The priests of Thibet are called Lamas, which means Shepherds. The Supreme Pontiff is called the Grand Lama, or Great Shepherd. He resides at Lassa, which originally became a holy city by the presence of Buddha La, or Saint La, a celebrated follower of Buddha Sakia, who by exceeding holiness became one with him, as he was one with the Supreme. The soul of Saint La is supposed to be regularly transmitted to every successive Grand, Lama, who thereby becomes the direct successor and visible representative of the immortal old saint. By this process he is supposed to be rendered immaculate and infallible. He is regarded as the vicegerent of God, with power to dispense blessings on whomsoever he will. His exposition of the Sacred Books is regarded as Divine inspiration; and when he lays his hand on the head of a worshipper, he is supposed to confer remission of sins. When lie is carried in grand procession to the temple, princes and beggars alike prostrate themselves as he passes; and when he enters the holy building, the attendant priests follow him barefoot, and prostrate themselves before him. One o the ceremonies he performs is dispensing little bits of consecrated dough, which are eagerly sought for amulets. On state occasions he wears a yellow mitre and a mantle of purple silk, and carries in his hand a long staff in the form of a cross.
There is no known record concerning the period when the devotees, who from time immemorial had lived a life of celibacy and prayer in the great forests, began to congregate together in buildings. But institutions strikingly similar to monasteries have been numerous in Buddhist countries for many centuries. It is said that the city of Lassa alone contains three thousand such establishments, which are called Lamaseries. They are usually built on mountains or hills, in the most picturesque situations, and are the handsomest buildings in Asia, except the royal palaces. Some of them are occupied by sisterhoods of holy women. All who adopt this mode of life take a vow of celibacy, shave their heads, and drop the name by which they were known in the world. Children are sent to the Lamaseries to be taught religious ceremonies and doctrines, and instructed in such knowledge as Asiatics have to impart. The sick and the poor are received there, and are kindly ministered unto. The other occupations of the Lamas are to recite prayers and perform ceremonies to shorten the punishment of the dead and protect the living from the influences of evil — spirits; to consecrate images and other amulets; to distribute holy water; to gather herbs, prepare medicines, and preserve fruit. They sell many extracts from their Sacred Books, which they write with great care and often embellish with gilding and bright colors. Many rich men seek to obtain the rewards of Paradise by leaving large bequests for the erection of Lamaseries, where prayers are said for their souls, where the sick are tended, the poor relieved, and travellers hospitably entertained. Borri, a Jesuit missionary to Cochin China, says: “It looks as if the Devil had endeavored to represent among the Gentiles the beauty and variety of religious orders in the Catholic Church. The priests have chaplets and strings of beads about their necks. There are among them persons resembling bishops, abbots, and archbishops; and they use gilt staves, not unlike our crosiers. If any man came newly into that country, he might easily be persuaded there had been Christians there in former times, so nearly has the Devil attempted to imitate us.”
When Father Huc, a French Jesuit missionary, visited one of these Lamaseries, not many years ago, he was struck with the same resemblance. He says: “The reception given us recalled to our thoughts those monasteries raised by our own religious ancestors, in which travellers and the poor always found refreshment for the body and consolation for the soul.” The same missionary tells us that when he tried to persuade the Regent of Lassa to become a Roman Catholic, he listened courteously and replied, “Your religion is the same as ours.”
Some of the Lamas do not live in communities, but lead a wandering life and subsist entirely by beggary. This class is numerous in China and very troublesome; the members being often as filthy in their persons and manners as are many of the mendicant monks in Italy and Spain. Some of the Buddhist priests are truly good, intelligent men, while others are licentious and knavish, and know no more about the meaning of the Sanscrit language, in which they repeat their prayers, than some Catholic priests do of the Latin they recite by rote.
Intelligent Catholics find spiritual significance in their various ceremonies, and are far from indorsing many of the superstitious observances of the ignorant multitude. The case is the same with the more enlightened among the Buddhists. When Father Huc spoke of the Lamas who claimed presents as the means of casting out devils from people who were possessed by them, a Superior of one of the Lamaseries replied: “That devils may possess rich persons is credible; but that they will depart in consequence of costly presents is a fiction invented by ignorant and deceiving Lamas, who seek to accumulate wealth at the expense of their brothers.” And the Regent of Lassa said to the same missionary: “You have doubtless seen and heard much to be blamed in Tartary and Thibet, but you must not forget that the numerous errors and superstitions you may have observed were introduced by ignorant Lamas, and are rejected by well — informed Buddhists.”