1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa


Nine hundred years ago, in 1110 CE, amidst the snow-capped peaks of eastern Tibet, there was born a spiritual master whose compassion for beings would shape the future of Buddhism in Tibet. This great master was the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, who instituted the practice of intentional reincarnation in a way that disciples could recognize—a practice that forms the backbone of Tibetan Buddhism as we know it today.

Buddhism teaches that the sole aim of buddhas and bodhisattvas is to guide others to enlightenment. Since the time of the Buddha, countless bodhisattvas have perfected their training in compassion and skillful means and cared for their disciples wholeheartedly, yet at the moment of passing away have had to leave the ongoing care of those disciples to others.

However, once such great beings have reached a certain level of spiritual attainment, they have the ability to remain aware through the death process and consciously choose their next place of birth. This ability makes it possible for them to indicate the place of their next rebirth before they pass away, so that they can be clearly identified and thus resume the guidance of their students and their broader work in the world. This is the meaning of the term “reincarnate lama.” Tibetan reincarnate lamas such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Gyalwang Karmapa have engaged in this practice for over a dozen lives already. Yet for the first 15 centuries of the Buddhadharma, no master conceived of this ideal means of caring for their disciples life after life—until Dusum Khyenpa, with his extraordinarily creative means and his intense commitment to his students’ well-being and the continuity of the teachings entrusted to him.

The totality with which Dusum Khyenpa embraced his responsibility as a spiritual guide to others was evident both in his deeds and his speech. On one occasion, Dusum Khyenpa and his fellow students had received a teaching by their lama Dagpo Rinpoche, or Lord Gampopa, in which he had identified great compassion as one of the indispensable qualities of a spiritual teacher. As the Dharma friends sat discussing this comment, Dusum Khyenpa offered his understanding of what this implied. As a spiritual teacher, Dusum Khyenpa said, even if one had to go to a hell realm oneself for the sake of a disciple, one would do so willingly, but under no circumstances would one abandon one’s disciples.

Dusum Khyenpa has fully lived up to his own definition of a spiritual guide to beings. Indeed, he has proven himself unwilling to abandon his students, even at the moment of death. After he passed away in 1193, Dusum Khyenpa intentionally returned as the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, and made it utterly clear that he was, in fact, the reincarnation of the First Karmapa. Since then, he has taken an uninterrupted series of rebirths as the Karmapa, returning again and again for more than 900 years to engage in a vast array of activities to benefit beings and the Buddhadharma.

previous-karmapas-4Dusum Khyenpa was the first in Buddhist history to leave indications where he would be reborn so that his disciples could search for his reincarnation. He was also the first to identify himself to previous followers after he was reborn. But he was by no means the last. Indeed, Tibetan Buddhism today would be vastly different without the reincarnation lineages of the many great masters who adopted this practice as a highly effective means of accomplishing a variety of beneficial aims.

Intentionally reincarnating in a form that disciples can recognize allows lamas to maintain long-term, multi-life relationships with their disciples. Although with each new birth, the lama must pass through the natural stages of physical development, they begin that process with a mental maturity far beyond their physical years. This allows them to quickly take up their role as a spiritual guide to their students from the previous life. By resuming relationships with such disciples, they guarantee that they are returning to the situation in which they have the strongest possible karmic and social basis to be of benefit to others. At the same time, they may continue any wider projects initiated in their previous lives, such as developing their monastic establishments, study institutes or retreat centers and attend to the overall transmission of the teaching lineage under their care.

The unparalleled longevity of Buddhist institutions in Tibet is due in no small part to the remarkable resilience of such reincarnation lineages. Over the centuries, Tibetan Buddhism has survived wild fluctuations in political, military and economic conditions. In the 20th century, it managed to reconstitute itself in exile, bereft of all the material conditions that earlier sustained it in its native ground. Human beings have the capacity to adapt far more quickly than large institutions, and each new master in a reincarnation lineage may apply their wisdom and flexibility in response to changing historical circumstances, without losing the over-riding sense of purpose and direction that defines their lineage, and that led them to reincarnate in the first place. In this way, the institution of reincarnation has played a great part in allowing Tibetans to transmit the teachings brought from India over a millennium ago in unbroken lineages, and to cross back to India with that Dharma still a vitally relevant tradition.

What now seems so obvious a way to care for disciples and lineage over generations was not only not obvious in Dusum Khyenpa’s time: it was unheard of. In order to fully comprehend who the First Karmapa was, one would need to imagine so great a yearning for the wellbeing of the world, so firm a commitment to accomplish it himself, and so creative a thinker that he found a previously unimagined means of doing so.

The Life of Dusum Khyenpa

Dusum Khyenpa was born in eastern Tibet in the year 1110 CE, to a mother named Lhathok Zagang Jam and a father named Gompa Dorje Gönpo. His birthplace lies in Dreshö, a part of Dreho, Kham, ringed by snow-covered mountains. Unlike those who preceded him in the Marpa Kagyu lineage, Dusum Khyenpa was born to a humble family with greater aptitude for spiritual practice than worldly success. Both his parents were active practitioners, and the name given him as a child was Gephel, meaning Virtue Increases. His parents sought to ensure that he lived up to his name by teaching him the Dharma as an integral part of his upbringing from the very start. His father’s main practice was Yamāntaka and his mother was described as a natural yoginī. Raised in such an environment, Dusum Khyenpa was steeped in the Dharma from birth. At the age of 11, he received initiation and instruction in the practice of Palden Lhamo from his father and Sherab Gön, a family relative and serious practitioner. In a hint of the attainments to come later in his life, while he was engaging in the practice, Dusum Khyenpa had a direct vision of Palden Lhamo.

His Difficult Adolescence

Although his childhood years helped prepare the young Dusum Khyenpa for the Dharma activities at which he would excel later in life, nothing could prepare him for the emotional storms that would arise in his adolescence. This series of events in his life is usually omitted from his biographies, or referred to only cryptically, or perhaps euphemistically, as “subduing his enemy.” A fuller version of this “subduing” appears in the biography of Dusum Khyenpa compiled by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. That account indicates that Dusum Khyenpa underwent a period of great inner turmoil during his teenage years. In an age-old scenario that is no less painful because it is so common, Dusum Khyenpa lost the young woman with whom he was romantically involved to another man. The woman was “stolen away” from him by the rival, as the biography puts it. Dusum Khyenpa’s response showed every sign of jealous rage, for he sought out a means to kill the man. Using the black arts of sorcery that Milarepa had likewise deployed, Dusum Khyenpa managed to accomplish his aim, and the man died. Shortly thereafter, Dusum Khyenpa left the householder’s life behind once and for all, to take monastic ordination at the age of 16.

Although his biography does not detail Dusum Khyenpa’s internal state during this time, the incident indicates that Dusum Khyenpa was caught in the grip of overwhelming attachment and the uncontrolled anger that so often arises when one is deprived of an object of strong attachment. However, the fact that he opted to ordain after this episode suggests that the experience awakened in him a deep sense of the futility of spending a life in pursuit of such objects of attachment. His direct experience of the destructive force of his own afflictive emotions surely served as a powerful empirical proof of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings that the causes of suffering lie within, and that the causes of happiness lie there as well.

With the certainty born of this harsh encounter with the suffering caused by his own afflictions, Dusum Khyenpa left behind the life of mundane pursuits once and for all, to enter the door of the Dharma. He was ordained as a novice monk by Dreho Chogi Lama (b. 1056), a 70-year old disciple of the great Tibetan translator Ngog Lotsāwa Loden Sherab (1059-1109). Upon receiving his monastic vows, Dusum Khyenpa had a vision that the Buddha presented him with a black hat. He later fashioned a physical hat modeled on the one in his vision, and this became the first material hat associated with the Karmapa line. At this time, he was given his epithet “Karmapa,” or “Being of Enlightened Activity,” as a secret name.

In Quest of Dharma

Within three years of his ordination, Dusum Khyenpa was on his way to central Tibet, to the preeminent sites for rigorous scholarly study as well as meditative practice. Unbeknownst to him, at the same time a fellow Khampa named Phagdru Dorje Gyalpo, or Phagmodrupa (1110-1170), was also making the long journey from Kham to central Tibet in quest of the Dharma. Born in the same year, the two later met far from home, in the major study centers of the day in Tölung in central Tibet. They became close Dharma friends, and both later entrusted themselves to Gampopa for spiritual guidance. In time, Dusum Khyenpa and Phagmodrupa would prove to be most instrumental in safeguarding the future of Gampopa’s lineage. It was Dusum Khyenpa who founded the Karma Kagyu and Phagmodrupa who trained disciples who later founded the Drukpa Kagyu and Drigung Kagyu lineages. (The Karma Kagyu, Drukpa Kagyu and Drigung Kagyu are the three largest Kagyu lineages from Gampopa still thriving today.)

For the next nine years, Dusum Khyenpa immersed himself in study—first of the major Buddhist philosophical texts, and later of the tantras. At this point in history, Tibet was undergoing a tremendous upsurge in cultural confidence and spiritual maturity. During the 12th century, central Tibet in particular hosted a number of influential lotsāwas who were major teachers and authors in their own right. While in Tölung, Dusum Khyenpa read the most challenging Indian treatises with the finest teachers of the day. With no less illustrious a scholar than Gyamarpa (11th century) and his brilliant prodigy Chapa Chökyi Senge (1109-1169), Dusum Khyenpa studied the principal texts of Asaṅga, as well as Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikās, Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra and Āryadeva’s Catuḥśataka, gaining a firm grounding in the views of the two major streams of Mahāyāna philosophy: Cittamātra and Madhyamaka.

His training in these texts complete, Dusum Khyenpa proceeded to the great Kadampa center of Phenyul. As a particularly promising student, he was taught the six treatises of Nāgārjuna by Patsab Lotsāwa, the 12th century’s greatest proponent of Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka philosophy. For a further six years, Dusum Khyenpa studied Kadampa texts under the Kadam master, Geshe Sharwapa. He further trained in tantra, receiving the set of six yogic practices associated with the Kālacakra tantra, as well as the Kākamukha Mahākāla tantra.

During this period, Dusum Khyenpa took his bhikṣu ordination—the highest level of monastic ordination. A student of Geshe Sharwapa, Mel Dulwa Dzinpa (Holder of the Vinaya) acted as preceptor, and Yeshe Lodrö as ritual master. Dusum Khyenpa trained thoroughly in the foundational training for monastics, the vinaya, excelling to the point where he was asked to teach vinaya to others.

Meeting Gampopa

At the age of 30, Dusum Khyenpa decided to search out the master who would show him the greatest kindness, leading him to the highest realization on the path—Lord Gampopa, also known as Dagpo Rinpoche. As Dusum Khyenpa was heading to Gampopa’s seat at Daglha Gampo, he first encountered Gampopa’s nephew, Gomtsul (1116-1169), and took teachings from him.

Upon arrival in Daglha Gampo, Dusum Khyenpa was made to wait two months before Gampopa would receive him. With his six years of study of the Kadampa teachings and his deep knowledge of the Indian philosophical treatises, Dusum Khyenpa came to Gampopa with a strong intellectual understanding of the Dharma. Nevertheless, when Gampopa finally agreed to receive him, he initially granted Dusum Khyenpa only lam rim or “gradual path” teachings, which had already formed part of the basic curriculum that Dusum Khyenpa had studied for years under Kadampa masters. Gampopa offered the eager Dusum Khyenpa no secret transmissions or special instructions, but only advised him to practice the lam rim, saying, “I meditated on this. You should do so too.”

Though Dusum Khyenpa may have expected more advanced or esoteric instruction, he diligently followed Gampopa’s advice, and entered solitary retreat for nine months. He engaged with full intensity in the meditative practices Gampopa had indicated for him, wearing only a single cotton cloth. He meditated with such exertion that the perspiration never dried from his hands for nine months.

Over the years, Gampopa guided Dusum Khyenpa with great skill, offering him instruction for some time and then sending this determined meditator off to practice in solitude. Gampopa directed Dusum Khyenpa to meditate in various sites across southern Tibet, ranging from Dagpo, Ölkha, into Tsang and down to a border region spanning an area now divided among Tibet, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. The latter territory was ruled by the Mön king, who granted Dusum Khyenpa right of passage so that he could wander and meditate at will. Though tigers frequented the territory, he remained steadfast in his resolve to follow Gampopa’s advice and persisted in his practice.

Gaining Certainty

After training and meditating for several years in this way, Dusum Khyenpa went to see Gampopa to relate his experience and seek further instruction. After listening to Dusum Khyenpa’s descriptions of his meditative experiences, Gampopa responded: “I had great hopes in you before, but this is disappointing. You have to keep meditating.” Following Gampopa’s advice, Dusum Khyenpa meditated for another six months, but saw no change in his meditation. Nevertheless, he gained firm conviction in his own experience, despite Gampopa’s assertion of doubt. Dusum Khyenpa stated, “There’s no way this is wrong. Even if it is wrong, this is how I’m going to meditate.” In this way, Gampopa guided Dusum Khyenpa to the point of unshakable certainty in his meditation. This time, when Dusum Khyenpa returned to report again on his meditation, the great Gampopa placed his hand upon Dusum Khyenpa’s head and told him, “Son, you have already severed the bonds to samsara.”

Dusum Khyenpa became renowned for his exceptional fortitude in meditation, and was considered supreme among the vast gathering of meditators practicing under Gampopa’s guidance. Although Dusum Khyenpa’s meditative prowess earned him a superior position among the Daglha Gampo practice community, accounts of his life indicate that he forged close and lasting ties of friendship with many of his fellow students. In general, his friends recognized that Dusum Khyenpa was utterly true to his word, and it is clear that he inspired similar loyalty in others.

While training primarily under Gampopa, Dusum Khyenpa also had the opportunity to meet Milarepa’s other disciple, Rechungpa (1085-1161), and to receive from him the full transmission of the six yogas of Nāropa as well as other instructions.

Gampopa himself gave Dusum Khyenpa personal instructions on Mahāmudrā, as well as instructions on Vajrayoginī practice. After he had done so, Gampopa advised Dusum Khyenpa to practice Mahāmudrā far to the east, in an area of Kham called Kampo Gangra. This would be of great benefit to beings, Gampopa told him.

Although Gampopa was guiding vast numbers of students at this point, Dusum Khyenpa’s tremendous devotion to Gampopa lent a distinct flavor to their lama-disciple relationship. During one of the periods Dusum Khyenpa was staying at Daglha Gampo, Gampopa distributed cloth to his three close disciples from Kham—Seltong Shogom (b. 12th century), Phagmodrupa and Dusum Khyenpa, known among Gampopa’s disciples as the Three Men from Kham. Gampopa instructed each of them to make a hat from the material. Dusum Khyenpa valued so highly the cloth he received from his lama that he painstakingly fashioned it into the most beautiful shape he could. Some time later, Gampopa called the three of them and asked them to bring the hats they had made. Seltong Shogom had neglected to attend to the task, but when the summons came, he hastily attempted to craft the material into a hat-like shape. Dusum Khyenpa, meanwhile, arrived with the resplendent hat he had taken such care to construct.

Dusum Khyenpa’s exertions with the fabric reveal a great deal about his character. His care in transforming what Gampopa had given him into a glorious crown was interpreted as an auspicious sign for the future of the lineage he had received from Gampopa and would himself pass on—the lineage known today as the Karma Kagyu. Indeed, Dusum Khyenpa’s efforts to preserve and value what Gampopa had given him have yielded beautiful and long-lasting results. A replica of this hat is still worn by the Karmapa today. Known as the Multi-Colored Hat, it serves as a substitute for the lama, who in many Tibetan Buddhist practices is visualized atop the crown of the disciple’s head.

Losing his Lama

In 1953, 14 years after Dusum Khyenpa met Gampopa, the lama who had cared for him so kindly passed away. Dusum Khyenpa learned of the loss when he met Gampopa’s nephew Gomtsul and a second disciple named Phagpa in Ölkha. Clutching a garment that had belonged to Gampopa, Dusum Khyenpa made supplications and wept. As he did so, a vision of Gampopa appeared in the sky, clearly visible to all three of them (see photo left). The astonishing apparition did much to assuage Dusum Khyenpa’s pain, and he commented, “The lama came to dispel my grief.”

Every year thereafter, Dusum Khyenpa marked the anniversary of Gampopa’s death, and later established the practice of doing so in the monasteries he himself founded. Dusum Khyenpa retained a deep gratitude and a sense of commitment not only to Gampopa himself but also to his seat at Daglha Gampo. Throughout his life, when Dusum Khyenpa received large offerings, he frequently sent them to Daglha Gampo to support the community and facilities that Gampopa had founded.

Some time after the passing of the great master had been ritually marked in the customary manner, Dusum Khyenpa recollected the advice his lama had given him to travel east to Kham and practice Mahāmudrā in the area of Kampo Gangra. His decision to do so met with objections. In the absence of their teacher, and with a massive assembly of practitioners at Daglha Gampo needing guidance, Dusum Khyenpa had ample opportunities to benefit beings and the Dharma without leaving Daglha Gampo. As he prepared to depart for Kham, his Dharma friends attempted to dissuade him. His long-time friend Phagmodrupa urged Dusum Khyenpa to remain at Daglha Gampo, saying, “If you go to Kham, you will have to give many initiations. This will shorten your life.” In general, giving tantric empowerments to those who have not guarded their samaya (or tantric commitments) purely can have a devastating impact on the health and lifespan of the lama conferring such empowerments. By leaving the community of meditators at Daglha Gampo, Phagmodrupa was concerned that Dusum Khyenpa was running a personal risk by interacting with less committed practitioners.

Dusum Khyenpa replied to Phagmodrupa, “It is very kind of you to be concerned for me, but I am going to live to the age of 84, whether or not I give empowerments. There will be no premature death for me.”

With the utmost confidence born of his own realization and his trust in his lama, Dusum Khyenpa departed for Kham in accordance with Gampopa’s advice—and indeed he did live to the age of 84 as he predicted he would.

Return to Kham

Three decades after he had left, at the age of 50, Dusum Khyenpa completed the journey back to his native region of Kham. As Gampopa had instructed, he meditated on Mahāmudrā in the Kampo Gangra area. During this period, Dusum Khyenpa engaged in dream yoga practice as well as Mahāmudrā, and attained a level of realization wherein he was able to dissolve the boundary between sleep and wakefulness and between meditation and his ordinary activities. His Mahāmudrā realization reached the fourth stage—that of non-meditation.

While in Kham, Dusum Khyenpa swiftly began to attract disciples, and before long the number of monks in his community exceeded 1,000. In 1164, Dusum Khyenpa founded Kampo Nenang monastery, on a spot tucked among gentle peaks. There he established a retreat center and monastery, and devoted the next two decades of his life to cultivating realization in the many students who came seeking his guidance. As his first major seat, Kampo Nenang was powerfully imbued with Dusum Khyenpa’s presence. To this day, the letter A appears on a boulder at Kampo Nenang whenever a Karmapa has been reborn in the world.

At Kampo Nenang, Dusum Khyenpa received Drogön Rechen (also known as Sangye Rechen Peldrag, 1148-1218), his heart disciple. Along with transmitting Dusum Khyenpa’s lineage, Drogön Rechen became instrumental in recognizing that the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, was, in fact, the reincarnation of Dusum Khyenpa. It was to Drogön Rechen that Dusum Khyenpa entrusted the letter granting details of his next incarnation. In that letter, Dusum Khyenpa declared that he would return, for the sake of one single being.

Along with fulfilling his life’s purpose of caring for his students, Dusum Khyenpa was active in dispelling disputes, mediating between feuding factions across Kham. His skillful interventions, and in some cases his mere presence, repeatedly resulted in the resolution of deeply entrenched animosities and personal conflicts. This pattern of peacemaking recurs again and again in the lives of Dusum Khyenpa’s successors in the Karmapa reincarnation line, and forms a key component of their activity in the world.

At the age of 74, Dusum Khyenpa founded his second major seat, Karma Gön monastery.

Throughout this time, even as he was developing his own monastic seats, Dusum Khyenpa continued sending offerings back to Daglha Gampo. On one occasion, he dispatched a caravan with 70 yak-loads of tea.

Deeds in Central Tibet

Years before, when Dusum Khyenpa was still residing in central Tibet, Gampopa’s nephew, Gomtsul, had counseled him that, come what may, he should return to central Tibet after his time in Kham. Ever valuing each instruction he had received from his teachers, Dusum Khyenpa was determined to honor this advice, despite his advanced years. Marpa too had displayed similarly exceptional determination when he undertook his third trip to India in his old age. But unlike Marpa, Dusum Khyenpa harbored no hopes of reuniting with his lama at the other end of the journey, for by this time both Gampopa and Gomtsul had passed away. His huge circle of disciples at Kampo Nenang, Karma Gön and elsewhere across the region offered him more than ample opportunity to be of benefit in Kham. Yet, in his late 70s, Dusum Khyenpa undertook the arduous journey, meeting his commitments to his teachers, and guided by his own sense of what more he might do for others.

Once he had reached central Tibet, Dusum Khyenpa first visited Daglha Gampo, where he taught extensively, oversaw reconstruction of buildings that had fallen into disrepair and offered a 100-volume scriptural collection written by hand in gold to the monastery.

Dusum Khyenpa’s powers to pacify dispute were urgently needed in central Tibet as well, for a fellow disciple of Gampopa named Lama Zhang (Tselpa Tsundru Dragpa, 1123/1121-1193) was exhibiting increasingly wrathful behavior that was incurring considerable social disapproval. Although many others had attempted to convince Lama Zhang to renounce his activities, none had met with success. However, during a meeting with Dusum Khyenpa, the highly unconventional Lama Zhang is said to have danced wildly about the room, tugged on one of Dusum Khyenpa’s fingers, and then immediately renounced his controversial behavior once and for all. Through his activities in negotiating with Lama Zhang, Dusum Khyenpa made an important contribution to peace in central Tibet.

Another major deed of Dusum Khyenpa during this period was the founding of Tsurphu Monastery, west of Lhasa in Tölung, the area where Dusum Khyenpa had himself first come to study as a young man. Tsurphu would go on to become a thriving center for study and practice, and an important site for the continuity of the Karmapa reincarnation line. For more than 900 years, in every single successive lifetime, the Karmapa has resided for some period at Tsurphu Monastery.

His Final Teaching

With the far-ranging deeds of his life thus complete, in 1193, Dusum Khyenpa entrusted his books and relics to his main student, Drogön Rechen, and gave away the remainder of his possessions to various Dharma communities in Gampopa’s lineage. On the third day of the Tibetan New Year, Dusum Khyenpa gave a final Dharma teaching to the assembly at Tsurphu, lifted his gaze to the sky and entered meditation. He sat thus meditating for the remainder of the morning. At noon, the First Karmapa relinquished the body he had used so well to benefit beings in that lifetime, and moved on to take the next.

After the great master had passed on, Dusum Khyenpa’s friend and Dharma brother from Daglha Gampo, Lholayapa, heard of Dusum Khyenpa’s passing. He commented, “One should care for one’s friend’s main seats,” and voluntarily gave up his own activities to oversee the transition at Tsurphu. Coming to care for Tsurphu Monastery for a few years, Dusum Khyenpa’s friend helped to bridge the interim period before the Second Karmapa was discovered and could resume that responsibility. This generous act of Lholayapa’s stands as one last testimony to the devotion and loyalty that Dusum Khyenpa inspired not only in his students but also in his friends.

From his early life—as he evolved from a teenager filled with jealous rage to one filled with deep remorse—to his determination to return to this world in a new body to carry on his work for beings, Dusum Khyenpa displayed the capacity to transform as needed that is the true mark of a holy being. His overriding commitment to those under his care served as a driving force in his life and in his death. With the boundless creativity that remains a hallmark of the Karmapa reincarnation line to this day, Dusum Khyenpa found a previously unimagined way to guide his disciples all the way to enlightenment. In the end, not even death could prevent the Karmapa from continuing his care of his disciples and his transmission of the Buddhadharma.

2nd – 15th Karmapa

The stream of 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 Dharma 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. Born in Tibet under communist Chinese rule, at the age of fourteen, the Seventeenth Karmapa braved the dangers of a Himalayan crossing to India, in hopes of finding the needed conditions to function fully as Karmapa there.

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.