All about the Guru
Q&A with JetsunmaTenzin Palmo
NB: When making the transcription of Tenzin's video, not all (Tibetan) words were understood correctly. These have been spelled phonetically. It is advised to look up terms/words you don't understand on the internet.
What is the meaning of the word Guru in Tibetan Buddhism?
I’ve heard that the word Guru in Sanskrit is based on the root meaning something heavy. Anyway, it implies like a master like you have a guru for dance, for musical instruments, for grammar and so forth. So originally it just meant being like a teacher at the level of being a master of their science. In Tibetan it was translated as Lama, LA meaning something superior and MA meaning a mother. So it’s like a super special mommy, like as a mother cares for her child, her only child. I think it has that sense of wanting, that kind of warmth and caring that the mother would give to bringing up her child. So like that. Basically again, nowadays, the word Lama has become very adulterated and anybody practically can be called Lama if you say two words of Dharma. And even the kitchen monk can be called Lama Norbu meaning he’s a monk. Of course, it doesn’t mean a monk, there is a word for monk, Atabha, but many people nowadays loosely use the word Lama for any old monk. And also of course after Khamtrul Rinpoche the idea that after doing three years retreat you become a Lama which seems to me pretty absurd but anyway that has also become the tradition, especially in the West. It doesn’t matter how well or how ill you did your retreat at the end of it you get your certificate calling you Lama. So nowadays the word doesn’t really have too much meaning but when traditionally it was meant to be a teacher in the sense of somebody who themselves had mastered their skills and then would transfer it to oneself.
Is there any difference between Guru and Root Guru?
Traditionally the Root Guru was that teacher or whoever who showed you the nature of the mind and with whom you therefore would have a very deep heart connection. That one, the one you follow, whose lineage you follow, who you feel most committed to and who has the responsibility of guiding you on the path, I mean there is a close connection, that would be your Root Guru. Your Tsawai Lama.
Do we need to find our teacher to start learning or practising the Buddha Dharma?
I would say no. I don’t think to start with you need it. I mean, if we look on the Lama, the wellendowed Lama, as like a PhD professor then we don’t go to them to learn “the cat sat on the mat”. You have an infant school teacher for that. So, why waste their time. It would be much better if we already had skills and knowledge and then they can impart their special knowledge for us because we’re ready. So there are many many courses which are on offer which are not given by anyone claiming to be fully enlightened but nonetheless who have skills, who have done practice, who are very very competent to help us on the path to the point at which we are ready to take that leap forward.
Is it necessary for the Guru and the Disciple to recognise each other as such?
Ideally so. That there is that immediate or later sense of a commitment on both sides. But of course nowadays when so many of the Lamas have hundreds if not thousands of students then that is not always so, at least not on the part of the Lama because even if the student feels a very close connection with the Lama it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Lama feels any particular connection with a student that he only sees in a crowd. Many Lamas when they give teachings there are hundreds and hundreds of people present and how can he know every one of them and their specific needs.
Is an intimate connection with the teacher needed?
To be honest, although the texts speak about it in this way, and make it sound as though each aspirant has a very close intimate connection with their teacher, like Naropa with Tilopa and Marpa with Milarepa, even if they had problems at least they knew each other. But in fact, in Tibet, even among the monks, not to speak of lay people, they didn’t really have a very close connection with their Lama. The Tulku, the incarnate Lama who was running your monastery, you would usually only see him sitting up on his throne during rituals. You wouldn’t know him intimately, he wouldn’t know you intimately, but you had devotion from your side, and that was what was counted as being the important thing, even if he didn’t know you or your name. Nonetheless, from your side you had the devotion and it was regarded that the Lama, a genuine Lama, would always be open so whether or not he was personally directed towards yourself, nonetheless your heart would then meet with his blessing even though he didn’t know that that’s what would be happening at that specific time. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said it was like a corridor with two doors on either side. The teacher’s door is always open. Whether or not the student’s door is open or not is dependent then on whether or not the blessings will be received. So, actually, it was much more like that unless you yourself happen to be a Tulku or a speciallyfavoured Khenpo you didn’t have access to the Lama. for personal advice and guidance. You probably had your devotion to the Lama and invoked the blessings from the Lama but you would get teachings from someone at a much lower rank who was available and would able to guide you.
How can we know who is our main teacher?
Well, I think that if we have to ask that question we haven’t found our teacher. I mean, it’s like falling in love. As a woman you meet lots and lots of available people but whether or not your heart opens towards them or not is a matter maybe of karma. And you know if you fall in love you fall in love and you might have been meeting with the most delicious looking male with all the qualities of being a good man and it’s not yours. It’s just very nice but no. And likewise, one can meet with many many Lamas and they are absolutely exemplary but they’re not for me. And then one might meet someone who seems to be quite ordinary but somehow there’s that inner knowing that this is the person I’m going to follow. It’s here (Tenzin Palmo puts hands on heart). It has nothing to do with what his qualities are and how many exams has he passed and how many retreats he’s done. It’s an inner knowing and normally in that case it would be reciprocal. He would also recognise that you are meant to be his student I would think if it was genuine and a real karmic meeting again. But, of course, we have to remember that even if we studied with a great teacher in the past maybe that that teacher is not here now, that maybe they might not have been reborn, they might be a baby, they might be in Tibet or somewhere else. I mean it’s not absolutely sure that you’re going to meet with them again, in which case you have to make a new relationship with someone else.
How can we be sure to trust that initial feeling that we have found our Guru?
Well, you don’t have to jump right in at the deep end of the swimming pool. I mean you then check up. Even in the tantric texts it recommends up to 12 years of investigation. Of course, nobody does 12 years but, the idea is that you don’t jump into this. This is a very important commitment on both sides. My Lama, Khamtrul Rinpoche, when I asked him about a certain Lama who was very controversial, and whom he knew well, what he thought of that Lama and he thought and then he said, well at that level it’s very difficult to tell you have to wait 20 years and then look at his students. And the idea being that especially with a prominent Lama, how have his students evolved. Would you want to be like that? So, we can start by being very cautious. I mean just because you receive empowerments, wongs, from a Lama doesn't make him your root Guru. For example, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, says he has 25 Lamas on his refuge tree, all the Lamas he ever got any teachings from even ones he knows were not actually … like his regents were quite corrupt and tried to kill each other, nonetheless he says I have them on my refuge tree because to me, personally, they were very kind, and I know what they did, but anyway nonetheless I’m grateful to them. So the idea then Of course he has two main teachers who he feels are his real root gurus but he allows all the others and shows his respect and appreciation for everybody. So you don’t have to get narrowed down, this is the only guru and I mustn’t look at any other gurus, that would be unfaithful. The Tibetans themselves had many many teachers and appreciated many many teachers but eventually there was one who rose from that who was especially meaningful for them and usually whose lineage they would follow.
Could you please explain what Guru Devotion means in the context of Vajrayna?
Well again, it’s about opening the heart and surrendering. If we carry our ego with us then that blocks the ability for the blessings to enter because we are all full of me. So the idea is that we empty ourselves so that the blessings can fill us like a vessel to pour out the dirty water and then the nectar can come in. So, ideally, this is the idea of Guru Devotion that we completely open up, completely surrender and likewise do not criticise, do not question, just allow the blessings to come to us. And in the incidence of a good Lama who is not only fully qualified, but immaculate in body, speech and mind, then this is an especially quick way. It is said that through meditation we may or we may not get there, but through open-hearted devotion, it’s for sure. So there is a lot of emphasis on this ability to surrender, and provided that the Guru genuinely is immaculate and impeccable, and totally trustworthy, this is considered, really, the special quick way, the fast track. But, of course, as we are seeing now but although I think that this problem was always there, underground, and not spoken about, not all Lamas are as impeccable as we would expect them to be. It’s very confusing why they’re not, considering their trainings through lifetimes, and the fact that they are holding lineages, but nonetheless there are very sad examples of bad conduct, really awful conduct, and so one has to be cautious. One should not be too naive. Personally I feel that if you feel a red light going off inside, you listen to that red light because if something is saying this doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. It’s a very sad comment because the theoretical instructions are beautiful and heart lifting and it’s very very sad that nowadays you have to say to people, be careful, be cautious and don’t trust too soon.
So we shouldn’t let go of our common sense?
You know, every Lama would argue against that and say that the whole point is to throw out your common sense, but in fact, unfortunately, it’s been shown that when we do that we can end up feeling totally crushed, confused, humiliated, and even losing faith in the Dharma. So, in those cases where students, especially women have come across this very very sad comment on the misuse of devotion, I say go for refuge to the Dharma because the Dharma is completely pure and impeccable and will never corrupt you. But, of course, if you are with a Lama who is genuine and is impeccable and there has never been any whiff of any kind of scandal then that is very fortunate and you can relax and just open your heart totally, because they won’t ask you to do anything that you feel is inappropriate.
What if our teacher is involved in acts of misconduct or controversy?
It’s very very sad. As I say it is quite inconceivable how such things could happen. I think that it is important to remember that this is just a small percentage. The majority of Lamas and teachers and monks are perfectly reliable, and trustworthy and excellent in body, speech and mind, but there are the few, not necessarily those you would suspect who have contravened the understanding of being trustworthy. As I say, in that case, I think you have to accept that that is what happened who knows why. and it’s quite bewildering, but don’t give up the Dharma because of the conduct of one person or two doesn’t mean that the whole Dharma is corrupt. The Dharma is not corrupt. The Dharma is very perfect, very pure and we can definitely rely on that. And keep practising and don’t think that because somebody has contravened the Samaya, the pledge between students and teacher that that invalidates the whole path because it does not. We must have confidence to keep going and in our own innate Buddha nature which has never been in any way polluted. Just keep going and say how sad. Generate compassion also for this situation, not only for the situation but the way it is being handled by those who really should know better.
What are the implications of accepting a teacher in our hearts?
Different Lamas are different and expect different things but I think to my mind, a good Lama is those who are teaching the students not only to practise the Dharma but grow in the Dharma so that they become adults. And when they expect their students to stay at the point of being just dependent on the Lama for everything and no ability to make mature decisions because they are always running to the Lama for his advice and his ….. and so forth that is to my mind a very psychologically dangerous situation. One should look for that in the Lama. How are his students responding as they mature. In the beginning we need to listen to the Lama and take their advice because we have a Lama because we assume they know a whole lot more than we do and they can stay ahead on the path where we can’t see because we’ve never been there. The whole point of a spiritual teacher is trust that they have arrived where we are seeking to go, that they know the path very well not because they read about it and heard about it but because they themselves actually walk that way and they know it very well. It’s part of who they are. And then they can transmit to us where to go, where to detour, not go this way, go that way, and so forth because they themselves have seen it. And so, in the beginning, we need to trust and follow their directions because that’s why we have a teacher. They know more than we do, but at a certain point we have to become independent. Even Marpa sent Milarepa away and he had to practise on his own and make his own mistakes and learn from them. And that, I would say, was a very important aspect of the teacher-student that they don’t rely (on the teacher) because a teacher can rely on their students as much as the students rely on the teacher. It becomes a symbiotic relationship which I think is quite unhealthy. And you see with the great Masters like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and others, that even when they had many students, and Khamtrul Rinpoche also, they had many many Tulkus that they were bringing up, that at a certain point, like birds flying from the nest, the fledglings they get their wings and they fly off. They still have that heart relationship with the Guru, but nonetheless they are not depending on the Guru any more because they themselves have now cultivated the qualities needed for themselves to be able to live an authentic Dharma life.
Should the Lama have pure perception of the Disciple?
Absolutely, I mean when the point is when certain Lama’s talk about Samaya it all seems very one-sided. But in fact it’s not just the Samaya of the student to the Guru but definitely the Samaya of the Guru to the student that the Guru’s Samaya, their pledge is to help the student to bring the student on to a realisation of the fullness of their Buddha nature, and to guide them on the path and to be like a mother. The problem is, really the problem is, that in the Vajrayana system we are taught to look on the Guru like a father and, in fact, often in the prayers he’s called PA which is like daddy it’s not even the formal “YAB” but PA. So we are taught to trust him like a small child would trust a father. The father is the one secure thing that you know you can believe in and in this very bewildering world you run to your daddy. And so then when the father misuses their position to abuse the child and especially sexually, not only physically, then this is total confusion for the child and everything they believe in is just ripped apart and the child basically never really gets over it. They carry it forever as a deep wound inside. And so this, on the spiritual path, is what these Lamas are doing and that’s why it’s inconceivable that they could do that to any living being not to speak of their own students. Where is the compassion, where is the wisdom, where is the caring, where is there anything to be said in favour of destroying a person’s devotion and faith and ending up with them losing their own belief in themselves and their own qualities, in their own innate perfection. Everything is destroyed, not for this lifetime, but for future lifetimes if they are not able to deal with it skilfully, and so this is a very very serious thing. And this is again, why we should be very very careful before making our commitment, because this is not just for this lifetime, but for all our lifetimes until enlightenment is reached. We have to be careful.
Is it possible to learn from some teachers we don’t have a heart connection with?
Of course. In the end even if you have the most magnificent teacher and you have a real heartfelt connection with them, they cannot walk the path for you. The Buddha said the Buddha only points the way you, yourself, must walk the path and so in fact people end up becoming kind of Dharma groupies just hanging out with the Lama (Tenzin Palmo flutters her eyelashes) — Oh, he looked at me, oh he smiled, isn’t he lovely, look at those dimples — and they completely miss the point. This is very common, nowadays especially, in the West and in China. It’s not about the charisma of the Lama, it’s not about how cute he is or is not. It’s about the ability to transmit the Dharma to us in a way that we can move forward and actualise his teachings. That’s the point. And so even if we don’t have a very deep heart-felt connection with anyone, you can’t force it, but you can still practice. And that’s much more important than having a cosy heart-to-heart relationship and no practice. Just getting like they’re a pop star or a footballer player or something.
What if we don’t even get to see our Guru because of physical distance or lack of time?
The Tibetans have these lovely prayers for calling on the Guru from afar and they’re very beautiful and heartfelt and it’s understood that you’re not always going to be sitting in front of the Guru. And, in actual fact, just sitting in front of the Guru doesn’t mean that you’re in a relationship with the Guru. You can be a thousand miles away and if your heart is open, then the Guru is right there. I mean the Guru should be there in our heart, it’s not a person. One time, for example, I met with my Lama, Khamtrul Rinpoche I said to him “Oh Rinpoche we haven’t seen each other in so long” it had been two or three years because he was going to Bhutan and he said “Haven’t you realised even yet that we are never separate, even for one moment?”. I was very surprised he said that as he wasn’t the kind of person to talk like that. But, of course, it’s true. If your Guru is in your heart you’re never apart. Whereas you can be sitting right in front of him and you can be inwardly, psychically, a thousand miles away. In the Tibetan tradition, usually when you see your Lama, visualise him for Guru yoga, it is in idealised form like in the Kajrapur Vajradhara, Nyingmapa Guru Rinpoche or Samantabbhadra, and so forth because we should not think that the Lama is the embodiment. Their looks and their appearance is only in order to live as an Nirmanakaya in this realm. But that’s not the Lama, that’s not who you are going for refuge to. Who you are going for refuge to is the nature of the mind, the non-dual pure consciousness which the Lama has realised and familiarised with and that is which we are seeking. And that’s the point. Our devotion should be to invoke the blessing in order to realise the true nature of the mind.
Why do we even need a Guru? Can’t we just study from the texts?
Because we need blessings. The traditional example is that when the sun is shining — we’re talking about India, very intense sun — and we put a piece of paper on the ground under the sun and the most that will happen, even although the sun is so intense, is that the paper will get dry and crinkle. But if we put a magnifying glass between the sun’s rays and the paper in a very short time it will start to smoke and then burst into flames. So this is like the blessings of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is vast and intense like the sun but still in order to set our hearts aflame we need it to be personalised through the aspect of the Guru. And that is what the Guru is for is to bring down all the blessings of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and then transfer them to the students. Well, the idea is that the Guru is like the sun and is always shining and whether or not we close the doors and windows is up to us. If we open all the doors and pull open the curtains, the sun will come in, the light will come in, if we close it all because we don’t have devotion, then we cannot complain about the dark.