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The Lamas of Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

... rises, as it were, a current of reverence of devotion even a current of worship. This is going up all the time from the lower degrees. The beings or the person who are lower down in the spiritual hierarchy up towards those who are in a higher position. Then from above descending there is all the time a current, as it were, of what the Tibetans call `chin lap' which means - it's very difficult to translate ` a sort of blessing or if you like, even grace, or a sort of spiritual transmuting force or power, and this is coming down all the time.

So you get this picture, as it were of the spiritual hierarchy, the hierarchy of spiritual beings, some lower, others higher., the lower depending upon the higher and these spiritual currents and influences running up and down the devotion ascending and the blessing, the grace if you like, descending. Now, according again to the Tibetan tradition, the descending force, the blessing or the grace, takes a certain concrete form and it is essentially this which is known as the Teaching ` the guidance upon the path. Usually we think of teaching in more intellectual, in more conceptual terms, we think that the teaching means the Four Noble Truths or teaching means the Twelve Links of the Conditional Coproduction or the teaching means the Wheel of Life or the teaching means the Three Characteristics, but these are only external forms, these are only as it were, conceptual formulations. What the teaching really is, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a sort of current of spiritual force of spiritual energy descending from higher planes to lower planes, descending from those who are spiritually superior to those who are spiritually inferior, descending in such a way as to help them and guide them. The doctrinal teaching is only one of the external forms, only one of those manifestations of this, so a lama therefore is not only a spiritual superior, but also a spiritual teacher and this in Tibet is the real meaning of the word. So that when we speak of, or when we refer to, the Lamas of Tibet, what we really mean, what we really refer to are the spiritual teacher of Tibet. Now before going into this in a little detail, I want to clear up one or two misunderstandings. The word lama by Western writers and travellers is used rather loosely. A lama does not mean a monk. Very often the word lama is used as though it meant monk but this is not what it means. A lama may be a monk and amnk may be a lama, but lama itself does not mean monk.. For the word monk there are other terms in Tibetan, the most general term is trapa (`) which means simply student. If you're a Tibetan and you see lots of what we would call monk walking along the road, if you wanted to call attention to them, you would say to your friend `Look at those trapas walking along the road'. You wouldn't say ` Look at those lamas'. This would be considered quite inappropriate. So trapa is the general word for monk, then for the technically fully ordained monk, the Bhikkhu as he is called in Pali or Bhikshu in Sanskrit, the Tibetans say gelong, and for the sramanera, the novice monk, they say gitsul, and for the full upasika, what we call lay brother or lay sister, they say gerye. And the Tibetans never mix up these different categories, what is a lama, what is a monk, what is a novice, these are all clearly even sharply distinguished. But as I've said some Western writers and travellers have created considerable confusion by speaking of all monks indiscriminately, as it were, as lamas. Some confusion has also been created by the fact that some writers speak when referring to Tibetan Buddhism speak of married monks. Now if by monk you mean bhikshu, a married monk is really a contradiction in terms. What they're really referring to is not a married monk but a married lama and there are married lamas in Tibet and a married lama is not a monk but a spiritually advanced layman who is functioning as a spiritual teacher. Usually, especially in the Gelugpa tradition, a lama, a spiritual teacher, is a monk but among the Nyingmapas and Kagyupas, it very often happens that the lama or the spiritual teacher is a layman who may in some cases be married. So these are just one or two of the misunderstandings which ought to be cleared up in connection with this term lama or in connection with the `lamas of Tibet'.

Now let us go back to our main topic. The Lamas of Tibet therefore are the spiritual teachers of Tibet. Now the general Indian word for a spiritual teacher is guru. So lama means guru and when we speak of the lams of Tibet we really mean the gurus of Tibet.

Now when we say `of Tibet', what exactly do we mean' Tibet is of course a Buddhist country. So when we speak of the gurus of Tibet, we mean whose who are gurus or spiritual teachers within the context or within the framework of Tibetan Buddhism. But then the question which arises is `what do we mean by Tibetan Buddhism' And this is a very big question indeed. But broadly speaking, we may say that Tibetan Buddhism is a direct continuation of Indian Buddhism, Indian Buddhism in its totality after fifteen hundred years of development. As I've mentioned I think only yesterday, Indian Buddhism lasted for about fifteen hundred years, from about 500 BC to about 1000AD and during these 1500 years, it passed through three great phases of development, each of which lasted for about 500 years. First of all, it passed through the phase of Hinayana Buddhism or basic Buddhism, then through the phase of the Mahayana or developed Buddhism and then through the phase of the Vajrayana or esoteric Buddhism as it is sometimes called. Now during the first phase, during the Hinayana phase, the phase of basic Buddhism, Buddhism went from India to Ceylon, so the Buddhism of Ceylon represents Indian Buddhism of that first phase of development. Buddhism went to China during the second phase, the Mahayana phase, the phase of developed Buddhism. So Chinese Buddhism represents Indian Buddhism in that particular stage of its development. In other words, Hinayana plus Mahayana. But Buddhism went to Tibet during the third of the three great phases in the development of Buddhism in India, that is to say during the phase of the Vajrayana or esoteric Buddhism. So what went to Tibet from India was not just Hinayana which went to Ceylon, not just even Hinayana plus Mahayana, just as went to China but Hinayana plus Mahayana plus Vajrayana. In other words, basic Buddhism plus developed Buddhism plus esoteric Buddhism also. And this is why, as I mentioned the other day that Tibetan Buddhists themselves very often refer to Tibetan Buddhism as Triyana Tibetan Buddhism ` the Tibetan Buddhism of the three yanas. That is to say Hinayana plus Mahayana plus Vajrayana. We find all these elements in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is very often referred to as Mahayana Buddhism but it isn't just that. It's Hinayana plus Mahayana plus Vajrayana all integrated into a single system. These three yanas are not by the way, mutually exclusive.

According to Tibetan tradition, they represent three successive phases or stages of spiritual progress as well as three successive stages of historical development of Indian Buddhism itself.. I've gone into all these matters in other lectures, other talks so I'm not going to elaborate this evening. But the point that I want to make, the point which is important and relevant here is that the lamas or gurus of Tibet, are gurus in a three-fold sense. They are gurus in the Hinayana, gurus in the Mahayana and gurus in the Vajrayana. And by this one does not mean that they are three different kinds of gurus, but that they are one guru, as it were, functioning in three different ways or on three different levels, that of the Hinayana, that of the Mahayana and that of the Vajrayana.

Now when a lama or a guru or a spiritual teacher is functioning on the Hinayana level he's known in Sanskrit as the upajaya, or the preceptor. This is the technical term for the lama or the guru as functioning on the level of the Hinayana, the upajaya or the `preceptor'. And traditionally in Buddhism in the Hinayana, the upajaya is what we call a senior monk, a senior bhikshu, one who has completed at least ten years as a fully ordained monk in the order and it is such a upajaya who gives to others the Refuges and the Precepts. And within the Sangha within the monastic community it is he who presides at the time of conferring monastic ordination. If you want to be ordained as a Buddhist monk, as a Buddhist bhikshu you have to gather together at least five fully ordained Buddhist monks, in the same place, and amongst them there has to be one who is senior, one who is able to function as upajaya or lama, or guru within that particular context of the Hinayana and then the ordination can take place. Within the context of the Hinayana the lama also teaches the Dharma in the sense that he teaches basic Buddhism and gives instruction in elementary concentration and meditation. So this is what is meant by the lama functioning within the context of the Hinayana as the upajaya are as the preceptor.

Now on the level of the Mahayana, or within the context of the Mahayana, the lama or guru appears as or functions as what is known as the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva, we may say very broadly, is one who has attained a high level of spiritual perfection who occupies quite a high place in the spiritual hierarchy who's gone very far, as it were, who is nearing Nirvana, but who is at the same time renounces Nirvana for himself. The idea at the back of this statement is that as one progresses in the spiritual life, as one dissociates oneself more and more from the things of this world, from the samsara it becomes possible for one, as it were, to complete the dissociation to cut oneself off from the world, from the samsara, from other beings, and to ...

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