The First through 16th Karmapa, from
a series of thangkas from Palpung Monastery
in Tibet depicting all the Karmapa lineage masters.


The First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, founded the Tibetan Buddhist practice of reincarnating. Not only does his own lineage, that of the Karmapa, have the longest unbroken history by far of any reincarnation lineage, maintained despite the wild fluctuations in Tibetan history since the lifetime of Dusum Khyenpa in the 12th century. The Gyalwang Karmapa line initiated by Dusum Khyenpa forms the central pillar for the entire Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Dusum Khyenpa and his successive reincarnations, from the Second through the Seventeenth Karmapa of today have transmitted the Kagyu teachings received from Dusum Khyenpa’s own lama Gampopa, enriching it with their own realization.

Carrying forward the Karma Kagyu teachings, the stream of Karmapa reincarnations that Dusum Khyenpa initiated has flowed onward for the past nine centuries. In each successive life, through the shifting historical terrain, Dusum Khyenpa’s reincarnations have found new pathways forward for the Buddhadharma, for their Karma Kagyu lineage and for the disciples they are leading to enlightenment.

Through periods of tumult, and through periods of peace, the Karmapa incarnations have kept returning, repeatedly responding to changing times to find optimum ways to continue their work for the sake of beings and the Dharma. In times of great flourishing of the Karma Kagyu teachings, Dusum Khyenpa’s reincarnations presided over vast gatherings in their main seats and moved in great caravans across the Tibetan plateau to reach those who could not come to them. In adverse times, they guarded the advances that had been made and sought out other ways to be of benefit.  When conditions were conducive to their activities, they cared for their disciples and transmitted the teachings of the lineage. When conditions were not conducive for their activities, they cared for their disciples, transmitted the teachings of their lineage and improvised new forms of activity.

The very name of this reincarnation line, Karmapa, literally means “Being of Activity,” and indicates that the Karmapa carries out the enlightened activities of the buddhas. Since buddhas themselves have limitless capacities, the activity of buddhas is by definition bound only by the limits of possibility. Historically, the Karmapa reincarnations on occasion have tested the limits of what ordinarily seems possible, finding new spheres of activity to emphasize in different lives.  Through these activities, they have contributed greatly to Tibetan culture through their literary and artistic contributions, and have shaped Tibetan history through their frequent activity as peacemakers.

All the activities of the Karmapa, like all the activities of the buddhas, are animated by the aim of freeing beings from suffering and leading them to the highest form of happiness. Because they spring from a being whose mind is limitless, those activities manifest in as many forms as there are suffering beings. The Fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, declared that he had been born to tame the emperor of China, and his accomplishment of that aim resulted in centuries of peace in Tibet. The Tenth Karmapa, Chöying Dorje, lived in a time when outer conditions were extremely adverse, but directed great energy towards the creation of deeply inspiring artwork and poetry.

With the same tenacity and fierce commitment Dusum Khyenpa displayed in his lifetime, each successive Karmapa has cultivated goodness in whatever soil they have encountered. Displaying the same creative capacities seen in Dusum Khyenpa’s founding of the institution of reincarnate lamas, all the Karmapas have found a way to cultivate the most abundant flourishing possible—always leaving the soil far richer than they had found it.

Adapted from the book Karmapa: 900 Years.
Published in 2010 by the Karmapa 900 Organizing Committee.

> Read more about the Karmapa: Introduction to the Karmapa | Dusum Khyenpa | Short Teaching by Dusum Khyenpa | Karmapa Reincarnations | The Karma Kagyu Lineage | His Holiness the 16th Karmapa | His Holiness the 17th Karmapa

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