Guru Rinpoche
Lamas are spiritual guides and master teachers who orally pass on complex rituals and meditation techniques to disciples. They are sometimes regarded as "living gods" (the word lama means "teacher" or "superior one"). Lamas preside over important ceremonies and are believed to possess supernatural powers that can slay demons and bring good fortune, blessings, wealth and good health.

Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes called Lamanism, because of the reverence given lamas. Padmasambhava, a Buddhist monk from India, established the First Lamaic order about A.D. 770. Many lamas today are regarded as reincarnations of lamas who purportedly flew in from a mountaintop over a thousand years ago, when several lamaseries were built in one night.

According to the BBC: A lama is a teacher. They are often a senior member of a monastic community — a monk or a nun — but lay people and married people can also be lamas. They are very often reincarnations of previous lamas. As well as being learned in Buddhist texts and philosophy, lamas often have particular skills in ritual.

Tibetan Buddhism’s tradition of lamas can be traced to Atisha (982–1054), who also introduced the popular Bengali cult of the goddess Tara and reframed tantric Buddhism as an advanced practice on a continuum with monastic and Mahayana Buddhism. Atishi is credited with systematizing Tibetan Buddhist administration. Under Atisha’s system, sons for the highest ranking families were made the head lamas of monasteries on their land. The offices were hereditary but because the lamas were celibate monks leadership positions were handed down from uncle to nephew. In the 13th century, the peculiarly Tibetan office of the reincarnate lama became institutionalized. While earlier teachers were said to be the reembodiment of specific saints or bodhisattvas, this was the first formalization of reincarnation, with the previous saint's disciples maintaining continuity and instructing his reembodiment.

The holiest leader still in Tibet in the early 2000s was the Ganden Tipa, the overseer of all the monasteries in Tibet. In 1998, Arija Losang Thubten, a 48-year-old abbot and senior lama escaped from China to India. He was the highest ranking lama after the Karmapa Lama to flee since the Dalai Lama and was generally regarded as friendly to Beijing. In 2000, Beijing helped enthrone a two-year boy as the Reting Lama. In Taiwan the Tibetan lama Gyaltsen says his son was ordained as Kalu Rinpoche II in 1993 at the age of 2½ by the Dalai Lama. Kalu Rinpoche was a lama who promoted Buddhism in the West until his death in 1989.

Rinpoches and Tibetan Buddhist Saints

Rinpoches (an honorary term meaning “precious ones”) are senior lamas or the head lamas at monasteries. They are generally regarded as reincarnations of the monastery’s first lama. They often enjoy a level of comfort and luxury not afforded other monks. As a symbol of their rank they sit on cushions higher than everyone else.

Rinpoches are lamas who are revered and honored as holy men who have progressed beyond the status of monk through reincarnation. If lamas are the equivalent of priests, rinpoches are like bishops. The Dalai Lama is a sort super Rinpoche.

Rinpoches are usually selected by their ability to pick out religious objects in a large group of things, and recognize certain people in a crowd. Certain auspicious signs usually indicate the birth of lama or rinpoche.

Greatly revered abbots are considered a tulku by Tibetans and called a living Buddha in Chinese — an especially revered figure who is believed to be the essence of a prominent religious leader. Some are regarded as saints. A Dolpo saint by the name of Tulka Tsewang reportedly meditated for 65 years inside a wooden crib. To gain an audience with him followers had to give him a votive offering that looked like a piece of chocolate and a shell suggesting the spinning of the universe. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993]

Tertons, or treasure seekers, are credited with finding important Buddhist texts and objects. They reportedly have the power to fly inside mountains and icy lakes to retrieve sacred objects.

Selecting Lamas

It is believed that when a lama dies, his spirits move into a new body. After his death a search for the individual that possesses this body begins. In theory, the search for a new lama is supposed to be based on visions from oracles, divine messages and poems and messages left from the previous lama. In reality, the search process is often affected by politics, court intrigues and factional infighting.

Sometimes a method of divination is used to select lamas in which the names of the candidates are placed in balls of tsampa (barley meal) and the bowl is rotated until one of the balls "jumps out." Theoretically women and non-Tibetans can become lamas but in nearly all cases lamas are Tibetan males.

A reincarnation of a lama is called a "tukla." He is regarded as a sacred vessel of Tibetan Buddhism. Describing what they look for in a new lama one senior lama in Mongolia told National Geographic, "They are watched for certain qualities. They must, for example, have beautiful hands, because they must make certain hand movements."

Tibetan Buddhism, Reincarnation and Lamas

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: While Tibetan Buddhism mostly inherited the characteristics of late Mahayana Buddhism, which has its origins in India, it also incorporated some elements of Chinese Buddhism and native customs to form a unique belief system. The different schools of Tibetan Buddhism each developed a system of reincarnation lineage, and the reincarnated spiritual teacher is known as tulku in Tibetan and huofo (living Buddha) in the Chinese world. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

The tulku tradition, non-existent in either India or China, was gradually established in Tibet over the course of hundreds of years. In the two primary periods of the development of Tibetan Buddhism, the snga dar (earlier dissemination) of the 7th-9th century and the phyi dar (later dissemination) revival in the late 10th century, leadership was transmitted from teachers to disciples or through family bloodlines at all monasteries. In the 13th century, the Karma Kagyu School became the first to adopt the reincarnation system, and by the 15th century the practice had spread to other schools. Today, it is one of the main forms of lineage in Tibetan Buddhism.

In the 15th century, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) founded the Gelug School, and its lineage was in the early days passed from masters to disciples. However, it later embraced the reincarnation system. In the late 16th century, the Gelug School emerged as the preeminent Buddhist school in Mongolia, and the term khubilghan (the Mongolian equivalent of tulku) appeared. Through the Mongols the Manchus also came into contact with Tibetan Buddhism, and after their conquest of China the Qing empire elevated the Gelug School into a shared faith of the Manchus, Mongols and Tibetans. In addition, the Qing court established a comprehensive official endorsement system for the incarnations of khubilghans by bestowing titles on religious leaders and by accepting their tributes. In so doing the court was putting the Gelug School in charge of political and religious affairs in the Mongolian and Tibetan regions.

The term huofo (living Buddha), used to refer to Tibetan Buddhist monks, first appeared in a poem by Han Bangjing in the Ming dynasty. By the Qing dynasty, the term had become part of Buddhist vocabulary, although the official nomenclature was always "khubilghan" from the Mongolian. The use of the Chinese term "huofo (living Buddha)" to refer to a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist high monk emerged in the Yuan dynasty, and it became quite popular during the Ming. A passage from the poem "Ode to a Court Lady from Changan" in the Han Wuquan Shi by Han Bangjing made such reference. Han was awarded the jinshi degree at the Imperial Examination in the 3rd year of the Zhengde reign (1508) in the Ming dynasty. Later, he offended the emperor and was sent to prison and stripped of his official post. The Zhengde emperor (r. 1505-1521) enjoyed the company of Tibetan Buddhist monks and often held rituals at court. He even went so far as to call himself the Daqing Dharma King, and his behavior brought him much criticism from Confucian scholars.

Lama Life

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Boy monks

Young men study for around five years in addition to their monk training, or ten years straight, to become lamas. They usually begin their training at monasteries at age six. Tibetan Buddhism encourages lamas to counsel students individually while Chinese Buddhism puts more emphasis on teaching monks in groups in monasteries.

Shrines in homes are often decorated with pictures of lamas. If you meet a lama you should present him with a scarf. The scarfs can usually be purchased at the temples where the lamas reside. When face to face with a saint or revered lama Tibetans often try to lift up the robes and touch the feet of the lama as an act of reverence

Among the few possessions owned by a lama are a ceremonial bowl made from a human skull, silver charms to keep away biting dogs and disease, and a three-edged ritual dagger to keep away ignorance, passion and aggression.

Most Tibetan villages or towns have resident lamas. They, along with local lay priests and shaman, are called upon to heal the sick, settle disputes, preside over religious activities and predict the future and read omens for auspicious and inauspicious times.

Traditionally, lamas have presided over important events in a Tibetan person's life. Journalist Thomas Ambercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Much of what education he has comes from lamas, who also bless his birth, consecrate his wedding, interpret his future, cure his ills, and — when the trials of the present incarnation cease — cremate his remains. His social life is tuned to the lively festivals held at lamaseries."

Many lamas are married men not celibate monks. Yellow sect lamas do not marry, but lamas of most other sects are free to do so. The religious leaders of many villages are married lamas. They believe they have inherited their places in society from the last Tibetan kings and this gives them spiritual and social authority. Some use their position to make money by blessing homes, livestock and people in return from money, goods or labor.

Blessing By a Lama

Isabella Tree wrote in the Sunday Times: ““Rosa and I waited outside Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery for a break in the morning's teachings, and a chance to have an audience with the renowned Rinpoche Chokyi Nyima. He was born in Tibet in 1951 and, at the age of 18 months, was recognised as the seventh incarnation of the Drikung Kagyu Lama and a spiritual emanation of Nagarjuna, the second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher. After the Chinese invasion, Chokyi Nyima fled to Sikkim, where he became aide to the 16th Karmapa. It was the Karmapa who, in the early 1970s, instructed Chokyi Nyima to establish a monastery at Boudhanath, where there is a substantial community of Tibetan exiles, and to turn his efforts towards instructing western practitioners (Richard Gere, Laurie Anderson and Steven Seagal are among the followers).[Source: Isabella Tree, Sunday Times, December 31, 2006]

“The doors of the shedra flew open and a hundred or so mainly western practitioners streamed out for tea. Rosa and I removed our shoes and entered the gigantic shrine hall. On a high platform sat the beneficent, walnut-faced figure of Chokyi Nyima — like Yoda, but without the ears. A queue of supplicants was inching its way around the walls for his blessing. One by one, they approached the dais, some relaxed and talkative, others bowing obsequiously. As each came before him, the Rinpoche leant forward intently, sometimes muttering a mantra or blowing on their heads, as if exorcising a demon.

“When it came to my turn, I found myself suddenly nervous. It's not every day you stand in front of a reincarnate lama. Clumsily, I thrust forward my gift — a box of Rococo creams. "Ah, chocolates!" he smiled. "From London," I spluttered. It was only later I wondered what the Enlightened One would make of Passion Fondant and Venus Nipples. "I wanted to ask you", I stammered, "what do you think makes Buddhism so appealing to westerners?"

“When he spoke, it was with surprising clarity. His English had a distant American twang. "It is because Buddhism is not a religion, so to speak. It is a science, a way of understanding the world. It is practical. The wisdom side is sharp and the compassion side is beautiful. Even so, it is difficult for westerners to understand the east, just as it is for east to understand west. It takes a lot of hard work, and patience." It seemed a great feat — to be transmitting the philosophical Everests of Buddhism to the flat, materialistic landscape of the western world.

China and Lamas

The Communist Party, aware that Buddhism is central to Tibetans, has tried to select and prop up lamas who will support the government while still retaining legitimacy among the people. This is one of the chief indicators that China has failed in Tibet, said Barnett, the Columbia scholar. It’s failed to find consistent leadership in Tibet by any Tibetan lama who is really respected by Tibetan people, and who at the same time endorses Communist Party rule.

Ezzat Shahrour, chief of Al Jazeera’s Beijing office, said: “Some Western countries and media organizations have successfully projected the Dalai Lama as the sole legal representative of Tibetans around the world. However, the government of Tibet Autonomous Region hasn't put forth a person representing Tibetans to talk on an open basis about their worries and problems with the Chinese Central Government. Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities haven't a widely-accepted Tibetan representative, through whom they may mitigate problems. In this circumstance, the Dalai Lama becomes the sole legal representative of Tibetans, and Tibet thus becomes a global issue.

On a special porridge made by lamas for the Chinese Emperor in the 19th Century , Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: " This year, upon the recurrence of the event, the Imperial Household presented to the lamas of the Yung Ho Monastery Tls. 500, nominally as the sum required for the preparation of the porridge above-described. On the afternoon of the day previous, the customary porridge having been duly prepared by the lamas, two officers of the highest rank were delegated to inspect the same, and early the next morning this porridge was reverentially poured into a wooden pail, the inside of which was gilded. For a cover to this pail, a piece of yellow satin with dragon figures embroidered in gold was used. This pail with its contents was then carried into the palace, to be partaken of by His Imperial Majesty and the members of the Imperial Household." Household to make a gift in money to certain revered Lamas residing at the Capital, who in return, present a combination porridge, made of beans, rice, fruits, etc., eight ingredients in all, commonly called La-pctrchiu. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Chinese-Government-Sanctioned Lama

On a Chinese-government-sanctioned paraded to meet Western reporters, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “A 49-year-old Tibetan monk at the Dazha Monastery blew into the monastery meeting room on a cloud of effortless charm, wearing a burgundy robe and spectacles. He was so affable that even the Chinese Communist Party officials, ill-humored and imperious, seemed to bow a bit in his presence.

“He gave his name in Chinese as Zhada. He approached the journalists and officials and shook our hands. “I’m a fan of German soccer,” he told a German reporter and feigned a kick with his right foot. The reporter laughed. Then the monk sat at the front of the room, and we picked up our notebooks. He began the interview on script. He praised the government for donating books to the monastery library. He said the area’s new highways and cellphone towers have improved monks’ lives by enabling them to share Tibetan culture with the world. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2017]

““What do you think of the Dalai Lama?” a Singaporean reporter asked. The living Buddha took a breath, and the room fell quiet. His response was peculiar. “The Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and many other Lamas are all living Buddhas,” he said. “We have respect for all of them.” “The reporters stared quizzically. Other people we had encountered on the trip — both officials and Tibetans — had refused to speak about the Dalai Lama or branded him a separatist in keeping with the party line. Was this Zhada’s way, under extreme pressure, of expressing support for the spiritual leader? Had he crossed a line? Answers were not forthcoming. Soon afterward, the living Buddha stood, and the officials shuffled us out of the room.

Western Lamas

Ossian Maclis, the child of an American and British hippie couple living in Kathmandu, was the first Western child to be selected as a child reincarnation of a lama. He was born in 1967 and was selected partly because he said things like "I belong to everyone" and asked to be taken to "his monastery.” Since Maclise a dozen or so reincarnated lamas have appeared in Europe and North America.

The Lama Yeshe is Spanish-born Osel Torres. Discovered in 1987 when he was two, he was trained in monasteries in Nepal and India. His mother later wanted him back, saying, "The monks are spoiling him rotten...I don't care how much of a lama he is, he still needs his mother." Torres was the inspiration for the film “Little Buddha”.

A four-year-old by from Seattle named Sinam Wangdu Lama is said to he be the reincarnation of the exiled Tibetan monk Deshung Rinpoche 3rd. He was brought up in a remote monastery near Kathmandu by his mother, Carolyn Lama, a lapsed Catholic from Indiana. After boy entered the monastery, a lama there was asked about the boy’s welfare. He said: "What's more important? Having a sincere feeling of infinite compassion for all beings, or eating 60,000 Chicken McNuggets?"

There have been cases of Tibetan monks disavowing their religion and choosing the ways of the West. Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche decided to cast off his robes and denounce his order and study film in Madrid and reportedly has become a regular at some local discos. “The Buddha from Brooklyn” by Leila Philip is about a psychic who is suddenly declared the incarnation of a 17th century Tibetan saint.

In 2016, the Huffington Post reported: “Jalue Dorje is a 9-year-old from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His life is filled with the typical past times of a soon-to-be fourth-grader: collecting Pokemon cards, playing soccer, watching shows on his laptop. But Dorje also has responsibilities of a more spiritual nature. Along with perfecting his swimming strokes in the pool, the young boy spends his summer vacations learning Tibetan Buddhist mantras, practicing religious calligraphy, and attending ceremonies. That’s because Dorje is believed to be a tulku — a reincarnated lama, or Buddhist spiritual leader. According to Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, the child has been recognized by the Dalai Lama as the eighth reincarnation of the Takshem lama, a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who lived in the 16th century. [Source: Huffington Post, Aug 17, 2016]

“The signs of Dorje’s special calling came early. His mom, Dechen Wangmo, and his dad, Dorje Tsegyal, both claim to have experienced vivid dreams while their son was still in the womb. When a respected lama from India visited Minnesota, the parents told him about the dreams. Soon, the lama had dreams of his own, in which he saw huge tigers roaming through the family’s home. Tigers are a sign of strength and protection in Tibetan Buddhism, according to the Star Tribune. The search for an answer about the young boy’s calling soon traveled up to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, who also recognized that Dorje was indeed a reincarnation of the Takshem lama.

“Traditionally, young people who are identified as tulkus move to India to study full time in a monastery. But the Dalai Lama suggested that Dorje continue to live as a normal young American child, studying in school and learning to live within the modern world. When Dorje gets older, he’ll move into a monastery in the Himalayas to continue his religious training. After 10 years, he’ll come back to serve Minnesota, which has the second largest Tibetan Buddhist community in America.

Image Sources: Julie Chao, , Shunya.net, Purdue University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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