Lama & Lamaism | Definition


Lama & Lamaism

A Lama is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher:

In the most narrow sense, the term bla ma (pronounced “lama”) refers to a lay or ordained religious instructor. It is also commonly used by Tibetans as a title for Tulku, a reincarnated Teacher.

The prominent position of the Lama in Tibetan Buddhism gave rise, first in China and then in the West, to the misnomer Lamaism to refer to Tibetan religion.

The term Lama was one of countless neologisms invented by early Buddhist translators active in 7-8th century Tibet:

It was coined to render the Sanskrit term Guru, commonly glossed in India as “heavy,” in apparent reference to the great burden of good qualities and responsibilities the religious guide carries.

The Tibetan word bla was already endowed with considerable religious weight, referring to the life-force or spirit of an individual or corporate entity, such as a family or a community.

The bla is mobile, able to establish residence in numerous external places or objects called bla gnas, or “bla support.”

Damage to the bla gnas is harmful, even fatal, to the person to whom it belongs.

More perilous still is the ever-present danger that the bla might wander away or be stolen by demons, to the detriment of the person or group. Rituals are commonly performed to prevent the loss of the bla and call it back when it has departed.

Bla also carries the senses of “high,” “appropriate,” and “lord,” and was used to translate the Sanskrit terms pati (lord) and ūrdhvam (elevated).

The second part of the word, ma, can be read as either a substantive marker, a negative particle, or “mother.”

The many meanings of both syllables has led to near-countless etymologies of the term by Tibetan and Western exegetes alike, among them “highest” (literally, “none above”) and “exalted mother.”

The Lama, incarnate or otherwise, occupies a central role in Tibetan Buddhism:

This status can in part be attributed to the influence of Tantric Buddhism. The Tantric Guru serves as the conduit for the teachings, transmitting secret instruction and rites though a series of initiations.

The tantric practitioner is enjoined to view his or her guru as a Buddha, more precious than any other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas.

Because of this the Lama is considered in Tibet to be the 4th jewel, equal if not superior to the Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha.

This exalted status is perhaps a reason for the invention of Lamaism, a term that has its roots in 18th century China:

Since the 13th century, powerful Tibetan Lamas interacted with Mongol and Chinese imperial rulers, who referred to the Lamas as seng, the term for Chinese monks.

In the 18th century, however, the category of the Tibetan Buddhist Master was differentiated from seng and transliterated as Lama. This gave rise to the term Lama Jiao, the Religion of Lama, whence came the English Lamaism:

The term was adopted by Western travellers and scholars of Tibet who routinely viewed Tibetan religion as a debased mingling of indigenous Tibetan animism with “pure” Indian Buddhism, and hence literally unworthy of being called Buddhism.

Though usage persists, the term Lamaism is considered offensive by Tibetans and is by and large dropping out of circulation.