His Holiness the 17th Karmapa

Ogyen Trinley Dorje

Upholder of Buddha Activities


The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193) began the system of recognising reincarnate Lamas in Tibet over 900 years ago when he predicted his own rebirth. “Karmapa” in Tibetan means one who upholds the activities of the Buddhas. The Karmapa also founded the Karma Kagyu branch of the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. All sixteen Karmapas became masters with special qualities, highly respected and revered by all the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism and by the people of Tibet and the Himalayan region. Some of the Karmapas even became teachers to the Mongolian and Chinese Emperors. When the 16th Karmapa fled Tibet and arrived in Sikkim, the King of Sikkim offered him land to build a large monastic centre, which later became Rumtek Monastery.

A film by: tOm Zachmeier

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was born in a remote corner of Eastern Tibet to a nomadic family in 1985. He was found by following instructions contained in a prediction letter left by the 16th Karmapa and his identity was confirmed not only by Tai Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche, but also by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In 1992, the Karmapa was enthroned at Tsurphu, the traditional seat of the Karmapa lineage in Tibet.

Even at an early age, he showed signs of becoming a leader of great strength and learning. He gave his first public empowerment at the age of eight and soon mastered all the teachings that the monks at Tsurphu could offer. He started to guide the renovation of Tsurphu monastery, which was in the process of being rebuilt. He also constructed a shedra, or monastic college, at Tsurphu while guiding monasteries and centres around the world. The young Karmapa became a magnet for devotees from all over Tibet and many foreign countries. He also started to recognise the reincarnations of other important Kagyu lamas such as Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.

At the age of fourteen, the Karmapa decided to take the most dangerous and challenging course of action by escaping from Tibet to India for two main reasons. Firstly, he was not allowed to bring his teachers from India to Tibet and could not undertake his traditional training as a spiritual leader. Secondly, the Karmapa saw signs that he would be used against His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The world gazed in awe when the fourteen-year-old Karmapa arrived in Dharamsala at the beginning of the 21st century and took refuge at the feet of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Government and people of India accepted him as an honoured guest, and since then he has lived at Gyuto Monastery in Dharamsala, receiving a traditional monastic education and all the necessary transmissions, under the guidance of Kagyu masters and H.H. the Dalai Lama, who appointed Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche as his main tutor.

Besides being a scholar and teacher in all areas of Tibetan Buddhist studies, his poems, paintings, calligraphy, and especially his plays and songs, composed and directed with the artists of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, are highly appreciated. He enjoys studying the languages and cultures of different Asian and Western civilisations and has taken classes in Sanskrit, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and English. He is also interested in modern science and has actively participated in the Mind and Life Conferences with H.H. the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.

The Karmapa took the responsibility of leading the Karma Kagyu School of Buddhism at an early age and within a short time has brought many reforms and progress in the study and discipline at Karma Kagyu monasteries and nunneries. The Karmapa took the Kagyu Monlam as the main platform for his activities. This yearly prayer meeting in Bodhgaya draws thousands of monks, nuns, and followers from all over the world, and especially from the Himalayan region. The Karmapa started his reforms by teaching monks and nuns how to dress, sit, walk, and prostrate correctly, and then how to meditate and how to pray. The International Kagyu Monlam Chenmo is a marvel not only for its inspiring prayers but also for its discipline and international participation. The prayers and teachings are simultaneously translated into 12 languages and web-cast worldwide.

In 2007, after several years as a vegetarian, His Holiness asked his monasteries to stop serving any kind of meat in their dining halls. He explained that if we were to have genuine compassion towards animals and the aspiration to ease their suffering, we should also try to do this in practice. At the end of his teaching, thousands of hands rose up from monks, nuns, and of lay people, making a commitment to become vegetarian. This is a wonderful demonstration of the way he teaches by example.

The Karmapa has also made a great difference in the education of the monastic colleges. He has changed the structure of the annual Kagyu Gunchö, the Winter Debates, where the monastic colleges gather together for a month to study and debate Buddhist philosophy. These days the Kagyu Winter Debates include a debating tournament with awards to the best colleges, best individual debaters, and most enthusiastic student. During this time His Holiness gives teachings on an important Kagyu philosophical text and the debates are followed by a three-day conference.

In 2014, the Karmapa made history by instituting an annual Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering for Karma Kagyu nuns and by extending their access to rigorous education for nuns. Around 300 nuns participated. The nuns not only debated but took charge of all activities including rituals, chanting, and disciplining the whole gathering. This is but one of the examples illustrating how the Karmapa works towards empowering women in every field.

In 2009 at a TED conference in Mysore, the Karmapa declared that it is the responsibility of spiritual leaders to take a leading role in addressing such social issues as the environmental crisis and women’s issues. He himself has committed to doing so personally, while also inspiring others to follow suit.

The Karmapa sees environmental protection as synonymous with Dharma practice. He has said that ultimately, he would like Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to become leaders in their own community on environmental issues, especially as the Himalayan communities begin to face the enormous consequences of climate change. In 2009, he founded, and still chairs, Khoryug (“environment” in Tibetan), an association of eco-Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas. Today, the association consists of over fifty-five Buddhist monasteries and nunneries that implement environmental projects across the Himalayan region.  Along with Environmental Guidelines, the association has also produced a popular booklet called 108 Things You Can Do to Protect the Earth. Beyond the Himalayas, he encourages people in the developed world to use fewer resources and to simplify their lives.

The Karmapa is a regular and popular visitor to Tibetan schools and colleges. He has become an example of courage, dedication, and a strong upholder of authentic traditions while staying open to positive modern influences for Tibetans in general and its youth in particular. Tibetans living in Tibet call the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, and Karmapa, the sun, the moon, and the star of Tibet. The Karmapa’s engagement with the younger generation has produced two important books: The Future is Now and The Heart is Noble. The Karmapa has said many times that he feels a deep connection with today’s youth and likes to engage them in discussions and dialogue.

The Karmapa has also participated in many inter-religious dialogues and Buddhist conferences where he champions environment issues, women’s issues, youth issues, and promotes non-sectarianism along with respect for all spiritual paths.

He is traditional, authentic, innovative, and artistic in his way of doing things. As an example, in January 2014, he performed the Guru Padma Sambhava lama dance in Bodhgaya, which was done exactly in the most authentic traditional way. However, he invited nuns to take part in the sacred dances, something that had never happened before in the Karma Kagyu tradition. These dances are one of the most blessed and magnificent religious performances in Tibetan Buddhist culture.

His Holiness the 16th Karmapa travelled to many places in Europe and America establishing many centres and groups. Subsequently, followers and supporters of the Karmapa have repeatedly requested the 17th Karmapa to visit them. In May 2008, he made his first trip to the West, traveling to the United States, where he taught at many Dharma centres under his guidance as well as in large halls and arenas. He visited the US again in 2011.

Now, in 2014, he is making his first trip to Europe, fulfilling his long cherished wish to visit the continent. As did his predecessor, the 17th Karmapa also feels a strong personal connection to Europe. He often says that he feels that in one of his former lives, he was born as a farmer in Europe.