His Holiness the Karmapa

The Author:
His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

Though only 27 years of age, His Holiness the Karmapa heads one of the principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Since his dramatic escape from Tibet at the age of 14, he has emerged as a world spiritual leader in his own right. As a protégé of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the 17th Karmapa has been groomed to follow in the Dalai Lama’s footsteps as a major 21st-century spiritual leader and key figure in preserving Tibetan culture and religion.

As a scholar and meditation master, as well as painter, poet, songwriter and playwright, the 17th Karmapa embodies a wide range of the activities that his predecessors, the previous 16 Karmapas, have engaged in since the 12th century when his reincarnation lineage was founded. As an environmental activist and world spiritual leader whose teachings are often webcast live, His Holiness brings Buddha’s message of peace and harmony fully into the 21st century.

A Brief Biography
(Adapted from The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out and Karmapa: 900 Years)

His Holiness the Karmapa was born in 1985 in eastern Tibet, in what was as close to a pre-modern environment as may be found in the late 20th century—no electricity, no motor vehicles, no plastics, no modern conveniences. Large and close-knit, his family lived as nomads on the remote highlands of the Tibetan plateau. The Karmapa spent his formative years living close to the earth, shifting camp with the changing seasons in search of suitable pastures for their herds of yak and sheep. In this rugged landscape, the young Karmapa experienced a traditional Tibetan way of life that has since been virtually erased.

Recognition as the Karmapa

When the Karmapa was seven, he repeatedly demanded that his family move their camp to a certain valley, until at last they complied. Shortly after they had set up camp in the new location, several disciples of the Sixteenth Karmapa arrived in the valley. The group—a search party for the reincarnation of the Sixteenth Karmapa—had found the remote valley by following predictions and descriptions in a letter written by the Sixteenth Karmapa years before, prior to his death in 1981. Known as a prediction letter, this document comprised the Sixteenth Karmapa’s instructions for locating his next reincarnation. After comparing the names of the young boy’s parents and other details of his birth with the description in the Sixteenth Karmapa’s prediction letter, the party declared that they had found the Seventeenth Karmapa. 

From that moment onward, the Karmapa began the centuries-old course of training that would prepare him to fulfill one of the senior-most roles in Tibetan Buddhism, as spiritual leader to one of its principal orders. The school that the Karmapa heads, known as Karma Kagyu, transmits Buddhist teachings and meditation practices that were brought directly from India to Tibet a millennium ago. Since the twelfth century, the Karma Kagyu school has sought out successive reincarnations of its founder, the First Karmapa. The system of seeking out reincarnations was founded by the First Karmapa, and has been adopted throughout Tibet, including the Dalai Lama reincarnation lineage, and has contributed greatly to the continuity and resilience of Tibetan Buddhism over the centuries. Before the Karmapas pass away, they leave indications to guide their disciples through the search for their next incarnation, often in the form of letters such as the one written by the Sixteenth Karmapa. 

As has been the tradition in Tibet since the seventeenth century, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was consulted and asked to confirm the recognition of the young boy as the Karmapa. His Holiness the Dalai Lama conducted his own personal investigation, and concurred that the boy was indeed the seventeenth incarnation of the Karmapa. In a rare moment in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government found themselves in agreement, the Chinese authorities granted the permissions necessary in Chinese-ruled Tibet to allow the Karmapa to take his place in his monastery in central Tibet. 

Taking Up His Role As Spiritual Leader

The Karmapa traveled from his native Kham far to the east to a nearly nine-hundred-year-old monastery in central Tibet called Tsurphu. Since its founding by the First Karmapa, each of the Karmapas has spent part of his life in Tsurphu Monastery, and it was here that the Seventeenth Karmapa was formally enthroned on September 27, 1992, with two of the three living heads of his lineage officiating. He then commenced the process of study and training that is traditional for Karmapas, yet he began offering spiritual instruction to others almost at once. At the age of eight, he delivered his first public religious discourse. The event was attended by over twenty thousand people.

In the years to come, the Karmapa would face numerous challenges in his efforts to perform his spiritual activities. His most important spiritual teachers were denied permission to enter Tibet, while the Karmapa himself failed to receive permission to travel to India to visit them. Concerned that he would be unable to perform his role as a spiritual teacher and head of a lineage, the Karmapa made a historical decision that would propel him onto the world stage. At the age of fourteen, he decided to escape from Tibet to seek freedom to fulfill his role as a world spiritual leader and to meet his responsibilities as head of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

On Foot and Horseback Across the Himalayas

His Holiness the Karmapa’s journey began in late 1999, when he leapt from an upstairs window at night. The author himself describes the terror his group faced along the way as they fled across the Himalayas into India by jeep and on horseback, as well as on foot and by helicopter. On January 5, 2000, the Karmapa reached Dharamsala, India, where he was received personally by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa settled in to temporary quarters at Gyuto Monastery, a short trip from the Dharamsala residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom he continues to enjoy a close relationship of mentor and protégé to this day.


During the twelve years the Karmapa has lived in India as a refugee, he has undergone traditional monastic training and philosophical education, while also pursuing a private modern education. Along with his lessons in English and other subjects, the Karmapa’s daily schedule includes time for private audiences in the mornings, and he receives tens of thousands of visitors each year from all over the world.

He paints, practices calligraphy, writes poetry, composes music, and directs theatrical events. (Read more about his artistic activities.) The Karmapa has written and produced several plays in Tibetan that combine elements of traditional Tibetan opera and modern theater. The performance of his first play, a drama on the life of the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa, was attended by twelve thousand people.

Championing Social Issues and Environmental Protection

The name “Karmapa” itself means “Being of Action” or “Man of Action,” and the Karmapa lineage is indeed known for putting into active practice the Buddha’s teachings to transform oneself and the world. As an activist, the 17th Karmapa fully embodies this orientation of his lineage.

Two issues that he has particularly championed are women’s rights and environmental protection. (Read more about his activism here.) He has instituted numerous practical programs to care for the environment as a way of caring for future generations. The Karmapa has called on spiritual practitioners to pay more attention to the particular sufferings women face. He has also personally committed to ensuring that in the future, women will have the opportunity to receive full ordination as nuns within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Preserving Tibetan Culture and Honoring its Indian Roots

HHK giving the empowerment
Over the years, the Karmapa has grown to play an important role in the preservation of Tibetan culture. Tibetans have increasingly looked to the Karmapa, one of the senior-most figures in Tibetan Buddhism, for inspiration in their efforts to maintain their cultural identity in exile. He is frequently invited to speak at Tibetan schools around India, and often presides over religious ceremonies and cultural events in Dharamsala when His Holiness the Dalai Lama is traveling overseas. Since 2004, he has led the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo, an annual prayer gathering that dates to the 15th century in Tibet. This 8-day event, in Bodhgaya, India, draws thousands of attendees from many different Buddhist traditions around the world.

Along with his efforts on behalf of Tibetan arts and culture, the Karmapa has also travelled across India to participate in the cultural and religious life of his adopted home. From commemorating Mother Teresa’s 100th birthday in Calcutta to inaugurating temples for Sai Baba in Tamil Nadu, His Holiness has met with many other spiritual leaders in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance. Out of reverence for the origins of Buddhism in India, His Holiness introduced the use of Sanskrit prayers in the annual Kagyu Monlam prayer gatherings he directs. His Holiness has also taken steps to revive lost Indian Buddhist song traditions. After seeking out the original Sanskrit texts of sacred songs (dohā) from his Dharma lineage, the Karmapa invited Indian classical singers to perform at the opening ceremony of the Karmapa 900 celebration in Bodhgaya in December, 2010. This performance marked the first time the sacred Sanskrit song was performed in India in nearly a millennium.

In May 2008, His Holiness made his first long-awaited trip to the West, travelling to the United States where he visited many spiritual centers under his guidance, including his North American seat in Woodstock, New York. (Read the TIME Magazine article, “The World’s Next Top Lama,”, about that visit.) In July 2011, the Karmapa returned to the US, visiting Washington, DC, New York and New Jersey.

Undeterred by the challenges he has faced over the years, the Karmapa continues to transmit the spiritual teachings of his lineage, guide his students, and lead his nine-hundred-year-old school of Tibetan Buddhism into the twenty-first century.

To learn more about the Karmapa, visit his official website

In addition, several books have been published about the remarkable life of this young lama: Dance of 17 Lives, Music in the Sky, and Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation