A SPIRITUAL TEACHER
"Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru:
Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
WHAT IS A SPIRITUAL TEACHER?
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
"It seems that most students actually
want to remain little children and idolize their holy daddy, and
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
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
the authenticity of so-called "Masters" is almost impossible
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
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
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."
"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
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
"...it 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
^Top of Page
REASONS FOR FOLLOWING A GURU
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
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.
QUALIFICATIONS FOR A SPIRITUAL
TEACHER OF BASIC PHILOSOPHY
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
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...
QUALIFICATIONS FOR A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLE
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
- being like an upside down vessel: refusing
to learn and scepticism
- being like a leaking vessel: forgetting everything and showing
- 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."
^Top of Page
QUALIFICATIONS FOR A MAHAYANA TEACHER
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
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
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
WHERE AND WHEN TO FIND A GURU?
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..."
"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."
DANGERS OF A
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!.
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.
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
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."
February 6, 2011