Hindu philosophers became his students who came to be known as one of the most famous Asian scholars of all times. Having returned to Tsurphu, Jangchub Dorje accepted an invitation to China where he visited many Tibetan monasteries and Tao temples. Due to the politically troubled times he deemed it advisable to pass away after having bestowed the prediction letter to Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche.

13. Düdül Dorje (1733 – 1797)

He was born in Central Tibet. As a child he told many stories of his previous incarnations. This soon spread far, also reaching Gyaltsab Rinpoche. After having been brought to Tsurphu, Dudul Dorje was enthroned in the presence of the seventh Dalai Lama, crowned with the Black Crown, performing his first Black Crown Ceremony. Again, his main teacher was the eight Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche whose long life spanned all of the twelfth and most of the thirteenth Karmapa’s life. From him he received his first precepts at the age of twelve. Not only was the complete Kagyu lineage conferred on him but also the Nyingma lineage. At the age of thirty-nie, he travelled to Palpung, the Seat of the Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoches, where he received all the remaining transmissions. Back in Tsurphu he spent many years in Karma Pakshi’s retreat place. Dudul Dorje discovered and enthroned the ninth Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and conferred on him the prediction letter before passing away.

14. Thegchog Dorje (1798 – 1868)

He was born in Kham and also his birth was accompanied by many miraculous signs. Thegchog Dorje was brought to Tara Gon, recognized and enthroned by the ninth Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche from whom he received his complete spiritual education and first precepts. At the age of nineteen he travelled to Tsurphu, reestablished it, repaired the stupas and smaller temples in the surroundings and founded a meditation center. Thegchog Dorje was famous for the Rime movement which he supported as he had received all transmissions from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It was the time when mostly Kagyu and Nyingma traditions exchanged. So Karmapa received the Vajrakila Tantra from the well known terton and visionary Chogyur Lingpa which from then on was integrated in the rituals of Tsurphu monastery. Chogyur Lingpa had a vision of all the future Karmapas up to the twenty-first which was written down and painted in a thangka. Before passing away at the age of seventy years, he gave all instructions to his two brothers. The spiritual heir of the fourteenth Karmapa was Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye.

15. Khakyab Dorje (1871 – 1922)

He was born in Western Tibet. As his predecessors he excelled with his outstanding intelligence and at the age of only four years composed liturgies. At the age of six he was finally recognized by the first Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye who became his main teacher and who, after having passed all the examinations successfully, brought him to Tsurphu. From his teacher he not only received all transmissions but was also instructed in medicine, arts, linguistics and many more. At the age of eleven, he met the thirteenth Dalai Lama and proceeded to Palpung. According to the instructions of his teacher who had passed away, he returned his monastic precepts and had several consorts. The reason was soon obvious: he helped the reincarnation of his teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche to a new body who became his main disciple. Further he gave all details for the rediscovery of the eleventh Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche, recognized him, supervised his enthronement and became his main teacher. He also recognized Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s new incarnation and at the beginning of the twentieth century entered a strict ten-year retreat in one of the hermitages of Tsurphu. Some years before passing away, he conferred the prediction letter to his most confidential attendant.

16. Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924 – 1981)

He was born in Kham. In the mother’s womb he was heard reciting Mani Mantras and when he was born, many auspicious signs appeared. Meanwhile the prediction letter of the fifteenth Karmapa was opened by Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and Jamgon Rinpoche. So he was recognized by the eleventh Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche. Before going to Palpung where he was enthroned and received his first precepts, he stayed with his family for some years. Then, accompanied by the Rinpoches Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche, Goshir Gyaltsab, Jamgon Kongtrul and Pawo he was brought to Tsurphu. Most of his teen years were spent in extensive retreats. At the age of seventeen during a pilgrimage, he composed a prophecy in form of a poem in Lhatok, the birthplace of the seventeenth Karmapa. In it he revealed that Tibet would be invaded, and that he would flee. His other pilgrimages led him to Nepal and India where he visited holy places. Accepting the invitation to the Sikkimese court, he performed the Black Crown Ceremony there. He also visited China together with the fourteenth Dalai Lama during which he revealed the circumstances of the rebirth of the twelfth Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and returned to Tsurphu in 1955. During the Chinese invasion in 1959, Karmapa left his country together with a hundred-sixty tulkus, lamas, monks and lay people for India where the king of Sikkim offered him land on which, near to the old monastery, new Rumtek was constructed. From Rumtek, Karma Kagyu spread all over the world and so Rangjung Rigpe Dorje went on his first world tour in 1974, a second followed in 1976. In 1981, the sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa left his body in Chicago behind. After his passing, his body remained in full meditation posture for three days and his heart remained warm. After the cremation, many relics were discovered in the ashes.

17. Orgyen Thrinley Dorje (1985 – )

He was born June 26, 1985 in Lhatok, Kham. Also during his birth, many auspicious signs were witnessed. The regents had been searching for the reincarnation for four years without result until Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche remembered a amulet which had been given to him by the sixteenth Karmapa. It contained the letter of prophecy. At that time, Karmapa was already seven years old. He told is family one day that a search party would be coming to see him and made the family move to the place where the sixteenth Karmapa had written down the prophecy. Orgyen Thrinley Dorje was acknowledged by the fourteenth Dalai Lama on June 30, 1992 as well as by all other heads of the other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism as the seventeenth incarnation of Karmapa. Then brought to Tsurphu, he was formally enthroned by Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche in presence of the Chinese Government representatives on September 27, 1992. It was the first time since the invasion of Tibet that China permitted the official acknowledgement of an incarnation. Karmapa received his first precepts in front of Jowo in the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. The next day he conferred the inititation of Chenrazig to followers from all over the world. As all his predecessors, he demonstrated his miraculous powers at a very young age, leaving for example a handprint in a stone which was then imbedded in the walls of one of Tsurphu’s temples. Orgyen Thrinley Dorje receives his education and all transmissions under the guidance and from his main teacher, the twelfth Chamgon Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche as well as from the twelfth Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. The seventeenth Karmapa left Tolung Tsurphu in Tibet in December 1999 and arrived in India January, 5, 2000. Since then His Holiness has been receiving all the Kagyu transimssions. His activities have been flourishing.

excerpted from The Himalayas and Beyond