Karmapa means ”the person who carries out the activities of the buddhas“ or ”the embodiment of all the activities of buddhas.“
In the Tibetan tradition fully realised masters can control their reincarnation in order to continue their activities for the benefit of all sentient beings. They are called Tulkus. Karmapa I, Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), was the first of the great Tibetan buddhist masters, who was fully aware of his rebirth. He left behind exact information about his rebirth so that his heart disciple could find his reincarnation. After him the Karmapas have become manifest for 900 years in an uninterrupted succession up to the current XVII Karmapa.
The birth of the first Karmapa had been prophesied by the historic Buddha Shakyamuni and the great tantric master Guru Padmasambhava. In the course of centuries the Karmapas became central to the continuation of the Vajrayana lineage generally and the Kagyu lineage especially. They played a very important role in preserving the studying and practicing lineages of Buddhism. Their ancestral seat is the Tsurphu Monastery, 65 kms west of Lhasa. When the XVI Karmapa had to flee from Tibet, he moved to Sikkim. The local king gave him land where the Rumtek monastery was erected, the seat in exile of the Karmapas.
On the history of the Karmapas: