From The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen translated by Michael H. Kohn; © 1991 by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com
(bla-ma), Tib., lit., “none above”; in Tibetan Buddhism a religious master, or guru, venerated by his or her students, since he or she is an authentic embodiment of the Buddhist teachings. The term lama is used for the Sanskrit guru in the traditional Indian sense, but includes still further meanings. For the Vajrayāna, the lama is particularly important, since his or her role is not only to teach rituals but also to conduct them. As spiritual authority, the lama can be the head of one or several monasteries and possess political influence. The spiritual “value” of the lama is indicated by the honorific title rinpoche (“greatly precious”), which is bestowed upon especially qualified masters. Today, however, lama is often used as a polite form of address for any Tibetan monk, regardless of the level of his spiritual development.
The traditional training of a lama includes many years of study of the various disciplines of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. Only after completion of a so-called retreat of more than three years was the lama finally authorized to refer to him- or herself as such and to transmit knowledge to others.