Developing a Healthy Attitude toward One's Teacher

By studying the Buddhist path with spiritual teachers, we learn the teachings and the various methods for applying them to our lives. We train in these methods to bring about positive self-transformations. The process of change is never linear. Emotional and spiritual growth comes only slowly, in a seemingly chaotic pattern. For a time, we may see some improvement, but then a crisis or just a passing dark mood may cause a temporary decline. Although short periods inevitably contain their ups and downs due to the enormous diversity of our karmic potentials and the fleeting circumstances that we meet, patterns of growth slowly emerge if we persevere.

Inspiration from our spiritual teachers helps to sustain and energize our practices as we pass through the vicissitudes of daily life. Sutra-level guru-meditation from the Kadam tradition provides an accessible method for gaining inspiration from all levels of teachers, from Buddhism professors to tantric masters. Just as the Kadam lojong teachings serve as common material for all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, similarly the Kadam style of guru-meditation suits practitioners from any tradition and at all levels of practice. For ease of expression, let us outline the practice in terms of the developing a healthy attitude in a relationship with a spiritual mentor.

Focusing on Good Qualities while Not Denying Shortcomings

The main body of the Kadam guru-meditation begins with reminding oneself of the benefits of focusing on the good qualities of one's mentor and the drawbacks of dwelling on his or her faults. The assumption is that any spiritual teacher we meet inevitably has a mixture of strong and weak points. Pundarika's voice was not alone in stating this point. Buddha himself acknowledged the fact in A Cloud of Jewels Sutra. In quoting these sources in their discussions of spiritual mentors, Tsongkhapa, Kongtrul, and other great Tibetan masters have clearly shown their agreement.

Although everyone has strong and weak points, inspiration comes from focusing only on someone's positive qualities. Dwelling on a person's faults and complaining about them merely angers, saddens, or disillusions us. It is not an uplifting activity, nor does it bring any joy. Therefore, to gain inspiration from spiritual teachers, Sangwejin taught that we need to focus solely on their good qualities, regardless of how many faults they might have.

Tsongkhapa clarified the process. Focusing only on a mentor's good qualities does not mean that the person has only good qualities. The meditation does not ask disciples to deny the shortcomings that their mentors actually have, but simply to stop dwelling on them. For example, Serlingpa, Atisha's Sumatran mentor, accepted as the supreme view of voidness the explanation given by the Chittamatra (Mind-Only) school of Buddhist tenets. Atisha, on the other hand, took the Prasangika-Madhyamaka explication to be the most accurate. The Kadam founder never denied this difference in their understandings of reality. Nevertheless, because Serlingpa was the main teacher responsible for his development of bodhichitta, Atisha repeatedly praised his mentor's compassion and kindness as continuing sources of inspiration.

The Analogy with Looking out a Window at a Passerby

The process of focusing exclusively on a mentor's good qualities while not denying his or her faults resembles the process of looking out the ground-floor window of a house at someone walking past. The viewer sees only the upper part of a body passing by. This does not mean that the passerby lacks the lower half of a torso and legs. The incompleteness of the viewer's vision arises from a restriction in his or her point of view. Similarly, when we focus in meditation on our mentors' good qualities, it is as if we went into a house and looked out a window: we no longer perceive our teachers' shortcomings. The faults still exist, but the restricted viewpoints of our minds in meditation prevent us from seeing the two simultaneously.

Moreover, the restrictions imposed by the window make what the viewer sees seem to exist in an impossible way. The passerby seems to exist as a person with only an upper part of a body, although of course the viewer knows this is absurd. Similarly, because of being restricted, our minds give rise to deceptive appearances. For example, if we were to focus on our mentors' shortcomings, they would deceptively appear at that moment to be the only qualities that they have. We know this is true from ordinary life. When we are annoyed with a friend's behavior and dwell on the person's mistakes, we lose all sight of our friend's good qualities. Therefore, to avoid dwelling on our mentors' shortcomings, we focus in meditation only on their good qualities. Although the restricted scopes of our minds in meditation make the good qualities appear as if they were the only qualities that our mentors have, nevertheless we know the deceptive appearance comes from focusing singularly on good qualities.

Further, although looking at a passerby out a window requires missing the sight of the lower part of the person's body, the situation is temporary. After stepping outside, a viewer again sees the entire body of any passerby. Similarly, although focusing in meditation on only our mentors' good qualities requires temporarily ignoring shortcomings, their faults appear again after we arise from meditation. Now, however, we see our mentors as whole people, with both strong and weak points. Seeing both sides of our mentors prevents us from exaggerating either of the two.

How to Meditate on a Mentor's Good Qualities

Kadam guru-meditation asks disciples to focus on cultivating and making a habit of two mental actions: feeling deeply convinced of the good qualities of their mentors and appreciating their kindness. Consciously feeling this way about the qualities and kindness of their mentors creates states of mind conducive for gaining inspiration. The process works, however, only if disciples meditate properly.

In A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, Tsongkhapa explained that correct meditation requires clarity about two points: what specifically to focus on and how to regard the object of focus. Otherwise, to use a Western example, if someone wished to paint a picture of an orange, the person might mistakenly focus on an apple rather than on an orange. Moreover, he or she might regard the orange as a snack to eat rather than as an object to paint.

Therefore, after reminding ourselves of the benefits of focusing on our mentors' good qualities and the drawbacks of dwelling on their faults, we continue our guru-meditation by imagining our mentors or looking at photos of them, and distinguishing their strong points, as we understand them. Distinguishing (dushe’du-shes; Skt. saṃjñā), usually translated as recognition, is one of the five aggregate factors (Skt. skandha) that comprise each moment of our experience. It refers to the mental action of differentiating within a field of awareness certain elements from the rest so that we may focus specifically on them. To focus visually on an orange, for example, we need to distinguish within our fields of vision the shape and color of the fruit from everything else that appears. Consequently, anything other than the orange fades into the background and the fruit appears to be prominent. Similarly, here we distinguish our mentors' good qualities from everything else about them. In doing so, the qualities stand out and our mentors' shortcomings drop to the background.

The focal object of the meditation, then, is the mentors' good qualities. The way in which we focus on them is through believing that these qualities are there and that the person actually has them. Believing (depa, dad-pa), usually translated as faith, means varying things to different people in diverse cultures. Let us examine the classical Buddhist definition in the hope of bringing about a rectification of terms. We shall use as our basis Vasubandhu and Asanga's discussions, as presented by Yeshe Gyaltsen, the tutor of the Seventh Dalai Lama, in Indicating Clearly the Primary Minds and Mental Factors.

The Definition of Believing

The Buddhist discussion of believing refers neither to beliefs as mental objects that someone passively holds, nor to belief or faith as a general state of mind that characterizes a "believer." Rather, as Asanga explained, believing is the constructive mental action of focusing on something existent and knowable, and considering it either existent or true, or considering a fact about it true. Thus, it does not include believing that an unknowable God or Santa Claus exists or that the moon is made of green cheese. Further, believing a fact occurs only while validly cognizing it and implies certitude. Therefore, believing also excludes presumption and blind faith, such as believing that the stock market will rise.

There are three ways of believing a fact to be true. (1) Clearheadedly believing a fact about something is a mental action that is clear about a fact and which, like a water purifier, constructively clears the mind. Vasubandhu specified that it clears the mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes toward its object. (2) Believing a fact based on reason is the mental action of considering a fact about something to be true on the basis of thinking about reasons that prove it. (3) Believing a fact with an aspiration concerning it is the mental action of considering true both a fact about something and that one can achieve the goal of an aspiration one consequently holds about the object.

Asanga further explained that believing a fact to be true acts as the basis for inciting intention. Intention, in turn, serves as the basis for positive enthusiasm to accomplish a goal.

The Three Ways of Believing That a Mentor Has Good Qualities

In explaining sutra-level guru-meditation, Tsongkhapa specified that disciples need to focus on the good qualities that their mentors actually have, while believing clearheadedly that the mentors truly have them. In delineating only one way of believing these qualities to be a fact, he followed Vasubandhu's presentation of the constructive mental action of believing. Sangwejin, however, mentioned all three ways of believing as part of his general discussion of the spiritual path. Therefore, applying all three ways of believing in a mentor's qualities to guru-meditation seems an appropriate elaboration for gaining more inspiration, a stronger intention, and greater enthusiasm. We shall follow the order that Yeshe Gyaltsen used for the three, since they form a logical progression:

(1) After distinguishing our mentors' good qualities, we focus on them first while believing clearheadedly that they actually have them. In other words, these qualities are clear to us from having examined our mentors' behavior and character. The more we focus on the qualities and clearheadedly believe them to be a fact, the more we cleanse our minds of disturbing emotions and attitudes toward our mentors, such as arrogance or doubts about the person.

(2) Once we are able to focus clearheadedly on our mentors' actual good qualities and are clear that they have them, we recall what "having good qualities" means. The Sanskrit term for good qualities, guna, also appears in the non-Buddhist Samkhya school of philosophy as the name for the three universal constituents – intelligence, energy, and mass (Skt. sattva, rajas, and tamas) – that form an intrinsic part of every phenomenon. In Buddhism, however, the term refers to the good qualities that, as aspects of Buddha-nature, are the intrinsic potentials or properties of the clear light mind. The Tibetan translation yonten (yon-tan) means literally the correction of a deficiency. The implication is that, although everyone has the same potentials, realization of them comes through strengthening one's natural abilities in order to overcome shortcomings.

Reminding ourselves of the connotation of the Tibetan term yonten enables us to think next about how our mentors gained their qualities through following a process of behavioral cause and effect. Our mentors have become qualified spiritual teachers as the result of intensively training in Dharma. Moreover, we know that our mentors definitely have good qualities, based on irrefutable evidence – our personal experience of the positive effect that our teachers have had on others and on us. Thus, we focus on our mentors' good qualities while believing even more strongly, based on sound reason, that their possession of these qualities is a fact. Our minds are totally free of arrogance or doubts.

(3) Clearheaded about our mentors' good qualities and knowing that they have gained them through a process of behavioral cause and effect, we focus next on these features while believing something about them involving our aspirations. We believe that these qualities are something that we too are able to attain, based on our Buddha-natures and appropriate effort. Moreover, by seeing how much our mentors have helped others and us by having these qualities, we believe them to be something that we need to attain and that we shall strive to attain to help others too. The constructive mental action of believing this about our mentors' good qualities strengthens our development of bodhichitta – the mental action of focusing on enlightenment with the strong intention to attain it for the benefit of all. This intention, in turn, serves as the basis for positive enthusiasm to attain the same good qualities as our mentors have.

The Constructive State of Mind That Results from Believing a Fact

As a constructive mental action, believing a fact is free of disturbing emotions such as naivety, doubt, attachment, resentment, pride, and jealousy. Thus, in clearheadedly believing, based on good reason, that our mentors have good qualities as the result of their efforts, with an aspiration that we can and shall attain them ourselves, our minds are free of naivety (Skt. moha) about our potentials and about what we need to do in order to realize them. Our minds are also free of indecision about the matter. While focusing on our mentor's qualities, we neither desperately long to possess our teachers as exclusively ours, nor obsessively long to be part of their inner circles. We do not resent the fact that they have these qualities, nor do we hate ourselves for being inadequate in comparison. We do not arrogantly feel that we lack deficiencies that need correcting, nor do we depressingly feel that our shortcomings are so numerous that we have no chance of success. Further, the mental action of believing that our mentors have good qualities and that we shall attain them ourselves lacks any jealousy toward our teachers or toward our fellow-disciples. Our minds are sober and clear, free of emotional obstacles that would prevent our attaining our mentors' positive features.

Vasubandhu further added that having a sense of values (ngotsa shepa, ngo-tsha shes-pa) and scruples (trelyo, ’khrel-yod) always accompanies constructive mental activity. Thus, in believing as fact our mentors' good qualities and our ability to attain these features ourselves, we have a sense of values that includes appreciation and esteem for positive qualities and for persons possessing them. Our sense of values also implies that we stand in healthy awe (jigpa, ’jigs-pa) of our mentors. This does not mean that we are terrified of our teachers or that we are stiff, awkward, and humorless when with them. Rather, our respect and awe make us naturally tame and reserved in their presence.

Moreover, we have a sense of scruples that causes us to be horrified at the idea of behaving in a manner that spiritual persons would decry. The horror we feel, however, is not disturbing. It differs greatly from being terrified that we might act improperly and be rejected as a "bad person," which would only make us self-conscious and anxious. Rather, our horror at the idea of acting improperly spurs us on to constructive behavior.

Asanga explained ngotsa shepa as a sense of honor and trelyo as a sense of shame. Clearheadedly believing our mentors' good qualities to be a fact contains a sense of honor or self-pride that prevents us from denigrating or making fools of ourselves. It further contains a sense of shame that keeps us from acting in negative or ridiculous ways that would disgrace, embarrass, or disappoint those whom we most respect – our families, our teachers, our friends. We refrain from acting in these shameful ways both in general and specifically in our relationships with our mentors.

The Relation between Believing a Fact to Be True and Liking It

Vasubandhu explained that believing a fact to be true does not imply necessarily being happy about it. For example, believing that life is difficult does not mean that we like the fact. On the other hand, in believing the fact that our mentors have good qualities, we may delight in this fact and like them. Liking someone and delighting in his or her qualities, however, may occur together with a disturbing emotion or attitude, or they may be free of both. For example, we may delight in our newborns' being cute, but because of attachment, we cannot restrain ourselves from showing baby pictures to everyone we meet. The type of pleasure that we take in our mentors' good qualities, however, needs to be free of any disturbing emotion or attitude, just as our believing their possession of these qualities to be a fact needs to be free of both.

Asanga indicated another reason why liking someone and clearheadedly believing the facts about the person do not necessarily coincide. For example, we may meet charlatans who claim to be spiritual teachers. We may think that they are highly qualified, when in fact they are pretentious frauds. Although we may like the charlatans greatly, trust them as our teachers, and even find them inspiring, our beliefs about their qualities are false. This is not unusual. In the business world, people often are swindled by frauds whom they find likeable and trustworthy. Liking someone does not guarantee that we regard the person's qualities correctly.

Guru-meditation, then, does not ask us to believe something false about a teacher to be true. The meditation is free of both naivety and incorrect consideration. Even if we like a teacher, we need to regard his or her qualities correctly, without interpolating features or abilities that the person lacks, or exaggerating, underestimating, or denying those that he or she in fact possesses. For example, we would not imagine that our mentors have the omnipotent power to liberate us from all our problems. Although considering our mentors truly to have this ability may give us comfort and may make us feel happy, the happiness that we feel is disturbing because naivety and false hope underlie it. Disappointment and disillusionment inevitably destroy it.

Being Firmly Convinced of a Fact

Believing the fact that one's mentor has good qualities – clearheadedly, based on reason, and with aspiration – naturally leads to the principal mental activity intended for this phase of guru-meditation. The activity is to focus on the qualities of one's mentor with a firm conviction (mopa, mos-pa) that they are a fact. Let us look more deeply at this technical term. It appears as the first component of the Tibetan compound mogu (mos-gus), the main attitude or feeling needed for relating to a spiritual mentor in a healthy manner with one's thoughts.

Vasubandhu defined mopa as the mental action of apprehending an object of focus as having a good quality. The good quality he meant was the object being interesting enough that one would want to stay focused on it. As a general mental action, it accompanies focusing on anything and its strength may vary from strong to weak. Thus, the mental action corresponds to taking interest in an object while focusing on it.

Asanga, on the other hand, interpreted good qualities in the definition as meaning to be true. Thus, he restricted the scope of mopa and explained it as a mental action that occurs while believing a fact about its object of focus. Thus, Asanga explained being firmly convinced of something as a mental action that focuses on a fact that one has validly ascertained to be like this and not like that. Its function is to make one's belief so firm that others' arguments or opinions will not dissuade one. Shantideva added that firm conviction in a fact grows from long-term familiarity with the consequences that consistently follow from it.

Being firmly convinced of a fact, then, does not arise from blind faith. It requires valid cognition. In Engaging in the Middle Way, Chandrakirti gave three criteria for validating the cognition of a fact.

(1) Appropriate convention must accept the fact to be what one considers it to be. Here, the mentors' features on which we focus must be those that the Buddhist literature agrees to be requisite qualities of spiritual mentors. If businesspeople consider these features as assets for teachers to possess in order to attract large audiences – for instance, that they be entertaining and adept at telling good jokes – their convention does not validate our considering the features positive qualities. The convention of people interested in fame and profit is inappropriate for the situation.

(2) A mind that validly cognizes the conventional phenomenon on which one focuses must not contradict what one considers true about it. Suppose that objective people who know us well correctly see that a certain quality of one of our teachers, such as an authoritarian, feudal manner, is having a negative effect on us. Their valid perception would invalidate our considering this feature to be self-assuredness and our believing it to be a positive quality.

(3) A mind that validly cognizes the deepest way in which things exist also must not contradict what one considers true. Regarding our mentors' abilities as inherently existent in them, as if our teachers were almighty Gods, is an invalid cognition. A mind that correctly sees how things exist knows that good qualities do not exist in that way. Good qualities arise through behavioral cause and effect, by correcting deficiencies.

Appreciating the Kindness of a Mentor

After focusing on the actual good qualities of one's mentor with firm conviction that they are a fact, sutra-level guru-meditation continues with the mental action of "appreciating" (gupa, gus-pa). As the second part of the compound mogu, appreciating requires focusing with continual mindfulness on our mentors' kindness, for instance their kindness in teaching us methods for overcoming our suffering. Appreciating this kindness, according to Vasubandhu, means regarding it with a sense of values – in other words, valuing it with a sense of awe. Yeshe Gyaltsen amplified the meaning: the mental action also entails cherishing and esteeming the kindness. As in the case of believing a fact, appreciating someone's kindness is free of disturbing emotions and attitudes such as pride, attachment, or the guilt of feeling that we do not deserve the kindness.

Appreciating the kindness of one's mentor, then, contains a positive emotional aspect to it. Appreciation entails feeling from the depths of our hearts profound respect and intense love for our mentors because of their kindness. Love, here, does not carry its usual Buddhist meaning of wishing someone to be happy. Nor does it imply feeling affection. Rather, love for one's mentor is the heartwarming, uplifting, serenely joyous feeling one has for the person, based on admiration and respect. It neither inflates the mentor's qualities or kindness, nor perturbs the disciple's mind.

For example, in guru-meditation we may think of our mentors' good qualities of selfless generosity to help us, purely for the sake of our becoming happier people. Firmly convinced of this fact, we focus on their selfless kindness in teaching us with this pure motivation. Gratitude, respect, and love imbue the appreciation we feel. The Tibetan texts describe the feeling as so intense that it causes the hairs to stand erect on our bodies.

Vasubandhu pointed out that appreciating someone for being kind does not mean necessarily liking or delighting in the person. We may appreciate the kindness of someone else's spiritual mentor, but not particularly like this teacher or delight in his or her company. In the case of our own mentors, however, we would both appreciate and delight in them. To like someone as a spiritual mentor implies not only believing that the person has the good qualities that he or she in fact possesses, but also believing that the person is the right mentor for us, based on reason.

Requesting Inspiration

In Ocean of Quotations Explaining Well [Drikungpa's] "The Essence of the Mahayana Teachings," Ngoje Repa, the Drikung Kagyu founder's disciple, explained the necessity of requesting inspiration. If disciples are firmly convinced of the good qualities of their mentors and appreciate deeply their kindness, they may develop these qualities to a limited extent. However, without consciously requesting inspiration always to have these qualities without decline, they lack the inspiring energy to enhance them further. Thus, as the final step in sutra-style guru-meditation, disciples need to request inspiration and try to feel that they receive it.

The mental action of making a request (solwadeb, gsol-ba ’debs) involves not only fervently wishing for something from someone, but also offering the person one's total openness to receive and to hold what one wishes to obtain. Thus, many factors contribute to gaining inspiration from our spiritual mentors. First, we clearheadedly believe, based on reason, that the good qualities that we see in our mentors are a fact. Moreover, we believe, with aspiration, that we can and shall achieve these qualities ourselves, and we focus with firm conviction on this as an indisputable fact. We value, esteem, and appreciate our mentors for their kindness, and feel gratitude, love, and joy when focusing on them and on their qualities and kindness. These mental actions, plus our strong wish to be uplifted, make us open and receptive to receiving inspiration. The fact that, as a facet of our Buddha-natures, various objects can move our minds completes the complex of causes and circumstances that allow the process of inspiration to occur.

In Actualizing Through One's Guru: The Expansive Sun of Compassion, Tsangpa Gyare, the founder of the Drugpa Kagyu lineage, explained as a prerequisite for requesting inspiration the importance of disciples' identifying their faults and shortcomings and disparaging themselves for possessing them. Proud people never think about developing good qualities or to enhance the ones that they have. This instruction suits traditional Tibetans who, as typical mountain people, tend to be rough, independent, stubborn, and proud. They need to look at their own faults. Westerners, on the other hand, come from completely different cultural backgrounds. Most of us suffer from low self-esteem. Focusing on our shortcomings contrasted to our mentors' good qualities may simply make us feel worse about ourselves. Therefore, perhaps a prerequisite more appropriate for Westerners before requesting the inspiration to develop and enhance good qualities might be reaffirming our strong points and potentials for growth.

The Seven-Part Invocation

In The Profound Path of Guru-Yoga, Sakya Pandita explained that strong, extensive networks of positive potentials and deep awareness facilitate developing firm conviction in and appreciation of a spiritual mentor. Thus, to strengthen the two networks, all forms of guru-yoga take as their preliminary step the offering of a seven-part invocation. The practice becomes most effective when we invoke and take as focal objects our spiritual mentors to represent the Triple Gem.

As mentioned earlier, the seven parts of the practice are: prostrating, making offerings, admitting mistakes, rejoicing in the virtues of others, requesting teaching, beseeching the gurus not to pass away, and dedicating the positive potential built up by the practice. Prostration is a sign of respect, not a self-demeaning act of worship. Because of firm conviction in our mentors' good qualities and deep appreciation of their kindness, prostrating to our teachers is heartfelt. The respect and homage that we pay through prostration come from personal experience of a living individual. Consequently, they are more sincere than what we might feel regarding Buddhas and bodhisattvas, even if we know their enlightening biographies (namtar, rnam-thar). Similarly, when we make offerings to our mentors, we do so because of total love and respect for them. We may be stingy with others, but never with our own children or beloved partners. The same is true with offering generously to our spiritual mentors.

Admitting our mistakes and promising to try to avoid repeating them become more meaningful when done to our spiritual mentors rather than to anyone else. The promise makes a deeper impression on us because we are working with our mentors on our self-development. Further, when we rejoice in the virtues of others, if we focus specifically on our mentors' qualities and deeds, the happiness we feel is greater than when focusing on the virtues of someone with whom we have had no personal contact. We know of our mentors' qualities from personal experience and, because of our close relationships, we naturally take pride and rejoice.

Requesting the gurus to teach and beseeching them not to pass away take on personal relevance and become more poignant when directed toward our own mentors. Lastly, when we dedicate the positive potential built up by the practice toward gaining the good qualities that we see in our mentors, we naturally aim to become Buddhas to help others as effectively as our mentors do. Thus, our practices enhance our development of bodhichitta.

The seven-part invocation also helps us to strengthen our networks of deep awareness. When we admit our mistakes, regret them, promise to try to avoid repeating them, reaffirm the positive direction we are taking in life, and direct the positive potential we build to counteract our shortcomings, we start to overcome our feelings of guilt. Guilt comes from identifying oneself as inherently bad for having made mistakes and from believing that one is permanently flawed. We also reaffirm our deep awareness of the absence of impossible ways of existing and our conviction in behavioral cause and effect when we rejoice in our mentors' good qualities. We see that they have resulted from the correction of inadequacies and that with sufficient effort we may attain these qualities as well.

The more we focus on our deep conviction in our mentors' qualities and on our appreciation of their kindness, the more effective our seven-part invocation practices directed toward our mentors become. The more heartfelt our seven-part practices, the more effectively they enhance our conviction in and appreciation of our mentors. Thus, practicing the preliminary seven-part invocation and training in the main body of guru-meditation form a feedback loop. They mutually reinforce and strengthen each other.

Practicing Guru-Meditation before Finding a Spiritual Mentor

Many spiritual seekers are not yet ready to become the disciples of spiritual mentors. Their present levels of commitment may suit working only with Buddhism professors, Dharma instructors, or meditation or ritual trainers. Even if they are ready to commit themselves to the Buddhist path and to spiritual mentors, they may not yet have found properly qualified mentors. Alternatively, the spiritual teachers available to them may be properly qualified and may even have shown them great kindness. Yet, none seem right to be their mentors. They feel they can relate to them only as their Buddhism professors. Nevertheless, the Kadam style of guru-meditation may still help such seekers to gain inspiration from these teachers at the present stages of their spiritual paths.

Unless our spiritual teachers are total charlatans or complete scoundrels, all of them have at least some good qualities and exhibit at least some level of kindness. Our Buddhism professors, Dharma instructors, or meditation or ritual trainers may lack the qualities of great spiritual mentors. Still, they have some knowledge of the Dharma, some insight from applying the Dharma to life, or some technical expertise in the practice. Our teachers are kind to instruct us, even if their motivations contain the wish to earn a living. If we correctly discern and acknowledge whatever qualities and levels of kindness that our professors, instructors, or trainers in fact possess, we may derive inspiration, through guru-meditation, by focusing on them with conviction and appreciation.

Similarly, we may gain inspiration by reading the enlightening biographies of previous great masters and then taking these figures as focal objects for guru-meditation. Even when we have mentors, focusing on them in the form of the founding figures of their lineage helps us to gain even more inspiration. Practitioners of Karma Kagyu or Gelug guru-yoga, for example, regularly use the form of Gampopa or Tsongkhapa. Through such methods, we understand better the causal chain that has accounted for successive mentors to gain their qualities over the generations. With appropriate effort, we may forge the next link in the chain.

Meditating in these ways is far more constructive than bemoaning the fact that we have not yet found a spiritual mentor. In fact, the inspiration we gain may help us to find and to recognize appropriate mentors who suit our disposition and needs. In Buddhist terminology, guru-meditation practiced before finding a mentor "builds up merit." By making us more positive-minded, it strengthens our positive potentials for gaining happiness and constructive growth.