Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What are some of the main varieties of Buddhist religious officials or specialists?

Each of the many distinct denominations and their constituent religious institutions has its characteristic division of labor. One way to keep it all straight is to think in terms of the four functional categories of administration, instruction, pastoral care, and spiritual example. There is naturally some overlapping, but the four categories offer an idea of the kinds of responsibilities and duties Buddhists consider most important. Denominations, monastic institutions, and local temples all have administrative structures and offices. Buddhists use terms roughly equivalent to bishop, abbot, and chief priest or pastor in this regard. Teachers or preceptors are charged with instructing both monastic and lay Buddhists, especially in the meditative disciplines. At the local level, priests and monks who serve the public in monastery temples and chapels fulfill the pastoral care function, offering such services as counseling and visiting the sick, as well as leadership in worship. A final category that is in many ways distinctively Buddhist and yet difficult to define is that of spiritual exemplar. Here are located all the various ranks of revered patriarchs, founders, incarnations of previous holy persons, and individuals celebrated for teaching by example. Tibetan Buddhists, for example, call such people by various titles including lama, rinpoche, and tulku.

Buddhist priest performing prayer ritual for worshippers in a small temple in Kyoto, Japan. (Photo courtesy of David Oughton.)


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