Karmapa means the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas or the one who carries out Buddha activity. In the Tibetan tradition, great enlightened teachers are said to be able to consciously control their rebirth in order to continue their activity for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, was born in 1110. He was the first of the great Tibetan masters to establish an incarnating lineage. Since his death in 1193, successive Karmapas have incarnated in this form of manifestation body (Skt. nirmanakaya), for sixteen lifetimes so far, and all have played a most important role in preserving and promulgating the Buddhist teachings of Tibet.
Prior to the birth of the first Karmapa, the arrival of a Buddhist master, who would be known as the Karmapa, had been prophesied by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and the great tantric master of India, Guru Padmasambhava.
Throughout the centuries, Karmapas have been the central figure in the continuation of the vajrayana lineage in general and the Kagyu lineage in particular, and have played a very important role in the preservation of the study and practice lineages of Buddhism.
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