Although lamas are becoming increasingly popular in the United States,
there is still a misunderstanding about the role these spiritual
leaders play in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
people aren't familiar with the term 'lama.' We're not talking about
a furry pack animal that resembles a horse," said Dan Capper,
assistant professor of religion at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Winner of this year's Humanities Teacher Award from the Mississippi
Humanities Council, Capper presented a lecture Wednesday titled
"Enchantment with Tibetan Lamas in the United States"
as part of national Arts and Humanities month.
"guru," which translated literally from Sanskrit means
"a weighty person." Acting as spiritual teachers, lamas
provide empowerment, spiritual guidance, health care and even tidbits
of living advice to their devotees, who are growing in number in
this country as Americans disillusioned with more traditional dogmas
turn to this Eastern philosophy.
In 1955, Tibetan
Buddhism took root in the United States, beginning in New Jersey,
and since then it has grown "remarkably," Capper said,
claiming some 300,000 followers today. "Even Hollywood is getting
in on the act. Movies like "Kundun" and "Seven Years
in Tibet," and actors embracing it like Steven Segal and Richard
Gere, have made it popular," Capper said. "It's still
a minority in this country, but its growth is dramatic."
Part of the
appeal are lamas, who stand at the center of the religion. In his
ethnographic studies of Tibetan Buddhist converts in the United
States, Capper found that many who adopted the religion did so because
of their enchantment with the lama-devotee relationship. In this
relationship, the lama acts as a spiritual mentor guiding the devotee
along a path to enlightenment. Citing an example of a conversation
conducted during his studies, Capper said one convert called his
personal lama "the wisest and most compassionate person I've
to the appeal of charismatic lamas, Tibetan Buddhism has grown for
several other reasons in this country, Capper said. The lure of
meditation, a well-known stress reliever, is an integral part of
the religion but is not readily found in others, he said. Also,
converts are attracted to the Buddhist moral code, which Capper
said many consider a superior form of ethics. The Buddhist approach
to metaphysics and cosmology is another appeal. However, at the
center of it all is the lama.
attraction rises from the perceived mystical powers of the lama,"
Capper said. Lamas are also considered paradigms of the Buddhist
idea of social compassion. Capper said that repeatedly in his research,
he found that lamas "radiate compassion."
their devotees, lamas also "practice what they preach,"
Capper said, and because of this, they are able to achieve a "mixing
of the minds" with their followers that can ultimately confer
the same spiritual wisdom upon them.
are presumed to already be enlightened, so disciples reach enchantment
by mixing one's mind with the mind of the lama. By exposure to the
lama, one takes on more of his characteristics," Capper said.
"Lamas can zap one with 'mind to mind spiritual experience.'
This long term mixing of the minds is what I call 'enchantment.'"
the confusion about the guru-devotee happens because people see
this intimate relationship as "mindless following." It
is a misconception, he said, because autonomy and critical thinking
among followers are crucial traits for a devotee on his or her spiritual
of enchantment is not to worship the lama, but to use him as a method
to become a lama yourself," he said.