The Seven Limb Prayer in Guru Yoga

Introduction to the Seven-Part Practice

We need to realize that guru-yoga, a type of meditation practice, is one of the preliminaries. It’s a ngondro (sngon-'gro) practice. Ngondro means preliminary practices, and there are special preliminary practices that are shared in common between sutra and tantra and those that are exclusive to tantra. The sutra level of guru-yoga is quite important as a basis for tantra level practice, which has elaborate visualizations. Visualization, however, is not necessarily exclusive to tantra level practice. Even with the sutra level practice we can imagine various lights and so on coming to us. 

We start a sutra-level practice by imagining our spiritual teachers or looking at photographs of them. I don’t think the point of such practice is to perfect our ability to visualize, and so if we can’t visualize very well, then having a picture of our spiritual teacher in front of us is perfectly fine. If we look in the private rooms of most Tibetans, monks and laypeople alike, everybody has pictures of their teachers on the walls, on the tables, everywhere. That is quite helpful, but not in the bathroom; please be respectful. 

The practice I am going to describe is one that I have put together from various sources. There is a great deal of discussion in the various sutra texts, particularly texts from the various Tibetan traditions, which, for want of a better word, we can put into the category of lam-rim, the graded stage teachings. All of them teach about the relation with the spiritual teacher, and each of them has various practices that we can use to put the pieces together. This one is primarily coming from the Kadam tradition. Many elements are found in the other traditions as well.

We start with offering the spiritual teacher the seven-part practice or seven-part invocation, which includes prostrating, making offerings, and so on. This is the most standard practice that absolutely everybody does for building up positive force. Its classic expression is found in Bodhicharyavatara (Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior) by Shantideva. We always start the practice with refuge or what I call “safe direction” and bodhichitta. It continues with offering prostration, which is showing respect with body, speech and mind to the Buddhas and the spiritual teachers. We do the physical prostration, recite some verses, think of their good qualities with great respect. 

Prostration

When we make prostration, it is very helpful is to think on three levels of the objects to whom we are offering them. First of all, we offer prostrations to the Buddhas and spiritual masters who embody the goal we are aiming for. It’s very important to not just see this goal as some external thing that somebody else has achieved, which would then easily lead to just worshipping the guru: “You’re so wonderful. I’m so lowly and miserable. Just tell me what to do.” We certainly want to avoid that, and so, secondly, we offer prostration to our own individual future enlightenments, which, being further down the line of our mental continuums, have not happened yet. 

Bodhichitta is focused on that not-yet-happening enlightenment and is accompanied with the intentions to achieve it. This is based on having full confidence that it is possible to achieve it. It is also accompanied with a second intention, which is to benefit all beings by attaining it. With love and compassion, we want to help everybody, that’s the motivation to get there. So, we also show respect to our own not-yet-happening enlightenment, not just to the enlightenment of the spiritual teacher. 

Thirdly, we show respect with offering prostrations to our own Buddha-natures. It’s the Buddha-nature of the Buddha and the spiritual teachers that allowed them to reach their high attainments, and it is also our own Buddha-nature, potentials and qualities that will allow us to reach our own enlightenments. 

It’s very important to have the entire relationship with the spiritual teacher be based on respect. Not only respect for the teacher, but respect for ourselves, respect for our own spiritual path and what we are doing. Then, our relationship will be a mature and adult one. It is very important to have that guru-yoga practice and that relation with the guru be on an adult mature level, not as a child, with a childish mentality. Of course, we don’t want to go to the extreme of being arrogant either. 

Offerings

The second step of the seven-part practice is making offerings. We are not just going to offer a kata or some incense to the teacher, who doesn’t need such things. What we are willing to give is everything necessary to be able to reach enlightenment to benefit everybody else. We are offering this to the teacher as the conduit, as it were. It is the same thing when we are offering to the Buddhas. We do that seeing them as a conduit to be able to reach that goal. So, we have to offer very significant things, like our time and our energy, and our hearts, our enthusiasm, these types of things, not just some silly little box of incense that we bought. 

Sometimes we read how we offer our spiritual teacher a mandala of our body, speech and mind. That doesn’t mean abuse me sexually or some other twisted interpretation. Obviously not. It does not mean, “I am a mindless thing, mold me and make me your slave.” As I was expressing about my own relationship with Serkong Rinpoche, by saying “Please make a donkey like me into a human being,” I was meaning, “Please help me to develop my way of acting with people (through the body), with communicating (my speech), my attitudes (my mind) towards others, and so on, so that I can help them more. Help me to develop. I offer you these (body, speech and mind) as the working materials to help me work and develop them to have the qualities of a Buddha, which is what I am focusing on anew.” It is a very significant offering and not to be done lightly. If we offer something, it means we really offer it. We should not just give a little bit, and then when they start to actually use it and correct us, we reconsider and take it back. 

What is a very useful set of offerings is the offerings of samadhi, as it’s called, the offerings of concentration. This type of offering comes from the Sakya tradition, offering different aspects of our practice. We think of various aspects of our practice, and we offer these. The guru doesn’t need these, and the Buddha doesn’t need these either. But by receiving the offerings, they serve as a conduit for us to help others. In my own case, everything I have read and studied, all the knowledge I have gained, by offering these types of things to my teacher, I can then be his translator. I use all my study through him to be able to translate for him and give it to others. In this way, I make an offering of all my talents, all my work, all my energy through him, to help others. 

Obviously, there can be many other ways to make offerings besides just being a teacher’s translator or secretary. Also, it can be just trying to carry out their intentions and ideas, trying to help others, and doing things that need to get done. Each of these offerings takes a symbolic form of the traditional offering, but that is just making a graphic representation of them. What we are actually offering are these various aspects of our practice, or our work in a Dharma center, or whatever talents we have to help the spiritual teacher help others; we offer that. It could also be our work in a hospital, or taking care of disabled people, or carrying out Buddhist type of work, which is what our teacher obviously wants everybody to be able to do. 

The traditional set of offerings of concentration, then, start out with offering everything we have read and studied. That takes the form in the meditation practice as the water offerings. The emphasis is not on the water itself. Our teachers don’t need a bowl of water. What are they going to do with a bowl of water? Feed a cat? The water is just a symbol or representation of everything that we have read and studied. 

Then, all the knowledge that we have gained from our reading and study takes the form of flowers, flowers that grow from the water. All the discipline that we use to put that knowledge into practice, with meditation, with actually helping others, and with restraining from acting negatively, takes the form of the incense smoke. 

The insight that we gained from that disciplined practice takes the form of the light of insight. This is represented by the light from butter lamps, candles, and so on, lighting the way for everybody. Then, the firm conviction that we have in the Dharma when we are convinced that it is true, when nothing can shake us, is offered in the form of refreshing cologne that is so refreshing to everybody. When we meet somebody who is free from doubts, not a fanatic, but firmly convinced based on experience and insight and reason, that’s very refreshing for everybody. A refreshing cologne was something used in ancient India. We’re not talking about something used in the West. 

Then, we offer the concentration that we are able to gain when we have that firm conviction. A big problem with concentration is that, when we have doubt, we don’t really know, and our concentration is not stable. We are not sure of ourselves. When we have firm conviction, we are convinced of the correct understanding, and then we can concentrate perfectly. It is so important for helping others. When we offer that concentration, it takes the form of food. Great meditators can live on their concentration. They can stay in deep concentration meditation for days and it sustains them; they don’t have to eat. It takes the form of food. Finally, the basis of our clear explanations of the Dharma, in particular, as well as our praises of the Dharma, our reading of the texts, and all these verbal things that we can do when we have concentration and conviction and so on, take the form of beautiful music. 

This is the way to make offerings of concentration – an absolutely wonderful practice coming from the Sakya tradition. Chogyal Pagpa (Chos-rgyal ‘Phags-pa) was the master who developed and wrote it first. He was a great Sakya master who brought Buddhism to the Mongols, to Kublai Khan. Making offerings in this way gives this practice a deeper level of meaning. 

The literal objects we offer – water, flowers and so on – derive from the ancient Indian custom of what we would give to a guest who comes to our home for a meal. On the sutra level, these offerings have a deeper significance in terms of these offerings of concentration. There is also a deeper meaning in addition to this, in terms of these offerings bringing bliss to the various senses, which then in tantra has a deeper significance.

Admitting Our Mistakes

The third part of the seven-part practice is admitting our mistakes. We admit our shortcomings: we’re lazy, don’t feel like practicing, and so on. We regret that, we really would not like to repeat that, and we reaffirm our foundations of refuge and bodhichitta. Then, whatever we learn with the teacher, and whatever we learn in general, we’re going to apply to overcome these shortcomings. 

I think that here, though it is not coming from original sources but is my own addition, it fits in very nicely at this point to admit our own mistakes, and to acknowledge the wrongs that we might have experienced from less-than-perfect teachers. In other words, if we have been abused, if we have been deceived by charlatan types of teachers, at this part we can acknowledge that. That is very important just on a psychological level. To acknowledge that, “Yes, this was terrible, what happened. It was a mistake to get into that type of relationship. It was a mistake to follow that type of teacher. I regret it very much, but it happened. Yes, I was misled. I am going to try my best to not let that happen again. I will be much more critical and much more careful in the future. I reaffirm what I am doing with my life. I am not going to give up Dharma because of this. I reaffirm my safe direction of refuge and my bodhichitta aim. Whatever further things I learn in the Dharma, I am going to apply them so that I don’t repeat mistakes with future teachers, but just develop healthy relationships with proper teachers.” 

I think this fits in very nicely here and can help with the healing process of those of us who have been spiritually injured from our relationship with misleading or abusive teachers. Many people have experienced that. We need to deal with it and somehow heal the injuries and the pains, and not just ignore it. We need to openly admit it, especially if we want to do proper guru-yoga with a proper teacher afterwards. We don’t want this bad experience that we had in the past to undermine our practice because we haven’t really acknowledged it and dealt with it. Psychologically, I think it is valid to put it in here. 

Just as when we think of our own shortcomings and the mistakes we have made and feel regret, that means that we are not feeling guilty about them. Instead, we are thinking, “I’m not a bad person because of this, but I just regret that it happened.” Similarly, if we have been misused or abused or fooled by a charlatan teacher then, likewise, when we regret that, that feeling of guilt would also be inappropriate. “I regret that it happened, it is really very sad, very unfortunate that it happened, but it doesn’t mean that I am a bad person. It doesn’t mean that I need to feel guilty and punish myself because of that.” 

If we feel very bitter about that, that also would be inappropriate. “It happened for various karmic reasons, obviously not all my fault and not all the teacher’s fault, but obviously I have some karmic connection with this person. It happened, and it is very sad that it happened. I will purify whatever further karmic leftovers might be there so that it doesn’t happen again.” But there is no need to indulge in thinking, “I’m a bad person,” and feel guilty about it. That’s not going to help at all. Then, demonizing the teacher doesn’t help either. That would make us feel more bitter and angrier, and that doesn’t heal anything. It’s not that the teacher is the Devil. 

Rejoicing

The fourth of the seven parts is rejoicing in the positive qualities and accomplishments of others and ourselves. We rejoice in how wonderful it is that our teacher, the Buddhist teachers, in general, have developed all their good qualities and have reached their stage. We also rejoice in our own Buddha-natures. It is very important to acknowledge that we have the possibility to achieve the same. 

We rejoice in whatever positive things we ourselves have already done that have resulted in our being at this stage we are at. Even if we are very inexperienced practitioners and not terribly advanced, this is far, far better than someone who has just negative attitudes toward spiritual practice in general. Obviously, there is some positive karmic aftermath that is resulting in our being where we are now. We should be very happy about that, positive about ourselves, and feeling positive about our spiritual teacher. That also is very important, if we have been abused or had bad experiences with teachers, to reaffirm our own and their good qualities. We can see this seven-part practice is not at all something to be trivialized. It is very profound and very helpful, not just something to be rushed through and ignored as “beginner stuff.” There is a great deal of wisdom behind it. 

Requesting the Teacher to Teach

The next part is to request the teacher to teach us. It is so important. “My teacher, teach me. I really, really want to learn. I am open. I am ready. Teach me at all levels. Work on my personality, don’t just teach me some text to memorize.” The old Serkong Rinpoche used to like to go to the circus, particularly to see the trained animals. He used to say afterward, “If a bear can learn how to ride a bicycle, we as humans can learn much more than that.” So, there is hope for us. Don’t just develop to the level of what a bear or a dolphin can be taught, to do some tricks and get thrown a fish in the end as a reward. We ask our teacher to teach us deep and significant things, not just to ride a bicycle like a bear. I have also used the example of when, performing well for our teacher, he pats us on the head and we wag with our tail. That is not the point. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey always used that example. I loved it. 

Asking Teachers to Remain Until Enlightenment

The next limb is, “Teach me all the way to enlightenment. Don’t go away.” This is very significant. We are not going to reach a point of saying, “Well, I have had enough already,” and back off. “I don’t want to go any further. I don’t want to hear more about voidness. I’ve had enough. My head is filled with that. It’s too much!” Instead, we say, “Don’t go away. Don’t, ever. I’m serious, I want to go all the way to enlightenment, and I’m never going to say I’ve had enough until I reach enlightenment. Please, teach me the whole way. I’m serious, and not just a Dharma tourist − another Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey phrase − coming to see just a little bit and then go back home.” 

Dedication

The seventh limb is the dedication, “Whatever positive force has built up from my practice, and so on, I don’t want that just to contribute to improving my samsara. I don’t want just to build up positive ordinary worldly karmic potential, but for it to act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.” If we don’t dedicate it, it just automatically contributes to improving samsara. We have to very consciously save the positive force in the enlightenment folder in our internal computer, because the default setting of the internal computer is that it is saved in the samsara-improvement folder. 

This is the seven-part practice, and it is very profound. It is not to be trivialized, and it is very helpful for starting not only this sutra-level guru practice, but if we are going to start a daily practice, this is the one that we start with, the seven-part practice. It’s absolutely fundamental. 

Focusing on the Teacher’s Good Qualities

Now, the meditation continues by reminding ourselves of the advantages of focusing on our spiritual teacher’s good qualities and the disadvantages of focusing on their faults. It’s not that we’re going to go to Hell if we focus on their faults. The advantages and disadvantages are lighter than that. The disadvantages of dwelling on the faults are that we are continually dwelling on them, being fixated on them. The advantages are emphasized so much in all the sutras and tantras, that if we focus on the positive qualities, we gain inspiration from them. It is uplifting. It gives us some model to aim for. If we instead become fixated and stuck on their shortcomings, then over and over again, we harp on them, and what does that do? It gets us upset, it gets us depressed, and we complain all the time. It gets us into a very negative state of mind, a very low state of mind. What is the point of doing that? It is not going to help us, not in the slightest. It is just going to bring us down in spirit. We don’t want to deny these shortcomings, but we don’t want to get stuck on them with bitterness and anger. It’s no use and no help. 

By focusing on the positive qualities that are actually there, not just the ones we exaggerate and project, this can actually inspire us, because it can be confirmed that the teacher actually has them. If we imagine them to have qualities that they don’t and then we find out they don’t have these, then we will get very discouraged. That’s why it is very important for the teacher to be honest about what their good qualities are, to not pretend to have qualities that they don’t have, and to not hide their shortcomings, or to pretend that they don’t have them. They should be very honest, and very open. It is the same with the teachings. If they’re the Buddha’s words, we say that they’re the Buddha’s words. If it is something that the teacher is adding themselves, they say that, as I did earlier. There is nothing wrong with that as long as we are honest about where it’s coming from. If we spend all our time speaking with the other students and complaining about how terrible the teacher is, what is that going to accomplish except to get everybody depressed and angry? 

Questions 

What happens when we have several root gurus, and one that’s especially inspiring? And isn’t the root guru the one who gives us initiation, tantric initiations and transmissions and discourses?

We can certainly have many teachers, and we can possibly also have more than one root guru. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, we shouldn’t see the various spiritual masters that we have as contradictory. One way to look at them would be like the eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara, that all of these different faces of the different teachers that we have all fit together into one figure. This is a nice way of looking at them. Of course, if we have one question and we ask the same thing to each of our teachers, they may each give us a different answer, so that can be confusing. That’s not a wise approach, especially in terms of advice about what would be best for us to do. Don’t ask more than one. They’ll definitely tell us two different things.

Although in the optimal case, the root guru would be the one that gives us the tantric initiations, etc., but that is not necessarily the case. The root guru isn’t necessarily our first teacher. It’s not necessarily the teacher that we received the most teachings from. It is the one that moves us the most, inspires us the most, and there can be more than one. We don’t actually have to grade them on a scale. For example, this one we give 73 on the scale, and this one we give 71, so 73 is our root guru. One interesting sign, by the way, is which gurus appear frequently in our dreams. That is a good sign in terms of who do we really have such a deep connection and feeling toward.

In the Gelug tradition, there is what is known as the Guru Puja (Lama Chopa), which is a wonderful practice, and most people do this every day, especially if we have received teachings on it. The traditional commitment from receiving it is to do it every day. In taking that commitment, it doesn’t mean that we have to do it at a deathly slow speed so that it takes two hours. If we do it quickly, it only takes about five minutes to do. The main visualization in it is the tree of assembled gurus. In that visualization, of course, we have all the lineage gurus. However, most of us don’t know the biographies of these various lineage masters, and so reciting a list of names doesn’t move us very much. We don’t actually recite the names in that practice, but we can add it. 

What is part of that visualization is one cluster of hundreds of figures. It’s incredibly complex, but one of the clusters of figures is of all our personal spiritual teachers, and this I find very, very helpful. What I do is arrange them. We think not only of the spiritual teachers from the various lineages that we have studied with during this lifetime, but what’s also good to include are those teachers who have taught us something that has been very useful in the spiritual path. For instance, those that taught us the various languages in which we can read the Dharma, so if we’re German, perhaps the one who taught us English. Not absolutely every teacher, but one who is representative, the main one.

In my case, I learned many Asian languages, so I think of the main teacher for each of those Asian languages that I studied and read the Dharma in. From my regular education, I think of the main teachers, not my third-grade teacher and so on – although if you wanted to do it absolutely fully, you would – but the one who taught me to read, the one who gave me really a lot of inspiration in my university education, whether it was in philosophy, psychology, Asian history, or whatever. If I know the name mantra of the teacher – I know Sanskrit, so I can translate their names into Sanskrit − I insert that into the recitation. But even if we don’t have that, it doesn’t matter. We just can say their name, just as a way of remembering them. Whether we can visualize them or not depends on our skill. We can recite their names and not just go, “blah-blah-blah.” I take a moment to think of what the most outstanding good quality of this teacher is, and what I have learned from them and how that has contributed to my present Dharma knowledge and understanding.

This is a very powerful, very, very helpful practice that we can add in any of the guru-yoga practices. There are so many lineages and almost all of them have some sort of guru tree or refuge tree. We put them there. In connection with that, one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, said, “Look at us! If someone asks us how much money we have in the bank, we can give them a figure instantly. If they ask us how many spiritual teachers we have had, we can’t give a number.” We don’t know. That shows us where our interests and priorities are. 

Is it better to do several lineage trees if we have teachers from different lineages, or put them all together?

I put them all together. I arrange them in clusters, clusters from different traditions, like we would have on a tree, different branches. I don’t think it is very helpful to have them too separated from each other. I do the same with my Western teachers from my regular education or my language teachers. This is just my own personal way. I think we need to be creative. My own way of doing it is that in each cluster I have a central figure who is the main one from that lineage, or the main one who taught me Tibetan, let’s say, and then have around it the other teachers from that lineage, or who taught me the other Asian languages. That is just my own style. There’s room for creativity there. It is just an artistic thing. 

Even if we can’t visualize all of them simultaneously, which obviously is very difficult to do, then at least as we say each of their names and think of them for a moment. We can remember what they look like. It makes it more alive. The whole energy of guru-yoga comes from it being vivid. That is why it is so important to have had a real-life teacher and not just learn from books. We don’t get very much energy from books. We get some, but not as much as from an actual person. It is different watching a person in a video and being in the same room with them.

What is the difference between the seven-part practice when admitting we have been misused by a teacher, and here when we are talking about the shortcomings of the teacher? 

In the third part about admitting the mistakes that we have made in the past, we are particularly talking about the mistake of getting into the situation that we got into with an abusive teacher. We may not be doing the guru-yoga with that abusive teacher, but we are acknowledging the bad experiences that we have had. Here we could think, “I have been abused by this teacher. What is the point of dwelling on that? The teacher did also have good qualities, and I did learn something from the teacher, so I can appreciate that.” That is possible, but more common is thinking, “I have had this bad experience. I don’t want it to taint the relation that I have now with a better-qualified teacher.” The point that we are doing after the seven parts is thinking of the advantages of focusing on the good qualities and the disadvantages of focusing only on negative qualities, so it is a different point. 

When thinking about the teacher with whom we have had bad experiences, it is also important not to just say, “Everything was bad, I was just completely stupid. Getting involved with such a teacher was a waste of time.” Undoubtedly there were some positive things that we learned from that experience and relationship, even if it was just Dharma information. It says very clearly in the teachings that if the relationship with such a teacher was entered prematurely and unwisely, we keep a distance. Don’t just think negatively, but appreciate, “Okay, I learned some positive things, and now I can’t really continue with you, but thank you very much.” 

Why is this relationship between a student and a teacher so central in Tibetan Buddhism? It is much more so than in any tradition in the West, for instance. Particularly in Tibet, it was difficult because there was no public-school system. If you wanted to acquire knowledge, you had to seek direct contact with a teacher. And you can get more energy from this direct contact. But why is it that, in a world where we now have such good access to information, it is still so important? Why is this still stressed so much? 

Well, first of all, this emphasis on the student-teacher relationship is found not only in Tibet, but also in India and China as well, in terms of proper relationships between people, and so on. I think that it is even more relevant nowadays in the West than it might have been a little while ago. If we look at the phenomena of the Internet, computers, chat rooms, cell phones, all these sorts of things, people are getting more and more distant from each other. We might think that it is making them closer to each other, but it is not really, because it is just the opposite. We can give a false name in a chat room. We can assume any identity. We can shut off the computer if we don’t want to communicate anymore. We could not answer our cell phone if we don’t want to answer. I think that often people are getting more and more alienated from each other and more into their own worlds with their little machines and becoming dependent on their machines. 

Particularly in the context of Mahayana, in which we want to be able to actually benefit others, it is very, very important to have human-to-human contact, real emotional contact with each other. With the spiritual teacher, although we might not have terribly much contact with the teacher, still, it is a living relationship in which there is an actual interchange on a real level. We can’t run away. We have to deal with the teacher and with the situation. I find it very important for the development of our own personality and for the development of our own ability to deal with people and help them, which is what we are aiming to be able to do as a Buddha. 

[See: The Role of Spiritual Teachers in the Digital Age]

Nevertheless, would it be right to say that the aim is to overcome this reliance on an external teacher and be guided entirely by an internal teacher or master? 

I think we need to understand what that might mean. It is through relating to an external teacher, not instead of, when we speak about the guru being a conduit to help us develop our Buddha-nature. However, through relating to an external teacher, we can learn to rely on the internal teacher. The internal teacher isn’t some creature inside us or somebody sending us messages by telepathy. The internal teacher is our Buddha-nature, our potentials of the clear light mind, so the external teacher and the relation with the external teacher helps us to do that. Also, with the external teacher, we have an opportunity to build up a tremendous amount of positive force, in terms of not just learning from such a person, but also helping them to help others. A living model is so important; otherwise, we just have some imaginary idea of what we are aiming for, and that could be quite false. 

We might not have the ability to help hundreds of thousands of people, and so on. But if they hold these big events where His Holiness the Dalai Lama or other great teachers come, and they teach so many people, and we help out even in a very mundane physical way by being a volunteer at one of these teachings, we participate, then there is an enormous amount of positive force. We would never be able to have such an opportunity just sitting by ourselves in front of our computer in our room. 

How do we understand that in terms of helping to give us more discriminating awareness or the ordinary worldly powers? What actually is this inner guru? 

Remember, the main function of the spiritual teacher is not to just simply give us information that we can get from the Internet or a book, but to inspire us. Of course, there are many other functions: to give the oral transmissions connected with lineage, answer questions, correct us, and so on. The deepest function is the inspiration, the strength to be on the path. This, ultimately, we have to derive from ourselves, from the clear light mind. The inner guru is the clear light mind, the subtlest level of mind, which is where all the Buddha-nature qualities and potentials are. This is what gives us our strength, our inspiration, to follow the various means and methods to actualize them, just as we have to follow the various means to actualize the good qualities that we see in the teacher. 

I don’t think that we should take it so literally that we’re going to get messages from our clear light mind, you know, like on our cell phone. There is a message that comes up, and there it is: “Now do this and now do that.” It is our source of strength and inspiration through developing ourselves based on not only the inspiration from the teacher, but in resonance, in tandem with our own Buddha-nature qualities. As I have said, we see the Buddha-nature in the teacher, and it helps to activate the Buddha-nature within ourselves. Then we develop, based on those qualities of the clear light mind, this discriminating awareness, this warmth, this ability to help others, and so on. 

I've met a Western teacher who said that he was always in communication with his guru through the inner voice of inner communication. He didn’t need to see his teacher; in fact, his teacher was dead. He felt he didn’t need to go to teachers anymore. What is going on here?

In some rare cases, there is such a thing as telepathy, even with a teacher who has passed away. It is certainly described in the texts. For instance, Kedrub Je had a vision of Tsongkhapa. Now, from my own experience of my own teacher having passed away, I can see that we often feel much closer to the teacher after they have passed away simply because we can’t say, “Well my teacher is traveling somewhere else.” We might give that excuse of saying we’re far apart when they’re traveling, but when they’ve passed away we have to internalize the values of the teacher.

I certainly always ask myself, when I am in a perplexing situation, and I don’t quite know what to do, how would Serkong Rinpoche handle this situation? What would he do? What would His Holiness the Dalai Lama do? What would my two main teachers do in this situation? Then, since I have had a lot of exposure to them in many, many situations, I have some idea of how they would react. Are they communicating with me at that time? I don’t think so. Not directly or consciously from their side. Anyway, in most cases, a great Tibetan spiritual teacher will have reincarnated, so who is communicating with whom? I don’t know. In terms of telepathy, there are many different forms of telepathy. There is certainly a very deep connection by which we feel something. From another person, we can feel their energy very easily, even if they are not there. We can know that somebody is about to call us, “I was just thinking of you,” and then, they call two seconds later. I’m sure many of us have experienced that.

So, there are these types of connections, but also there are those who might fall into the category of charlatan teachers, often Westerners, who want to impress others by saying, “Oh, I am in deep contact with my teacher all the time. My teacher is speaking to me,” whereas that’s only putting on an act. It is very hard to tell what somebody else is doing. We need to look at other aspects of their behavior. However, in general, if our teacher is alive and we have access to them, it is best to have contact with the teacher and certainly necessary in terms of getting explanations of things and learning more. 

Obviously, there are those who have had visions. There are quite well-known accounts in which the vision of Maitreya, or some other figure, has given someone teachings, but that is very rare. I don’t think most of us are going to have that experience. This experience of thinking, “How would my teacher deal with this situation?” is, I think, something that we can all work with. That’s what it means to have the guru in our heart. We internalize their values.

Sometimes we think, “Oh, I was just thinking of you,” or “I had the feeling you were thinking of me,” and sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not true. If we check with the person, “Were you thinking of me at such-and-such an hour?” we can confirm it. So, this type of experience is not reliable. Many of the great and well-known texts that we have came from visions. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken about these pure visions. He said that just as there have been pure visions and transmissions of teachings in that way in the past, there is no reason to say that they won’t continue in the future. They will continue in the future, but he says that it is very important to test these teachings to make sure that they are not something that are garbage. 

We need to check if a teaching is consistent with all the other teachings of Buddha. When they are put into practice by qualified masters, do they bring their stage of the results, and so on? Especially when teachings come from some sort of spirit or through an oracle or something like that, through channeling, for example, it is very, very important to check. Just as there can be very beneficial, highly developed spirits that can speak and give advice through oracles, there can also be very destructive spirits, evil ghosts that likewise deceive people in terms of giving bad advice. We always have to check these things, as His Holiness advises.

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