Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What is a lama? Is it anything like a rinpoche or a tulku?

A lama (Tibetan term meaning “none higher”) is a teacher or guru in the tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism associated especially with Tibet. Many lamas are monks, but membership in the monastic Sangha is not a prerequisite. Whether monk or layman, a lama is one who represents the Buddha’s teaching best of all. A lama’s role is somewhat broader than that of the traditional Hindu guru in that lamas lead religious rituals as well as offering instruction about them. Extensive study and meditation includes a three-year period of seclusion. Some lamas, distinguished for their learning and spiritual attainment, receive the honorific title of rinpoche, “precious being.” Some rinpoches have the further distinction of being considered reincarnations of some earlier figure. A tulku (“transformation body”) can reincarnate the spirit of former leaders of a religious order or even be manifestations of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. In every case the individual tulku deliberately chooses to be reincarnated in a particular time and place, whereas the average person does not exercise such discretion. When certain signs appear, religious officials must investigate carefully to determine whether a possible tulku meets all the criteria. The three lamas currently most visible and influential are: the Dalai Lama, symbolic leader of the Tibetan people; the Panchen Lama, generally considered the Dalai Lama’s spiritual representative and associated with the Buddha Amitabha; and the Bogdo Lama, who leads Mongolia’s Buddhist community.


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