The First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), was an individual whose commitment to caring for others was so intense and unswerving that it literally changed history. Born in 1110 CE in eastern Tibet, Dusum Khyenpa became the first master in Buddhist history to leave indications where he would be reborn so that his disciples could search for his reincarnation, allowing him to continue caring for them life after life. As the first Buddhist master to identify himself to his followers after he was reborn, Dusum Khyenpa became the founder not only of Tibet’s oldest reincarnation linethe Gyalwang Karmapasbut also of the very institution of reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. The 900-year old Karmapa reincarnation line initiated by Dusum Khyenpa, today in its seventeenth incarnation, serves as the driving force and spiritual head of the entire Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The totality with which Dusum Khyenpa embraced his responsibility to others was evident both in his deeds and his speech. On one occasion, Dusum Khyenpa and his fellow students had received a teaching by their lama Lord Gampopa, in which Gampopa had identified great compassion as one of the indispensable qualities of a spiritual teacher. As the Dharma friends sat discussing this statement, Dusum Khyenpa offered his understanding of what this implied. As a spiritual teacher, Dusum Khyenpa commented, even if one had to go to a hell realm oneself for the sake of a disciple, one would do so willingly, but under no circumstances would one abandon one’s disciples.
For the past 900 years, Dusum Khyenpa has fully lived up to his own definition of a spiritual guide to beings. Indeed, he has proven himself unwilling to abandon his students, even at the moment of death. After he passed away in 1193, Dusum Khyenpa intentionally returned as the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, and made it utterly clear that he was, in fact, the reincarnation of the First Karmapa. Since then, he has taken an uninterrupted series of rebirths as the Karmapa, returning again and again for 900 years to engage in a vast array of activities to benefit beings and the Buddhadharma. In his 17th reincarnation as the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, His Holiness carries on the Karmapa tradition of skilful action for the welfare of others, and has extended the range of Karmapa activities
range of Karmapa activities to include such 21st-century issues as environmental activism and the use of Internet technology to reach disciples worldwide.