What Is Guru-Yoga?

Defining the Term “Guru-Yoga”

“Guru” and “yoga” are Sanskrit words. We need to learn what these mean in order to know what we are going to be talking about. 

First, a guru is a fully qualified spiritual master. The word literally means someone who is heavy, and in the case of guru-yoga we mean someone who is heavy with good qualities. Guru is translated into Tibetan in various ways. One way is with the word lama (bla-ma), which also can mean a very highly realized master. Lama is used in a variety of ways, though, in different Tibetan cultures. In some Tibetan cultures it refers to any monk, but that would be too limited a definition for guru-yoga. In other Tibetan cultures, it can be somebody who has done a three-year retreat, which qualifies them to be a village priest and do rituals. We certainly don’t mean that when we talk about guru-yoga. There are, then, some Western people who just declare themselves “lama” pretentiously for various, and possibly not the purest, reasons. That is not what we mean here either. 

In addition, the term “lama” is used for a reincarnate lama, and such a person is called a tulku (sprul-sku) in Tibetan. They are referred to with the title “Rinpoche.” We don’t necessarily mean that either. Just because someone is a reincarnate lama doesn’t mean that they are a qualified teacher. That type of reincarnate lama could still be a child. Even as an adult, it may be that the ideal conditions and circumstances for a tulku being raised, and the necessary education and environment, were not met. The vast majority of tulkus are not enlightened. In fact, most have not even had non-conceptual cognition of voidness. They continue to experience the ripening of previously built-up negative karmic potentials, so they might not act like a proper teacher at all. 

It is important to recognize that just because somebody has the title of tulku, or reincarnate lama, doesn’t mean that they are a great master. It just means that the person who originated their lineage was a great master. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always advises very strongly that these tulkus, the reincarnate lamas, should not rely just on their names. He emphasizes that their followers as well should not rely on the teacher’s great name and high title, and that each reincarnate lama must prove themselves and their qualifications in this life. 

Another name for a guru comes from a slightly different Sanskrit term, kalyana-mitra, which is sometimes translated as “spiritual friend.” “Spiritual” is not actually the correct word here. Instead, it is a friend who helps us to become constructive. The word that’s translated as “spiritual” (kalyāṇa) actually means constructive. The constructive or spiritual friend is someone with whom we are very close, who treats us like a dear friend or a family member. It doesn’t mean somebody with whom we go drinking and to the movies, but someone with whom we have a heart-to-heart, very close connection. The whole purpose of the relationship is to help us to be more and more constructive, more and more positive, and to gain more and more good qualities. 

The Tibetan word for such a spiritual friend is geshe (dge-bshes, dge-ba’i bshes-gnyen). It was only much later that geshe became a title for someone who has completed the education system in the Gelug tradition. Its original meaning was a spiritual friend. The equivalent term in the other Tibetan traditions is khenpo (mkhan-po), which in other contexts means an abbot of a monastery. Literally, khenpo means a learned one. 

Just because somebody is a geshe or a khenpo doesn’t mean that they are spiritually developed or that they are necessarily a good teacher. It does mean, however, that they are very well-educated and have passed a lot of exams, as we might see with university professors. Being well-learned is certainly a qualification for being a great teacher, but just being well-learned is not enough to be considered a guru. Gurus also must have the personalities that go with the title, in that they actually have developed in themselves all these good qualities that they have learned about. 

Second, the word “yoga” of guru-yoga, comes from the same root as the English word “yoke,” which means to join something or someone. For example, we say that we take two oxen and yoke them together to draw a plow. The Tibetan word has two syllables (rnal-’byor), and they mean to join or yoke to what is authentic, or the real thing. What we are trying to join together in guru-yoga are our qualities of body, speech and mind with the qualities of the guru. In other words, we join how we act, how we communicate, and how we think and feel with the qualities of body, speech and mind of an authentic, qualified spiritual teacher. Now in order to do this, we need to be receptive and open to our own basic qualities of body, speech and mind being joined with those of our guru. In other words, we need to be properly qualified as well. 

The whole purpose of guru-yoga is to be inspired by the example and guidance of the spiritual teacher. The word byin-rlabs is usually translated as “blessing,” but I find that to be a completely inappropriate translation coming from Christian sources. The way that I prefer to translate the term is “inspiration.” The word also means to uplift, or to brighten. In other words, through practicing guru-yoga, we are opening our ways of acting, communicating, thinking and feeling to being trained, to being uplifted, to being brightened to a more beneficial level through this inspiration. 

When we speak about this joining, we are certainly not talking about copying the teacher’s behavior. For example, if the teacher speaks bad English, we are not going to imitate the teacher’s bad English and speak bad English as well. If their habit is to drink a lot of butter tea, we are not going to copy them and drink butter tea. We are not talking about these superficial qualities. What we are referring to is being inspired by and joining our qualities with the positive good qualities, the Buddha-qualities, of the teacher. That is the significance of seeing the spiritual teacher as a Buddha. It was never intended to be taken literally. Nowhere in the Buddhist literature does it list among the qualifications of a spiritual master that the person has to be an enlightened being. If the teacher were literally a Buddha, they should know the telephone number of everybody on this planet, and they obviously don’t. They could walk through walls and do all sorts of things like that. They obviously can’t. 

More deeply, what seeing our guru as a Buddha is referring to is seeing the Buddha-nature qualities in our spiritual teacher and focusing on the not-yet-happening enlightening qualities that are imputations on them. An imputation phenomenon is one that is tied to a basis and cannot exist or be known independently of that basis. In this case, the not-yet-happening good qualities cannot exist or be known independently of the presently-happening good qualities. We focus on those, as represented in guru-yoga by the qualities of one of these Buddha-figures, or yidams, in Tibetan. When we see the teacher as being inseparable from these Buddha-figures, what we are doing is focusing on these imputations that are based on our guru’s Buddha-nature qualities, as represented by the form and qualities of the Buddha-figure. Focusing like that on our guru’s good qualities as represented by a Buddha-figure inspires us to be able to focus, with tantra practice, on our own not-yet-happening Buddha-qualities based on our own Buddha-nature qualities and to see ourselves as a Buddha-figure. This is an effective method because it is easier to see the Buddha-nature qualities in the spiritual teacher than it is to see them in ourselves.

In the cases of both our spiritual teacher and us, however, the whole practice is based on the understanding of the voidness of the Buddha-nature factors. They are not actually findable inside our teacher or inside us. Nevertheless, we are connecting our own Buddha-nature with the Buddha-nature of the spiritual master. That is why Gampopa said, “When I realized the unity of my spiritual master and the yidam with my own mind, I realized mahamudra.” We are linking our own Buddha-nature with the Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher in order to gain the inspiration to realize our own Buddha-nature and fully actualize all its potentials. 

That is the whole point of guru-yoga. The yoking is represented by streams of light connecting the three places (the forehead, throat and heart) representing body, speech and mind of the spiritual teacher, and the good qualities of each, with our three places and our own good qualities. It’s like they are a conduit that energizes the aspects of Buddha-nature in us. 

Qualities Needed in a Spiritual Teacher as a Source of Inspiration

Relating to Someone Closer to Our Own Level of Development

Now, if we were to try to relate to Buddha Shakyamuni himself and all the qualities of the Buddha as listed in the teachings, it would be difficult. The Buddha has the ability to speak all languages, to say just one word and everybody understands the meaning fully in their own language and gets different levels of realization from it, and so on. These actual Buddha-qualities are very difficult for us to imagine, let alone relate to and take really seriously. 

Doing guru-yoga with Shakyamuni Buddha himself, then, could be quite difficult for most of us. Of course, we could do it, but it would need to really be sincere and have meaning for us, and not just be like a Disneyland trip that is pure entertainment. That is an expression used by Khandro Rinpoche. The guru-yoga has to not be just a samsaric entertainment of lights coming in, like a ride in an amusement park. 

It is only somebody who really is very highly developed, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who says he gets his inspiration directly from the example of Buddha Shakyamuni. His Holiness regularly teaches to crowds of 10,000–20,000 people when he travels outside of India. It is translated into so many different languages simultaneously, and sometimes he teaches to crowds of over 100,000 people in India. So, he can relate to the example of Buddha Shakyamuni. His Holiness travels so much, and he even teaches millions of people simultaneously when sometimes his teachings are broadcast on the Internet all over the world. Thus, he can relate to that kind of example, but we can’t. We have nothing in our experience that comes remotely close to that. 

For us, what are the great examples that we could relate to, that would show us how we could conceivably progress? For most of us, the example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is beyond our imagination. It would be challenging to imagine how to keep up the type of schedule that His Holiness maintains and teach so many people, and to be the most learned of all the Tibetans, and the most compassionate, and to have a totally photographic memory of not only texts but of people, and to deal with all the worldly and political aspects like he does. Would we be able to cope to have the whole country of the People’s Republic of China consider us their worst enemy and the worst person in the entire world, and not be depressed by that but happy all the time? We can’t tolerate one person saying bad things about us, so how would we manage with having about 1.2 billion people saying them? Or having their politicians and media spreading propaganda all over the world about how bad a person we are? Try to deal with that and not get depressed. 

His Holiness says that he feels a little bit sad that he has never been depressed in his life, so he can’t really relate to the experience of what it must be like to be depressed. This is inconceivable for us. We need to relate to much-less-developed spiritual teachers to gain our inspiration. That is why the examples of so-called ordinary spiritual masters can be far more inspiring, because we can actually imagine, despite the fact that they have many more good qualities than we have, what it might be like to be like them and to have their qualities. A spiritual master who is suitable to help us on the path might not at all be the highest example, at least not at our present stage. We need to develop further and further to be able to get sincere inspiration from a highly developed spiritual master and not just be overwhelmed or think, “I can’t possibly ever become like that.” 

Finding a Spiritual Master

It also says in many of the texts from the great masters that, realistically speaking, we are not going to find very easily a spiritual master that has all the qualifications. The ones that we are going to meet are going to have both positive and negative qualities or shortcomings. It is important to find someone who has more positive qualities than negative ones. Among those positive qualities, which are the most important? These are sincerely wishing to help the student, not having intentions to exploit the student for money, power, sex, or other advantages, and being an ethical person. They need compassion, ethics, and certainly to know more than the student knows, in order to teach them something. Also, they need to not be somebody strongly under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes. These types of things are the most important. 

We need to be very careful because there are many charlatans, both Asian and Western, who pose as spiritual teachers. Many of them can be very charismatic and entertaining and have a large following. They could even be recommended by other masters who haven’t examined their suitability very well, and who don’t take the time to look deeply into how they are actually behaving in the West. We need to be very careful to discriminate and not follow a charismatic charlatan just because a lot of other people are following them. After all, Hitler was charismatic as well. It doesn’t mean that we follow such a person. 

Similarly, just because the teacher has a great deal of learning, it doesn’t mean that their personality is well developed. We need to be careful with our relationship with such a teacher, but at least that person has learning. The charlatan often doesn’t even have learning. From the person who at least has learning, we can gain correct information. It might not be very inspiring in terms of the type of person they are, but we can appreciate the fact that they are a source of correct information, which we need. We need to be very clear about the fact that there are many levels of development of spiritual teachers. 

Qualifications of the Spiritual Teacher and Disciple

Another two absolutely necessary qualifications of any level of spiritual teacher are that the person be honest and not pretentious. They should not pretend to have good qualities that they don’t have and not try to hide or lie about the shortcomings that they might have. They don’t need to reveal to everybody their private sexual life. I am talking instead about revealing whether they have or haven’t studied something, or if they haven’t actually done a certain type of meditation. It should be someone who is ready to disclose that, someone willing to admit such failings in their education or in their own personal development. That is very important. They’re not putting on an act and are sincere. 

Similarly, we ourselves need to be honest about our own level of development and not pretend to the teacher to have qualities we don’t have. We should not hide our own shortcomings, such as what we have practiced, what we have understood, and so on. In that way, the relation can be honest and based on reality, not fantasy. Even if we don’t have terribly much personal interaction with the teacher, we need to be honest when we do. But we need to keep in mind that a teacher in the Tibetan context isn’t somebody that we go to all the time to tell all our problems and everything about us. That is more of a therapist. 

A spiritual teacher is not a therapist. A spiritual teacher gives us the methods, and then it is up to us to work on them. We can ask questions, but with a therapist, the client does most of the talking, talking about themselves. The spiritual teacher does the vast majority of the talking and talks about the teachings, so it is very different. Many Westerners confuse the two roles of a spiritual teacher and a therapist. It is very important not to confuse the two. If we need a therapist, we should go to a therapist and not to a spiritual teacher. Also, the spiritual master teaches by their own example, and the therapist doesn’t. 

Relating to the Spiritual Teacher

If I speak from my own experience, I had a very close relation with Serkong Rinpoche for nine years and very close contact with my other spiritual teachers as well. All of them were Tibetan, and I must say that they never asked me about my personal experience with the teachings, and I never really discussed it with them. I never explained to them when this or that was happening. I was always encouraged to try to apply the teachings and figure it out myself. They would be open if I had questions about the teachings, but my relationship with them was not at all a Western type of relationship, and that suited me very well, I must say. 

Now for Western teachers relating to Western students, many of them do mix in a little bit of this aspect of being the therapist. There are some who are very distant from their students, but if they have regular students, they usually like to get to know the students personally and help them with the different types of problems that they might be having. I think that Western students find it much easier to speak about their own experiences and their own challenges to a Western teacher. Very often, many Tibetan teachers can’t really relate to what the Westerners are saying. Our backgrounds are too different in terms of what we have studied earlier in our lives and experienced in our cultures. It is changing a little bit in the West as we develop this Western-teacher-to-Western-disciple relationship, but there are still problems there. 

Culturally speaking, most traditional Asians don’t talk about their emotions or their feelings in their relationships. The way that they’re raised is very different. Nobody ever asks a small child, “What do you feel like eating?” and “What do you feel like wearing today?” It is not a question, whereas, in the West, we are always encouraged to express our feelings and our personal preferences of things. So, to talk about emotions and feelings from Westerner to Westerner, that works much, much better. 

With Serkong Rinpoche, particularly, he would correct me and point out things not in terms of my feelings that I would express to him, but about my actual behavior. He never failed to point out to me when I was acting like an idiot. It is in that way that a traditional Asian teacher would help us with our application of the teachings. With a Westerner, we might more easily speak about how working with the teachings is affecting our feelings, our emotions. This is how I see it from my experience of having been and continuing to be a student of great traditional Asian masters and also being a teacher myself and relating to my own students. There can also be Asian teachers who have grown up in the West, and that is different. 

Appreciating the Kindness of the Teacher

Guru-yoga has both a sutra and a tantra level. The sutra level of guru-yoga is the foundation and basis for the tantra-level practice. It is incomplete to only do the tantra-level practice by itself. The sutra level entails working through the recognizing and focusing on the good qualities of the teacher that are actually there and appreciating the kindness of the teacher. 

In terms of focusing on the good qualities, we also don’t deny the shortcomings of the teacher, either. It is important to not be in denial, but to realize that, realistically, the spiritual teachers we have do certainly have shortcomings; they are not enlightened beings. We also need to recognize, though, that focusing on these shortcomings and complaining about them are not going to benefit us in any way. It is certainly not going to be inspiring; it is just going to depress us. Having acknowledged what the shortcomings are, then we focus on what the positive qualities are. Those are the sources of inspiration; those are what relate to Buddha-nature. This was made very clear by the Fifth Dalai Lama, that we should not deny the teacher’s shortcomings. They have shortcomings in that they fall short of the full qualifications that we are looking for. For instance, they don’t have enough time for us because they’re traveling all over the world, and they have so many students. That is a shortcoming, isn’t it? It can cause us to really be very resentful of that. 

The important thing is to actually feel some inspiration from their positive qualities. To be able to feel that inspiration in many ways depends on the karmic relationship that we have with the teacher. There can be a teacher who is incredibly well qualified, and yet we don’t feel any connection with that teacher. Being with the teacher doesn’t move our hearts or our feelings in any way. Whereas there can be another teacher that doesn’t have such great qualities, but because the karmic relation is so strong, they really inspire us and move us. Of course, we need to be careful that we’re not fantasizing and projecting qualities onto the teacher that the teacher doesn’t have. 

This is what we mean when we say, “root guru.” A root guru is one who inspires us so much. That inspiration gives us the strength to grow throughout our spiritual path. It is the root from which the plant gets all of its nourishment and sustenance. That is the essential point, to have this inspiration, this feeling of being uplifted, energized, and inspired by the teacher. 

Very often, let’s be honest, we get up in the morning and don’t feel very inspired at all to do anything. We go into our practice and don’t feel inspired. When we sit there and do a guru-yoga practice and imagine three lights coming, and so on, it doesn’t move our hearts very much. We recite the words in Tibetan, but this doesn’t do very much for us either. This sutra-level step of appreciating the kindness of the teacher is to help us to remember their qualities so that we feel something. Then, if we do a tantra-level practice with the visualizations and so on, it actually moves our heart. We get some benefit from it. Otherwise, as I mentioned before, Khandro Rinpoche says it’s just spiritual entertainment. We’re sitting there entertaining ourselves with a pretty visualizations, or it doesn’t move us at all. 

The Importance of Preliminary Practices and Building up Positive Force 

This opens up a whole different topic, which I think is quite relevant to the whole discussion of guru-yoga, which is the fact that many of us have difficulties with feelings. Either our feelings are blocked, and we don’t feel anything, so our hearts aren’t really moved by anybody; or, on the other hand, we are overemotional and over-devotional. Our feelings can overwhelm us to the point where we don’t really use our discrimination. We are just carried away. Often such feelings are based on projections of fantasy rather than the actual situation. To avoid such problems of blocked or overemotional feelings, we need to do a lot of preliminary practice, purification, building up some positive force, and so on. That way, we will be able to overcome these obstacles of being insensitive or oversensitive, so that we can practice guru-yoga in a proper, healthy way. That is not easy. 

Often, we are a little bit confused between the idea of seed and root. In the lam-rim (the gradual path tradition), in many of the texts, the relation with the spiritual teacher is at the beginning of the text, and it’s called the “root of the path.” However, we need to understand that the root of the path is not the same as the seed of the path. The seed is where we start, what the path grows from. The root, as with the root guru, is where the nourishment comes from once the seedling is already grown to a certain extent. 

Presenting the relation with the guru at the beginning of these texts comes from the fact that these texts were based on oral teachings given to groups of monks who were already extremely committed to the spiritual path with vows. These monks were reviewing the graded path as preparation for receiving a tantric initiation. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, that is certainly not the way to teach it to Westerners, particularly ones who are just walking into a Dharma center to get information. They don’t know anything about Buddhism. We certainly don’t start with seeing the guru as a Buddha, so it’s better to have it at the end. The Fifth Dalai Lama also makes it very clear that the way in which the relation with the Mahayana spiritual teacher is described is on the basis of already having refuge and bodhichitta. It is not at all for a beginner. 

There are also, as mentioned earlier, many different spiritual levels of spiritual teachers. There are some who are only really qualified to give us information in the beginning of our spiritual path. We don’t know anything about Buddhism at that point, so that is what we are looking for, just information. Then, there are others who can explain a little bit about how to integrate the spiritual path into our daily life. They can share what their experience is, and this is usually done by older students. There are then those who can teach us how to meditate, including how to set up an altar and so on, like a martial arts trainer would train us. However, an actual spiritual teacher is somebody that we turn to when we are ready to really commit ourselves to the path, and we understand very well what we’re doing. 

The one whom we may call our actual spiritual teacher, if we look at the definitions, is the one from whom we take vows. There are lay and monk vows, bodhisattva vows and tantric vows. That’s where we establish the relation with the spiritual teacher, by taking vows. It’s not that we need to say, “Oh, you’re my teacher,” and they need to say, “You’re my disciple.” This is not what we do to start with. The stages of the spiritual teacher also correspond to our own stages as a student as we develop. It doesn’t need to be said, “You’re my teacher. I’m your disciple.” Of course, to really say such a thing, even if only to ourselves, we need to be ready to take vows. Many people take vows prematurely, without really being mature and stable enough to actually keep them or to know what they are doing. 

We can get some inspiration from the qualities of all of these levels of teachers, even somebody who can just give us correct information. That is a good quality, and we can gain inspiration from the amount of study that this person must have done to establish that. So, there is one level in which everybody can be our teacher, and we can try to recognize positive qualities in anybody and gain inspiration and learn from them. 

To actually feel a strong inspiration that’s going to set us really along the path and strengthen us throughout, we need to have reached the level of maturity in which we are completely honest with ourselves. We need to be honest about the teacher, not just projecting fantasies, so that our hearts are open, our minds are open, but open on the basis of having discriminating awareness. It is not just thinking, “I’ll become your blind slave, just tell me what to do,” and we then become dependent on the teacher. A proper teacher would never allow that and would see the signs of it at the very beginning and would stop it. 

We are open to being led, but our feet are on the ground. We are honest with our teacher and with ourselves. We have sincere respect for the Buddhist teachings. We acknowledge our own shortcomings and want very much to get rid of them. We see the teachings as a way to be able to do that, and we see the teacher as somebody like a doctor who can actually help guide us. However, not as an omnipotent god who can just perform a miracle, and we magically no longer have anger or attachment. We need to be ready to progress along the spiritual path, and that requires building up the causes for that. Also, on the basis of everything that I just said, we need to be ready to commit ourselves, with vows, to the spiritual path. 

To feel that inspiration from the teacher on the basis of all of this, what we need to recognize is that what is going on here is a type of energy exchange. In terms of a karmic relationship, we feel this energy. I think we should also be aware that the energy exchange and heightening of energy works both ways. Although we usually think of it only in terms of the inspiration coming to us from the teacher, actually, from the side of the teacher, having receptive disciples gives the teacher a tremendous amount of inspiration and energy to really try as much as possible to embody the teachings and to stay as pure as possible with motivation and so on. The whole relationship, when it works properly, is mutually uplifting for both. That is why it has to be a living relationship with an actual person for it to have the strongest energy. Once we have had such a relationship with a teacher, even when they have died, that energy still continues, because it is based on our personal experience with the teacher. They don’t need to be around all the time. 

Most of us, though, don’t have a personal relationship with a spiritual master. Or the ones that we have met are not terribly inspiring, or they don’t seem to be very highly qualified. What do we do in that case? We could feel quite depressed about that, feel sorry for ourselves, and be filled with this longing desire for that authentic relationship. Often that can be connected with a little bit of a fantasy about what the relationship would be like. We might imagine that somebody is just going to fall out of the skies and take us under their wings, lead us by the hand to enlightenment and spend all their time with us. That is an unreasonable expectation. Even if we don’t have an inspiring relationship with a spiritual teacher yet, we should at least not to have an over-exaggerated expectation of what it would be. Our idea of it should not be one from a Milarepa comic book. 

We need to have a great deal of courage and the willingness to change and grow in order to find and enter into such a relationship. It is not a matter of thinking, “Teach me some positive habits, but I am certainly not willing to give up my negative habits.” We need to be realistic about that as well. Don’t look for a bargain, to try to get enlightenment cheap, which is what our shopper’s mentality often leads us to. Think instead of the examples of great masters from Tibet and the amount of hardship that they went through to receive teachings. Atisha went from India all the way to Sumatra in order to meet a spiritual master. Masters are not going to just fall out of the sky. 

This is why the preliminary practices such as prostration and Vajrasattva are so important. We need to become more open and receptive in our minds and our hearts. There are many things that we work on, on a very deep emotional level, when we do these preliminaries. For example, we might initially think that doing prostrations fanatically will be of help to us, or at the other extreme, think, “Doing prostrations hurts my knees, why should I bother doing them?” That’s why everybody always says that, when we do the preliminaries, an awful lot of emotional garbage comes up. This needs to come up, in a sense, so that we can see it and work on it. Hopefully, through that process, we can open up a little bit more and be more receptive to the spiritual teacher, to the teachings, and feel encouraged to develop a willingness to grow and to change. Doing these preliminaries builds up character. We need to also avoid the extreme of being a fanatic, just following orders and doing the practices while expecting a miracle at the end. “I’ll perform and do all this, and then at the end, I expect my reward.” That doesn’t happen. 

We’re dealing here with being open to energy. Before we actually have found a spiritual teacher, we could get inspiration from thinking of the examples of Shakyamuni (although Shakyamuni Buddha is very difficult to relate to), or similarly, the founders of the various traditions, such as Tsongkhapa or Guru Rinpoche. They all have very wonderful, excellent qualities. Doing the guru-yogas or other tantric practices where we visualize one of these lineage masters, or Vajradhara, for example, and do a recitation of a verse, or a guru’s Sanskrit name or something like that is beneficial. The point is to do it with someone who represents the Buddha-qualities and with whom we actually feel some connection, who moves us. 

If we do it with any of these lineage founders or lineage masters, it is very important to actually know the biography of this person. We need to know their qualities, and not just have it be vague, so that we can try to relate to that person as a real, historical person. Otherwise, there will be very little energy there, and moving our energy is the whole point. However, with a real human being that we know and have some contact with, then obviously, we can feel the energy much more strongly. 

With this living teacher, also, try to find out as much as possible about the person, even if we’ve only had limited contact or exposure to this master. Find out about their education, their training, what they have done in their lives, and so on. Knowing this will give us far more inspiration. They didn’t just pop out of the womb the way that they are now as a mature adult. They developed. How did they develop their qualities? That is important. If they say they’ve done retreats, find out for how long. We should know the basic biographical details of the person. Otherwise, it’s often all projections of fantasy. 

We need to build up the causes for making our minds and hearts receptive through preliminaries. We also need to take seriously what is always mentioned, which is to offer sincere prayers to meet with and be led by fully qualified spiritual teachers in all our lifetimes. In doing this, it is important that we are not praying to God or to Buddha Shakyamuni to grant that to us. That is not the style of prayer in Buddhism. We should instead be setting a very strong wish for that to happen, based on confidence that it is realistic, that it can happen. 

Buddhist prayer should not be based on wishing for the impossible, but instead based on the confidence that we ourselves can experience that result if we put in the proper causes. Prayer allows us to direct our energy very much in the direction of our confident wish and, in that way, becomes a cause of its fulfillment. It is particularly important to dedicate any positive force that we might build into ripening into that, and to do it all way up to enlightenment, including future lives as well, not just now. These are important things to do. Somebody is not going to fall out of the sky and say, “Here I am. I have been looking for you. Please come. I will lead you to enlightenment.” It doesn’t happen. Or if it does happen, it happens very, very rarely. And if it does, it happens on the basis of a tremendous number of causes built up from past lives. The prayers and the requests are not enough. It is like the example of wishing to win the lottery but not buying a lottery ticket. We need to actually do something as well. 

We need to look at how to create the causes for making our minds and hearts receptive, and for meeting a fully qualified spiritual teacher. The main theme with the spiritual teacher is to focus on the good qualities, not just focus on the shortcomings. We focus on the qualities that are based on fact, not just projections of fantasy. We appreciate the kindness that we have received from the spiritual teacher, and their willingness to actually engage in helping others to do positive things. We show respect, and so on. 

Even if we don’t have a spiritual teacher toward whom all of this could be directed, I think, based on my own reasoning, that we would do well to be appreciative and show respect toward other people in our lives. Whether it is our parents, our relatives, our friends, our schoolteachers, or people who have good qualities and have been kind to us and who have helped us, we should focus on their good qualities, and not just always complain. We must really sincerely appreciate all their kindness to us, and try to help them, support them in these positive things. We then combine that with prayers of, “May I be able to have a fully qualified spiritual teacher,” so that this would act as a cause for being able to have a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher. That way, we are already in that mindset that we want to develop. 

Buddhism is a very active path. It is not passive; we don’t just wait for somebody to save us. If we want to experience something, then we need to investigate what the causes are, and then build up those causes. If we haven’t met the proper spiritual teacher that suits us and so on, I think that rather than just sitting around and feeling sorry for ourselves and complaining and being jealous of others who might have found such a teacher, we need to try to actively build up those causes, both short-term and long-term. 

In the short term, if, for example, there is nobody around in our area, try somehow to make the money or whatever it is that would be necessary to go where there might be teachers. That’s a short-term cause and effect. Or in my case, in order to go to India, I needed to pass all my doctorate exams and finish all the studies and gain all the languages. To study with Serkong Rinpoche, I had to gain more language proficiency and build up more positive force, which he helped me to do by saying he wouldn’t teach me by myself, it had to be in the context of my translating his teachings for others. So, in the short term we are building up the causes, and then building them up for the long term in terms of many future lives. 

We need to not just build up the causes that will contribute to such things, but also work to eliminate the short-term and long-term causes of what would prevent them. Always complaining, always criticizing others, always looking at their negative points, being lazy, not willing to work for things, just expecting that everything is going to be handed to us, these types of hindrances will prevent having such a relationship. 

A major obstacle is if we just take, take, take and never give anything back. We don’t try to help others in return. We don’t appreciate all the hardships that our parents might have gone through in order to provide us the circumstances to have a comfortable home, an education, and so on. Even though they might not have been the perfect parents, and most of them aren’t, we need to avoid building up these obstacles. The bodhichitta practices of thinking of the kindness that we have received from our mothers and others and appreciating it and so on are a common thread in Buddhist practice. That regular building up of causes and reducing obstacles helps us to be able to do that with the spiritual master. Not that we project that the spiritual master is our mother or father. That can lead to problems as well. There are many, many causes that we need to build up. 

We appreciate what our parents have done for us, but it is not as though we owe them something and need to pay them back. “Repaying the kindness” is the way that I have translated the concept for many, many years, but upon being challenged on that, I investigated the words more carefully. It certainly doesn’t mean that. It means appreciating the kindness. There is no obligation that we need to feel, to pay it back; it’s a state of mind. They always say in the texts that if we think of the kindness that we’ve received, then automatically we appreciate it. We don’t need to do anything further in order to develop that feeling. It comes automatically. It’s clear that we are talking about appreciation, not that we feel guilty and have to pay them back and are obliged to do that, or otherwise, we are a bad daughter or son. These are important attitudes to develop with the teacher as well. 

These are some of the ways in which we start to open ourselves up to this energy that is involved with guru-yoga, and to be able to feel that energy, to be receptive to it, so that it really does act as the root to give us strength and inspiration. It is based on total respect for the teacher, for all the hard work that the teacher has put in, in this lifetime and in previous lives, to become like that. We open up to appreciation of our own Buddha-qualities and a realistic understanding of what we need to do to develop them. Then, the essence of guru-yoga is that we are not sucking the strength or getting something out of a gasoline pump from the teacher, but in a very natural type of way, by appreciating the kindness, it just naturally comes that we get this strength and energy for the spiritual path. The visualizations and the mantra recitation and so on are just to keep us mindful of it. Without the feeling, it’s just an entertaining visualization.


How many different texts and variations are there of guru-yoga?

I certainly couldn’t give you a number, but I would say probably dozens, if not hundreds. There are guru-yoga texts that are written with each of the lineage masters, not just the founders. Examples are the Karma Kagyu with Milarepa, Gampopa, Marpa, and the second Karmapa; there are just so many. Even in terms of one figure, often what happens is that when the practice becomes a little bit too well-known, then a new version is written that’s going to be a little bit more “holy” in a sense. It is not so open, and it becomes a little bit more special, with a little bit more power to it. 

In this sense, if we look over history into the collected works of the great masters, we can find so many different guru-yogas that so many different masters have written. The question is, how many are actively or actually practiced now within our own lineage. There can be fairly standard ones that are practiced, and then there can be special ones that we would have in special cases, like in Nyingma, where they have these treasure revealers, terton (gter-ston), and everybody’s going to have a different guru-yoga. Whereas in Gelugpa, where it is more standard, there is a more standard one with Tsongkhapa that’s done. It is hard to give a number. In essence, they basically all follow the same structure. Then, there are guru-yogas that are combined with Kalachakra and the six-session practice, for instance. There are many, many different variations, and guru-yogas with various deities, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Avalokiteshvara, for instance. There are many, many works. 

Also, all the tantra sadhanas, which are the standard practices in which we generate ourselves as one of these Buddha-figures, have as part of them a guru-yoga that is specific to that text. Then, there is the guru-yoga that is done in connection with reciting 100,000 times or more the name mantra of our personal teacher and doing the standard guru-yoga types of visualizations with that and the prayers. Each guru has a name mantra, which is a few Sanskrit words in the beginning, a few Sanskrit words in the end, and then the Sanskrit translation of their personal name in the middle. It is called the “name mantra” (mtshan-sngags) of a guru. Like this, there are many, many guru-yogas.