The Traditional Meaning of a Spiritual Teacher

The Rectification of Terms

Titles, particularly those in foreign languages, often mystify Western people. They frequently conjure romantic images that are inappropriate. This especially happens with the various titles for spiritual teachers, such as – in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – guru, lama, tulku, rinpoche, geshe, and khenpo. These titles are baffling enough when applied to traditional Asian teachers. They become even more puzzling when converted Westerners go by them.

Classical Chinese philosophy teaches that difficulties often come because of confusion about terms. This insight aptly applies to issues of translation. Imprecise translation terms often give people wrong ideas, especially when the two languages involved are from widely divergent cultures. If terms actually convey their intended meanings, then people trying to embody the principles represented by the words can endeavor to act in the intended ways. Confucius therefore called for a "rectification of terms." If people know how a ruler and a subject, or a parent and a child, need to act and what is the proper relationship between the two, they can try to follow that model. Success in their efforts will bring harmony to society. On the other hand, if social roles become confused and people do not follow proper guidelines, chaos and disaster will easily follow. We may extend this principle to a spiritual teacher and a spiritual seeker. If we are sloppy with our use of terms and let anyone call him or herself a guru or a disciple, we open the door to unfortunate relationships.

We need standards. Just as consumer groups keep vigilant watch on the quality of products, we need a similar approach regarding spiritual teachers. The hierarchic structure of Tibetan Buddhism differs greatly from that of an organized Church. Neither the Dalai Lama nor the heads of the four traditions have the authority to dictate who are qualified teachers or to declare people incompetent. Moreover, nowadays, because of possible lawsuits in the West, we cannot expect either individuals or boards of authority to take responsibility for guaranteeing other people's ethical conduct.

In his book, Personal Instructions from My Totally Excellent Teacher, the outspoken Nyingma master Patrul indicated the only reasonable approach: spiritual seekers need to take responsibility themselves. Charlatans and scoundrels may present themselves as great teachers. They may even have professionals launch effective advertising campaigns for their books and lecture tours. Nevertheless, it is up to the public to choose whether or not to become their followers. If we know the standards, we will not let imitations fool us. We will only be satisfied with authentic masters.

The Derivation of the Words Guru and Lama

To gain insight into the subtle connotations of Buddhist technical terms, we need to look to the etymology of each of their syllables. In the case of Sanskrit, each syllable and sometimes even each letter of a word may imply other terms that contain that syllable or letter. In the case of Tibetan, each syllable of a word may either constitute a word on its own or be a syllable in another term. The explanatory tantra, A Vajra Garland, for example, indicated the most advanced steps of the tantra path encoded in this manner in the first forty Sanskrit syllables of The Guhyasamaja (Assembly of Hidden Factors) Tantra. Therefore, as a first step toward implementing a rectification of terms, let us apply this traditional Buddhist analytical tool to the various Sanskrit and Tibetan words for a spiritual teacher.

The most well-known Sanskrit term for a spiritual teacher is guru. Although in several Western countries, the word guru negatively connotes the head of a cult, the term literally means someone weighty or heavy. This does not mean that gurus are necessarily fat, although many are in fact overweight. Nor does it mean that gurus provide oppressively serious company. Most Buddhist teachers, especially Tibetan ones, have great senses of humor. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, for example, laughs and jokes whenever something strikes him funny, even when teaching the most profound subjects. The connotation, instead, as the founder of the Sakya Tsar tradition, Tsarchen, explained in A Commentary on [Ashvaghosha's] "Fifty Stanzas [on the Guru]," is that gurus are weighty with qualifications. Gu is short for guna, good qualities, and ru stands for ruchi, a collection.

Moreover, gurus are weighty in the sense of having a substantial presence. Anyone in the room with a true guru, if at all sensitive, can feel that the person's outstanding qualities far surmount those of anyone else. As gu also stands for guhya, hidden, and ru for rupa, body, the full scope of qualities that gurus embody far exceeds imagination. Thus, gurus are sublime beings, since u stands for uttara, meaning supreme.

The Tibetans translated guru as lama (bla-ma). La means unsurpassable or sublime, while ma means mother. Lamas resemble mothers in that they have given birth internally to what is sublime. In other words, lamas are people who are extraordinarily advanced in spiritual development. Moreover, lamas help others to give birth to their own achievements of similar states. The word lama, however, connotes far more.

As that which is unsurpassed, la refers to bodhichitta – a heart fully focused on enlightenment and totally dedicated to achieving it to benefit others. It derives from love and compassion. Enlightenment is the highest level of spiritual self-development possible, reached with the elimination of every negative trait and with the realization of every positive quality. Its actualization is equivalent to Buddhahood and brings the ability to help others as fully as is possible. Ma connotes wisdom, which is the mother of all spiritual attainments. Lamas, then, combine totally dedicated hearts with wisdom and are able to lead others to similar achievements. In possessing these outstanding features, lamas are weighty with good qualities.

As gurus, lamas are also substantial persons whose presence impresses, uplifts, and inspires others. Another usage of la connotes this ability and reveals deeper levels of its significance.

La as a Cosmic Force

The early Tibetans used la in a sense similar to the Old Turkic word qut. According to the beliefs of the Old Turkic people of Central Asia, qut is a cosmic force linking the earth with the infinite sky. A holy mountain in Mongolia serves as its anchor. Whoever rules this mountain embodies its qut. Consequently, the person gains the power and charisma to unify the Turkic tribes and to become the Great Khan (the grand ruler). Thus, as an integrative force, qut empowers greatness and majesty. It allows a ruler to bring his often-warring people together and to organize them into a powerful nation.

The concept of qut, as la, came into the Tibetan cultural sphere via Central Asian astrology. In this context, la is the life-spirit force within each person that empowers or enables the individual to organize and to keep together his or her affairs. Astrological calculations can indicate the strength of this force during particular periods. When people's life-spirit force is strong, they become as stable as a mountain. When it is weak or stolen by harmful forces, they lose the ability to function normally.

Another dimension of la derives from its usage in the Kalachakra (cycles of time) teachings. There it appears as part of the subtle energy-system of the body. Among the components of this system is a life-spirit drop. This subtle creative drop or spark of energy (tigley, thig-le; Skt. bindu), also called bodhichitta in Sanskrit, passes to different spots in the body each day during a monthlong cycle. Life-spirit energy gathers around it, rendering the spot in which the drop is located the most potent point in the body that day for medical treatment with acupuncture or cauterization.

The early Tibetans translated bodhichitta here as la, undoubtedly because of the similarity between the life-spirit drop in Indian physiology and the life-spirit force in Central Asian astrology. A further rationale for this choice was perhaps that bodhichitta, in its meaning as a totally dedicated heart, reigns as the unsurpassed method for attaining enlightenment. Since la also means unsurpassable, it can serve as a synonym for bodhichitta according to the principles of Sanskrit and Tibetan poetics.

The Full Original Meaning of a Lama

Putting together the various meanings of la gives a fuller picture of some of the outstanding qualities that lamas possess and can lead others to attain. Lamas have the force to tame their wild behavior and disturbing emotions so that they become as stable and substantial as mountains. With this force, lamas can organize their lives to benefit all. This life-spirit force is a dedicated heart of bodhichitta, which grants lamas the charismatic power to affect the most beneficial and healing changes in others. Further, by the force of their spiritual development, lamas possess the power to tame wild disciples and to help them to organize their lives most meaningfully. This power derives from heartfelt love and compassion. These aspects of la constitute the "method" side of a lama's attainment.

Ma, as mother, refers to the wisdom embodied in The Prajnaparamita Sutras, the scriptural texts in which Buddha taught far-reaching discriminating awareness (sherab, shes-rab; Skt. prajñā), the "perfection of wisdom." These texts and their contents are often called the "mother of all Buddhas," since mastery of them gives birth to enlightenment. Lamas are those with mastery of the scriptures and their contents. They combine their wisdom with all aspects of method. Like good mothers, lamas nurture disciples and raise them to be mature spiritual adults.

The original meaning of the term lama, then, is a highly advanced spiritual teacher. Such persons are fully capable of guiding disciples along the entire Buddhist path, all the way to enlightenment, by virtue of the qualities implied by the connotations of guru, la, and ma. The classical textual presentation of how to relate to a spiritual teacher refers to the optimal relationship with such a person. To rectify problems in student-teacher relationships, spiritual teachers need to live up to this meaning of the titles guru and lama.

Other Uses of the Word Lama

Tibetan Buddhism developed four major traditions – Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug – and spread beyond Tibet to the other Himalayan regions, Mongolia, much of northern China, Manchuria, parts of Siberia, and several other Central Asian cultures. Because of this diversity, the word lama gradually acquired other meanings. One source of confusion about so-called guru-devotion comes from thinking that the practice applies to lamas in different senses of the word. A survey of the other types of lamas may help with the rectification of terms.

Many serious practitioners of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions enter a three-year meditation retreat. During this period, they train in the major Buddha-figure (yidam, yi-dam) systems of their lineage. Spending several weeks or months on each tantra system, they master its rituals and familiarize themselves with its meditation practice. The heads of some subdivisions of these lineages have recently started the custom of granting lama as a title to the most proficient graduates of a retreat. In the Gelug tradition, monks who successfully complete rigorous training at one of the tantric monastic colleges near Lhasa are called tantric lamas (lama gyupa, bla-ma rgyud-pa). Such monks, however, do not use lama as a title, nor do people address them as "lama."

In both these cases, lama signifies a ritual master. Although such lamas have trained in meditation, they have not necessarily achieved any spiritual attainments. Nor are they necessarily qualified to lead others through the Buddhist path. Nevertheless, they can perform the rituals correctly and can instruct others to do the same. Among the Tibetans, such lamas serve somewhat like village priests. They travel from village to village and perform rituals for people in their homes. These rituals help to bring prosperity, health, and good fortune to the families, and help to remove any obstacles to success.

Whether lamas are highly realized spiritual teachers or simply ritual masters, they may be monks, nuns, or laypeople. In Ladakh, however, and among most Mongol groups during the pre-communist era, lama became a synonym for a monk. This resembles the Indian custom of calling Buddhist monks by the honorific guru-ji. Irrespective of a monk's level of scriptural education, ritual training, or spiritual attainment, he is still a lama in this sense of the word.

During the communist period in the Soviet Union and in the Mongolian People's Republic, the authorities forced the Buddhist monks to disrobe and to break their vows. There had never been any nuns. For propaganda purposes, however, Stalin eventually allowed a few monasteries to reopen and a few former monks to perform rituals there. These people were usually laymen who wore robes during the day like uniforms at work and shed them at night when they returned home to their wives and children. They were also called lamas. Even now in the post-communist era, such people still bear the name lama. Often they counsel others by relying on astrological or divinatory means.

People who are lamas by virtue simply of being ritual masters, monks, or lay performers of monastic rituals command respect. Even if their levels of spiritual development are not particularly advanced, their training, their vows, or the services they provide makes them worthy of esteem. Nevertheless, those who are lamas in merely one of these honorific senses are not the persons to whom the classical disciple-mentor relationship refers.

Reincarnate Lamas: Tulkus and Rinpoches

Another common use of the word lama is in reference to reincarnate lamas, tulkus. Although tulkus are the reincarnations of highly advanced tantric practitioners, such practitioners need not necessarily have been great spiritual teachers, nor monks or nuns. They may have been lay meditators, for instance, who lived alone as hermits in caves. To start a line of tulkus requires usually only four conditions: (1) foreknowledge that recognition of one's future incarnations will be beneficial to others, (2) well-developed bodhichitta as the motivation, (3) sincere prayers to take rebirth in a form, beneficial to others, which will be recognized as a tulku, and (4) a certain degree of mastery of the first stage of the highest class of tantra.

Here and elsewhere in the book, we shall use the term highest tantra to refer both to anuttarayoga in the Gelug, Kagyu, and Sakya systems and to the unit formed by mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga (dzogchen, rdzogs-chen; the great completeness) in the Nyingma tradition. On the first level of highest tantra, the generation stage, practitioners generate vivid visualizations to simulate the process of death, the in-between state (bardo, bar-do), and rebirth.

Followers of great teachers who have reached some level of attainment on the generation stage, and who have thus performed the prescribed meditations at death, first consult a distinguished Tibetan master famous for extrasensory perception. In the case of highly advanced tantric practitioners who were not noted as teachers, Tibetan masters may make investigations without being requested. Through various means of divination, including dream analysis, the master determines whether or not the person in question has intended to start a line of tulkus. If so, the master further determines if finding the present incarnation will have special benefit.

The devotion of a teacher's followers and their enthusiasm for finding the reincarnation of their mentor are not sufficient reasons for commissioning a search. Some of the most famous lamas, such as Tsongkhapa, did not start a line of tulkus. Further, some lamas, such as several successive incarnations of Shamar Rinpoche within the Karma Kagyu tradition, were not recognized during their lifetimes due to political reasons.

Once a great master has sanctioned a search for a tulku and, through further divination, given some indication of the identity of the child and where to look, the followers of the teacher in question, or a group commissioned by the sanctioning master, begin their quest. After locating two or three promising candidates of the appropriate age, they consult once more the master who directed the search. Based on indications that the children may have given of their identities, such as recognition of persons and possessions from the previous lifetime, and further divination, the master makes the final choice.

Young tulkus usually leave their families of birth shortly after recognition and, if their predecessors were monks or nuns and noted teachers, they grow up in the predecessors' private monastic homes (labrang, bla-brang). If the predecessors were not monastics or if, as monastics, were not noted teachers and thus did not have private homes, the children still enter monastic institutions and their families or patrons sponsor the construction of houses for them. To celebrate their return, the predecessors' monastic estates or the young tulkus' families or patrons make large donations to the reincarnates' affiliated monastic institutions and extensive offerings to their monks and nuns. The children inherit all former possessions and receive special education and training.

The tulku system has not been foolproof. Occasionally, even the greatest masters have admitted that they might have made mistakes in their recognition. Moreover, corruption sometimes has blemished the system when masters have acceded to political pressure or bribery to recognize certain candidates. Monastic institutions with famous teachers who attracted large donations sometimes have even declared and recognized new lines of tulkus because of their wish to continue receiving contributions.

Over a thousand lines of tulkus have been reincarnating among Tibetans, Mongols, Bhutanese, and the various Indian Himalayan people. In recent decades, several dozen have taken rebirth as Westerners or Chinese. People generally address reincarnate lamas with the honorific title Rinpoche (rin-po-che), which means Precious One. Not all Rinpoches, however, are tulkus. Current and retired abbots and abbesses also receive the title. Moreover, as signs of respect, many disciples call their spiritual mentors "Rinpoche," even if the teachers are neither tulkus nor abbots or abbesses.

The word tulku means a network of emanations (Skt. nirmāṇakāya, emanation body). Not only do fully enlightened Buddhas generate and appear as an array of emanations, so do advanced practitioners of the highest class of tantra. The array they generate is called a network of pathway-level emanations. The founders of lines of tulkus, then, may have achieved any level of spiritual attainment ranging from part of the generation stage to Buddhahood. Thus, they do not even need to have attained straightforward non-conceptual perception of reality (voidness, emptiness, the absence of impossible ways of existing). In short, only a tiny fraction of the founders of tulku lines comprises enlightened beings.

For this reason, the majority of tulkus still have negative karmic potentials in addition to a vast network of positive instincts (collection of merit). Depending on the circumstances of their upbringing and the societies in which they live, different potentials come to the fore and ripen in each lifetime. Thus, some tulkus may act in completely unenlightened ways. Nevertheless, by the force of the death-juncture meditation and prayers of the founders of their lines, their next incarnations may still be as Rinpoches, located and recognized by the masters who have determined that to do so would have special benefit. This may occur even if the tulkus in question failed to perform death-juncture meditation when they died.

Lamaism and the Traditional Social Role of Tulkus

A complex social system arose in Tibeto-Mongolian cultural regions surrounding the institution of tulkus. The reincarnate lamas became somewhat like local feudal lords and owned vast tracts of land around their monasteries and nunneries. Many peasants worked these lands, giving part of the produce to support the Rinpoches' households and the monastics under their guidance.

Despite inevitable abuses of the system, most people regarded this arrangement as a way to create positive potential (merit) for themselves and their families. The tulkus provided spiritual and social leadership. They served as the embodiments of regional identities and the focal points around which to consolidate and express regional or tribal loyalties. People had enormous faith and treated their local tulkus reverentially with highly elaborate protocol. To outsiders, it appeared almost as if they worshiped their lamas. Perhaps some did, since many considered their Rinpoches as having supernatural powers.

To differentiate this form of Buddhism from traditional Chinese Buddhist schools, the late-seventeenth-century Manchu rulers of China coined the word lamajiao (Lamaism). They called the Chinese forms of Buddhism simply fojiao (Buddhism). Making this distinction was undoubtedly part of their policy to try to gain the political allegiance of the Tibetans and Mongols in their empire. They did this by trying to impress on the two ethnic groups their fellowship with the Manchu people established by virtue of a common religion, distinct from that of the Han Chinese. Many early Western scholars adopted this custom and perpetuated the artificial distinction.

Further, the Manchus forced certain lines of tulkus to serve in the imperial government as local administrators and tax collectors. To exploit even more the people's reverence and obedience to the politically useful lamas, the Manchus called all tulkus hefo in Chinese, meaning "living Buddhas." Some Western scholars and journalists still follow this convention, creating even more confusion about lamas.

In short, as His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama stressed at the 1988 conference of tulkus in exile, just because tulkus bear famous names does not mean that they qualify now as spiritual mentors. It merely signifies that they are the reincarnations of great spiritual masters and have been born with enormous amounts of positive potential. Tulkus need to prove themselves as mentors now, through their attainments in this lifetime.

Because of inherited potentials, reincarnate lamas naturally command respect. Nevertheless, circumstances may not allow full activation of those potentials or may not be conducive for their optimal use. For example, because a Rinpoche may still be a child, the potentials may enable the boy or girl merely to advance quickly. Occasionally, excessive reverence shown by followers may act as the circumstance merely for success in power politics or empire building. In some cases, inordinate deference, lavish gifts, and high expectations may even spoil young Rinpoches or activate negative potentials for them to rebel when older. Differentiating the term reincarnate lama from lama – either in its meaning as a spiritual mentor or as a living Buddha – can help prevent disappointment.


Over the centuries, Tibetan spiritual leaders recognized several of the most politically influential tulkus as emanations of Buddha-figures. The Dalai Lamas and Karmapas, for example, were emanations of Avalokiteshvara; the Sakya heads were Manjushri; and the Panchen Lamas and Shamar Rinpoches, Amitabha. The custom extended beyond religious figures to include the early Tibetan kings as Avalokiteshvara; Confucius and the Manchu emperors of China as Manjushri; Chingghis Khan and his descendents as Vajrapani; the czars of Russia as Tara; and Queen Victoria as Palden Lhamo.

Political considerations may have influenced this development. Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani are the Buddha-figures whom Tibetan Buddhists regard as holding the responsibility to safeguard the welfare respectively of Tibet, China, and Mongolia. Therefore, according to the Tibetan way of thinking, the legitimate rulers of each of these lands must be emanations of its guardian Buddha-figure. This accounts for the identities of the early Tibetan kings, the Dalai Lamas, the Manchu emperors of China, and the Mongol Khans. The name Manchu, in fact, according to some scholars, derives from Manjushri.

The custom of identifying politically influential lamas with Buddha-figures began as early as the thirteenth century, when the second Karmapa, as Avalokiteshvara, was a candidate for becoming the ruler of Tibet. Kublai Khan, however, the first Mongol emperor of China, awarded this role to the Sakya heads. As Manjushri, the Sakya heads helped to unify the Mongol Empire by serving as the spiritual heads for Chinese Buddhists as well as for the Tibetans and Mongols.

Avalokiteshvara belongs to the Buddha-family of Amitabha. Thus, the lines of Panchen Lamas and Shamar Rinpoches were emanations of Amitabha, because their founding figures were the mentors respectively of the Dalai Lama and Karmapa of their times. Further, Tara and Palden Lhamo are the traditional helper and protector associated with Avalokiteshvara. Thus, when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama sought Russian and British protection against the Chinese at the start of the twentieth century, he addressed the rulers of these lands with the honorific names of these Buddhist figures and thereby indirectly indicated their natural roles.

For Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is Avalokiteshvara. He safeguards their country and its religion and culture. The Dalai Lama, then, not only embodies the Buddha-figure representing compassion; he embodies Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. As such, he serves as the symbol of hope for all Tibetans to preserve their nation and way of life during the difficult times of Chinese military occupation. Although Western authors and journalists ascribe the name "god-king" to the Dalai Lama, he is not a god in any Western sense of the word.

Tibetan Humor

Tibetan spiritual mentors often possess mischievous senses of humor. As a playful way of showing warm regard, they sometimes call their Western disciples "Lama," "Rinpoche," or even "Dharma Protector." Occasionally, some of these Westerners do not understand the Tibetan sense of humor and publicize that they have been officially recognized. Since most Tibetans are too polite to give public disclaimers, confusion and even abuse of power have occasionally arisen from what began as an innocent joke. Analogously, some Western parents might affectionately call their children "real devils." For such a child, later in life, to assume the title Devil would be clearly absurd.

Spiritual Friends

The word commonly translated as guru in the expression guru-devotion is actually neither guru nor lama. Instead, it is kalyana-mitra in Sanskrit and geway-shenyen (dge-ba’i bshes-gnyen) in Tibetan, abbreviated as geshe (dge-bshes). The term appears in this expression exclusively within the context of the Mahayana (vast vehicle) teachings for attaining enlightenment, and translators usually render it in either language as spiritual friend. Let us look closer at the implications of the original terms to help avoid any misunderstanding.

Many translators use virtuous as the English equivalent for kalyana or gewa, the component for spiritual in this expression. A "virtuous friend," a "friend of virtue," and a "friend who leads others to virtue," however, all carry the subtle flavor in English of someone prim, stiff, and self-righteous. Constructive might perhaps be a more appropriate translation. In Buddhism, constructive behavior is to act, speak, and think in ways that build habits which, in the long term, lead to personal happiness. Spiritual friends, then, are constructive friends, friends of what is constructive, and friends who lead others to constructive behavior.

To grasp the deeper implications of being a spiritual friend requires understanding the Buddhist concept of constructive behavior. The Tibetan schools base their ethical systems on two Indian works, A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge by Vasubandhu and An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge by his brother Asanga. The combination of their explanations provides a fuller picture.

Constructive actions are those that are motivated by constructive states of mind. Such mental states consist of complexes of positive attitudes and qualities. They contain confidence in the benefits of being positive and a sense of values from respecting positive qualities and persons possessing them. Discriminating awareness that destructive behavior leads to unhappiness, a sense of scruples that allows restraint from brazenly negative behavior, and a sense of fitness to be able to refrain from such action also accompany them. Moreover, constructive states of mind come from having a sense of self-pride and concern for not disgracing one's spiritual teachers, family, or nation by acting destructively. An absence of certain negative components also characterizes constructive mental states. They lack greed, attachment, hostility, naivety, and other disturbing mental factors such as flightiness, dullness, recklessness, and laziness.

In short, constructive mental states have strong conviction of ethical principles and have the ability to follow them. Such conviction and ability naturally bring restraint from destructive behavior. As spiritual friends, spiritual mentors are teachers with constructive states of mind, which lead to constructive manners of acting, speaking, and thinking. Moreover, they are able to inspire and teach disciples to think and behave similarly.

The term constructive also refers to the ultimate spiritual attainments – liberation from the recurring problems of uncontrollable rebirth (Skt. saṃsāra) and, beyond that, enlightenment as a Buddha. The attainment of either of these states is ultimately constructive. However, since kalyana-mitra here is a Mahayana term, the constructive state to which spiritual friends lead disciples is specifically enlightenment.

The Buddhist Concept of Friendship

The second component of the term spiritual friend, mitra in Sanskrit, is the common word for friend. As the root of the word maitri, meaning love, its connotation derives from the Buddhist definition of love. Love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. As a selfless wish, it does not imply clinging attachment to the people one loves or desire for anything in return, not even reciprocal love, affection, or appreciation. Nor does it imply needing the objects of one's love for emotional security or a sense of self-worth. A friend, then, is someone with a purely altruistic attitude, not someone who, for neurotic reasons, compulsively tries to please others or to make them happy.

The Buddhist tradition further defines a friend as someone in whose presence, or in thinking of whom, one would feel ashamed to act, to speak, or to think destructively. In this sense, a true friend is actually a spiritual friend, someone who helps others to be constructive. Constructive behavior, after all, is the cause of happiness, which is the primary wish a friend holds for someone. In contrast, a misleading friend draws others away from constructive behavior and causes them either to waste their time or to act, speak, or think destructively. Such behavior leads to the experience of suffering and unhappiness, the opposite result of that wished for by love.

Shenyen, the Tibetan translation here for mitra, means literally relative-friend. In many Asian cultures, people address elders in a friendly manner by calling them "uncle" or "aunt." Those equal in age, they call "brother" or "sister," and they address any child as "son" or "daughter." Thus, a friend automatically becomes part of one's family. This carries only a positive connotation, namely that the person joins the ranks of those with whom one has a close, loving, and harmonious relationship.

Most Asians live in large extended families, with several generations residing their entire lives under a single roof. Often, a wall surrounds the home to protect the family from harm. Being with family and relative-friends implies feeling safe, physically and emotionally, with confident trust of never being attacked, abused, or led astray. Similarly, spiritual mentors and disciples form spiritual families and feel totally at home with each another. Moreover, being a member of a traditional Asian family, much like being a member of a traditional Mediterranean one, nurtures and supports one's life-spirit force. Being a member of a mentor's spiritual family functions similarly. It gives the strength to organize and maintain a vigorous and healthy spiritual life.

Although spiritual mentors may be older, younger, or the same age as their disciples, the teachers are always the spiritual elders. The common Tibetan word for teacher, gegen (dge-rgan), often used in its abbreviated form gen (rgan) as a familiar term of address, in fact means a spiritual elder. Again, spiritual here is a loose translation of the word for constructive. As spiritual elders, mentors command the greater deference, although of course both sides deeply respect each other. Disciples respect the teachers' realized qualities, while teachers respect the disciples' potentials.

Spiritual friendship, then, in the strict sense of the Buddhist technical term, does not imply that the two people involved are equal like two buddies would be. In a Western friendship, both parties are called friends, whereas here only the spiritual mentor is called the spiritual friend. Although fellow Dharma students or fellow disciples may be spiritual friends in the Western sense of friends, they are not each other's spiritual mentors or guides. Even if being with one another leads both of them to think and to act constructively, fellow students cannot lead each other to enlightenment as Buddhas. At best, they may accompany one another.

The closest Western analogy to a spiritual friend in the Buddhist sense is perhaps a platonic friend in its classical meaning. A platonic friend, as a more mature and experienced person, is a teacher and mentor with whom a relationship uplifts and leads a younger person to the highest level of spiritual ideal. A lack of romance, sex, and base emotion characterize the loving relation between the two. Unlike ancient Greek thought, however, Buddhism does not conceive of the relationship in the context of spiritualized, ideal beauty, goodness, and truth. Instead, it formulates the relationship in terms of familial closeness and aims it at the attainment of enlightenment.

Geshes and Khenpos

Geshe, the abbreviated form of the Tibetan term for a spiritual friend, originally was a title used in the Kadam tradition for great spiritual teachers. Simplicity, humility, and hidden greatness characterized the Kadampa Geshes. Especially noted for their teachings on lojong (blo-sbyong), cleansing of attitudes (mental training), they embodied everything that they taught.

The Gelug tradition reunited the fragmented Kadam lineages, reformed corruptions, and continued as its successor. Subsequently, the Fifth Dalai Lama borrowed the title Geshe and used it to replace previous titles for the degree granted at the successful conclusion of the Gelug monastic education system. Currently, the term retains that usage. So far, only monks have received this degree, although in exile nuns and laypeople have begun to study for it.

Becoming a geshe requires memorizing texts, studying them for more than twenty years with logic and debate, and passing several levels of intensive examinations. It does not require incorporating the meaning of the texts into one's self-development, nor does it imply experience and proficiency in meditation. The title Geshe, then, resembles a Ph.D. Like its Western counterpart, it does not guarantee the teaching skills or character of its holder. Many geshes, of course, possess those skills and are spiritually realized. Their titles, however, merely indicate scholarly expertise.

The same pertains to the title Khenpo (mkhan-po), meaning a learned one. Equivalent to a Geshe degree, Kagyu and Nyingma monasteries grant it to successful graduates of their education systems. Those who complete Sakya monastic education also receive a Geshe degree. They normally use Geshe as a title, however, only when they travel outside the monasteries to teach. Within the monasteries, monks usually call them "khenpo." Khenpo also means an abbot of a monastery. All Tibetan traditions call abbots "Khen Rinpoche."

If a geshe or khenpo has qualifications merely like those of a professor, the person certainly commands respect for his knowledge and learning. As in the case of lamas and rinpoches, however, geshes and khenpos are not necessarily spiritual mentors capable of leading disciples to enlightenment. Only those who live up to the original meaning and implication of their titles have that skill.


For spiritual teachers to be and to act as spiritual mentors, they need to be weighty with positive qualities and need to combine compassion and bodhichitta with a deep understanding of reality. Moreover, they need to have the power to uplift and to inspire disciples to achieve the same. They need to be spiritual friends in the sense that they act, speak, and think constructively in ways that never cause long-term harm, but only ultimate benefit. These ways are always free of greed, attachment, anger, or naivety as their motivation. Instead, they arise from love and compassion and come from wisdom. Further, spiritual mentors lead disciples to constructive behavior, like friends who have become trusted, close family members. Ultimately, spiritual mentors lead disciples to liberation and enlightenment.

When spiritual teachers have the additional qualities associated with the secondary meanings of a lama, they may be even more effective mentors for inspiring disciples. For example, if laypeople acting as spiritual mentors serve in monastic settings, potential disciples gain more confidence in their commitment and authority, than if they serve outside that setting. If, in addition, spiritual mentors are monks or nuns, they set potent examples. The Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra explains the reason: people upholding monastic vows automatically command respect as representatives of the Sangha Refuge – those with straightforward, non-conceptual understanding of reality. Although such persons may be lay or ordained, the community of monks and nuns represents the Sangha as an object of respect. The use of Sangha as an equivalent for the congregation of members either of a specific Dharma center or of a group of centers is purely a Western convention.

Further, if spiritual mentors are masters of ritual who have completed three-year meditation retreats or have trained at one of the tantric colleges, people feel that this certifies their qualifications. The same is true if they have successfully completed formal monastic education and received Geshe or Khenpo degrees. Finally, if authorities have recognized spiritual mentors as the reincarnations of great tantric masters, many people automatically have strong faith in their abilities.

On the other hand, people may be merely monks, nuns, laypeople serving in monastic settings, ritual masters, monastic degree holders, recognized reincarnations, or some combination of these. Such persons certainly deserve respect and may be able to teach many things. Nevertheless, without the further qualifications indicated by the full original meanings of guru, lama, and spiritual friend, they are not spiritual mentors and guides capable of leading disciples all the way to enlightenment. We may avoid disillusionment and possible spiritual harm if we rectify terms.