What Is Guru Yoga?

"Guru yoga" are two Sanskrit words. So first we have to see what do they mean in order to know what we are going to be talking about.

A guru is a very fully qualified spiritual master. The word literally means someone who is heavy, meaning with a great deal of weight of good qualities. The term is translated into Tibetan in various ways. One is the word “lama” (bla-ma), which again means a very highly realized master, although the term is used in different Tibetan type cultures in many different ways with lesser meanings. So, in some Tibetan cultures “lama” is used just to refer to any monk. We certainly do not mean that with guru-yoga. And in other cultures, it can be somebody who has just done a three-year retreat, which just means that they have become qualified to be a village priest and do rituals. We certainly don’t mean lama with that. And then there are some Western people who just declare themselves “lama” just pretentiously for various reasons – which might not be the purest. We certainly don’t mean that.

And also the term “lama” is used with a reincarnate lama. Such a person is called a “tulku” (sprul-sku) in Tibetan and they are referred to with the title “Rinpoche.” And we don’t necessarily mean that either. Just because someone is a reincarnate lama, that doesn’t mean that they are a qualified teacher. It could be a child. And even as an adult, if the conditions and circumstances for their raising, being raised, and their education and their environment and everything is not conducive, then since the vast, vast majority of them are certainly not enlightened, and certainly not even have had their perception of voidness (nonconceptual cognition of voidness), then negative karma ripens with them as well – which they still have – and they might not be acting like a proper teacher at all. So just because somebody has the title of tulku or reincarnate lama, it doesn’t mean that they are a great master. It just means the person who started their lineage was. So His Holiness the Dalai Lama always speaks very strongly about how these tulkus, the reincarnate lamas, should not rely just on their names, and their followers should not rely just on them having great names and high titles, but each reincarnate lama must prove themselves and their qualifications in this life.

Another name for a guru is coming from a slightly different Sanskrit term for this, is sometimes translated as “spiritual friend (kalyana-mitra).” And what this means – “spiritual” actually is not at all the word here – it’s a friend to help us to become constructive. The word that’s translated as “spiritual” (kalyana) actually means constructive. And so with someone who treats us – with whom we are very, very close – like a dear friend or a family member. It doesn’t mean somebody that we go drinking with and go to the movies with, but someone who we really have a heart to heart close connection with. The whole purpose of the relationship is to help us to be more and more constructive, more and more positive, to gain more and more good qualities. The Tibetan word for that is “geshe (dge-bshes, dge-ba'i bshes-gnyen).” It’s only later, much, much later, that it became a title for someone who 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, the word means a learned one.

So just because somebody is a Geshe or a Khenpo also doesn’t mean that they are spiritually developed or that they are at all a good teacher. It just means that they are very well-educated and passed a lot of exams, as we might see with university professors. Being well-learned is a qualification of being a great teacher, but just being well-learned is not enough. They also have to have the personalities that go with it, in which they really have developed all these good qualities that they have learned about.

Now the word “yoga” of guru-yoga, the word literally comes from the same root as the English word “yoke”, which means to join something or someone, as in putting two oxen and yoking them together to draw a plow. And the Tibetan has two syllables in it (rnal-’byor), and it means to join or yoke to what is authentic – in other words, to the real thing. And what we are trying to join together is our qualities of body, speech and mind. In other words, how we act, how we communicate, and how we think and feel, with the body, speech, and mind of an authentic spiritual teacher. Qualified – the authentic thing. Now in order to be able to do this, of course we need to be receptive and our own basic qualities of body, speech, and mind need to be open to that joining. In other words, we have to be properly qualified as well.

The mechanism that is operating here, the word (byin-rlabs) which usually is translated as “blessing,” which I find a completely inappropriate translation coming from Christian sources. The way that I prefer to translate the term is “inspiration.” What we want to do, through this joining, is to inspire – the word also means to uplift, to brighten. So in other words, our way of acting, communicating, thinking, and feeling are totally receptive, totally open to being trained, to being uplifted, being brightened to a more beneficial level through the inspiration of the example and guidance of the spiritual teacher. That is the whole purpose of the guru-yoga.

[See: "Blessings" or Inspiration]

So when we speak about this joining, we are certainly not talking about becoming a clone of the teacher, in the sense that if the teacher speaks bad English that now we are 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, that now we are going to drink butter tea. We are not talking about these superficial qualities. What we are referring to is the positive good qualities, the Buddha-qualities of the teacher.

And this is also the significance of seeing the spiritual teacher as a Buddha. That never was intended to be taken literally. Nowhere in the Buddhist literature does it say that among the qualifications of a spiritual master is that the person is an enlightened being. If the teacher really were literally a Buddha, they should know the telephone number of everybody on this planet, and they obviously don’t. And they would walk through walls and do all sorts of things like that. They obviously can’t. So what it is referring to is seeing the Buddha-nature in the spiritual teacher, and seeing the level of realization of these Buddha-nature qualities, and seeing the possibility of these Buddha-nature qualities within the example of the spiritual teacher and focusing on that. And so this Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher – that is represented as one of these Buddha-figures, these yidams, in Tibetan.

So when we see the teacher inseparable from these Buddha-figures, what we are seeing is focusing this on the Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher, which can be represented by the form and qualities of the Buddha-figure. The spiritual teacher is a Buddha-figure just as a convenient method – it is not that at all. We actually see the Buddha-nature, we focus on the Buddha-nature; it is there. In that sense the teacher is a Buddha, but it doesn’t mean that literally the teacher is a Buddha. You know what I mean. The language is always confusing there. That is the problem. It doesn’t mean literally their Buddha-nature is there – not that it is inherently findable, of course, there is the voidness of the Buddha-nature. That is the Buddha, because it is the potential of a Buddha; it’s the result and the cause.

So, what are we connecting here? What we are connecting really is our own Buddha-nature with the Buddha-nature of the spiritual master. That is why Gampopa said that when I realized the unity of my spiritual master and the yidam in my own mind, then I realized mahamudra. So we are linking our own Buddha-nature with the Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher in order to gain the inspiration for us to realize our own Buddha-nature and fully actualize all its potentials. That is the whole point of the guru-yoga. It is represented by streams of light connecting the three places (the forehead, throat, and heart) of the spiritual teacher with ours – representing body, speech, and mind. It is like there is a conduit which is there to energize these aspects of Buddha-nature from the spiritual teacher to ours. Because it is easier to see it in the spiritual teacher than it is to see it in ourselves – the unity of those three. We are certainly not connecting the teacher’s habit of drinking butter tea with our habit of drinking coffee or herbal tea. That is not at all the point here.

Now if we were to try to relate to Buddha Shakyamuni himself and all the qualities of the Buddha as are listed in the teachings: the ability to speak all languages, to say just one word and everybody understands it fully in their own language and gets different levels of realization from it, and so on. These actual Buddha-qualities are very, very difficult for us to imagine, let alone relate to and take really seriously. So doing guru-yoga just with Shakyamuni Buddha himself could be quite difficult for most of us. Of course we could do it, but for it to really be sincere and to have meaning for us, and not just be like a Disneyland trip that is just entertainment – using an expression of Khandro Rinpoche – it’s just a samsaric entertainment of lights coming in, like a ride in an amusement park, that would be quite difficult to do, to do it properly.

So it is only somebody who really is very, 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 ten-, twenty-thousand people. It is translated into so many different languages simultaneously, and sometimes he teaches to crowds of over 100,000 people in India. And so he could relate – His Holiness travels so much – so he could relate to the example of Buddha Shakyamuni who teaches millions of people, countless number of beings simultaneously. Then His Holiness, sometimes – his teachings are broadcast on the Internet all over the world, simultaneously. So he can relate to that kind of example, but we can’t. We have nothing in our experience that comes remotely similar to that.

So, for us, what are the great examples that we could relate to? We are not there, but it is conceivable to us. And for most of us, as well, the example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is beyond our imagination. How to keep up the type of schedule that His Holiness keeps up, and teach so many people, and to be the most learned of all the Tibetans, and the most compassionate, and to have totally photographic memory of not only texts but of people, and to deal with all the worldly aspects and political aspects of His Holiness, and to have the whole country of the People’s Republic of China consider you the worst enemy and the worst person in the entire world, and to not be depressed by that and to be happy all the time. We can’t tolerate one person saying bad things about us, how about 1.2 billion people – and spreading propaganda all over the world about how bad a person we are. Try to deal with that and not get depressed.

As His Holiness says, 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. So, for us, we need to relate to much less developed spiritual teachers to gain our inspiration. And so that’s why for us the examples of just the so-called ordinary spiritual masters can be far more inspiring, because we can actually – although they have many more good qualities than we have – we could imagine what it might be like to be like that and to have that. And so a spiritual master who is suitable for us to help us on the path might not at all be the highest example, at least not at our present stage. We have to develop further and further to be able to get sincere inspiration and not just be overwhelmed or think, “I can’t possibly ever become like that.”

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. And so ones that we are going to meet are going to have both positive qualities and negative qualities or shortcomings. But it is important to find someone who has more positive qualities than negative ones. And among those positive qualities, what are the most important? And these are sincerely wishing to help the student; not having intentions to exploit the student for money, or power, or sex, or whatever; and to be an ethical person. There’s compassion, ethics, and certainly to know more than the student knows – in order to teach them something. Not be somebody strongly under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes. These type of things are the most important. They sincerely want to help.

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

Same thing – just because the teacher has a great deal of learning, it doesn’t mean that their personality is well developed. So we have to be careful with the relationship with such a teacher as well. But at least that person has learning; the charlatan often doesn’t have learning, although sometimes the charlatan also has some 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. And that we need. So there are many levels of spiritual teacher, and this we need to be very clear about. They are not all at the same level of development.

Another one of the really absolutely necessary qualifications of any level of spiritual teacher is that the person is honest and not pretentious. Doesn’t pretend to have good qualities that he or she doesn’t have, and doesn’t try to hide and lie about the shortcomings that he or she might have. They don’t have to reveal to everybody their private sexual life, that’s not the point. I am talking about if they haven’t studied something, if they haven’t actually done a certain type of meditation. It shouldn’t be someone that wants to hide that, not be willing to admit such failings in their education, in their own personal development. That is very important. They’re not putting on an act, but are sincere.

Similarly, we ourselves have to be honest with our own level, not pretend to have qualities we don’t have with the teacher, not to hide our own shortcomings – again in the area of what we have practiced, what we have understood and so on – so that the relation can be honest and based on reality, not on fantasy. Even if we don’t have terribly much personal interaction with the teacher – the teacher in the Tibetan context isn’t somebody that we go to all the time and tell him all our problems and everything about us. That is more a therapist teacher. 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 the therapist, the client does most of the talking – talks about themselves. The spiritual teacher does the vast majority of the talking and talks about the teachings. Very different. Many Westerners do 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, go to a therapist and not a spiritual teacher. And also the spiritual master teaches by their own example, the therapist doesn’t.

If I speak from my own experience, as I was explaining last night, I had a very, very close relation with Serkong Rinpoche for nine years, and very close contact with my other spiritual teachers. 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 in terms of, well, this was happening 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 relation with them was not at all a Western type of relationship. And for me, 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. I mean 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. But I think that Western students find it much easier to speak about their own experiences and their own things to a Western teacher. Very often Tibetan teachers can’t really relate to what the Westerners are saying. Not all, but many of them who can’t. Our experience is just too foreign; our backgrounds are just too foreign in terms of what we have studied earlier in our lives, in our cultures. So it is changing a little bit in the West as we develop this Western teacher to Western disciple relationship. But there are problems there.

Most traditional Asians don’t talk about their emotions or their feelings. That is not what people talk about in their relationships and so on. 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 in my actual behavior. As I mentioned last night, he never failed to point out to me when I was acting like an idiot. So it is in that way that a traditional Asian teacher would help us with our application of the teachings, whereas 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 masters, and also being a teacher myself and relating to my own students. Traditional Asian teachers – there can be of course Asian teachers who have grown up in the West. That is different. I’m talking about traditional ones.

Guru-yoga has both a sutra and a tantra level. The sutra level of it is of course the foundation and basis for the tantra level practice. It is incomplete to only do the tantra level practice by itself. The sutra one (we’ll go into detail a little bit later today) entails basically working through the recognizing and focusing on the good qualities of the teacher that are actually there, appreciating the kindness of the teacher.

In terms of focusing on the good qualities, then we also don’t deny the shortcomings of the teacher, either. It is important to not have a denial there, but to realize that realistically of course the spiritual teachers that we have certainly do have shortcomings – they are not enlightened beings. But also to recognize that by focusing on these shortcomings and complaining about them, that is not going to benefit us in any way. It is certainly not going to be inspiring; it is just going to depress us. And so having acknowledged what the shortcomings are, then we focus on what the positive qualities are, because those are the sources of inspiration, those are what relate to Buddha-nature. This was made very clear, specified by the Fifth Dalai Lama – not denying the teacher’s negative qualities, their shortcomings. “Negative” is not quite the correct word, although I used it. I think “shortcomings” is better. 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? And it can cause us to really be very resentful of that.

The important thing here is to actually feel some inspiration from these positive qualities. 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 anything with that teacher. Being with the teacher doesn’t move us, 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 have to be careful that we’re not fantasizing and projecting qualities onto the teacher that the teacher doesn’t have.

This is the meaning of a “root guru.” A root guru is one that 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. So that is very important. That is the essential point. It is this inspiration, this feeling, being uplifted, energized, inspired from the teacher.

So working through the sutra steps helps us to… It happens very often, let’s be honest, you get up in the morning and you don’t feel very inspired at all to do anything. We go into our practice and we don’t feel inspired, and to just sit there and do a guru-yoga and imagine three lights coming – it doesn’t move our hearts very much, it doesn’t do very much for us. And go “Blah blah blah,” in Tibetan. So this sutra level step is to help us to remember these qualities, remember these things, so that we feel something, so that then, if you do a tantra level practice with the visualizations and so on, it actually moves our heart. We get some benefit from it. Otherwise it’s – I mentioned before, Khandro Rinpoche says it’s just spiritual entertainment – we’re sitting there and entertaining ourselves with a pretty visualization. How much fun! Or it doesn’t move us at all.

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, and so our hearts aren’t really moved by anybody; or on the other hand, we are just overemotional and over-devotional and these feelings overwhelm us to the point where we don’t really use our discrimination. We are just carried away. And often such feelings are based on projections of fantasy rather than the actual situation. So that, I think is… to avoid such problems, we need to do a lot of preliminary practice, purification, building up some positive force, and so on, to be able to overcome these obstacles either in the direction of being insensitive or oversensitive, so that we can actually practice guru-yoga in a proper healthy way. That is not easy.

Often we are a little bit confused, because in the lam-rim (the gradual path tradition), in many of the versions, the relation with the spiritual teacher is in the beginning of the text and it’s called the “root of the path.” But we need to understand that a root of the path is not the same as the seed of the path. The seed is where you start, what it grows from. The root, as with root guru, is where the nourishment comes from once it is already grown to a certain extent. And the context of the presentation of the relation with the Guru at the beginning of these texts, the context of that is that these texts were based on oral teachings given to groups of monks who were already extremely committed to the spiritual path with vows, and who were reviewing the graded path as preparation for receiving a tantric initiation. And so that’s why it is first. And 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. You certainly don’t start with seeing the guru as a Buddha. Better to have it at the end. The Fifth Dalai Lama also makes it very clear that the way that 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.

Also, as I was starting to explain before, there are many different spiritual levels of spiritual teacher. And though there are some that are only really qualified to give us information in the beginning of our spiritual path, we don’t know anything about Buddhism, so that is what we are looking for – it’s just information. And then there are others who can explain a little bit about how to put it into life, what their experience is – usually older students that share their experience. There are those who can teach us just technically how to meditate, like how to set up an altar and these sort of things, like a martial arts trainer just training us. But 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.

And the demarcation line of an actual spiritual teacher, if we look at the definitions, it’s the one that we take vows with. There are lay and monk vows, bodhisattva vows, there are tantric vows. That’s where you establish the relation with the spiritual teacher. It’s not that you have to say, “Oh, you’re my teacher,” and they have to say, “You’re my disciple.” So this is not what we do to start with. And the stages of the spiritual teacher also correspond to our own stages as a student as we develop. It doesn’t have to be said, “You’re my teacher. I’m your disciple.” And of course we have to be ready to take vows. Many people take them prematurely, without really being mature enough and stable enough to actually keep them, to know what they are doing.

Now of course we can get some inspiration from qualities of all of these levels of teacher, even somebody that can just give us good information – correct information, I should say. That is a good quality, and we can gain inspiration from the amount of study that this person must have done. 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.

As I said, to actually feel a strong inspiration that’s going to set us really along, and strengthen us throughout the path, we need to have reached the level of maturity in which we are completely honest with ourselves, honest about the teacher, not just projecting fantasies, our hearts are open, our minds are open, but on the basis of having discriminating awareness. It is not just, “I’ve become your blind slave, just tell me what to do,” and become dependent on the teacher. A proper teacher would never allow that, and see the signs of it at the very beginning and stop it. So, open to being led, but our feet are on the ground. Honest. We have sincere respect for the Buddhist teachings. Acknowledge our own shortcomings, we want very much to get out 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 to guide us. But not an omnipotent God that can just perform a miracle and we no longer have anger or attachment. We have to be ready, and that requires building up the causes for that. Also on the basis of everything that I just said, of being 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, that what is going on here is a type of energy. It is an energy exchange. Obviously that’s what I was saying in terms of a karmic relationship – that we feel this energy. And 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, but actually from the side of the teacher, having the 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. And so 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. And once we have had it with somebody, even when they have died, the teacher has died, that energy still continues because it is based on a personal experience with the teacher. They don’t have to be around all the time.

So of course the problem comes for most of us that we don’t really 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? Of course we could feel quite depressed about that, feel sorry for ourselves, and be filled with this longing desire. And often that can be connected with a little bit of fantasy about what the relationship would be like – as if somebody is just going to fall out of the skies and take us under their wings, and lead us by the hand to enlightenment, and spend all their time with us. That is an unreasonable expectation. So we also need to have – even if we don’t have that relationship yet, at least have not an over-exaggerated expectation of what it would be. Not as if it is from a Milarepa comic book.

And we have to have, of course, to enter in such a relationship, or even to find such a relationship, we have to have a great deal of courage and the willingness to change and to grow. It is not a matter of, “Well, teach me some positive habits, but I am certainly not willing to give up my negative habits.” We have to be realistic about that as well. Don’t look for a bargain, to try to get it cheap, which our shopper’s mentality often leads us to. Think of the examples of great masters from Tibet and the amount of hardship that they went through to go to India – Atisha to go to Sumatra from India – in order to meet a spiritual master. So in most cases, they are not going to just fall out of the sky.

So this is why the preliminary practices are so important, whether it is prostration, whether it is Vajrasattva, whatever it might be. There are many, many forms that it can take. We need to in a sense soften our minds and soften our hearts so that we can be open and receptive. Things like prostration are… I mean obviously we can enter into it as an absolute fanatic out of desperation. That’s one extreme, the other extreme is that we have to fight a great deal of arrogance which says, “I am not going to do this. This hurts my knees. Why should I do this?” There are many things that we work on, on a very deep emotional level, when we do these preliminaries. That’s why everybody always says, when you do the preliminaries, an awful lot of garbage, emotional garbage, comes up. Yes, this wants to come up so that we work on it, and see it, so that hopefully through the process we can open up a little bit more and be more receptive to the spiritual teacher, to the teachings, to the willingness to grow and to change, encouraged to do that. Doing these preliminaries builds up character but, as I say, we have to avoid also this extreme of being a fanatic: just following orders and doing it 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.

So as I said, we’re dealing here with energy, being open to energy. Now 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), similarly the founders of the various traditions, whether it’s Tsongkhapa, Guru Rinpoche, or whoever. It doesn’t really matter. They all have very wonderful excellent qualities. And doing the guru-yogas or other tantric practices where you visualize one of these lineage masters, or Vajradhara, or whoever, and do a recitation of a verse or a guru’s name or something like that. It really doesn’t make any difference. The point is to do it with somebody, someone that represents the Buddha-qualities, that actually we feel some connection with and that moves us.

So 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, know their qualities, not just have it be vague, so that we could try to relate to that person as a person. Otherwise there will be very little energy there, and moving our energy is the whole point. But with a real human being that we know, not necessarily intimately – I mean, all the time – but have some contact with them, then obviously we can feel the energy much more strongly.

With this living teacher, again 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. It 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. So how did they develop their qualities? That is important. They say they’ve done retreats – how long? You know, basic biographical details of the person. Otherwise it’s all often projections of fantasy.

So we need to build up the causes, not only in making our minds and hearts receptive, through preliminaries, but also what is always mentioned, and I think that we need to take it seriously, is offer sincere prayers to meet with fully qualified spiritual teachers, to be led by fully qualified spiritual teachers in all our lifetimes. This is important, that we are not praying to God or to Buddha Shakyamuni to grant that to us. That’s not the style of prayer in Buddhism. It’s setting a very strong wish for something to happen, based on confidence that it is realistic, that it can happen, not just wishing for the impossible, and based on the confidence that I myself can experience that if I put in the proper causes and one of them is directing my energy very much in that direction, which is what prayer is doing. Particularly, dedicating any positive force that I might build into ripening for that, into that. And to do it all way up to enlightenment – future lives as well, not just now. These are important things to do. Otherwise 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 then it happens on the basis of tremendous amount of causes built up from past lives. So it is like – and 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. You have to actually do something as well.

And so we look at what are the causes. Well I think we have to look at what would be similar actions that we could be doing now. The main theme with the spiritual teacher of course is to focus on the good qualities, not just focus on the negative qualities and shortcomings; and the ones that are based on fact, not just projections of fantasy. And to appreciate the kindness that we have received from the spiritual teacher, and the willingness in actually engaging in helping a person to do positive things, showing respect, these sort of things. So even if we don’t have a spiritual teacher toward whom all of this could be directed, I think – now I’ve not read this in a text, this is just my own thinking – that if we act like that toward other people in our lives, whether it is our parents, our relatives, our friends, our school teachers, somebody, some people who have good qualities and have been kind to us and who have helped us; and we focus on their good qualities, and don’t just always complain, and we really sincerely appreciate all their kindness to us, and we try to help them, support them in these positive things, and show respect, and then combine that with prayers that, “May I be able to have fully qualified spiritual teacher,” that this would act as a cause for being able to have a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher. We are already in that mindset that we want to develop. As I said, I have not seen that in a text, but I think that from the point of view of logic that makes perfect sense.

You know, 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 are the causes, and then build up those causes. So if we haven’t met the proper spiritual teacher that suits us and so on, I think 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. Short term, like if there is nobody around in our area, try somehow to make the money or whatever it is that would be necessary to go elsewhere where there might be teachers. So 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. And to study with Serkong Rinpoche, I had to gain the language, and gain proficiency in the language, and build up more positive force – which he helped me to do by saying I had to translate for other people, he wouldn’t teach me by myself. So, short term building up the causes, and then long term in terms of many future lives.

And it’s not just building up the causes that will contribute to such things, but also working to eliminate the causes of what would prevent it – short term and long term. Always complaining, always criticizing others, always looking at their negative points, being lazy, not willing to work for things, just to expect that everything is going to be handed to us – these type of hindrances that will prevent having such a relationship. We take from others, we never give back in terms of when others help us and are kind to us. A big obstacle is if we just take, take, take and never give anything back. We don’t try to help them in return. We don’t appreciate all the hardships that our parents might have done 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 – most of them aren’t. So these type of things in all the practices interrelate with each other, bodhichitta practices, thinking of the kindness that we have received from our mothers and others and appreciating it and so on. That 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. But there are many, many causes that we need to build up.

We appreciate it. It is not as though we owe them something and we have to pay them back. “Repaying the kindness,” which I have translated it that way 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 it. No obligation you have to feel to pay it back, a state of mind. They always say in the texts that if you think of the kindness that we’ve received, then automatically you appreciate it. You don’t have to do anything further in order to develop that feeling. It comes automatically. So it’s clear that we are talking about appreciation, not that you feel guilty and have to pay back and you are obliged to do that, otherwise you are a bad daughter or son. So these are important attitudes to develop with the teacher as well.

Okay, so these are some of the ways in which we start to open ourselves up to this energy that is involved with the 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 the inspiration. We are not like a vampire just sucking it out of the teacher either. Not like that. It is based on total respect of the teacher’s – all the hard work that the teacher has put in, in this lifetime and in previous lives, to become like that, and appreciation of our own Buddha-qualities, and a realistic understanding of what we have to do to develop them. And then, as I just said, 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. That’s the essence of guru-yoga. The visualizations and the mantra recitation and stuff like that is 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. What happens is that you have guru-yoga texts which are written with each of the lineage masters, not just the founders, but like in the Karma Kagyu with Milarepa, and Gampopa, and Marpa, and the second Karmapa – I mean, there’s just so many. And even in terms of one figure, then often what happens is that when the practice becomes a little bit too well-known, so that it becomes in a sense stale, becomes a little bit banal, then a new version is written that’s going to be a little bit more “holy” in a sense, that it is not so open – it becomes a little bit more special, it has a little bit more power to it.

So, in this sense, if we look over history in the collected works of the great masters, you can find so many different guru-yogas that so many different masters have written. The question is, of course, how many are actively or actually practiced now within your own lineage. There can be fairly standard ones that are practiced, and then there can be special ones that you 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. So it is hard to give a number. In essence they basically all follow the same structure. And then there are guru-yogas that are combined with Kalachakra and the six-session practice, for instance, and there’s many, many different variations, and guru-yogas with various deities – with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Avalokiteshvara, for instance. There are many, many ones.

Also all the tantra sadhanas, which are the standard practices in which you generate yourself as one of these Buddha-figures, all of them have as part of it a guru-yoga which is specific to that text. And then there is the guru-yoga which is done in connection with reciting a hundred thousand times or more the name mantra of one’s own personal teacher, and doing the standard guru-yoga type of visualizations with that and prayers. There is that as well. 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.