A Healthy Attitude toward a Spiritual Teacher

How do we actually entrust ourselves to a spiritual teacher? How do we relate to him or her? This is discussed in terms of our attitudes and also our behavior with the teacher. We can begin to understand much about this by milking the full meaning from the two Tibetan words used to describe the proper attitude.

Firm Conviction in Our Teacher’s Good Qualities

The first is the Tibetan word mopa (mos-pa), one of our mental factors. Definitions of the mental factors are found in the abhidharma texts. There are two versions that Tibetans follow, one by Vasubandhu and one by Asanga. It is important to always look at the definitions. Don’t just rely on what a translator or dictionary offers as the equivalent word.

The word mopa is defined by Vasubandhu as “the apprehension of an object of focus as having good qualities.” What does “apprehension” mean, the Tibetan word tog-pa (rtogs-pa)? It’s a difficult word to translate and most people don’t have a clear idea of the meaning even in English. To “apprehend” something means to cognize it accurately and decisively. In this case, we’re referring to the good qualities of the teacher. “Accurately” means we cognize what actually are the good qualities of the teacher, not ones that we project or imagine. “Decisively” means we are being totally certain about that. It isn’t uncertain, as in thinking, “Maybe the teacher has these qualities, or maybe not.” Based on experience, examination, and so on, we’re completely convinced.

Asanga defines mopa as “firm conviction.” He emphasizes the aspect of conviction, not necessarily the good qualities. But in the Vasubandhu sense, we’re talking about firm conviction in the good qualities of the teacher. 

What are these good qualities? They are given in the list of the qualifications for a spiritual teacher. Are they an ethical person? Have they diminished their disturbing emotions to at least a great extent? Are they genuinely concerned with the welfare of the students? Are they very kind and compassionate? There is a long list. We need to examine do they have these qualities or not.

Valid Cognition

How do we know for certain that they have these good qualities? For this, we turn to Chandrakirti’s presentation of the three criteria for determining the validity of a mental labeling. When we study Dharma, we’re always putting together different pieces of the puzzle.

(1) First, we examine: is there a convention for this good quality? Is this conventionally accepted as being a good quality? Yes; the standard texts conventionally accept that having a strong sense of ethics, being honest and so forth are the qualifications for a spiritual teacher. It is also conventionally accepted that we can trust an ethical, honest person. It is also conventionally accepted that we should not trust a dishonest person. These are just common conventions that most people agree upon.

Being famous or having a big name is not conventionally accepted as a qualification for being a spiritual teacher or for us to entrust our spiritual development to them. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always states that the tulkus, the reincarnate lamas, shouldn’t rely just on having a big name from their predecessors; they have to demonstrate their qualifications in this lifetime. It’s not a proper convention that someone is a great teacher just because they have the title of Rinpoche. In fact, at the 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 open to abuse. He scolded all the young tulkus for being lazy.

That’s the first criterion for validating our firm conviction that our spiritual teacher has certain good qualities. The quality has to accord to the generally accepted convention of what are the qualifications of a reliable spiritual teacher.

(2) The second criterion is that our apprehension of the teacher having this quality is not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth. Let’s unpack the technical terms here: “valid cognition” and “conventional truth.” “Valid cognition” means non-fraudulent cognition, either by straightforward cognition, meaning personal experience, or inferential cognition. “Conventional truth” is what an unenlightened mind finds when scrutinizing with valid cognition the superficial appearance of objects.

We can observe how the teacher acts and we can ask other people about their personal experience with this teacher to corroborate what we have personally witnessed. What we observe and what others report must not contradict the teacher’s having this good quality. In addition, what we can infer from irrefutable evidence must also not contradict this conclusion. For instance, if the teacher had the good quality of being an ethical person, then anyone who objectively scrutinized this teacher’s behavior would see that it was ethical. No one could find contradictory evidence. But suppose we see that this person is acting in a completely unethical manner. When others observe this teacher’s behavior, they also report that he or she is acting terribly. Seeing the teacher act in a completely horrible way contradicts the fact of what good qualities should be present. There should be no contradictions.

(3) The third criterion is that our apprehension of the teacher as having this good quality should not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the deepest truth, voidness (emptiness). Such a mind cognizing voidness knows that the good qualities of a teacher are not self-established or inherently findable inside the person, and so on. They have arisen dependently on all sorts of causes, conditions and other factors. If we think that a teacher is like some sort of god, some sort of transcendent being up on a pedestal, and that their good qualities are solidly established, inherently inside them and that there’s no way we could possibly become like that, this viewpoint is obviously false. It’s contradicted by a mind that validly understands voidness and dependent arising. We all have the ability to enhance our good qualities; we can build them up and strengthen them by a tremendous amount of hard work. That’s how the teacher achieved those attainments. That’s how Buddha became a Buddha. It’s very important not to think that these good qualities are impossible for us to achieve. We need to have a realistic attitude of how one develops good qualities.

The first component of the attitude we need to have toward a well-qualified teacher, then, is firm conviction and confidence that they have the requisite good qualities. Because we have that conviction, we trust them. This is a very important part. We trust what they say. We trust that they’re not going to let us down.

This gets very delicate, doesn’t it? Many of these teachers don’t have time for us; they’re very busy traveling all over the world. They have thousands of so-called students or followers. Whether they’re really disciples is something else. Still, 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 of teacher.

Seeing the Teacher as a Buddha


That leads to the very delicate topic of distinguishing the teacher as a Buddha. “Distinguishing” (’du-shes) is another mental factor, often translated as “recognition,” which does not quite capture the meaning of the term. What does distinguishing actually mean? Its formal definition is “the ever-functioning mental factor that takes an uncommon characteristic feature of the appearing object of a non-conceptual cognition or a composite feature of the appearing object of a conceptual cognition and ascribes a conventional significance to it.” In other words, within what appears in our field of vision, hearing and so on and in our mental landscape, the mental factor of distinguishing differentiates unshared defining characteristics of groups of pixels, colored shapes, sounds and so on as constituting individual conventional objects. Identifying what the objects are and ascribing names to them are based on this most fundamental mental factor. This factor functions all the time, otherwise we could not make any sense of what we perceive or think. It’s one of the five aggregates.

A simple example is how, in our field of vision, we are able to distinguish some uncommon defining characteristic shared by the pixels and colored shapes of one conventional object as being distinct from the uncommon defining characteristics of the other conventional objects around it – for instance, the defining characteristic of a person’s head as distinct from that of the wall behind. If we couldn’t distinguish objects from the others around them, there’s no way that we could function in life. We are able to distinguish someone’s head from the wall behind because there are certain characteristic features of this collection of pixels and colored shapes that conventionally are agreed upon as being the features of a head and not those of a wall.

In Buddhism we have the example of ghosts viewing something as pus, humans viewing it as water, and the gods seeing it as nectar. It’s not that there is some truly existent liquid that is like a blank and just with mental labeling the ghosts label it as pus, the humans as water, and the gods as nectar, and because of their karma, the liquid functions like that for them. It’s not like that. Otherwise, we could project anything onto it. How is this explained?

Uncommon Defining Characteristics

Tsongkhapa or perhaps his disciple Kedrub Je ­– I don’t remember whose commentary it is in – explains that, conventionally, objects do have defining characteristics, but upon analysis, they cannot be found on the side of the objects. What does that mean?

Conventionally, all validly knowable phenomena are called dharmas. In this context, a dharma is defined as something that holds its defining characteristics. So, there are defining characteristics of things; but the defining characteristics do not have the power, by themselves or in conjunction with labeling, to make something what it is. That of course is incredibly difficult to understand. What in the world does it mean?

To help clarify this in terms of the defining characteristics in the pus, water and nectar example, let’s use the example of twelve eggs. Twelve eggs can be divided into four groups of three, three groups of four, two groups of six, and six groups of two. Is there anything on the side of the twelve eggs that allows them to be divided like that? If so, where? Yet they can be divided in all those ways depending on the conceptual framework of the person who wants to make a two-egg omelet, a three-egg omelet or whatever.

We would have to say that the twelve eggs have the characteristics to be divided in all these different ways. But the existence of these different characteristics can only be established dependently on the composite features of the concepts “divisible by three,” “divisible by four,” and so on, with which they can be mentally labeled. A “composite feature” (bkra) is the defining characteristic of a category, deriving from an amalgamation of the defining characteristics of all the items that fit in the category – for instance, all items that can be divided into three or four.

Conventionally, the twelve eggs do have all these defining characteristics, but none of these characteristics can be found on the side of the eggs, having the power – either by themselves or in conjunction with mental labeling – to make them divisible in these various ways. Think about that. That’s actually quite profound. Where in these twelve eggs or in between them is the characteristic feature of being divisible by three or four? Each of these ways of labeling the twelve eggs, however, is valid. Each would pass Chandrakirti’s three criteria for validity. Likewise, to label something as pus, water, or nectar is also valid for each of those types of minds – ghost, human or god.

We can apply this analysis to seeing our teacher as a Buddha. What is a Buddha? A Buddha is someone with all good qualities. Our teacher also has various good qualities. We’re convinced of that. It’s accurate. Our teacher may also have negative qualities or shortcomings, since it is difficult to find a teacher who has only good qualities. However, we cannot find the defining characteristics of any of these two kinds of qualities on the side of the teacher. But based on the person’s behavior and so on, we can correctly say the teacher has both good qualities and shortcomings.

Now the question is, which defining characteristic are we going to distinguish? Like with a ghost-like mental framework, are we going to distinguish and label only the defining characteristics of the negative qualities? If we do, we will see the teacher as a horrible person, who doesn’t have time for us, and fall into a very negative state of mind. Or, with the conceptual framework of someone who sees a Buddha, are we going to distinguish and label only the defining characteristics of the good qualities?

The Fifth Dalai Lama states very clearly in his lam-rim text and Tsongkhapa indicates it as well: we shouldn’t be naive and deny the shortcomings of our teacher. But we need to realize that there’s no benefit in focusing only on the shortcomings. It only leads to complaining; whereas, if we focus on the good qualities, we can gain great inspiration.


Good qualities, along with body, speech, mind and activities, constitute the five Buddha-family traits in one of the presentations of Buddha-nature. We all have these five traits on their ordinary, basis level. That means we all have good qualities, as well as the tendencies (literally, the “seeds”) for them on our mental continuums. These tendencies give rise to manifestations of these good qualities intermittently. Before enlightenment, they do not give rise to them continuously, all the time.

Concerning tendencies, let’s extrapolate some of their features from the discussion of karma. One of the facets of a tendency is the ability to give rise to a result when the circumstances are present. Because of that facet, our mental continuums have as an imputation on them the not-yet-happening results of these tendencies. We shouldn’t think, however, that the not-yet-happening results are already determined and fixed, sitting somewhere in our mental continuums, just waiting to pop out when the circumstances are there. They cannot be found under scrutiny; nevertheless, not-yet-happening results have conventional defining characteristics that can be distinguished.

Now let’s analyze in terms of our spiritual teacher. We have firm conviction in the good qualities that he or she has. These good qualities manifest in our teacher only from time to time, which means that when they do manifest, they are arising from the tendencies for them that are imputations on their mental continuums. The tendencies for these good qualities also have the facet of being able to give rise to their manifestation in their fullest forms all the time, when the circumstances are complete for our teacher to manifest enlightenment. That means that there are not-yet-happening Buddha qualities and a not-yet-happening Buddha as imputations on our teacher’s mental continuum, with defining characteristics that we can distinguish.

We’re not naive, however, as I sometimes joke, in the sense that we think our teacher is an omniscient being who knows the telephone numbers of everybody on the planet and can walk through walls, multiply into a zillion forms, speak every language, and so on. We certainly aren’t naive enough to think that the teacher has all these qualities in full and manifest now. The imputation on our teacher’s mental continuum is that of a not-yet-happening Buddha, not a presently-happening Buddha. We are able to distinguish this not-yet-happening Buddha because we have firm conviction in its basis, the teacher’s good qualities.

If my analysis is correct, it explains how we can validly distinguish our teacher as a Buddha. We do this by focusing on their good qualities and their tendencies for them as one of their Buddha-nature traits. We distinguish these tendencies’ facet of being able to give rise to the enlightening good qualities of a Buddha when the teacher’s networks of positive force and deep awareness are complete. Like the gods experiencing a liquid as nectar, we then experience our teacher as a not-yet-happening Buddha; although, usually the “not-yet-happening” isn’t mentioned, just Buddha.

Seeing Shortcomings in Our Teacher Is Not Reliable

The standard texts on entrusting ourselves to a spiritual teacher instruct us, “When the teacher appears with shortcomings, realize that this appearance is not reliable.” We can understand such statements by using the same analysis as just explained. When distinguishing what appears to us as the defining characteristics of shortcomings in the teacher, then instead of being like the gods perceiving nectar, we’re like the ghosts perceiving pus. The ghost’s distinguishing of the defining characteristics of pus is valid and likewise our distinguishing of the defining characteristics of our teacher’s shortcomings may be valid, but it is unreliable.

What does “unreliable” mean? It doesn’t mean “incorrect”; it means “not suitable to be relied upon.” Here, we are not talking about relying on the appearance of the defining characteristics as being findable on the side of our teacher and having the power on their own to establish the person as being either an inherently good or inherently bad teacher. Both appearances are not to be relied on. Our teacher is not truly established as either a Buddha or a devil. The advice not to rely on the appearance of shortcomings is given because doing so is of no benefit. It only depresses us and creates a disturbed state of mind filled with complaint. That’s not going to get us anywhere further on our spiritual path. Instead, without denying the shortcomings and without being so naive as to think that the teacher is an already a presently-happening, omniscient Buddha who can speak every language in the universe and so on, it is more beneficial to distinguish the defining characteristics of our teacher’s good qualities as being those of a Buddha.

In all the lists of the qualifications of a spiritual teacher, not one list includes that the teacher must actually be an enlightened being. That qualification is never there. Don’t take this teaching of seeing the teacher as a Buddha literally; instead, understand it within this larger context. Then, we can receive the greatest inspiration from our teacher.

Further, being able to distinguish the defining characteristics of our teacher’s good qualities as being those of a Buddha will help us on the tantra path to distinguish our own Buddha-nature factors as being those of the various Buddha-figures we imagine ourselves as being. While realizing that our actually being this Buddha-figure is not-yet-happening, we imagine that it is already happening in order to rehearse being a Buddha.

Imagining Ourselves as Buddhas in Tantra Practice

Please remember the significance of this point, particularly in tantra. If we can distinguish Buddha-qualities with our teacher, we can do the same with ourselves. It’s exactly the same process. In tantra, we imagine ourselves as a Buddha, even though we know it’s not-yet-happening. Since our conventional “me” is an imputation on the entirety of our mental continuum, it is a valid imputation on the basis of this not-yet-happening point way down the line of our continuum. Because of that, we can validly designate that not-yet-happening Buddha as “me.” That’s called “holding the pride of the deity.” As with our teacher, the imputation is based on the facet of our tendencies for good qualities to give rise to a result when the appropriate circumstances are complete.

In general, in tantra, we aim to distinguish everybody as a Buddha and everything as a pure land. In that context, the person who taught us how to read and the person that first gave us information about Buddhism would be properly distinguished as Buddhas. This would be same for a dog; this is because we are focusing on the Buddha-nature qualities of all beings and seeing that everybody has the ability to be a Buddha. In this way, we’re focusing on the not-yet-happening Buddha of every being, but not yet happening now. However, as emphasized, that doesn’t mean that they already are Buddhas, and neither are we when we visualize ourselves as a Buddha and designate it as “me.”

Levels of Distinguishing Our Teachers as Buddhas

Before we’re involved with tantra, there are different levels of what it means to relate to our teacher as a Buddha. From a so-called Hinayana point of view, the teachers are like the Buddha. Buddha isn’t around to teach us nowadays, but like the Buddha, the spiritual teachers teach us and help us attain liberation. For this to work, of course, we need, in this Hinayana context as well, to have firm conviction and confidence in the teacher’s good qualities as specified in the texts. From a Mahayana point of view, we regard our teachers as emanations of a Buddha – emanated to teach and help us. However, from a tantra point of view, it’s not as though they’re like a Buddha or merely emanations of a Buddha. According to the texts, distinguishing them as Buddhas is not just a skillful device to help us. The texts say they are Buddhas. We need to understand what that means.

According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the only situation in which the spiritual teacher must literally be a Buddha is when conferring the fourth initiation in an anuttarayoga tantra initiation to a disciple who is on the final stage of the path and about to become a Buddha. The reason is that the fourth initiation empowers the disciple to cognize the two truths simultaneously, manifestly and non-conceptually. Only a Buddha has such cognition and so only a Buddha can empower someone else to gain it as well.

In all other situations in tantra, although it is a valid cognition to distinguish that the spiritual master is a Buddha, that is not to be taken literally. Any valid examination would reveal that the spiritual master, even a tantric master, is not omniscient, cannot speak every language in the universe and cannot emanate in a zillion forms. Again, it’s similar to the analogy that for the ghosts, this is pus; for humans, it is water; for the gods, it is nectar. All three are valid cognitions. So, don’t secretly think that distinguishing the teacher as a Buddha is merely a skillful, but deceptive device. It is valid.

What Can We Learn?

What follows from distinguishing our spiritual teacher as a Buddha is that once we are convinced that the teacher is only concerned with our welfare and this is the sole motivation behind their interaction with us – and this is accurate – then we see anything that they do as a teaching. We automatically think, “What can I learn from this?”

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

There is also the example when Serkong Rinpoche deliberately taught something totally incorrect in his voidness teachings to a group of Western monks and then in the next session said, “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, we would never have responded to Serkong Rinpoche’s incorrect explanation by thinking that he is stupid and doesn’t know anything about voidness. That’s not the proper response. The proper response is “What is the lesson he’s trying to teach us by explaining in an incorrect way?”

I remember an example, years ago when I complained to Serkong Rinpoche about the manner of writing in Nagarjuna’s texts. I said they were in a vague style, with so many this’s and that’s and not clear as to what they were referring to. As he often did, he scolded me, “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.” Then he explained that it’s written that way so that the students have to fill in from their own side the clarity of the meaning. It’s a teaching device.

Or another time, I remember Rinpoche explaining to me the mathematics used for calculations in Tibetan astrology. The way that Tibetans do arithmetic is very different from the way that we do arithmetic: addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, etc. My remark to Rinpoche was “This is really strange.” Again, he scolded me: “You’re so arrogant.” Arrogance was one of my biggest disturbing emotions. He explained, “It’s different. It’s not strange; it’s just different.”

The lesson is that when our teachers point out our faults and scold us, we need to look at it as a lesson they are teaching us, rather than as an indication that they are not very nice.

Appreciation of Our Teacher’s Kindness

The second aspect of a healthy attitude toward our spiritual teacher is appreciation of their kindness (gus-pa). Sometimes that term is translated as “respect.” Although in other contexts it could mean respect, if we actually examine the definition and application of the word in the context of the relation with a spiritual teacher, it really is referring to appreciation of their kindness. Of course, if we appreciate their kindness and patience in teaching us, this implies that we have respect for them because of that kindness.

We could also have that appreciation for the kindness of the teachers who taught us to read and write, or professors who gave us information about Buddhism at university, regardless of their motive. It doesn’t matter what their motive is, just doing it as a job or to make money or whatever. As for how to relate and behave toward them, in brief it is to try to support their work, help them and be respectful. In school, for example, we don’t disrupt the class, or not pay attention or fail to do homework assignments. We practice according to what they teach.

These are general principles that would apply with any teacher. We shouldn’t think that it’s just for some otherworldly level of tantra master, or like that. It’s the general guidelines for appreciating how incredible it is that we’re not born like some worm – a commonly used example of being hopeless and helpless to improve our condition because of not being able to learn anything. Everything that we’ve been taught that enables us to function as a human is due to the incredible kindness of others. What would it be like if we grew up totally isolated from everybody else and nobody taught us even how to talk? We wouldn’t know how to talk, would we? These are actually very practical guidelines.

If we look at the classic examples of the relation between the teacher and the student – the way that Marpa treated Milarepa, and so on – often we find that they hit them, yelled at them, or scolded them. I was very fortunate that I had that type of relation with Serkong Rinpoche. Although he never hit me, but he sure scolded me a lot when I acted like an idiot. You have to be very strong and mature in order to be able to withstand that type of relationship. Never to get angry with the teacher is, in a sense, part of the “contract” of the student-teacher relation in Buddhism. Remember making this unspoken contract is with the full understanding, on both sides, that the teacher is not going to abuse us or do anything to harm us in any way.

Let me give an example of the strong methods Serkong Rinpoche used with me, which were so kind and effective. Except for Kalachakra, Serkong Rinpoche would never agree to teach me anything unless I was translating it for somebody else. He wouldn’t teach it to me privately. Whatever I learned from him, it had to be in the context of studying it in order to benefit others, not just to benefit myself. This was an incredibly kind way to help me grow.

However, it seems that in general, for Westerners, being so strict is not the best method. Most Westerners suffer from low self-esteem. My problem was arrogance, not low self-esteem. The issues for Indians, Tibetans and Chinese are not often low self-esteem; that seems to be quite a Western phenomenon. Most Westerners need some reinforcement that they’re doing okay. Still, as I said, my teachers, both Serkong Rinpoche and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, used this image of not becoming like a dog waiting for a pat on the head – “Well done”– and then we wag our tail.

The Three Types of Conviction

In review, the first aspect of a healthy attitude toward our spiritual teacher is firm conviction in his or her good qualities. We have this general term depa (dad-pa), which is often translated as “faith.” That can be a very misleading translation because “faith” usually implies blind faith. Rather, the term means “to believe that a fact is true.” We’re talking about a fact, not believing in Santa Claus, or believing that the stock market is going to go up. It’s not like that. It has to be a fact and we believe that it is true. In the context of having conviction about our teacher’s good qualities, his or her having these qualities needs to be fact; and we need to be decisive about that fact.

There are three types of believing a fact to be true, such as our teacher’s good qualities:

  • Believing a fact based on reason – based on evidence, either logic or observation.
  • Clearheadedly believing a fact about something – clears our minds of disturbing emotions. To believe that it is true that our teacher has good qualities clears us of doubts, jealousy, arrogance (“I know better than you do”), anger (“You don’t have enough time for me”), and clinging to our teacher with greed and possessiveness (“I want you just for me, me, me and not for anybody else”). When we’re fully convinced of the good qualities of our teacher, we realize that such self-centered attitudes are all absurd. The teacher is there to benefit everybody, not just us.
  • Believing a fact with an aspiration concerning it – being fully convinced and respectful of these good qualities in our teacher, we aspire to try to become like that. That’s what we wish to emulate.  

There’s another relevant point here. As mentioned before, it’s not necessary that everybody who goes to a Dharma center needs to feel that the founder of the organization to which the center belongs must be their spiritual teacher. But if we do find that teacher inspires us, to “aspire to have develop their good qualities” doesn’t mean that we have to practice every single practice that the teacher engages in. Just because the teacher practices this or that yidam doesn’t mean that such practice suits us. Everybody has completely different karma, obviously. Through beginningless rebirths, we’ve studied with many different teachers in many different traditions. We have instincts for many different things, not just what one particular teacher is practicing.

Certainly, the general types of teachings and practices that the teacher has done would naturally be helpful for us, but not necessarily every detail. For 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 also one of the master debate partners of His Holiness. This meant that he was the best debater of his monastery. But for me, coming from a Harvard background, I was already absurdly logical, rational and intellectually very aggressive. My teachers knew, as did I, that if I studied debate, it would result in my becoming what I refer to as a “debate monster.” A debate monster is somebody who never knows when to stop debating and doesn’t differentiate when it’s appropriate and when it’s not appropriate. No matter what anybody says, if it’s illogical, such a person jumps and attacks, like in a debate. That’s a debate monster.

Therefore, although Serkong Rinpoche was a debate master, he never encouraged me to study debate, or taught me debate. 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.

The Kindness of Our Spiritual Teacher

The second aspect of a healthy attitude toward our spiritual teacher is appreciation for his or her kindness. There are many descriptions of how kind the teacher is. The Buddha isn’t here now teaching us. It’s our teacher who is teaching us now. In this regard, the texts say, our teachers are kinder than the Buddhas.

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

Cherishing Our Spiritual Teacher

Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, the tutor of the Seventh Dalai Lama, elaborated on this sense of appreciation of the teacher’s kindness in his Indicating Clearly the Primary Minds and Mental Factors. He said it means that we esteem and cherish the teacher and cherish their kindness. “Esteem” means that we have great respect for them. He brings in this connotation of the word, which is respect. “Cherish” means a caring type of love. This brings to light the whole discussion of whether or not it is appropriate to love our teacher. Do we really love our teacher? If so, what kind of love?”

We have already seen that we have the type of belief in our teacher’s good qualities that clears our heads of disturbing emotions toward him or her. Therefore, when we say that we cherish and love our teacher, that certainly doesn’t mean with longing desire and lust as some sort of sexual partner or that we’re possessive and want the teacher just 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 we wish for the teacher to be happy? Certainly, we do.

In terms of the behavior with the teacher, it’s common practice to make offerings, giving things to please the teacher. What pleases the teacher most is our practice. Does that fit into this context of wanting the teacher to be happy? It gets a bit delicate here because, as it says, we want to please our teacher; but the truth is that Buddhas have equanimity, like a tiger toward grass. We don’t want to please them in a childish type of way, to get approval like the example of our teacher patting our head, saying, “Good boy! Good girl!” and we wag our tail. Caringly, we love our teacher in that we would like to see that they have proper food, that they’re comfortable, have proper rest, or whatever. We are considerate of our teacher. That’s an aspect of love, isn’t it?

“Cherishing” in the Context of the Seven-Part Cause and Effect Training

But Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen uses this word usually translated as “cherish.” Where else does this word appear? It is found in the bodhichitta teachings, in the seven-part cause and effect process for developing bodhichitta.

  • It begins with the pre-step zero, not counted among the seven. This is equanimity in which we have no attraction, repulsion or indifference toward anybody. This levels out our attitude toward everybody.
  • Next, we distinguish the feature that everybody at some point has been our mother.
  • Then, we remember the kindness of motherly love, the kindness that we have received from everybody at some point. Remember, we’re appreciating the kindness that we’ve received from our spiritual teacher. But, over countless lifetimes, everybody has taught us. Everybody has been our teacher at some time or other.
  • Then, comes what’s usually translated as “repaying that kindness.” We need to be very careful with this term so as to avoid any sense of guilt for not contributing or for having a debt to repay. That is not the attitude that we’re talking about here, but rather naturally we want to balance the situation.

What follows automatically from that is that we have heartwarming love. “Heartwarming love” (yid-’ong byams-pa) is a difficult term to express. Literally, the Tibetan term is “love that comes to our minds easily.” Now here, in the explanation of this love, comes the word we are investigating. We cherish the other person, it gives us great delight to see them, and if anything bad were to happen to them, we would feel awful. This type of love follows automatically from the previous step, without having to do any further meditation. This wouldn’t make sense if we translate the previous step as “repaying the kindness.” Feeling guilty or indebted wouldn’t produce delight in seeing everybody, cherishing them, or feeling awful if anything bad happened to them. Therefore, that can’t really be the proper connotation of this previous step.

We can analyze a bit more deeply. What is the state of mind behind wanting to balance the kindness with being kind back to someone? It’s a deep sense of gratitude. We truly recognize and appreciate the kindness, and we’re so grateful for it. We feel, “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 and want you to be happy. It would be terrible if anything bad happened to you.” This is all because of that gratitude, that appreciation, in light of how kind someone has been to us.

We have this term “cherish” also in the context of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others. Instead of having this attitude toward ourselves that “I’m so great; I’m only concerned about me,” we have this attitude toward others. We care for them as much as we had self-centeredly cared for ourselves. It’s the same term.

Therefore, when we get into this discussion of what does it mean to love our teacher, we get to this term “cherish.” That’s what we find in the texts. There are no disturbing emotions with it. When we’re with our teacher, or even just think of our teacher, it “warms our hearts” and fills us with joy.

For instance, in the Vajrayogini practice there is the point where we imagine that our teacher comes to our head and dissolves into us. We find something similar in almost every practice. What is emphasized here is feeling intense joy and delight at merging with our teacher. This doesn’t mean sexually merging; it means merging the good qualities of body, speech, and mind of our teacher with our own. That’s the whole point of guru-yoga. In the Vajrayogini practice, this incredible feeling of delight and joy expands to be the size of the universe. Then, with the understanding of the voidness of that joy, our mind gets more and more subtle.

In terms of cherishing our teacher, the point is having this incredible feeling of delight and joy when we see or even just think of him or her, let alone when engaging in guru-yoga practice. The natural corollary, of course, is that we want to take care of our teacher and we would feel really horrible if anything bad happened to him or her. We want them to have the resources to be able to help others. We want to care for them if they were sick, and so on.

It isn’t easy to actually feel that joy, especially if we’re doing this merging as part of our daily practice in a sadhana, a tantric recitation practice. How do we develop it if we really have a proper relation with a spiritual teacher? It’s by appreciating our teacher’s kindness, exactly as in the seven-part bodhichitta meditation. We think of all the kindness of our teacher, which then generates a tremendous feeling of gratitude, and that automatically leads to this very joyous state of mind – heartwarming love.

Inspiration from the Teacher

What follows from all of this is the standard practice known as “making requests,” or solwa deb (gsol-ba ’debs) in Tibetan. This is found in every type of practice. 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.” That’s not an accurate translation of what we’re requesting and is from a different religious traditional point of view. The term that’s translated as “blessing” has the connotation of inspiration, brightening and uplifting our minds with more energy, chingyilab (byin-gyis rlabs) in Tibetan. In fact, then, what we’re requesting is inspiration. “Inspire me to be more compassionate or to have more understanding of my parents or my children,” or anything for which we need inspiration. We need to apply our requests to the current situations in our daily lives.

Please don’t think of inspiration as being something like a football that our teacher has and throws at us. Again, with firm conviction in the good qualities of our teacher, we remember and review their good qualities, how patient they are, how understanding they are of others. Observing and thinking of that, we become inspired to follow that example and try to be like that.

[See: “Blessings” or Inspiration?]

When our teacher has passed away, it seems in my experience that their inspiration becomes even stronger. Many people have confirmed this feeling. Serkong Rinpoche died in 1983. When our teacher is alive, they’re often in some other place, and so we might feel that they’re quite distant. But once they’ve passed away, they’re much more internalized. We feel that our teacher is with us all the time.

What is actually with us? It is the values and behavioral examples of our teacher. When faced with a difficult situation, I examine, “How would Serkong Rinpoche deal with this situation?” “What would he do?” Or I question, “How would His Holiness the Dalai Lama deal with this situation?” We can all get inspiration to try to be like our teachers. This is very helpful. Obviously, to do that requires having familiarity with how our teacher handled different situations. Often, we don’t have the chance, but if we do that’s fantastic.

So many texts say how important it is to make requests. Therefore, it’s important to understand what that means, what are we requesting and why. Inspiration from our spiritual teacher is often called the root of the path. It’s what gives us energy; it grounds us and gives us stability. We know that others have followed this spiritual path before us. We’re not alone.

Question Regarding Oral Transmission

Can you explain a little bit on the topic of oral transmission in general and, more specifically, how 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 originally none of the teachings were written down. The only way to learn the teachings would have been to have heard them from Shakyamuni Buddha himself or to have listened to them being recited by later generations of disciples. That involves memorization; somebody has memorized it and then others hear it over and over again so that they can memorize it too. Even today, we find among the Tibetans that they all memorize the texts before they study them. They memorize the pujas as well.

There are three types of discriminating awareness that arise: first from hearing, then from thinking and then from meditating. To start with, we need to be very decisive about the words of the teachings we hear. We need to discriminate that they are accurate; these are the actual words of the teachings and we’ve heard them correctly. Then we can start thinking about them and try to understand them.

Because of that, we first need to have the oral transmission from someone who has memorized the teaching correctly. We hear it and, when we listen, we of course have to pay attention, not fall asleep, etc. Then, eventually we can memorize the words and pass the teaching on to next generations. That is the context within which this custom of oral transmission arose.

I used to think that the person who gave the oral transmission actually had to understand the text; and thereby the person who received it got inspired. If this person reciting this text really understands it, we would gain confidence that we could understand it too. But I found out that was incorrect.

The old Serkong Rinpoche’s father, the first Serkong Dorjechang, was one of the greatest yogis of the beginning of the last century. He is in the Kalachakra lineage. One of Tsongkhapa’s most difficult texts is Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po, or the Essence of Good Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings in English. Although there’s a lineage and oral transmission from Tsongkhapa himself, Serkong Dorjechang had a vision of Tsongkhapa during a retreat, in which Tsongkhapa in this vision gave him another special transmission of the text.

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

But, the old Serkong Rinpoche died before ever doing this. A few years ago, the reincarnation, the young tulku who is now twenty-seven, said he really wanted to receive this transmission. I’m very close with him, as I was with the old one. He was looking around for someone who had this transmission to be able to give it to him.

It turned out that I was pretty much the only one left who actually had the oral transmission of this from his predecessor, the old Serkong Rinpoche. He’d given it to a very small group of three people, and I was one of them. What was even more incredible was that he gave the oral transmission from memory, in the classic form, not from reading the text. However, although I had the oral transmission, I had never actually studied or even read the text.

I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama if I could give the oral transmission. His Holiness explained, “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.” I practiced reciting the text out loud until I could read it at a sufficient speed so that it wouldn’t be a torture for him to listen to it. I didn’t memorize it. Then, I made a special trip to India to see Rinpoche and gave him the oral transmission. What was really nice was that a few months ago in Bodh Gaya, Rinpoche gave the oral transmission for the first time. He gave it to a group of Tibetans, including Lama Zopa and Dagri Rinpoche. It’s very nice that now it’s being carried on.

Was I passing on the blessings of this text? I couldn’t say that. Was there some inspiration? There certainly wasn’t any inspiration from my own understanding or realization, as I never even studied the text. But there is some sort of inspiration from the fact that there is continuity. It certainly does have a benefit. They always say that if we receive the oral transmission, this will act as a circumstance to help us understand the text better. Because of that, it is always helpful to receive an oral transmission several times.

Original Audio from the Seminar