A Healthy Attitude toward a Spiritual Teacher

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How do we actually entrust ourselves to the spiritual teacher? How do you relate to him or her? 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. Let’s milk the meaning from these two words.

Firm Conviction in Our Teacher's Good Qualities

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.
  • 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.

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) 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.

So, 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.

(2) 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.

(3) 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 (emptiness). 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 Kedrub Je – 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.

In general in tantra, we would like to of course distinguish everybody as a Buddha and everything as a pure land and so on. And in that context, then of course the person who taught us how to read and the person that just gave us information about Buddhism would be proper beings for us to distinguish as Buddhas – the same as we would for a dog – because, I was explaining yesterday, we are focusing on the Buddha-nature qualities of all beings and seeing that everybody has the ability to be a Buddha. So we’re focusing on the not-yet-happening Buddha of every being, not yet happening now. But as I emphasized, of course that doesn’t mean that they already are Buddhas, and neither are we when we’re visualizing ourselves as a Buddha and labeling me on that.

But on earlier stages, when we’re not involved with tantra, then as is explained, there are different levels of what it means to relate to teachers in terms of a Buddha. So from a Hinayanapoint of view, so-called Hinayana point of view, the teachers are representatives of a Buddha. Buddhas aren’t around to teach us how to read and write and teach us the basic principles of Buddhism, so the teachers are representatives and they teach us. And of course in that context, in terms of our attitude toward them, we would want to have confidence in their good qualities, whatever those good qualities might be – that they have good knowledge of Buddhism, or they can read and they know how to teach us how to read, whatever. So the same principle is there.

Appreciation of Our Teacher's Kindness

The second aspect of this healthy attitude toward our spiritual teacher is appreciation of their kindness (gus-pa). Sometimes that term is translated as respect, but if you actually look at the definition and at the way that it’s used in the texts, although in other contexts it could mean respect, it really is referring to appreciation of their kindness. And of course if we appreciate their kindness to teach us and to be patient with us and all of that, then that implies that we have respect for them because of that kindness. We could also have that appreciation for the kindness of teachers at school to teach us how to read and write and teachers who, like Buddhism professors, just give us information, regardless of what their motive might be. It doesn’t matter what their motive is – they’re just doing it as a job or to make money or whatever; it doesn’t matter. And in terms of how we relate to them with our behavior – just to do this very briefly (we’ll go into it in a little bit more detail later today) – we would also try to support their work, help them, be respectful in terms of how we behave with them (you don’t act in terrible ways in school, you don’t throw things at each other and not pay attention and stuff like that), and practice according to what they teach (so that means doing your homework).

So these are general principles that would apply with any teacher – we shouldn’t think that it’s just “Ooh, tantra,” like that – general guidelines for how incredible it is that we’re born like some worm or something like that (they always use this example), hopeless and helpless, and everything that we’ve been taught that enables us to function the way that we do now, that’s incredibly kind of others. What would it have been like if we just grew up totally isolated from everybody else and nobody taught us even how to talk? We wouldn’t know how to talk, would we? So these are very practical guidelines.

As I said, from the Hinayana level you see that the teachers are representatives; they’re carrying out the acts and function of a Buddha, which is to teach us, to help us. And from a Mahayanapoint of view – Mahayana always talks about Buddhas having all sorts of emanations and so on; so you could see them like emanations of a Buddha or being similar to a Buddha in terms of how they are helping us, rather than just a representative. And from a tantra point of view, as I was explaining yesterday, it’s within the context of seeing everybody and everything as a Buddha, Buddha-fields and stuff like that, which is based on Buddha-nature, certain characteristics that everybody has that will enable them to become a Buddha.

So we have to understand when we read statements that, according to tantra, it’s not as though they’re like a Buddha or it’s a device that we’re using in order to help us by seeing them as a Buddha, but it says they are a Buddha – we need to understand what that means, this word they are a Buddha. It doesn’t mean literarily they are now a functioning Buddha truly established from their own side. By any means of valid examination, we would discover that they are not omniscient, they cannot speak every language in the universe, and cannot emanate in a zillion forms, please! But rather it’s similar to the analogy that I was using yesterday: for the ghosts, this is pus; for humans, it is water; for the gods, it is nectar. It’s all three of those. In Sakya they call this the inseparability of samsara and nirvana. There are many levels, and all these levels are valid.

So, like that, as I was explaining, it is valid for us to label this being, our teacher, as a Buddha. And then we can fill in that they are functioning as a Buddha for us, etc. But it’s not just a device, it’s not just a method, or a game that we’re playing, a little trick that we’re using in order to benefit from the teacher. This is the point that is made when they say, “He is a Buddha” or “She is a Buddha.” Don’t look at it that way, that “Well, they’re not really.” It’s valid. And what is the ramification of that, what follows from that, is that once we are convinced that the teacher – and this is based on reality in terms of examining the teacher’s qualities – that really they are only concerned with our welfare and this is the sole motivation behind their interaction with us, then anything that they do we see as a teaching: What can I learn from this?

The classic story for that is one of the Jatakas, the previous-life stories of the Buddha, in which a teacher told all the disciples to go out and steal for him. And Buddha was one of the disciples. Everybody else went out to steal, and Buddha didn’t. So when the teacher said, “Don’t you want to please me? Why don’t you go out and steal?” Buddha said, “How can stealing please anybody?” And the teacher said, “Aha! You’re the only one that understood the lesson.”

Or the example that I used of Serkong Rinpoche teaching something totally incorrect in terms of voidness teachings and then in the next class saying, “Come on! What I said was completely incorrect. Don’t you use your intelligence to discriminate? Why didn’t you ask something?”

As a proper disciple, one wouldn’t have responded to this incorrect explanation by saying, “Oh, the teacher is stupid. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” That’s not the proper response. The proper response is “What is the lesson he’s trying to teach us by saying it like that, by explaining in an incorrect way?”

I remember a very good example, my complaining about the texts of Nagarjuna, saying that they’re written in such a vague style, with so many this’s and that’s and it’s not clear what they’re referring to, and stuff like that. I mentioned that to Serkong Rinpoche. And as I mentioned, he almost always scolded me, and so he said, “Don’t be so arrogant. Do you think that Nagarjuna was incapable of writing a clear text? He wrote it this way on purpose. You’re completely arrogant.” He said that it’s written that way so that the students have to fill in from their own side the clarity of the meaning. So it’s a teaching device.

Or another time, I remember Rinpoche was explaining mathematics, Tibetan astrology style of mathematics, to me. And the way that Tibetans do arithmetic is very different from the way that we do arithmetic – addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc. And my remark to Rinpoche was that “This is really strange.” And so again he yelled at me: “You’re so arrogant.” This was one of my biggest disturbing emotions, as I mentioned, was arrogance. And he said, “You’re so arrogant. It’s different. It’s not strange; it’s just different.”

If you look at the classic examples of the relation with the teacher and the student – the way that Marpa treated Milarepa, and so on – often you find that they’re either hitting them or always yelling at them and scolding them. So I was very fortunate that I had that type of relation with Serkong Rinpoche. But you have to be very, very strong and mature in order to be able to withstand that type of relationship. That is in a sense the “contract” of the relation with the spiritual teacher (with the full understanding that they’re not going to abuse you, and they don’t abuse you). Except for Kalachakra, he would never agree to teach me anything unless I was translating it for somebody else. He wouldn’t teach it to me privately. I had to be studying it in order to benefit some others, not just to benefit myself. So this was incredible.

But I think in general for Westerners, this is not the method, because most Westerners suffer from low self-esteem. My problem was arrogance, not low self-esteem. And if we look at Indians, Tibetans, Chinese – their issues are not low self-esteem; that seems to be quite a Western phenomenon. So most Westerners need a little bit of reinforcement that they’re doing okay. But as I said, my teachers, both Serkong Rinpoche and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, used this image of you shouldn’t be like the dog waiting for a pat on the head – “Oh, well done!” – and then you wag your tail.

The Three Types of Conviction

In review, we saw that the first aspect of that is firm conviction in the good qualities of the teacher. There are three types of conviction. We have this general term [depa (dad-pa)] which is translated sometimes as faith. I find that a very misleading translation because faith usually implies blind faith. Rather, the term means “to believe that a fact is true.” Right? So we’re talking about a fact, not believing in Santa Claus or believing in Father Christmas or believing that the stock market is going to go up, like that. It has to be a fact and a true fact. Right? And we believe that it is true. So we’re talking about the qualities of the teacher. These need to be true – accurate, remember? – and then decisive. Then there are three types of this, believing in that fact:

  • The first is a confident belief (yid-ches-kyi dad-pa) that is based on evidence, either logic or observation.
  • And then the second type is clearheaded belief (dang-ba’i dad-pa). It is belief in a fact that then clears our – I can’t think of any better way of translating it – clears our head of disturbing emotions. So I believe that it is true that my teacher has good qualities, and that clears my head of doubts, clears my head of jealousy, clears my head of arrogance (“I’m so much better”) or anger toward the teacher (“Oh, you don’t have enough time for me,” and so on) or clinging to the teacher (“I want you for me, me, me and not for anybody else,” a very greedy attitude toward and possessiveness toward the teacher). And when you really understand and are fully convinced of the good qualities of the teacher, you know that this is absurd. The teacher is there to benefit everybody, not just me.
  • And the third type of belief in fact is belief with an aspiration (mngon-’dod-kyi dad-pa), which means that I am fully convinced that you have these good qualities, and so of course respect and all of that goes with that, and I aspire to try to become like that. Right? So we’re talking about the good qualities of the teacher. That’s what we are aspire to emulate. We’re not talking about just what their favorite food is and these sorts of things. That’s irrelevant.

Actually there’s a more relevant point here. And the relevant point is that if we have a teacher… Or often it’s in a Dharma center. As I said, it doesn’t mean that everybody who goes to the center feels that the founder of the center has to be their spiritual mentor, the one that gives them the most inspiration. So “aspire to have their good qualities” doesn’t mean that we have to practice every single practice that the teacher did. Just because the teacher had this or that yidam, or this or that practice that they did, doesn’t mean that that suits us. It may suit us; it may not suit us. Everybody has completely different karma, obviously. Beginningless rebirths – so we’ve studied with many different teachers, many different traditions. We have instincts for many, many different things, not just what this particular teacher has practiced.

Now, of course the general type of teachings and practices that the teacher did would naturally be something that would be helpful for us, but not necessarily every little detail. I’ll give an example. Serkong Rinpoche was not only an incredible tantric master and, like His Holiness, a master of all the four classes of tantra, but he was the master debate partner of His Holiness, which meant that he was the best debater of his monastery. But for me, I came from a super, super Harvard background. I was already absurdly logical and rational and very aggressive intellectually. And I knew, and my teachers knew, that if I studied debate, I would become like what I refer to as a “debate monster.” A debate monster is somebody who never knows when to stop debating – doesn’t differentiate when it’s appropriate and when it’s not appropriate – so no matter what anybody says, if it’s illogical you jump on them and attack, like in a debate. That’s a debate monster. So although Serkong Rinpoche was a debate master, he never encouraged me to study debate, he never taught me debate, and I always avoided that – even though I can read the debate texts (that’s not the issue). Right? It would not be helpful for my personality. That was not what I needed. I needed, without any mercy, to have it constantly pointed out when I was acting like an idiot.

So these are the different types of firm conviction.

Cherishing Our Spiritual Teacher

Then we also have the second aspect of the attitude, which is appreciation for the kindness of the teacher. There are many descriptions of how kind the teacher is. “The Buddha isn’t coming around and teaching us. The teacher is teaching us. How kind they are.” So in that sense it says that they are kinder than the Buddhas.

One of the wonderful qualities of a really qualified teacher is that they take everybody seriously. So if we sincerely are interested to learn something, even if we might be on a very low level, they take us seriously and teach us at our level. An example: Once a very stoned hippie came to see Serkong Rinpoche and said, “Please teach me the six yogas of Naropa.” And Rinpoche didn’t scold him for being stoned or chase him out or anything like that, but he took him very seriously – of course the effect of that is that the person themselves starts to take themselves seriously – and he said, “Very good. If you want to do that, then this is how you start,” and he told him what he had to do first in order to be able to eventually study the six yogas of Naropa. So this is an example of what it means to take somebody seriously. It is not kind to teach the six yogas of Naropa to somebody who is completely unprepared. That’s not kind.

Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, who was a great Tibetan master, elaborated on this sense of appreciation of the kindness of the teacher. He said that what it means is that we esteem and we cherish the teacher and cherish their kindness. Esteem means that we have great respect for them. So he brings in this connotation of the word, which is respect. I bring that up because this word that he uses, cherish (gcer-zhing pham-pa’i byams-pa, cherishing, concerned love), brings into light the whole discussion of “Is it appropriate to love our teacher? Do we really love the teacher? And what does that mean, what kind of love?”

Now, we already saw that we have the type of belief that clears our head of disturbing emotions. When we say that “Okay, you cherish the teacher, you love the teacher,” that certainly doesn’t mean with longing desire and lust and we want to have the teacher as some sort of sexual partner or that we’re possessive and we want the teacher for ourselves. It certainly doesn’t mean that. The definition of love in Buddhism is “the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness.” Do you wish for the teacher to be happy? “Well, yeah. I mean, sure.”

There’s a discussion, in terms of the behavior with the teacher, that you make offerings; you give things to please the teacher. What pleases the teacher most is our practice. So does that fit into this context of wanting the teacher to be happy? So that gets a little bit delicate here because, as it says, you want to please your teacher, but Buddhas have equanimity anyway. So we don’t want to please them in a very childish type of way, just so that we get their approval. I always use the example of our teachers patting our head, saying “Good boy! Good girl!” and we wag our tail. But we love the teacher in a sense that we would like to see that they have proper food, that they’re comfortable, and we don’t bother them too much so that they’re able to have a rest, or whatever – being considerate of the teacher. So that’s an aspect of love, isn’t it? It’s not “Oh, I want to hug you or kiss you.”

But Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen uses this word that I usually (and many people, most people) translate as cherish. Where does this word appear elsewhere? If we look in the bodhichitta teachings, in the seven-part cause-and-effect process for developing bodhichitta:

  • It starts with step zero (which isn’t counted among the seven) in terms of equanimity in which we have neither attraction, repulsion, or indifference to anybody. So it sort of levels thing out.
  • Then distinguishing the feature of everybody that at some point they’ve been our mother.
  • Then remembering the kindness of motherly love. So the kindness that we have received – well, remember we’re appreciating the kindness that we’ve received from the guru. So everybody has taught us. Everybody has been our guru.
  • And then what’s usually translated as repay that kindness (drin-gso).

One has to be very, very careful with this term. What you want to avoid is that “Well, I’ve received so much and I’ve given so little, and therefore I feel guilty and I have a debt to repay.” That is not the attitude that we’re talking about here, but rather we want to balance the situation.

And if we look at what follows from that, then what follows from that is they say that automatically we have this heartwarming love – heartwarming (yid-’ong byams-pa) is a difficult term to express, literally “it comes to our mind in a very easy, wonderful way” – and (here’s our word) we cherish the other person: it gives us great delight to see them, we cherish them, and if anything bad happened to them, we would feel awful. And that follows automatically, without having to do any other step of meditation, from the previous step, which doesn’t quite make sense if you translate it as repay the kindness. If I feel guilty and feel indebted that I have to do something to repay that kindness, why would I have this delight in seeing everybody and cherish them and feel awful if anything bad happened? So that can’t really be the full connotation or proper connotation of this earlier step, this previous step.

So we analyze a little bit more deeply. What is the state of mind behind this thing of “I want to balance the kindness with being kind back to you”? It’s a sense of gratitude. We appreciate that kindness, and we’re so grateful for it. “I’m so grateful for how much help you’ve given me that when I see you, I just lighten up. I’m so delighted to see you. I cherish you, want you to be happy. It would be terrible if anything bad happened to you. All because of that gratitude, that appreciation, in light of how kind you’ve been to me.”

We have this term also in the context of equalizing and exchanging the attitude about self and others. Instead of having this attitude toward ourselves that “Oh, I’m so great, and I’m only concerned about me,” you have this toward others. It’s the same term.

So when we get into this discussion of what does it mean to love the teacher – well, it’s this term cherish. That’s what we find in the texts. There are no disturbing emotions with it. But when we’re with the teacher, or even just thinking of the teacher, then it fills us with joy; we are delighted.

Look at the Vajrayogini practice. In that you have “The guru comes to your head, dissolves into you,” which you have in almost every practice anyway. And what is emphasized here is to feel intense joy and delight at merging with the teacher, which doesn’t mean sexual merging; it means merging the good qualities of body, speech, and mind of the teacher with our own (that’s the whole point of guru-yoga). And then this incredible feeling of delight and joy, you feel that it expands to be the size of the universe. And then it contracts as the mind gets more and more… Well, no. First you understand the voidness of that joy, and then the mind gets more and more subtle.

So my point being that this is what we’re talking about in terms of cherishing the teacher, is having this incredible feeling of delight and joy when you see the teacher, when you think of the teacher, let alone when you do this type of guru-yoga. And what the corollary of that is is of course that we want to take care of the teacher and we would feel really horrible if anything bad happened to them (if they didn’t have the resources to be able to help others, if they were sick, or whatever).

Now, of course this is not easy, is it, to actually feel that joy, especially if we’re doing this as part of our daily practice in a sadhana, let’s say. So how do you develop it if we really have that relation with a spiritual teacher? It’s by appreciating the kindness of others, exactly like in the bodhichitta meditation – think of all the kindness of the teacher, and then one generates this tremendous feeling of gratitude, and that automatically leads to this very joyous state of mind.

Inspiration from the Teacher

And what comes from all of this? What follows from all of this is the very standard practice with the spiritual teacher which is called making requests. We find that in every type of practice, making requests – solwa deb (gsol ba ’debs) in Tibetan. So what are we requesting? Obviously we’re not requesting a Mercedes-Benz or anything like that. What we often read in translation is “Bless me to do this or that.” Come on, what in the word does that mean? That’s from a different religious tradition. But as I explained I think at the beginning of this seminar, the term that’s translated as blessing has this idea of “inspiration, uplift my mind, more energy” [chingyilab (byin-gyis rlabs)]. So what we’re requesting is inspiration. Inspire me to be more compassionate, to be more understanding of my parents or my children – I mean, whatever we need inspiration for. Apply it in daily life.

And please don’t think in terms of inspiration being something like a football that your teacher has and throws to you and now you have the inspiration. (In fact I have a long article on my web site on what actually all of this means in terms of inspiration and oral transmission. Oral transmission also isn’t throwing a football to us.) But again by thinking of the first part of this attitude, firm conviction in the good qualities of the teacher, you remember, remind yourself of, their good qualities – and obviously the teacher has to have these qualities – how patient they are, how understanding they are of others. And then, thinking of that, we become inspired to follow that example and try to be like that.

When your teacher has passed away, this becomes even stronger, I find. Many people have found this as well. Serkong Rinpoche died in 1983. When he’s alive, when your teacher is alive, and they’re often in some other place, then you feel that they’re quite distant – not necessarily, but often you feel that. But once they’ve passed away, then they’re much more internalized: “The teacher is with me.” And what is with me are the values of the teacher. So when faced with a difficult situation, what do you do? What do I do? “How would Serkong Rinpoche deal with this situation?” is the question that I ask. “What would he do?” All right? “How would His Holiness the Dalai Lama deal with this situation?” Then we get inspiration to try to be like that. This is very, very helpful. But of course that requires having familiarity with how they handled different situations, obviously. Often we don’t have the chance to really see how they handled different situations, but if we do that’s fantastic.

In so many texts it says how important it is to make requests. Therefore it’s important to understand what that means, what are we requesting and why. And remember inspiration from the guru is the root of the path – it’s what gives us energy, it grounds us, it gives us stability – because we know that others have done this before us; we’re not alone.

Oral Transmissions

Can you explain a little bit on the topic of oral transmission in general? And more specifically: All the oral transmissions go back to Buddha Shakyamuni. If we have received an oral transmission for a particular practice from one teacher, should we aspire to receive oral transmissions for that same practice from other teachers as well?

The custom of oral transmission arose within the context of ancient India, where nothing was written down in the teachings originally, and so the only way to learn the teachings would be to listen to them recited, and that implies memorization – that somebody has memorized it, and then you hear it over and over again so that you can memorize it. And we find among the Tibetans, even nowadays, that they all memorize the texts before they study them, and they memorize the pujas – they memorize everything.

There are three types of discriminating awareness: the one that arises from hearing, from thinking, and from meditating. What we want to do is to be very decisive in terms of the first of these types of discriminating awareness – that this is accurate, these are the actual words of the teachings, and we’ve gotten it correctly, and this is it. Then you can start thinking about it and try to understand it. And because of that, one needs to have the oral transmission of somebody who’s memorized it – that it is correct, and that we hear it, and you have to listen of course, pay attention, not fall asleep, etc. – so that eventually you can memorize it and pass it on to next generations. That is the whole context within which this custom arose.

Now, I used to think that what went along with the oral transmission was that the person who gave the oral transmission actually understood the text and the person who received it got inspired that “Well, there’s somebody that really understands it, so I can understand it as well.” But I found out that that was incorrect.

What happened was that the old Serkong Rinpoche’s father, Serkong Dorjechang… The first Serkong Dorjechang was one of the greatest yogis of the beginning of the last century, and he’s in the Kalachakra lineage. And although there’s a lineage of a particular text – Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po, which is the Essence of Good Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (it’s one of Tsongkhapa’s most difficult texts) – and although there’s the transmission from Tsongkhapa, Serkong Dorjechang had a vision of Tsongkhapa during a retreat and Tsongkhapa gave him another, a special transmission of the text.

The old Serkong Rinpoche had that transmission from his father, and although it’s a 250-page text, Rinpoche recited it from memory every day as part of his daily practice (in addition to all the tantra recitations and things that he did). And Rinpoche never actually gave that oral transmission to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even though he was one of his teachers, because he said he was waiting until he had some really very, very special insight to be able to explain to His Holiness. So he never gave it.

So now the old Serkong Rinpoche dies. The reincarnation, the young tulku, he’s now twenty-seven, but a few years ago he said he really wanted to receive this transmission (I’m very close with him, as I was with the old one). And so we were looking around and looking around for who had this transmission to be able to give to the young Serkong Rinpoche. And it turned out that I was pretty much the only one left who actually had the oral transmission of this from Rinpoche. He’d given it to a very small group of like three people, and I was one of them. And what was even more incredible was that he gave the oral transmission from memory, the classic form, not from reading the text. So although I had the oral transmission, I had never actually studied the text. So I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Can I give the oral transmission? What should I do?” And His Holiness said, “It doesn’t matter whether you have studied the text or understand anything at all. You should give the oral transmission to the young Serkong Rinpoche.” So I practiced reciting the text out loud – I mean, I didn’t memorize it – reading it out loud until I could read it out loud at a sufficient speed so that it wouldn’t be a torture to listen to it, and I went to Rinpoche in India, made a special trip, and gave him the oral transmission. And what was really very nice was that a few months ago in Bodhgaya, Rinpoche for the first time gave the oral transmission. He gave it to a group of Tibetans, including Lama Zopa and Dagri Rinpoche. So it’s very nice that now it’s being carried on.

So you might ask if I was passing on the blessings of this text. I mean, I couldn’t say that. Is there some inspiration? Well, certainly not inspiration from my own realization – I never even studied the text – but there is I suppose some sort of inspiration from the fact that there is some continuity. So it certainly does have a benefit. They always say that if you receive the oral transmission, this will act as a circumstance to help you to understand the text better; and because of that, to receive the oral transmission several times is always helpful.

[See: "Blessings" or Inspiration?]

Original Audio from the Seminar