The Karma Kagyu Lineage

The following article is from the Spring, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Kagyu lineage is one of the four major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism; the Karma Kagyu is one of its main branches. These traditions trace their origins to Shakyamuni Buddha, who taught more than 2500 years ago. Led by the Gyalwang Karmapas since the twelfth century, the lineage includes generation after generation of scholars and mahasiddhas who devoted their lives to the realization of the truth of experience and the perfection of compassion for all beings.

The great early teachers of the Kagyu lineage include the Indian mahasiddha Tilopa (988-1069), his student, Naropa (1016-1100), Marpa the Translator (1012-1097), the great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa (1052-1135), and the renowned Gampopa (10791153). Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa (11101193), whose coming had been foretold by the Buddha, was a student of Gampopa and was recognized by him as a manifestation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Through successive incarnations the Gyalwang Karmapas have led the Karma Kagyu, or "practice lineage," as it is known because of its special emphasis on meditation.

During his lifetime, Shakyamuni Buddha predicted there would come into being a fully realized teacher who would reappear over and over again as the Karmapa. This Karmapa would continue his enlightened activity on behalf of all beings until the Buddhist teachings were no longer needed in this world. The name Karmapa refers literally to 'the one who performs the activity of a Buddha.'

From the twelfth century to the present time and through successive incarnations, the Karmapa has performed the selfless and tireless activity of a fully enlightened teacher, or bodhisattva, exemplifying the wisdom and loving kindness that lies at the heart of Buddhist practice. Each successive Karmapa has held the position of supreme head of the Karma Kagyu, the lineage known as that of the sacred word, in which the most profound Buddhist teachings are passed down from teacher to disciple through successive generations. Uniquely, each Karmapa, before he passes away, leaves behind a letter foretelling the exact circumstances of his next rebirth.

His Holiness, Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the 17th incarnation of Karmapa. He was born to nomadic parents in 1985 in the Lhathok region of Tibet. In 1992, his parents were surprised by the young boy's suggestion that they move their camp early. As it turned out, this decision to move placed them in the spot where the predictive letter written by the 16th Karmapa had said the 17th Karmapa would be found. After being discovered, His Eminence the Twelfth Tai Situpa and His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama confirmed the identification.

Karmapa's enthronement was held at Tolong Tsurphu Monastery near Lhasa in the same year. His Holiness spent the next eight years studying, and preparing for his position. Then, at the turn of the millennium, the world received the news that the Karmapa had left Tsurphu with a handful of attendants, and secretly fled Tibet. On January 5, 2000, he arrived safely in Dharamsala, India where he was greeted by His Holiness Dalai Lama. Now, with refugee status in India, His Holiness Karmapa is completing Iris education and receiving empowerments as he prepares to reclaim his seat at Rumtek and finally arrive at KTD, his seat in North America. Many have speculated that this charismatic young monk will have a dynamic impact on the Western spiritual perspective.

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