Karma pa is an appellation given to the spiritual head of the Karma Bka' brgyud (Kagyu), a major branch of the larger Bka' brgyud sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The term Karma pa is commonly etymologized as "Man of (Enlightened) Action (karma)." The Karma pas are considered to form the first institutionalized succession of reincarnated masters (sprul sku, pronounced tulku) in Tibet, a process whereby a young child is recognized as the reembodiment of a recently deceased master and raised to continue the latter's religious and political activities. In a tradition perhaps unique to the Karma pas, prior to his death each hierarch is said to compose a letter predicting the date and location of his future rebirth. Entrusted to a close disciple, this prediction letter then forms the basis for seeking out the prelate's next incarnation.
The Karma pas are traditionally believed to be the custodians of a black crown fashioned from the hair of 100,000 ḌĀkinĪ goddesses, invisible to all save those of great spiritual merit. In the early fifteenth century, the Ming emperor Yongle offered the fifth Karma pa a physical replica, which has since become one of the lineage's most sacred relics, believed to confer liberation upon those who merely see it. For this reason, the Karma pas are sometimes called the Black Crowned (zhwa nag) and have somewhat unwittingly received the title Black Hat Lama in the West. While they have occasionally been the target—and the source—of polemical sectarian attack, the Karma pas (like the Dalai Lamas) are traditionally understood by Tibetans to be emanations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara. They rank among Tibet's greatest religious figures, revered for their learning and exposition as well as their mastery of yogic and meditative disciplines, and at times they have wielded tremendous secular influence and political power.
The line of Karma pas originated during the twelfth century with the first Karma pa, Dus gsum mkhyen pa (Dusum Khyenpa, 1110–1193), a close disciple of Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (Gampopa Sönam Rinchen, 1079–1153), who had studied under the famous yogin Milaraspa (Milarepa, 1028/40–1111/23). Dus gsum mkhyen pa established several important monasteries, including Karma Dgon (Karma Gön) in eastern Tibet and, in 1187, Stod lung Mtshur phu (Tölung Tshurphu), northwest of Lhasa. The latter was expanded during subsequent generations, becoming one of the region's leading institutions and serving as the main seat of the Karma pas and the Karma Bka' brgyud. Dus gsum mkhyen pa's successor, the second Karma pa, Karma Pakshi (1204–1283), is remembered especially for his prowess in meditation and the performance of magical feats. Patronized for a time by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (r. 1260–1294), he
established ties with the Yuan court in China. The third Karma pa, Rang 'byung rdo rje (Rangjung Dorje, 1284–1339), advanced his predecessor's affiliation with the Mongol court by supervising Emperor Toghun Temur's (r. 1333–1368) ascension to the throne. He was also influenced, like his predecessor, by the Rnying ma (Nyingma) sect's teachings on the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen), and he authored several important treatises on tantric theory and practice.
The fourth Karma pa, Rol pa'i rdo rje (Rolpe Dorje, 1340–1383), and the fifth Karma pa, De bzhin gshegs pa (Dezhin Shekpa, 1384–1415), continued to develop ties with the Chinese court—the former with Toghun Temur and the latter serving as guru to the Ming dynasty emperor Yongle (r. 1402–1424), a position of great influence. While the sixth Karma pa, Mthong ba don ldan (Thongwa Dondan, 1416–1453), did not actively pursue the political connections established by his predecessors, he is known for reinvigorating the ritual practice of the Karma Bka' brgyud, authoring numerous meditation and liturgical manuals. The seventh Karma pa, Chos grags rgya mtsho (Chödrak Gyatso, 1454–1506), is remembered primarily for his philosophical writings on logic and epistemology. His voluminous work on the topic of pramāṇa is still used as a principal textbook in many Bka' brgyud monasteries. The eighth Karma pa, Mi bskyod rdo rje (Mikyö Dorje, 1507–1554), was likewise a prolific scholar whose writings encompassed Sanskrit linguistics, poetry, and art, as well as Madhyamaka school philosophy and tantra. Several of his works sparked a heated debate with Dge lugs (Geluk) scholars by criticizing the views of their founder, Tsong kha pa (1357–1419), and his Thun bzhi bla ma'i rnal 'byor (Four Session Guru Yoga) remains an important, widely practiced meditation text. The ninth Karma pa, Dbang phyug rdo rje (Wangchuk Dorje, 1604–1674), is revered for his seminal writings on the theory and practice of mahĀmudrĀ. However, with the ascendance of the Mongol backed Dge lugs hierarchs, he also witnessed the decline of his sect's political influence in central Tibetan politics. His successor, the tenth Karma pa, Chos kyi dbang phyug (Chökyi Wangchuk, 1604–1674), was thus forced into virtual exile near the Sino-Tibetan border in the east. As the civil war in Tibet waned, Chos kyi dbang phyug returned to Lhasa where he forged ties with Tibet's new religious and political leader, the fifth Dalai Lama Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (Ngawang Lozang Gyatso, 1617–1682).
The eleventh Karma pa, Ye shes rdo rje (Yeshe Dorje, 1676–1702), and twelfth Karma pa, Byang chub rdo rje (Changchub Dorje, 1703–1732), both lived relatively short lives, although the latter made an important journey through Nepal together with his disciple, the brilliant scholar and Sanskritist Situ Chos kyi 'byung gnas (Chökyi Jungne, 1700–1774). The life of thirteenth Karma pa, Bdud 'dul rdo rje (Dudul Dorje, 1733–1797), was, for the most part, lived outside the sphere of politics. He is especially remembered for his love of birds and animals, to whom he is said to have taught the dharma. Together with his predecessor, the fourteenth Karma pa, Theg mchog rdo rje (Thekchok Dorje, 1798–1868), witnessed a revival of Bka' brgyud doctrine in the eastern Tibetan province of Khams, as part of the so-called Eclectic (ris med) Movement of which his disciple Kongs sprul Blo gros mtha' yas (Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, 1813–1899) was a leading voice. The fifteenth Karma pa, Mkha' khyab rdo rje (Khakhyab Dorje, 1871–1922), the latter's principal disciple, continued to support this movement and left an ample body of collected writings. The sixteenth Karma pa, Rang 'byung rig pa'i rdo rje (Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, 1924–1981), faced the Communist Chinese occupation of Tibet; he fled to India in 1959 and established an exile seat at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. He traveled widely throughout Europe and North America prior to his death in a Chicago hospital, establishing numerous Tibetan Buddhist centers and attracting a large following of Western devotees. The seventeenth Karma pa, O rgyan 'phrin las rdo rje (Orgyan Trinle Dorje, b. 1985), was enthroned at Mtshur phu Monastery in Tibet on September 27,1992. In late December 2000 he escaped into exile, establishing a temporary residence in Dharamsala, India, where he continued to reside as of 2003. Although his identification as the Karma pa has been disputed by a small number of followers, O rgyan 'phrin las rdo rje maintains the support of the majority of the Tibetan and Western Buddhist community, including the Dalai Lama.
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