Are the titles “lama” and “rinpoche”, referring to a Buddhist teacher or leader, titles that are granted? Or are they titles that someone can give themselves? Or both?

By “granted” I mean they require someone to have some form of formal qualifications (as how US pastors are required to have a bachelors degree); religious training (similar to Catholic priests going to a seminary); or backing of a community (general consensus that this person is worthy of the title, regardless of whether they were formally trained or self-taught).

By “give themselves” I mean, can they refer to a person who teaches and guides others how to practice forms of Buddhism, either formally or informally, but independently of an institution?


  • This question has been on my mind since watching this video. I’m not intending to insult anyone, or claim Segal is a liar (I’ve no opinion in the matter), but watching the video made me realise that apart from the Dalai Lama, I’ve no idea whether becoming a lama or rinpoche is a formal process or not. youtu.be/7Gt-7U1ctao Apr 15, 2022 at 12:05
  • I think that what makes a Catholic priest isn't the seminary but the sacrament of ordination. They are only ordained by bishops (who are meant to have a "lineage" from the Apostles -- "apostolic succession").
    – ChrisW
    Apr 15, 2022 at 13:54
  • The title awarded to someone who has the academic training (in Tibet) is I think Geshe -- which the Dalai Lama for example earned when he was a young man (after a decade or so of training).
    – ChrisW
    Apr 15, 2022 at 13:58
  • @ChrisW In order to be ordained, Catholic priests have to undergo years of academic and practical training, and evaluations, carried out by the Church. The ordination ceremony is like a graduation. Apr 15, 2022 at 19:44

1 Answer 1


The term lama in Tibetan simply means “superior one”, or more precisely one to whom there is no superior. The term is often used as a semi-formal title, and also sometimes refers to particular Tibetan or Nepalese clans or castes, and occasionally (in places like Ladakh) as a general honorific for any Buddhist monk. However, in its usual sense it is subjectively ascribed (as in, “my lama” - the one I willingly accept teachings from). In this regard, many Tibetans I have discussed this with say that your first lama is your parent, because they teach you the first things you ever know. Certainly, there is no formal qualification for being “a lama”, since it is ideally ascribed by others, rather than claimed for oneself. Rinpoche, by contrast, is generally used as an honorific to refer to EITHER an incarnate lama (that is, recognised trulku) or a yogin of exceptional attainment and retreat experience. The term rinpoche means “extremely precious one”, and refers to the sense in which their actual bodies are precious and a source of blessing, having been transformed either through the full performance of completion stage yogas or through mastery of the process of death and rebirth. In BOTH of these cases, there are indeed processes of relatively formal recognition and examination, but not ones that involve a certificate for the wall (I guess that might be a matter of time, though!). Hope that helps.

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