Himalayan Art Resources

Incarnation Lineage: Gyalwa Karmapa Main Page

Karmapa Masterworks

- Art History

- Iconography (Karmapa List)

- Religious Context

- Karmapa: Early Portrait Paintings (Part 1)
- Karmapa: Early Portraits (Part 2)
- Black Hats & Blue Hats
- Hats: Karma Kagyu
- Protectors: Karma Kagyu

The Karmapas are a line of successive teachers acknowledged by some scholars as the first lineage of reincarnating lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. The main seat of the Karmapa is Tsurpu Monastery, north-west of Lhasa, and the specific tradition is known as the Kamtsang Kagyu (Karma Kagyu). Rangjung Dorje (3rd) is said to have recognised himself as the rebirth of Dusum Kyenpa and posthumously named Dusum Kyenpa and Karma Pakshi as the 1st and 2nd Karmapas.

According to the history/hagiographies of the Karma Kagyu tradition the fifth Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa (1384-1415) was presented a gift of a black hat by the Chinese emperor Yongle. This became the first visible black hat of the Karmapas. However, according to some Mongolian history the first black hat was a gift of Mongke Khan to the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. There is also some evidence that the Tangut are responsible for popularizing the black hat. Early 13th and 14th century paintings of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Karmapas clearly depict them wearing a black hat which makes the Yongle emperor story mostly myth. (See examples).

A black hat has become the principal identifying characteristic and iconographic attribute in the depictions of the Karmapa incarnation lineage.

Jeff Watt 11-1999 [updated 3-2005, 2-2017, 7-2018, 1-2020]

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).