The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, started the Tibetan tradition of tulkus, or enlightened men and women who incarnate solely out of compassion for others, to work for the benefit of all sentient beings until they too attain an enlightened state. These tulkus are recognized as the new incarnations of their previous lifetimes by higher spiritual authorities, such as the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama.
Uniquely, before he passes away each Karmapa leaves a letter that foretells the circumstances of his next rebirth. He includes details like the name of his future father and mother, the date of his rebirth, and a description of where he will be reborn. He can then be found by his previous disciples and receive the proper training to take his place as head of the Karma Kagyu Order.
The Kagyu Order has its origins in the 12th century with the spontaneous realization of the great Indian siddha, or saint, Tilopa. From India the lineage came to Tibet through the efforts of Marpa, the Translator. His chief disciple, the yogi and poet Milarepa continued the line. The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, was the disciple of Milarepa’s student Gampopa.
“Kagyu” means “sacred word,” or the oral embodiment of the meditative and metaphysical path that leads to awakening which includes Mahamudra (the achievement and practice of total enlightenment). The Kagyu Mahamudra teachings have been passed down from teacher to disciple in an unbroken tradition from Tilopa through the successive Karmapas, to the present day.
His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa was born in Tibet in 1924 and discovered through a letter which was left by his predecessor, predicting the circumstances of his next rebirth. The XVIth Karmapa was duly enthroned and given the name Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, “The Wishfulfilling Gem.” From an early age he received rigorous training in the meditative practices of his lineage, and, in accordance with his Bodhisattva vows, he performed the selfless activity of a Buddha throughout his lifetime.
Following the communist invasion of his homeland, His Holiness faced the difficult challenge of maintaining the legacy of the Kagyu order in exile ( primarily in India and Nepal), a task which he accomplished with great success. In the Himalayan state of Sikkim he rebuilt the great monastery of Rumtek which became his principal seat in exile. Subsequently the Karmapa traveled throughout the world, including three teaching visits to the United States and Canada, establishing Kagyu centers and attracting countless students. All those he encountered were deeply moved by his extraordinary charisma, a charisma which emanated from his profound compassion and understanding of the human condition. His Holiness passed away in 1981. During his lifetime he was recognised as one of the great spiritual leaders of our time.
His Holiness the XVIth Karmapa is depicted by the statue at the front of the Tashi Gomang Stupa, which also contains his relics, relics of all sixteen Karmapas and those of all the main forefathers of the Kagyu lineage.
For the Tibetan people, the Karmapas, like the Dalai Lamas, represent the living, active presence of the wisdom and compassion of all the Buddhas.
His Holiness the XVIIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ugyen Thinley Dorje, was born in 1985 in Eastern Tibet. He was discovered by means of a letter written by the XVIth Karmapa that predicted the circumstances of his rebirth. He was recognized and brought to Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa, the traditional seat of the Karmapas. This recognition was confirmed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
For some years the Karmapa remained at Tsurphu, but due to the difficult political situation, he was forced to escape his homeland. In January, 2000 after a long and arduous journey through the Himalayas, he arrived safely in India . His escape was noted in the news media around the world as being the “most important defection after the Dalai Lama left Tibet.” Now free to continue the tradition he embodies, he is continuing his studies in Dharamsala, India. During his escape His Holiness composed this song of aspiration:
The right-turning conch of pure compassion in body,speech and mind pours forth a stream of good intentions that never change.Thereby, may a sweet resonant melody beyond compare, such music for the ears, open the lotus petals of virtue, excellence, and goodness. Over the expanse of the treasured earth in this wide world, may benefit for beings appear like infinite moons’ reflections, whose refreshing presence brings lasting wellbeing and happiness to open a lovely array of night-blooming lilies, signs of peace and joy.
Descending from a canopy of white clouds, the gathering of the two accumulations, May these true words, like pearled drops of light or pouring rain falling in a lovely park where fortunate disciples are free of bias, open the flowers of friendship so that wellbeing and joy blossom forth.