Upholder of Buddha Activity
Since arriving in India from Tibet in 2000, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, has emerged as a major thought leader for our time. As head of a major school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa plays a key role in preserving Tibetan religion and culture. Yet his call to action to create a more compassionate future directly addresses 21st-century global society, and has inspired millions of people worldwide to take action on social and environmental issues.
The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was born in 1985 to a family of nomads in the remote highlands of the Tibetan plateau. At the age of seven, he left this nomadic lifestyle behind upon being recognized and formally enthroned as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, with two of the three living heads of his lineage officiating. Once installed in his monastic seat of Tsurphu in central Tibet, at the age of eight, he delivered his first public religious discourse to an audience of over 20,000 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 was refused permission to travel to India to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his other teachers. Concerned that he would be unable to meet his religious obligations, at the age of fourteen, he decided to escape from Tibet in search of freedom to fulfil his religious responsibilities. Upon reaching India safely, he at once began to undergo philosophical education and monastic training. He lives in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, a short distance from the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with whom he continues to enjoy a close relationship of mentor and protégé to this day.
His Holiness has upheld the Karma Kagyu tradition with unwavering dedication since his childhood. Leading the 900-year-old lineage of which he is the spiritual head in a new century, His Holiness transmits and teaches the Dharma widely, guiding thousands of disciples, and modernizing religious practices while re-establishing monastic discipline.
In 2004, His Holiness assumed responsibility for Kagyu Monlam, an annual aspiration prayer gathering held in Bodh Gaya, the site where the Buddha was enlightened. Though its roots lie in 15th-century Tibet when the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso established this tradition, the Kagyu Monlam belongs fully to the contemporary world. Attended by over 10,000 people and watched online by tens of thousands of devotees around the world, the Kagyu Monlam gathers monks, nuns, and lay people to study, meditate and dedicate themselves to benefit all sentient beings. In 2014, for the first time in India, the Karmapa himself performed in the sacred dance of Padmasambhava, a widely revered and beloved figure across the Himalayas.
Speaking to a TED conference in Mysore in 2009, the Karmapa declared that it is the responsibility of spiritual leaders to take a leading role in addressing such social issues as the environmental crisis and women’s issues. He himself has committed to doing so personally, while also inspiring others to follow suit.
In 2007, His Holiness made environmental protection a major priority, and in 2009, he founded and began chairing Khoryug (meaning Environment in Tibetan), an association of over 55 Buddhist monasteries and nunneries that implement environmental projects across the Himalayan region. Along with Environmental Guidelines for the Karma Kagyu Community, the association has also produced a popular booklet called 108 Things You Can Do to Protect the Environment, which instructs monasteries and centres in ways to lead positive change in their own communities.
In 2014, the Karmapa made history by instituting an annual Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering for Karma Kagyu nuns and extending access to rigorous education for nuns. This was the first nuns’ winter gathering (günchö) in the 900-year history of the Karma Kagyu school, and it focused largely on empowering nuns. After listening to the Karmapa’s discourses for eleven days, representatives of all seven nunneries present formally requested bhikshuni ordination. This marked the first time in recorded history that Tibetan nuns had come forward en masse seeking full ordination. The 17th Karmapa responded by saying, “I will keep this hope you have expressed to me in my mind… as the holder of the title of Karmapa, I will do as much as I can so that the community of bhikshunis will be as undisputed, untarnished, and unexcelled as possible.”
His Holiness the Karmapa engages in a wide range of artistic activities. He paints, practices calligraphy, writes poetry, composes music, and directs theatrical events. Preserving and renewing Tibetan artistic forms, the Karmapa has written and produced several plays that combine elements of traditional Tibetan opera and modern theatre. The 2010 performance of his first play, a drama on the life of the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa, was attended by 12,000 people.
Dedicated to encouraging youth to become leaders in solving social and environmental problems, the Karmapa uses a direct and empowering approach, often reminding them that they have within them all the resources they need already. He meets and discusses practical global solutions with students from all around the world, and visits Tibetan schools and universities around India on a regular basis. In his latest book published in 2013, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out, the Karmapa speaks to the younger generation on the major challenges facing society today, including gender issues, food justice, rampant consumerism and the environmental crisis.
In May 2008, the Karmapa made his first trip to the West, traveling to the United States where he visited many spiritual centres under his guidance, and has since revisited the United States in 2011. He is now making his first trip to Europe in 2014, fulfilling his long cherished wish to visit the continent. As did his predecessor the 16th Karmapa, the 17th Karmapa feels a strong personal connection to Europe.