1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa 1110-1193
Dusum Khyenpa was born in Ratay in East Tibet to parents who were accomplished Buddhist practitioners. He received his early dharma instructions from them. At the age of 16 he entered the monastic community as a novice, and ordained as a monk at the age of 20. At the age of thirty he travelled to meet his teacher Gampopa, and received several transmissions and instructions from him. On his instruction he went into retreat for nine months, during which he never unfolded his hands long enough for the perspiration on them to dry. Gampopa told Dusum Khyenpa to travel to a particular area in Kham and carry out specific practice and prophesied that he would attain enlightenment there.
At the age of fifty, through the practice of dream yoga he attained enlightenment. Spiritually this moment of enlightenment was symbolised in the visionary offering by dakinis of a black vajra crown which was woven out of their hair. This crown is said to be symbolically present above the heads of all the Karmapa incarnations, which signifies their realisation of the true nature of reality.
Sakyasri, the Kashmiri pandita had been invited to Tibet to establish a new ordination lineage for the monastic community. He declared Dusum Khyenpa was the one of buddha activity or Karmapa, that was prophesied by Shakyamuni Buddha. This was confirmed by Lama Zhang who was the founder of the Tsalpa Kagyu lineage. Both teachers said that Dusum Khyenpa embodied the principle of awakened compassion and following the age of Buddha Maitreya, the Karmapa Lama would be reborn as the Buddha Simha.
Towards the end of his life Dusum Khyenpa returned to Dak Lha Gampo as he had been instructed to do by Gampopa. Subsequently he established his principal monastic seat at Tsurphu, which has remained the seat of the Karmapas. Prior to his death Dusum Khyenpa placed Tsurphu monastery along with his books and relics in the care of his main student Drogon Rechen. He also gave him a letter that he had written in which he predicted the circumstances in which the next Karmapa would be born.
2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi 1206-1283
Karma Pakshi was born in 1206, in Chilay Tsakto in Eastern Tibet, into a family that had descended from the eighth century dharma king, Trisong Detsun. By the age of six, he had taught himself to read and write. At ten, he was displaying a photographic memory for texts, and had already grasped the essence of Buddhist philosophy. In addition to this he was able to naturally rest his mind in stillness. Due to this natural ability, when his teacher Pomdrakpa introduced him to the nature of his mind he gained spontaneous insight. Pomdrakpa was a disciple of Drogon Rechen, and had received the teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage. In a vision Dusum Khyenpa had revealed that this child was his incarnation. Pomdrakpa then recognised him as the second Karmapa and gave him novice ordination.
3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje 1284-1339
The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje was born in the Tingri area of Western Tibet. It is said that at the time of his birth the moon was rising and he immediately sat up and said "The moon has risen." At the age of three whilst playing with friends, after requesting them to make him a throne, he sat on it, put on a black hat and said that he was the Karmapa.
At the age of five, Drubtop Urgyenpa, a Drukpa Kagyupa lama recognised Rangjung Dorje as the reincarnation of Karma Pakshi. At the age of seven he received the novice ordination, and was enthroned. His education and training began and continued for the next eleven years at Tsurphu. Drubtop Urgyenpa, also gave him the actual Black Crown, all the possessions of the second Karmapa, and all the Kagyu teachings. Rangjung Dorje also sought out masters of all the Buddhist traditions of the time, studying with Trophu Kunden Sherab and Nyenre Gendun Bum among others. As a result, he achieved great fame, and attracted many disciples. A practical man, he built bridges as well as meditation centres, benefiting his countrymen's daily life as well as their spiritual one. For posterity, he wrote many texts and commentaries, preserving many of the teachings, in a form we use today. His two main disciples were Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal, who was to become the next lineage holder, and the first Shamarpa, Khaydrup Dragpa Senge.
4th Karmapa Rolpe Dorje 1340-1383
The fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, emulated his previous incarnation by sitting up at his birth, in Kongpo province in Central Tibet, and speaking - this time choosing to recite the mantra of Chenrezig, "Om Mani Peme Hung Shri". At the age of three he declared "I am Karma Pakshi. Many of his students are here and so I have come" Having - as that previous incarnation - left clear instructions with his secretary, Rinchen Pal, as to which signs to look for, the child was quickly found, and his training begun. At six he took refuge vows and the lay precepts from Tokden Gon Gyalwa, who also taught the young Karmapa the Tantrayana.
He was twelve before, travelling to Central Tibet, he met the lineage holder Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal, and proceeded to convince the older man of his authenticity by recounting many anecdotes from his previous life as the third Karmapa. He went on to request Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal to give him the transmission of the Kagyu teachings. Once his education at the hands of his former student was complete, Rolpe Dorje travelled widely through Tibet and China, teaching and taking disciples. The foremost of these was the second Shamarpa, who became the next lineage holder.
5th Karmapa Deshin Shegpa 1384-1415
Deshin Shegpa, the fifth Karmapa, was born in the Nyang Dam region of Southern Tibet. Immediately after his birth he said "I bow down to all the Buddhas. I am the Karma Pakshi - Om Mani Peme Hung Shri". Rinchen Pal, the secretary to the third Karmapa, who identified and became secretary to the fourth Karmapa, also located this child, and in due course served him as secretary for the third time. Deshin Shegpa was brought to Tsawa Phu in Kongpo where a significant number of the fourth Karmapa's disciples were living. Shamar Kacho Wangpo immediately recognised the child as the incarnation of Rolpe Dorje, and presented him with the Black Crown and other possessions of the fourth Karmapa. He went on to give the Karmapa the full cycle of Kagyu teachings.
The fifth Karmapa expressed himself both in the religious and social fields. He spent time reconciling communities that were divided and attempted to establish non-violence as the norm. This Karmapa was a famous traveller, teaching throughout Tibet, Mongolia and China, where he was invited by the Emperor, Tai Ming Chen, who eagerly became a student. Returning to Tibet after some years, Karmapa built many shrines and stupas, and continued to teach and give empowerments.
6th Karmapa Tongwa Donden 1416-1453
The birth of the sixth Karmapa, Tongwa Donden at Ngomto Shakyam near Karma Gon in East Tibet, was marked by many auspicious signs. When he was only a few months old, his parents took him to visit Ngompa Jadral, a student of the previous Karmapa, during which Tongwa Donden began to recite the alphabet. Ngomapa Jadral then asked him of his true identity. His response was "I am unborn , free from all names, places and I am the glory of all that lives. I shall lead many to liberation". He was officially recognised by the third Sharmar Rinpoche. He took novice ordination at the age of eight and went on to receive instruction from the great saint Shamar.
The Karma Kagyu had been primarily focussed on meditation therefore the prayers and ritual had been somewhat neglected, and were largely taken from other traditions. During his teenage years Tongwa Donden established a firm basis for Kamstang prayers and he wrote many sadhana rituals.
Prior to his death he entrusted Gyaltshab Gusgri Paljor with his belongings and a letter predicting his future rebirth.
7th Karmapa Chodrag Gyatsho 1454-1506
The seventh Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatsho was from Kyilha in Northern Tibet. As an infant he was recognised to be an incarnation of a spiritual teacher. One day he spontaneously uttered the seed syllables "ah hum" and said "There is nothing in the world but emptiness. People may think there is substantiality but they are in error. For me there is neither birth nor death".
The child was taken to Gyaltshap Rinpoche who recognised him as the new Karmapa incarnation. When he was enthroned it is said that he declared I am Vajradhara.
At four, he was given a series of empowerments by Goshir Paljor Dondrup, and they made a tour of Southern Tibet. Even at this young age he used his influence to stop fighting among tribes and ensured hostages and political prisoners were freed. He persuaded many to give up fishing and hunting, protected many domestic animals, yaks and sheep and instigated the marking with ribbons to show that they were exempt from slaughtering.
He was invited to teach and give empowerments throughout Tibet; during his travels he wrote many texts and commentaries, and attended to the development of the many students who travelled with him. These tent-dwelling nomads - said to be several thousand strong - led a rigorous life, following a strict schedule of study and meditation laid down by the Karmapa.
8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje 1507-1554
At his birth in Nagam Chu province, in eastern Tibet, the eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, opened his eyes and said "Karmapa". Tashi Paljor, the third Situpa, compared the boys details with those written by the previous Karmapas prediction letter, and gave the parents some blessed pills along with some instructions and told them to report back to him. The father followed these instructions and the infant muttered "e,ma,ho" and said "Do not doubt me, I am Karmapa".
Mikyo Dorje was enthroned by Gyaltshap Rinpoche and received the full Kagyu teachings from Tashi Paljor, and rounded off his studies with a range of accomplished masters. He went on to write many treatises, and founded several monastic colleges. He selected as lineage holder the fifth Shamarpa, Konchog Yenlag.
9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje 1556-1603
The ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje was born in the Treshod region of East Tibet. Immediately after his birth,he sat up, wiped his face three times and said "I am Karmapa!".The circumstances of the birth coincided with the prediction letter written by Mikyo Dorje, and was later recognised by Situ Rinpoche as the Karmapa incarnation.
At the age of six Wangchuk Dorje was enthroned by Shamar Rinpoche, and received many teachings from him. A large part of his childhood was spent travelling with his camp. Later he composed some significant texts which are still in current use today, such as The Torch of Certainty and Eliminating the Darkness of Wisdom.. He frequently acted as arbitrator in local disputes, and took steps to improve the living conditions of the people; as a result he was regarded as the secular leader of Tibet as well as a great religious leader.
10th Karmapa Choying Dorje 1604-1674
The tenth Karmapa, Choying Dorje was born in Khaytri Tang in Golok province, in the far north-east of Tibet. It is said that at birth he stood up and took a step in each direction as Shakyamuni Buddha had an affinity and tenderness towards animals. He was officially recognised and enthroned by Shamar Rinpoche at the age of eight, who also gave him the full Kagyu transmission.
The Karmapa travelled throughout Tibet, teaching and promoting the welfare of the people, until certain political difficulties arose. Ngawang Lozang Gyamtso, the fifth Dalai Lama, had become the official ruler of Tibet, a role that would continue to be filled by his successive incarnations. He established a pact with the Mongol ruler Goshir Khan; the ensuing sectarian persecution severely weakened Kagyu doctrine in Tibet, and placed the Karmapa in such a difficult position that he was forced to leave the country. Travelling through Nepal and Burma to Yunnan in China, Choying Dorje made virtue out of necessity and founded monasteries along his route. Twenty years were to pass before he could return to his homeland.
11th Karmapa Yeshe Dorje 1676-1702
The eleventh Karmapa, Yeshe Dorje, was born at Maysho in East Tibet. A well known terton, Minjur Dorje recognised the child as the Karmapa incarnation which was then confirmed by Shamar Rinpoche and Gyaltshap Rinpoche in line with the prediction letter.
He received his education from Shamar Rinpoche, Gyaltshap Rinpoche, Karma Thinley and later Terton Minjur Dorje and other masters. Yeshe Dorje left the prediction letter regarding his future rebirth and died at the age of twenty six.
12th Karmapa Changchub Dorje 1703-1732
The twelfth Karmapa, Changchub Dorje, was born at Chile Chakhor in Derge province in East Tibet.
Shortly before his birth Minjur Dorje told his father that an auspicious event was about to occur in their family. When Changchub Dorje was two months old, he was heard to declare "I am the Karmapa". He was recognised by the Shamar Rinpoche.
Changchub Dorje travelled to Nepal, India, China and Tibet and on several occasions was accompanied by Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltshap Rinpoche and Shamar Rinpoche, giving teachings and empowerments. On one of these journeys in China he passed away. Prior to this he had sent a prediction letter about his future rebirth to Situ Rinpoche.
13th Karmapa Dudul Dorje 1733-1797
The thirteenth Karmapa, Dudul Dorje was born at Chaba Drong in South Tibet. Shortly after his birth Lama Katok Tsewang Norbu had a vision in which he saw the exact birthplace of the Karmapa. The child had a birthmark on his tongue in the shape of the Tibetan letter 'a', and displayed natural spirituality. He was officially recognised at he age of four by Gyaltshap Rinpoche. He received many teachings from the Situ Rinpoche, and at the age of fourteen took novice ordination.
Dudul Dorje was ordained a monk at the age of thirty-one by Situ Rinpoche. He became well known for his love for animals, and it is said that he communicated the essence of Dharma to many animals, birds and insects.
14th Karmapa Thegchog Dorje 1798-1868
The fourteenth Karmapa, Thegchog Dorje was born in the village of Danang family in Salmo Gang in Kham in East Tibet. It is said that on the day of his birth, despite being winter time, rainbows appeared and flowers bloomed. The newborn child was heard to recite the Sanskrit alphabet. Situ Rinpoche formally recognised him and gave him novice ordination, after several parties had discovered the young child, and the details of his birth were confirmed against the prediction letter written by Dudul Dorje.
At the age of nineteen he ordained as a monk, and developed expertise in various arts and crafts including sculpture and metal work. He also devoted a lot of time to poetry. He became know for his strictness as a monk, and demanded the observance of the monastic rules of those around him. He influenced the development of the Rime movement, which was an attempt by many teachers to bring together the different traditions to make them available to everyone.
Before he died he passed the transmission of the lineage to Jamgon Kongtrol Lodro Thaye.
15th Karmapa Khakyab Dorje 1871-1922
The fifteenth Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje, was born is the Tsang province in Central Tibet. The baby was marked by a white tuft of hair that grew between his eyebrows, similar to the baby Shakyamuni Buddha. He showed great intelligence and at the age of four was composing prayers. He was officially recognised at the age of six by Jamgon Kongtrol and others and was given novice ordination.
Five years later he was able to read the scriptures. Recognised and enthroned by the ninth Kyabgon Drukchen, Khakyab Dorje was given the Kagyu teachings by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. Khenchen Tashi Ozer and other masters completed his education. He went on to teach and give empowerments throughout Tibet, and preserved many rare texts by having them reprinted. Unlike the previous Karmapas, Khakyab Dorje had consorts in order to fulfil his gurus prediction, and fathered three sons, two of whom he recognised as the second Jamgon Kongtrul and the twelfth Shamarpa, Jamyang Rinpoche.
16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje 1923-1981
The sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, was born at Denkhok in Derge province in East Tibet. Before Rangjung Rigpe Dorje was born he apparently disappeared entirely from his mothers womb for one whole day, and returned the following day. On the day of his birth everyone in the area sensed many signs and omens in the atmosphere.
Jampal Tsultrim, the fifteenth Karmapa's personal attendant, had been entrusted by his master with a letter setting forth the circumstances of his new incarnation. Jampal Tsultrim now handed this letter to the authorities at Tsurphu monastery, who - having had Beru Khyentse, Situpa and Jamgon Kongtrol clarify certain points - sent out the search-party which successfully located the child. He was taken to Palpung Monastery where Situ Pema Wangchok gave him ordination, bodhisattva vows, and many teachings.
His life took on the pattern of his predecessors, travelling and teaching throughout the country. But then political circumstances intervened, with the 1950 take-over of Tibet by the Chinese. The Dalai Lama, with government officials and many high lamas, including the sixteenth Karmapa, attended talks in Beijing, in the hope of negotiating a settlement. The discussions were successful in buying some time for the Tibetan people, but in 1959 the Chinese proceeded to annex Tibet, at which point the Karmapa fled to India.
The King of Sikkim, Tashi Namgyal, offered the Karmapa land, upon which he built Rumtek monastery. He also accepted an invitation to come to Bhutan by their King, Jigme Dorje Wangchuk. He travelled to Ladakh, teaching at various monasteries, before going on pilgrimage to holy sites in India and Nepal. His travels continued in order to broaden his efforts to spread the Dharma; in 1974 he came to the West for the first time and attracted an increasing number of followers, as dharma centers were established world-wide.
One Karmapa has not been discussed in this account. The biography of Chogyur Lingpa, a Nyingma master and terton (one who reveals the termas, or hidden teachings, of Padmasambhava), recounts that between the fourteenth and fifteenth Karmapas was a reincarnation, born into a family related to the fourteenth Karmapa, who lived for only two years.
If one counts this incarnation, Khakyab Dorje then becomes the sixteenth Karmapa, and Rangjung Rigpe Dorje the seventeenth, which makes more understandable the prediction of the fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, to the effect that between the end of the sixteenth and the start of the seventeenth Karmapas' lives, Buddhist teaching will decline in Tibet, the Chinese will rise against their Emperor - whose line will end - the Chinese will invade and occupy Tibet, and that the two countries will suffer and endure poverty.