Marpa © Francoise Pommaret Collection, Himalayan Art Collection


Naropa transmitted his knowledge to Marpa, the great translator who journeyed from Tibet to India in order to receive instructions and who subsequently returned to Tibet and spread the teachings of the Dharma.


Marpa’s student Milarepa became one of Tibet’s great yogis. Through perseverance in the practice of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa, he achieved profound realization of the ultimate nature of reality.

Gampopa 18th c. © Himalayan Art Collection


Milarepa’s transmission was carried on by Gampopa, the physician from Dagpo. He studied the Kadampa traditions, which is a gradual path that includes what is called the Lam Rim teachings. He also met Milarepa, and attained realization of ultimate reality under his guidance. He established monastic institutions, taught extensively and attracted many students. 

Gampopa integrated Atisha’s Kadam teachings and Tilopa’s Mahamudra teaching to establish the Kagyu lineage.

Karmapa Lineage

It was the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, who received the complete Mahamudra transmission from Gampopa. He began the lineage of the Karmapas, which continues today.

Karmapa literally means “one who manifests buddha-activity,” and his activity is to preserve and spread the essence of the teachings of all the Buddhas.

The Gyalwa Karmapa is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage. The Karmapa represents the oldest line of reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist masters, dating to the 12th century. The current Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, is the 17th Karmapa.

The lineage of the Karmapas was prophesied by Shakyamuni Buddha who said that approximately 1600 years after his death, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion would be born. Karmapa literally means “one who manifests buddha-activity,” and his activity is to preserve and spread the essence of the teachings of all the Buddhas.

The Buddha predicted that the Karmapa would propagate the teachings during the course of many successive incarnations. The Buddha also predicted, “In the future, a great bodhisattva with a ruby red crown will come to the suffering of the multitude, leading them out of their cyclic bewilderment and misery.” In the Karmapa and Shamarpa, the Buddha’s predictions were fulfilled.

Here are resources to learn more about the Karmapa lineage:

  • History of 16 Karmapas, by Thinley Rinpoche
  • Affirmation on the Subject of the Recognition of Reincarnate Lamas in Tibet with Particular Reference to the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, by Geoffrey Samuel (November 2004)
  • Karmapa: The Black Hat Lama of Tibet, by Nick Douglas & Meryl White
  • The Karmapa Prophecies, by Sylvia Wong
  • The Buddha’s Not Smiling, by Erik Curren
1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa
10th Shamarpa Chodrub Gyaltso (19th c.) © Himalayan Art Collection

Shamarpa Lineage

The first Shamarpa, Khedrup Drakpa Senge (1283–1349), was the principal disciple of the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje. Rangjung Dorje gave this disciple a ruby-red crown and the title Shamarpa, establishing the second line of reincarnate lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, Karmapa being the first. This was the fulfillment of a prediction of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, who said “Future Karmapas will manifest in two forms.” When the fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, returned the red crown to the second Shamarpa, he recalled Karma Pakshi’s prediction, saying, “You are the one manifestation, while I am the other. Therefore, the responsibility to maintain the continuity of the teachings of the Kagyu lineage rests equally on you as it does on me.”

The 14th Shamarpa was Mipham Chokyi Lodro (1952–2014), born in Derge, Tibet. At age four he was recognized by his uncle the 16th Karmapa. After the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, the Shamarpa recognized Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa in 1994.

The Shamarpa or “Red Hat Lama of Tibet” is the second-oldest reincarnate lineage. As with any reincarnate lineage, what earlier incarnations have done or not done does not define the subsequent Shamarpas. The 14th Shamarpa has said, “Since every incarnation is a new life, credit from great deeds in the past is not transferred automatically to each new incarnation. Likewise, one cannot blame any reincarnate Lama for not being as great as his or her previous incarnation. Boys or girls are recognized as tulkus at a young age, placed in monasteries and given a tremendous amount of responsibility. They do not choose this life for themselves. This is true of every Tibetan reincarnate lineage. Greatness must be earned anew in each life.”

Many of the Shamarpas were great scholars. In particular, the 1st Shamarpa Khedrup Trakpa Senge (1284–1349), 2nd Shamarpa Kacho Wangpo (1350–1405), 3rd Shamarpa Chopel Yeshe (1406–1452), 4th Shamarpa Chokyi Trakpa Pal Yeshe (1453–1526), 5th Shamarpa Konchog Yenlag (1526–1583), 6th Shamarpa Chokyi Wangchuk (1584–1629), 8th Shamarpa Palchen Chokyi Dondrup (1695–1732), and 10th Shamarpa Chodrup Gyatso (1742–1792), stand out in terms of their intellectual contributions. The 4th Shamarpa even ruled Tibet for 12 years towards the end of his life.

The history of the Shamarpas becomes especially dramatic during and after the lifetime of the 10th Shamarpa, Chodrup Gyatso (1642–1692). For that reason it is useful to explain his life in more detail here. The 10th Shamarpa was a brother to the 3rd Panchen Lama Palden Yeshe (1738–1780), a highly ranked Gelukpa Lama. The 10th Shamarpa had a very poor relationship with the Gelukpa government of Tibet that was based in Lhasa and directly ruled by the Chinese Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799). Tsomonling Ngawang Tsultrim, the imperial Chinese representative in Lhasa at that time, was especially opposed to him for a number of reasons. 

First of all, he belonged to the Karma Kagyu school and claimed that the Kagyus were the former rulers of Tibet. Second, he was on friendly terms with the British government in India, a state of affairs that had come about because his mother was a princess of Ladakh. Both of these facts made the Emperor’s government very suspicious. Fearing censure or punishment from the governments of both Tibet and China, the 10th Shamarpa fled to Nepal. He lived there comfortably until, in 1788, a war broke out between Tibet and Nepal over the minting and circulation of counterfeit coins. The 10th Shamarpa was used by the government of Nepal as a mediator in the peace talks with Tibet, and as a result the government of Tibet informed the Emperor Qianlong that the Shamarpa had taken the side of the Nepalese in the conflict. The Gelukpa Tibetan government then requested that the Shamarpa institution be banned. The ban was effected upon the death of the 10th Shamarpa in 1792 and remained in effect until the 20th century.

From 1792 until 1963, no Shamarpa reincarnation was enthroned, although the 11th, 12th, and 13th Shamarpas were secretly recognized during that time by the Karmapas. In 1963, the 14th Dalai Lama and the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa formally restored the institution of the Shamarpas, enthroning the 14th Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro (1952–2014).