THE KAGYU LINEAGE MASTERS
The life stories
Presented here are short versions of the life stories of the lineage masters of the Kagyu (and, from the 1st Karmapa onwards, the Karma Kagyu) tradition. Click through to more detailed life stories of specific masters. Original texts are here: karmapa.org.
Born a Brahmin, Tilopa was just a boy when he met the famous master Nagarjuna, who had him made ruler of a small Indian kingdom. Tilopa became disenchanted and entered the monkhood.
Tilopa developed the spontaneous insight of enlightened realisation using methods taught by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni to his closest students. His reputation attracted the most promising students to him. Among these was Naropa, whom he selected as the lineage holder. Read more about the life of Tilopa.
Leaving family life behind, Naropa was ordained as a monk. Aged 28, Naropa went to Nalanda University, famous for producing Buddhist philosophers, and in time became the Abbot.
While he was enjoying his success, he was visited by a dakini, a female wisdom-giving spirit, who told him that the practice of meditation was more important than philosophising. Naropa should seek out Tilopa, the dakini said. Read more about the life of Naropa.
As a young man, the Tibetan Marpa went to Nepal in search of the dharma and met two of Naropa’s disciples while walking on the road. Impressed by the qualities of the disciples he decided to become one himself.
Once Marpa had practiced and mastered Naropa’s teachings he returned to Lhodrag in south Tibet and spent several years translating Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Read more about the life of Marpa.
When his father died, Milarepa was only seven years old. Their relatives stole his father’s property. Milarepa’s mother forced him to learn black magic to wreak revenge. Milarepa became adept at black magic and killed many people but, in time, he came to regret his actions and looked for a way to shed his bad karma. He was told to go to Marpa the Translator.
Marpa gave Milarepa a very hard apprenticeship. Finally, though, Marpa transmitted all he knew to Milarepa. Milarepa practiced the teachings for many years, gained enlightenment and became famous for his songs. Read more about the life of Milarepa.
The “Doctor from Dhagpo”, Gampopa, became a monk to fulfill his dying wife’s last wish. Aged 32, Gampopa overheard a conversation about Milarepa, and felt an overwhelming surge of devotion. He felt that Milarepa was surely his true teacher. After a gruelling journey in search of Milarepa he finally found him.
Gampopa became the only student trusted to receive the full Kagyu transmission from Milarepa. In time, Gampopa founded the Daglha Gampo monastery and attracted many disciples, who themselves became very realised and famous. Read more about Gampopa.
1ST KARMAPA DUSUM KHYENPA 1110–1193
Dusum Khyenpa received the first dharma teachings from his father, and continued with other teachers, meditating and studying a lot. Aged 30, Dusum Khyenpa was given the Kagyu teachings by Gampopa, attained realisation, and became Karmapa. He developed siddhis or powers that enabled him to visit sacred Indian Vajrayana sites without travelling.
Dusum Khyenpa was the first Karmapa to receive the Black Hat, which is passed on to all the subsequent Karmapas or ‘tulkus’ of Dusum Khyenpa. He chose Drogon Rechen to be the next lineage holder. Read more about the life of Dusum Khyenpa.
DROGON RECHEN 1148–1218
Although he was apprenticed to a Kagyu Lama at nine years old, the lama fell ill before Drogon Rechen could complete his studies. The lama sent the boy off to find disciples of Milarepa, knowing they’d make his pupil an accomplished master.
After he had achieved great realisation, Drogon Rechen heard reports of the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa, whom he saw as a potential rival. But when he met the 1st Karmapa, Drogon Rechen’s powers were completely overwhelmed and, right away, he became the first Karmapa’s student.
In time, Drogon Rechen received the full Kagyu transmission and became a lineage-holder.
POMDRAGPA SONAM DORJE 1170–1249
Able to read and write by five, and the student of a lama by the age of nine, Pomdragpa Sonam Dorje visited the lineage-holder Drogon Rechen when he was 14. Drogon Rechen immediately saw he was highly talented and made him the next Kagyu lineage holder.
In time, Pomdragpa Sonam Dorje received the full Kagyu teachings and became a gifted master. His main student was the 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi.
2ND KARMAPA KARMA PAKSHI 1204–1283
The 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi, from Chilay Tsakto in east Tibet, could read and write by the time he was six. By age ten it was clear he had a photographic memory for texts and it was decided he should go to central Tibet to study further.
It was when he was on his way to central Tibet that the boy met Pomdragpa Sonam Dorje, who had received a vision from the 1st Karmapa that the boy would become the next Karmapa. Read more about the life of the 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi
DRUBTOB URGYENPA 1230–1312
From Lato in northern Tibet, Drubtob Urgyenpa was a natural meditator who decided for himself at age seven that he should first study Buddhist philosophy then start the serious practice of meditation.
Between the ages of seven and 16 the boy applied himself to studying texts and received certain Kagyu teachings from Gotsangpa. So as to study with as many masters as possible, Drubtob Urgyenpa travelled to Nepal, China, Pakistan and India.
Aged 53, Drubtob Urgyenpa encountered the 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi who gave him the full Kagyu teachings and predicted he would become the main teacher of the 3rd Karmapa.
3RD KARMAPA RANGJUNG DORJE 1284–1339
“I am the Karmapa” said the baby boy. Three years later he said it again and made himself a black hat. Aged five, Rangjung Dorje met Drubtob Urgyenpa, who recognised him as the reincarnation of the 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi and gave him the real Black Hat, along all the 2nd Karmapa’s possessions. The boy also received all the Kagyu teachings.
After studying with the greatest masters of the Buddhist traditions at that time, Rangjung Dorje became very famous and attracted many disciples. Of Rangjung Dorje’s disciples, Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal became a lineage-holder and Khedrup Dragpa Senge the first Shamarpa.
(The Shamarpas are the second-oldest line of reincarnates in Tibetan Buddhism. The word means ‘Holder of the Red Crown’, and in early writings the Shamarpa is sometimes referred to simply as “Karmapa”, the colour of the hats being the only way to distinguish them. The Shamarpa line began when Rangjung Dorje gave Khedrup Dragpa Senge a Red Crown which was an exact replica of the Black Crown worn by the Karmapas. The two crowns symbolise the relationship between Karmapa and Shamarpa and do not signify separate lineages. Thus they were known as the “Black Hat and the Red Hat Karmapa”. The Shamarpas are also seen as a manifestation of Amithaba, the Buddha of Limitless Light.)
Read more about the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje.
GYALWA YUNGTON DORJE PAL 1296–1376
When he met a scholar in the market square at Tsongdu Gurmu in southern Tibet, five year old Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal broke away from his mother and ran to him. He showed such devotion that he was immediately given refuge vows and lay precepts.
At 15, the boy entered a monastery, and he continued his academic career at the monastic college of Shalu where he became renowned as a Sutra and Tantra adept. But it was only after meeting the 3rd Karmapa and learning the ultimate meaning of the teachings that he attained the highest realisation.
4TH KARMAPA ROLPE DORJE 1340–1383
Just as his previous incarnation had done, baby Rolpe Dorje sat up at birth and began to speak. The 3rd Karmapa had given his secretary clear indications how to find his 4th incarnation, and he was indeed quickly found in Kongpo province, central Tibet.
Aged six he took refuge vows, and at 12 he travelled to central Tibet where he met lineage-holder Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal. After the boy had told many anecdotes from his previous life as the 3rd Karmapa, Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal was convinced of his authenticity and transmitted the Kagyu teachings to him. Read more about the 4th Karmapa Rolpe Dorje.
2ND SHAMARPA KHACHÖ WANGPO 1350–1405
Kacho Wangpo was recognised as the reincarnation of the 1st Shamarpa by the 4th Karmapa, fulfilling the prediction of the 2nd Karmapa that “future Karmapas will manifest in two forms”. Read more about the 2nd Shamarpa, Shamar Khachö Wangpo.
5TH KARMAPA DESHIN SHEGPA 1384–1415
The 5th Karmapa sat up immediately he was born in Nyang Dam, southern Tibet and declared ‘I am the Karmapa’. On meeting him, Shamarpa Khachö Wangpo immediately recognised the child as the 4th Karmapa’s reincarnation and gave him the Black Crown and the full cycle of Kagyu teachings.
The 5th Karmapa found Chopal Deshe, the next Shamarpa incarnation, arranged ordination, and gave him Kagyu transmission, but his student Ratnabhadra was the next lineage-holder. Read more about the the 5th Karmapa Deshin Shegpa.
Born in the 15th century in Sokam province, Tibet, and ordained when he was very young, Ratnabhadra attained complete realisation of the absolute nature of reality. He was one of the greatest scholars and meditation masters of his age. Ratnabhadra was the teacher of the 6th Karmapa.
6TH KARMAPA TONGWA DONDEN 1416–1453
As a baby, Tongwa Donden became extremely excited when his path crossed that of a student of the 5th Karmapa named Ngompa Chadral. “Who are you?” the student asked. “I am the Karmapa” the baby replied. Ngompa Chadral cared for the baby for seven months before taking him to a monastery where the child began to teach.
Aged just three, the boy received full Kagyu transmission. He created several Tantric rituals at age six. By nine years old he was ordained. He spent the rest of his life teaching and building monasteries and shrines throughout Tibet. Read more about the 6th Karmapa Tongwa Donden.
BENGAR JAMPAL ZANGPO 15-16TH CENTURY
Born in Damshang, eastern Tibet, Benga Jampal Zangpo began Buddhist practice and meditation when he was very young. At 20 he was ordained.
After four years spent taking the teachings of the Six Yogas of Naropa from the 6th Karmapa, the young man achieved complete realisation of the meaning of Kagyu doctrines.
GOSHIR PALJOR DONDRUB 1427–1489
Born in Nyemo Yaktang, central Tibet, the boy came into the sphere of the 6th Karmapa when he was five years old and became his secretary at 14.
7TH KARMAPA CHODRAG GYAMTSO 1454–1506
When Chodrag Gyamtso was found, the week old child immediately recognised the possessions of the 6th Karmapa and blessed his former student by putting his hands on his head. Just one week later the baby boy gave a blessing to 10,000 people.
Aged four, Chodrag Gyamtso was given a series of empowerments and at eight he received Kagyu teachings. Read more about the 7th Karmapa Chodrag Gyamtso.
DENMA DRUBCHEN TASHI PALJOR 1457–1525
Aged five, the boy, born in Den province, east Tibet, showed overwhelming devotion when he heard the 7th Karmapa’s name spoken. He met the 7th Karmapa in person a year later and, at age 16, began to study with him.
After spending seven years studying with the 7th Karmapa, Denma Drubchen Tashi Paljor took Milarepa as his example and retreated to the mountains. He understood that freedom from samsara, the cycle of life and death in the material world, can only come through practising the teachings in daily life.
Twenty years later, he attained full realisation and became the teacher of the 8th Karmapa.
8TH KARMAPA MIKYO DORJE 1507–1554
Born in Nagam Chu, east Tibet, Mikyo Dorje sat up at birth and cried “I am the Karmapa, I am the Karmapa”. After being tested against another child whose family also claimed he was the Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje identified the previous Karmapa’s possessions from a random assortment of objects. His rival failed to do this.
The 8th Karmapa went on to write many treatises and found several colleges. He identified and passed on the Kagyu transmissions to the 5th Shamarpa. Read more about the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje.
5TH SHAMARPA KONCHOG YENLAG 1526–1583
This great scholar and meditation master wrote a number of excellent texts on meditation practice. He also recognised and became the teacher of the 9th Karmapa.
9TH KARMAPA WANGCHUK DORJE 1556–1603
The 9th Karmapa too sat up at birth and said ‘I am the Karmapa’. The boy was recognised as the Ninth Karmapa by 5th Shamarpa Konchog Yenlag and Situ Chokyi Gocha. Once he had received full Kagyu transmission he travelled and taught throughout Tibet.
The 9th Karmapa was regarded as a true secular leader of Tibet as well as a great religious figure. He located the 6th Shamarpa who became his student and the next lineage-holder. Read more about the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje.
6TH SHAMARPA CHOKYI WANGCHUK 1584–1629
Famous as a great debater and for his deep insight, the 6th Shamarpa had memorised 50 volumes of Sutras and Tantras by the age of 17. He was later to write ten texts explaining both traditions.
While travelling in east Tibet, the Sixth Shamarpa recognised and became the teacher of the 10th Karmapa. He went on to teach Buddhism to the King of Nepal and died in the Helampur Mountains near a cave where Milarepa had once meditated.
10TH KARMAPA CHOYING DORJE 1604–1674
Born at Khaytri Tang in Golok province in far north-east Tibet, Choying Dorje was identified as Karmapa by the 6th Shamarpa who gave him the full Kagyu transmission.
The 10th Karmapa travelled through Tibet teaching and promoting the welfare of his people, until political difficulties arose when the 5th Dalai lama became the official ruler of Tibet and made a pact with a Mongol ruler. This resulted in sectarian persecution that severely weakened the Kagyu doctrine in Tibet.
Karmapa spent twenty years in exile, before returning to Tibet. He identified the 7th Shamarpa, transmitted the Kagyu teachings to him and selected him as his lineage-holder. Read more about the 10th Karmapa Choying Dorje.
7TH SHAMARPA YESHE NYINGPO 1631–1694
Devoted to meditation throughout his life, the 7th Shamarpa followed the instructions of the 10th Karmapa, recognised the incarnation of the 11th Karmapa, and became his teacher.
11TH KARMAPA YESHE DORJE 1676–1702
Along with the Kagyu teachings, the 11th Karmapa Yeshe Dorje, born at Maysho in east Tibet, also received the Tercho teaching, fulfilling a prophecy of Padmasambhava’s, recorded in the scriptures, that the 11th Karmapa would hold these teachings.
The 11th Karmapa also located and identified the 8th Shamarpa who would become his closest friend and lineage-holder. Read more about the 11th Karmapa Yeshe Dorje.
8TH SHAMARPA PALCHEN CHOKYI DONDRUB 1695–1735
The 8th Shamarpa was found in Nepal, in the same area where he had died two incarnations before, by a representative of the 11th Karmapa who had given him precise instructions where the boy would be found.
Aged seven, the boy was taken to Tibet and enthroned by the Karmapa, who oversaw his education from then on.
12TH KARMAPA CHANGCHUB DORJE 1703–1732
When the 8th Shamarpa heard about a remarkable child, he sent a party to Chile Chaktor in Derge province, east Tibet, to investigate.
After the two met, they spent the rest of their lives together travelling and teaching in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, India and China. Both men gave Kagyu transmission to the 8th Situpa and named him lineage-holder. They died only one day apart. Read more about the 12th Karmapa Changchub Dorje.
8TH SITUPA CHOKYI JUNGNAY 1700–1774
The 8th Situpa met the 12th Karmapa and the 8th Shamarpa in east Tibet when the two were on their way to China. They told him that they would never return and that he was to lead the lineage until their reincarnations were found.
When the 8th Situpa was told of their death he began the search.
13TH KARMAPA DUDUL DORJE 1700–1797
The 8th Situpa found the 13th Karmapa at Champa Drongsar, south Tibet, and brought him to Tsurphu at age five.
At this time the Dalai Lama’s approval became required for a new Karmapa incarnation to be recognised and enthroned. This finally happened, and the 13th Karmapa was enthroned along with the 9th Shamarpa, who only lived for eight more years. Read more about the 13th Karmapa Dudul Dorje.
10TH SHAMARPA MIPAM CHODRUB GYAMTSO 1742–1793
After a dispute as to who was the true incarnation of the 9th Shamarpa, Mipam Chodrub Gyamtso was confirmed by the courts. Educated by the 13th Karmapa and Situpa, he became a great scholar.
In the 1780s he went to Nepal where he restored a famous pilgrimage site. He died at Boudhanath Stupa, today one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world.
9TH SITUPA PEMA NYINCHE WANGPO 1774–1853
Padmasambhava, who bought the Buddhist teachings to Tibet, had predicted that he would return as one Pema Nyinche Wangpo, and his reincarnation was found and identified by the 13th Karmapa. Along with the 10th Shamarpa, the 13th Karmapa became the 9th Situpa’s main teacher.
He started many retreat centres, taught the dharma, encouraged the spread of Kagyu meditation practices, and was the main teacher of the 14th Karmapa and Jamgon Lodro Thaye.
14TH KARMAPA THEGCHOG DORJE 1798–1868
The boy, born in Danang in the Do Kham region of east Tibet, was identified as the Karmapa by Drukchen Kunzig Chokyi Nangwa, holder of the 13th Karmapa’s letter giving details of his forthcoming reincarnation.
The 14th Karmapa taught widely in Tibet. He identified the 10th Situpa, but Jamgon Lodro Thaye was the next lineage-holder. Read more about the 14th Karmapa Thegchog Dorje.
JAMGON KONGTRUL LODRO THAYE 1813–1899
The coming of the boy, born in the village of Rangyab in Derge province, east Tibet, was foretold by both the Buddha and Padmasambhava in termas, or secret teachings. In them, he was described as an outstanding individual who would benefit many beings.
He went on to become the teacher of the 15th Karmapa.
15TH KARMAPA KHAKYAB DORJE 1871–1922
When he was born, the 15th Karmapa Khakyab Dorje spoke the mantra of Chenrezig. He was able to read scriptures by the time he was five.
Recognised and enthroned by the 9th Kyabgon Drukchen, he went on to teach and give empowerments throughout Tibet and preserved many rare texts by having them reprinted. Read more about the 15th Karmapa Khakyab Dorje.
11TH SITUPA PEMA WANGCHOG GYALPO 1886–1953
A highly accomplished scholar who travelled Tibet sharing the knowledge he had gained from a wide range of masters, the 11th Situpa found, enthroned and educated the 16th Karmapa.
2ND JAMGON KONGTRUL PALDEN KYENTSE OSER 1904–1953
The son of the 15th Karmapa, who gave him the complete Kagyu teachings, he was born at Tsurphu monastery. In his teaching he particularly emphasised personal meditation practice.
16TH KARMAPA RANGJUNG RIGPE DORJE 1924–1981
The 16th Karmapa was recognised according to the details of a prediction letter left by the 15th Karmapa. He was taken to Palpung Monastery where Situ Pema Wangchok gave him ordination, bodhisattva vows, and many teachings. Among his many teachers, he would come to regard Situ Pema Wangchok and Jamgon Palden Kyentse Oser as his main gurus.
The 16th Karmapa escaped from Tibet, and established the Dharma throughout the world. He was the first Karmapa to visit the West, and the first to pass away outside Tibet. The 16th Karmapa recognised the 14th Shamarpa, his own nephew, who became the next lineage holder.
Read more about the 16th Karmapa Ranjung Rigpe Dorje.
HIS HOLINESS 14TH SHAMARPA MIPHAM CHOKYI LODRO 1952–2014
Mipham Chokyi Lodro was born on the 27th October, 1952 in Eastern Tibet, as the nephew of the 16th Karmapa. At the age of four, the child recognized old monks from Yangpachen monastery, the seat of the Shamarpas. At the age of six, he was privately enthroned as the 14th Shamarpa by the 16th Karmapa.
The 14th Shamarpa travelled widely, and taught thousands of students worldwide. He was a humanitarian and author as well as a Buddhist teacher. In accordance with tradition, he recognized the next Karmapa. The boy he recognized as the 17th Karmapa was Thaye Dorje. Shamar Rinpoche returned to him the entirety of the Kagyu lineage transmission.
The 14th Shamar Rinpoche Mipham Chokyi Lodro passed away aged 61 at his dharma centre in Renchen Ulm, Germany, on 11 June 2014. All previous Shamarpas have been authenticated in accordance with the principle of reciprocal recognition, by the Karmapa that they themselves recognised. In this way, relying on their unparalleled spiritual realization and operating outside of politics, the Red Hat and Black Hat Karmapas have been authentically recognized, trained, realized, and thus continue as the oldest reincarnate lineages in Tibetan Buddhism.
HIS HOLINESS 17TH KARMAPA TRINLEY THAYE DORJE 1983-
His Holiness Karmapa Thaye Dorje was born on 6 May 1983 in central Tibet. As soon as he could speak, he told his parents, the great Nyingma lama Mipham Rinpoche and Dechen Wangmo, that he was the Karmapa.
His Holiness escaped from Tibet in 1994. In March the same year, in accordance with the 900 year old tradition, His Holiness the 14th Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, the second most senior Karma Kagyu lama, enthroned Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa. In 2003, His Holiness Karmapa Thaye Dorje’s formal education was completed when he received the title of a Vidyadhara, or Knowledge Holder of the sutras and tantras.
Today, His Holiness travels extensively, meeting students, young people, world leaders, and leading lights in the fields of spirituality, peace, conflict resolution, and education. His Holiness has the spiritual responsibility for over 900 monasteries and meditation centres around the world.