The Karmapa, sanskrit for the manifestation of the activities of all the Buddhas, is the title of the head of the Karma Kagyu, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. This primary sub-lineage of the wider Kagyu stream of transmission originates from the 1st Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), a heart son of the great Tibetan master Gampopa.

The 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204 - 1283), was the first to be recognized and empowered as the reincarnation of a past master, and is thus the progenitor of the now-widespread Tibetan reincarnate lama (teacher), or tulku system. However, unlike other tulkus, the Karmapas are self-recognized on the basis of a prediction letter left by the previous incarnation detailing the circumstances of the next rebirth.

The Karmapas are known as the holders of the Black Crown, shwa-nag (Tib.), or the Black Hat lamas. The physical crown displayed by the Karmapas was offered to the 5th Karmapa by the Chinese Emperor Yung Lo as a material representation of the rangjung chopen (the self-luminous crown) which is said to be perceptible above the Karmapa's head only to those with higher levels of spiritual realization.

The current 17th Karmapa, His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was born in 1985 to a nomadic family in eastern Tibet. At age seven, he was formally enthroned at Tsurphu Monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas in Tibet. In late December of 1999, he eluded his communist Chinese minders, who prevented him from undertaking most of his traditional studies and teaching activities, and escaped over the Himalaya mountains to exile in India. He celebrated his eighteenth birthday on June 26, 2003.

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