Guru-Disciple Relationship in Vajrayana Buddhism
We are oft to blame in this,
‘Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.
Devotion in Buddhism is confidence in cause and effect.
The Dalai Lama has taught that traditionally a practitioner would examine a teacher
for 13 years before completely accepting the teacher. Teachers, too, need to examine the
student. Sadly, this rarely happens in the modern era. And so, we experience and witness
the results of too easily entering into a teacher/student relationship and suffering the
results of disappointment, disillusionment or the psychological defenses of suppression
and denial. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche warned his students of “idiot compassion.” Even
more importantly, one should be warned against improper guru yoga. Americans –
thoroughly conditioned by the world’s most impatient culture – too easily leap into
bed (figuratively) with a teacher swearing eternal fealty without examination.
One Bon Dzogchen teacher related to me the following incident of his teaching in
America. He had a student interested in Dzogchen who was diligent and smart and
came to his Dharma center regularly for a year. Then he disappeared. Six months
later the teacher bumped into the student in the supermarket. Enquiring about his
activities, the student confessed the reason for his absence and abandonment of
practice, “I’m into sky diving now!”
Teachers are necessary and extremely important. Your relationship with a teacher
should grow naturally and gradually. Do not be in a hurry! Do not act out of blind
faith. “It is,” as one great lama taught in Rochester, “Very important that you find a
lama who loves you.”
Please consider the following passages concerning the teacher/student relationship:
From The Introduction by His Holiness, 14th Dalia Lama,
to Kalachakra by Glenn H. Mullin, Snow Lion Publications, 1991:
Later, when one engages in the generation and completion stage yogas, one
must rely upon a qualified teacher in order to apply the powerful tantric methods
successfully. The traditional scriptures advise us to choose a teacher carefully,
using reason and wisdom as our tools, and not to rely on blind faith. Moreover,
even though we are advised to maintain respect and faith in the teacher, this too
must be done on the basis of common sense; should an instruction of our teacher
contradict what we know of Dharma, we should respectfully and politely voice our
qualms, and not just mindlessly acquiesce. As the glorious Indian master Nagarjuna
pointed out, faith must always be guided by intelligence and wisdom.
From Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective by Dr. Herbert Guenther:
The lama, as we can now see, is not a mysterious personality popping suddenly
out of nowhere as the mystery-monger is apt to believe. The lama is our “spiritual friend”
seen in his uniqueness. He is a teacher because he makes us see more and every moment we
succeed in getting a wider and more encompassing view we have done what the teacher has
tried to make us do and we have felt his presence.
Tibetan Lamas like to refer to the tribulations which aspirants like Milarepa and
Naropa faced in their search for the lama. It seems to us as if their “spiritual friends”
Marpa and Tilopa respectively, took an enormous delight in making it difficult for their
disciples. The fact is that their tribulations were their struggle with themselves in
their attempt to break through their limited vision. This certainly was the nature of
Naropa’s visionary experiences. On the other hand, since the teacher-disciple
relationship is a very intimate one, it becomes necessary to test either one. A teacher
who grandiloquently speaks about spirituality which then is conspicuously absent in his
everyday life dealings, and who is incapable of realizing the disciple’s immediate needs,
is not a teacher at all. As to the disciples, how many are willing to grow? Will their
enthusiasm not die quickly when all is not smooth sailing? And is growth not the most
absorbing task which demands of man all that he is? Is it therefore not a sign of
educational ability to test a disciple before accepting him and so to avoid the risk of
his giving up in no time and returning to his narrow and shallow world?
From Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
Published by Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1974
Great care must be taken to choose a teacher having complete knowledge. Maitreya set
down the following ten minimum qualifications of a Mahayana Guru. The scriptural
references for these are the Sutras: sDong.po.bkod.pahi.mdo and mDo.sde.rgyan.
The Guru must have:
- Calmness gained through observing pure morality.
- Inner peace due to mastery of single-pointed concentration.
- Peace gained through having complete discriminating wisdom.
- Knowledge far greater than that of his disciples.
- Ever-present enthusiastic effort and willingness to teach.
- Full knowledge of the scriptures, oral traditions and initiations.
- Either complete intellectual knowledge or full intuitive understanding of Shunyata.
- Perfect means and intelligence in presenting the Dharma.
- Sincerity and compassion in guiding his disciples.
- Infinite patience, never succumbing to mental and physical fatigue.
For the relationship between the master and disciple to yield fruit, the disciple must have a
balanced character, honesty and an attraction to the Middle way. If a disciple realizes his
own and other’s mistakes but ignores them and refuses to apply opponent forces to them, he
is not worth accepting. He must further have the ability to discriminate between right and
wrong and have a strong interest in and enthusiasm for what he is doing.
– Kalu Rinpoche
Knowing the Dharma and motivated by compassion, the master must care only about benefiting
the disciple and never pursue his or her own interest. The given instructions must not have
any other function than guiding the disciples on the inner path.
– Ascribed to Sogyal Rinpoche
Just as Buddha said that of all the Buddhas who attained enlightenment, not one accomplished
it without relying on the master, he also said, “It is only through devotion, and devotion
alone, that you will realize the absolute truth.” So then, it is essential to know what
real devotion is. It is not mindless adoration; it is not abdication of your responsibility
to yourself, nor indiscriminately following of another’s personality or whim. Real devotion
is an unbroken receptivity to the truth. Real devotion is rooted in an awed and reverent
gratitude, but one that is lucid, grounded, and intelligent.
– Dr. Herbert Guenther
Properly used this term [guru] does not refer so much to a human person as to the object
of a shift in attention which takes place from the human person who imparts the teaching
to the teaching itself.
[The guru might properly be called] a spiritual friend.
– Lama Govinda
A teacher gives knowledge but a guru gives himself.
The real teachings of a guru are not conveyed through what he says but through his
Bodhicitta is the cause of Buddhahood. Here is a comment on a verse from the Sutralankara
describing the causes for the generation of Bodhicitta.
From The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech: A Detailed Commentary on Shantideva’s Way of the
Boddhisattva by Khenpo Kunzang Pelden, Shambhala Publishers, 2007
[In this verse,] the “power of meeting a spiritual friend” can be illustrated by the story
of an encounter in the past between three young men and a Buddha accompanied by his two main
disciples. One of the boys made the aspiration to become like the Buddha, and the other
two aspired to become like his disciples. Subsequently they became respectively our
Teacher the Buddha Shakyamuni and his two great disciples, Shariputra
and Maudgalyayana. The “power of the cause” refers to the awakening within oneself of the
Mahayana lineage; the “power of the root” is the birth of compassion; the “power of listening”
refers to the profound teachings; finally, “the virtuous practice” refers to the accumulation
of merit. From all these is bodhichitta born. Whereas bodhichitta is considered unstable
when it derives from the first strength, it is regarded as firm when it derives from the
From Healing Anger by HH Dalai Lama
Snow Lion Publications, 1997, pp. 83-85
Q: What do you think about Dharma teachers who speak and write about Dharma beautifully,
but do not live it?
A: Because Buddha knew of this potential consequence, he was very strict in prescribing
the qualities that are necessary for a person to be qualified as a teacher. Nowadays,
it seems, this is a serious issue. First, on the teacher’s side: the person who gives
some teaching, or gives talks on Dharma must have really trained, learned and studied.
Then, since the subject is not history or literature, but rather a spiritual one, the
teacher must gain some experience. Then when that person talks about a religious subject
with some experience, it carries some weight. Otherwise, it is not so effective. Therefore,
the person who begins to talk to others about the Dharma must realize the responsibility,
must be prepared. That is very important. Because of this importance, Lama Tsongkhapa, when
he describes the qualifications that are necessary for an individual to become a teacher,
quotes from Maitreya’s Ornament of Scriptures, in which Maitreya lists most of the key
qualifications that are necessary on the part of the teacher, such as that the teacher
must be disciplined, at peace with himself, compassionate, and so on. At the conclusion,
Lama Tsongkhapa sums up by stating that those who wish to seek a spiritual teacher must
first of all be aware of what the qualifications are that one should look for in a teacher.
Then, with that knowledge, seek a teacher. Similarly, those who wish to seek students and
become teachers must not only be aware of these conditions, but also judge themselves
to see whether they possess these qualities, and if not, work toward possessing them.
Therefore, from the teacher’s side, they also must realize the great responsibilities
involved. If some individual, deep down, is really seeking money, then I think it is
much better to seek money through other means. So if the deep intention is a different
purpose, I think this is very unfortunate. Such an act is actually giving proof to the
Communist accusation that religion is an instrument for exploitation. This is very sad.
Buddha himself was aware of this potential for abuse. He therefore categorically stated
that one should not live a way of life which is acquired through five wrong means of
livelihood. One of them is being deceptive and flattering toward one’s benefactor in order
to get maximal benefit.
Now, on the students’ side, they also have responsibility. First, you should not accept
the teacher blindly. This is very important. You see, you can learn Dharma from someone
you accept not necessarily as a guru, but rather as a spiritual friend. Consider that
person until you know him or her very well, until you gain full confidence and can say,
“Now, he or she can be my guru.” Until that confidence develops, treat that person as a
spiritual friend. Then study and learn from him or her. You also can learn through books,
and as time goes by, there are more books available. So I think this is better.
Here I would like to mention a point which I raised as early as thirty years ago about a
particular aspect of the guru-disciple relationship. As we have seen with Shantideva’s
text Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, we find that in a particular context certain
lines of thought are very much emphasized, and unless you see the argument in its proper
context here is a great potential for misunderstanding. Similarly, in the guru-disciple
relationship, because your guru plays such an important role in serving as the source of
inspiration, blessing, transmission, and so on, tremendous emphasis is placed on maintaining
proper reliance upon and a proper relationship with one’s guru. In the texts
describing these practices we find a particular expression, which is, “May I be able to
develop respect for the guru, devotion to the guru, which would allow me to see his or
her every action as pure.”
I stated as early as thirty years ago that this is a dangerous concept. There is a tremendous potential for abuse in this idea of trying to see all the behavior of the guru as pure, of seeing everything the guru does as enlightened. I have stated that this is like a poison. To some Tibetans, that sentence may seem a little bit extreme. However, it seems now, as time goes by, that my warning has become something quite relevant. Anyway, that is my own conviction and attitude, but I base the observation that this is a potentially poisonous idea on Buddha’s own words. For instance in the Vinaya teachings, which are the scriptures that outline Buddha’s ethics and monastic discipline, where a relationship toward one’s guru is very important, Buddha states that although you will have to accord respect to your guru, if the guru happens to give you instructions which contradict the Dharma, then you must reject them.
There are also very explicit statements in the sutras, in which Buddha states that any instructions given by the guru that accord with the general Dharma path should be followed, and any instructions given by the guru that do not accord with the general approach of the Dharma should be discarded.
It is in the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra of Vajrayana Buddhism where the guru-disciple relationship assumes great importance. For instance, in Highest Yoga Tantra we have practices like guru yoga, a whole yoga dedicated toward one’s relation to the guru. However, even in Highest Yoga Tantra we find statements which tell us that any instructions given by the guru which do not accord with Dharma cannot be followed. You should explain to the guru the reasons why you can’t comply with them, but you should not follow the instructions just because the guru said so. What we find here is that we are not instructed to say, “Okay, whatever you say, I will do it,” but rather we are instructed to use our intelligence and judgment and reject instructions which are not in accord with the Dharma.
However, we do find, if we read the history of Buddhism, that there were examples of
single-pointed guru devotion by masters such as Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa which
may seem a little extreme. But we find that while these masters, on the surface, may look
like outcasts or beggars, or they may have strange behaviors which sometimes lead other
people to lose faith, nevertheless when the necessity came for them to reinforce other
people’s faith in the Dharma and in themselves as spiritual teachers, these masters had a
counterbalancing factor – a very high level of spiritual realization. This was so much so
that they could display supernatural powers to outweigh whatever excesses people may have found in them, conventionally speaking. However, in the case of some of the modern-day teachers, they have all the excesses in their unethical behaviors but are lacking in the counterbalancing factor, which is the capacity to display supernatural powers. Because of this, it can lead to a lot of problems.
Therefore, as students, you should first watch and investigate thoroughly. Do not consider someone as a teacher or guru until you have certain confidence in the person’s integrity. This is very important. Then, second, even after that, if some unhealthy things happen, you have the liberty to reject them. Students should make sure that they don’t spoil the guru.This is very important.
– Dzongsar Khyentse
Spiritual masters are said to have a great many different qualities, but three are considered
indispensable: to be learned, disciplined and kind. The outer quality of being learned is the
first and most obvious of the three… The inner quality of a spiritual master is discipline, and it is venerated by the sublime beings as being even more important than being learned. One of the main purposes of discipline in Buddhism is as a skilful means for assisting the discovery of inner truth, rather than yet another code of conduct to be imposed…
Understandably, the majority of students are impressed by gurus who are disciplined and
knowledgeable, and tend to be rather less interested in seeking a master just because he is
kind. After all, kindness isn’t as readily apparent – and anyway most people have their own definition of what constitutes kindness. And yet this third, secret quality of a spiritual master, kindness, although far less available or sought after than the other qualities, is both supreme and absolutely indispensable. If a master is very learned and disciplined but not kind, he’s a waste of space on this earth. However even if he is not learned or well-disciplined but is kind, he will make absolutely sure that you get everything you need ultimately to attain enlightenment and make your life spiritually fruitful; therefore you can trust him completely. He may lack detailed knowledge and may also be a little temperamental, but as he has dedicated his life to Dharma and is sincerely concerned for your well-being, you are in safe hands.
From The Commentary by Thrangu Rinpoche on Creation and Completion: Essential Points of
Tantric Meditation by Jamgon Kongtrul; translated by Sarah Harding
Wisdom Publications, 1996, 2002, p. 92.
Devotion is necessary because fundamentally we need to practice Dharma, and if you have one-hundred-percent confidence in Dharma, then your practice will be one hundred percent. If you have less confidence, then your practice will be less intense. The less intense your practice, the less complete the result. Therefore, it is essential to have confidence in, and devotion for, Dharma itself. For that to occur there has to be trust in the individuals who teach you Dharma. There has to be trust in the guru. If you trust the guru, then you will trust the Dharma, and if you trust the Dharma, then you will practice it.
However, faith in one’s guru does not mean blind faith. It does not mean believing
“My guru is perfect,” even though your guru is not perfect. It is not pretending that your
guru’s defects are qualities. It is not rationalizing every foible of the guru into a
superhuman virtue. After all, most gurus have defects. You need to recognize them for
what they are. You don’t have to pretend that your guru’s defects are qualities, because the
object of your devotion is not the foibles, quirks, or defects of your guru, but the
Dharma that your guru teaches you. You are not practicing the guru’s foibles. As long as
the Dharma you receive is authentic and pure, then that guru is a fit object for your
devotion. The result that you get, you get from the Dharma that you practice. You need to
recognize the defects of your guru as defects – you don’t need to pretend that they are otherwise. The guru’s defects cannot hurt you, because it is not they that you created and cultivate.You follow the teaching of the guru, and “trust” meaning trust principally in the validity of the teachings themselves.
HH Dalai Lama:
It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, “every action seen as perfect.” However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.”�. Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom.
From An Interview with The Dalai Lama by John F. Avedon
Littlebird Publications, NY 1980, pp. 51-53
JA: What do you think of cults; people forfeiting their individuality to a religious figurehead or authority?
DL: To answer that, I’ll talk about the Buddhist way of viewing a teacher. The
doctrines that Buddha taught were not for the sake of displaying his knowledge to others,
but in order to help them. Therefore, no matter what his own thought or realization was, he
taught in accordance with the disposition, interest, and so forth of the listener. Those who
follow Buddha’s word, in order to determine his final meaning, must make a differentiation
between that which is interpretable – as it was spoken for a specific purpose – and that which is definitive or incontrovertibly true. If in differentiating what is interpretable and what is definitive, one had to rely on another scripture, then one would have to rely on a scripture to validate that scripture and a further one to validate the latter. It would then be limitless. Therefore, once one asserts that there is this differentiation, it is necessary to rely on reasoning to implement it. That which is not damaged by reasoning is definitive. Since this is the case, Buddha set forth the four reliances. Rely not on the person, but on the doctrine. With respect to the doctrine, rely not on the words, but on the meaning. With respect to the meaning, rely not on the interpretable meaning, but on the definitive meaning. With respect to the definitive meaning, one should rely not on comprehension by an ordinary state of consciousness, but on understanding by an exalted wisdom consciousness. Because of this, the reliability of teachings cannot be determined by considering the person who taught them, but by investigating the teachings themselves. In sutra, Buddha said, “Monks and scholars should accept my word not out of respect, but upon analyzing it as a goldsmith analyses gold, through cutting, melting, scraping and rubbing it.” One doesn’t determine that Buddha is a reliable source of refuge by the fact that his body was adorned with major or minor marks, but because his teachings for the achievement of high status and definite goodness * are reliable. Since the teachings regarding high status touch on matters that involve very hidden
phenomena ** and are beyond the ordinary processes of reasoning, it is necessary to examine Buddha’s teachings for the achievement of definite goodness. Specifically, these are the teachings regarding the realization of the wisdom of emptiness. Through determining that they are correct and incontrovertible, one can come to the conclusion that the teachings regarding high status are as well. As Dharmakirti says, a teacher must be one who is skilled in which behavior is to be adopted and which discarded. One cannot accept a teacher because that person performs miracles, has the clairvoyant ability to see things in the distance or is able to create certain physical emanations. Whether one can see far in the distance or not, doesn’t matter. What matters is whether one knows the techniques for achieving happiness – as Dharmakirti says. If it were sufficient to be able to see things at a distance, then one should go for refuge to a vulture. (This is in the root stanzas of the Pramanavarttika itself.) Now, this is all to show that a teacher who explains what is to be adopted and discarded must be fully qualified. Therefore, Buddha set forth in detail the qualifications for many different levels of teachers: within the vinaya or discipline scriptures, within the sutras and within the various divisions of the tantras. It’s very important before one accepts a teacher to analyze them, to see if he or she has these qualifications. It is particularly important in tantric practice. In one tantra, it says that since there is great danger for both the master and the student, it is necessary to analyze beforehand even if it takes twelve years to come to a conclusion. Now, if in Buddhism it were sufficient just to have faith, then Buddha would not have needed to set forth such great detail concerning the choice of a teacher. In mantric practice – tantra – guru yoga is very important. But even though it is important, it doesn’t operate on the basis of blind faith. It says in the discipline that if a lama teaches contrary to the doctrine one should object to it. A sutra quoted in Tsongkapa’s Great Exposition of the States of The Path, says that one should rely on a lama by agreeing with what is concordant with the doctrine and opposing that which is discordant. This is in a sutra in the Bodhisattva Pitaka. Then with respect to mantra, Ashvaghosha’s Fifty Stanzas on the Guru states that if a lama says something which one cannot accept, one should verbally explain to him why. This describes how one is to rely on a lama within the three vehicles of Buddhism. One shouldn’t fall to either of the extremes. As in all practices, after ascertaining the truth with reason, one should then have faith, but that isn’t a blind faith leading you into a chasm. You should examine what the teacher says, accepting what is suitable and rejecting that which is not. This is the general Buddhist procedure, and I agree with it. I follow it.
* High status indicates a high rebirth either as a human or god among the six realms of samsara. Definite goodness refers both to a state free of samsara and to Buddhahood.
** Specifically cause and effect. Though cause and effect is the foundation of the Buddhist teachings, it is often impossible (with a normal consciousness) to recognize a specific cause or causes for a specific effect.
From An Interview with The Dalai Lama by John F. Avedon, p. 59.
JA: To what degree do you feel the Tulku system as it existed in Tibet was accurate? How many incarnate lamas discovered in the past do you think were genuine?
DL: Oh, that is difficult. There are two things that are very important in this. One is that examining the tulku should be done very thoroughly. It’s very easy for this examination or investigation not to be done properly. Secondly, we have got to see how the tulku leads his life. We have to judge by that also. The very purpose of voluntarily reincarnating is to produce some good result. Without that good result, then it is doubtful. The reincarnation takes rebirth with choice, intentionally, deliberately, with the definite purpose of serving humanity though religious or other means. Anyway, there must be some concrete result. In some cases where there is not this result, then I am doubtful. So I think fifty-fifty. It might be a little presumptuous on my part to say this.
Excerpt from PRACTICING THE BUDDHA DHARMA IN THE WEST
Interview with His Eminence Garchen Triptrul Rinpoche
by Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D.
Georg Feuerstein: For me, one of the saddest aspects of Buddhism in the West is the failing
of so many teachers. His Holiness Dalai Lama advised that we should check our teachers
carefully. The difficulty is that most teachers don’t give students the access that would
allow them to do that. Do you, Rinpoche, view this as a difficulty, and if so what can we
do about it?
Garchen Rinpoche: I acknowledge the problem. In the West there is no continuity of
instruction, which makes it difficult to establish a spiritual bond between the student
and lama. The lama comes from somewhere out of the blue, maybe gives one talk or
initiation or a weekend seminar, and then he’s gone again. Too many people are getting
too many bits and pieces of teachings. That is one problem. The other problem is that
there is a certain lack of highly qualified teachers – the senior teachers have already
passed away. The younger teachers are now in big demand, often before they themselves
have gone through all the training. They may have studied the scriptures.
Georg Feuerstein: …but do not yet have the realization.
Garchen Rinpoche: There are many aspects to this problem. When studying under a lama,
we should not be concerned with the quality of the lama. The quality of our understanding
after all derives from our understanding of the teaching, not of the person. The most
important thing is that we understand karma and do not accumulate further karmic
propensities. The moment we judge someone, we stain the mirror of our own mind. We actually
gain nothing from this exercise. On the contrary, we lose out.
Georg Feuerstein: Yesterday, Rinpoche, you said that some teachers may look very nice but
have no spiritual substance. And then some may have a not-so-nice personality but are endowed
with spiritual substance. What about the teachers who have a bad personality and also no
Garchen Rinpoche: With the right view, we can always transform; we can always accumulate
merit and purify our karmic propensities. Even someone like that, we can remind ourselves,
must have a Buddha nature. Even a dog has a Buddha nature. We don’t necessarily have to
become involved with such a person. It may be enough to remember his Buddha nature. The
simplest teaching that Marpa taught his disciple Milarepa is to develop neither attachment
nor aversion. Don’t eulogize people and also don’t look down on them. Keep polishing the
Copyright 2002 Garchen Rinpoche and Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved. For permission to republish this interview free of charge (providing its use is noncommercial and has our copyright notice affixed to it), contact Yoga Research and Education Center at 2400A County Center Drive, Santa Rosa, CA 95403 or firstname.lastname@example.org.