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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > Guidelines Concerning the Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher > Session Three: How to Relate to the Spiritual Teacher in Terms of Our Attitude

Guidelines Concerning the Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, February 2012

Session Three: How to Relate to the Spiritual Teacher in Terms of Our Attitude

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:37 hours)

The Disadvantages of Turning Our Back on the Spiritual Teacher

Last session we spoke about the benefits of entrusting ourselves in a healthy way to a spiritual mentor or guide. And after that there’s a list of the dangers that will follow if we go back on our commitment by showing contempt toward the teacher, cursing the teacher, leaving the teacher in anger, harboring great hatred inside for the teacher afterwards, and regretting ever getting involved with that teacher or with Buddhism in general. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about the dangers that are involved.

I don’t think it’s necessary to go through the entire list, but I think that we can understand it in general. If we open ourselves up to trusting in somebody, in a sense we are very vulnerable in that situation. It’s like for instance if you are a child and you open yourself up to a parent or a teacher and they abuse you either sexually or by beating you, then for most people they are pretty damaged emotionally for the rest of their lives. It’s very difficult for them to overcome that. It’s possible to overcome it but very, very difficult. They don’t trust anybody anymore, they lose that capacity to trust, and always have this caution that “I don’t really want to get involved, because I’m going to be hurt again.” And that cuts them off from opening up to someone else in the future. It’s a real big obstacle.

So we don’t have to go to the extreme example of a teacher abusing us, although there are examples of that, quite a few examples of people who pretend to be great teachers and actually they just abuse the students, and that’s damaging enough, very damaging actually. But here when they speak about these disadvantages, they’re not talking about that type of situation in which the teacher sexually abuses us or abuses us in terms of power and money, that sort of thing. And even in those situations, one just leaves. You respect whatever they did that might have benefited us and just leave.

But here we’re talking about a qualified teacher and we leave with a very, very negative state of mind. Mind you, if you leave with a very negative state of mind from a teacher who abuses you, you’re also shut off from opening up in the future. But with a qualified teacher, if we leave with this very negative state of mind – really angry, “How terrible the teacher is,” and “Everything that I did was stupid” – what does it do? What’s the result of that? And the result of that is that we’re not open to the Buddhist path, or usually any spiritual path, and we never will trust any spiritual guidance. And even if we start to become involved with somebody, we’ll be very paranoid, always expecting that something bad is going to happen. And as it says, whatever good qualities we might have developed, we’ll find that we go downhill very quickly because we have such a negative attitude about everything that we did. So it’s like everything gets thrown away.

Now, we have here in the list that you fall to worse rebirths, you get hellish rebirths, and all of that. This really needs to be understood. First of all we certainly aren’t saying that, like in a cult, you have to obey and do everything that your teacher does because if you don’t obey you’re going to go to hell, and then we’re afraid of doing anything wrong because then we’ll go to hell. This is certainly not what is intended here. What does hell mean? There are many hells in Buddhism, but what does it mean? And following Serkong Rinpoche’s advice, one looks at the flavor, the connotation, of the Sanskrit term and the Tibetan term.

  • The Sanskrit term [naraka] connotes “joyless.” There’s no joy, only unhappiness and sorrow and pain. If we have this very negative attitude toward the teacher and toward anything that we did to try to improve ourselves, of course we’re left in a very, very unhappy state of mind. If you have left the teacher with such a negative mind and so angry and filled with hatred and regret and resentment and things like that, that’s not a happy state of mind. That’s a totally joyless state of mind, isn’t it? We are not at all rejoicing in all the positive things that we did and learned; we think it was stupid, a waste of time.
  • And the connotation of the Tibetan term [nyelwa (dmyal-ba)] is that it’s very difficult to get out of this state, sort of what I like to translate as trapped. It’s a feeling of being trapped in this state of mind.

And so this is the description of the hellish state of mind – completely without any joy, very negative, and you feel just trapped in that, and you can’t get out. So if you think about it, whether we believe in future lives and in an actual hellish environment, wherever it might be, and so on, we can appreciate how horrible that state of mind would be and how logically it does follow from having this very negative attitude toward relying on somebody and trusting somebody to help us to improve. So please don’t get hung up and worried about “Well, how does Vajra Hell compare to Avichi Hell? And how far under Bodhgaya is it? And how hot is it compared to this one and that one?” and so on. That’s missing the point. As His Holiness said, Buddha didn’t come to teach us geography; he came to teach us how to avoid and overcome suffering.

So if we have a very negative attitude toward trying to improve ourselves, how are we ever going to improve? Obviously. So this is the big danger. And if we haven’t examined very well before we’ve gotten involved in a relationship with a spiritual teacher and into serious practice of Buddhism – if we haven’t done that, we really need to examine very, very well so that we don’t have this danger of turning our back on that and having a really, really negative attitude and cutting ourselves off from really being able to benefit from the Buddhist teachings in the future. Just imagine being so disillusioned with anything positive and the people who are trying to be positive, and so on, that you have nobody to look up to. There’s no hope. So that really describes a hellish situation, doesn’t it? You feel trapped. Everything is so horrible and so miserable, and there’s no hope.

Now, please bear in mind that we’re not talking about eternal damnation. Even the hellish rebirth is impermanent; it will come to an end. But there are many dangers of getting involved in this type of relationship, in this type of spiritual practice, because it’s serious. And I can’t emphasize enough that it is not just: “Well, I have to follow the rules. And if I don’t follow the rules, I’m going to be punished.” It’s certainly not that.

We often hear the discussion of the term fear. The main context within which that topic arises is in terms of refuge. Refuge means putting a positive direction in our life. It’s not just “Oh Buddha, Buddha, save me, protect me.” It’s not like that. But it’s going in the direction of the deepest meaning of Dharma, which is to achieve true stopping of suffering and the causes of suffering and to achieve the true states of mind – the true path – that will lead to that and result from that, the way the Buddhas have done in full, the way the Arya Sangha have done in part. So that’s the direction that we want to put in our life, to work toward that, and obviously the spiritual teacher helps us on that way. But what are the causes for putting this direction in our life? And you see very clearly – it says in the text – fear of worse rebirths in the future and confidence that we can avoid that by going in this direction.

So there are two types of fear. There’s a very destructive type of fear – destructive is perhaps not the best word, but a very devastating type of fear. This is the fear in which you feel that there’s no hope and you feel absolutely helpless. That’s a very disturbing, devastating state of fear. “There’s nothing I can do.” You’re just paralyzed by fear. And here in the context of this putting a safe direction in our life, it’s very different because we realize that there is a way to avoid these worst rebirths, and there is great hope. So it’s a healthy sense of fear.

I’ll give an example. You want to cross a busy street. “I’m afraid of being hit by a car, but I know if I look both ways and I’m very careful, I can cross safely.” If there’s no hope of getting across the street safely – you’re just afraid of being hit – you’re never going to try to cross the street. But you know that there’s a way to avoid being hit, and that healthy sense of fear makes us careful. Sometimes I use the word dread rather than fear. It’s something that we really want to avoid; it’s not a paralyzing type of fear.

So the same thing in terms of reading these disadvantages of having this negative attitude toward the teacher, leaving in a state of contempt and hatred and anger. We’re not talking about what sometimes is called a “breach of guru devotion,” using all these loaded terms, which implies that “Well, I didn’t do exactly what the teacher said, and so I’m going to go to hell.” We’re talking about developing a really negative state of mind toward the teacher, not just making a mistake or being too lazy to do what they asked us to do or whatever. And like wanting to avoid being hit by a car, we also want to avoid the horrible state of mind that we would be in if we have such a negative attitude toward teachers and Buddhism in general and spiritual practice in general. It would leave us with nothing.

And we know that we can avoid this danger. How do we avoid the danger? It’s not in terms of like being in the army, being totally obedient, like an obedient soldier, and “Yes, sir!” doing whatever the teacher says. We can avoid this by really, really seriously examining the teacher beforehand and ourselves – our readiness, our abilities, and so on. Be very, very careful about that type of relationship. Right?

What’s the main function of the teacher? They can give us information, but we get correct information from the internet or from books. They can answer our questions, they can correct us when we make mistakes, but you don’t have to be so super advanced to be able to do that. The main activity of real spiritual mentors, besides giving vows and stuff like that, is to inspire us. So I’m looking up to this person. This is what I am trying to become like, this is my model, and I’m inspired by their example to try to become like that. And then we get totally disillusioned about that, and the whole model that we had, the whole ideal that we had in mind, is just completely destroyed, and not only is it destroyed but we have such a negative attitude: “I’m so stupid for doing that.” So the way to avoid that is to really examine very, very well beforehand and then follow the various procedures that are indicated. If the teacher does something a little bit strange or asks you to do something, then you ask, “Well, why do you say that? Please explain it to me.”

And again I’m thinking of Serkong Rinpoche. Lama Zopa said once, “If you want to find an example of what the real thing is, real spiritual mentor, it’s Serkong Rinpoche. That’s the real thing.”

Once there was some legal problem and some messy type of things involved with a piece of land in Nepal – I think it was for a nunnery or something like that – that Rinpoche had or somebody had given him (I don’t actually remember the details). There were various stories and things going on. And Serkong Rinpoche was so unbelievably kind because he took me aside in his room one day and explained to me the whole situation so that I wouldn’t ever develop some doubts or some strange thoughts because of all the complicated things that were going on. So this is the real thing, the real teacher – very concerned that I don’t get disillusioned.

Okay, so maybe enough of the disadvantages of turning our back on the spiritual teachers after we have committed ourselves.

How to Relate to the Spiritual Teacher in Terms of Our Attitude

Now, if we continue to follow the various guidelines – the outlines, I should say – then the next topic is in terms of how do we actually entrust ourselves to the spiritual teacher. How do you relate to the teacher? And this is discussed in terms of how we relate with our attitude and how we relate in terms of our behavior with the teacher.

In terms of how we relate with our thought, with our attitude, it’s explained in terms of two Tibetan words. So again let’s milk the meaning from these two words.

So the first one is this Tibetan word mopa (mos-pa). We have the definition of these mental factors in the abhidharma texts. So we have a version by Vasubandhu, we have a version by Asanga – two versions that the Tibetans follow. So always look at the definitions. Don’t just rely on what some translator or some dictionary gave as the equivalent word.

  • The word mopa as defined by Vasubandhu is “to apprehend an object of focus as having good qualities.” Apprehend. What does that mean? It’s a very difficult word to translate. Apprehend is not a great word; most people don’t have any clear idea what that means either even in English. To apprehend something means to cognize it accurately and decisively. And here we’re referring to the good qualities of the teacher. So accurately what actually are the good qualities of the teacher? Not ones that we project or imagine, but what is reality? What are the good qualities that this teacher has? And to be quite decisive about that. Not “Well, maybe they have it, maybe they don’t,” like that, but based on experience and examining and so on, we’re very convinced.
  • And Asanga defines it as “a firm conviction.” So he emphasizes the conviction part. And not necessarily about good qualities, but here in the Vasubandhu sense we’re talking about the good qualities of the teacher. Okay?

So what are the good qualities? Well, we studied a list of the qualifications of the spiritual teacher. These are good qualities of the teacher. Are they an ethical person? Have they diminished to a great extent their disturbing emotions? Are they genuinely concerned with the welfare of the students and very kind and compassionate? The whole long list. Examine do they have these qualities or not.

And how do we know? So now we turn to Chandrakirti’s explanation of the three criteria for labeling a valid cognition. When you study Dharma, you’re always putting together different pieces of the puzzle.

  1. So first is there a convention for this good quality. Is this conventionally accepted as being a good quality?

Well, then we examine. Yes, it’s a convention that this is a qualification. A good quality of a teacher is a teacher who has a strong sense of ethics. So it fits in the convention according to the text. All right? Somebody who is honest with us. It is a convention that you can trust such a person. Somebody who is not honest you don’t trust. It is just a common convention among people. That’s the first criterion.

Just because they’re famous or just because they have a big name… His Holiness is always saying this, that the tulkus, the reincarnate lamas, shouldn’t rely just on having a big name from their predecessor; they have to demonstrate their qualifications in this lifetime. So it’s not the convention, not a proper convention, that someone is a great teacher just because they have a title of Rinpoche. In fact at the big tulku conference in 1988, His Holiness said that if he had his way he would get rid of the whole tulku system because it’s too much open to abuse. Right? And he scolded all the tulkus for being lazy, just relying on having a big name.

That’s the first criterion. It has to accord to a convention, a generally accepted convention, of what is a good teacher, a qualified teacher.

  1. And the second one is that it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth.

There are a lot of technical words in that. Conventional cognition, conventional truth: You observe how the teacher acts, you ask other people what’s their experience with this teacher. Do they contradict these good qualities or not? Does it contradict the conventional truth of what a good teacher is? The conventional truth of what a good teacher is, a proper teacher – someone who is ethical, etc. And then you see this person is acting in a completely unethical way. And other people, when they observe it as well, also see it’s terrible, the way that this teacher is acting. So seeing the teacher act in a completely horrible way contradicts the fact that this would be a proper teacher, that they have good qualities – it contradicts that. And so what we want is not to have that, no contradiction.

  1. And then the third criterion is that it not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the deepest truth.

If you validly cognize the deepest truth, you cognize voidness. So voidness – the qualities of the teacher are not self-established, inherent inside the person, and so on; they’re arisen from all sorts of causes and conditions and factors, etc. So if we think this teacher is like some sort of god, some sort of transcendent being up here, and solidly like that from his own side, and there’s no way we could possibly relate to that and no way we could possibly become like that, this is obviously false. That’s contradicted by a mind that validly understands voidness and dependent arising. We all have the ability to develop good qualities, but they can only be built up by a tremendous amount of hard work. So that’s how the teacher achieved their attainments. That’s how Buddha became a Buddha. So it’s very important not to think “Oh, this is impossible” in terms of these good qualities. So have a realistic attitude of how one develops good qualities. Okay?

Then this state of mind, this first way of relating to the teacher and how we relate to the teacher, is with confidence, confidence that they have these good qualities, firm confidence. All right? Because we have that conviction, we trust them. This is a very important part. You trust what they say. You trust that they’re not going to let you down. Now, this gets very delicate, doesn’t it, because these teachers don’t have time for us – they’re very busy, they’re traveling all over the world, they have thousands of so-called students or followers (whether they’re really disciples is something else) – but we trust that they do have the good qualities, and we can be inspired by them. We might need a less qualified teacher to actually give us our day-to-day instructions. That’s another level.

Seeing the Teacher as a Buddha

Now that gets into a very delicate topic (that we don’t have that much time in this session for, but I’d like to get into it), which is distinguishing the teacher as a Buddha. First of all, that’s often translated by the word recognize. Recognize doesn’t give quite the flavor. This is this mental factor of distinguish, distinguishing (‘du-shes). What does distinguishing mean? It is based on differentiating defining characteristics of something as being this and not that. We have that all the time. It’s one of the five aggregates.

The simplest example is: in our field of vision, we are able to distinguish the colored shape of your head from the colored shape of the wall behind you. If you couldn’t distinguish that, there’s no way that you could deal with life. So you get the idea of what we’re talking about with distinguishing? There are certain characteristics features of this collection of colored shapes that make it a head and don’t make it a wall.

Now, excuse me for getting sophisticated, but that’s what I love. So I will try to make this a little bit clearer. Now we have to bring in the whole example of ghosts viewing something as pus; humans, as water; and the gods, as nectar. So it’s not the case that there is some truly existent liquid which is like a blank and then, just with mental labeling, the ghosts label it as pus, and the humans as water, and the gods as nectar, and because of their karma it’s able to function like that for them. It’s not like that. Otherwise you could project anything onto it. Okay.

I think it’s Tsongkhapa or maybe it’s Kaydrubjey – I don’t remember which commentary it’s in, but it explains that actually there are characteristics of an object, but they can’t be found in the object. So what does that mean? Conventionally things are called dharmas, all phenomena are called “dharmas,” and dharma is defined as something which holds its defining characteristics. So there are defining characteristics of things, but the defining characteristics don’t have the power, by themselves or in conjunction with labeling, to make something what it is. So that of course is incredibly difficult to understand. Thank you very much for the definition, but what in the world does that mean?

There’s an example that I thought up that perhaps can help in terms of this example of the pus, water, and nectar, and the defining characteristics of these three. Think of twelve eggs. Twelve eggs can be divided into four groups of three, three groups of four, two groups of six, six groups of two. Is there anything on the side of the twelve eggs that allows them to be divided like that? Where? Yet they can be divided in that way, can’t they, depending on the mental framework of the person who wants to make a two-egg omelet or a three-egg omelet or whatever. But you would have to say that the twelve eggs have the characteristics to be divided in these different ways. Think about that. That’s actually quite profound. So each of these ways of labelling the twelve eggs is valid whether you label it as four groups of three or two groups of six or whatever. And to label something as pus or water or nectar, those are also valid for each of those types of minds.

So now apply this to the example of the teacher as a Buddha. What is a Buddha? A Buddha is filled with all good qualities. So the teacher has various good qualities. We’re convinced of that. It’s accurate. And the teacher also may have negative qualities, shortcomings. So it’s not that we can find it inside the teacher. But based on behavior and so on, you can say they have good qualities and shortcomings. Now, our state of mind. Are we going to be like the ghost that is just focusing on the shortcomings, the negative qualities? So there’s the horrible person, and they don’t have time for me, and we complain, and we get into a very negative state of mind? Or are we focusing on the defining characteristics of good qualities, so the state of mind that sees the Buddha?

Now, the Fifth Dalai Lama said this very clearly (Tsongkhapa indicates it, and the Fifth Dalai Lama develops it in his lam-rim) that we don’t deny the shortcomings of the teacher, don’t be naive about it, but we realize that to focus only on the negative qualities – there’s no benefit from that; it only leads to complaining. Whereas if we focus on the positive qualities, we can gain great inspiration.

So the positive qualities: If you think in terms of Buddha-nature, we have all these tendencies. Extrapolate this now from the discussion of karma. There’s a certain aspect, or facet I call it – because it’s a slightly different word in Tibetan – a certain facet of the tendency, which is the not-yet-happening result. All right? It’s not that it’s sitting inside and waiting to pop out because it will be affected by various circumstances, but there’s an aspect of it, a facet of it, that is capable of giving a result. So a not-yet-happening result. The result isn’t happening now.

So with the teacher, the good qualities and the tendencies from that – the not-yet-happening full development of that is a Buddha. So we’re not naive in the sense that “Oh, this is an omniscient being, and they know” – I always joke about it – “the telephone number of everybody on the planet, and they can walk through walls and multiply into a zillion forms and speak every language,” and so on. We certainly aren’t naive enough to think that that really is what the teacher has now. It’s the not-yet-happening Buddha, which can be validly imputed on the basis of all good qualities that the teacher has.

And so like that we see the teacher is a Buddha in that sense. We are perceiving the teacher in terms of this Buddha aspect, in terms of Buddha-nature, like being the gods that are perceiving and experiencing this in terms of being nectar. And viewing the teacher as a Buddha – not viewing, you’re distinguishing, the word distinguish – we’re distinguishing these characteristics from the shortcomings. So that’s what we’re focusing on, and we label on it not-yet-happening Buddha. Usually the “not yet happening” isn’t mentioned, just Buddha.

Please remember the significance of this, particularly in tantra. If we can do this with the teacher, then we can do this with ourselves. Exactly the same process. In tantra, using our imagination to start with, we visualize and imagine ourselves as a Buddha already, even though we know it’s not yet happening now, and we validly label me, conventional me, on this basis. That’s called holding the pride of the deity. So there’s the whole mental continuum. And based on all these good qualities and tendencies we have now, we can label the not-yet-happening result, not-yet-happening Buddha, and way down the line it will be a happening Buddha. So we can label me on the whole process. So being able to do that with the teacher is the start, just as I was saying, to overcome my self-preoccupation. By helping my teacher, that opened me up to being able to help others. So similarly by seeing the teacher as a Buddha, that opens us up to being able to do this in tantra practice in terms of ourselves. And that’s the significance in tantra of the guru as a Buddha.

And when it says in the text, “When the teacher appears with shortcomings, the appearance is not reliable,” and so on, you have to understand that in the context of what I just explained. Instead of like the gods viewing the nectar, we’re becoming like the ghosts viewing the pus, labeling horrible teacher and so on, this strange appearance, on their shortcomings. So it’s similar to the ghost perceiving it as pus. And what’s unreliable about it is projecting truly established existence onto that. “This truly terrible teacher truly has faults from their own side. Terrible. No good.” So it’s unreliable. What does unreliable mean? Don’t rely on it, don’t rely on fixating on the shortcomings, because all it’s going to do is depress you and fill you with a very complaining state of mind. Don’t rely on that. That’s not going to get you anywhere. But without denying it, focus on seeing the teacher as a Buddha. Without being naive to think that they’re an already presently-happening Buddha and omniscient and can speak every language in the universe.

In all the lists of the qualifications of a guru, never in one list does it say that the teacher is actually an enlightened being. Never. So don’t take this teaching literally and see the teacher is a Buddha; understand it within this whole larger context that I just explained. And then we can receive the greatest inspiration from the teacher, and it will help us very, very strongly on the tantra path to working with ourselves in the form of these various Buddha-figures in our tantra practice. Okay? Good.

We are now past our time, and I don’t know whether it’s productive to say, “Do you have any questions about this?” Maybe it would be more productive to let you sort of chew on it overnight and then we have questions about this in the morning. Perhaps that’s better.

Very, very delicate topic, the guru is a Buddha, and can be so easily misunderstood. So it really needs to be understood in this larger context of so many other teachings. Then it starts to make sense. Okay? Good.

So let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.