The Fifth Dalai Lama’s Guidelines for Guru-Yoga

Review of the Qualities of a Spiritual Teacher

A guru is a great teacher, a great spiritual master or mentor, someone who is not only able to teach from knowledge of the texts but is also able to teach us by his or her own example. A living example of what Buddha has taught, a guru is someone who has sincere love and compassion. This furthers disciples’ and everybody’s ability to be happy, to avoid being unhappy, to get rid of their sufferings, and so on. A guru is someone who is totally motivated only by wishing to help others. This is very essential. It must be someone who is not interested in exploiting students for money, fame, sex, love, attention, or whatever. It’s someone whose behavior is ethical, though not necessarily a monk or a nun, and who has good concentration and good understanding of the teachings, particularly about voidness. As a result of that good understanding of voidness, the guru must have a minimal burden of disturbing emotions, since it is difficult to imagine that anyone would have none. Also, they should have some level of ability to teach, to explain things clearly with patience and enthusiasm, and not get discouraged by the slower students and by needing to repeat all the time. 

All the texts say that it is going to be very difficult to find somebody who has all the qualifications. The main thing is to find someone who has a maximum amount of the qualifications. We are not going to find somebody who is absolutely perfect, so we need to be realistic. The teacher, very importantly, needs to be honest about his or her own good qualities and shortcomings and not pretend to have qualities they don’t have or hide the shortcomings that they do have. The same thing with the students. Neither need to go into personal intimate details about their life; that is not the point. The point is to be open in terms of one’s character.

We see this with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness will explain very difficult things in tremendous detail. However, when he reaches a word or a passage in a text that he doesn’t understand, he says very clearly, “I don’t understand what this means. This is unclear.” Then, he asks the great masters around him when he’s teaching, “What do you think it means?” Sometimes somebody can actually answer the question and His Holiness will debate with him in terms of questioning what that person who answers says. His Holiness is always open to learning; he always admits when he doesn’t understand something. He is, and everybody agrees on this, the most learned and advanced of any of the Tibetans. That is clear. 

Because His Holiness will admit that, in this complicated and difficult text, there are two passages that he doesn’t understand, we – myself and others I have spoken to – are more confident that he does, in fact, understand everything else. Probably nobody understands those two passages. It could be a mistake in the text. A mistake often happens because of some copy error made centuries ago when it was all handwritten, or when the Tibetan translation from the Sanskrit is incorrect. We should not think that all texts are absolutely accurate and correct. If we check back with the Sanskrit text, we can still find mistakes, which could come either from a shortcoming of the translator or because they were using a different manuscript. There weren’t standard versions of these texts in Sanskrit. Serkong Rinpoche used to emphasize, “Always question anything that doesn’t make sense. Don’t just accept it; investigate.” Even if it is in a scripture, it is not holy. Don’t think that these are simply holy words, and we must never investigate deeper. There can be mistakes in them. 

So, when we speak about guru-yoga, “yoga” means to yoke ourselves or join ourselves with the authentic thing, meaning with the Buddha-nature qualities of the teacher. We are not yoking with the teacher’s shortcomings. If the teacher is not very well qualified, but still the person has more qualifications than shortcomings, we can gain a great deal of inspiration and help from us joining with those good qualities. “Joining” means to gain inspiration and strength from them, so as to move us to realize these qualities ourselves on the basis of the Buddha-nature qualities in the guru and the Buddha-nature qualities in ourselves. That is the essence of guru-yoga. 

If we see that we can gain inspiration from the good qualities of the teacher, then we can also understand how we can see everybody as our teacher. We can learn from everybody, including the dog. The dog, no matter how much we might yell at the dog for making a mess or doing this or that, and no matter how strongly we might discipline the dog, the dog remains loyal and loves us. So, we can gain inspiration from the dog as our teacher. Even if we learned from somebody not to act the way that they do, we learned from them not to make that same mistake. It actually makes a great deal of sense, and it is quite profound to see everybody as our teacher. There is no benefit to dwelling on the shortcomings or mistakes of our teachers. Likewise, we should not do that with anybody. There’s no benefit unless we are trying to help them to correct and to overcome their shortcomings, but then our motivation has to be proper and altruistic. 

I am repeating and emphasizing this because many of us don’t have the ideal teacher, one who can really inspire us very deeply. We do have other teachers, and we can still do guru-yoga in terms of them, and not only in terms of the founding figure of our lineage. That is one very standard and very helpful way to approach the practice also, whether it is Tsongkhapa, Guru Rinpoche, Drikungpa Jigten Gonpo, or whoever the founding figure might be. If we do the practice with a founding figure, we still need to know something about the biography of this figure. Otherwise, the figure really is not very meaningful or inspiring as an example. However, with our less-than-tremendously-inspiring teachers, I still think that we can certainly apply guru-yoga and gain some level of inspiration, because we certainly do at least learn something from them. If we are not learning anything from them, why are we going to the teacher? Just because they happened to be at our Dharma center and other people go is not a sufficient reason, if we are not learning anything from the teacher. I think Sakya Pandita said, “We shouldn’t be like a dog − when all the other dogs bark, it starts barking too.” 

Recognizing the Teacher’s Shortcomings

We began the discussion of the practice of guru-yoga, or guru meditation, and I mentioned that there is a sutra level of it and a tantra level. The tantra level just adds a few more things to the sutra level. It is not that the tantra level is an alternative to the sutra level, just that it adds something to it. The sutra level helps us to establish the proper feeling, the proper attitude of mind, and then the tantra level just adds some graphic details and other things that help with gaining the inspiration. The tantra level also adds our imagining that we are receiving initiation again from the spiritual teacher. However, without the basis of the proper feeling and attitude, which is established through the sutra meditation, the whole thing just becomes, shall we say, entertaining visualizations; there is very little content to it. It simply degenerates into entertaining visualizations if there is no emotional content to it or feeling behind it. If there is no generation of the proper attitude toward the teacher behind it, we might as well be visualizing Mickey Mouse! 

Now, we are speaking about the sutra-level practice. We started with the seven-part practice to build up some positive force. There is no need to repeat that description – prostration, offering, etc. Then, following this, we reminded ourselves of the advantages of focusing on the guru’s good qualities and the disadvantages of dwelling and becoming fixated on their faults. The next step comes from the Fifth Dalai Lama’s lam-rim text. There he says that we need to bring to mind or remind ourselves of the teacher’s shortcomings, and clear away any inaccuracies that might be in our thoughts, that may just be our projections. 

These shortcomings don’t have to be about the person sometimes getting angry, or impatient, or scolding others, as this might not actually be a shortcoming. My teacher scolded me all the time. It was done very compassionately to help me, and it was very appropriate, but there might be other aspects of the teacher that seem like gross shortcomings. “The teacher can’t really teach me this particular topic that I would like to learn,” for example. It can also be something like, “My teacher doesn’t have much time for me. My teacher travels all the time. My teacher is very busy with other students.” It might not be a shortcoming in the sense of their qualifications, but it is something that makes us dissatisfied. Another shortcoming can be that they don’t know our language – that’s another gripe that often really disturbs many of us.

The important point is to bring up these emotions that we might have of dissatisfaction, of criticism, and so on, so that we can deal with them and clear them out and not be hindered by them. If we don’t really deal with them, they can undermine our attitude toward the teacher. The Fifth Dalai Lama is a very good psychologist in understanding this. When we focus on the good qualities of the teacher, it doesn’t mean that we go into total denial about the shortcomings. That’s not healthy. It also helps if the teacher is honest about these shortcomings. We clear away these conventional inaccuracies. We have to check if there is something in our thinking about this that is true or not true. Is there other evidence about this shortcoming? Is the teacher giving a lot of time to another student, and not to us? Well, maybe we are not so receptive as the other student. It could be due to us. Many of us imagine that we are Milarepas when we’re not. 

Another example would be to think that the teacher doesn’t understand something, whereas, in fact, they are simplifying it in order to make it easier for us to understand. The inaccuracy is due to our projection. We think that the teacher is stupid because our teacher is explaining on such a simple level. Well, the fact is that they do understand it much more deeply, but there is no way that we could understand it if they explained on the level that they understand it, so they are simplifying it for us. Thus, it is our projection. 

A very good example is when we listen to a Tibetan teacher who speaks not very good English, and they explain themselves in English, and we conclude that what they say reveals all that they know. But if we knew Tibetan, if we spoke with them in Tibetan, and we listened to the way that they teach in Tibetan, their native language, we would get a totally different picture of the person and their level of understanding, their level of being able to express themselves, and so on. It is our projection that makes us misjudge their qualifications as a teacher. That, I think, is very important for those of us who have Tibetan teachers who teach in bad English. We get a glimpse of how they actually speak in their native language when they teach their own people.

Also, we need to meditate on how even the conventionally accurate shortcomings that the teacher has are devoid of existing as inherent flaws. Thinking that the teacher is no good, inherently, is not possible. We need to see that these shortcomings arise from causes and conditions. It is not part of their Buddha-nature, and these can be removed. The teacher is working on removing these, and so on. It is very important to think in terms of what is conventionally accurate as well and also in terms of the conventional truth and the deepest truth of the shortcomings. The nature of the mind is pure of those things. 

After we have done that, then it can be helpful, although the Fifth Dalai Lama doesn’t say this, I think that it is very helpful to put in there, to go through the same procedure with our own shortcomings as a student, as a disciple. There is a long list of the qualifications of a proper disciple. Do we actually meet up to that image in terms of someone who can take best advantage of a fully qualified spiritual master? Do we have the qualities of only the pet dog of the spiritual master or of a proper disciple? Obviously, of the proper disciple. A qualified disciple can gain much greater benefit from the spiritual master than the dog. Both might have a close relationship. In fact, the teacher might be more affectionate to the dog than to us. 

The student, first of all, needs to be receptive to the Dharma. A great Sakya master, Sonam Tsemo (bSod-nams rtse-mo), wrote in a text called The Gateway for Entering the Dharma (Chos-la ’jug-pa’i sgo) that we have to first recognize our own shortcomings and, secondly, have a strong wish to overcome them. Those are very important points. Actually, that is the whole aim of renunciation, isn’t it? However, a lot of us are not willing to be honest with ourselves and see what our shortcomings are. Even if we recognize that we have them, we want to bargain, and not give them up, and just gain good qualities. We also have to have a strong wish to get rid of them and be willing to get rid of them. 

The third thing we need to be receptive to the Dharma is some knowledge of the Dharma. We must have some belief that is based on some knowledge that the Dharma is going to offer us a method for overcoming these problems, not just blind belief based on never having heard anything about the Dharma. It doesn’t have to be profound knowledge at all, but at least we have some idea of what the Dharma is all about. Otherwise, why would we really go into depth about it? 

The great Indian master, Aryadeva, points out the basic qualities of the character of the disciple when he says: The first one is being honest and impartial. “Honest” is, as already mentioned, being honest about ourselves, about our shortcomings, our good qualities, and so on. “Impartial” means to not be partial, in terms of being very sectarian about the Buddha’s teachings or one’s personal beliefs. In other words, we have to be open-minded, willing to learn, without preconceptions, and be honest with the teacher, not put on these little acts as if we are trying to advertise and sell ourselves as a good disciple. We see the teacher coming, then all of a sudden, we sit very formally in meditation as soon as the teacher is in view, putting on an act. 

Impartiality is referring to, for instance, when we learn something new and it makes sense to us, and then we see as a result that our old attitude or our old belief was nonsense, being willing to drop that old belief. It is not easy. How willing are we to change? To follow the Dharma, we have to be very courageous because we really need to be willing to change, to grow, to develop, which means giving up old useless habits and ways of thinking and acting. That is being impartial, open. Without that, we can’t really be a proper disciple. We have to be honest about that shortcoming and work on our willingness to give up some things, but not these other things. We have to be a little bit gentle with ourselves, but, ultimately, we must get rid of our dishonesty and partiality or unwillingness to change. 

Shantideva says it very nicely. He says that in the case of all other enemies, if we treat them very nicely, and we depend on them, and so on, maybe they will help us to become happier. However, in the case of the disturbing emotions, if we depend on them and are sort of nice to them, in return all they do is cause us more suffering and pain. In terms of being gentle with ourselves, if we try to go too quickly and we give up absolutely all our shortcomings, then, often, we are not able to handle that and we backslide very quickly because we rebel. It is too much. So, step by step is better. People who are learning the Dharma for three months and then they want to ordain, become a monk or a nun immediately, that is very dangerous. They usually don’t last. So, we need to look at our own shortcomings and deal with them more gradually. 

In the list that Aryadeva gave, the second thing after being honest and impartial is that we must have common sense. We need common-sense discrimination between what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense, and not just to blindly believe. The example that they give is to know when to “wear warm clothes.” We know that we should wear warm clothes in the winter when it is cold, and not in the summer. We use common sense. The disciple has to have common sense. If we give up all thinking processes, and just say to ourselves, “Ohhhh, Lama knows,” this opens us up to abuse. The third quality is having keen and sincere interest in the Dharma and being diligent with our interest. We shouldn’t just be a Dharma tourist or dilettante. We’re sincere. This is very important. Be sincere about it. 

In summary, it is very important to be mature about the Dharma, about ourselves and about the teacher, and to have a certain level of emotional stability within ourselves. If we really have deep psychological problems, we are not ready to take the Dharma medicine. Instead, we have to start with something that is going to help us get ready, whether it’s professional psychiatric care, medication, or whatever it is. Somebody who really, really is disturbed, if they try to practice Dharma, it is likely to make them even more disturbed. We can’t bring a schizophrenic to class and expect that they are going to have a miracle cure. 

I forget which Kadampa Geshe said this, but one of them said that if a student comes who has a good character and is very sincere, it doesn’t matter if they are not intelligent. We should accept them as our disciple. If they don’t learn, it is our fault as a teacher of not being skillful enough. If a student comes who is very intelligent, but very arrogant and closed-minded, don’t agree to teach them, as they are not a proper disciple. They are not receptive. That is very helpful, especially if we’re not the most intelligent person in the world. It is up to the teacher to be skillful enough to teach somebody who takes a little bit more time to understand. If someone is sincere, with a good character, willing to learn, wanting to learn, then it is up to the teacher to be skillful. If the teacher can’t handle it, then the student should go to another teacher. If the teacher can’t really handle our slowness, then that’s not the teacher for us, if the teacher is impatient and yells at us, and so on. If we are lazy, that is something else. Then, we need somebody who is strict. 

After recognizing the shortcomings of our teacher, we go through the practice of recognizing our own shortcomings, again using the same process – not exaggerating them, but being accurate and honest – and then also seeing them as not being inherent flaws in ourselves. We recognize that these things can be overcome. The nature of the mind, Buddha-nature, is pure. But the shortcomings are not going to go away by themselves, we have to work on them and see them as products of the law of cause and effect. Seeing that they are not inherent flaws in us, by the way, is very important, if we have low self-esteem based on our shortcomings. 

Then, we can follow a similar procedure, although again it doesn’t say this in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s text, it is suggested indirectly here, and I think it is very helpful to do the same procedure with the good qualities. Here I would say just from my own small knowledge of psychology that it is best to start with our own good qualities before those of our teacher and ask, what are they? What is conventionally accurate about them? Cut away the exaggerations and check that we are not inflating them. Then, see them as no great inherent wonder. We see that they came about from cause and effect, either in this life or previous lifetimes. 

Then, do the same thing with the teacher’s good qualities. What is accurate about them? Again, notice that they are not these inherent wonders. Even Buddha Shakyamuni had to build up the causes. It says very clearly in the texts that he wasn’t born that way. When the Buddha became enlightened, he had to work on it just as we do. 

You see, for us in the West, most of us suffer from low self-esteem, which is in many ways encouraged by our cultural heritage. In that case, if we started with focusing on our own shortcomings before the shortcomings of our teacher, we’d just feel worse about ourselves. So, in terms of shortcomings, we need to see that even our teacher has shortcomings, and then go on to consider that so do we. 

Further, if we were to focus first on our own shortcomings and then immediately following that focus on the teacher’s good qualities, we might think, “Ah, the teacher is so wonderful, and I am so terrible.” Instead, after recognizing our own shortcomings, we immediately focus on our own strong points, and this helps us to not feel bad about ourselves. Then, we see that we have these good qualities, and our teacher has even more. 

I think from a psychological point of view, this order makes sense. First our teacher’s shortcomings, then our own shortcomings, then our own good qualities and then the teacher’s good qualities. That’s why I have recommended it like this. It’s just filling in what’s there in the Tibetan. The Tibetan just says to look at the shortcomings of the teacher. It is the tradition in Buddhist studies that the older texts are quite brief. One is always encouraged to put all the Dharma teachings together. They all fit together. Atisha made that point very strongly. When we try to fill out these briefer texts, then we fill in things from other aspects of the teachings. That is what I am doing here. 

Developing the Proper Attitude toward the Spiritual Teacher

Next, after going through the teacher’s shortcomings and our shortcomings, and our good qualities and the teacher’s good qualities, then we focus on the good qualities of the teacher. When we speak about the proper attitude toward the spiritual teacher, the texts always speak of two aspects to it. One is belief (mos-pa, firm conviction) in the good qualities and the second is appreciation (gus-pa) of the kindness of the teacher. We have to understand what the word “belief” means, and here we have some problem in German, because the word in German for both belief and faith Glaube is the same. We don’t mean faith. I will explain the difference. 

Belief in Our Teacher’s Good Qualities

What we are talking about here is belief in what is true (dad-pa), or belief in what is fact. “Faith” is usually used, at least in English, to mean blind faith. We are not talking about belief in Santa Claus. That is not fact. Or the belief that it is going to rain tomorrow. We don’t really know. It’s a guess, an educated guess at best. We are talking about belief in what is fact. The Earth is round. The Tibetan word and Sanskrit word mean this. It doesn’t have these other meanings that our Western words “belief” have. Also, we are talking about belief in something that can be known and is a fact. We are not talking about belief in God, which really can’t be known. To believe in God, we have to take a leap of faith. What can we actually know about God? God is unknowable. It is just a belief based on that leap of faith. 

The texts speak about three different types of belief in fact. Here we are speaking specifically about the belief that the teacher actually has the good qualities that he or she actually does have. We are not speaking about the belief that the teacher has qualities that they don’t have, or that they don’t have what they do have. That’s fantasy. 

The first kind of belief in what is fact I translate as “clearheaded belief” (dang-ba’i dad-pa). The Tibetan word is just the word “clear.” What it means is a type of belief in what is fact that clears our minds of disturbing attitudes about it. This is what we have accomplished by the step just before here. We are not naive about these qualities, we don’t have low self-esteem, “Oh, the teacher is so great, and I am so lowly, I am so stupid.” We’ve cleared our minds of these disturbing emotions, being angry that the teacher has shortcomings, these sorts of things. We’ve cleared the mind of that clutter, so we now believe in what is fact, with a clear, calm heart and mind. This is very important. It is accomplished by going through the shortcomings and seeing what is actually true and what is not true. We’re not naive or jealous or arrogant about our own teacher, “I’m so much better than the teacher.” All of these things we have to clear out − the jealousy, arrogance, and so on. 

Then, when these qualities are perfectly clear – the ones that the teacher does have, without exaggeration, then we reinforce our belief with what is called “confident belief” (yid-ches-kyi dad-pa, believing a fact based on reason). Confident belief is based on reason, and so we think about the process by which the spiritual teacher gained these qualities: all the study and retreats, the relation with their teachers, and so on. Also, whatever demonstrates that they have these good qualities we notice in terms of their actions, their positive effects on other students, their positive effects on us. Being with them doesn’t increase our disturbing emotions but decreases them. In this sense, we have confident belief based on looking at cause and effect − the causes that brought about these qualities, and the effects that these qualities have on the teacher’s behavior and on other people. It’s a fact. They relied on their teachers. Their relationships with their own teachers is very important. It’s on the basis of their relationships that they developed their qualities. This confident belief is beneficial on the basis of it being free of fantasy and disturbing emotions, of being caught up in belief. Otherwise, it is just blind worship of essentially our own projection, and not helpful. It opens us up to great disappointment at some point. 

The third type of belief in what is fact is called “belief in what is fact with an aspiration” (mngon-’dod-kyi dad-pa), which has a wish or an aspiration. Because we’ve thought about how the teacher attained these qualities, we now focus with belief on the fact that these qualities are something that can be attained, and on the conclusion that we ourselves can attain them. That is the aspiration, that with full confident belief that we will attain these qualities, we will work to achieve these qualities ourselves in order to benefit everyone the way that our teacher benefits others. So, it is not just belief that the teacher has these qualities, but belief that we can attain these qualities, and belief that we will attain these if we put in the work. We are confident that we are going to do it and are not just fooling ourselves. We think that it’s through your help, O teacher, through your inspiration, that we will do this. 

We conclude this by focusing and letting this firm conviction in the teacher sink in. There is an aspect of trust in the teacher that arises based on the reality of the situation, and so on. By focusing on all those feelings that we have evoked here and letting them really sink in, digesting them, integrating them, it gives us a very strong feeling of confidence and strength. We know what we are doing, and it’s on very sound grounds with confidence and trust. The word that’s used (mos-pa) is a word that means a type of belief in fact or a decisiveness that cannot be swayed. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says, we have examined very, very well. It is only when we haven’t examined well, and somebody tells us something about the teacher that we start to doubt the teacher. If we’ve examined very well, then we know what the shortcomings of the teacher are, and our confidence and trust in the teacher is secure. 

I was trying to explain this a little bit in the first lecture, just with the example of my own experience with Serkong Rinpoche over two lifetimes and not being naive about what his qualities are now as a 20-year-old, and certainly not being naive when he was four years old or eight years old. But I have confidence and trust in how he is developing based on the instincts that are there in him, and in the way that this relation I have with him is working so that I feel guided and, in a sense, protected and certainly incredibly inspired by him not just in this lifetime, but I can see it as a long-term process all the way to enlightenment. It has not just started in this lifetime, obviously, and will continue with the firm intention for it to continue and to build up the causes for the relation with the teacher to continue. 


Remember from the seven-part practice, “Lead me all the way to enlightenment.” That means over many lifetimes, doesn’t it? A relationship that will continue. Each lifetime, of course, will be a slightly different form, but we have that confidence that the teacher will guide us all the way to enlightenment. There is a tremendous amount of strength and stability in that. It is interesting when we think of the word “devotion.” In my own personal experience, I have, on my website, spoken sometimes about a balanced practice of intellectual, emotional and devotional aspects, and how they need to be balanced with each other. In myself, I have a balanced practice of the intellectual and the emotional, but the devotional side, I always thought that’s rather weak in myself. I don’t like ritual. I don’t like at all this “O Lama, Lama,” imitating a Tibetan old woman, or not exhaling when I am in the presence of the teacher, and so on. That I find not at all to my liking. So, I think of myself as not terribly devotional. Maybe I need to balance that. 

But one very close student of mine pointed out to me that, in fact, I am incredibly devotional in terms of my devotion to my teachers, and my devotion to the website, and making the Dharma available to as many people as possible. When we think of devotion, what does devotion really mean? Do we mean by that mindless worship, imitating other people in terms of their forms, especially coming from another culture, which is really quite silly? Or does it mean this very, very strong trust and belief in what one is doing and in one’s teacher, and so on? And so I was trying to get a different view now in terms of what does devotion really mean. The basis for it is guru-yoga. 

Appreciating Our Teacher’s Kindness to Us

Again, there are two aspects to developing the proper attitude toward the spiritual teacher: first the belief or attitude, which is relying on a teacher in terms of our attitude, our belief in the facts about the teacher’s good qualities, and then the appreciation of their kindness. For that second aspect, we notice the teacher’s kindness to us and develop appreciation for that. I think here that we can fill in a step, similar to what we did for the qualities of the teacher, and bring to mind our feelings of their lack of kindness, that they haven’t really been kind to us, and examine what is technically called the “degenerative regression,” which means this regression to the “My Mommy and Daddy don’t love me enough,” type of feeling, or the sense that “Nobody loves me,” which could be coming up here. We notice that here we are projecting regression, we are going back to something in the past, and it’s degenerative, and we’re not doing this in a positive way. We’re doing this in a very self-destructive way. 

We try to bring that up and clear that away so that these conventional inaccuracies and the exaggeration of our teacher’s behavior – that thinking of, “They don’t really love me, and if they really loved me, they would spend all their time only with me” – can be eliminated. How infantile can we be! It’s like we’re jealous of the new baby brother or sister. That is degenerative regression, and many of us experience that. We are not very aware of that, but these infantile feelings come up and we need to clear them out. 

We focus on the accurate facts of the teacher’s kindness, on what they have done for us, how they have acted toward us, and we also focus on how they have been in the past. This is the deepest level of appreciation: devoid of indicating that they are inherently inconsiderate or cruel, or if they didn’t spend so much time with us, and so on. “My guru wasn’t kind to me. He scolded me. He called me an idiot all the time,” which was the case. I could think, “Well, he didn’t love me. He didn’t like me. He was cruel,” and so on. Well, the fact was that he did scold me, but that was very kind of him. It doesn’t indicate that inherently he was a cruel person that ran around yelling at everybody. He didn’t do that with others. “Why does he always yell at me and not the others?” None of that type of regressive thinking, either. 

Then, we have to focus on the actual ways in which they have been kind. Here it is very important to remind ourselves that people sometimes show kindness in ways other than what we might normally recognize, and other than what we might normally want. This is important not only with the spiritual teacher, but with members of our family, parents especially, and friends, and so on. People show kindness in many, many different ways. One of my psychologist friends uses an analogy for that, which is that people in different countries use different currencies. We have to be willing to accept foreign currencies and recognize that it is money. If they pay us in Swiss francs, or in euros, or in US dollars, or in pounds, or in Polish zloty, which we might not really consider money, we still accept it. 

Sometimes, particularly Asians, or especially Asian fatherly figures, show love in very different ways from what we would expect or want, such as in being very strict with us. But if they didn’t love us, they wouldn’t care, they wouldn’t do anything. They are in fact looking out for our welfare, such as working, in the case of a father, to make enough money to support us. It might not be affectionate, but that’s not the way that this person shows their love. We have to recognize what currency they are paying us in and not just accept it but also appreciate it. That is the emotion we want to develop here. It’s ideal obviously if we can do that while the person is still alive, and we are still relating. Sometimes it happens only later after they have passed away, but it is very important to go through this phase and recognize and appreciate their kindness. 

Whatever kindness they have, we also try not to exaggerate it as some inherent favor, how wonderful they are to do this. Also, if we find it relevant, we can focus on ourselves as devoid of congenital inherent flaws that would render us, by their own powers, inherently unworthy of kindness or love. That often comes with low self-esteem. “I am such a bad person, inherently, that I don’t deserve to be loved, and I don’t deserve to receive any kindness.” That is heavy and, certainly, it prevents a proper healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher. 

We have to apply our understanding of voidness to such things. There is nothing inherent in this that makes us like that. Or the contrary, “I am so worthy and so wonderful that everybody should love me and praise me all the time.” We can speak about the other extreme as well. “I am so special that I should be the focus of attention. I can monopolize every class by constantly asking questions and not letting anybody else ask any questions. My questions are the most important.” Many people suffer from this as well. They push to the front. “The teacher is coming; the teacher should look at me and see me, and especially see me doing prostration!” 

Doing this, we try to focus on the reality of the kindness that we have received from the teacher. We go through this process I have just explained, and also make that happen in a clearheaded manner, similar to the clearheaded belief in fact. We should not be proud of it, not be jealous when the teacher has been kind to others, and not be attached to it, not exaggerate it, not be naive about it or angry that we haven’t gotten enough kindness. We need to have a clearheaded, clear-hearted understanding of it, and it is based on evidence from what we have seen, and what other people have seen. 

The feeling that we develop from that is a heartfelt appreciation of the kindness. What comes from that feeling is loving respect. It’s a very stable type of loving respect, not a super overemotional one that actually is quite unstable. If we look at it objectively, an unstable respect is quite disturbing, especially when our teacher is not there anymore. Then, as we did with the belief in the good qualities of the teacher, we let it sink in, single-mindedly, the feeling of heartfelt appreciation and loving respect. 

The next step is that with this firm conviction in the good qualities, and trust, appreciation, and loving respect for the teacher, we now request inspiration. We make requests, not requests for a Mercedes-Benz and these types of things, but we request particularly for inspiration. Usually, we see that translated from Tibetan as “Bestow on me please your blessings,” which is far too Christian; its connotation is not what we are talking about in Buddhism. Inspire me, and not just inspire me, but inspire me to apply myself. “Inspire me to develop bodhichitta. Inspire me to have a clear mind so that I can understand the teachings. Inspire me by your example to take myself seriously when you take me seriously.”

We can really only feel inspired by the teacher if we have developed this state of mind and heart beforehand – one of trust, conviction, appreciation, loving respect, and so on. It is on that basis that we will actually feel something in terms of respect. Otherwise, the rest of the practice is just a visualization of lights. It’s entertaining but doesn’t move us in any deep way. 

When we request that inspiration, then we imagine receiving that inspiration, and on a sutra level, we can visualize that it enters our heart. It enters us in the form of white or yellow light. White light to diminish the shortcomings such as low energy or dullness, and yellow to stimulate the good qualities. What’s important is to feel something, not just to visualize some lights – that’s trivial – but doing this practice with this graphic representation of lights helps us to feel it more. Otherwise, it’s a little bit too vague. Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, makes a great deal of use of the powers of the imagination. It is a very important tool that we have. 

We want the inspiration to get rid of our low energy and purify that away with the white light and then to develop high energy and increase our good qualities with the yellow light, for example. The white light gets rid of the low energy and the yellow light increases the higher, stronger, more stable energy. The white light calms down nervous energy, yellow light gives us positive energy. 


If we are doing tantra-level practice, we can add in the tantra-level visualizations and practices at this point. This is a standard type of practice done with Buddha-figures and yidams as well, which is to imagine that white light comes from the crown chakra or forehead of the teacher to our forehead or crown chakra and inspires us to develop all the good qualities of the body: the behavior and actions of the teacher. Then, red light from the throat comes to our throat for developing their good qualities of speech. Blue light comes from their heart to our heart to develop the good qualities of the mind. Then the three together, so that all three are harmoniously integrated. 

This type of visualization we can do with all classes of tantra practice. If we are practicing anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, then we can also imagine at this point that we receive the four initiations that are part of any anuttarayoga initiation from the spiritual teacher. This can be done in many different greater or lesser elaborate ways. No need to go into all the detail about that, but it can be done quite elaborately. We can also imagine that a replica of the teacher dissolves into us and our qualities become one with the teacher. In other words, we can supplement it with that. 

If we are doing this practice with the initiations, or “empowerments,” I prefer as the translation, rather than “initiation”; it is not that we are starting anything, but it is an empowerment. The whole purpose of such a practice is that it activates and strengthens or empowers our Buddha-nature potentials so that they can be fully actualized and realized. That is what initiations are all about, stimulating the Buddha-nature potentials to grow, activating them, strengthening them. It stimulates and strengthens the Buddha-nature potentials, and we take the empowerments over and over and over again through guru-yoga, through actually receiving empowerments and so on. It is not just done to start with and then we forget about it and don’t need it anymore. 

In tantra, we do all this in any case, but going back to sutra practice, what we find in the sutra description is that at the end of this process, we imagine that the guru, not life-size, but small, which helps with the concentration, comes to the top of our heads, faces in the same direction as we do and, in a sense, remains there for the rest of the day as a witness to our behavior and thought, to how we are speaking, how we are thinking, how we are acting, and continues to be a source of inspiration to us and helps us with discipline. It helps because a very important aspect of ethical self-discipline is thinking, “If my teacher were here, would I act like that?” We would be ashamed to act and to speak and to think in a certain way if our teacher were present. It is a very great help to us, keeping us straight in our thinking and behavior. We wouldn’t act like an idiot in front of the teacher because we have such loving respect for the teacher. That’s why this feeling is so important. 

Relating to a Spiritual Teacher over Two Lifetimes 

While it is difficult to put it into words, this is what I was trying to describe about my relation with Serkong Rinpoche. There is a certain sense of not quite fear, but awe. I am so awed by his qualities and have such respect and deep love and appreciation and so on, that how could I act like an idiot in front of him? And if I do unconsciously, not deliberately, act like an idiot, I think or say, “Thank you for pointing it out to me.” Both with him in the past and in the present, but it was particularly so with the past Serkong Rinpoche. 

My behavior with the present one takes very much into consideration the fact that he was a child, and now he is a young man. In many ways, I take on a fatherly role with him because I really look out for him and try to take care of his welfare, and so on. He knows that and appreciates that. It is a very different dynamic in the relationship because of the difference in our ages and experience, and because I have related with him as a child, there is a certain element of affection there that is appropriate to a relation with a child. Not exaggerated, but appropriate, considering that he is Tibetan, the culture that he comes from. 

I scold him when it is necessary, but in a very gentle way. What I am always encouraging him to do is to be an adult and to use his abilities to discriminate what is proper and what is improper. With a young Rinpoche, often they rely too strongly on the main attendants, and it is not easy to make the transition in which they become the boss of the household. He is the appropriate age now, 20, in which that is an issue, so I try to help him with that. The old Serkong Rinpoche was very learned in all the four traditions, and I would hope that he would continue that tradition. He is quite keen to carry on the traditions of his predecessor, but first, he needs to complete his Gelug education, which he is doing with great enthusiasm. He loves his studies. There is no fooling around.

In any case, I am in tremendous awe and have tremendous respect for the young Serkong Rinpoche, because he already has exceptional qualities and abilities. For example, if I just think about his discipline, he was somewhat overweight, like his predecessor, who was very overweight. This was due not only to his lack of exercise, but also his bad diet. Another Western friend and I pointed out that he had to do something about this. He replied that we were right and then he not only changed his eating habits, but he started a strict exercise regimen every day and lost 17 kilos. Amazing. 

One time his teacher advised that he do a meditation retreat of a certain tantric deity, which required reciting a long mantra 100,000 times. He did the whole thing in just three days, practicing from when he woke up until he went to bed. Once I asked him what he would like, and again, what did he want? He wanted an all-night debate session. That was his idea, and it was the greatest thing for me to help him arrange. He doesn’t sleep very much. Generally, in the morning, we have to do all our memorization, as the mind is the best in the morning for memorization and for reciting what we have memorized.  

So generally, he gets up between five and six. If there is a puja, he has to get up at around 4:30, because all the pujas in the monastery start at five o’clock. But otherwise generally at 5:30, six o’clock, something like that. After he comes home from the debate ground, which is eleven or twelve o’clock at night, then he does all his practices, his commitments, his meditations, and he doesn’t get to sleep until one or two o’clock in the morning, so he regularly gets about four or five hours sleep. That is pretty good as a teenager, considering how many hours teenagers usually sleep. He not only likes debate, but they do these unbelievably long pujas from five in the morning until ten at night, for three or four days. I asked him, “What do you think of these? Do you like them?” He loves them. Wonderful. It gives me unbelievable hope for the future.

I should just add to this. Don’t think that he is serious all the time. Mondays, they don’t have debate classes or lessons, and on Mondays he will spend one or two hours playing computer games. He has a computer now. I mean, he is still a teenager, a young man, but he has it under control. Not more than that amount of two hours and only on Monday. He has some balance. 

In terms of the computer, he’s learned how to use the computer. What does he use it for? He uses it for preparing study materials and study aids for his classmates, charts and things like that. I find that wonderful, that he has adopted the new technology and uses it as an education medium to help others, to help his schoolmates. He does take the slower students in the class and they come to his house, and he tutors and helps them. Amazing. So, all these qualities are there. This is why I say I have a very firm conviction. It’s very clear, the continuity of all these instincts, all these habits from his previous life, together with a tremendous sense of humor, and so on, and totally practical, down to earth. 

Completing the Meditation

Let’s finish the meditation, the guru-yoga meditation. We have the guru on the top of our head. He is the witness for the whole day. Then, before we go to sleep, there are two variations. One is that we imagine that the tiny figure of the guru comes to our hearts and dissolves while we sleep, which is much more of a tantra style of practice, but it is described in the sutra texts as well, with tantra in mind, I suppose. The other variation is that the guru now becomes large, life-size, and we imagine that we sleep with our heads in the laps of our gurus, which is for those that need a little bit more comfort and affection. 

It reminds me that Serkong Rinpoche, the old one, was very fond of animals, and he had a number of cats and dogs. The favorite place for these animals was underneath his shawl when he was teaching, sitting in his lap. In the middle of a teaching or something like that, all of a sudden a head would peep out, and there would be laughter, because we didn’t know what was there, as they’d be asleep, or whatever. The head would peep out, and an animal would walk out. We used to joke, imagining that a giraffe or an elephant would come out of there as well. We never knew what was in his lap underneath the shawl. 

The young Rinpoche also loves animals. He has two dogs. What’s extraordinary with these dogs – I have never seen anything like this – is that where he lives in South India there are monkeys, and there was this monkey that always comes and plays with the dogs. The dogs don’t bark at the monkey. They play with the monkey the way they would play with another dog, and the monkey isn’t afraid. It’s extraordinary. I have never seen anything like that. One wonders who are these dogs! 

While I am telling stories about the relation with the teacher in two lifetimes, I should also mention that it reminds me that I haven’t spoken very much about Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor. I was not as close to him as I was with Serkong Rinpoche, but many times, I did translate for him and I studied with him. I haven’t been as close with his reincarnation as with Serkong Rinpoche. However, I went to see him not the last time I was in India, but the time before. I was there and we were talking, and I hadn’t seen him in a number of years. He asked the attendant to bring in tea. He brought in tea, and he brought in some British cookies that are my absolute favorite particular brand of cookies in the world. I thought, where in the world did he get these from, and why did he bring them out for me, and he just sort of looked at me with this look like, “Hahaha, you don’t believe in karma?” There’s some sort of connection. He just sort of looked at me as I was looking in astonishment at this package of British cookies. He is also quite special and also has many characteristics of the old one. 


Getting back to the meditation, when we are doing the meditation, we would end, obviously, with the dedication of the positive force from the practice, so perhaps we can end here as well. It would be nice to have more questions, but I really have to go to the airport. Obviously, there are many dedications, but one that is very nice after the meditation on the spiritual teacher is:

“May the positive legacy that I have gained, learned from the teacher, from my teacher’s good qualities and kindness, integrate with the network of my good qualities, my positive force, my deep awareness, may it integrate with all of that. May it ripen and affect my behavior so that I can pass on this legacy to others and help them to achieve emotional well-being, better rebirths, liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of all.” 

We can make a similar dedication. “May it integrate with me to pass it on. Not only may I become like the guru but also pass on that legacy to others.” Of course, we always also pray may we and everybody be guided by fully qualified gurus in all our lifetimes, and may the gurus have long life, health, and so on. 

[See: Sutra-Level Guru Meditation]