Vajradhara dark blue in color,  on a white lotus flower

42 portraits of lineage teachers in Tibetan Buddhism

The lineage of oral instructions.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are 4 different schools, Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug or Gelugpa.

They stem from the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. That of the Karmapa is the Kagyu, or Kagyupa. The head of the Gelugpa is the Dalai Lama. The name Kagyu means “Oral Lineage" or "Whispered Transmission" school. The Tibetan Marpa, traveled to India and received from Naropa the authentic Buddhist teachings and translated them in Tibetan. Naropa received the lineage transmission from Tilopa and so on, back to the Buddha himself.

Marpa’s most famous student Jetsun Milarepa was the greatest yogi in all of Tibet, and he passed the teachings on to Gampopa, who in turn transmitted the teachings to the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. Since then, the Kagyu Lineage has been headed by a succession of reincarnations of the Gyalwang Karmapa.

The line of the Karmapas is said to be self-announced, because each incarnation leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth.

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’. The name Karmapa refers literally to 'the one who performs the activity of a Buddha.'

May this book bring you joyful wisdom. May it be of benefit and may HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa’s life be long and stable and his activities be free of obstacles!

Karmapa Chenno

We begin with Vajradhara, or Dorje Chang.

Vajradhara is the primordial buddha, the dharmakaya buddha. Vajradhara expresses the quintessence of buddhahood itself. Vajradhara represents the essence of the historical Buddha’s realization of enlightenment, it is the source of all the manifestations of enlightenment.

Vajradhara is central to the Kagyu lineage because Tilopa received the vajrayana teachings directly from Vajradhara, the dharmakaya buddha. Thus, the Kagyu lineage originated from the very nature of buddhahood.

Website of H.H. the 17 th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje.

Tilopa, Indian mhasiddha on lotus flower

Tilopa (988-1069).

Indian mahasiddha and master of mahamudra and tantra. He worked as a sesame seed pounder and came to be known as “Tillipa,” the sesame pounder. He received various tantric teachings and unified them and transmitted to his disciple, Naropa.

He became a holder of all the tantric lineages. As well as the way of insight, and Mahamudra he learned and passed on the Way of Methods, today known as the 6 Yogas of Naropa. Tilopa gave Naropa a teaching called the Six Words of Advice.

1: Don't recall/Let go of what has passed. 2: Don't imagine/Let go of what may come. 3: Don't think/Let go of what is happening now. 4: Don't examine/Don’t try to figure out anything. 5: Don’t control/Don't try to make anything happen. 6: Rest/Relax, right now, and rest. Or how lama Gendun Rinpochee it said " to do, or undo, nothing to force, nothing to want and everything happens by itself".

Naropa under a umbrella

Naropa  (1016-1100)

Naropa was an Indian mahasiddha and master of mahahudra and tantra. He received the teachings from Tilopa and transmitted them to his disciple, Marpa, the Great Translator of Tibet.

The practice of the six yoga’s of Naropa:

  1. The yoga of inner heat (or mystic heat). entails the manipulation of the subtle energy of the body, which produces states of bliss and clarity, as well as physical warmth. The yoga of clear light. Entails realizing the illusory nature of ordinary experience.
  2. Clear light. Entails recognizing the luminous aspect of mind.
  3. Dream. Developing conscious awareness in the dream state.
  4. Transference. Yoga of the transference of consciousness to a pure Buddhafield (at the time of death).
  5. Intermediate state. Entails maintaining awareness during the intermediate state (bardo) between the death of one lifetime and rebirth into the next lifetime. All six yoga’s are sourced in original tantric texts taught by the Buddha. 
Marpa the translator with dragon and peacock

Marpa Lotsawa  (1012-1097),

 Marpa traveled to India and studied with Naropa, Maitripa and other mahasiddhas of India. When Marpa had received the full transmissions he brought the teachings and lineages of vajrayana and mahamudra to Tibet. Back there he spent many years translating the Buddhist scriptures and contributed to the effort to bring the complete buddhadharma to Tibet. From there Marpa founded the Kagyu lineage, and gave the full transmission of his lineage to his student Milarepa.

From his teaching Realisation of Dreams and Mind: Dakas and Dakinis, listen to me. This is the unforgettable memory of what Maitripa said: “In general, all Dharmas are mind. The Guru arises from mind. The Guru is nothing other than mind. Everything that appears is the nature of mind. This mind itself is primordially non-existent. In the natural state, unborn and innate, there is nothing to abandon by discursive effort. Rest at ease, naturally, without restriction.”

Milarepa with mountains with deers

Milarepa (1052-1153).

Tibet’s most famous yogi and poet, and known as ‘religious madman”. Milarepa performs dark magic in revenge for the treatment of his mother and sister by his uncle and aunt, killing many people through sorcery. It is his regret for these deeds that lead to his path to Buddhahood. Milarepa set out to find a lama and was led to Marpa the translator. Marpa proved an extremely hard task master. Before Marpa would teach Milarepa he had him build and then demolish three towers in turn. After practicing very diligently for many years, Milarepa attained enlightenment. He is said to be the first to achieve this state within one lifetime. The essence of Milarepa lies in his writings rather than the legends that have grown up around him. They in particular emphasize the temporary nature of the physical body and the need for non-attachment.

“If you lose all differentiation between yourselves and others, fit to serve others you will be. And when in serving others you will win success, then shall you meet with me; And finding me, you shall attain to Buddhahood.”

Gampopa  Dagpo Rinpoche on throne with lions

 Gampopa / Dakpo Rinpoche (1079-1153). (and Sangye Menla in blue).  He studied medical science and became one of the best doctors of the time, he was known as Dakpo Lhaje, the physician from Dakpo.). At the age of twenty-five, his wife and children died from an epidemic disease, and this caused him to fully turn his mind towards dharma. He became Milarepa’s most important student, who integrated Artisa’s Kadam teachings and Tilopa's Mahamudra teaching to establish the Kagyü lineage. This lineage sequence, taken together, is called the "Five Founding Masters" (Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa) by the Kagyüpa.

When Gampopa went to travel Milarepa said: Be full of mindfulness, like a tiny cautious sparrow or a wounded deer. Be kindly to every being and in harmony with all. Be peaceful, compassionate, patient, and live purely. Do you understand this, monk from U? Do you understand this, physician from Dagpo?

​Düsum Khyenpa karmapa on throne surrounded with lotus flowers

Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), Tibet).

The first Karmapa.

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’. The name Karmapa refers literally to 'the one who performs the activity of a Buddha.'

Düsum Khyenpa means "knower of the three times" (past, present and future). At the age of twenty he became a monk and studied the sutras and tantras intensively and at thirty, he went to Gampopa, to receive teachings from him.

Through successive incarnations the Gyalwang Karmapas have led the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

He achieved enlightenment at the age of fifty, while practicing dream yoga. He had a vision at that time of the dakinis offering him a vajra crown woven from their hair, which later became known as the black crown.

Drogon Rechen holding book with Dorje Chang and white flowers

Drogon Rechen (1148-1218) (with Dorje Chang in blue)As a young child, Drogon Rechen demonstrated his awakened potential in the gradual path of hinayana-mahayana. At the age of nine, he connected to the Kagyu master, Zangri Repa, and received many teachings, including ear-whispered teachings and dohas of the Mahamudra masters. Drogon Rechen was on pilgrimage when he met other pilgrims who were speaking about Düsum Khyenpa and his wonderful activities. While listening to the pilgrims’ conversation, tears rolled down his cheeks when he heard the name Düsum Khyenpa. Upon having merely heard his name, he immediately knew, ‘He is my teacher’. Drogon Rechen became one of the most important heart disciples of the First Karmapa. He was fully ordained as a monastic at the age of thirty-seven and received the full Kagyu transmission from the First Karmapa and became the lineage-holder. When Karmapa went to Travel, Drogön Rechen stayed behind -in the Kham region- and continued the activities of the Karmapa and the lineage.

His principal disciple and the Kagyu lineage holder was Pomdrakpa Sönam Dorje.


Pomdrakpa Sonam Dorje on green grass with tree of pink flowers

Pomdrakpa Sonam Dorje, (1170-1249).

Upon hearing the name Drogon Rechen, an extraordinary meditative experience arose within Pomdragpa. In this vision red wisdom Dakinis told him that Drogon Rechen was his teacher. Pomdragpa was then 14 years old. He sought to find his teacher and within ten days he was in the presence of Drogon Rechen, the first Karmapa’s spiritual heir. Pomdrakpa saw his teacher as the Buddha Shakyamuni surrounded by countless buddhas. One day he requested permission from his teacher to go meditate in seclusion, but was refused. Later he again planned to leave Pelgo, the place he where had been told by Drogon Rechen to reside, but now a vision of Dusum Khyenpa, whom he never met, dissuaded him, telling him to settle right where he was. This is said to be the auspicious sign of becoming the main lineage holder. Pomdragpa Sonam Dorje received the full Kagyu teachings, and became a gifted master, whose main student was the Karma Pakshi. the second Karmapa.

Karma Pakshi  Karmapa with Garuda bird and Mahakala, river with fish

Karma Pakshi (1204/6 –1283) (and Garuda and Mahakala) (with Garuda and Mahakala).

Pomdrakpa realized, through certain very clear visions, that the child Chözin (Holder of the Dharma) was the reincarnation of Dusum Khyenpa, as indicated in the letter given to Drogon Rechen. The young Karma Pakshi is said to have assimilated the deepest teachings effortlessly and required only one reading of a text to be familiar with it as he was already enlightened. Nevertheless, Pomdrakpa made a point of formally passing on all the teachings through the traditional empowerments, so that the stream of the empowerment lineage would be unbroken. This has been the case ever since: despite their innate clarity, young Karmapas receive all the transmissions formally. At the end of his life Karma Pakṣi gave Ogyenpa numerous oral instructions, like: “From the west, there will come one who wears the Black Hat.” With this prophecy of his future reincarnation, Karma Pakṣi entrusted to Ogyenpa a special text and a Black Hat, saying: “Someone will come who can stand on his own two feet and fend for himself. Hand these over to him. From here, you should go to the south and benefit others extensively. We will meet soon.”

Sitting Drubtob Orgyenpa on green grass with white clouds

Drubtob Urgyenpa Rinchen Pal/Orgyenpa, Khädrub Rinchenpäl (1230-1312) (with Padmasambhava / Guru Rinpoche). Between the ages of seven and sixteen Orgyenpa applied himself to studying texts and receiving Kagyu teachings from Gotsangpa, head of the Drugpa Kagyu lineage. To study with as many masters as possible, Orgyenpa travelled to Nepal, China, Pakistan and India. He met the Drukpa Kagyu teacher Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje. He offered him a copper pot and a piece of brown sugar, and became his disciple. Gotsangpa gave him Mahāmudrā teachings, and at the age of twenty Orgyenpa took full ordination at Bodong Monastery receiving the name Rinchen Pel. Aged 53 he encountered the 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi, who gave him the full Kagyu teachings. Orgyenpa had many pupils and his heart-son and Lineage-holder was Rangjung Dorje. Orgyenpa recognized his former Root Guru, Karma Pakshi, when Rangjung Dorje was 5 years old. He gave him the personal belongings of the Second Gyalwa Karmapa, the full Kagyü empowerments and instructions, and enthroned him with the Black Vajra Crown as the Third Gyalwa Karmapa.

The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje sitting on lotus flower in water with lotus leaves

Rangjung Dorje, the third Gyalwa Karmapa. 1284 -1339, Tibet. Rangjung Dorje sat up straight at the age of three and proclaimed that he was the Karmapa. When he was five years old, Orgyenpa recognized the child as the reincarnation of Karma Pakshi. Rangjung Dorje grew up in Tsurphu, receiving the full transmissions of both the Kagyu and Nyingma tradition. He learnt and mastered nearly all of the Buddhist teachings brought to Tibet from India. One of the Third Karmapa’s most famous texts is a prayer that aspires to the state of Mahamudra. A few lines:

Looking at objects, there are no objects: they are seen to be mind.

Looking at mind, there is no mind: it is empty of essence.

Looking at both liberates dualistic clinging in its own ground.

May we realize luminosity, the true nature of mind.*

Rangjung Dorje passed away in in China, where he enthroned his disciple, the new emperor Toghon Temur. It is said his image appeared in the moon on the night of his passing.

Gyalwa Yungtön Dorje Pal and Mahakala riding a lion with rainbow on background

Gyalwa Yungton Chenpo Dorje Pal. also known as Yungtön Shikpo (1284-1365 or 1296-1376) (with Mahakala riding a lion). He was born in Tsongdu, south Central Tibet. He met Khenchen Sönam Senge at the age of five and from him received the refuge and lay precepts. He was an expert on Sutra and Tantra and composed an authoritative commentary on the Guhyagarbha, entitled The Clear Mirror. He met the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, and received from him the full Kagyu lineage transmissions and the key points and oral instructions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen.

Among countless students, his main disciple and lineage holder was the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje.

(Guhyagarbha: Tantra elucidate how to correctly view the ground, traverse the path, and ultimately reach the result—fully enlightened buddhahood.)

The 4th Karmapa Rolpe Dorje with students in typical Buddhist red and yellow clothing

The 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje.  (Tibet, 1340–1383) It is said that while pregnant, his mother could hear the sound of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung coming from her womb, and that the baby said the mantra as soon as he was born. At the age of three, he announced that he was the Karmapa. At the age of 12, Rölpe Dorje met Yungtönpa, who was now approximately 56 years old. The young man told him many events from his former life as the Third Karmapa, which convinced Yungtönpa that Rölpe Dorje was the authentic reincarnation of his most revered Root Guru. Having told Yungtönpa that he himself would be his teacher and Guru in this life, Gyalwa Yungtönpa imparted all the teachings and gave Rölpe Dorje the entire empowerments and transmissions of the Kagyü Oral Practice and Whispering Lineages. Just like his predecessor, he was invited by the Mongol Emperor Toghon Temur to his court in Beijing, a journey that Rolpe Dorje used in order to teach, compose texts, spread the view of non-violence, restore peace, and construct monasteries. Having spent three years in China, he returned to Tibet, again tirelessly working for the benefit of others.

(Oral Practice and Whispering Lineages: The Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes called the whispering lineage, it refers to the continuity of verbal transmission to a select number of high caliber students.)

Khachö Wangpo th second Shamarpa under protecting tree with holy signs in sky

Khachö Wangpo, (Tibet, 1283-1349). The 2nd Shamarpa taught at the age of three. Self-declared, the acknowledged Shamarpa Incarnate was enthroned by Rolpe Dorje the 4th Karmapa, at the age of six.

Khachö Wangpo was one of the first lineage teachers to record key instructions put into writing. In an age of spiritual decline, future regerations may not be able to preserve in tact the Whispered Transmission, orally, for posterity. His collected works were recorded as having eight volumes. The Fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, granted the ceremonial ruby Red Crown to the Second Shamar Khachö Wangpo. When the Fourth Karmapa passed into parinirvana, Khachö Wangpo continued the lineage activities and enthroned the 5th Karmapa.
In 1349 Khachö Wangpo passed away into parinirvana with many wondrous signs of realizations.

The Fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa on lion throne with stork in sky

The Fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa.

(1384 – 1415). Soon after birth, the infant sat upright, wiped his face, and said: “I am the Karmapa – Om Mani Padme Hung Hri.” 

He obtained mastery of phenomena through mastering his own mind. Buddha Shakyamuni, Manjushri, Maitreya, Chenrezig, the Sixteen Arhats, and the goddess Tara visited him repeatedly to bestow blessings and prophecies. After his education he visited Yung-lo, the Chinese emperor of the new Min dynasty. During his visit to China, Deshin Shekpa manifested limitless miracles in the vicinity of the Imperial court. Rainbows, multicolored clouds, visions of flying saints, gods, and goddesses, and mysteriously glowing lights appeared to all present. The Emperor perceived the mystic black crown of Chenrezig that rests above the heads of all the Karmapa incarnations. So that others with less ability might receive its blessing, he constructed a replica of silk, gold, and jewels. He then offered the crown to Deshin Shekpa, who consecrated it with the divine original. The material crown has since been passed down to all subsequent Karmapas, and is displayed in a ceremony conferring Chenrezig's blessing.

Rigowa Rinjung (ratnabhadra) in mountains

Rigowa Rinjung (ratnabhadra) (1281-1343).

 Born into the well-known family of Soksam in the 14th Century CE. He was considered to be an emanation of the Kenting Tai Situpa.

He became one of the greatest scholars of sutra and tantra and thus was called “Rikpe Raltri” (sword of philosophy and logic). He received the higher training in Buddhist philosophy, logic, and other fields of knowledge at Palden Sangphu. Rannabhrada then went on a tour to great monastic institutions in Tibet, engaging in debate and discussion on four main topics – Madhyamaka, Prajnaparamita, Vinaya, and Abhidharma-Kosha. He received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage from the Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa, through which he attained complete realization of the absolute reality and became one of the supreme meditation masters of the time.

(Madhyamaka, Prajnaparamita, Vinaya, and Abhidharma-Kosha: The philosophy of Madhyamaka (the middle way, the Abhidharma (superior knowledge of phenomena); Vinaya (ethics); Prajnaparamita (the transcendental quality of wisdom).)

Thongwa Donden in front of monastery

Thongwa Donden. (Tibet, 1416-1453) The 6th Karmapa. Thongwa Dönden (Beneficial to See)

He was born in Ngomto Shakyam near Karma Gon in Kham. Shortly after his birth, while his mother was carrying the young child, he suddenly became very excited when their path crossed that of Ngompa Chadral, a student of the fifth Karmapa. Ngompa Chadral asked the name of the child, who smiled and replied “I’m the Karmapa.” Ngompa Chadral cared for the infant for seven months and then took him to Karma Gön. The Karmapa took teachings on the sutra tradition and also key instructions from Kunkhyen Rongtön, who said, “I have the Buddha as my student,” spreading his praise like a lion roaring. When Thongwa Dönden was thirty-eight in the year of the Water Bird, on the morning of the eighth day in the first month, he said, “Now I, too, will enter the ranks of the previous Kagyü lamas.” For the benefit of his students, he recited the supplication: Precious One who embodies all the buddhas, Thongwa Dönden, you are compassion itself; I supplicate you. Please look upon me with compassion. May this prayer bring an unending shower of your blessings.

Bengar Jampal Zangpo with book in left hand

Bengar Jampal Zangpo (1427-1489 Tibet )

(with green Tara.) Bengar Jampal Zangpo received the Kagyu lineage transmissions and teachings such as the Six Dharmas of Naropa from the Sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Dhönden and followed his instructions one-pointedly. He became a highly realized master of the lineage. He gave the full transmission and training of the Kagyu lineage to the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso.

Bengar Jampäl Zangpo did a retreat for eighteen years. At the end of this time, on the basis of his realisations from practicing, he composed the ‘ rDo-rje-‘Chang-Thung-ma.’ It is said that it has a great blessing. In many Kagyü monasteries and centers, devoted disciples recite “The Short Dorje Chang Lineage Prayer. A few lines: “Awareness is the body of meditation, as is taught. Whatever arises is fresh – the essence of realization. To this meditator who rests simply without altering it. Grant your blessings so that my meditation is free from conception.”

Goshir Paljor Dhöndrup in front of mountains with clouds behind

Goshir Paljor Dhöndrup (1427-1489, Tibet) the first incarnation of Gyaltsab Rinpoche

He was born at Nyemo in Central Tibet. He received the full lineage transmission from the Sixth Karmapa, which he fully passed on to the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso. He was fully trained in buddhist philosophy and meditation by Karmapa, as well as by Bengar Jampal Sangpo and other lineage masters. Later, he was appointed as the General Secretary of the Karmapa. He passed into parinirvana when the Seventh Karmapa reached twenty-five-years, with many wondrous signs of accomplishments.


Chödrag Gyatsho  the 7th Karmapa with white Stupa

The 7th Karmapa, Chödrag Gyatsho (Tibet, 1454-1506). (In the picture with Guru Rinpoche) When the child saw an image with the Black Crown, he smiled. “Who is that?” he was asked. Pointing his index finger at his heart, he said, “It’s me! It’s me! When he was nine, the Karmapa was offered the five lay precepts and the bodhisattva vow by Goshri Rinpoché. During these ceremonies, the sky was filled with rainbow-colored lights and copious rains of flowers. He took novice vows with Kunkhyen Bengar Sangpo as the abbot and Goshri Chenpo as the ritual master. He received the name Chödrak Gyatso Palsangpo (Ocean of Dharma Fame, Glorious and Excellent). (Although he became known as Thongwa Dönden, Beneficial to See. Since just seeing his face brought infinite well-being and happiness .) Often a peacemaker, he is remembered for his visions of Guru Rinpoche which led him to discover hidden valleys of refuge for people in times of war. During his lifetime, the Great Encampment of the Karmapas expanded greatly. Chödrak Gyatso created the practice of holding massive prayer festivals on the major Buddhist holidays, establishing the precedent for today’s Kagyu Monlam Chenno.

(The five lay precepts: To abstain from taking life; to abstain from taking what is not given; to abstain from sensuous misconduct; to abstain from false speech; to abstain from intoxicants.)

Tashi Paljor the First Sangye Nyenpa Rinpochee with pink flowering trees on background

Drubchen Tashi Päljor. (Tibet 1457 - 1525) The First Sangye Nyenpa.

Until he was 23 years old, he practiced the three wisdoms of listening, contemplating, and meditating under the guidance of both Bengar Jampäl Zangpo and Päljor Dondrub.

Under the guidance of the Karmapa, he went to the mountains to practice, following the example of Milarepa’s life. After practicing twenty years in solitary retreat, he attained full realisation, and became known as the first Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche. He became the principal teacher of, and passed on the full lineage transmissions to, the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. The Karmapa described his Root Guru in the “Supplications and Offerings to the Kagyü Gurus” with a verse that he composed. A few lines: “From the tastes of gain, esteem, and fame, the eight worldly Dharmas, He fled like a wild animal frightened by enemies. He is unable to be deceived by the triflings of this life. I supplicate at the feet of Sanggye Nyenpa… “

Mikyö Dorje with dancers around

Mikyö Dorje (1507-1554, Kahm, Tibet.) The 8th Karmapa was one of the most renowned of the Karmapa’s, a great meditation master as well as a prolific and learned scholar, author of over thirty volumes of work, including very significant commentaries on the sutrayana treatises and pithy instructions on tantras. The eighth Karmapa was also a visionary artist, to whom we owe the Karma Gadri style of thangka painting- one of the major schools of thangka composition. Mikyo Dorje also composed many sadhanas, practice liturgies, and other devotional practices for the Karma Kagyu school. He composed the spiritual practice called Vajrayana, guru yoga is a tantric devotional practice in which the practitioner unites their mindstream with the mindstream of the body, speech, and mind of their guru.

At the age of forty-eight, he withdrew the emanated mandala of his physical form and his mind entered the expanse of all phenomena.

Konchok Yenlak the 5th Shamarpa on throne with flowering tree in the back

Konchok Yenlak. (1526 - 1583, Tibet)

 When the 5th Shamarpa was born in the depths of winter, a profusion of flowers blossomed through the snow. The new-born baby sat up ejaculating “Ah Hung” three times, expressing the inexpressible. It was a spontaneous assertion of the unborn nature in the new-born. For Ah Hung is the vocal expression of the unborn nature in every phenomenon. The Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje, recognized him as the fifth Shamar incarnation. The Shamarpa remained with the Karmapa until the age of twelve, receiving the Six Teachings of Naropa, The Mahamudra and many other teachings of the Kagyü Lineage. He received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage and the Karmapa empowered him as the lineage holder. The 9th Karmapa was duly enthroned with the Shamarpa as his Root-Guru, who as Holder of the Kagyü Lineage and Teachings, passed on all the teachings in his safe keeping, to the youthful and receptive Karmapa.

Wangchuk Dorje the ninth Karmapa with birds in the sky

The 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje (Tibet 1556–1603). The 9th Karmapa,

In accordance to the prediction letter left by the eighth Karmapa, he was recognized by the Tai Situpa Chökyi Gocha, and by the Sharmapa Konchok Yenlak. A year later, Shamarpa enthroned him at the age of six and gave him extensive teachings. When he was eleven, the Karmapa took renunciate vows with Shamar Rinpoché as the abbot and Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa as the ritual master. He received the name Palden Mipham Chökyi Wangchuk Dorjé Garwang Choklé Nampar Gyalwai Nyingpo Khyapdak Tenpai Nyima (Glorious, Unconquerable, Powerful One of the Dharma, Compelling Vajra Dance, the Heart of Victory in All Directions, the All-Pervasive Lord, Sun of the Teachings). He was teaching throughout Tibet, traveling in a monastic camp, which strictly emphasized meditation practice. Like Mikyö Dorje, the 8th Karmapa, he wrote many commentaries on sutras and tantras, including three mahamudra treatises. They have played a major role in Tibet for the teaching and transmission of mahamudra.

(Monastic camp: For 300 years, the Gyalwang Karmapas moved freely across the wide open spaces of Tibet, accompanied by a vast mobile practice community known as the “Great Encampment of the Karmapas” or Karme Garchen. While they did visit major Karma Kagyu monastic seats along the way, the Fourth through the Ninth Karmapas spent the majority of their adult lives on the move, traveling to wherever they saw opportunities to be of benefit.)

Chökyi Wangchuk the 6th Shamarpa on lotus throne with Kurukulla
Chökyi Wangchuk (Tibet, 1584-1629) (with Kurukulla)

Wangchuk Dorje enthroned Chökyi Wangchuk as the Sixth Shamar incarnation. He studied with the Karmapa and received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage. His debating skills were so extraordinary that he was known as the “Pandita of the North, the Omniscient Shamarpa in whom Manjushri delights”. He was the teacher of Desi Tsangpa, who ruled Central Tibet at that time. He also traveled extensively to China and Nepal. He taught Buddhism in the original Sanskrit to the king, Laxman Naran Singh, in Nepal and to many others. He passed on the Kagyü lineage teachings to the Tenth Karmapa, Chöying Dorje.

(Kurukullā: is a goddess whose body is usually depicted in red with four arms, holding a bow and arrow made of flowers in one pair of hands and a hook and noose of flowers in the other pair. She dances in a Dakini-pose and crushes the asura Rahu (the one who devours the sun). She is considered either an emanation of Amitābha, one of Tara's forms, or a transformation of Heruka.)

Choying Dorje  Karmapa under protecting umbrella
The 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje. (Tibet, 1604–1674)

At the age of eight, he was recognized by Shamar Mipam Chökyi Wangchuk, the sixth Shamarpa and received the complete Kagyu transmissions. In 1611, Chökyi Wangchuk performed the hair-cutting ceremony. Subsequently the Karmapa was invited to the Great Encampment of Tsurphu, where he was formally installed on the lion throne. He was also an artist, at the age of six he was a better painter than his teachers, as well as a gifted sculptor. The Karmapa benefited others in many ways. To each of those who committed to stay in mountain retreat, he gave an image of Milarepa that he himself had created, and to each of those who committed to recite one hundred million manis, he gave an image he had fashioned of Avalokiteśvara.

During one of his travels, in Lhasa, the Karmapa did one hundred thousand outer and one hundred thousand inner circumambulations of each of the two main statues in Lhasa: the Jowo Mikyö Dorjé (a statue of the eight-year old Śākyamuni) and Jowo Śākyamuni (the Buddha at twelve years).

Yeshe Nyingpo on lotus throne

7nd Shamarpa Yeshe Nyingpo. (1631-1694, China.)

The Karmapa Chöying Dorje was aware that the Shamarpa had been born when he was in a neighbouring province in China; thence he proceeded, unattended and on foot, to come to the Shamarpa. The Shamarpa daily waited for him by the river, tending to his flock of sheep. When the Karmapa finally arrived, his clothes bore witness to the hardship of a long journey. The Shamarpa forded the river, in a rush, to bow down before him. No joyful tale of a reunion was more poignantly told, than in the simple gesture of a prostration. He received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage and had many signs of accomplishment in both Mahamudra and Dzogchen meditation. Yeshe Nyingpo passed into parinirvana at the age of sixty-four, The Shamarpa had many, the foremost of which were the 11th Karmapa, the 5th Tai-Situ Rinpoche and the 5th Gyaltsap Rinpoche.

(Dzogchen: Great Perfection, is a tradition of teachings in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism aimed at discovering the ultimate ground of existence. The primordial ground is said to have the qualities of purity, spontaneity and compassion.)

11th Karmapa Yeshe Dorje in front and clouds in sky

11th Karmapa Yeshe Dorje. . (1676-1702, Tibet.)

The young Karmapa inspired the people around him with detailed accounts of visions of deities and by demonstrating knowledge of past, present, and future events. The Seventh Shamar Yeshé Nyingpo and the Sixth Gyaltsap Norbu Sangpo invited the Karmapa to Central Tibet. As they traveled, the young incarnation matured the Dharma practice of everyone he met. Escorted by a resplendent procession of monks, he came to the unsurpassed palace of Tsurphu. During a positive conjunction of the planets and stars, the Karmapa was formally placed on the lion throne, and good wishes were offered for everything to be auspicious. Yeshe Dorje enthroned the eighth Shamar incarnation, Chokyi Dhondrup. Yeshe Dorje died only 26 of age in 1702.

Palchen Chokyi Dhondrup the 8th Shamarpa on seat

Palchen Chokyi Dhondrup, the 8th Shamarpa. . (Nepal, 1695-1732). The 8th Shamarpa received the Lineage teachings and instructions from the 11th Karmapa before he passed away. He, in turn, recognized and enthroned Changchubj Dorje as the 12th Karmapa and acted as his Root-guru, when it was time to do so. He also recognized and enthroned the 8th Situ Rinpoche. Later the Shamarpa and the Karmapa together with Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche went on an extended Dharma tour which covered vast areas of Tibet and its neighbouring countries. He passed away in 1732.

Changchub Dorje the 12th-karmapa with black birds

Changchub Dorje, the 12th-karmapa. . (Tibet, 1703–1732). The Karmapa and the eighth Shamarpa spend their lives together, travelling and teaching in Tibet and neighboring countries. In Nepal, the king Jagajaya Malla, requested the Karmapa to halt a summertime disease that had turned into a raging epidemic no one had been able to stop for years. In Nepal there was a naturally arisen statue of Avalokiteśvara, one of five Nepali statues of him that were considered to be companions (as they came from the same sandalwood tree) and to possess great blessing. The Karmapa turned his mind to this image and offered ritual purifications. Then they rode around on elephants the perimeter of the city dispensing the purifying water. This brought the epidemic to an end. In China, both, the Karmapa and Shamarpa short after each other died of smallpox. They gave Kagyu transmission to the eighth Kenting Situpa (The figure on the right side of the picture), and named him lineage holder. 

Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungné in red and yellow clothing

Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungné (Tibet 1700-1774).

He was recognized as the Situ incarnation by Palchen Chokyi Dhondrup, the Eighth Shamarpa. He founded Palpung, the principal monastery of the Kagyu order in Eastern Tibet. Worked on editing and correcting the woodblocks to be used for printing the Serge edition of the Kangyur. After this was finished, he concentrated his efforts on revising translations of important Sanskrit works, especially of treatises on grammar and poetry. Situ Panchen flourished widely and he restored or established monasteries, retreats, and study centers all over Tibet and Jang. He gave the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage to the Thirteenth Karmapa, Düdul Dorje.

(the Kangyur: The collected scriptures: the Tibetan translations of the Indian texts that are considered to be the words of the Buddha.)


Dudul Dorje 13th Karmapa in the mountains

Dudul Dorje (Tibet, 1733–1797), the thirteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. Recognized at the age of four and enthroned by Gyaltsab Rinpoche. At the age of eight, he met his guru, the great Eight Situpa, Chökyi Jungne.

According to the legend, he rescued the Jokhang temple in Lhasa from flooding by placing a kata (white scarf) over the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha. Once a rabbit came before him to request the Dharma. While the Karmapa told a brief story related to the Dharma, the rabbit sat with its eyes wide open and its paws joined together in front of its body. After the Karmapa had given it meditation instruction, the rabbit’s mind came to rest in stability. On the third day, the rabbit offered the Karmapa three blades of grass as a mandala. There are numerous such incredible stories about how the Karmapa guided all living beings onto the path of liberation and omniscience, no matter what their level might be.

Also, among the Karmapa’s disciples were many powerful scholars and practitioners who made the Kagyü teachings flourish like the waxing moon.

Mipam Chodrub Gyatso on lotus throne with clouds

Mipam Chodrub Gyatso, (Tibet 1742-1792).

Younger brother of 6th Panchen Lama. He was recognized and enthroned as the 10th Shamarpa by the 13th Karmapa Dündul Dorje and by the 8th Situ Rinpoche, from both of whom he had received all the Instructions of the Lineage. He gave the full transmission of the full Kagyu lineage to the Ninth Kenting Tai Situpa incarnation, Pema Nyinje Wangpo.

Tibet was fatalistically divided, both politically and ecclesiastically. The 11th Dalai-Lama had passed away; the Regent with his sectarian followers, who were unable to see beyond the narrow interests of their monasteries, had stooped to the persecution of the Shamarpa and the seizing of his Red Crown. In collusion with the army, all the monasteries were forcibly appropriated and integrated into the Gelugpa School. For the Shamarpa it was forbidden to remain in his own country. The day was a day of deep sorrow for Tibet when the 10th Shamarpa left the country never to return. The Shamarpa spent his remaining years in Nepal, diligently, in buddha activities and seeing to the spiritual needs of the people wherever they arose.

Pema Nyinje Wangpo 9th Kenting Tai Situpa with green tree and bird

Pema Nyinje Wangpo, 9th Kenting Tai Situpa (1774-1853, Tibet).

He was recognized by the Karmapa and Pawo Rinpoche, who had received a prediction from Padmasambhava in a vision concerning Kenting Tai Situpa's rebirth.

He received all the teachings of the lineage from Karmapa Dudul Dorje, Shamar Chodrup Tenzin, and Dzigar Dorje Drakpa. He recognised and became the root Lama of the Fourteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Thegchok Dorje and fulfilled the same role for Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye the Great. He also became one of the main Lamas of Dzongsar Khyentse Wangpo and the Great Tertön Chokgyur Lingpa. Tai Situpa gave these closest heart-sons the full Kamtsang lineage transmissions and instructions. Pema Nyinje Wangpo is often credited as having initiated what has become known as the Rimé tradition, which would become firmly established by his disciples. At the age of 61 years he entered the retreat centre at Palpung, Drubde Samtenling, and practiced the teachings for eighteen years. At the age of 79 he passed away, the sky was filled with rainbows.

(Rimé tradition: a nonsectarian approach to Tibetan Buddhism.)

14th Karmapa-Theckchok Dorje with Cham dancer

Thekchok Dorje (Tibet, 1798–1868), the 14th Karmapa (with ritual Cham dancer and Vajradhara in a Union with Prajnaparamita).

He was recognized by Drukchen Kunzig Chokyi Nangwa, the holder of the thirteenth Karmapa’s letter giving the details of his forthcoming reincarnation. He was enthroned and later ordained by the ninth Tai Situpa. Participated in the ri-me movement, whereby many noted scholars showed great interest in each others’ traditions and teachings. While he was practicing the Sādhana of the Three Roots Combined, a terma of Chokgyur Lingpa, there clearly appeared a long-life arrow with silken streamers, which was three finger-widths wide. Such special signs along with other indications revealed that the Karmapa had attained the level of a vidyādhara with power over his lifespan. The fourteenth Karmapa’s spiritual heir was the great ri-mé master and prolific author, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye.

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye with green trees on background

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye (Tibet, 1813 - 1899)

He was prophesied by Buddha Shakyamuni in the Samadhirajasutra and foretold in many Treasure Teachings by Guru Padmasambhava. Among his many teachers, his primary teachers were the Fourteenth Karmapa, Situ Pema Nyinje Wangpo, the Great Khyentse. He co-founded the non-sectarian movement in Tibet with the Great Khyentse in 19th century. Accomplished in the ten ordinary and extraordinary branches of knowledge, he composed the incomparable Five Great Treasuries, a work of non-sectarian bias, that brought together a great number of teachings from both the old and new traditions, including the lineages of oral teachings, hidden treasures (terma), and teachings of pure vision. He became the principal teacher of and gave the full transmission of the lineage to the Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje.

Kakyab Dorje the 15th Karmapa with major teachers on the back

Kakyab Dorje, the 15th Karmapa(1871-1922).

Khakhyab Dorje was identified by the main figures driving the Rimé movement: Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) and Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye.

When he was fourteen, Khakhyap Dorjé completed the restoration and expansion of Pangpuk Monastery in Lithang.

Then the Karmapa drew a picture of Pangpuk Monastery on a piece of paper and playfully tossed on this image some white rice that had been soaked in saffron water. At that same time, in the monastery, from the midst of a white cloud a rain of golden rice fell everywhere both inside and outside. All who were present witnessed it, and this golden rain gave them unshakable faith in the Karmapa. Later he met Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé. From him the Karmapa received general teachings on the Three Roots -Buddha, Dharma and Sangha- according to the Kagyü tradition and also the empowerments, reading transmissions, and commentaries for Jamgön Kongtrul’s Treasury of Kagyü Mantras and other texts.


Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo the 11th Kenting Tai Situpa in front of trees and flowers

Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo, the 11th Kenting Tai Situpa, (Tibet, 1886-1952). When he was four years old. the Karmapa took him to the seat of the Tai Situpas at Palpung Monastery in Kham, east Tibet, and enthroned him with the sacred Red Vajra Crown as the eleventh in the line of succession. Pema Wangchuk received the extraordinary Kagyu lineage transmissions and instructions from the Fifteenth Karmapa, his root Lama. He himself recognized the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje and he remained the Karmapa's root Lama and transmitted to him the main teachings and empowerments of the Kagyu lineage. From the age of around 50 Situ Pema Wangchuk stayed the rest of his life meditating and giving teachings to his many disciples. At the age of sixty-seven, he passed away amidst many auspicious signs.

Palden Khyentse Ozer  2nd Jamgon Kongtrul with sun and moon

Palden Khyentse Ozer, 2nd Jamgon Kongtrul (Tibet, 1902-1952).

The Second-Jamgö-Kongtrül-Khyentse-Ozer was the son of the Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje. He studied and practiced the treatises of the sutras and tantras in general, and in particular, the Five Treasuries, the path of liberation, which focuses on the Mahamudra as it is elucidated in the special teachings of the Kamtsang Kagyu. He received the new and old Mantra traditions, especially the complete traditions of the eight practice lineages, like filling a vase to the brim, and listened to the complete oral instructions from his father the supreme Gyalwang Karmapa. He transmitted the innermost teachings to the sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpai Dorje. Thus he became a lineage holder of the Golden Kagyu Lineage. He passed away in his forty-ninth year.

The sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa with next white Chenrezig

The sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Khyapdak Rigpe Dorje (Tibet 1914-1981).

On the left is the 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul, Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge (In 1987 he initiated me, M.W.). On the right Chenrezig. In 1959, he escaped through Bhutan to India where he settled with support from the Indian government. The Karmapa build a new monastery on the side of a mountain in Rumtek, Sikkim. Toward the end of 1965, they had completed the Karmapa’s monastery, Shedrup Chökhor Ling (The Park Where the Wheel of Dharma Is Turned for Study and Practice).

He predicted that the Western world will embrace Buddhism, and it did. Throughout the world, Rigpe Dorje founded more than three hundred Dharma centers to serve as a foundation for Buddhist teachings, like Dhagpo Kagyu Ling in France, build by Lama Gendün Rinpochee (my root teacher MW.).

17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje on dark red background with 16 incarnations

The seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. (Tibet 1985).

The enthronement ceremony in 1992 was celebrated with 20,000 people coming from all over. The next day, the young Karmapa gave his first empowerment, of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. He began his studies right after at Tsurphu monastery. At the age of 14, in order to meet teachers outside the country he had to flee Tibet. The Karmapa’s wish to receive further instruction and meet with his former teachers is being fulfilled as he studies Buddhist philosophy and meditation while receiving the transmissions and empowerments from the masters of his lineage. HH Orgyen Trinley Dorje became also a skilled artist in drawing, painting, and calligraphy. Since 2008 he travels to the USA and Europe, to meet us, his followers and give teachings and empowerments.

Recourses, websites:

literature, Books:

The Karmapa’s and their Mahāmudrā forefathers.


History of the Karmapa’s.

The Miraculous 16th Karmapa.

Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje.

book pages
One day someone mentioned the name of a lama I didn’t know, lama Gendun, who was living in a Buddhist Center in France. When I heard the name all sound fell silent, if someone switched it of, like you switch of a light. It was the silence of emptiness and purity, it was a true blessing, and that moment I knew he will be my teacher.

Months passed by and on an evening sitting with Dharma friends, I was asked ‘who is your teacher?’ So I answered, I only know his name, and, I never met him but for sure, I know it’s him. One of the friends left the room and came back with a photo, of him, the man with the name in my heart since that day, and I cried.

Likewise there are dharma friends who recognized their teacher by a photo, without knowing who they are. There are multiple ways to find a teacher.

While painting the portraits in this book I often had the feeling that they helped me painting their portrait and when I finished one I could say “yes, this is how they looked like, this is who they are.”

May this small contribution will benefit the Buddhadharma and all sentient beings.

Ema Ho!

Matthijs Warner 

© All rights reserved
Using Format