On June 19, 1985, the reincarnation lineage of the Karmapas took form for the seventeenth time, with the birth of a young boy in Tibet. As he had indicated in his previous life as the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa was born in eastern Tibet, to a mother named Lolaga and a father named Döndrup. For the first years of his childhood, the Gyalwang Karmapa shared his family’s simple nomadic life in a remote and rugged corner of Tibet’s high plateau.
When he was just seven years old, a search party arrived at his family’s camp. Following the detailed instructions of the letter written by his previous incarnation, the Sixteenth Karmapa, the party was able to locate the young Karmapa. The child’s identification as the Karmapa was verified not only by Tai Situ Rinpoche, Goshir Gyaltsap Rinpoche and many other major Karma Kagyu lamas, but also by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In a historic first, the communist Chinese government also officially acknowledged his recognition as the Karmapa.
His Holiness returned with the search party to Tsurphu Monastery in central Tibet, where he was enthroned and given his initial monastic ordination. He thereafter commenced the process of study and training traditional for Karmapas, yet began offering spiritual instruction to others almost at once. His first public teachinggiven at Tsurphu in Tibet when he was just eight years oldwas attended by over 20,000 people. However, the major Karma Kagyu lineage holders were denied permission to enter Tibet to transmit the essential instructions of the lineage to him, a situation that constituted an insurmountable obstacle to his functioning fully as Karmapa in the world.
At the age of 14, His Holiness determined to escape Tibet, seeking freedom to fulfill his role as a world spiritual leader and to meet his responsibilities as head of the Karma Kagyu lineage. Crossing the Himalayas by jeep and on horseback, on foot and by helicopter, Gyalwang Karmapa reached Dharamsala, India, on January 5, 2000. There, he was received warmly by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom the Gyalwang Karmapa has since continued to enjoy a close relationship of mentor and protégé.
During the 10 years he has lived in India as a refugee, His Holiness has undergone a traditional monastic training and philosophical education, while also pursuing a private modern education. His Holiness receives tens of thousands of visitors each year from all over the world at his residence in Dharamsala. Since 2004, the Gyalwang Karmapa has led the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo, an annual winter Dharma gathering in Bodhgaya that draws thousands of attendees from many different Buddhist traditions around the world.
In May 2008, His Holiness made his first long-awaited trip to the West, travelling to the United States where he visited his North American seat in New York, and some of the many Dharma centres under his spiritual guidance. In addition, the Gyalwang Karmapa has travelled across India to participate in the cultural and religious life of his adopted home. From inaugurating temples for Sai Baba in Tamil Nadu to commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s birth in Calcutta, His Holiness has met with many other spiritual leaders in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance. In November 2009, His Holiness was invited to speak at a TED India conference, becoming the youngest person ever to do so. In January 2010, over 12,000 people attended the live performance of a six-act play on the life of Milarepa that His Holiness wrote and produced, combining elements of traditional Tibetan opera and modern theatre.
As a scholar and meditation master, as well as painter, poet, songwriter and playwright, the Gyalwang Karmapa embodies a wide range of the activities that Karmapas have engaged in over the centuries. As an environmental activist, computer enthusiast and world spiritual leader whose teachings are often webcast live, the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa has brought the Karmapa lineage’s activities fully into the 21st century.