The Karma Kagyu line is one of the eight great practice traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and was established by Gampopa, the Protector of Beings, in the 11th century. Prior to Gampopa’s time, in the early 11th century a young Tibetan named Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (1012-1097) was driven by an intense thirst for Dharma and journeyed overland from Tibet to India to look for teachings. There, he trained under a series of great Buddhist masters, foremost among whom was Naropa [1016-1100], one of India’s most eminent mahasiddhas who was himself an eminent scholar of Nalanda’s monastic university. Naropa guided Marpa personally until Marpa gained full realisation—an understanding that goes far beyond intellectual knowledge, to permeate and transform one’s very being. Delighted with his disciple’s spiritual attainments, Naropa authorised Marpa to transmit his lineage in Tibet. Once Marpa had made the return trip to his homeland, he deployed a variety of means to guide each of the many disciples who came seeking to train under him. Marpa’s disciples (including Milarepa who then became teacher to Gampopa) began to realise the full force of the Buddhadharma within their own minds, and in that way the Marpa Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism came into being.
The name Karmapa is given to each of the incarnations that have intentionally returned out of compassion for the world over life after life since then. The first Karmapa was the glorious Dusum Khyenpa, born in 1110, who followed Gampopa and founded the teaching lineage of the Karma Kagyu. In more than 900 years since Dusum Khyenpa became the first recognised Karmapa incarnation within the Kagyu lineage, countless other great lineage masters have incarnated, been recognised by their disciples and carried on with the work begun in previous lives. Many of these lineages continue to this day, however a great number have vanished into anonymity after a few generations because their disciples and monastic administrators failed to recognise a subsequent incarnation. Thus, historically, the Karmapas are unique not only for establishing the first line of recognised incarnations, but also for the deliberate and precise way they are able to guide disciples to locate each subsequent rebirth. The Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is simply the reincarnation of the Sixteenth Karmapa.
The longevity of any social institution—including a reincarnation lineage—depends on reliable mechanisms by which it can reproduce itself over time. Although the voluntary return of the Karmapas is the main means whereby the Karmapa lineage has persisted, it is also crucial that disciples of the Karmapa are able to correctly identify each newly-born Karmapa incarnation. It is compassion that compels these Lamas to find a way to return to where they can be located by their disciples; and devotion that leads disciples to seek tirelessly until they find their reincarnated Lama. Where compassion meets devotion, the Karmapas contribute their penetrative wisdom and skilful means to build a bridge that can overcome even the barrier of death.
One skilful means by which that bridge is built is the practice—initiated by Dusum Khyenpa himself—of each Karmapa leaving behind instructions indicating his next place of birth. Such instructions are generally left in the hands of close disciples or, on occasion, trusted attendants. The letter that the Fifteenth Karmapa wrote and gave to an attendant inside a protection amulet included not only the date of his next birth, but a description of the house and name of the family into which he would be reborn. Although not every Karmapa has written letters giving such clear guidance, when they do, such predictions provide dazzling displays of the Karmapas’ extraordinary powers. Another unique means whereby the Karmapas have supported disciples in their search for the next reincarnation are what are known as the intermediate deeds, or nam thar bardoma— exceptional signs that take place between the passing of one Karmapa and his next rebirth. The fact that the Karmapas can predetermine not only the site of their next rebirth but also the conditions of their transition from one life to the next attests to the control they can exert over the process of their own death and rebirth. Further, it confirms what has long been said of the Karmapas—that they have a special ability to perceive the future as well as the past and present.
Karmapas have not always left their indications in such explicit forms as prediction letters. In the absence of such letters, their chief disciples might consult with one another to determine whether prophetic statements are contained within any correspondence they received from the Karmapa or in any of the sacred songs – known as gur – or other poetic works composed by the Karmapa. The disciples might also take into consideration predictive comments made during the life of the previous Karmapa, and they would also watch their own dreams for further signs.
Karmapas are often described as “self-recognising”. Along with leaving descriptions of their next life, many Karmapas explicitly identify themselves to others at a very young age. For example, at the age of three, the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, stated to his mother, “I’m Karma Pakshi’s reincarnation. I will have many students to teach.” His mother replied, “If you’re the reincarnation of Karma Pakshi, then aren’t you Rangjung Dorje [the Third Karmapa] too?” To this, the boy stated calmly, “The two are inseparable”. During his lifetime, the utter certainty surrounding his identity was so widespread that Rolpe Dorje underwent no formal recognition process, but was tacitly accepted by all as the Fourth Karmapa.
The process of discovery was adapted to the varying circumstances, and appears to be have been highly collaborative. Often one or more people initially search for and identify the Karmapa. Another person may confirm that identification in the form of official recognition, and yet a third party might conduct the formal enthronement. This can make it difficult to name any one person as having “recognised” a given Karmapa. It also demonstrates the importance of multiple judgments to ensure not only that the right candidate is chosen but also that the harmony necessary for the lineage to continue benefiting beings is preserved.
Generally however the task of recognising a Karmapa falls to whoever the Karmapa had expressly appointed as his regent or regents before passing away. When the Karmapa did not make any clear public assignation of that duty, that role would be fulfilled by those close disciples to whom the Karmapa had transmitted the teachings of his lineage during his lifetime. This preference for close disciples to head the search consistently took precedence over other considerations. In this way, the devotion of close disciples joins with the compassion of the Lama to bring Lama and disciple together once again. So there are times when the Karmapa has been recognised by someone who was not assigned to the role. In fact, on numerous occasions highly attained masters from other lineages have been instrumental not only in locating but also in formally recognising Karmapas. It was Lama Urgyenpa—an important Drukpa Kagyu lineage lama—who formally recognised the Third Karmapa, with whom the pattern of reincarnating moved beyond a one-time reappearance to become a fully established reincarnation line. Twice the task of recognising the Karmapa was performed by Drukchen Rinpoches, head of the Drukpa Kagyu, a separate Kagyu order, while Sakya and Nyingma masters played key parts in other instances.
There are many reasons that the Karmapas prefer to have their own disciples recognise them in successive rebirths. One is because stepping back into the relationships with those disciples is the most effective way to continue guiding them to enlightenment. Another is that, as the head of the Karma Kagyu order, the presence in the world of a Karmapa who is recognised as the Karmapa is necessary for the Karma Kagyu order itself to continue and act vastly to benefit numberless beings. To accomplish these aims, on occasion, even after the recognition process was completed, a broader social acknowledgement was necessary so that the recognised individual could perform the deeds of a Karmapa. In such cases, Karma Kagyu masters and the Karmapas themselves have accepted formal acknowledgement of their identity as Karmapa by various political authorities. The Dalai Lamas have been the spiritual and political leaders of Tibet from the 17th century till now, a period known as the longest running ‘Ganden Palace’ rule of the Central Tibetan Government. Dalai Lamas or their regents formally confirmed the recognition of every Karmapa—from the Eleventh Karmapa onwards. For example, the Seventh Dalai Lama confirmed the recognition of the Thirteenth Karmapa, while it was the Thirteenth Dalai Lama who endorsed the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa’s recognition. In practical terms, the acknowledgement by the Dalai Lama or his office was required not only for Karmapas, but for all major reincarnations of the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as important lamas holding hereditary titles, such as Sakya Tridzin of the Sakya school and Minling Trichen of the Nyingma.
Despite this expedient acceptance of the acknowledgement of the Dalai Lamas as political authority in Tibet, the Karmapa is neither an elected position nor a negotiated appointment. To identify the Karmapas’ reincarnations requires the ability to interpret a number of signs that indicate where the Karmapa has been reborn. This entails some ability to see into past lives. As such, it is ultimately a matter for highly evolved spiritual masters to decide.
Nowadays, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s authority to confirm who the real Karmapa is, arose not so much as a result of his political position but rather from his universally respected standing as a spiritual master. It is the Dalai Lama’s advanced level of spiritual development and his impeccable ethical integrity as well as his neutrality in the matter that ensures his ability to ascertain who is and is not the Karmapa.
In the end, the disciples of the Karma Kagyu lineage may draw their confidence in the recognition process of the Seventeenth Karmapa from the collective determination of most of the heart disciples on the council of regents. They may sustain their conviction from the prophetic letter providing clear details of the Karmapa’s conscious trajectory from one life to the next. They may deepen their certainty with the knowledge that the unfailing insight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has confirmed the identification made by the Karma Kagyu lineage masters. For those who have had the great fortune of experiencing his enlightened presence for themselves, deep confidence may be gained from direct encounters with His Holiness; for the enlightened presence of this great being is simply undeniable.
Yet as compelling as all these factors may be, and as was the case of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje, the deeds themselves offer the ultimate confirmation that the boy recognised by Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche was indeed the Karmapa. In the case of the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, to observe his activities and hear the heart-piercingly fresh Dharma that he teaches, it is clear that one is witnessing the personal qualities and vast deeds of a Karmapa in action.
For more than 900 years, like a lamp in the darkness or a moon in the night sky, the Karmapa has taken a stream of rebirths, ripening and liberating disciples without ever becoming discouraged. In particular, the practise of recognising successive reincarnations came to form a vital part of the flourishing of all Buddhist schools in Tibet. Moreover, this practice provides a noble way for great heroic bodhisattvas to intentionally return, never abandoning sentient beings. Since beginningless time and motivated by immeasurable great compassion, countless bodhisattvas have constantly been in this world of ours, accompanying beings as a shadow accompanies the body, showing them the path to liberation. Although it is extremely rare for ordinary people to be able to comprehend it, this enlightened activity of the Karmapa makes clear the way in which bodhisattvas remain in samsara working for the benefit of sentient beings.
In particular, most of the successive reincarnations left letters before they passed away indicating where they would be born next; displayed deeds after they passed away and recognised other reincarnate lamas through their wisdom-vision. These unique qualities and noble deeds opened for bodhisattvas a new way of acting through intentional incarnation—and for ordinary beings, it opened a new way of understanding.