Theory and Practice of Guru-Yoga
Munich, Germany, July 2004
Session Three: The Fifth Dalai Lama’s Lam-rim Practice
Yesterday we saw that what we are referring to here as a guru is a great teacher, a great spiritual master or mentor, who not only is able to teach from knowledge of the texts, but also is able to teach us by his or her own example, being a living example of what Buddha has taught. So someone who has sincere love and compassion which furthers disciples and everybody to be happy, not to be unhappy, to get rid of their sufferings, and so on, and who is totally motivated only by wishing to help others. This is very essential. Not interested in exploiting the students for money, fame, sex, or love, or attention, or whatever. Who has complete ethical behavior – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a monk or a nun. And good concentration, good understanding of the teachings, particularly about voidness; and as a result of that good understanding of voidness, has a minimal amount – I can’t imagine anyone would have none – but a minimal amount of disturbing emotions. And also some level of ability of being able to teach, to explain things clearly with patience and enthusiasm, not getting discouraged by the slower students and by needing to repeat all the time.
All the texts say that it is going to be very difficult to find somebody who has all the qualifications. The main thing is to find someone who has a maximum amount of the qualifications; we are not going to find somebody who is absolutely perfect, so we need to be realistic. And the teacher, very importantly, needs to be honest about his or her own good qualities and shortcomings, and not pretend to have qualities he doesn’t have, and not hide the shortcomings that he does have. Then it is clearly open. The same thing with the students. Again, he doesn’t have to go into personal intimate details; that is not the point. The point is in terms of one’s character.
We see this with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness will explain something in tremendous detail, very, very difficult things. But when he reaches a word or a passage in a text that he doesn’t understand, he says very clearly, “I don’t understand what this means. This is unclear.” And then he asks the great masters around him when he’s teaching, “What do you think it means?” Sometimes somebody can actually answer the question and His Holiness will debate with him in terms of questioning what the other person says. His Holiness is always open to learning; he always admits when he doesn’t understand something. And he is – everybody agrees – that he is the most learned of any of the Tibetans, the most advanced of any of the Tibetans. That is clear.
That is a very good example, and usually, I mean, I know from myself and from other people that it increases your belief and confidence in His Holiness, because His Holiness will admit, in this completely complicated difficult text, that there are two passages that he doesn’t understand, then you are very confident that he does in fact understand everything else. Probably nobody understands those two passages. It could be a mistake in the text – that often happens, because of some copy mistake made centuries ago when it was all handwritten, or the Tibetan translation is incorrect. We should not think that they are absolutely accurate and correct. And if we check back with the Sanskrit text, you can still find mistakes, which could come either from a shortcoming of the translator or because they were using a different manuscript – there weren’t standard versions of these texts in Sanskrit. So Serkong Rinpoche always used to emphasize, “Always question anything that doesn’t make sense, don’t just accept it, investigate.” Even if it is in a scripture, it is not holy, holy words and you never investigate deeper. There are mistakes in them.
So “yoga” means to yoke ourselves or join with the authentic thing. And with the authentic thing, that means that what we are yoking with is actually the Buddha-nature qualities, the Buddha-qualities of the teacher. We are not yoking with their shortcomings. So even if the teacher is not very well qualified, although he does have more qualifications than shortcomings, we can gain a great deal of inspiration and help from us joining with those good qualities. And joining means to gain inspiration and strength from it, to inspire us to realize these qualities ourselves on the basis of the Buddha-nature in the guru and the Buddha-nature in ourselves. That is the essence of guru-yoga.
If you look in this way, that we can gain inspiration from the good qualities of the teacher, then we can also understand how we can see everybody as our teacher. We can learn from everybody, including the dog. The dog, no matter how much you might yell at the dog for making a mess or doing this or that, and no matter how strongly you might discipline the dog, the dog remains loyal and loves you. So we can gain inspiration from the dog as our teacher. Even if we learned from somebody not to act that way, we learned from them not to make that same mistake. It actually makes a great deal of sense and it is quite profound to see everybody as our teacher, and not to, just as we wouldn’t want to – I mean, there is no benefit from dwelling on the shortcomings or mistakes of our teachers. Likewise, not to do that with anybody. There’s no benefit. Unless one is trying to help them to correct, to overcome that. But then your motivation has to be proper, altruistic.
So I am repeating this and emphasizing this because many of us don’t have the ideal teacher, one that really can inspire us very, very deeply. We have other teachers, but still we can do guru-yoga in terms of them, not just in terms of the founding figure of our lineage, although that is, of course, very standard and very helpful, whether it is Tsongkhapa, whether it’s Guru Rinpoche, whether it is Drigungpa Jigten-gonpo, whoever it might be. But as I said, even if we do that with a founding figure, we need to know something about the biography of this figure; otherwise it really is not very meaningful as an example. But with our less than tremendously inspiring teachers, still I think that we can certainly apply guru-yoga and gain some level of inspiration, because we certainly do at least learn something from them. If we are not learning anything from them, why are we going to the teacher? Just because they happened to be at our Dharma center and other people go is not a sufficient reason, if we are not learning anything from the teacher. As it says, I think Sakya Pandita said, “We shouldn’t be like a dog: when all the other dogs bark, it starts barking too.”
So we began the discussion of the practice of guru-yoga, guru meditation, and I mentioned that there is a sutra level of this and a tantra level. The tantra level basically just adds a few more things to the sutra level. It is not that they are alternatives, that the tantra level is an alternative to the sutra, it just adds something to it. The sutra level basically helps us to establish the proper feeling, the proper attitude of mind, and the tantra level just adds some graphic details and other things that help with gaining the inspiration. And the tantra level also adds imagining that we are receiving initiation again from the spiritual teacher. But without the basis of the proper feeling and attitude, which is established through the sutra meditation, the whole thing just becomes, shall we say, entertaining visualizations – there is very little content to it. But, as I said, all of this just becomes entertaining – it just degenerates into entertaining visualizations – if there is no emotional content to it, if there is no feeling behind it, if there is no generation of the proper attitude toward the teacher behind it. Might as well be visualizing Mickey Mouse!
So now we are speaking about the sutra level practice. We started with the seven-part practice to build up some positive force. There is no need to repeat that – prostration, offering, etc. And then following this we reminded ourselves of the advantages of focusing on the Guru’s good qualities and the disadvantages of dwelling and becoming fixated on their faults. And then the next step is coming from the Fifth Dalai Lama’s lam-rim text. And there he says that we need to bring to mind, we remind ourselves, of the teacher’s shortcomings and clear away any inaccuracies that might be there, that might just be our projections. And these shortcomings, they don’t have to be on the level – I mean, they may be on the level of the person sometimes gets angry, or impatient, or scolds others, which might not actually be a shortcoming. My teacher scolded me all the time; it was done very compassionately, to help me, it was very appropriate. But there might be other aspects of the teacher that seem like gross shortcomings. “The teacher can’t really teach me this particular topic which I would like to learn” – that type of thing. But it can also be on the level of: “My teacher doesn’t have so much time for me. My teacher travels all the time. My teacher is very busy with other students.” And so on. It might not be a shortcoming in a more ultimate sense, but it is something that makes us dissatisfied.
And this is the important point, is to bring up these emotions that we might have of dissatisfaction, of criticism, and so on, so that we can deal with it and clear it out and not be hindered by that, because if we don’t really deal with it, it can undermine our attitude toward the teacher. The Fifth Dalai Lama is a very good psychologist in understanding this. When you focus on the good qualities of the teacher, it doesn’t mean that you go into total denial about the shortcomings. That’s not healthy. And it helps if the teacher is honest about these things. Or they don’t know our language – that’s another gripe that often really disturbs us. So as I say, we clear away the conventional inaccuracies. We have to check up if there is something which is true or not true. Is there other evidence about this? Is the teacher giving a lot of time to another student, not to me – well maybe I am not so receptive as the other student. It could be due to me. A lot of us imagine that we are Milarepas, when we’re not.
Question: What do you mean by inaccuracies?
Alex: Let’s give us an example. That the teacher doesn’t understand something, whereas, in fact, they are simplifying it in order to make it easier for you to understand.
Question: Inaccuracies in our understanding?
Alex: Inaccuracies in our projection. I think that the teacher is stupid because the teacher doesn’t understand that – because they are explaining on such a simple level. Well, the fact is that they do understand it much more deeply, but there is no way that I could understand it if they explained on the level that they understand it. So they are simplifying it for me. So it is our projection. It is like for instance, the very good example is: You listen to a Tibetan teacher who speaks not very good English, and they explain themselves in English, and you conclude that this is the way they are. But if you knew Tibetan, if you spoke with them in Tibetan, you listen to the way that they teach in Tibetan, their native language, you get a totally, totally different picture of the person and their level of understanding, their level of being able to express themselves, and so on. It is our projection. That, I think, is very important for those of us who have Tibetan teachers who teach in bad English. You get some glimpse of how they actually speak in their native language when they teach their own people.
And also we need to meditate on how even the conventionally accurate shortcomings that the teacher has, that these are devoid of existing as inherent flaws – the teacher is no good, inherently – but to see that these things arise from causes and conditions. It is not part of the Buddha-nature, and this can be removed, the teacher is working on these things, and so on. It is very important to think in those terms as well, of what is conventionally accurate, the conventional truth, and the deepest truth. The nature of the mind is pure of those things.
After we have done that, then it can be helpful, although the Fifth Dalai Lama doesn’t say this, but I think that also it is very helpful to put in there the same procedure with our own shortcomings – as a student, as a disciple. There is a long list of the qualifications of a proper disciple. And do we actually meet up to that in terms of, who can take best advantage of a fully qualified spiritual master? The dog of the spiritual master or a proper disciple? Obviously, the proper disciple. A qualified disciple can gain much greater benefit from the spiritual master than the dog. Both might have a close relationship, in fact the teacher might be more affectionate to the dog than to us.
The student, first of all, needs to be receptive to the Dharma: A great Sakya master, Sonam-tsemo (bSod-nams rtse-mo), wrote in a text called Opening the Gate to the Dharma [sic! The Gateway for Entering the Dharma (Chos-la ‘jug-pa’i sgo)] that we have to recognize our own shortcomings and have a strong wish to overcome them. That’s a very important point. Actually, that is the whole point of renunciation, isn’t it? But a lot of us are not willing to be honest with ourselves and see what are our shortcomings. And even if we have them, we want a bargain, and not give them up, gain just good qualities. So we have to have a strong wish to get rid of them and be willing to get rid of them.
And the other aspect that we need besides recognizing the shortcomings – number two, the wish to get rid of them. Then the third one is some knowledge of the Dharma, so that we have some belief which is based on some knowledge that the Dharma is going to offer us a method for overcoming these problems, not just blind belief based on never having heard anything about the Dharma. It doesn’t have to be profound knowledge at all, but at least we have some idea of what the Dharma is all about. Otherwise why would you really go into depth about it.
And then the great Indian master, Aryadeva, points out the basic qualities in terms of the character of the disciple when he says: The first one is being honest and impartial. “Honest” is, as already mentioned, being honest about ourselves, about our shortcomings, our good qualities, and so on. And “impartial” means to not be prejudiced about one’s own beliefs, which maybe is something that is not at all very helpful, not at all in accord with reality. Not partial, in terms of being very sectarian about the Buddha’s teachings. In other words, we have to be open-minded, willing to learn, without preconceptions. And is going to be honest with the teacher, not put on these little acts as if they are trying to advertise and sell themselves. You see the teacher coming, then all of a sudden they sit very formally in meditation as soon as… putting on an act.
This is referring to, for instance, when we learn something new and it makes sense to us, but in our old attitude or our old belief we see that it was nonsense – the willingness to drop that old belief. That is being impartial. That is not easy. How willing are we to change? To follow the Dharma, you have to be very, very courageous. Because we really need to be willing to change, to grow, to develop, which means giving up old useless habits and ways of thinking and ways of acting. That is being impartial, open. Without that, we can’t really be a proper disciple. We have to be honest about that and work on it. Be willing to give up some things, but not these other things. So again you have to be a little bit gentle in terms of that, but, ultimately, you get rid of this.
Shantideva says it very nicely. He says that in the case of other enemies, all other enemies, if we treat them very nicely, and we depend on them, and so on, that maybe they will help us, help us to become happier. But in the case of the disturbing emotions, if we depend on them and are sort of nice with them, in return all they do is cause us more suffering and pain. In terms of that point (being gentle with ourselves), also if you try to go too quickly – you give up absolutely everything – then often we are not able to handle that and we backslide very quickly because we rebel. It is too much. So, step by step. People who are learning the Dharma for three months and then they want to ordain, become a monk or a nun – this is very dangerous. They usually don’t last. So we look at our own shortcomings.
And in the list that Shantideva [sic! Aryadeva] said – the second one, after being honest and impartial – you must have common sense. Common-sense discrimination between what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense, not just “Duhhhh” – blindly believe. And to know – the example that they give is to “wear warm clothes,” you know, you wear warm clothes in the winter when it is cold, not in the summer. You use common sense. The disciple has to have common sense. If we give up all thinking processes – “Ohhhh, Lama knows” – this opens us up to abuse. And then the third quality is keen interest in the Dharma, sincere interest, and being diligent with it. Not just being a Dharma tourist, dilettante. We’re sincere. This is very important. Being sincere about it.
In summary, it is very important to be mature about the Dharma, about ourselves, about the teacher, and to have a certain level of emotional stability ourselves. If we really have deep psychological problems, we are not ready to take the Dharma medicine. You have to start with something that is going to help us, whether it’s professional psychiatric care, medication, or whatever it is. Somebody who really, really is disturbed, if they try to practice Dharma, it is likely to make them even more disturbed. You can’t bring a schizophrenic to class and expect that they are going to have a miracle cure.
I forget which Kadampa Geshe said this, but one of them said that if a student comes who has a good character and is very, very sincere, it doesn’t matter if they are not intelligent, you should accept them as your disciple. And if they don’t learn, it is your fault as a teacher, not being skillful enough. But if a student comes who is very intelligent, but very arrogant and close-minded, don’t agree to teach – not a proper disciple, they are not receptive. That is very helpful, especially if we’re not the most intelligent person in the world. It is up to the teacher to be skillful enough to teach somebody who takes a little bit more time to understand. Sincere, good character, willing to learn, wants to learn – then it is up to the teacher to be skillful. And if the teacher can’t handle it, then go to another teacher. If the teacher can’t really handle it, that’s not the teacher for you: the teacher is impatient with you and yells at you, and so on, because you are slow. If you are lazy that is something else – then you need somebody who is strict.
So we go through this aspect of our own shortcomings, again the same process – not exaggerate them, but it’s accurate and honest, and then also seeing them as not being inherent flaws in ourselves; these things can be overcome. The nature of the mind, Buddha-nature, is pure. They are not going to go away by themselves, we have to work on it – cause and effect. That second point, by the way, is very important, if we have low self-esteem based on our shortcomings.
Then we can follow a similar procedure, although again it doesn’t say this in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s text, but I think it is very helpful in terms of – although it is suggested indirectly here – is to do the same procedure with the good qualities. And here I would say just from my own knowledge of psychology, small knowledge of psychology, that it is best to start with our own good qualities. Start with our own good qualities, and again, what are they? What is conventionally accurate? Cut away the exaggerations and see that we are not inflating them. And then see them as no great inherent wonder – it came about from cause and effect, either in this life or previous lifetimes.
And then do the same thing with the teacher’s good qualities. What is accurate? That again they are not these inherent wonders. Even Buddha Shakyamuni had to build up the causes, it says very clearly in the texts, he wasn’t born that way. When the Buddha became enlightened, he had to work on it just as we do. You see, for us in the West, most of us suffer from low self-esteem, which is in many ways encouraged by our cultural heritage. And so in that case, if we started with our own shortcomings, we’d just feel worse about ourselves. So start with the shortcomings of the teacher, even the teacher has shortcomings. Then… and so do we. Now after focusing on our own shortcomings, if we were to focus on the teacher’s good qualities, then we might think, “Ah, the teacher is so wonderful, and I am so terrible.” But instead we start, after our own shortcomings, our own strong points, to help us to not feel badly about ourselves. And then we have these good qualities, and our teacher has even more. So I think from a psychological point of view, this order makes sense. That’s why I have recommended it like this. As I said, it’s just filling in what’s there in the Tibetan. The Tibetan just says to look at the shortcomings of the teacher. This is the tradition in Buddhist studies that the older texts are quite brief. And one is always encouraged to put all the Dharma teachings together – they all fit together – Atisha made that point very strongly. And so when one tries to fill out these briefer texts, then you fill in things from other aspects of the teachings. That is what I am doing here. I try to do it. Atisha said you need to see that all the teachings fit together harmoniously.
Okay. So why don’t we take our tea pause, and then we will continue with the next steps.
After going through what are the teacher’s shortcomings and our shortcomings, and our good qualities and the teacher’s good qualities, then we focus on the good qualities of the teacher. Now when we speak about the proper attitude toward the spiritual teacher, we always speak of – the texts always speak of – two aspects to it. One is belief (mos-pa, firm conviction) in the good qualities and the second is appreciation (gus-pa) of the kindness of the teacher. So we have to understand what the word “belief” means. And here we have some problem in German, because the word in German for belief and faith [“Glaube”] is the same. And we don’t mean faith. So I will explain the difference.
So what we are talking about here is belief in what is true (dad-pa), belief in what is fact. “Faith” is usually used, at least in English, with blind faith. So we are not talking about belief in Santa Claus. It is not fact. Or belief that I believe that it is going to rain tomorrow. We don’t really know, it’s a guess, an educated guess at best. We are talking about belief in what is fact. The Earth is round. The Tibetan word and Sanskrit word means this. It doesn’t have these other meanings that our Western words “belief” have. Also we are talking about belief in something that can be known and is a fact. We are not talking about belief in God, which really can’t be known – we have to make a leap of faith. What you can actually know. God is unknowable. It is just belief.
And the texts speak about three different types of belief in fact. And here we are speaking specifically about belief that the teacher actually has the good qualities that he or she actually does have, not belief that the teacher has qualities that he or she doesn’t have, that he has what he doesn’t have. We are not talking about believing that the teacher has qualities that he or she does not have. That’s fantasy.
So the first kind I translated as “clearheaded belief (dang-ba’i dad-pa).” The Tibetan word just is the word “clear.” What it means is a type of belief in what’s fact which clears our minds of disturbing attitudes about it. So this is what we have accomplished by the step just before here. We are not naive about these qualities, we don’t have low self-esteem: “Oh, the teacher is so great and I am so lowly, I am so stupid.” We’ve cleared our minds of these disturbing emotions: being angry that the teacher has shortcomings, these sort of things. We’ve cleared the mind of that, so we believe in what is fact – clear, calm heart and mind. Very important. So that is accomplished by going through the shortcomings and see what actually is true and what is not true. Not naive or jealous or arrogant about our own teacher: “I’m so much better than the teacher.” All of these things you have to clear out – jealousy, arrogance, etc.
Then when these qualities are perfectly clear – the ones that the teacher does have, without exaggeration – then we reinforce our belief with what is called “confident belief (yid-ches-kyi dad-pa, believing a fact based on reason).” And confident belief is based on reason. And so we think about the process by which the spiritual teacher gained these qualities: all the study and retreats, the relation with their teachers, and so on. And also what demonstrates that they have these good qualities – so we see in terms of their actions, their positive effects on other students, positive effects on me. Being with them doesn’t increase my disturbing emotions, but decreases them. So in this sense we have confident belief based on looking at cause and effect – causes that brought about these qualities, and effects that these qualities have on the teacher’s behavior and on other people. It’s a fact. And they relied on their teachers, their relationships with their own teachers – very important. It’s on the basis of it… and beneficial on the basis of it being free of fantasy and free of disturbing emotions, of being caught up in it. Otherwise it is just blind worship of basically our own projection. Not helpful. It opens us up to great disappointment at some point.
And then the third type of belief in what is fact is “belief in what is fact with an aspiration (mngon-‘dod-kyi dad-pa),” it is called, with a wish or an aspiration. So what we focus on now is that we – because we’ve thought about how the teacher attained these qualities – now we focus with belief on the fact that these qualities are something that can be attained, and on the conclusion that I myself can attain them. This is the aspiration. And that with full confident belief that I will attain them myself, I will work to achieve these qualities myself in order to benefit everyone the way that my teacher benefits others. So it is not just belief that the teacher has these qualities, but belief that I can attain these qualities, and belief that I will attain these if I put in the work. I believe that I am going to do it, not just fooling myself, through your help, O teacher, through your inspiration.
So we conclude this with focusing, letting it sink in, this firm conviction in the teacher. There is an aspect of trust, trust the teacher based on the reality of the situation, and so on. And focusing on all those feelings that we have evoked here and letting them really sink in, digest them, integrate them. It gives you a very strong feeling of confidence and strength. You know what you are doing and it’s on very sound grounds: confidence, trust. The word that’s used (mos-pa) is a word that means a type of belief in fact which cannot be – I mean a decisiveness – which cannot be swayed. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says, I have examined it very, very well. It is only when we haven’t examined well, somebody tells us something about the teacher, then we start to doubt the teacher. If we’ve examined very, very well then we know what the shortcomings of the teacher are then our confidence and trust in the teacher is secure.
I was trying to explain this a little bit Friday night, just with the example of my own experience with Serkong Rinpoche over two lifetimes and not being naive about what his qualities are now as a twenty-year-old, and certainly not being naive when he was four years old or eight years old. Confidence and trust in the development, in the instincts that are there, in the way that it is working, to feel guided and in a sense protected and certainly incredibly inspired not just in this lifetime, but seeing it as a long-term process all the way to enlightenment. It has not just started in this lifetime, obviously, and will continue with the firm intention for it to continue and to build up the causes for it to continue the relation with the teacher.
Remember from the seven-part practice, “Lead me all the way to enlightenment.” That means over many lifetimes, doesn’t it? A relationship that will continue. Each lifetime, of course, will be a slightly different form, but that confidence that the teacher will guide you all the way to enlightenment. There is a tremendous amount of strength and stability. And it is interesting when you think of the word “devotion.” One of my students, a very close student of mine, pointed out to me – speaking about just my own personal experience how I have, on my website, I speak sometimes about a balanced practice of intellectual, emotional, and devotional aspects, and they need to be balanced with each other. And in myself I have intellectual and emotional, but the devotional side I always thought that’s rather weak in myself. I don’t like ritual. I don’t like at all this “O Lama, Lama,” – imitating a Tibetan old woman. Not exhaling when I am in the presence of the teacher, and so on. This I find not at all to my liking. So I think of myself as – I’m not terribly devotional. Maybe I need to balance that. This very close student of mine pointed out to me that, in fact, I am incredibly devotional in terms of my devotion to my teachers, and my devotion to the website, and making the Dharma available to as many people as possible. So when we think of devotion, what does devotion really mean? Do we mean by that a mindless worship, imitating other people in terms of their forms? Especially coming from another culture, which is really quite silly. Or does it mean this very, very strong trust and belief in what one is doing and in one’s teacher, and so on. And so I was trying to get a different view now in terms of what does devotion really mean. The basis for it is guru-yoga.
Two aspects: The attitude, relying on a teacher in terms of our attitude – belief in the facts, in the teacher’s good qualities, and appreciation of the kindness. And now we turn to the teacher’s kindness to us, developing appreciation for that. I think here that we can fill in a step, similar to what we did in terms of the qualities of the teacher, and bring to mind our feelings of their lack of kindness – they haven’t really been kind to me – and examine the – it is technically called the “degenerative regression,” which means this regression to “My Mommy and Daddy don’t love me enough,” this type of thing, “Nobody loves me,” that could be coming up here. And that we are projecting regression, we go back to something in the past, and it’s degenerative – we’re not doing this in a positive way; we’re doing this in a very self-destructive way. That we try to bring that up and clear that away so that these conventional inaccuracies and the exaggeration of our teacher’s behavior – that “they don’t really love me, if they really loved me they would spend all their time only with me.” How infantile can we be! And we’re jealous of the new baby brother or sister. That is degenerative regression. And many of us experience that. We are not very aware of that, but these infantile feelings come up and we need to clear them out.
So we focus on the accurate facts of the teacher’s kindness – what they have done for us, how they have acted toward us – and also we focus on how they have been. This is the deepest level: devoid of indicating that they are inherently inconsiderate or cruel, or if they didn’t spent so much time with us, and so on. “My guru wasn’t kind to me. He scolded me; he called me an idiot all the time,” which was the case. So I could think, “Well, he didn’t love me. He didn’t like me. He was cruel,” and so on. Well, the fact was he did scold me, but that was very kind. It doesn’t indicate that inherently he was a cruel person that ran around yelling at everybody. He didn’t do that with others. “Why does he always yell at me and not the others?” None of this junk, either.
Then we have to focus on the actual ways in which they have been kind. And here it is very important to remind ourselves that people sometimes show kindness in ways other than what we might normally recognize, and other than what we might normally want. This is important not only with the spiritual teacher, but with members of our family, parents especially, and friends, and so on. People show kindness in many, many different ways. One of my psychologist friends uses an analogy for that. This is that people use different currencies. And we have to be willing to accept foreign currencies and recognize that it is money. So if they pay us in Swiss francs, or in Euros, or in US dollars, or in pounds, or in Polish zloty, which we might not really consider money, then, still, we accept it.
So sometimes particularly Asians show love in – especially Asian fatherly figures – show love in very, very different ways than what we would expect or want – as in being very strict with us. If they didn’t love us, they wouldn’t care, they wouldn’t do anything; they are looking out for our welfare. Working – this is in the case of a father – working to make enough money to support us. It might not be affectionate, but that’s not the way that this person shows their love. So we have to recognize what currency they are paying us in and accept it, appreciate it. Not just accept it – appreciate it. This is the emotion that we want to develop here. It’s ideal obviously if we can do that while the person is still alive and we are still relating. Sometimes it happens only later after they have passed away. But it is very important to go through this phase and recognize and appreciate their kindness.
Okay, and again, whatever kindness they have, we also try to not to exaggerate it as some inherent favor – how wonderful they are to do this. Also, if we find it relevant, we can focus on ourselves as devoid of congenital inherent flaws that would render us, by their own powers, inherently unworthy of kindness or love. That often goes with low self-esteem. “I am such a bad person, inherently, that I don’t deserve to be loved, I don’t deserve to receive any kindness.” That is heavy and certainly it prevents a proper healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher.
So we have to apply our understanding of voidness to such things. Nothing inherent in this that makes us like that. Or “I am so worthy and so wonderful that everybody should love me and praise me all the time.” We can go and speak about the other extreme as well. “I am so special” – that is a big one – “I am so special that I should be the focus of attention. And I can monopolize every class by constantly asking questions and not letting anybody else ask any questions. My questions are the most important.” Many people suffer from this as well. They push to the front. “The teacher is coming – the teacher should look at me and see me, especially see me doing prostration!”
Like this, we try to focus on the reality of the kindness that we have received from the teacher. And by going through this process I have just explained, then, to have that in a clearheaded manner – similar to this clearheaded belief in fact – not to be proud of it, not to be jealous when teacher has been kind to others, not to be attached to it, not to exaggerate it, not to be naive about it or angry that we haven’t gotten enough. But clearheaded, clear-hearted understanding of it. And it is based on evidence from what we have seen, what other people have seen. The feeling that we develop from that is a heartfelt appreciation of this, and what comes from it is loving respect. Very stable. A type of loving respect – not this super overemotional one that actually is quite unstable and, if we look at it objectively, quite disturbing, especially when our teacher is not there anymore. And then as we did with the belief in fact of the good qualities in the teacher, we let it sink in, single-mindedly, this feeling of heartfelt appreciation and loving respect.
And then the next step is with this firm conviction in the good qualities, and trust, and appreciation, and loving respect for the teacher, we now request inspiration. We make request, not request for a Mercedes-Benz and these type of things, but request particularly for inspiration. Usually you see that translated from Tibetan as “Bestow on me please your blessings.” Which is far too Christian and its connotation is not what we are talking about in Buddhism. Inspire me. Help me to, inspire me to – and not just inspire me – inspire me, make me specifically to apply myself. Inspire me to develop bodhichitta. Inspire me to have a clear mind so I can understand the teachings. Inspire me by your example to take myself seriously when you take me seriously.
And really we can only feel inspiration, feel inspired from the teacher, if we have this state of mind and heart beforehand – the trust, conviction, appreciation, loving respect, and so on. It is on that basis that we will actually feel something in terms of respect. Otherwise, it is just a visualization of lights. It’s entertaining, but doesn’t move us in any deep way. When we request that inspiration, then we imagine that inspiration – on a sutra level we can do that it enters our heart. It enters us in the form of white or yellow light – white light to diminish the shortcomings such as low energy or dullness, and yellow to stimulate the good qualities. But what’s important is to feel something, not just visualize some lights – that’s trivial. Just to visualize the lights with no feeling is quite trivial; it doesn’t do very much for us. But to do this practice with this graphic representation of lights helps us to feel it more. Otherwise it’s a little bit too vague. Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, makes a great deal of use of the powers of the imagination, a very important tool that we have.
The yellow light is to increase our own good qualities, the white light first to purify us – things like low energy and so on. We want the inspiration to get rid of this low energy and to develop high energy, for example. The white light gets rid of the low energy and the yellow light increases the higher, strong, stable energy. The white light calms down nervous energy; yellow light gives it positive energy.
Then if we are doing tantra level practice, now we can add in the tantra level visualizations and practices at this point. This is a standard type of practice – it’s done with Buddha-figures and yidams as well – which is to imagine that white light comes from the crown chakra or forehead of the teacher to our forehead or crown chakra and inspires us to develop all the good qualities of the body: behavior, action of the teacher. Then red light from the throat to our throat for good qualities of speech. Blue light from the heart to our heart to develop the good qualities of the mind. And then the three together, so that all three are harmoniously integrated.
This type of visualization we can do with all classes of tantra practice. And if we are practicing anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, then also we can imagine at this point that we receive the four initiations that are part of any anuttarayoga initiation from the spiritual teacher. And this can be done in many different greater or lesser elaborate ways. No need to go into all the detail about that, but it can be done quite elaborately. So we can also imagine that a replica of the teacher dissolves into us and our qualities become one with the teacher. In other words, we can supplement it with that.
If we are doing this practice with the initiations – or “empowerments” I prefer as the translation, rather than “initiation”; it is not that we are starting anything, but it is an empowerment. And what it is empowering – I mean, the whole purpose of such a practice is that it activates and strengthens, or empowers the Buddha-nature potentials so that they can be fully actualized and realized. That is what initiations are all about, stimulating the Buddha-nature potentials to grow, activating them, strengthening them. Because it stimulates, it strengthens the Buddha-nature potentials, we take the empowerments over and over and over again through guru-yoga, through actually receiving empowerments and so on. It is not just done to start with and then you forget about it and you don’t need it anymore.
Then going back to sutra practice – as I said, in tantra we do all this in any case – but what we find in the sutra description is at the end of this process, then, we imagine that the guru – by the way, we are focusing on the guru in front of us, not life size, but small (that helps with the concentration) – then the guru (a very small one) comes to the top of our heads, faces in the same direction as we are and, in a sense, remains there for the rest of the day as a witness to our behavior and thought – how we are speaking, how we are thinking, how we are acting – and continues to be a source of inspiration to us and helps us with discipline. Because what is a very important aspect of ethical self-discipline is: “If my teacher were here, would I act like that?” We would be ashamed to act and to speak and to think in a certain way if our teacher were present. And so this is a very great help to us, to keep straight (we can use the idiom). We wouldn’t act like an idiot in front of the teacher because we have such loving respect for the teacher. That’s why this feeling is so important.
This is what I was trying to describe (it is difficult to put it into words) with Serkong Rinpoche. There is a certain sense of – it’s not quite fear, but it is awe. I am so awed by his qualities and have such respect and deep love and appreciation and so on, that how could I act like an idiot in front of him. And if I do unconsciously, not deliberately, act like an idiot: “Thank you for pointing it out to me.” Both past and present, but it was particularly with the past.
My behavior with the present one takes very much into consideration the fact that he is a child, and now he is a young man. And in many ways I take on a fatherly role with him, because I really look out for him and try to take care of his welfare, and so on. He knows that and appreciates that. And so it is a very different dynamic in the relationship because of the difference in our ages and experience. And because I have related with him as a child, there is a certain element of affection there that is appropriate to a relation with a child. Not exaggerated, but appropriate, considering that he is Tibetan, the culture that he comes from.
Question: Does he live in India?
Alex: He is in South India, in Ganden Jangtse Monastery in Mundgod.
And I scold him when it is necessary, but in a very gentle way. What I am always encouraging him to do is to be an adult and to use his abilities to discriminate what is proper and what is improper. Because with a young Rinpoche, often they rely too strongly on the main attendants, and it is not easy to make the transition in which they become the boss of the household. So he is the appropriate age in which that is an issue, so I try to help him with that. Serkong Rinpoche was very learned in all the four traditions, and I would hope that he would continue that tradition. He is quite keen to carry on the traditions of his predecessor. But first he needs to complete his Gelug education, which he is doing with great enthusiasm. He loves his studies. No fooling around.
In any case, I am in tremendous awe and have tremendous respect for the young Serkong Rinpoche, because he really already has exceptional qualities and abilities. For example, if I just think about his discipline, he was somewhat overweight, like his predecessor, who was very overweight. This was due not only to his lack of exercise, but also his bad diet. So another Western friend and I pointed out that he had to do something about this. He replied that we were right and then he not only changed his eating habits, but he started a strict exercise regimen every day and lost seventeen kilos. Amazing.
Then one time his teacher advised that he do a meditation retreat of a certain tantric deity, which required reciting a long mantra 100,000 times. He did the whole thing in just three days, practicing from when he woke up until he went to bed.
Question: It was one session, maybe?
Alex: For the whole day? No, I’m sure he went to the toilet and I am sure he had his meals.
And again, what did he want? He wanted an all-night debate session. That was his idea, and it was the greatest thing for me to help him arrange. And he doesn’t sleep very much.
Question: How many hours?
Alex: How many hours? Generally, in the morning you have to do all your memorization – the mind is the best in the morning for memorization and for reciting what you have memorized. So generally he gets up between five and six. If there is a puja, he has to get up at around 4:30, because they all start at five o’clock, the pujas in the monastery. But generally 5:30, six o’clock, something like that. But after he comes home from the debate ground, which is eleven, twelve o’clock at night, then he does all his practices, his commitments, his meditations, so he doesn’t get to sleep until one or two o’clock in the morning. So he regularly gets about four or five hours sleep. That is pretty good as a teenager, considering how many hours teenagers usually sleep. And he not only likes debate, but they do these unbelievably long pujas from five in the morning until ten at night, for three or four days. I asked him, “What do you think of these? Do you like them?” He loves them. Wonderful. It gives me unbelievable hope for the future.
I should just add to this: don’t think that he is serious all the time. Mondays, they don’t have debate classes or lessons, and on Mondays he will spend one or two hours playing computer games. He has a computer now. I mean, he is still a teenager, a young man, but he has it under control. Not more than that amount of two hours and only on Monday. He has some balance.
In terms of the computer, he’s learned how to use the computer. What does he use it for? He uses it for preparing study materials and study aids for his classmates, and charts and things like that. I find that wonderful, that he has adopted the new technology and uses it as an education medium to help others – to help his schoolmates. And he does take the slower students in the class and they come to his house, and he tutors them and helps them. Amazing. So all these qualities are there. This is why I say I have a very firm conviction. It’s very clear, the continuity of all these instincts, all these habits from his previous life, together with a tremendous sense of humor, and so on, and totally practical, down to earth.
So let’s finish the meditation, the guru-yoga meditation. So we have the guru on the top of our head. He is the witness for the whole day. Then, before we go to sleep, the two variations: One is either we imagine the tiny figure of the guru comes to our hearts and dissolves while we sleep, which is much more of a tantra style of practice, but it is described in the sutra texts as well – I suppose with tantra in mind. The other variation is that the guru now becomes large, life size. And imagine that we sleep with our heads in the laps of our gurus, which is for those that need a little bit more comfort and affection. [laughter]
It reminds me, Serkong Rinpoche, the old one, was very fond of animals, and he had a number of cats and dogs. And the favorite place of these animals was underneath his robe when he was teaching, underneath the shawl, sitting in his lap. And in the middle of a teaching or something like that, all of a sudden a head would peep out. [laughter] Because he didn’t know what was there – they’d be asleep, or whatever. And the head would peep out and an animal would walk out. So we used to joke, imagining that a giraffe or an elephant would come out of there as well. You never knew what was underneath his robe – underneath the shawl, I should say – in his lap.
Question: Does the young Rinpoche also love the animals?
Alex: Yes, he has two dogs. And what’s extraordinary with these dogs – I have never seen anything like this – is that where he lives in South India there are monkeys, and there was this monkey that always came and played with the dogs. And the dogs didn’t bark at the monkey, and they play with the monkey the way they would play with another dog. And the monkey isn’t afraid. It’s extraordinary. I have never seen anything like that. One wonders who are these dogs! [laughter]
While I am telling stories about the relation with the teacher in two lifetimes, I should also mention it reminds me I haven’t spoken very much about Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor, but I was not as close with him as I was with Serkong Rinpoche, but many times I did translate for him and I studied with him. I haven’t been as close with his reincarnation as with Serkong Rinpoche. But – not the last time I was in India, but the time before – I went to see him. And I was there and we were talking, and I hadn’t seen him in a number of years. He asked the attendant to bring in tea. He brought in tea, and he brought in some British biscuits, some British cookies, which are my absolute favorite cookies in the world. Where in the world he got these from, and why he brought them out for me – he just sort of looked at me with this look like, you know, “Hahaha. You don’t believe in karma?” some sort of connection, he just sort of looked at me as was I looking in astonishment at this package of British cookies. He is also quite special and also has many characteristics of the old one.
So, anyway, the meditation. When we are doing the meditation we’d end, obviously, with the dedication of the positive force from the practice, so perhaps we can end here as well. It would be nice to have more questions, but I really have to go to the airport. Obviously, there are many dedications. But one that is very nice after the meditation on the spiritual teacher is,
“May the positive legacy that I have gained, learned from the teacher, from my teacher’s good qualities and kindness, integrate with the network of my good qualities, my positive forces, my deep awareness – may it integrate with all of that. And may it ripen and affect my behavior so that I can pass on this legacy to others and help them to achieve emotional well-being, better rebirths, liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of all.” So we can make a similar dedication. May it integrate with me to pass it on. Not only become like the Guru, but pass on that legacy to others. Pass on that legacy to others. And of course always pray may we and everybody be guided by fully qualified gurus in all our lifetimes. And may the gurus have long life, health, and so on.
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