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Released October 9, 2003


HATTIESBURG - 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.

"Most 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.

Lama means "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 ever met."

In addition 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.

"The positive 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."

According to 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.

"Lamas 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.'"

Capper said 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 journey.

"The goal of enchantment is not to worship the lama, but to use him as a method to become a lama yourself," he said.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM