How to Rely on a Spiritual Friend
Jampa Chokyi ©
We know we need
guidance on the path to enlightenment, and it is a spiritual
friend-a guru or a lama-who can provide this. Before exploring
the various ways of understanding the guru, it is helpful
to understand the Buddhist objects of refuge.
There are two types of refuge objects:
the outer or causal and the inner or resultant Three Jewels.
The various Buddhist traditions-Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana-have
slightly different ways of describing these. Regarding the
outer refuge, the Theravada tradition considers the Buddha
to be Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha; the Dharma to be
the Three Baskets, of which the core teaching is the Four
Noble Truths; and the Sangha to be the noble ones who have
realized selflessness: those at the eighth level of the path
from stream-enterer to arhat. For the practitioners of this
tradition, the guru or teacher is a person who explains the
teachings, give precepts, and so forth. In the Mahayana tradition,
the Buddha Jewel refers to all the Buddhas, whose qualities
and realizations are similar to those of Shakyamuni. The Dharma
is expanded to include the meaning of the Mahayana sutras,
and the Sangha contains the bodhisattvas as well. In the Vajrayana
or Tantra, the guru (lama) becomes even more important and
is included in the objects of refuge: "I take refuge
in the Gurus, the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha."
Here, the guru is considered to be the embodiment of the Three
Jewels, not a fourth object of refuge. The guru is the Buddha,
the guru is the Dharma, and the guru is the Sangha.
From the point of view of the Sutrayana-the
Theravada and general Mahayana-the lama is someone who gives
teachings and guides our practice. There is a relationship
between teacher and disciple, but leaving one teacher and
relying on another is not a serious problem as long as the
student does not have anger or contempt toward the teacher.
However, when we receive Tantric initiation, the relationship
between the lama and disciple is something very deep, very
subtle. Once we have made such connection with a lama, breaking
it is very serious.
The Tibetan Buddhist traditions emphasize
that without strong guru devotion it is impossible to gain
any spiritual realizations. There are many stories about the
incredible hardships that great masters such as Naropa, Marpa,
and Milarepa went through in order to follow their gurus'
advice. Naropa's guru asked him to do some seemingly outrageous
actions, such as jumping from a roof and stealing food. Marpa
had to go through great pains to collect enough gold to journey
to India and to make offerings to his guru, Naropa. Nowadays
we may complain about having to pay for receiving teachings,
but in previous times, in order to acknowledge the value of
both the teacher and the teachings, disciples made lavish
offerings to their gurus whenever they could. Milarepa spent
six years building houses for his teacher Marpa, only to be
ordered to destroy them and to start again.
A teaching in the Kagyu tradition says,
"You should see everything that the guru does as perfect.
If the guru kills, he is sending the consciousness of that
being to a pure realm. If the guru steals, he is using material
possessions to help others," and so forth. This kind
of teaching may be difficult for us to un-derstand. Another
more rational approach is to check a guru carefully. If he
or she tells us to do something that is in accordance with
the Dharma, we should follow the advice, otherwise we should
not. This accords with the Buddha's instruction: "You
should not accept anything because I said so, but check it
well first. Then, if you find that it is right and logical,
you can accept it." However, all those highly realized
beings who attained enlightenment had to follow their guru's
instructions even when the guru did or told them to do outrageous
things. However, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out,
those disciples were highly realized beings who understood
the subtle and hidden meanings of these instructions, while
we have not yet attained their level of realization.
The Buddha also said that we should rely
on the teachings, not on the teacher, and we may feel that
there is a contradiction here. On the one hand, we are told
that we won't achieve any realization unless we totally devote
ourselves to our guru, no matter what he says, no matter what
he does. On the other hand, we are told to check the teacher's
advice very carefully and to consider the teachings more important
than the teacher. How do we deal with this apparent contradiction?
My opinion is that, regarding the guru who gives sutra teachings,
we would be wiser to rely on the teachings than on the teacher;
but after receiving Tantric initiations and teachings from
a guru, we have to see him or her as Buddha and as more important
than the meditational deities.
Some Westerners seem to have problems
in their relationship with their teachers even without receiving
Tantric teachings. Some of us come to Buddhism because we
have many emotional problems in our life, not because we want
to learn Buddhist philosophy and attain enlightenment. We
just want someone to take care of us. Tibetans are more independent
and stronger; they go to the Dharma because they want to
learn the Dharma and not because they want to hang around
a lama. Many Westerners, when they find a lama who is kind
to them, totally devote themselves to him or her without checking
their own minds any further. They only care about "what
my lama says." In those cases, although we may call
the teacher an object of refuge, he or she has become another
object of our emotional problems. We give up our family and
friends just to follow the lama because we need to have a
safe emotional relationship with someone. Sometimes we rely
on the lama because we don't want to think for ourselves.
It is easier to think, "I'll just do what my guru wants."
We may think this is devotion, but in fact it is just confusion.
Devotion does not mean continuously following the teacher
around and asking where to go, what to study, and even what
to eat and what to wear. Real devotion is to practice pure
Dharma in accordance with the Buddha's teachings and the lama's
We all have our inner wisdom, our inner
guru. The role of the outer guru is to help us to bring forth
our own Buddha mind. To some extent the guru can be considered
as a parent, but only on a very high or subtle level, and
certainly not on an emotional level. His job is not to take
care of us like our father or our mother did.
Our teachers act as a mirror. When we
seek advice, they show us exactly what is in our mind, like
a mirror reflecting back what is there. They may give advice
and help, but basically they are just there without projecting
anything from their side. They perceive what we are projecting
and show it to us. In this case, what our guru tells us to
do is what we ourselves want to do, but we may not have the
courage or wisdom to admit it to ourselves. At other times,
the guru may tell us to do something, not because he actually
wants us to do that, but because he wants us to learn how
to use our own wisdom and become strong enough to make our
own decisions. In this case, he is using skillful means to
help us develop that inner wisdom. However, such skillful
means may not be easy to understand unless we have gone through
the experience ourselves.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentioned
that when a fully qualified teacher and a fully qualified
disciple, such as Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, or Milarepa meet,
enlightenment comes very easily. Instead of having unrealistic
expectations of our relationship with our guru, we should
ask ourselves, "Am I ca-pable of following a teacher
in the same way as those beings who attained high realizations?"
To have such devotion is really wonderful, but for most of
us ordinary people, it is difficult. We may have a perfect
teacher, but if we are not fully qualified disciples, limitations
exist. Therefore, in addition to checking the teacher's qualities
carefully before entrusting ourselves to him or her, it is
necessary to attentively check our minds before following
the guru's advice. Otherwise, we may later regret what we
did and develop a negative attitude toward the teacher and
even toward the Buddha and the Dharma. This is definitely
detrimental for our spiritual progress.
As we develop our awareness of who we
are and what we need, we will be able to find the answers
inside ourselves and will not need to rely so heavily on
the advice of a lama. Also, the more we develop genuine meditative
experience and get in touch with the subtle levels of our
own mind, the less we need to rely emotionally on an external
guru. The outer guru is definitely necessary at the beginning
of our practice, but the more we meditate and learn to watch
our mind, the more self-reliant we become. Through meditation
we find that the guru is in our heart and everywhere.
However, that does not mean that we neglect
the external guru. To reach the point where we don't need
any more help from the external guru is extremely difficult,
and even high lamas go to their own gurus for advice. At the
moment, we are full of delusions, and we should remember that
the external guru is there to show us the actual state of
our present mind so that we can make efforts to transform
it. We must be able to keep a balance: on one hand, we should
develop our own wisdom and not rely emotionally on a guru;
on the other, we should keep in mind that the connection with
a guru is extremely important. By taking refuge, praying
to our gurus, and visualizing them as our meditational deity,
we will receive their guidance and the answers we seek. We
will know what to do with our lives.
Some people may feel that relying on more
than one teacher may become a source of conflict. It is helpful
to remember that many highly realized beings such as Atisha,
Tsong Khapa, and so forth, followed many teachers and respected
all of them equally. It is not a matter of having just one
guru in the same way that one has only one boyfriend at a
time! In addition, meditation facilitates our understanding
of the nature of all our gurus in a non-contradictory way.
The essence of all our gurus is the same, although they appear
as different beings and the level of their realizations may
also vary. When we gain some insight into the real nature
of the mind, we will discover that the true essence of our
mind and the nature of our guru are the same: clear light
and emptiness. We are no longer able to define a boundary
between them. At that point, there is no more problem because
we know that by relying on one guru we are actually relying
on all of them. However, if we do not meditate and only rely
on the external guru, there may seem to be a conflict between
the advice of different teachers. In such a case, we should
know which of our teachers we consider as the principal one
and follow his or her advice.
To advance in our Dharma practice we must
practice meditation. Studying, teaching, and organizing events
are worthwhile activities, but they bring limited benefit.
In my own case, after spending many years doing retreats,
living very close to my lamas, and doing various works for
them, I had the opportunity to study more. I heard the teaching
on the five paths and thirty-seven factors concordant with
enlightenment from Geshe Sonam Rinchen; he made it very clear
that unless we develop one-pointedness of mind and bodhicitta,
we do not even enter the first path. That really gave me a
shock. I realized that even after all those years spent in
Dharma practice, I had not even entered the actual path of
Dharma. It is only through meditation based on proper study
and understanding of the teachings that we can generate realizations.
Thus, my wish is to meditate as much as I am able and to use
whatever other activities I engage in as means to purify
my delusions and accumulate merit, so that I can realize all
the stages of the path and be able to help others. At the
present moment, even though I may think I am helping others,
that is just talking in space. Until I have genuine realizations
and develop wisdom, any help I give is limited.
Let me finish with a short dedication
prayer written by His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama:
The outer lama is the various Bodies of
The inner lama is the All Pure Heruka (the Body of Enjoyment).
The secret lama is our basic, most subtle mind.
Please bless me to meet these three lamas in this very lifetime.