What do the various titles of the Mahayana Traditions mean? (ie- Geshe, Rinpoche, Lama, Venerable)
"Geshe" refers to a certain level of monastic and philosophical training. It
is traditionally received after approximately 25 years of full-time intensive
study at one of the great monasteries. It is similar to someone getting a
"ph.d." level of study and accomplishment, although it is much more than that.
There are also different levels of Geshe. For example, a "Lharampa Geshe"
graduated with great honors and was among the top of his class. It is
primarily a title referring to academic excellence and degree of training in
the Buddhist philosophical texts.
"Rinpoche" means "precious" and refers to someone who in their last life
attained such a high degree of mastery that they did not have to take any more
rebirths. However, out of their compassion for others, they took another birth
at will - or rather took a human form - in order to teach others. Hence, they
are "precious" because they returned to show us how to do it ourselves.
"Venerable" is a term for those who are ordained. Any monk or nun is
traditionally referred to as "venerable". It is simply a term of respect for
those who have chosen the monastic life and have taken it upon themselves to
preserve the teachings in this way.
"Lama" means literally "heavy with qualities". It is a title which implies
that the person who is the referent of this term has demonstrated spiritual
qualities and the ability to lead others in their spiritual life and path.
There are some Tibetan Buddhist traditions where you can "earn" the title
"lama" after doing a certain amount of retreat and study. In other traditions,
one must earn the title "lama" by way of demonstrating their qualities over
the years - or because they have been recognized clearly as a "Rinpoche" - and
then are a "lama" by definition!http://www.fpmt.org/faq/buddhism_faq.asp#bteach