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Tibetan Monks and Lamas

Religious life in Tibet revolves around monks and monasteries. The Tibetan word for monk is "trapa," which means "student" or "scholar". It is used to describe the three main categories of monastery residents: students (monks), and scholars and teachers (lamas). Monks and lamas don't necessarily have to be celibate. The religious leaders of many villages are married lamas.

Perhaps due to misunderstandings by early western scholars attempting to understand Tibetan Buddhism, the term Lama has historically been erroneously applied to Tibetan monks generally. Actually, Tibetan monk is different from Lama. Not every monk in Tibet can be called Lama. Monks can be anyone who has joined a Buddhist order, but Lamas are venerated spiritual masters or heads of monasteries.

Tibetan Lamas
Lamas are spiritual guides and master teachers who orally pass on complex rituals and meditation techniques to disciples. They are sometimes regarded as "living gods" (the word lama means "teacher" or "superior one"). Lamas preside over important ceremonies or events and are believed to possess supernatural powers that can slay demons and bring good fortune, blessings, wealth and good health.   

Young men study for around five years to become lamas. They usually begin their training at monasteries at the age of six. Most Tibetan villages or towns have resident lamas.  Many lamas are married men not celibate monks. They believe they have inherited their social status from the last Tibetan king and this gives them spiritual and social authority.

Tibetan Monks
Traditionally large numbers of Tibetan males became monks and many families had at least one son who was a monk. Monks join monasteries when they are very young, about five years old. To gain admission they must be approved by a lama and later pass an entrance exam. Monks are expected to develop through meditation, research and training in logic. Novice monks gain admittance to Sera Monastery at age 16 by memorizing 300 scriptures and passing an exam.

Tibetan monks rise at 5:30 am and offer holy water and light yak butter lamps to honor Buddha and the Dalai Lama, and pray and meditate for five hours. Near midday, two monks climb a central temple and blow a horn, calling the senior monks to pray. In the afternoon monks generally attend classes, participate in discussions on religious doctrine, say pray for the dead "to help their soul reach heaven" and engage in debates with other monks.

Many monks spend their time debating subtle points of Buddhist theology such as "whether or not a rabbit has a horn" or "whether form has shape and color." The abbots and teachers usually stand while the monks sit on the floor. In their free time monks play soccer, wrestle and goof around.

Monks are not supposed to marry, quarrel, smoke, drink or eat meat. They wear maroon robes and carry prayer beads. Religion is very important to the Tibetans with everything being centered around it. Religious life in Tibet revolves around monks and monasteries.