Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship
Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a Spiritual Teacher:
Building a Healthy Relationship.
Ithaca, Snow Lion, 2000
Reprint: Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010
Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications
Part II: The Dynamics of a Healthy
12 Advanced Points concerning Seeing That a Tantric Master Is a Buddha
Most Tibetan texts that discuss tantric masters' being Buddhas explain the topic of impure and pure appearances from a specific viewpoint. Often, however, the texts neglect to state their point of view. This may cause confusion.
In The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, Maitreya explained three viewpoints of looking at inseparable impure and pure appearances. One may look at these appearances from the viewpoints of a Buddha-nature not yet realized, partially realized, or fully realized. In other words, inseparable impure and pure appearances appear differently when fleeting stains overlay one's Buddha-nature, when the stains are partially gone, and when the stains are completely absent.
Since purification is another name for the process of ridding oneself of fleeting stains, Maitreya called the three viewpoints "impure," "impure and pure," and "completely pure" - yet another usage of the terms impure and pure. Later commentators have named the three viewpoints "basis," "pathway," and "resultant" levels. The appearances from each of the three points of view are valid from their own cognitive perspectives, just as is the case with the appearances of a certain object as a watch or a toy.
The texts from each of the four Tibetan lineages of Buddhism tend to discuss the topic of impure and pure appearances primarily from one or another of these three points of view. The great Rimey master Jamyang-kyentsey-wangpo explained that Gelug mentors tend to speak from a basis point of view, Sakya mentors from a pathway viewpoint, and Nyingma and Kagyu mentors from the standpoint of the resultant level of a Buddha. The basis level looks from the side of impure appearances; the pathway level looks from the side of appearances as both impure and pure; and the resultant level looks from the pure side. The analysis is complicated because most authors mix the various meanings of impure and pure in their presentations.
Kadam and early Gelug texts on the disciple-mentor relationship tend to discuss the topic from the point of view of spiritual mentors in general and their impure appearances. They fully acknowledge that our mentors have impure human forms with conventional faults that appear independently existent. On a basis level, however, we cannot focus on both impure and pure appearances simultaneously. Therefore, without denying our mentors' impure human appearances, we may focus in guru-meditation on their pure human appearances as having only good qualities, but dependently existent. After all, we take safe direction from good qualities, not from faults, and, with renunciation, we determine to rid ourselves of shortcomings, not of good qualities. Moreover, we may develop good qualities and eliminate faults only if they are dependently existent.
Later Gelug graded-path texts also present the topic of the disciple-mentor relationship from the basis point of view. The texts explain that through the influence of our karma, our minds may make our mentors appear in a variety of forms, either with flaws or with exclusively good qualities. We are capable of focusing merely on someone's good qualities and ignoring the person's faults, as in the case of a conceited person regarding him or herself as perfect. Personal opinion is unreliable. Therefore, since focusing only on our mentors' good qualities has many benefits, as supported by scriptural authority and logic, we focus in guru-meditation on our mentors' pure appearances.
Sakya texts discuss the disciple-mentor relationship almost exclusively within the highest tantra context. Thus, they discuss it from the pathway viewpoint of the inseparability of impure and pure appearances. The human and Buddha-figure forms of our tantric masters are inseparable facts about the appearances of their bodies, speech, and minds. If one is the case from one point of view, the other is also the case from another viewpoint. Likewise inseparable are the impure appearances of our tantric masters with conventional faults and their pure appearances with only good qualities. Each occurs and is valid from a specific point of view.
Nyingma and Kagyu texts, on the other hand, tend to present the disciple-mentor relationship from the resultant viewpoint of pure appearances of Buddhas. From this point of view, our tantric masters are Buddha-figures, with only good qualities. On the deepest level, our tantric masters are, in fact, the inner guru – the fully realized clear light mind free of stains and complete with all Buddha-qualities. The enlightening minds of Buddhas give rise only to pure appearances of dependent existence, both on the sambhogakaya level of subtle appearances and on the nirmanakaya level of grosser appearances. Subtle appearances include the forms of Buddha-figures having only good qualities, while grosser appearances include human forms seemingly having faults.
Since impure and pure appearances have several meanings, an appearance may be pure in one sense of the word, and impure in another. Many texts, however, use the two terms without specifying the precise meaning intended. Their lack of specificity often serves as a further source of confusion or misunderstanding.
For example, highest tantra texts instruct disciples to see their tantric masters in pure forms. Any faults perceived in the master are figments of the imagination. Without differentiating the various meanings of pure, disciples may easily mistake the statement to mean that even if mentors sexually abuse students, their actions are the perfect conduct of enlightened beings. After all, any perception of a teacher's abusive behavior as a fault is a projection of the imagination and therefore false.
The intended meaning of the statement, however, is quite different. The impure appearance of a tantric master's abusive behavior as independently existent is a fabrication of a confused mind. The abusive behavior has arisen dependently on many causes and circumstances. Although the deceptive appearance of how the behavior exists is false, the fact that the behavior is abusive is true.
Many Nyingma and Kagyu texts discuss a tantric master's behavior as beyond good or bad. They are not speaking, however, about the basis level of what an action, such as abuse, conventionally is, or what effects such an action produces. Buddhism does not relativize everything to the point that all phenomena lose their conventional identities. Abusive behavior damages both the perpetrator and the victim. Beyond good or bad means beyond the dualistic categories of independently good or bad. It is not a denial of behavioral cause and effect. Because pure actions are unassociated with confusion from a resultant point of view, they are beyond merely karmic cause and effect. However, pure actions still produce effects. Otherwise, a Buddha's enlightening actions could not benefit anyone.
The question remains how a pure action can produce suffering. Although an action may be pure from a resultant point of view, it may be both pure and impure from a pathway viewpoint, and impure from a basis stance. All three points of view are valid and lead to valid experience. Thus, tantric masters may view their own abusive behavior from a resultant level of a fully realized clear light mind and thereby experience no suffering from the action, although their reputations may fall. The victims, however, validly view and experience the abuse from a basis level of an unrealized Buddha-nature and consequently suffer greatly. Therefore, out of compassion, properly qualified tantric masters always refrain from abusive behavior.
Pure behavior, however, sometimes requires causing short-term suffering to bring about long-term benefit, as when performing surgery. Nevertheless, the Nyingma master Ngari Panchen's point still stands. Tantric or dzogchen masters, especially those in the public eye, refrain from acting in conventionally destructive ways when others knowing of it would lose their admiration and faith in Buddhists and Buddhism. Tantric masters, in fact, promise to uphold this guideline as one of their secondary bodhisattva vows.
Thus, the practice of seeing that one's tantric mentor is a Buddha in no way negates the conventional validity of impure appearances. An impure appearance of an abusive spiritual mentor as having inherent flaws is ultimately invalid because inherent existence, independent of anything, is impossible. Nevertheless, the impure appearance may be conventionally valid concerning the fact that the behavior of the abusive teacher is faulty and has caused suffering. All Tibetan traditions accept a valid distinction between accurate and distorted conventional truths. All Tibetan traditions equally reject the so-called Hoshang position that constructive and destructive actions lack any distinction.
Another aspect of seeing that one's mentor is a Buddha is to take all his or her actions as teachings, even if some actions are, in fact, faulty or destructive. The instruction derives from the Kadam tradition. In Seven Points for Cleansing Attitudes, the Kadam Geshe Chaykawa taught that disciples may transform negative circumstances into positive ones by focusing on the lessons that they may learn from them. The Kadam Geshe Langri-tangpa gave similar advice in Eight Stanzas on Cleansing Attitudes. Even if others harm them completely unfairly, disciples need to look upon these people as their spiritual mentors.
One of the tantric vows for establishing a close bond with a tantric master is to refrain from becoming angry or disrespectful of the teacher, regardless of what he or she may say or do. If we apply the Kadam instruction to this vow, then even if our tantric masters act unethically or cause harm, we try to learn a lesson from the situation. The lesson may simply be to hold back from acting destructively like this ourselves. This is the general meaning of the instruction, shared by sutra and tantra practitioners. On a highest tantra level, if we are advanced in our practices, we may use the incident to recognize the structure of one of the five types of deep awareness (Buddha-wisdom) - such as mirror-like or individualizing awareness – underlying the faulty action.
The Nyingma and Kagyu traditions correlate the five types of awareness with the five disturbing emotions - such as anger or longing desire – that we may see in our mentors. The Sakya tradition correlates the five with the five aggregate factors - such as consciousness or distinguishing – that comprise their faulty behavior, or with faults that we may see in our tantric masters' bodies, speech, minds, qualities, or actions. Recognizing the deep awareness level underlying our mentors' disturbing emotions, aggregate factors, or faulty actions helps us to recognize this deeper level underlying our own confusion. Focusing on our underlying deep awareness helps us to reach our clear light minds and to understand that our own faults are also merely fleeting stains.
Learning a lesson from the faulty behavior of one's mentor, however, does not mean denying that the behavior was faulty. After confirming the validity of our perception of the behavior, we may correctly conclude that the conventional appearance of it as faulty is accurate. If we find the fault unbearable, we may follow the advice of The Kalachakra Tantra and decide to keep a distance from the teacher. This advice applies, with a general meaning, to all levels of teachers. Nevertheless, a healthy stance would be still to maintain respect for the person's good qualities and appreciation for his or her kindness. Without such an attitude, we may damage our spiritual progress by fixating on feelings of bitterness, outrage, recrimination, or guilt. On the other hand, with such an attitude, we may still transform negative circumstances into positive ones and gain inspiration from the good qualities that a faulty teacher nevertheless has.
Seeing that one's tantric master is a Buddha not only brings about the greatest inspiration for realizing one's clear light mind, it is essential for the empowerment process in highest tantra. All four Tibetan lineages concur on this point, although each explains the mechanism differently. Let us outline briefly their varied explanations. Understanding several valid ways to see that our tantric masters are Buddhas may help us to gain clarity about this difficult point.
The Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu traditions explain the empowering process in terms of disciples' gaining conscious experiences of various aspects of their Buddha-natures. The first of the four highest tantra empowerments pertains to the body aspect of Buddha-nature; the second pertains to speech; the third to mind; and the fourth to the integrated network of the three faculties.
From a pathway viewpoint that equally emphasizes impure and pure appearances of tantric masters, disciples need to see during empowerments that the bodies, speech, and minds of the tantric masters have two valid quantum levels. They appear and exist both as ordinary human faculties and as the enlightening faculties of Buddha-figures. They need to realize that these levels appear and exist inseparably because of the tantric masters' Buddha-natures – specifically because of the tantric masters' clear light minds as the foundations for everything that appears about them.
We all have clear light minds as aspects of our Buddha-natures. According to the Sakya explanation, clear light mind contains the "foundational seeds" for the enlightening body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. Understanding that our tantric masters actually have enlightening bodies, speech, and minds from a certain valid point of view reinforces and strengthens the foundational seeds for the three enlightening faculties in our own clear light minds. The understanding accomplishes this by planting "causal seeds" in our clear light minds for realizing our foundational seeds. Through this process, our conscious understanding during an initiation ceremony empowers the foundational seeds to ripen into attainment of a Buddha's body, speech, and mind.
From a resultant point of view, disciples need to see during empowerments that all the enlightening qualities of body, speech, and mind are complete in the tantric masters' "mind-vajras" - their clear light minds. The Nyingma tradition explains that the Buddha-qualities' being complete in our own clear light minds provides "foundational empowerment." Seeing these qualities complete in our tantric masters supplements this foundation with a "causal empowerment" that ripens these qualities. Although the Buddha-qualities are inseparable from the clear light mind, as the rays of sunlight are inseparable from the sun, nevertheless fleeting stains obscure their functioning. Causal empowerment energizes the purification process so that the qualities ripen and thus shine and function free of stains.
The Kagyu lineages also explain from a resultant viewpoint. The Drigung Kagyu tradition of fivefold mahamudra practice, for example, explains that during empowerments disciples need to see that the aggregates, elements, and so forth of the tantric masters abide primordially in the nature of the male and female Buddhas. For something to abide in the nature (rangzhin, rang-bzhin) of something else means for it to exist and to function in the same way. For example, five aggregate factors of body and mind comprise each moment of our ordinary experience, while five types of deep awareness, symbolized by five dhyani Buddhas, comprise each moment of a Buddha's experience. Dhyani Buddhas are representations of various aspects of Buddha-nature. Both the five aggregates and the five types of awareness exist as aspects of "simultaneously arising nondual deep awareness" - in other words, as aspects of the clear light mind. Both sets of five function similarly to comprise experience. Seeing our tantric masters' bodies, speech, and minds as networks (body mandalas) of dhyani Buddhas plants the seeds and empowers us to realize networks of the same natures within ourselves.
Even if one explains, from the viewpoint of the path or the result, that a tantric master is a Buddha, still, on the basis level, the mentor is not literally an omniscient Buddha. Therefore, because of this and other logical inconsistencies, Gelug Geshes advise keeping off the debate grounds the topic of the spiritual mentor's being a Buddha. Instead, the Gelug tradition explains the meaning of a tantric master's aggregates being dhyani Buddhas from the viewpoint of the basis for enlightenment.
Aku Sherab-gyatso indicated this viewpoint in A Reminder for Not Forgetting the Visualizations Described for the First Stage of the Path of Guhyasamaja. The five aggregate factors of experience are the transforming (nyerlen, nyer-len; material) causes and the five types of deep awareness are the simultaneously acting conditions for attaining the five dhyani Buddhas. Just as seeds transform into sprouts through the actions of water and sunlight occurring simultaneously with their presence, the five aggregates transform into the five dhyani Buddhas through the five types of awareness functioning simultaneously with them. During highest tantra empowerments, disciples need to see their tantric masters' aggregates as dhyani Buddhas in the sense that the masters have transformed their basic aggregates into dhyani Buddhas through cultivating the five types of deep awareness. This inspires the disciples to do the same.
In the Gelug tradition, the empowering process hinges on disciples' gaining a conscious experience of a blissful understanding of voidness at each of the four highest tantra empowerments, rather than a conscious experience of Buddha-nature. At each stage, the conscious experience plants a seed to gain a blissful understanding of voidness with the clear light mind. This understanding is equivalent to realizing one's Buddha-nature on the deepest level, as explained by the other Tibetan traditions. Consciously experiencing some level of blissful understanding of voidness during a Gelug empowerment, however, does not relate directly with seeing that the tantric master is a Buddha in the context of the procedures.
In The Path to Enlightenment, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama explained that, in a Gelug context, although disciples need to see the tantric master as a Buddha in all four highest tantra empowerments, the conferring master's being a Buddha is interpretable in the first three empowerments. Only in the fourth empowerment is the tantric master's being a Buddha a definitive fact. As explained earlier, interpretable phenomena do not exist in the way in which they appear, but they help to lead one to definitive phenomena, which do exist in the way they appear. In the first three highest tantra empowerments, the tantric master appears as a Buddha, but does not necessarily exist as one. Nevertheless, seeing the master as a Buddha during these steps leads disciples to seeing, in the fourth empowerment, that the tantric master not only appears as a Buddha, but also definitively is a Buddha.
The first highest tantra empowerment plants seeds for realizing the generation stage; the second for realizing the illusory body - a body made of subtlest energy-wind. The third plants seeds for realizing the clear light mind; and the fourth for realizing the two truths simultaneously - in this context, the clear light mind and the appearance of its emanations. An unenlightened being may realize the generation stage, illusory body, and clear light mind. Only a Buddha, however, can realize the two truths simultaneously. Thus, from the basis viewpoint taken in the explanations of the Gelug tradition, unenlightened beings may confer the first three empowerments based on their personal experiences. Only a Buddha, however, can describe the simultaneous perception of the two truths from personal experience and thereby confer the fourth empowerment by the force of his or her words. Therefore, to receive the fourth empowerment, disciples need to see that the tantric master definitively is a Buddha.
The Gelug tradition offers an additional explanation of seeing that the tantric master is a Buddha within the context of receiving a highest tantra empowerment. In A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Secret Mantra Path, Tsongkhapa discussed three stages of empowerment: causal empowerment that ripens, pathway empowerment that liberates, and resultant empowerment of liberation. The Seventh Dalai Lama explained the three in Illumination Clarifying the Actual Meaning of Empowerment. The external tantric master, through following a ritual, confers the causal empowerment that ripens. The inspiration and conscious experiences that disciples receive plant the seeds that ripen into their attainments of enlightenment. When they realize voidness nonconceptually with their clear light minds, their realizations empower their actual liberation, in stages, from the fleeting stains. Thus, the inner guru confers the pathway empowerment that liberates. With the conclusion of the spiritual path, the disciples' attainment of enlightenment confers the resultant empowerment of complete liberation from all fleeting stains.
Causal empowerment from an external master leads to pathway empowerment from an inner guru, which leads to resultant empowerment from the enlightened mind of a Buddha. Thus, seeing that the external tantric master is a Buddha leads to the definitive level of the resultant empowerment. The master who confers resultant empowerment actually is a Buddha in all respects: the definitive empowering master is the Buddha that the disciples then become.
A Tantric Master's Being Inseparable from a Buddha Versus a Tantric Master's Having Attained Enlightenment
Wonpo Sherab-jungnay explained that without the conscious experience of understanding the inseparability of their tantric masters as ordinary humans and as Buddha-figures, disciples do not actually receive an empowerment. The understanding need not be deep or profound, but must occur at least on an intellectual level during the ritual. The Drigung Kagyu master also stated, however, that tantric masters do not need to have attained enlightenment in order to be qualified to confer an empowerment. None of the lists of qualifications for highest tantra masters includes that they must actually be enlightened. Thus, seeing one's external tantric master as inseparable from a Buddha does not necessarily mean that the mentor has attained enlightenment.
Wonpo Sherab-jungnay explained three levels of qualifications for conferring a highest tantra empowerment. Best, of course, is if the tantric masters have actually reached the enlightened stage of Vajradhara. Second best is if they have attained stability in the generation stage practices and have achieved a nonconceptual level in the complete stage practice. Minimally, the masters need to have a thorough knowledge of the generation and complete stage practices and the ability to perform the ritual procedures without mistakes.
During empowerments, tantric masters do not transfer insight or causal seeds to disciples the way one tosses a ball for a person to catch. The conscious experiences or insights that define the empowerment process arise dependently on the qualifications of both the tantric masters and the disciples, the procedures of the ritual – particularly the taking of vows – the ambiance that the ritual creates, and the inspiration that the disciples feel.
Both the sutras and tantras say that disciples need to regard equally as Buddhas someone who taught them even one verse of Dharma and someone who taught them the entire spiritual path. Pabongka cited the Gelug meditation master Drubkang Geleg-gyatso, for example, as having been unable to gain any realization until he could see the pure appearance of the disrobed nun who taught him to read. Westerners frequently have difficulty with this example because they interpret it to mean that unless they see their kindergarten teachers as Buddhas, they will not make progress on the spiritual path. Many imagine that the instructions concerning their tantric masters during empowerments pertain to every teacher they have ever had.
The traditional Tibetan and the modern Western educational systems, however, are extremely different. Tibetan children traditionally used prayers and Dharma texts to learn reading, not children's storybooks with sentences like "See Spot run. Run, Spot, run." Although seeing everyone as Buddhas, including one's kindergarten teacher, is helpful for realizing Buddha-nature, the instructions on building a disciple-mentor relationship pertain only to one's spiritual teachers.
In general, once we have built a disciple-mentor relationship with one teacher, we need to regard and treat all our spiritual teachers, even our previous Buddhism professors, with the same respect as we show our mentors. Before that, when we are still relating to teachers as Buddhism professors or Dharma instructors, we of course show the persons respect. Nevertheless, regarding them as we would spiritual mentors is inappropriate.
The same instruction pertains to disciples' seeing pure appearances of the bodies, speech, and minds of all their spiritual teachers. In The Divisions of the Three Sets of Vows, Sakya Pandita explained clearly that disciples do this only after having received highest tantra empowerments. If highest tantra practice entails seeing pure appearances of ourselves, our environments, and all beings within them, the practice surely includes seeing the pure Buddha-nature aspects of all our teachers as well. This does not mean however, that we seek instruction on our tantric practices from our Buddhism professors, let alone from our kindergarten teachers.
The good qualities of a tantric master and the good qualities of a Buddha both refer to the same attribute of one phenomenon - the clear light mind – whether one looks at the qualities from a basis, pathway, or resultant viewpoint. According to the Sakya presentation of alaya (the foundation for everything), from the basis point of view good qualities are the defining characteristics of the clear light mind. From the pathway viewpoint, they are the corrections that come from removing fleeting stains. On the resultant level, they are the fully realized potentials of the clear light mind. These three statements are true whether one looks at good qualities in one's mentor or in a Buddha. By focusing on the qualities of one's mentor as those of a Buddha, one gains inspiration to realize that one's own good qualities are similarly functions of one's clear light mind on the three inseparable levels. This realization is essential for actualizing the resultant level to become a Buddha.
Actualizing the inseparable basis, pathway, and resultant levels of our own good qualities is only possible through the highest tantra methods. This is because only the highest tantra methods enable us to access their foundation and source - our clear light minds. Within the framework of understanding voidness with this subtlest level of mind, we may then arise in the pure forms of Buddha-figures with the good qualities of our clear light minds operational on all levels.
To activate the potentials of our Buddha-natures to reach this supreme attainment, we need to receive highest tantra empowerments. To strengthen these potentials, we then imagine, with generation stage practice, that we now have the pure forms of Buddha-figures with all the Buddha-qualities functional on their resultant levels. To actualize the potentials, we need to access our clear light minds with complete stage practice. Without a healthy relationship with a tantric master, however, Tsangpa-gyaray explained that the tantric process cannot occur.
Causal empowerment cannot occur without a qualified tantric master, a properly conducted ritual, and a qualified disciple with conviction in, appreciation of, and inspiration from the mentor's qualities. The taking of vows requires the presence of a master seen as a Buddha. The planting of causal seeds requires seeing the body, speech, and mind of the tantric master as inseparable from the enlightening faculties of a Buddha. Moreover, the planting of seeds requires inspiration from a tantric master seen as a Buddha to gain a joyful experience of voidness.
Inspiration from a tantric master is likewise indispensable for generation stage practice. Bodhichitta is a heart and mind focused on enlightenment with the aspiration to become a Buddha to benefit everyone. Sutra practice focuses on enlightenment as represented by a Buddha. Focusing, however, on the resultant level of all good qualities may be difficult when in reference to a generic Buddha or, on the generation stage, to oneself visualized as a Buddha-figure. A vivid reference as an object of focus makes the resultant level more accessible for meditation.
Highest tantra practice, therefore, focuses on the tantric master as inseparable from a Buddha. The inspiration felt from the mentor, plus the firm conviction in and appreciation of his or her qualities that come from personal experience of them, makes the object of focus extremely vivid. Thus, focusing on the mentor's good qualities as inseparable from the Buddha-qualities helps to energize, sustain, and enhance bodhichitta.
Moreover, when disciples visualize in tantric guru-yoga that they receive inspiration and the four empowerments from the mentor's Buddha-qualities of body, speech, and mind, they strengthen their networks of positive potentials and deep awareness. The strengthening enables the tantric disciples to actualize the good qualities of their clear light minds. Consequently, the visualization of themselves as Buddha-figures with these qualities becomes more vivid. As Tsangpa-gyaray indicated, no matter how technically correct disciples' tantric visualizations may be, without the uplifting energy of a healthy relationship with a tantric master they will fail to bring self-transformation leading to enlightenment.
Complete stage practice accesses clear light mind either by dissolving the energy-winds that serve as the basis for the grosser levels of consciousness, or by energizing the mind through increasingly more intense levels of bliss. In tantric guru-yoga, disciples focus on their tantric masters with intense conviction in the masters' qualities as the qualities of a Buddha. Because of the inspiration felt from the relationship, the more the disciples focus on their mentors' qualities, the more joyous they become. Because the entire tantric process occurs within the sphere of the understanding of voidness, the joy, energy, and inspiration experienced from focusing on the tantric master are not disturbing. They do not boil over into unbridled ecstasy or translate into fanatic devotion as with a pop star or a demagogue. On the contrary, the joyous energy felt stabilizes and refines the mind.
Moreover, the tantras explain that the more fuel on a fire, the hotter it burns. Thus, the stronger the emotion, the more energized and intense the mind becomes for seeing its own clear light nature. If this is the case concerning disturbing emotions such as longing desire, it is especially true regarding a nondisturbing emotion of joyous inspiration.
When tantric disciples with a basic understanding of voidness imagine that all gross appearances collect into their visualized mentor/Buddhas and then that their mentor/Buddhas become tiny and merge into their hearts, the visualization process helps them to dissolve the internal energy-winds that produce deceptive appearances. As the dissolution occurs, their minds become subtler while in a joyous, energized state that understands voidness. The resulting mind, backed with the additional energy of a bodhichitta motivation, has the required intensity and refinement to reveal and to identify its clear light nature.
An alternative way for disciples to access their clear light minds is through direct introduction to this subtlest level of mind by their tantric masters. Although the Nyingma tradition specializes in these methods, they also appear in the Sakya and Kagyu teachings. Sakya Pandita gave one of the clearest examples in The Profound Path of Guru-Yoga. During an appropriate ceremony, properly prepared disciples focus with quiet, alert minds on the center of their tantric masters' brows. Simultaneously, the mentors focus on the voidness of their clear light minds, recite a certain mantra, hold up a vajra, and ring a bell. If the disciples have sufficient strength of positive potential, deep awareness, firm conviction in the fact that the tantric master is a Buddha, and inspiration, they may gain an experience of clear light mind. The experience occurs through a process of dependent arising from these causes and conditions.
Ultimately, then, seeing that their tantric masters are Buddhas enables disciples to realize, on the basis of clear light mind, their own good qualities as inseparable from both the mentors' qualities and the qualities of a Buddha. Ngojey-raypa explained that, with this realization, when disciples subsequently remove the fleeting stains from their clear light minds, they become one with their mentors. This does not mean, the Drigung Kagyu master continued, that the disciples become the same persons or replicas of their tantric masters, or that they now hold the same opinions about everything as their mentors do. Their minds' becoming one with the inseparable minds of their mentors and the Buddhas means that the disciples have reached the final attainment of an enlightening mind.
In short, seeing our mentors as Buddhas has many levels of meaning. A healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher requires clarity about which level of meaning pertains to us at each stage of the spiritual path. At no stage, however, is the teaching meant for the literal interpretation that our teachers are omniscient or can manifest simultaneously in countless forms. Throughout the spiritual path to enlightenment, we need to maintain common sense and continually to enhance our discriminating awareness to discern between what is appropriate and what is not.
Many Westerners begin to study Dharma without any interest in tantra or intention to engage eventually in its practice. Some, however, make their first contact with Tibetan Buddhism at tantric empowerments. If they attend the rituals merely as observers without consciously taking and intending to keep the vows, they do not establish disciple-mentor relationships with the tantric masters. Moreover, as Wonpo Sherab-jungnay added, members of the audience do not actually receive the empowerment unless they have also had a conscious experience and insight during the ceremony that has purified mental blocks and has planted seeds for realizations. Without fulfilling these prerequisites during the empowerment, they might later engage in tantric practices, but their progress would be minimal.
The specifically tantric practices of guru-yoga and the manner of relating to a tantric master, then, are not germane to most Western Dharma students during the early stages of their spiritual journeys. One might reasonably argue that the instructions on the disciple-mentor relationship found in the graded-path texts that explicitly or implicitly emphasize tantra are also too advanced for Westerners at these stages. More appropriate for people who are not yet ready to commit themselves to the Buddhist path with lifelong vows would be the sutra-level practices of guru-yoga deriving from the Kadam tradition. This is because the sutra-level meditations to gain inspiration from a teacher's good qualities not only aim to prepare students for a tantric disciple-mentor relationship, they also suit a relationship with a Buddhism professor, Dharma instructor, or meditation or ritual trainer. They are basic exercises comfortably shared by committed Mahayana and tantric disciples and uncommitted students of Buddhism who wish to gain the maximum benefit from the relationship with a spiritual teacher
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