Lama Surya Das explains why Buddhist teachers have so many titles.
Q. I hear and read about a lot of Buddhist titles–rinpoche, roshi, sensai, etc. What do they mean?
First, it is helpful to recognize that various titles are in different languages and belong to particular traditions or schools of Buddhism. For example, lama is a title that refers to a priest, spiritual teacher, or master (male and female) in Tibetan Buddhism. The word’s literal meaning is “none above” or “weighty with qualities.”
Ogden Nash once wrote a limerick, beginning: “A one-l lama, he’s a priest; a two-ll llama, he’s a beast…” While the Dalai Lama, the temporal and spiritual head of Tibet, is the best-known figure in Buddhism, he is not the highest-ranking Buddhist teacher; there is no Buddhist equivalent of the pope. Buddhism has several traditions but no single head or leader. Furthermore, a rinpoche, whose title literally means “precious jewel” and usually refers to someone who has been recognized as a reincarnate lama, has a higher rank than lama who isn’t also a rinpoche. Familiar in the West are Tibetan Buddhist masters such as my teachers, the late lamas Kalu Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche and Khyentse Rinpoche, all of whom had many disciples in the United States, and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, probably the best-known pioneer of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, who founded the Shambhala organization.
In Tibetan, the Dalai Lama (whose name means “Ocean of Wisdom”) is actually known as Kundun, “The Presence”; Yizhin Norbu, “The Wish-Fulfilling Gem”; or Gyalwa Rinpoche, “The Precious Jewel-like Buddha-Master.”
Geshe and khenpo both mean “abbot-professor” in Tibetan, and are titles of exceptional learning received after many years of spiritual study and monastic training. The Dalai Lama’s debating tutor, Geshe Rabten, who lived for many years in Switzerland, or my dzogchen master, Nyoshul Khenpo, of Bhutan, were two beloved teachers of our era.
In Japan, Zen masters are known as roshis, which literally translates as “venerable old man” or “elder master” in Japanese. Suzuki Roshi, author of the classic “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center is one of the better-known roshis. Lesser teachers, whether spiritual mentors or simply educators, are known as sensai. This is because teaching, in general, is considered a sacred profession.
In the Southeast Asian countries of Sri Lanka and Thailand where Theravada Buddhism prevails, a monk receives the title of thera (elder) before his name after 10 years in the Buddhist Order. One of my favorite Buddhist books on mindfulness and meditation practice is “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation,” written by Nyanaponika Thera. After 20 years in the Order, the higher title of mahathera is applied. In Burma, sages are known as sayadaws, which means “exalted monk”, and is roughly equivalent to rinpoche and roshi. In the United States, one of the best-known sayadaws was the late great Vipassana teacher Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma. Ajahn means Buddhist teacher in the Thai tradition and can refer to both monks and nuns. It comes from the Sanskrit term, acharya an honorific for a teacher or master in ancient India. If you run into a bhante in Sri Lanka, you have encountered a monk. The term is a respectful form of address, meaning “sir” or “venerable.” Bhikkhu (in Pali) or bhikshu (in Sanskrit) also means “monk” or “mendicant.” A bhikkuni or bhikshuni is a nun.
Buddhism in America is tending to go in the direction of less ritual, hierarchy, robes, thrones, institutionalization, titles, and honorifics. This seems in keeping with our democratic roots, secular society, and Protestant, rather than Catholic, leanings. In a meritocracy such as our society strives to be, caste, clan, family background and titles are less important than an individual’s own accomplishments. To that end, Shakespeare reminds us that a rose by any other name still smells as sweet. In America the Buddhaful, teachers are more readily recognized for their qualities than for their names or resumes. This is how it is, and should be, in spiritual traditions, too.