Etiquette Around Buddhist Lamas

The Dalai Lama serves as the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama serves as the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images

by Contributing Writer

In Tibetan Buddhism, lamas serve as the chief spiritual leaders. While some lamas, known as sprul-sku lamas, are thought to be the incarnations of their predecessors, most lamas simply act as monks, priests, teachers or spiritual guides. In any case, lamas have earned high regard among Buddhists for their spiritual achievements. When in the presence of a lama, it is necessary to convey your own sense of respect through simple etiquette and traditional rituals.


When referring to a lama, always precede his name with “lama.” During formal teaching or initiation practices, the term “lama-la,” which translates to “lama-sir,” serves as a respectable title. For a traditional greeting, fold your hands over your heart and bow slightly. It is proper etiquette to stand up when a lama enters or leaves a room. When in the presence of a lama, crossing your arms or standing with your hands on your hips may be viewed as bad etiquette.

Signs of Consideration

Traditionally, Buddhist etiquette dictates that it is proper to perform three prostrations upon entering a shrine room. If doing so in the company of a lama, wait until the lama is seated to perform your prostrations. If you're receiving teachings from a lama, requesting permission before taking notes or recording anything shows your consideration. Face toward the lama during his teachings or instructions.


You may choose to show your respect by offering the lama a khata, a white ceremonial scarf. This traditional Tibetan offering symbolizes respect and goodwill. To offer the gift properly, fold it in half length-wise and present it to the lama with the open edge facing him. This gesture represents openness, symbolizing an offering of your pure and open heart. To present the gift, drape the scarf over your folded hands and bow low, bending your head down and holding the the khata near your forehead. Do not put the khata over the lama's neck – instead, the lama will deliver a blessing and put the scarf around your neck. This gesture suits many occasions, including welcoming, departing, celebrations, births, weddings, ceremonies and as a sign of thanks.

Other Etiquette

According to Buddhist etiquette, sitting with your legs outstretched and soles facing another, especially a lama, is considered a sign of disrespect. While pointing with your index finger is common in the West, this gesture may offend a lama. Instead, point with your right hand open, fingers extended and palm up. Use this gesture to point to other members of the Buddhist community, Buddhist art and ritual objects.

About the Author

Dan Ketchum has been a professional writer since 2003, with work appearing online and offline in Word Riot, Bazooka Magazine, Anemone Sidecar, Trails and more. Dan's diverse professional background spans from costume design and screenwriting to mixology, manual labor and video game industry publicity.

Photo Credits

  • Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images