Buddhism & Taoism
Buddhism:How to find a Guru?
How to find a guru? What is a guru? Do you need one to travel the spiritual path? What are the benefits of having a guru? CJ Interviews Lama Surya Das on finding a guru and the path of tantra. Plus, check out the incredible blog post written by Lama Surya Das on this topic.
Reformatted and Modified from original article written by Lama Surya Das entitled “ The Teacher: Learning from Both the Foolish and the Wise”.
The Role of a Guru – Differences between a teacher/professor and a guru
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?
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.
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. 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.
Experiencing a guru. What is the importance of the guru in the human form?
It’s very hard to learn abstract theories, from holy historical books and scriptural texts, or from hagiographies and rumors about how Christ or others lived a long time ago. I have found that meeting live teachers really made the teachings alive for me. 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.
Defintion of a guru-An evolved spiritual guide
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.
Finding a Guru – How do we recognise an evolved spiritual guide?
It can sometimes be hard to find an authentic teacher these days
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.
Can you have more than one guru?
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.” 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.
Enlightenment- How long does one work with a guru?
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.
What qualities should I look for in a guru?
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. 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.
What is the importance of the Guru in the human form?
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. There are different levels of bodies (kayas, in Sanskrit) of the teacher.
Some salient features of a Guru in the human form
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. 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.
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?
Should you 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, whatever. 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.
The guru’s promise: What is the arrangement between guru and disciple?
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, 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. 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. We must be very aware what we are doing, why, and with whom.
With this 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.
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. 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.
At the Mahayana level, you feel that the teacher knows because you have already had some experience of it. You put yourself a little more into their hands, like a patient in the hands of his or her physician
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.
What if your guru is no longer around?
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.
How do you make the most out of your guru relationship?
Lama Surya Das says in his post, “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.
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.
The fake guru: Teachers behaving badly
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.
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. H
is 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. 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.
Anuttara yoga tantra
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.
Don’t throw the Buddha out with the bath water
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.