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Lama (Tibetan: བླ་མ་, Wylie: bla-ma; "chief" or "high priest") is a title for a Tibetan teacher of the Dharma.
The name is similar to the Sanskrit term guru (see Tibetan Buddhism and Bön). lama (la-ma or huo-Fo): General Tibetan term for spiritual teacher or guru. "Lama" means literally "heavy with qualities".
It is a title which implies that the person who is the referent of this term has demonstrated spiritual qualities and the ability to lead others in their spiritual life and path.
There are some Tibetan Buddhist traditions where you can "earn" the title "lama" after doing a certain amount of retreat and study.
In other traditions, one must earn the title "lama" by way of demonstrating their qualities over the years - or because they have been recognized clearly as a "Rinpoche" - and then are a "lama" by definition!
See also; "rinpoche."
Lama corresponds to Sanskrit guru but has a wider range of meanings in Tibetan. Can mean:
- (1) personal religious teacher, especially of Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism);
- (2) head or leading figure within a spiritual community (gompa);
- (3) a properly qualified performer of Tantric ritual. Note that the roles of lama and MONK are different. Most monks are not lamas, and lamas are not necessarily monks.
Historically, the term was used for venerated spiritual masters or heads of monasteries.
Today the title can be used as an honorific title conferred on a monk, nun or (in the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools) advanced tantric practitioner to designate a level of spiritual attainment and authority to teach, or may be part of a title such as Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama applied to a lineage of reincarnate lamas (Tulkus).
Perhaps due to misunderstandings by early western scholars attempting to understand Tibetan Buddhism, the term Lama has historically been erroneously applied to Tibetan monks in general.
Similarly, Tibetan Buddhism was referred to as Lamaism by early western scholars and travelers who perhaps did not understand that what they were witnessing was a form of Buddhism; they may also have been unaware of the distinction between Tibetan Buddhism and Bön.
The term Lamaism is now considered by some to be derogatory.
In the Vajrayana path of Tibetan Buddhism, the lama is often the tantric spiritual guide, the guru to the aspiring Buddhist yogi or yogini.
As such, the lama will then appear as one of the Three Roots (a variant of the Three Jewels), alongside the yidam and protector (who may be a dakini, dharmapala or other Buddhist deity figure).