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The Lamas of Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 92. Sangharakshita ` The Lamas of Tibet Friends.

This evening, I'm going to say something on the subject of the Lamas of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is quite a popular subject for lectures and people usually are quite interested to hear something about the lamas of Tibet. In the course of the last ten or fifteen years, ever since the unhappy invasion of Tibet by the Communist Chinese, we have heard quite a lot about the lamas of Tibet, especially about the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and various other incarnate lamas of that great Buddhist country. This evening we're going to try to understand what this expression `the Lamas of Tibet' really means. What it really signifies. Now we must observe, to begin with that there is quite a lot of misunderstanding about the meaning of the word lama. So let's deal with the particular topic first - the meaning of the word lama. The literal meaning of the word is simply superior and it is said to translate the sanskrit word `uttana', which also means that which is higher or that which is superior. So, lama means superior, and superior in the sense of that which is, or someone who is spiritually superior. So this idea of not only the superior, but that which is, or the person who is spiritually superior, introduces an extremely important idea ` an idea which underlies, in one form or another not only practically the whole of Tibetan Buddhism but practically the whole of Buddhism itself and, in fact, any system of spiritual life and spiritual thought. And that is the idea of what we may describe in a few words as the idea of spiritual hierarchy. Now, what do we mean by this' IF we want to explain it fully or at all deeply, we have, as it were, to go back to the beginning and we have to introduce the conception of what is usually known as degrees of reality. Or, if you like, degrees in existence. So perhaps degrees of reality or levels of reality is less open to misunderstanding. The idea is that the level of experience on which we at present are, which we usually occupy. That is to say, the level of waking experience, the experience through which the five senses experience through the lower mind. This is just one level, this is just one degree, this is one grade merely of experience of reality. Above this there are other, higher levels of existence ` of being, of consciousness, in a word, of reality. So that the whole of existence is as it were, like a great scale, or like a great stair on which we occupy the lowest level or the lowest rack, speaking in terms of human understanding and experience and consciousness. So this is the conception, to begin with, of what we call degrees of reality. At the lower levels, the lower rungs, are less real and those at the top most real, as it were, of all. So, in all spiritual systems, whether Buddhism or Hinduism, Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Sufism and so on, one gets this conception of the hierarchical system of reality. That there are degrees and grades of reality in the structure of existence itself. And this has an important corollary in terms of experience. If there are degrees of reality, it means that there are degrees of spiritual experience, even degrees of enlightenment, if you like, in accordance with the level or the degree of reality, which is being experienced. On our present level there is, as it were, objectively a certain level or certain degree or certain grade of reality ` a comparatively low one. Then on the subjective side, corresponding to that is our experience of that reality of that lower degree of reality, which in as much as it is an experience of a lower degree of reality, is itself an experience of a lower degree, a lower kind in the hierarchy of experiences. So objectively one has this hierarchy of existence, the hierarchy of the degrees of reality and subjectively one has the hierarchy of degrees of experience or even, ultimately levels of Enlightenment. So this being the case, we have also a hierarchy, as it were, of being. Those who live and move and have their being on the lower levels, they are beings occupying the lower reaches, as it were, of the hierarchy. Those who live and move and have their being on the higher levels, or even on the highest levels of all these represent beings who in the scale or hierarchy of beings occupy a higher place. So one has in the first place the hierarchy of the degrees of reality objectively, subjectively, the hierarchy of the degrees of experience and then, in terms of people, in terms of persons, the hierarchy of beings, even the hierarchy of spiritual beings, even the hierarchy of Enlightenment. So therefore, when we enter upon the spiritual life, we automatically take our place in a hierarchy of spiritual beings. And when we take our place in the hierarchy of spiritual hierarchy, we find, inevitably that there are some being who are above us and that there are some, perhaps, who are below us. Usually of course we will find that most of the beings in the spiritual hierarchy are above us and very few, or even in some cases practically none at all, are below us. In other words, when we take our place in the spiritual hierarchy, most of the beings who are already members of that spiritual hierarchy are our spiritual superiors in as much as they belong to a higher degree, on a higher level of reality by virtue of their higher degree or level of spiritual experience. So, in relation to us they are spiritual superiors, on other words, in relation to us, they are what the Tibetans call lamas. Now this whole way of thinking we usually find is rather distasteful to the modern mind. The modern mind doesn't like to think in terms of anybody being as it were, spiritually superior. The modern mind tends rather to like to think that everybody is on the same flat level, it's all democratic, it's all, as it were, equal, that nobody is really superior to anybody else.

Though it may be in an ultimate spiritual essence in respect of ultimate Buddhahood, nobody is superior or inferior to anybody else. But in terms of actual attainment, in term of actual manifestation of that inner essence, there is a very definite distinction. Some are higher and some are lower, and in the Buddhist tradition generally, a considerable importance attaches to the recognition of this sort of hierarchical principle. For instance, when one is ordained as a bhikshu, a Buddhist monk, one of the things they do immediately after the ordination is to take the time of the ordination. And they will tell you, for instance, that the time of your ordination is fifteen minutes past nine in the morning and such and such a day, of such and such a month, in such and such a year.

They give the dates of course, according to the Buddhist calendar and the phases of the moon. And there is a reason why they do this ` because you may subsequently meet another monk and you may ask him `Well, when were you ordained'` and you discover that he was ordained in the same year. So alright, you ask farther, `which month'` You might even find he was ordained on the same day. So then you have to ask `What time'`.

Then you may find that you were ordained fifteen minutes before he was, and that makes you senior to him by fifteen minutes. But the idea is that in the Sangha, there cannot be ever complete equality in respect of the position you occupy in the hierarchy, as it were in this case, not the spiritual hierarchy, but merely the ecclesiastical hierarchy ` someone is superior, someone is, as it were, inferior. Of course, in English by virtue of our very way of looking at these things, the words superior and inferior have got rather unpleasant connotations. It isn't quite like that in the East because there no one minds being inferior and no one objects to anyone being spiritually superior. So this particular tradition with regard to the bhikshu ordination and seniority in the Order illustrates the great importance in Buddhism which is attached tot his whole principle of what we may call spiritual hierarchy. But as I have said, very often in the West, in the modern West at least people find this principle rather hard to accept and they're not very happy at the idea that there might be lots and lots of people spiritually superior to them. But according to Buddhist tradition and Buddhist teaching, this sort of attitude, this sort of reluctance to recognise others as spiritually superior and therefore as deserving of respect and even reverence is a sign of what we would call egotism and it is emphasised that until this is overcome, `til one is generally able to look up to those who are spiritually superior and adopt a more receptive attitude, very little spiritual progress is possible. At bottom, what one has to accept, as it were, is this whole principle of spiritual hierarchy, the fact that there are degrees of reality, degrees of spiritual experience, degrees of spiritual attainment and also, therefore, people who are spiritually superior as well as spiritually inferior.

Now the hierarchy of spiritual beings constitutes, we may say, a sort of chain. IN a chain, one link, as it were, depends on another. If you hang the chain vertically then the lower link will depend on the higher link, and so on all the way down that chain. So it's just the same with the chain of spiritual being, the being who constitutes or represents the higher degree. So in this way one has a chain of spiritual beings from the heights right down as it were, in to the depths. And this chain of spiritual beings is not a dead chain, as it were, but a living chain: all the link of which are interconnected. And not only that but according to not only the general Buddhist teaching but specifically the Tibetan Buddhist teaching, up and down that chain ` living chain of spiritual beings, there run all sorts of spiritual influences and as it were, currents from below there runs, or ...

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