Lama, which translates as "superior one," is a title officially extended only to the few dozen Tibetan Buddhist monks who have achieved the highest level of spiritual development.

Most lamas are believed to be reincarnations of previous holy men, and their places in the hierarchy are determined by these identities. Tibetan Buddhism is divided into branches. The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama lead the largest sect, and the Karmapa Lama heads the second largest.

The Dalai Lama is Tibet's spiritual leader, he holds the highest position within the dominant Gelugpa sect.

The Panchen Lama is the next highest Gelugpa leader,but does not have civil authority. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, the Chinese government tried to elevate the Panchen Lama to take his place. It didn't really work.

The Karmapa Lama is the leader of the Karmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The current Karmapa, a 14-year-old boy , is the 17th incarnation and is the only high lama accepted by both China and the Dalai Lama. A few months ago the Karmapa Lama fled Tibet and is currently seeking asylum in India.


Actually, lama (which is the Tibetan version of the Sanskrit term "guru" and has the literal meaning of "heavy one" in the sense of weighted with wisdom) is a term applicable to thousands of senior Tibetan Buddhist monks and is also carried by quite a few Westerners as well.

In the Karma Kagupa sect of which the Karmapa is the head, the common qualification is to undergo a three-year retreat during which one studies and practices the basic curriculum of sadhanas associated with various yidams so that when one gives an empowerment (wangkur) one knows which mantra goes with Green Tara and which with White Tara. (Of course many lamas have practised several such retreats.)

The standards vary from sect to sect, but this is the general approach.

This is not intended to impugn the sincerity or qualifications of any of the thousands of lamas around the world but just to clarify the point of "qualifications" and rarity of the use of the term.

sources: conversations with Ven. Tenzin Gyatso rinpoche (Dalai Lama); the late Ven. Rigpe Dorje rinpoche (the sixteenth Karmapa), the late Jigdral Yeshe Dorje rinpoche (Dudjom rinpoche, a former head of the Nyingmapa) and dozens of various lamas of the four major and a few of the minor achools of Tibetan Buddhism such as Lama Zasep Tulku. Tashi deleg, guys, if you're reading this.

La"ma Zool.

See Llama.


© Webster 1913.

La"ma, n. [Thibet. blama (pronounced la"ma) a chief, a high priest.]

In Thibet, Mongolia, etc., a priest or monk of the belief called Lamaism.

The Grand Lama, ∨ Dalai Lama [lit., Ocean Lama], the supreme pontiff in the lamaistic hierarchy. See Lamaism.


© Webster 1913.

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