Articles by alphabetic order
 Ā Ī Ñ Ś Ū Ö Ō
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

The Teacher

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Nyingma Refuge Treehava-2.jpg

 You have only three things to do in this lifetime:
Honor your guru.
Deepen your realization of emptiness.
Deepen your compassion.

-- Lama Kalu Rinpoche

Tonight I have been introducing and guiding in the Guru Yoga practice as a way of reconnecting with our own enlightened nature through the practice of union with the Buddha, the enlightened teacher. In Tibetan Vajrayana, we visualize him or her in the form of Padma Sambhava, the Vajra master embodying all the enlightened teachers and all of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, especially one's own root guru or personal teacher. This Padma Sambhava guru yoga sadhana represents a condensation of them all in his embodiment, in him as the personification of all those enlightened qualities. Padma Sambhava was the Second Buddha, the Buddha of Tibet, the Lotus-Born Guru; more of a transcendent principle than a person, at least from the point of view of our own practice. So we don't get hung up on any personality, or if our teacher dies, we don't just lose him or her, but remain in his or her presence through the undying ideal form, Padma Sambhava. We do this kind of devotional practice in the Vajrayana using an idealized Buddha-form, like Padma Sambhava or Buddha-it could also be one of the yidams, the meditation deities, but today we are just talking about Guru Yoga-as a way of realizing our own innate luminosity or light of Dharmakaya, Buddha-nature, which the image or personification of the Buddha reflects back to us, mirroring our highest, deepest nature.


If you noticed, I threw all those things into the guided meditation. When we practice those things or when we read the Tibetan text in traditional practice, that is what all the fancy language and ritual is saying. It is really a guided meditation or incantation, affirming by repeating all these things. Chanting those words also reminds us of these realities. Some teachers have said that you can visualize your root guru or the Buddha in the form of Padma Sambhava; or if you don't feel inspired by him, you visualize Longchenpa, or Yeshe Tsogyal, Milarepa, Tara, or somebody else. The reason I was doing this tonight was because I wanted to talk tonight about the teacher. Do we need a teacher today? What is the meaning of spiritual teacher or guide or guru? What about lineage, transmission, empowerment, and so on? The student-teacher relationship is one of the largest issues confronting us today in the transmission of Dharma in the West.

Before I get into that, I would like to dedicate any and all merits from this evening's activities to Andy Kopeski, who passed away Saturday night at home in his bed. As you know he has been sick for a long time. You might remember two Monday nights ago he was here. I am grateful that I was able to visit him at home on Saturday. He died peacefully in his own bed, being taken care of by his partner of many years, Robert. I felt very gratified that he had such a good end. May we all end this life so well. We talked quite a bit, though it was hard for him to talk. He was in a very beautiful state. It was very gratifying and inspiring for me to see what the fruits are of a good and spiritual life. So if you will, please think of Andy, our beloved Dharma brother and friend. We will keep him in our prayers and dedicate a vajra feast celebration to him. We all have to die sometime, so I feel it inspirational to seize the moment to make the best use of the opportunity while we have it.

About teachers. People often ask: Do we need a teacher? Why do we need a teacher? Who needs a teacher? Why is there so much discussion about gurus, teachers, masters, avatars, tulkus, charismatic leaders, and so on? The word teacher has many meanings. We have a kindergarten teacher; we have a driving teacher; we might have a language teacher, a martial arts teacher, a pottery instructor, a meditation teacher, a college teacher, or a professional mentor. Our parents teach us. We might have a spiritual teacher. We might even have a guru. But what is this all about? Don't the questions themselves, and how they are put as well as to whom they are put, reveal a lot about ourselves?

To talk traditionally at first: A guru is a mirror that reflects our highest nature. It is said that the guru or highest spiritual teacher is a door to the infinite, to the absolute, to realization, to enlightenment. We don't need to collect those door frames, we need to go through them. We don't need to collect mirrors and have a different guilded and shaped one for every day of the year-we need to look in them and recognize our own nature. Gurus can, in the best instance, help us return home to our true selves, to the inner guru, the Buddha within.


A guru is supposed to be an authentic spiritual master. I'm kind of starting from the top here, or from the most awesome, the most honorific, the higher guru level of this discussion. We could discuss many different levels of teachings and teachers eventually, if we have time and interest. There are so many traditions and different issues we could explore later. It says in the Vajrayana tradition, to recognize the guru as like Buddha, for if we see the guru as a Buddha, we get the blessings of Buddha. We can learn from the Buddha. The Buddha-energy will course through us, and eventually to others through us. We can get blessings and become Buddha. It says that if we regard the teacher as a Bodhisattva, we get the blessings of a Bodhisattva. If we see the teacher as ordinary, we get the blessings of an ordinary person, and we don't become as spiritually realized as a Buddha or Bodhisattva.

This is called daknang in Tibetan: the tantric practice of sacred outlook or pure perception. Recognizing the teacher as an embodiment of perfection is a very powerful one if it suits us. If we are on the tantric Vajrayana path, if we actually have a teacher in our lives that inspires us so that we view him or her in that way, it can be highly transformative and liberating. Many people say to me, "I know a lot of lamas. But who is my root lama?" (In Tibetan Buddhism we say "root lama" or "root guru" as the term for main teacher.) The answer is: to whomever you are most grateful. That is your root lama. This doesn't mean the most famous one or the highest one in the hierarchy. It is the one you are the most grateful to. You can have a refuge lama-the teacher who gave you the refuge vow-you might have a Bodhisattva preceptor or a monastic ordination teacher also. But the root guru is the one you genuinely feel closest to and most blessed by, whether they are near or far, alive or dead.

One can have more than one guru. I have had many gurus. When you've seen one guru, you've seen them all; that's what I say! When you've seen one Buddha, you've seen them all. And that is very true and profound. It's funny, but don't take it too lightly. Therefore, one guru is enough, but you can have more than one also. My root lama, the late and wonderful Milarepa-like lama, Kalu Rinpoche, always used to say, "See all teachers as emanations of your root guru." So there is no need to get confused. You can get teachings from anyone, actually; even from the foolish. Eventually, it is not just seeing your guru as Buddha and everybody else as a turd; you come to see the Buddha, the light, the love in everyone. But at first, the question is: Can we see anybody as a Buddha? So let's start with the Buddha or the guru. Then maybe we can extend it to recognize the Buddha in everyone, even in yourself. That would be radical! That is where the guru yoga and pure perception practice leads. Not just obsessing about your gurus and how great they are, carrying their pictures around all the time like your baby pictures to show to everybody, like a proud grandmother with baby pictures. There is no need really the plaster the walls of your house with pictures of your gurus, although you certainly can, if you like. But we can go a little bit deeper than that. Like striving to recognize everything as a magical display of the guru-energy or the Buddha-nature.


There are many things we could say about the guru. In this really wonderful (and fairly dry) old classic, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation (by Gampopa, Milarepa's disciple), it gives a list of the qualities of the guru. You can study about such things if you wish. So you can actually find an authentic guru, not just somebody who has a poster on the wall. You have to feel a heartfelt connection to ask someone to be your guru, or spiritual guide, to get something out of it.

Spiritual teachers can be in different forms. You might meet your teacher as a human being in ordinary form; or as a Bodhisattva living on a high level of spirituality, a Dalai Lama-like person; or as a Nirmanakaya, like a Buddha, or as in the Sambhogakaya, like in a vision, you might meet Tara or Avalokiteshvara in a visionary form-that might become your teacher. For example, some people say Christ is their teacher and might even meet him. So there are different levels of bodies (kayas, in Sanskrit) of the teacher.

It also says that a teacher should have certain powers and abilities, including to benefit others, to overcome selfishness, to love and treat others equally, to generously share with everyone who needs, to be wise and compassionate and humble. Other, less indispensable powers could include the ability to see past lives and clairvoyance. There are a whole lot of these siddhis (powers) that are sort of optional: miracles, power over longevity, intentional rebirth like Bodhisattvas. Those are some of the qualifications of certain gurus. If the guru is a Bodhisattva, he or she will normally possess self-discipline, moderation, virtue, a loving heart, and helpful, harmless ways. He or she should be well-versed in scriptures as well as in the ways of life and social morals. He or she should be full of compassion and love, fearless, patient, indefatigable, gentle and graceful, and so on. Tibetan texts also say they should be very learned, able to dispel doubts and clarify questions, be agreeable, and able to point out reality in various ways, according to the needs of various individuals. It says further, a real Bodhisattva teacher would never, even for the sake of his or her life, give up the altruistic attention to help others. These are easy ideals to espouse, but a challenge to live up to, aren't they?

There are many ways to serve gurus, including physically, by doing spiritual practice, by passing on the teachings to others, and so on. Service could be in material ways, like bringing a meal or glass of water.


In the Vajrayana-and this is a huge subject; I'm never going to get through it in one night-the guru is considered lord and master. The disciples are asked to do what the guru says. So even if the disciple, like you and I, don't know why to do it, the guru can just tell us to do it and save us a lot of trouble to have to learn everything about the why's and wherefore's. So he or she can lead us over the vajra short-cut, like leading a blind man over a dangerous pass. Maybe we are afraid to go over a dangerous pass, so he or she says, "Close your eyes and hold my hand." Otherwise we have to learn everything about Dharma in order to guide ourselves. But, of course, blindly following along can have some serious repercussions, too. So we must be very aware what we are doing, why, and with whom.

In the Mahayana, the teacher-the Kalyanamitra is the word, meaning spiritual friend-is like an elder or more experienced brother or sister, or like a doctor who has special knowledge, who knows how to prescribe medicine. Again, we should do what he or she says, but we are a little more free as to whether to do it or not. However, we still must have a certain amount of trust or faith, coming from confidence that he or she actually knows. Otherwise, we have to study organic chemistry and all kinds of things to know how and why that little pill will actually help us before we take it. It is a longer path than just having faith, trust, devotion, and conviction in our guru. So if and when he or she says, "Take this pill," we don't have to examine every little detail all the time. We can just do it. Of course, we should have examined beforehand so we know it is an authentic teacher who is appropriate for us, and who cares principally for our welfare, before we sign on to such an absolute relationship. But in the Mahayana it is more like a doctor who is advanced in the Bodhisattva ways, who can guide us, rather than the more iron-clad, samaya-based, student-teacher relationship that the Vajrayana teaching describe.

In the basic Theravadin teachings, the teacher is more like a good friend who helps us along, but doesn't have so much more experience or arcane knowledge that we ourselves don't have access to at this stage in the journey.

Depending on what kind of practice we are doing-like if we are just visiting here tonight, just taking in information, that's fine; that's like the basic approach to Buddhism. We are not yet a member of the formal sangha. We are not a disciple of the teacher. We don't even know if we are a Buddhist. It doesn't matter. We are here to do something positive and to search and meditate and enjoy ourselves. That's the basic thing, the ground. That doesn't take much commitment. You're listening to me, so you are trusting at least that, since I am sitting in front here, I must have something to say. That's an assumption, but that's the basic ground of this momentary relationship we have. This is the basic Buddhist approach.

Nyingma Refuge Trees48.jpg

As the historical Buddha Shakyamuni himself, said, "When I am gone, take the Dharma as your teacher; take the practice as your teacher." I always find that teacher's words both enlightening and liberating. He has helped me practice through all these years, even when the going got tough with groups, institutions, and organizations. Those words helped me find refuge and solace within, through spiritual practice.

At the Mahayana level, you feel that the teacher knows because you have already had some experience of it. So you put yourself a little more into their hands, like a patient in the hands of his or her physician.

At the more risky and powerful Vajrayana level, you have come to the conclusion that that person is like a Buddha, or at least enlightened enough so that even if they tell you-like Tilopa told Naropa-to jump off the roof, you do it. That story is a metaphor for extreme devotion to the order or command of the teaching master. And through Naropa's twelve years of hard training and devotion to Tilopa, Naropa became fully enlightened.

But that raises some interesting questions, doesn't it, about faith, about trust, about devotion. What is the place of those things in our practice, if any? Devotion and faith are hard to fabricate. Also, questioning, doubting, and healthy skepticism can be very valuable, too. I had a discussion recently with somebody who is really well along in practice. I said to her, so what is it that you think we've learned after all this time? Did we learn anything from all those masters we knew in Asia? And she said-and this really shocked me-"Faith." And you know and I know that we post-modern intellectuals didn't go to these teachers because of faith. We went because of skepticism and interest and passion for truth, but not faith. But what she said really resonated. It was very refreshing, actually.

The practice of every moment is just precisely what we are doing every moment. But who has the faith, the conviction, to live that thought? Knowing that there is nothing else at that moment. That is the practice of daily life, in whatever we are doing in every moment. That takes faith, or at least trust and some inner conviction. It is not something easy to fabricate. But I think it is important to realize that we can cultivate it. That is the genius of the Buddhist path, the practice path. We can cultivate these qualities. What we sow we will reap. We can cultivate faith also. Not that faith is the goal, except perhaps in the deepest sense, but faith is something that I think would surprise us when we can get into seeing what it really is. It is really about conviction, about knowing, about clarity, about letting go, about trust, surrender, allowing, accepting. The faith to know that This is it. But that is steep. We usually have to go through many steps, like guru devotion, reuniting with the guru in the Guru Yoga practice, or some other approach that delivers us there. We have to practice gradually and mature our inner insight gradually, so we better know ourselves and realize our true nature more deeply. Then we do realize total trust in the Great Perfection, the isness, the justness, the perfectness of things just as they are-including ourselves. This reveals pure experience just as it is, without a middleman, without a mediator, without the mediation of thoughts and concepts. And I don't just mean without a priest between us and Buddha. I mean without myself as a middleman; I am speaking of pure, pristine experience without a middleman. We are each the middlemen getting in the way of pure experience, of Rigpa, of pure being, of the natural state-or whatever you want to call it (all words fail). That takes some faith and some trust, doesn't it, not always having to be in the middle trying to work things out with our busy minds and concepts, controlling, manipulating, and keeping score in various ways. Who has that kind of trust, conviction, faith, or wisdom?


Tibetan commentaries say there are three different kinds of faith. At the beginning is longing, aspiration. We're hoping for something to happen. We have a tiny bit of knowledge, faith, belief, or something, but it is still unformed. That's the longing phase of faith. Then we get more mature or experienced. We start to experience how things actually are. We start to attain more lucid conviction, trust, faith, knowledge; that's the second kind. Finally, we experience or develop unshakable, unswerving faith, trust, knowledge. Through spiritual prayers and practices we can cultivate this progressive development. That's what we do through the different sadhanas, from refuge and ngondro (foundational practices) onwards, approaching that gradually, as well as at the same time maintaining that overview of the Great Perfection, which we've talked about on so many other occasions. Such a View actually has to be grounded in or based upon something: some form of experience, or devotion and trust; some openness, or something interior and non-intellectual, not just a mere abstraction.

In a relationship with a teacher, if we have faith or devotion, or if we have questioning and skepticism-those are two sides to the same thing-if they are actually in our lives and not just in our imaginations, a teacher can really push our buttons, can really point to our sore spots, can really light a fire under our ass and provoke us and help get us moving-which we definitely need. If we feel inspired or grateful or devoted to a teacher, that can help cut through discursiveness and selfishness. It can be a very powerful inspiration for our practice and take us beyond our narrow, egocentric, finite conceptual mind. I personally feel, though we Westerners generally seize on meditation and lift it out of its whole cultural context, that are many other aspects of Buddhadharma than just meditation and study, which can degenerate into mere mental activities from the eyebrows up. Buddhist tradition around the world, throughout time, is rich with prayers, rituals, devotion, alms-giving, contemplative arts, celebration; all kinds of things we should not too quickly overlook. These can really round out our spiritual life so we don't become just meditation addicts or quietists, like bumps on a log or ice cubes sitting in our little black, square trays in the zendo refrigeration vault. Living Dharma is more like a spiritual flame than a frozen, well-behaved, perfectly square ice cube!

Devotion and gratitude cut through discursiveness. If you don't feel it, fine. We can find another Dharma gate. I feel very grateful for all that I received from my teachers. They were very kind to me, like parents. So how to pay them back is a question I often have. Gifts are squandered unless shared. I feel it is incumbent upon us to share these gifts that they have passed on to us in any way that we can. I try to contribute to others, not to convert others. Contributing is something the Dalai Lama has exhorted us all to do: Sharing the Dharma through service, being unselfish and loving in our own life, coming back to the practice of daily life. Is there any other practice? There is no other way, except every moment. That's the practice of daily life. Just this, right now. Just this!


So, the big question, which comes up at some point for so many of us is: Do we need a teacher? That's up to each of us. Do we need to be part of a group? That's up to each of us. Check it out. It is very difficult to do it ourselves, but not impossible. I myself find it is helpful to sit with a group, to be part of a sangha, to collaborate and work with friends. It is very supportive. I have found it very helpful and supportive to learn from all kinds of various teachers and gurus, although it is a complicated field, perhaps these days more than ever. We need to keep our eyes peeled as we enter into those relationships. But there could be a lot there for us, more than we imagine.

But I want to say this. I tell you frankly: It's not really such a big deal that I got so much from my beloved master and teachers. The big deal is that these things are there for the taking. Jack Kornfield, who is a bit of an iconoclast, says, "You have to steal fire from the gods. They will never give it to you!" It's like you have to sort of accost the teachers. You have to pound on their door and make them teach you. This may sound somewhat outrageous, but it is not far from true. But they want to; so don't be shy. These teachers want to pass on their precious heritage.

I personally feel that coming here one night a week is not really enough. It's like a club. Going from here to watch Monday night football at the sports bar and getting drunk, or whatever, might mitigate what we are doing here. When we wake up tomorrow morning, what is more with us: the meditation or the hangover? So I personally have somehow or other tried to be doing this more full-time in my life, because I think it is important and invaluable. That's what I learned from my teachers through all of their years of practice, retreat, and integrating Buddhist practice in life and in service. That spiritual life cannot be apart from everyday life. It is not just a hobby, a club, a fad.

I learned this partly from my teachers. It's very hard to learn that from abstract theories, from holy historical books and scriptural texts, or from hagiographies and rumors about how Christ or others lived a long time ago. By meeting living embodiments of spiritual values, I learned something on a sort of cellular level, not just on an intellectual level. How they lived, how they drank tea and talked about, or even to, their mothers and fathers, and how they tied their shoes. Living teachers can be very inspiring and very important. Sogyal Rinpoche talks quite a lot about this in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Maybe he talks about masters a bit too much, but that is our Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. In his book, he sometimes makes it seem that you can't do it without a teacher; that's questionable. But in the Tibetan tradition, that is the teaching. The tantric traditions says, seek a teacher, enter into a spiritual apprenticeship, and devote yourself to learning and practicing the teaching. Then you too can and will inherit the entire legacy that the teachers have themselves inherited. It is not personal, really. It is transpersonal. It is a lineage, from the Buddha on to now, being passed down until today; perhaps not unlike when a candle burns down, the flame is passed to the next candle. The living teaching, the truth of enlightenment, burns even here and now today. So let's not overlook it! It warms and illumines and enlivens our lives.

18 armed cundi.jpeg

I have found that meeting live teachers really made the teachings alive for me. It can sometimes be hard to find an authentic teacher these days. I don't know whether coming here to the Cambridge Buddhist Association center one night a week is an authentic relationship; you tell me, is it? On the other hand, we might ask: How long does it take? How much contact does it take? It's like asking how often do you need to see your wife, to really feel married? There is no fixed answer. Only you know. Some people live apart, but are married. The relationship with a teacher can be very open and fluid. It can take many forms. Some might say that the Dalai Lama is their teacher, and when you ask how often they see him, they say once every few years. Maybe that's enough. That's more often than seeing Jesus, who is the teacher of many. But I myself sought a more day-to-day learning environment and relationship with my teachers.

There is no particular way to play this game, but it is a very profound game if one is called to play it. The non-sectarian Tibetan practice lineage definitely emphasizes the value of a teacher; but it's not about the teacher, it's about engaging in a genuine spiritual relationship. Sometimes it's called in Tibetan Sanskrit samaya, meaning the tantric bonds or commitments. Samaya includes commitment on both sides, on the part of both the teacher and the student. It is a profound practice to treasure and highly value the spiritual relationship between oneself and the guru, and to keep that pure samaya, that pure commitment, that pure relationship alive and well amidst all the ups and downs of the path.

It should also be said-having stressed the importance of a teacher-that the Buddha himself said, "Don't rely on the teacher-person, but rely on the teachings. Don't rely on the words of the teachings, but on the spirit of the words, their meaning." We shouldn't get hung up on any personality cults or slavishly worship charismatic leaders. If our teacher dies, we don't necessarily have to feel devastated, as if bereft of teachings and inspiration. Our teacher hearkens back to Buddha, and even to enlightenment itself. The Dharma is our teacher. The Sangha is our teacher. We can learn a lot from each other and from the truth of every moment. Everything can function as teacher, if we are open to it.

So do we need a teacher? Only you know. As they say, when the student is ready the teacher appears. (Or, more amusingly, when the teacher is ready the student appears.) We are all teachers to each other. So let's be responsible stewards and guardians, and engender leadership in others, not just creating Buddhist followers. Let's strive to always bring out the best in others.

I have a lot of faith in this path, and I have a lot of faith in my teachers. I asked them a lot of questions. Kalu Rinpoche used to call me "The Ocean of Questions." In the 70s when I lived in his Sonada Monastery in Darjeeling, West Bengal, when he said after a Dharma talk, "Are there any questions?" he knew where to look first in the crowd. I said one day, "Rinpoche, is it OK to ask so many questions?" He said, "Ask all your questions. Then one day you will know." I hope his prediction comes true. In the meantime, I am still questioning.


There is another interesting thing that I would like to share. One day we ourselves can step up to teaching. That doesn't necessarily mean we have to sit on a pulpit or be a spiritual teacher. But we could recognize that one of the best ways to keep learning is to teach. There is always somebody above us to learn from (speaking hierarchically, because it is simpler), and there is always somebody below us to teach, to pass it on to. So let's not always be on the receiving end. Let's also be on the giving end. I personally found that I grew more and learned more from my first three years of teaching around 1990 than if I had done a third three-year retreat. Teaching and working with others, both with groups and with individuals, was really demanding. It pulled out the best of me. I learned a lot. I'd guess that the best college professors, just for example, are those who are really lifelong students with undimmed passion for their field.

Therefore, let's respect the teacher principle in all of us, so we can eventually step up to that. Let's work together and collaborate. The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are three facets of one single luminous jewel. It is not just that the enlightened one, the Buddha, is our teacher. The enlightened teachings, the Dharma, is also our teacher. The enlightened community, the Sangha, is also our teacher. Truth is our teacher, of course. If and when we find it embodied in any one, let's not overlook the opportunity to apprentice ourselves, for the moment at least, to that teacher. It might be a raving lunatic on the street that might be teaching us something; we could be open to that. Chuang Tzu said that we can learn as much from the fools as from the wise. From the fools we learn what not to do; from the wise we learn what to do.

That's all I wanted to say tonight. It's a big subject. There are so many phases of our lives. We cycle through life in different stages, sometimes more solitary and sometimes more involved with a partner, a teacher, or a community. In the Vajrayana path and in the tantric path, teacher-student relations are a real crucial question today; I think we must address it head on and demystify some of the murk surrounding this vital area. People occasionally ask: Can the teacher touch me on the head and make me enlightened? Can a lama see past lives? Is enlightenment really possible? Is the Dalai Lama a Buddha? I think I'll leave these queries dangling for now, it that's all right.

Does anybody have any questions, before I go to watch Monday night football?

How does seeing the lamas as a Buddha help us to see everyone equally? It seems extremely elitist and hierarchical.


Usually it's easier in the beginning to see this guru-like person who we really revere as a Buddha than to see ourselves as Buddha or see everyone as a Buddha-wouldn't you agree? Seeing the guru as Buddha is part of the practice of daknang, as I've said, pure perception, sacred outlook-of which the real practice is recognizing everyone and everything as Buddha and Buddha-fields, enjoying all and everything as the natural great perfection. But that is too steep a path, like a sheer cliff, in fact. It is too hard just to jump into that, so we start with the person we look up to, or a Buddha, or Tara, or our guru. In the Buddhist context we use the term Buddha-like in the Christian context we use the term God-for the most highly positive value. Therefore, it seems to make sense to start with that, to start there, from where we actually are. Similarly, in loving-kindness meditation it is easy to start radiating love to somebody you love, then expand it to other people who you are related to and sort of love, and then to other people who you are friendly with, until finally (with practice) you can also radiate love to your enemies. That's the developmental principle. Of course, it is all just a conceptual superimposition. It's a conceptual overlay or fabrication to see your teacher as a Buddha. But any formal practice is a construct, too. It is good to keep in mind the absolute view also. With the view of emptiness and the absolute view we can really let go and get into more fully any form practice, like seeing the guru as Buddha. That doesn't mean you have to see me as Buddha or your teacher as Buddha. But regard the relationship in the highest possible way. By seeing the guru as Buddha you can get the blessings and teachings, and reach the level, of Buddha. When you see your teacher as Bodhisattva, you can get the realization of a Bodhisattva. So it is about the relationship, not about the teacher. If you are in relation with Buddha, that's called getting the blessings of Buddha. Waves of grace is a literal translation of the Tibetan word for blessings, chinlab. They just pour over you and course through you.

There is an old Zen poem. The Zen master shouts out, "What are you all gawking at?" Everybody's looking up at him. So he shouts, "What are you all gawking at? The Dharma's about you. So gawk at yourself for a change." Know thyself, as Socrates always said. We are always outward-turned, so we use contemplative practice to transform that tendency. We turn from worldly things towards spiritual things, until finally we are not so outward-turned so much. Then, when we are truly integrated, there is really no impermeable separation between inner or outer. But for now, we turn to the Buddha, as if in an outer way, and see everyone as Buddha. We bow to Buddha, and so on. But that should have an inward-turning, integrated aspect also. The real transformative principle is the reverence, the gentling of heart, the devotion, which I know you personally feel, so it is something I can talk about with you directly. Devotion cuts through discursivity. The Third Karmapa says in the Song of Mahamudrah all the Rimé lamas teach, "In the moment of devotion, Rigpa (nondual awareness) nakedly dawns." Isn't that interesting? It's not about the teacher. It is the luminosity of that totalness, that devotion when you are beyond yourself, like you're lost in love, as Rumi or Kabir would label it. In the moment of being lost in love, clear light dawns. That's the point. It's not about the teacher. It's deeper than such an external object. It's about spirit, about deeper connection or relationship; it's a sort of homecoming, actually.


How do you decide when to establish a more formal relationship with a teacher?

It depends. As I said before, only you can decide when you know who you feel most connected to, or grateful to, or who you learn from the most. That's an inner matter. With the teacher, you might feel you want to establish a formal relation and ask them to accept you as a disciple, depending on what tradition you are in; then you might also take vows, precepts. Or you might not. For example, you can invite Jesus into your life, but it's not like you have to go somewhere to ask His permission. He is always ready; I suppose we are not.

You might feel a lama is your teacher; even though he might not know your name, he might be your root guru. You might have a real relationship with him.

How do you know when it is time to have a more formal relationship?

You improvise. You explore. You follow your heart and your nose. See where it leads you. You can check it out. How can you not?

By devotion, do you mean that you believe without a shadow of a doubt in that teacher?


What do you mean by devotion?

Who is your parent? Are you devoted to that person? Maybe it's not your biological parent. So maybe you're devoted to somebody else, the parental person or guardian who raised you or loved you or nursed you. Does that mean you see them as infallible, perfect, and like God, or just that you are devoted to them? Similarly with devotion to your teacher, there are different levels of intensity and different kinds of relationships.


A relationship with a teacher can be very intimate. It depends on you. Again, if you want a relationship, for example, with a Vajra master, or with a Mahayana Bodhisattva teacher, who is more like a doctor or an older brother, it's up to you. You decide. Your choice can also evolve over time.

The relationship could be very personal, but it doesn't have to be. Before, I described different models of the student-teacher relationship through the three yanas approach, to just describe that there are different ways of tapping into this. There are many monks who have an abbot, but they don't have a guru, because they are not in that tradition. There are different valid models of teacher-student relationships; not understanding this simple fact has given rise to certain misunderstandings.

Are there teachers who don't want you as a student?

Of course. The world is full of such teachers who seemingly don't want us. So what?

But wouldn't an authentic teacher, if somebody comes to them and wants advice or information, give it? Doesn't that teacher have an obligation to provide it?

The word "obligation" sounds a bit heavy; but yes, I'll go along with that-a commitment to be helpful, but also appropriate to the situation. I feel the need to try to act impeccably, try to discern what is actually helpful and meaningful, and not just to say yes to everything. Maybe saying no would be more impeccable. "Think about it this month, then come back next month," might be a better answer to someone seeking monastic ordination, rather than helping people hurry into things they are not totally prepared for. Moreover, we don't want to spoil people by supporting their unsatisfying habits and inclinations, merely to take the easy way out of any discussion.

What about teachers behaving in ways that you think are wrong and harmful?


Each of us is a free adult who can say, think, and do what they like. It gets complicated when you are talking, as I know you are, about lamas and gurus. There are a lot of levels to samaya commitment in the Vajrayana path. It works both ways; students and teachers both have samaya, right? That is very important to remember. It is not just a one-way thing. The student is devoted to the teacher, and the teacher also has samaya and devotion to the well-being and development of the student. If the teacher doesn't fulfill those commitments, then the student can leave honorably. I can tell that you are alluding to the problem of perceiving wrongdoing on the teacher's side, and whether or not you can say anything about it in the face of all the traditional Tibetan injunctions never to criticize teachers or teachings.

I have a real hard time forming a relationship with a teacher and be willing to go that far.

You already have! It's too late! (Just joking.) Don't you have samaya with Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche in the Kagyu lineage? I'm pointing out that when you get sucked into the Vajra world, as Trungpa would say, it's too bad, but it's too late. The only way out is through. On the other hand, maybe you haven't been totally initiated and oath-bound and signed on fully yet. Then you don't have samaya to worry about. The Dalai Lama said-when I discussed this with him-about seeing everything the teacher does as Buddha even when they are acting badly, and even scandalously-and dying of alcoholism and being promiscuous and exploiting others-the problem is probably that you didn't check out your teacher before you entered into this binding samaya agreement. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that we should check out the teacher for twelve years, or as long as reasonably possible. "Spy on them," were his exact words; scrutinize the teacher and yourself before you enter into such a bond. You don't always have to enter such a binding agreement with a teacher, like Vajrayana samaya. You can just be a student of the Dharma and practice the path and get enlightened. That's much simpler. But if you get into the Vajrayana, you eventually take tantric initiation. Supposedly consciously, you requested initiation in most cases; although today, everything is public and anyone can happen to participate, whether they want vows or not. If you get initiated into a tantric practice, a mandala, a lineage, then there are certain secret rites, sacred mandalas, things you don't talk about, maybe. Then it could be a little too late, because with that initiation comes the samaya vows and bonds. So you have chosen to enter into that world. It comes with the territory. You have to accept the consequences of your actions. You have enrolled; there are certain implications that come with that.


But still, if things are really out of whack, you should be able to leave honorably. You also have to be clear about what is going on, that it's not just your own misperceptions. There is no need to keep a blind eye to real problems. Things are seldom black and white, really. Some lamas have told me recently that I should cover my eyes, cover my ears, and close my mouth. "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." I heard what they said. I know what they are saying; they are just reading from the traditional book: Never criticize the gurus. How today can one not listen to what people are saying about the gurus, not see what is going on, and not say anything about it, especially when asked and sought out for counseling by friends in confusion? I said, "What should I do when people come to me and ask?" The lamas didn't have much of an answer to that. That's a problem, isn't it? There are few secrets today. Everything is in the open. We have to be accountable for what we do and say.

On another level, there are different classes of the tantras. It's actually only in the anuttara yoga tantra, in the highest levels of tantra, that you have those totally binding samaya-with dire consequences-to never question the guru. If you just have an Om Mani Padmé Hum, Avalokiteshvara compassion initiation, there is not much to worry about. Or a Tara or mantra practice, in which all is forgiven. By the time you get to the highest tantra, it is supposed to be through an authentic relationship with your guru. That implies that you know who he or she is and what you are doing together. Powerful medicine like anuttara yoga tantra requires strong hearts and spiritual expertise.

But you're right: It's like muzzling people or threatening them with excommunication to say that you can't say anything. There's a lot of misunderstanding about the secret mantrayana and tantras anyway. If we demystify it, it gets pretty clear.

Consider the word "secret." Translations today talk about outer, inner, and secret levels if tantric practice. I don't translate the last one as "secret." I say "innate." The word really means innate or mystical (Sangwa in Tibetan, guhya in Sanskrit). The outer, exoteric: Buddha statues and images. The inner level, Buddha-nature, the inner light, pure experience. And then there is the innate or secret/mystic level, which is indescribable. But it's not secret. Nobody's holding it back. What's the big secret? Spirituality is a secret? No. It may be mystical, but it's not secret.

Even to this day there are all kinds of misunderstandings about translations and esoteric practices and initiations, rituals, masters, and disciples, and what we are really dealing with. Even though Dharma seems to have landed here in America, still to go backstage and view the production from behind is still very difficult. If we talk about initiations or samaya or vows-to see the guru as Buddha-what does that really mean? That all the gurus are Buddhas, fully enlightened, completed beings? Is that true? That's not what we are being asked to do. It's just a practice: going in the direction of recognizing everything as Buddha-energy or the Great Perfection. So we can understand the principle. We don't have to get lost in the words. We don't have to remain like babes lost in the woods.

When you see what some of the teachers are doing, then you can know for sure that it is not just your faulty perception that tells you that something might be wrong. On the other hand, there are some very pure gurus. We don't want to overlook that, to mistakenly throw the Buddha out with the bath water, as it were. I consider my teachers "enlightened enough." I don't know if they are fully Buddha-ized, but they are enlightened enough for me.

And you know what? Emaho! So are you.