Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Kham Place Essay > Karmapa

Karmapa Concept Encyclopedia Analysis

Alison Melnick 2007


When we consider Tibetan incarnation lineages, it is important to think about the concept of identity as it fits into the Tibetan religious worldview. How do Tibetans see themselves as situated in time? Incarnation lineages reflect the continuity of existence of an identified bodhisattva who returns perpetually in order to help those trapped in the cycle of rebirth. An entire political and religious institution has grown up around this concept, and allows incarnation lineages to serve a similar function to that of genetically-based royal succession. Members of the Karmapa incarnation lineage have been leaders and innovators of the Karma Kagyu tradition since the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. While the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, is considered by some to be the first instance of a recognized reincarnate lama in Tibetan history, the actual institution of the tulku (sprul ku) was not codified until a significantly later date. However, members of the Kagyu tradition also believe that the Karmapa lineage is “unbroken,” which is an extremely important status for a lineage to hold if it wants to maintain its spiritual authority. This is not to say that the discovery and recognition of each successive Karmapa incarnation has been without controversy. There have, at various times throughout the past, been instances of more than one young boy being identified as the incarnation of the same Karmapa. Indeed, the eighth, sixteenth, and seventeenth incarnations have been contested (for some discussion, see Nesterenko, 7).

The Karmapa reincarnation lineage of the Karma Kagyu tradition has long been one of the most prominent in all the Kagyu sub-sects, and has recently become one of the more prominent in the entire Tibetan world. All Karmapas are traditionally regarded as incarnate buddhas capable of displaying supernatural powers and significantly aiding people in achieving liberation from rebirth. The Karmapas are said be embodiments of the “activity” (Skt. karma, Tib. phrin las) of the Buddha. More specifically they are also considered to be embodiments of Avalokiteśvara (Chenrezig) and Vajradhara. The lineage history of the Karmapas (a great deal of which has been recorded in the Blue Annals) is steeped in miraculous accounts of prophesy, supernatural occurrences, visions and prophetic dreams and at least one report of extraordinary feats performed by each Karmapa incarnation. This reflects the embeddedness of faith in lineal history narratives.

Some Basic Points Regarding the Karmapa Lineage and the Kagyu Tradition

  • The Karma Kagyu Tradition descends from the Dakpo Kagyu tradition of Gampopa (sgam po pa 1079-1153).
  • The current living Karmapa is the 17th in the incarnation lineage. Although the Karmapas are technically the heads of the Karma Kagyu lineage, modern practitioners associated with other Kagyu sects also look to them for leadership. The Karmapas have continued to be a peripatetic lineage, the sixteenth Karmapa was the first to travel overseas; he subsequently made a lasting impression on his western audience.

The Lineage:

Dusum Khyenpa 1110-1193

Karma Pakshi 1206-1283

Rangjung Dorjé 1284-1339

Rolpe Dorjé 1340-1383

Dezhin Shegpa 1384-1415

Thongwa Donden 1416-1453

Chodrag Gyatsho 1454-1506

Mikyo Dorjé 1507-1554

Wangchuk Dorjé 1555-1603

Choying Dorjé 1604-1674

Yeshe Dorjé 1676-1702

Changchub Dorjé 1703-1732

Dudul Dorjé 1733-1797

Thegchog Dorjé 1798-1868

Khakhyab Dorjé 1871-1922

Rangjung Rigpe Dorjé 1924-1981

Ogyen Trinley Dorjé 1985-

  • Monastic Seat: Tsurphu Monastery until 1959, when the sixteenth Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorjé established Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim as the new seat of the Karmapas.
  • The Mahamudra (“great seal”) teaching is central to the Kagyu tradition.
  • The Karmapas are also sometimes referred to as the “Black Hat” Lamas. The Black Dorjé Hat (Vajra Mukut) is believed to have ancient origins. According to tradition, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Chenrezig) was initially presented with an indestructible black hat (or crown) woven from the hair of dākinīs. Since the Karmapas are believed to be emanations of this bodhisattva, they are holders of the hat. According to Douglas and White, an earthly reproduction of the Black hat was initially bestowed on the Fifth Karmapa by the Chinese Emperor Tai Ming Chen. It is said that the “mere sight {of the black hat} is believed to ensure Liberation within one lifetime.” (Douglas and White, 63) But that only those of great insight can see this hat, and the Chinese Emperor was one such person. (Terhune, 259)
  • Some important deities of the Kagyu tradition include: Vajravarahi (rdo rje phag mo), Black Mahakala (gon po rdo rje ber nag can) (one of the main protector deities of the Kagyu), and Mahakali (rang ’byung rgyal mo), and the somewhat mythologized Yeshe Khandro.
  • Other prominent incarnation lineages of the Kagyu sect include the Shamar (zhwa mar), Situ (si tu), Gyaltshab (rgyal tshab), Jamgon Kongtrul (’jam mgon kong sprul), and Pawo (dpa’i bo) lineages. These all follow the same system of reincarnation, thus each individual who is found to be the next member of the lineage is considered a tulku.

Biographical Information for the First Three Karmapas

Karmapa I Düsum Khyenpa

The first Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa (dus gsum mkhyen pa) (1110-1193) was born in Kham. He began organized monastic education in his teenage years; during this time he studied Yogacara texts, the Madhyamaka texts of Nagarjuna and Candrakīrti, and Kadampa tantric teachings. (Thinley, 41) After his full ordination at age twenty, he studied vinaya, Kalacakra and Lamdré (lam ’bras) teachings. He later traveled to Daklha Gampo to study lam rim with Gampopa. He went on to found many monasteries throughout Kham and Central Tibet, including Karma dgon in 1147. He is considered "one of the four preeminent disciples of Gampopa (1079-1153)…" and wrote the dus gsum mkhyen pa’i zhus lan in response to Gampopa's questions (Kapstein, 99).

Karmapa II Karma Pakshi

Also from Kham (born in Drilung Wontod), Karma Pakshi was born into a family believed to be descended from Trisong Detsen, an eighth century Tibetan king. Recognized as the reincarnation of Düsum Khyenpa, according to some, Karma Pakshi is considered to be "the first embodiment of the institution of the trülku (sprul sku) or reincarnating lamas." (Kapstein, 99) He was first recognized as the incarnation of Düsum Khyenpa by his teacher, Pomdrakpa who had received teachings from Drogon Rechen (Douglas and White, 41). Karma Pakshi took a prominent temporal role, traveling through Kham during times of unrest in order to help bring peace to the land. He was indeed widely traveled, going as far afield as Amdo and even visiting the Mongol Courts of Kublai and Mongké, not to mention his travels throughout Kham and U-Tsang.

Karma Pakshi’s secret name was Rangjung Dorjé. This caused the The Limitless Ocean Cycle to be misidentified as authored by the third Karmapa, rather than the second whom Karma Chakmé believes is the real author. (see Kapstein, 98 for discussion)

In 1251, Karma Pakshi was invited by Prince Kublai to Wu-tok Palace, where he was treated as an important guest. However, he did not permanently remain at the Mongol court as the prince requested. He was later invited to the court of Prince Mongké, Kublai’s brother, who would become one of his students. Karma Pakshi attempted to maintain good relations with Mongol overlords. Unfortunately, he was eventually sent into exile by Kublai Khan, although it is believed that the two eventually repaired their friendship.

About Karma Pakshi’s style of doctrine, Kapstein says : "…Karma Pakshi embraces an intuitive, but at the same time skeptical, vision that countenances the possibility that direct insight may be catalyzed by any of a rich plurality of sources. This well comports with the tolerant and pluralistic outlook that he encouraged in his religious dealings with the Mongol empire.” (Kapstein, 87-8)

Karmapa III Rangjung Dorjé

The third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé was born in Tingri, in western Tibet. He studied a wide range of topics, from various Buddhist doctrinal systems to Tibetan medicine. Like his predecessor, he was known for his international political activities, specifically his relations with Mongol leaders. He traveled throughout Tibet and China, establishing monasteries along the way (including one temple at Wu-tai Shan in China). He is also the author of the famous prayer, The Vow of Mahamudra, which is recited daily within the monastic community (Douglas and White, 202).

Karmapas in the Blue Annals

While the term “Karmapa” is only mentioned ten times in the Blue Annals, individual members of the lineage are mentioned more than eighty times throughout the text. It should be noted that they are frequently referred to throughout the text with the title “Dharmasamvin.” Much of the above mentioned information is included in some form in the text. Furthermore, there are more than eighty pages dedicated to stories of their lives. The Karmapas are therefore the most frequently mentioned incarnate lamas in the Blue Annals. This is understandable, considering that the author was himself a member of the Kagyu sect and the text is in large part a history of the Kagyu tradition as a whole.

The Blue Annals frequently mentions the Karmapas when they found monasteries, and appear in visions (as a Buddha or dākinī might) in order to advise and encourage diligent or frustrated practitioners. They are described as bodhisattvas and enlightened beings, and it seems that the author was perpetually attempting to reinforce this view. Their birth and death stories are almost all uniformly miraculous which reinforces their status as buddhas. At the occurrence of the death or birth of a Karmapa, flowers rain from the sky, celestial music is heard, earth-tremors are felt, and rainbows appear everywhere. The author also recounts the previous lives of the Karmapas in a similar way to the Jātaka tales of Śakyamuni Buddha. In the stories of their previous lives, they are described as disciples of Nagarjuna, Saroruha, and Padmasambhava, as ministers of important Tibetan Kings (Trisong Detsen) and even as Dharmabodhi and Potowa Rinchensel. The Blue Annals stresses that all of the Karmapas are able to remember their former lives. The text's author explains that they frequently related stories of their previous lives for the edification and general benefit of their followers.

When discussing their lives as Karmapas, the author includes many hagiographic accounts of their unusual behavior and ability to perform miraculous feats (such as leaving handprints in rocks); he also reports descriptions of their visions and their ability to heal illness, drought, and famine in entire regions. On a more mundane level, the teachers and initiations of each Karmapa are listed along with the subsequent subject matter taught and the level of attainment each Karmapa achieved. Their seemingly endless publications are also listed.

The Karmapas seem to be perpetually traveling (frequently through Kham) in order to preach, found monasteries, turn people toward the dharma, and mediate local disputes. They frequently advise people to take a specific road or in order to avoid danger. They are so well-respected for their mediating abilities that entire communities heed them and cease fighting for up to twenty-five years at a time when the Karmapas instruct them to do so. They avert wars and are the author reports their roles as mediators among the Mongols and the Chinese, all of which implies that they were well-respected peacemakers even beyond the regions of Tibet.


Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche 1992. Song of Karmapa Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Kathmandu.

Davidson, Ronald M. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Columbia University Press.

Douglas, Nik and Meryl White. 1976. Karmapa: The Black Hat Lama of Tibet Luzac & Co. Ltd. London.

Kapstein, Matthew T. 2000. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory. Oxford University Press.

Nālandā Translation Committee 1980. The Rain of Wisdom Shambhala, Boulder & London.

Nesterenko, Michel (editor). 1992.The Karmapa Papers Published by the editor.

Roerich, George N. The Blue Annals Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1996 (Reprint)

Sherab Dorje2004 (Second Edition). The Eighth Situpa on the Third Karmapa’s Mahamudra Prayer Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca and Boulder.

Terhune, Lea. 2004. Karmapa, The Politics of Reincarnation Wisdom Publications, Boston.

Thinley, Karma, with David Stott.1980 The History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet Prajñā Press, Boulder.


Alison Melnick