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The 17th Karmapa


The head of the Kagyu School, one of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism, is called the karmapa. For eight centuries one karmapa followed another in orderly succession. This ended when the 16th Karmapa died in 1981 and the Kagyu School split over who should replace him. The immediate cause of the dispute was the Chinese occupation of Tibet.


Photo courtesy Karma Kagyu Dachverband e.V.
Photo courtesy Tsurphu Foundation
Which one is the real 17th incarnation? At left, Trinlay Thaye Dorje, chosen as the 17th Karmapa by the official of his own Kagyu lineage who has traditionally made that choice; at right, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, recognized as the 17th Karmapa by the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.




The Kagyu School is one of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism. It traces its roots to the great medieval yogis Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa, and it specializes in the Yoga of the Great Seal, the Mahamudra.

The head of the Kagyu School is called the karmapa. He wears a black crown to symbolize his ethereal black crown woven from the hair of goddesses. For this reason the Kagyu School is sometimes called the Black Hat School.

The dispute over the 17th Karmapa is a puzzle with three main pieces: the tulku system of appointment, the historical animosity between the Kagyu School and the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

The Tulku System of Appointment

Shortly before the First Karmapa died in 1183, he wrote a letter predicting that he would be reborn ten years later with the name Karma Pakshi. When the boy arrived on schedule, the Kagyu School regarded him as the reincarnation of the First Karmapa and gave him the dead man's job. This boy was the first tulku in Tibetan history -- the first deliberate reincarnation of a high religious official. Since then, finding the right tulku has become the standard way of awarding these offices. Because high religious officials in Tibet exercised political as well as religious authority, there was a strong motivation for powerful families to arrange matters so their sons were identified as tulkus.

Animosity Between the Kagyu School and the Dalai Lama

The second piece of the puzzle is the bad blood between the Kagyu School and the Gelupta School, the school of the Dalai Lama. Westerners tend to think of the Dalai Lama as a sort of pope of Tibetan Buddhism, but he isn't. In fact his spiritual authority extends over only the Geluptas, who are just one of four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism.

Westerners also think of the Dalai Lama as the king of Tibet, and this is true (or was true until the Chinese drove him into exile in 1959). But the dynasty of dalai lamas dates back only to 1632. Before that time, the Kagyu lamas, not the Gelupta lamas, ruled Tibet.

The reign of the Kagyu kings ended in a bloody civil war in which the Gelupta lamas, aided by the Chinese, burned dozens of Kagyu monasteries and drove the Kagyu lamas out of the country. This is how the dalai lamas became kings of Tibet: by burning the Kagyu monasteries with the help of the Chinese. Although it happened in the early 1600s, it has not been forgotten.

The Chinese Occupation of Tibet

The third and final piece of the puzzle is the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Because the high religious officials... (under construction).


Trinlay Thaye Dorje: Born in Tibet in 1983. Found and recognized as the genuine Karmapa reincarnation by the Sharmapa, Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, second to the Karmapa in the Kagyu Lineage.

The 16th Karmapa died in the United States in 1981 during one of his several trips to the West to spread the Dharma. Shortly thereafter his General Secretary Dhamcho Yongdu requested that four Rinpoches, including the 14th Shamarpa, form a committee of regents charged with finding the reincarnation of the 17th Karmapa and spreading the teachings of the Karma Kagyu Lineage. Because the committee became politicized due to the misuse of power by some of the regents, in 1984 the 14th Shamarpa proposed that the regents be dissolved. As the only one legitimate able to recognize the reincarnated Karmapa, according to religious practice since the early years of the Karma Kagyupa Lineage, the 14th Shamarpa independently pursued the search. However, this process became contentious as a result of a competing claim of recognition. In 1991 at the inauguration of a monastery in Pokhara, Nepal, the 14th Shamarpa indicated, without revealing the actual identity, that the 17th Karmapa had been identified in Tibet and would be called Thaye Dorje. Ultimately, the 14th Shamarpa confirmed the reincarnated Karmapa to be the son of the 3rd Mipham Rinpoche of the Nyingma School; he was born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1983. He and his family escaped from Tibet in 1994. Immediately thereafter, the young Karmapa went to New Delhi where he was publicly recognized by the 14th Shamarpa in a welcome ceremony. Since that time he has resided in India where he has received Dharma instruction and undergone training. In November 1996, he formally joined the monkhood by receiving refuge vows from Buddha in a ceremony at the Bodh Gaya Temple. At this time he was given the name Trinlay (meaning, Buddha activity) Thaye(limitless) Dorje(unchanging).




Official Site of the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje
The Spiritual Emerge

Tsurphu Foundation
Represents the 17th Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje.


This page was published on January XX, 2000.

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