Karmapa means “the one who carries out buddha-activity” or “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas.”
In the Tibetan tradition, great enlightened teachers are said to be able to consciously choose to be reborn as a teacher who can carry on the teachings of a predecessor in a prior life. Following this tradition, the Karmapas have incarnated in this form of manifestation body (Skt. nirmanakaya), for seventeen lifetimes, as of the present, and all have played the most important role in preserving and propagating the Buddhist teachings of Tibet.
Prior to the birth of the first Karmapa, the arrival of a Buddhist master who would be known as the Karmapa had been prophesied by the historic Buddha Shakyamuni and the great tantric master of India, Guru Padmasambhava. Throughout the centuries, Karmapas have been the central figure in the continuation of the Vajrayana lineage in general and Kagyu lineage in particular, and have played a very important role in the preservation of the study and practice lineages of Buddhism.
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje
In 1985 a male infant was born into a nomad family in the Lhatok region of Eastern Tibet. In the months prior to his birth, his mother had wonderful dreams during her pregnancy. On the day of his birth, a cuckoo landed on the tent in which he was born, and a mysterious conch-like sound was heard by many throughout the valley in which the family of the infant lived. In Tibet, such events are considered auspicious portents of the birth of an enlightened teacher.
The young nomad was called Apo Gaga. While his early years seemed, to his family, full of blessing, Apo Gaga did not talk of any connection to the Karmapas. However, in 1992, he asked his family to move the location of their nomadic home to another valley, and told them to expect a visit from traveling monks. Soon after setting up their home in the new location, followers of the 16th Karmapa came to that valley following secret instructions of the 16th Karmapa, contained in his letter of prediction. The birth and the other details of Apo Gaga’s life matched the predictions of the letter. Apo Gaga was discovered to be the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje.
In addition to his letter of prediction, the 16th Karmapa wrote many poems, or songs, predicting that though he would leave his traditional main seat in Tsurphu, Tibet, he would soon return to Tsurphu again, that his root teacher would be His Excellency Situ Rinpoche, and that he would study in India. After the death of the 16th Karmapa, it became clear that these predictions applied to his successor. Furthermore, the 19th-century master Chogyur Lingpa made a number of predictions about the lives of the Karmapas, and for the 17th Karmapa, Chogyur Lingpa’s predictions matched the details of His Holiness’s birth. Since these predictions were to be fulfilled in themselves without recognition by any other master, it is traditionally said that the Karmapa is "self-recognized."
The 17th Karmapa did in fact return to Tolung Tsurphu Monastery in Central Tibet in 1992, where he was enthroned on September 27, with the permission of the Chinese government. At Tsurphu, over 20,000 supplicants assembled to witness the return of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. The following morning, some 25,000 people filed before His Holiness to receive a personal blessing.
At Tsurphu, the 17th Karmapa studied the Buddhist sciences of mind, learned ritual, and practiced sacred arts, such as dance. Each day he received hundreds of visitors from throughout Tibet and around the world. He eventually began to offer empowerments and participated in various rituals at the monastery. At the age of about 10, His Holiness recognized the rebirth of reincarnate teachers, including such eminent teachers as Pawo Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and the Dabzang Rinpoche.
While His Holiness was at Tsurphu, the monastery underwent extensive rebuilding to restore the temples, shrines, stupas, a shedra, and residences that had severely decayed and been neglected over the years, fulfilling one of the main duties of a Karmapa. As the years went by, however, His Holiness sought to receive the empowerments and transmissions of the lineage, but was unable to do so fully because many of the Kagyu lineage teachers remained in India. To fulfill his spiritual duty, he decided to leave Tibet for India.
After months of careful planning, on December 28, 1999, the 14-year-old Karmapa pretended to enter into a solitary retreat, instead donned civilian garb, and slipped out a window. Leaving Tsurphu Monastery with a handful of attendants, he began a daring journey by car, foot, horseback, helicopter, train and taxi, a heroic journey which was to become the stuff of headlines throughout the world. On January 5, 2000, he arrived, to the great surprise and overwhelming joy of the world, in Dharamsala, India, where he was met by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He received refugee status from the government of India in 2001.
From 2000 through 2007, His Holiness continued to live near Dharamsala. He has been permitted by Indian governmental authorities to engage in tours to Buddhist sites in India, and annually traveled to Bodhgaya and Sarnath for important Kagyu ceremonies over which he presides. He has also travelled to Ladakh, Tibetan settlements in southern India, Calcutta and elsewhere in Himachal area. His Holiness still awaits permission from the Indian authorities to leave Dharamsala and return to Rumtek Monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas in India. His Holiness received permission to travel to the United States twice: in 2008, to teach the Dharma for his first time in the West, and again in 2011, to attend the Kalachakra ceremonies with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He travelled throughout the states extensively in 2015 as well visiting many Universities such as Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
In 2014 he travelled to Germany for his first European visit. Whilst there he gave teachings at the Nurburing near Bonn and subsequently travelled to Berlin where he also gave teachings. In 2015 he returned to Germany and this time gave teachings and empowerments at the Maritim Hotel in Bonn.