What is the role of a lama in Buddhism?

Well, we can go right
back to the Buddha and ask, what is the role of
the Buddha in Buddhism? And the role of the Buddha
is as a guide, as a teacher. Not a saviour, not a god, but
as this extraordinary wise, resourceful, and skillful
guide who showed us the way to become free from suffering
and the causes of suffering. So if Buddha is the primary
teacher in Buddhism, then the teachers we meet,
our personal teachers, obviously cannot be any more than guides. So any temptation to think
of them as saviour figures and to lavish worship on them
is entirely inappropriate. In a sense, the lama
is a skilled craftsman, and we want to be learned in that craft, the craft of awakening
compassion and wisdom. And he will impart to us,
or she will impart to us, she will share with us, the
means of becoming learned, becoming skilled masters ourselves. So lama simply is a Tibetan term for guru. And in the Buddhist sense,
as I said a guru is not a saviour or a god but a skilled craftsman. But then one might say, but Buddha taught and so his teachings are still present in the form of the scriptures. They’ll be enough for me. Well, one might try that
but, practically speaking, it doesn’t seem to work so easily precisely because one is
unlearned as a beginner. One doesn’t know which of
the Buddha’s teachings, and there’s so many of them, Buddha being such a resourceful teacher. There’s so many of them, as a beginner, one doesn’t know which ones to apply, where to start on this path. Which are most appropriate
for somebody like myself, and how to measure whether I’m making effective progress or not. For all these reasons, we
need to rely upon somebody who knows their way around
the Buddhist teachings. And by the way, knowing
their way around the Buddhist teachings doesn’t just mean
they have an intellectual faculty and ability to
have the right opinions or the right amount of
facts about Buddhism, but it means they themselves
have applied the teachings in their own lives and developed
some of those qualities, which mean that we can
feel the actual result to at least some extent of
the teachings in our teachers. And that then gives us further confidence. That means also they have, in developing some of the qualities of the teachings in themselves, the teachers have become
endowed with the flexibility to respond to their
students appropriately. So wise and learned and
compassionate teachers are very necessary, one might say, for all of us setting out on the path. Now as we progress on the path, as we hopefully progress along the path, our knowledge becomes greater, our experience becomes greater, we might, in fact, meet
and study with a number of different teachers
who are able to present different aspects of the
teaching or different stages of the practice to us. And that’s fine, there is no problem about that. Generally speaking, one
or two teachers will, over the course of one’s life,
be the most significant ones, the ones from whom one will probably take most personal guidance. But it’s the way the traditions work, that one usually meets not just one’s direct personal teacher,
but his or her teachers, and they also become part of
the group of one’s teachers. So that’s how it is. What is the emotional attitude we should have to the teacher? Well, as we hear his
teachings and test them with our intelligence and then test them by putting into practice,
we develop a sense of great respect and appreciation for how he or she shares
the teachings with us. And beyond that, if it’s
really accomplished teacher, the way in which the qualities
of enlightenment begin to radiate through their actions
as well as their teachings. So this is the meaning of
the often misunderstood concept of devotion in Buddhism. It’s not devotion to a saviour or a god. It’s that heartfelt
recognition of the wonderful path that is being shared
with one by the teacher. But as Sakya Pandita counsels, if somebody with the title teacher does
not teach or act in accord with the teachings of the Buddha, then we should simply ignore them. No matter what their
status or title is, they’re not for us. We should look away and walk away. So once again, it needs
a kind of intelligent appreciation of what is
the purpose of the lama to be able to develop a wise
and wholesome and productive relationship with one’s
lama or one’s lamas.

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