The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

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The Karmapas

Karmapa means “the one who carries out buddha-activity” or “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas.” In the Tibetan tradition, great enlightened teachers are said to be able to consciously arrange to be reborn as a teacher who can carry on the teachings of a predecessor in a prior life. Pursuant to this tradition, the Karmapas have incarnated in this form of manifestation body, for seventeen lifetimes, as of the present, and all have played the most important role in preserving and propagating the Buddhist teachings of Tibet.

Prior to the birth of the first Karmapa, the arrival of a Buddhist master who would be known as the Karmapa had been prophesied by the historic Buddha Shakyamuni and the great tantric master of India, Guru Padmasambhava. Throughout the centuries, Karmapas have been the central figure in the continuation of the vajrayana lineage in general and Kagyu lineage in particular, and have played a very important role in the preservation of the study and practice lineages of Buddhism.

Birth and Early Years of the 17th Karmapa

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

In 1985 a male infant was born into a nomad family in the Lhatok region of Eastern Tibet. In the months prior to his birth, his mother had wonderful dreams during her pregnancy. On the day of his birth, a cuckoo landed on the tent in which he was born, and a mysterious conch-like sound was heard by many throughout the valley in which the family of the infant lived.

In Tibet, such events are considered auspicious portents of the birth of an enlightened teacher.

The young nomad was called Apo Gaga. While his early years seemed, to his family, full of blessing, Apo Gaga did not talk of any connection to the Karmapas. However, in 1992, he asked his family to move the location of their nomadic home to another valley, and told them to expect a visit from traveling monks. Soon after setting up their home in the new location, followers of the Sixteenth Karmapa came to that valley pursuant to the secret instructions of the Sixteenth Karmapa, contained in his letter of prediction. The birth and the other details of Apo Gaga’s life matched the predictions of the letter. Apo Gaga was discovered to be the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje.

In addition to his letter of prediction, the Sixteenth Karmapa wrote many poems, or songs, predicting that though he would leave his traditional main seat in Tsurphu, Tibet, he would soon return to Tsurphu again, that his root teacher would be HE Situ Rinpoche, and that he would study in India. After the death of the 16th Karmapa, it became clear that these predictions applied to his successor. Furthermore, the 19th Century master Chogyur Lingpa made a number of predictions about the lives of the Karmapas, and for the 17th, Chogyur Lingpa’s predictions matched the details of His Holiness’s birth. Since these predictions were to be fulfilled in themselves without recognition by any other master, it is traditionally said that the Karmapa is “self-recognized.”

The Karmapa’s Return To Tsurphu In Tibet, The Historic Seat Of The Karmapas

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

The Seventeenth Karmapa did in fact return to Tolung Tsurphu Monastery in Central Tibet in 1992, where he was enthroned on September 27, 1992, with the permission of the Chinese government.

At Tsurphu, over 20,000 supplicants assembled to witness the return of His Holiness Karmapa. The following morning, some 25,000 people filed before His Holiness to receive a personal blessing.

At Tsurphu, the Karmapa studied the Buddhist sciences of mind, learned ritual, and practiced sacred arts, such as dance. Each day he received hundreds of visitors from throughout Tibet and around the world. He eventually began to offer empowerments and participated in various rituals at the monastery. At the age of about 10, His Holiness recognized the rebirth of reincarnate teachers, including such eminent teachers as Pawo Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and the Dabzang Rinpoche.

While His Holiness was at Tsurphu, the monastery underwent extensive rebuilding to restore the temples, shrines, stupas, a shedra, and residences that had severely decayed and been neglected over the years, fulfilling one of the main duties of a Karmapa. As the years went by, however, His Holiness sought to receive the empowerments and transmissions of the lineage, but was unable to do so fully because many of the Kagyu lineage teachers remained in India. To fulfill his spiritual duty, he and a handful of attendants left Tibet for India.

Karmapa’s Journey to India

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

After months of careful planning, on December 28, the fourteen-year-old Karmapa pretended to enter into a solitary retreat, instead donned civilian garb, and slipped out a window. Leaving Tsurphu Monastery with a handful of attendants, he began a daring journey by car, foot, horseback, helicopter, train and taxi, a heroic journey which was to become the stuff of headlines throughout the world. On January 5, 2000 he arrived, to the great surprise and overwhelming joy of the world, in Dharamsala, India, where he was met by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He received refugee status from the government of India in 2001.

During the 13 years he has lived in India as a guest of the Indian government, His Holiness has continued his  traditional monastic training and philosophical education, but has also begun studying more modern subjects such as Science and English language.

Each year, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa receives tens of thousands of visitors  from all over the world at his residence in Dharamsala. Since 2004, he has led the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo, an annual winter Dharma gathering in Bodhgaya, that draws thousands of people from around the world and from various Buddhist traditions.

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  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, at that time. 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.

In 2011 he visited the United States for a second time.

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.

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Acknowledgement:This brief biography of The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa is from his official website, kagyuoffice.org. Please click here to visit the site.