When total enlightenment is attained, one becomes a Buddha. From that state of perfect wisdom, limitless compassion and supreme skill to help others, there emanate various manifestations. One - known as the 'supreme emanation' brings the teachings of universal truth to a world, as did Buddha Sakyamuni, formerly Prince Gautama, 2,500 years ago. Thereafter, in the thousands of years during which those teachings remain alive, the Buddha mind emanates in many ways but sometimes as a perfectly-enlightened master, filled with the authority and majesty of insight and endowed with the power of buddha activity (buddha-karma). This master is known as the Karmapa.
In several sutras, such as the Lotus Compassion Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Buddha Sakyamuni predicted his future appearance as the Karmapa. The Karmapa appeared in India as the King of Siddhas, Saraha, and later in Tibet as Dusum Chenpa, the 1st Gyalwa Karmapa (1110-1193). Since the latter, the Karmapas have reincarnated in Tibet, as heads of the Karma Kagyu (also known as Karma Kamtsang) lineage. They were the first lamas to reincarnate systematically like this: the first tulku. We offer you brief hagiographies of all 17 Karmapas.