Wednesday, 21 September 2011

"Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru:
Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism."

His Holiness the Dalai Lama


The role of a spiritual teacher or guru is often misunderstood in the West. For one thing, we lost the ancient system of studying under one teacher for many years to learn a craft like carpentry or masonry, and we are not used to this system anymore.
There is a lot of confusion about spiritual teachers; some people may believe that a guru will take over the entire responsibility of a disciple's life, leaving the pupil more like an obedient, mindless puppy.

"It seems that most students actually want to remain little children and idolize their holy daddy, and holy mommy."
Scott Mandelker

But nobody can take over our own responsibility for the way we live our life (see the page on karma). Even if we leave some decisions over to someone else, we are still responsible for our actions - including shifting the decisions to someone else.

As Sogyal Rinpoche warns in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

"The West has become a heaven for spiritual charlatans. ...
without the guidelines and criteria of a thriving and full-fledged wisdom culture,
the authenticity of so-called "Masters" is almost impossible to establish."

We need to be realistic about spiritual teachers: if we want to learn something, a teacher is needed, or is at least very useful. How far would we have come with learning to read and write without a teacher?

"If you are only studying Dharma for the sake of study, sake of development of your understanding of Dharma, if you are only studying Dharma intellectually, just intellectually on intellectual level, then I don't think you need a guru-disciple relationship. And also you can study with all kinds of teachers. It's like going to university. You study with different teachers or professors, and you go on, you move on. But if you wish to commit yourself to the path, then it is necessary, because one needs to know how to accomplish the realization, how to practice the Dharma."
Zasep Tulku Rinpoche

In Buddhism it is essential to realise that the teacher is ultimately important because he/she can lead us to our own inner wisdom - our own 'inner guru'. We need to develop our own wisdom and insight to become a teacher and in the end, even a Buddha ourselves. In that sense, a guru is like our spiritual mother; in the beginning of the path, we are pretty helpless and need much help and guidance; but in the end, we should be able to stand on our own feet and be self-sufficient.

"A guru is a person who can really show you the true nature of your mind and who knows the perfect remedies for your psychological problems. Someone who doesn't know his own mind can never know others' minds and therefore cannot be a guru."
Lama Thubten Yeshe
A good spiritual friend who will help us to stay on the path, with whom we can discuss our difficulties frankly, sure of a compassionate response, provides an important support system which is often lacking. Although people live and practice together, one-upmanship often comes between them. A really good friend is like a mountain guide. The spiritual path is like climbing a mountain: we don't really know what we will find at the summit. We have only heard that it is beautiful, everybody is happy there, the view is magnificent and the air unpolluted. If we have a guide who has already climbed the mountain, he can help us avoid falling into a crevasse, or slipping on loose stones, or getting off the path. The one common antidote for all our hindrances is noble friends and noble conversations, which are health food for the mind."
Ayya Khema
"To find a Buddha, all you have to do is see your nature. Your nature is the Buddha. And the Buddha is the person who's free: free of plans, free of cares. If you don't see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you'll never find a Buddha. The truth is, there's nothing to find. But to reach such an understanding you need a teacher and you need to struggle to make yourself understand..."

Before you decide to follow a spiritual teacher, it is extremely important to check him or her: there are quite a number of cheats around... In the old Indian tradition, teachers were often checked for 12 years or more before a student fully entrusted a teacher the spiritual guidance. It is easy to follow people blindly, especially the ones who are smooth talkers and are good salespeople. The reason why gurus are getting such bad names is because people should not have blindly trusted most of them to begin with!

Do take your responsibility serious to check your own feelings; there should be some personal connection; verify if their behaviour concords with their words; are they putting more emphasis on worldly matters than their spiritual path; see what the other disciples say, and of course what other teachers think.

Question: "How does one choose a teacher of spiritual subjects or know a teacher to be reliable?"
His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
"This should be done in accordance with your interest and disposition, but you should analyze well. You must investigate before accepting a lama or teacher to see whether that person is really qualified or not. It is said in a scripture that just as fish that are hidden under the water can be seen through the movement of the ripples from above, so also a teacher's inner qualities can, over time, be seen a little through that person's behavior.
We need to look into the person's scholarship -- the ability to explain topics -- and whether the person implements those teachings in his or her conduct and experience."
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye from The Teacher-Student Relationship:
" is difficult to recognize an authentic teacher, because these qualities are internal. We can not depend upon external factors, but external factors are what we see. It is very difficult to see the inner qualities of another person. A businessman might be friendlier to us than our best friend, while his unseen motivation is merely to make a sale. Likewise, if a "teacher" acts in a very kind and loving manner towards us it does not necessarily mean that he is compassionate and selfless, because we cannot see his motivation. We also cannot determine a teacher's qualifications based upon her fame, or whether she has thousands of students. So the seeker is left with this paradox.
There is no simple solution, but there are things we can do. First, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with the characteristics [of a spiritual teacher] discussed by Kongtrul Rinpoche. Second, we must maintain awareness of our own motivation during the process of finding a teacher. Am I seeking a teacher in order to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, or am I seeking to fulfill my need to acquire the prestige associated with a famous teacher, or am I merely attracted to a lama's beautiful retreat land or the social scene of a hip sangha, and so on.
These motivations need to be acknowledged if we are to recognize an authentic wisdom teacher, because the teacher you find is related to your karma, and your karma is intimately connected to your motivation. Fortunately, there are methods that help us purify our motivation and create the proper conditions for finding a wisdom teacher, such as bringing our awareness to our motivations as much as possible, doing daily meditation practice, and praying to the Triple Gem [Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha] that we will meet and recognize an authentic wisdom teacher."

In tantric Buddhism, a guru is absolutely essential for the initiation, practice and guidance along the path. Having a tantric teacher and practising "guru devotion" was actually a secret practice for a long time, as the teacher-disciple relationship is very close in order to achieve the best results. So close in fact, that it can easily lead to misunderstanding in the outside world. More information on a tantric guru can be found on the tantra page.


His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama; click for his biography
We need help on the spiritual path to guide us finding the right way. Obviously the best person to accompany us as a tour-guide is someone who has already successfully travelled the path. This person can help to quicken our progress and avoid obstacles.

Why do we need an experienced guide? I like the following story with a cynical undertone from Rama Krishna:

"Tapobana the Master, had a disciple who served him with diligence. The master kept him solely because of this diligence and the services he rendered, for he found the disciple rather stupid. One day, the rumour spread throughout the whole region that Tapobana's disciple had walked on water. He had crossed the river as if he crossed a street. Tapobana called his disciple and questioned him. 'Is it true what people say? Did you actually walk over the water?'
'What could be more natural?' answered the disciple, 'It is thanks to you, blessed one, that I walked over the water. At every step I repeated Your Holy Name, and that is what upheld me.'
Tapobana then thought by himself: 'If my disciple can walk over water using my name, what would be impossible for me, his master? If in my name miracles take place, I must possess powers I did not suspect, and I must be more holy than I was aware of. After all, I never tried to walk on water.'
Without delay he ran to the river bank. With unshakeable faith in himself, Tapobana repeated: 'I, I, I .....' And sank..."

The Buddha compared his teachings to medicine, and the teacher to the doctor who can accurately prescribe the correct medicine for the disciple/patient.

Of course we can have many different teachers, each in some aspect possibly quite important for us. If fact even the school-teacher who taught us to read and write is very important - also in our spiritual life. How else could we read about Buddhism? Every teacher in our life is important, but there may be one specific spiritual teacher who we may call our 'Root Guru', who inspired us most, and who's advice we really respect and try to follow.

To have a root Guru is especially important if we wish to practice tantra, simply because the methods used are so advanced that we need proper guidance. Not heeding the advice of one's teacher in tantra is important, as wrongly applied techniques can actually lead to serious consequences for ourselves and others, see also the page on Preliminaries to Tantra Practice.


1. Proper ethical behaviour - a guru should not harm others but try to help
2. Single pointed concentration
3. No self-grasping or egoistic thoughts
4. Having love and compassion as main motivations to teach
5. Realised emptiness, at least have a proper intellectual understanding
6. Perseverance in teaching
7. Wealth of scriptural knowledge
8. More learned and realised than student
9. Skilled speaker
10. Given up disappointment in the performance of the students

If possible, try to find a guru who possesses all these qualities, but at least the first 5. This may be difficult enough...


Just like a teacher requires certain qualifications, so should a proper disciple fulfil some criteria.
A disciple should consider him/herself as a patient, the teacher as a doctor, the Dharma as medicine and should take the medicine by practicing. Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: "There is no substitute for hard work"

A proper disciple should avoid the so-called 3 faulty attitudes:

- being like an upside down vessel: refusing to learn and scepticism
- being like a leaking vessel: forgetting everything and showing no interest
- being like a polluted vessel: being very prejudiced and believing to know everything better than the teacher

A proper disciple should fulfil the 3 requisites:

- lack of prejudice, being open-minded
- intelligence and a critical mind: not blindly following orders
- aspiration: wanting to practice and experience results (not just scholarly study)

As Lama Govinda writes in 'A Living Buddhism for the West':

"If a chela (disciple) is accepted by a Guru, he has to approach the teacher with trustful openness and devotion; these are the two basic conditions without which spiritual guidance is impossible. It is just here that many Western chelas make it hard for themselves, because they cannot bring themselves to bow to their teacher, and become upset when their prejudices and opinions are criticised. Even when they profess to love the teacher, they defend their position and defend their standpoint. ... A true guru is not concerned with imposing conformity of thoughts and feelings. He wants to arouse personal recognition and experience in the chela - not to teach him, but inspire him. But he also wants to liberate his chela from the attachments to opinions, prejudices, and dogmas - and this is often a painful process."

But, as Lowenthal and Short comment in 'Opening the Heart of Compassion':

"While respect for and openness to the teacher are important for our growth and freedom, blind devotion fixates us on the person of the teacher. We then become confined by the limitation of the teacher's personality rather than liberated by the teachings."


From: Path to Buddhahood, Teachings on Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Ringu Tulku:

According to a sutra called The Bodhisattva's Levels, Mahayana teachers or spiritual guides should have eight particular qualities:
1. They must first of all follow the precepts and vows of a bodhisattva.
2. They must have studied in depth the teachings of the path of the bodhisattva.
3. Their understanding must be deep and not purely intellectual; they must have truly experienced the teachings.
4. They must feel sincere compassion toward all sentient beings.
5. They must be fearless and show a lot of courage, not only in their own actions but also when they teach others.
6. They must be tolerant and patient with their students and practice.
7. They must be tenacious and not allow themselves to be carried away by discouragement or disappointment.
8. Finally, they must be capable of communicating effectively with students.


This is not easy to answer in general, as every individual is different. However, it is often said that when a disciple is ready, the teacher will appear. If you cannot find a teacher, see if you fulfil the above requirements for a proper disciple, and work to improve your own attitude rather then running around the world to find 'your' guru. Depending on your own karma, you may need to do quite a lot to find the right guru. Self-study and questioning yourself what you really expect from a teacher may help if you are impatient and expect too much overnight.

"When we have prayed and aspired and hungered for the truth for a long time, for many, many lives, and when our karma has become sufficiently purified, a kind of miracle takes place. And this miracle, if we can understand and use it, can lead to the end of ignorance forever: The inner teacher, who has been with us always, manifests in the form of the "outer teacher," whom, almost as if by magic, we actually encounter..."
Sogyal Rinpoche
"If you cannot find a good Master soon, there is no need to fret - just be the best student you can here and now with an open heart to everything."


A word of warning though: unfortunately, there are teachers, traditions and centers which are questionable in the Buddhist world. Please make sure you know what and who you get involved with before you fully commit yourself to someone as your teacher! I have tried to list a few on this Controversy page.

Traditionally in India, a guru and a disciple sometimes took up to 12 years to test each other out if they suited each other. Now this may be very impractical these days; most students would not have a teacher at all, and most teachers would remain without students... Still, we need to be critical and very careful. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentioned the potential for abuse from either side 'the shadow-side of the practice of guru devotion'. Especially westerners need to realise this potential problem, as in our culture we have completely lost (or never really developed) this kind of guru-disciple relationships. Simply said, it is very easy to mislead many westrners on the spiritual path, by twisting the meaning of the teachings so that a teacher can take advantage of a student materially or eg. sexually.

From the article 'Spiritual Pathology' I found at Wisdom Books:

"Individually we have personal responsibility for our spiritual distortions and self-deceptions and must at some point address the consequences of our actions. An example of an individual's capacity to turn pathology into a religion was extremely painful for me when I was younger. I was in a relationship with a woman who made friends with a man who was an experienced practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. He was very charismatic and lived with his wife and two children, having turned his home into a kind of Buddhist centre. He was an enthusiastic follower of the Indian saint Padmasambava, who brought the Dharma to Tibet and who had two consorts one called Mandarava and the other Yeshe Tsogyal. My partner went to study with this man who had offered to be her teacher. She was very attracted to his rather theatrical charisma and gladly took up his offer. She went to stay with him and over a period of time started to learn more of his practice.
It was on her return from one of her visits to him that I learned that part of the nature of her stay with him was that she would also be his lover. He had convinced his wife that this was important because the relationship he had with my girl friend was so special it was a deeply spiritual experience. Although it was painful for his wife, she agreed that part of the time he would sleep with my partner and part with her. When I began to ask my girl friend what was going on she told me that I should accept it as part of her practice in the same way that Padmasambava had two consorts. They both tried to tell me that I could never understand the spiritual heights to which they would go in their sexual relationship and that it was so pure there could not be any fault in it. My problems, they insisted, were because I was so attached and that I should really let her go to this higher love. I was told that she saw him as her guru and as such she must be with him, irrespective of the pain it caused his wife or myself, after all pain comes through attachment.
At some later point the man, who was increasingly presenting himself as a so-called Lama, wearing exotic robes and the regalia of a yogi, came to visit us. I was shocked and hurt one day when he came to me and said that he was going to sleep with my girlfriend and that I should allow it as it was good for my practice of generosity. If I should object it would show that my practice of Bodhicitta, the aspiration to always work for the welfare of others, was hopeless. I was sufficiently young, naive and feeble to take all this seriously and found I had no grounds to question the validity of what he was saying. Whatever pain I was in was entirely because of my attachment. He tried to convince me it was best for my practice and that his love of my partner was so pure and what they were doing was right.
I tell this story because it is typical of the kind of delusion we can conjure around our self-beliefs sufficient to create the conviction that we are entirely right in what we are doing. The grandiosity, for example, of this man made him utterly blind to the delusion he was caught in and the consequence of his actions. I was somewhat intrigued several years later when the same man came to me devastated because the woman had left him for another man. He wanted someone to talk to in his distress, and was surprisingly apologetic for the way he had treated me. I did not find it easy to contain my sense of vindication."


For meditations, see the List of Sample Meditations.
Good reading on this subject is the book 'Relating to a Spiritual Teacher' by Alexander Berzin, freely available on the web!.

Just for fun:

We spend the first twelve months of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve telling them to sit down and shut up.
Phyllis Diller

An aspiring monk wanted to find a Guru. He went to an monastery and his preceptor told him: "You can stay here but we have one important rule - all students observe the vow of silence. You will be allowed to speak to me once every 12 years".
After practicing silence and meditation for 12 long years, finally the student could say his one thing, and : "The bed is too hard."
After another 12 years of hard silent meditation, he had the opportunity to speak again. He said: "The food is not good."
Twelve more years of hard work passed. His words after 36 years of practice: "I quit."
His Guru quickly answered: "Good, all you have been doing anyway is complaining."

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