Guru & Avalokiteshvara: Guru-Yoga, Refuge & Bodhichitta

This weekend I’ve been asked to speak about a practice that was composed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama called The Yoga of the Spiritual Master Inseparable from Avalokiteshvara, which is a practice of guru-yoga that focuses on the development and practice of compassion. And although I have translated the text, I do not actually have an oral transmission of it. But what I would attempt to do, since the structure of it and the content of it is similar to many other guru-yoga texts that I actually have received teachings on and transmissions of, I will explain according to that.


In general when we speak about a guru-yoga (bla-ma’i rnal-’byor), the word yoga (rnal-’byor) literally, according to the Tibetan translation, means to yoke or join with what is authentic. Here what is authentic that we want to join with – or merge ourselves with, in a sense – is the spiritual teacher. But these words merge and join with the teacher, those are very strange words because, in a sense, when we talk about an inseparability, that still doesn’t deny or refute the individuality of the two things that are joined inseparably. It’s not that we are, in a sense, becoming an undifferentiated soup with our teacher and therefore we have to eat the same thing and like the same things, and so on. This is certainly not the meaning. Even from the point of view of Buddhas, each of the Buddhas retains their individuality. But what we want to do, in a sense, is to join the activities and qualities of our body, speech, and mind with those of the spiritual teacher.

When we think of the spiritual teacher, we are thinking in terms of the enlightened state of a Buddha. And although the actual spiritual teacher might not manifest all of those qualities of a Buddha – for instance, multiplying their body into innumerable forms and appearing in various Buddha-fields and knowing every language of the universe – that is not something to discourage us, because what we’re talking about is inspiration. Inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs), which is often translated as the word blessing, means an uplifting or brightening. And so what we want to do is to uplift ourselves to be inspired to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha. The qualities that the spiritual teacher manifests are so much greater than what we have, so through them, through their qualities, we can see and aim for the full qualities of a Buddha. In that way, the inspiration from the guru lifts us up and brightens us to the full state of a Buddha that we aspire to reach.

So although the spiritual teacher might have some shortcomings – as the Fifth Dalai Lama points out in his instructions on relating to the spiritual teacher – that’s not something to focus on. That’s not going to help us, although we don’t deny that. Those shortcomings – like getting tired or getting sick or not having enough time for everybody – these are not something to depress us, because in fact it would be very difficult to relate to a fully enlightened Buddha. Whereas appearing in a human form with all the limitations of a human being – we can relate much more easily to a human being.

Here specifically we are striving to be inspired to develop the compassion of the spiritual teacher, and that compassion itself is represented by Avalokiteshvara or incarnated in the form of Avalokiteshvara. All the Buddhas have all the same qualities. It’s not as though only Avalokiteshvara has infinite compassion and the others don’t. Buddhas can appear in any and all forms in order to help others, and so Buddhas can appear and do appear in the form of Avalokiteshvara in order to help us disciples to develop compassion.

So we have this practice of The Yoga of the Spiritual Master Inseparable from Avalokiteshvara. Yoga in the sense that we are merging or joining – joining is a much better word – joining our qualities with those of Avalokiteshvara as inseparable with the teacher. So we have ourselves, we have the spiritual teacher – in this case, His Holiness the Dalai Lama – and we have Avalokiteshvara. These are individuals, and they’re joined inseparably. Inseparably (dbyer-med) means that you don’t have one without the other. But it’s very important to understand this within the context of voidness. We’re not talking about three ping-pong balls joined with sticks. None of these three – ourselves, the teacher, Avalokiteshvara – exists independently from its own side, by the power of something within its own side, totally isolated and independent from everything else:

  • Avalokiteshvara – a Buddha would not manifest, or could not become a Buddha to start with, without other beings to develop compassion for and the motive to attain enlightenment and couldn’t manifest as Avalokiteshvara if there weren’t others to try to uplift and help with developing compassion. So a Buddha rising as Avalokiteshvara has risen dependently on others.
  • The spiritual teacher is not established as a teacher from his or her own side. They’re only established as a teacher in relation to those who would be taught.
  • And we could not be established as a spiritual seeker unless there were a teacher and a goal and a path through which to strive toward that goal.

So these three – ourselves as a spiritual seeker, the spiritual teacher, Avalokiteshvara – all arise dependently on each other. So in that sense, they are also inseparable. And it is within this context that we practice this system in order to inspire and uplift ourselves to the state of the spiritual teacher and Avalokiteshvara – all of that joined together.

Having a practice such as this as a daily practice is very helpful because it incorporates within it many different aspects of our Buddhist spiritual path, our Mahayana path:

  • We have refuge.
  • We have bodhichitta.
  • We have the four immeasurable attitudes.
  • We have the seven-part practice.
  • We have the guru-yoga itself.
  • We have a review of the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path.
  • And we have a mantra recitation that forms the framework for actually meditating with compassion.

And having a daily practice is of course extremely beneficial because it not only is the best way to build up a beneficial habit – which is what meditation (sgom) means – through constant, stable repetition, but it also helps us to develop many of the far-reaching attitudes:

  1. Through this practice, we work with generosity. We’re giving our time, after all, to doing this practice in order to benefit others. And by imagining innumerable beings around us also practicing, we are giving the Dharma, in a sense, to others.
  2. We develop discipline to actually do this every day. This is extremely important, to develop a reliability of that discipline.
  3. And patience, because it’s not easy to always do this and do this consistently. So we have to be patient and endure the difficulties that might be involved when we’re traveling, when we are busy with other things, and so on, to actually do this every day.
  4. And perseverance is very, very important. That means whether we feel like doing it or we don’t feel like doing it, so what? We do it anyway. Samsara’s nature is that it goes up and down, so of course we are not going to feel like doing it sometimes. So what? Nothing special. This is this perseverance that I’m not going to be lazy – I’m not going to say “Well, I don’t feel like it” or “I’m tired” or anything like that – you just do it. And if you really think about the precious human rebirth and how rare it is to have the opportunity to even learn about this, let alone to practice it, you’ll be very happy that you’re able to do it. So doing it every day develops this perseverance, this joyful perseverance, very strongly.
  5. Then of course we need mental stability. Sometimes that’s only translated as concentration, but that’s only part of it. It’s very easy to practice a daily practice like this every day with it just turning out to be a session of mental wandering. Or if you do it too late at night and you’re really sleepy, then you are constantly fighting dullness, and you do it just sort of in a haze, not really being awake. So of course we need to try to oppose these hindrances – flightiness of mind, mental wandering, dullness, tiredness, etc.

It’s very funny if you observe yourself, because I find this in myself as well: When I’m working, my concentration is really quite excellent. When I start to do the daily practice, that’s when all the mental wandering comes. I think many people find that as well. What does that indicate? Through countless lifetimes, what have we done the most? We have done the most working; we have done the least meditation. So that means that we really need to try to pay attention to concentrating during the actual practice.

But mental stability, this far-reaching attitude, is more than just concentration. It’s also emotional stability. No matter what type of emotional turmoil we might be going through on any particular day, we also need to quiet ourselves down to gain stability to do this. So both these areas, the state of the mind in terms of wandering or dullness and this state of the mind in terms of emotional turmoil, require becoming stable. This is the far-reaching attitude. So doing a practice like this can help us.

6. Then of course we need discriminating awareness to understand the voidness of ourselves doing this practice, as I said, the spiritual teacher, and Avalokiteshvara, the voidness of them as well, the voidness of the practice itself, the voidness of the goal, the voidness of cause and effect in terms of how the process is working for reaching that goal through this practice – so that we don’t make concrete things out of any of these and we understand the dependently arising nature of how the whole process of doing a meditation like this works. So if we have a realistic attitude about this, that it’s not some magic thing or “If I don’t do it, then I’m such a terrible person,” and all of that – if we get rid of that, then we have a very realistic attitude about it, and that helps us to gain success.

It’s very funny to try to get this balance between having tremendous admiration and respect for the practice, for ourselves doing it, for those who wrote it – His Holiness – and so on. On the one hand, you need to balance that with the general attitude of “nothing special” – in other words, balancing dependent arising with voidness. It’s all arisen dependently on so many different factors, so fantastic. But don’t make a big deal out of it, that this is a monstrous thing and “I have to do it. And if I don’t do it, I’m bad,” and all of that. So nothing special – you just do it. You could use the example of brushing your teeth. Dependently arising: You have to brush your teeth. You have teeth, you eat, they get dirty, etc. There’s nothing special about it; you just do it. And just doing it also needs to be not just with a sense of duty – “It’s my duty to do this because I told my teacher, I promised my teacher, I would do it. I want to be a good girl or a good boy and I’ll do it, and then my teacher will pat me on the head and I’ll wag my tail” – but we do this out of compassion, our concern for others, and the need to develop the compassion of an Avalokiteshvara in order to really benefit them.

Reciting the Text

Okay, enough of an introduction, so let’s, then, go through the text. I do not want to explain or emphasize very much the visualizations, but rather the state of mind and understanding that we need to develop for doing this. If you get too much caught up in the technical details of the visualization, then, since visualization is quite difficult for most people, you can get very discouraged. And even if we do the visualizations perfectly, if there is no feeling behind it – you don’t generate your mind into the beneficial states – there’s very little benefit. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche always mentioned, it’s not a generation or development of your speech – it is of the mind.

Tibetans of course always do all their practices out loud. There are several reasons for that. The most practical reason is that most of them have memorized these things – and many can’t read, and so therefore they can’t actually just read it – and they recite it. And by reciting it out loud, one imagines that one is teaching and sharing this with all beings, so it’s developing that aspect as well. But if you are doing it out loud, you don’t want to shout it and so on – that could disturb others – you do it privately.

Many people also will just recite these in their head, as it were, without reciting it out loud. It’s hard to say that there’s a fault in that as long as we are thinking in terms of generosity and benefiting everyone. And of course if you do it in your mind, it takes much less time.

Refuge (Safe Direction)

Anyway, the text starts with the standard verse of refuge and bodhichitta. Refuge I like to translate as a safe direction. It’s putting a direction in our life. By going in that direction, we protect ourselves from the various forms of suffering.

So this first line:

I take safe direction, till my purified state, from the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly.

This is in general (both Hinayana and Mahayana).

Purified state – this is the Sanskrit word bodhi (byang-chub), and there are three purified states:

  • the liberated state (liberated state means like arhatship) of a shravaka,
  • the liberated state of a pratyekabuddha arhat.,
  • and then the enlightened state that a bodhisattva achieves as a Buddha.

Regardless of which purified state we are aiming for, we put that safe direction in our life. So when we translate we have to be careful not to translate this word bodhi as “enlightenment.” It doesn’t just mean enlightenment. It means these three states – two of arhatship and one of a Buddha. But since this is a Mahayana practice, we want to take this safe direction within the Mahayana context of aiming for enlightenment.

Understanding the Four Kayas

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said on numerous occasions that really for putting this safe direction in our life to be a Mahayana one, we need to really understand the four Kayas, the four so-called Buddha Bodies. This is a very profound topic.

Analogy with Developing Bodhichitta

There are two aspects of bodhichitta – the relative and deepest bodhichitta:

  • Relative, or conventional, bodhichitta is aiming for our own future enlightenments that have not happened yet but can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors, and we’re doing that in order to benefit everyone.
  • Deepest bodhichitta is the understanding of voidness, which will enable us to reach that goal.

When we look at the teachings for developing bodhichitta, there are two traditions: One tradition is that you develop this relative, or conventional, bodhichitta first. So we’re really driven by love and compassion, and so on, to attain enlightenment. But basically we just have great faith and aspiration that it is possible to achieve enlightenment. Then that force of bodhichitta adds a tremendous amount of energy to our understanding of voidness, and so it will bring us to enlightenment because that understanding of voidness will have enough strength to cut through the obscurations preventing liberation and enlightenment.

The understanding of voidness will have an amount of strength behind it proportionate to the motivation:

  • If we have just a so-called worldly motivation – we just want to understand voidness because it’s interesting and we can be so clever, and so on – you can get a correct understanding, a Prasangika understanding, of voidness, but it will never have enough force to rid you of any obscurations or obstacles. It’ll just rid you of not knowing what it is. You’ll never be able to get a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, which is what’s necessary to start ridding you of (these obscurations and so) gain true stoppings of these obscurations.
  • If your understanding of voidness has the force of renunciation, the determination to be free of samsara (with the full understanding of what samsara is), then the force behind your understanding, your correct understanding, of bodhichitta will be enough to be able to rid you – gain true stoppings – of the emotional obscurations.
  • And if that understanding of voidness has, in addition, the force of bodhichitta behind it, it will be strong enough to gain true stoppings of the cognitive obscurations as well, so then you attain enlightenment.

So this is one way. You develop this relative bodhichitta first and then the understanding of voidness.

The other way, which is described in Nagarjuna’s text called Commentary on Bodhichitta (Bodhichittavivarana), is to develop the deepest bodhichitta first so that we are convinced that it is possible to achieve enlightenment, and then when you are fully convinced – it’s not just on faith that it is possible but you’re fully convinced that it is possible to attain enlightenment – then you aim for it (i.e. develop relative bodhichitta).

This second way is for those, as it says in the text, with sharper intellectual abilities. The first way is for those with less sharp intellectual abilities, more an emotional type of person.

So now we can interpolate these two ways of developing bodhichitta to taking safe direction:

  1. We can think of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and “The Buddha is so great, and the teacher has all these attainments,” and so on, and so we want to go in that direction.
  2. Or we can understand first that it is possible that there is such a thing as Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and once we are convinced that it actually does exist – there is such a thing – then we can go in that direction.

It’s in the second way that we need to understand this statement that your refuge, your safe direction, will be more firm if you understand the four Kayas, the four Buddha Bodies. (Body means a corpus. It’s a collection of many things; it’s not just a physical body.)


Now, the so-called Corpus of Essential Nature, Svabhavakaya – let me just use the Sanskrit words, because the words in English or Russian are much too long – the Svabhavakaya has two aspects: (1) the voidness of the omniscient mind of a Buddha and (2) the true stoppings on that omniscient mental continuum of a Buddha. That refers to the two purities, the double purity, of the mind in general. The mind is naturally free of truly established existence. Nothing exists with truly established existence.

You have this term anatman, “without an atman,” and all phenomena and we as persons lack an atman. Atman is a term that is understood within a non-Buddhist (what later became called Hindu) philosophy – philosophies in India before formal Hinduism. The closest thing that we have in our Western way of thinking in terminology would be a soul. And without getting into the specific definitions (because obviously Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism – everybody has different definitions of soul), a soul is something inside something that animates it, that in a sense makes it alive. So nothing, neither persons nor things, has some sort of soul inside it that by its own power animates it, makes it alive, makes it exist, establishes its existence. That includes the mind. So there’s nothing within it that by its own power animates it and makes it able to cognize, to understand things, to know things.

So mind itself – which is referring to mental activity – naturally is devoid of a soul, devoid of having its existence truly established by something inside it, by its own power. And it also has the purity of being free of the so-called fleeting stains. So in its actual nature, there is a stopping, an absence, of these fleeting stains – the emotional obscurations, the cognitive obscurations. In fact, according to the Jetsunpa and Kunkyen textbooks within the Gelug tradition, the true stoppings of the mind are equivalent to the voidness of the mind. If the mind is naturally devoid of truly established existence, then, if you understood that, you would have a true stopping of the fleeting stains that come from not understanding it. So those stains, the emotional obscurations – anger and greed and stuff like that – if you got rid of them, you still would have mental activity, wouldn’t you? So they are not part of the essential nature of mental activity. They can be removed.


So as I said, that essential nature of the mind is devoid of existing in a truly established way. And if those limitations which are not there in terms of the nature of the mind, in terms of Svabhavakaya – if they’re not there, then the mind is capable of being omniscient and all-loving, because then one doesn’t see things existing independently and so on. With the cognitive obscurations removed, one sees the interdependence of everything and the equality of everything. So in that way we establish that there is a Jnanadharmakaya, the all-encompassing omniscient awareness of a Buddha.

Now, the mental continuum of a Buddha, if we look in terms of mental activity – all-loving and all-knowing in its nature, with the true stoppings, etc. – if we look at that, then there are certain qualities that are there. The Sanskrit term that is used for them, it’s just translated with a term in Tibetan (rang-gi ngang-gis) that often just has a general meaning of “nature,” but the Sanskrit word (svarasa) has the meaning of the “self-flavor” of the mind. Right? So the taste of the mind, like there’s a certain flavor or taste. It’s the same word that’s used with poetry or music. Poetry or music has a flavor that communicates to others, and others can experience it. It is an experiential thing. The same thing with foods: They don’t exist without a taste. Because it’s food, it arises dependently on somebody eating it (otherwise it wouldn’t be food; it would be like a table or something).


The natural flavor of the omniscient, all-loving mind of a Buddha is that it appears in various forms. There’s an energy to this omniscient mind, and that energy radiates out, it communicates, so you have enlightening speech. There are subtle ways in which a Buddha would manifest. You can understand it as speech. You can understand it as the sutra level of Sambhogakaya (which are subtle forms to benefit arya bodhisattvas, those who are really very highly evolved already).


And that energy going out, communicating, in subtle ways will then emanate and manifest in grosser ways that would be appearances that ordinary people (with the positive force that would enable them to see this and meet this) would be able to encounter and learn from. So you have the Corpus of Emanations – Nirmanakaya – many, many forms.

Making Our Safe Direction Firm and Stable

So if we understand these four Corpuses of a Buddha and we are convinced by really thinking about it, analyzing it, in terms of the nature of the mind, then we are convinced that such a thing exists and we are capable of attaining that ourselves:

  • When we talk about the Dharma refuge, we’re talking about the third and fourth noble truths – the true stoppings and the true pathway minds that lead to that and result from that. On the resultant level, we have the Svabhavakaya, the true stoppings, and the Jnanadharmakaya, the pathway minds, the understanding – the true paths – that will lead to that.
  • The Buddhas have attained this in full. The deepest Buddha Jewel is the Dharmakaya of a Buddha, namely the Jnanadharmakaya and Svabhavakaya. The relative one the relative Buddha Jewel is the Form Bodies (Rupakaya) of a Buddha: Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya.
  • And the Sangha, we can understand that in many ways. It could be the network of the true stoppings. Or it can be those who have achieved these true stoppings and pathway minds in part.

So if we are fully convinced that Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha actually exist – there are those who have attained it and that we are capable of attaining it – then putting that safe direction in our life is very firm and stable.

This is the significance of the statement that if we understand the four Kayas fully, or at least very well – you’re not going to understand it fully until you’re a Buddha, but if you understand it really well – then the refuge, the safe direction, is stable and firm.

I’ve taken time to explain this because it’s not usually explained very much in detail. But why are you doing a practice like this unless you’re convinced that you can actually achieve the goal of the practice? So it’s important to be stable in one’s Dharma path by being fully convinced that it is possible to achieve the goal and having some idea of what the goal is.


Then the second line here (this is the verse for bodhichitta):

By the enlightening networks (built up) from my giving and so on, may I actualize Buddhahood to help those who wander.

Those who wander (‘gro-ba) – that’s referring to samsaric beings, who wander under the force of disturbing emotions and the compulsiveness of karma, who wander from one rebirth to another (wander meaning they don’t know their way).

By the enlightening networks built up from my giving and so on. So on refers to the other far-reaching attitudes.

Enlightening networks – this is referring to the network of positive force and deep awareness, what’s usually called the collection of merit and wisdom or insight. This is referring to Buddha-nature, the factors that will enable us to attain enlightenment. Remember when we put the safe direction in our life, there’s the resultant, pathway, and basis levels:

  • The resultant level. Okay, there is such a thing as enlightenment, Buddhas have attained it, so that’s the result that I’m aiming for.
  • Then bodhichitta, my own individual enlightenment that hasn’t happened yet but can happen. That’s the path. My own enlightenment can happen because of the basic double purity of the mind, as I was discussing.
  • How will it happen? How is it possible? It’s based on the enlightening networks. So that’s the basis refuge. Those are the aspects of Buddha-nature.

Buddha-nature – we speak of evolving factors and the abiding factors. The abiding factors are the natural purity of the mind and the… well, the double purity of the mind. And then the evolving ones are these two networks:

  • We have a basic network of positive force. We all have that. What comes from positive force is happiness. We have all experienced happiness, at least to some level at some time. That demonstrates that we do have a basic network of positive force. It could be very weak, but we have it. You have to be convinced that we have these as Buddha-nature factors. So we have a network of positive force; otherwise we never would have experienced any level of happiness whatsoever, never.
  • And we have some basis level of deep awareness. Otherwise we wouldn’t know how to eat. We wouldn’t know how to do anything. Even a worm knows how to eat.

So we want to build these up. This will bring us to the enlightened state through… here it’s referring to the far-reaching attitudes, the so-called paramitas. And it gives as an example generosity, giving. How does giving become a far-reaching attitude? Tsongkhapa in Lam-rim chen-mo explains it very nicely. When we give something to one being – let’s say you feed your dog – then you think in terms of “As an aspiring bodhisattva, I want to give, and I’m willing to give, absolutely everything, everything, to absolutely everybody. So now this bowl of water that I’m giving to my dog – that object that I’m giving is a representative and just part of the totality of everything that I’m giving, and the dog is just one of the beings in the totality of everybody that I’m giving to. And I’m doing this in that large context because, out of compassion, I absolutely want to achieve and need to achieve enlightenment to help everybody so that I really can give everything to everybody.” Then with that mental framework, your giving the bowl of water to your dog becomes a far-reaching practice of generosity. That’s why when one recites these – or even in your mind you’re saying these various practices – you imagine that you are teaching the entire path to absolutely everybody. And by imagining everybody and that you’re helping and giving Dharma and teachings to everybody, it starts to build up the karmic connections to be actually able to benefit everyone.

Remember when we speak in terms of bodhichitta, what we are aiming on, what we are focusing on, is our not-yet-happening enlightenment. We’re not focusing on Buddha’s enlightenment. We’re not focusing on enlightenment in general. We’re focusing on our own individual enlightenment, which is something that can be validly labeled on the basis of its causes, our Buddha-nature factors, these two networks and the voidness of the mind. And it will become a presently happening enlightenment if we build up all the causes. So when we focus on that, we need to have some representation of that future enlightenment, just as we need some representation of the direction that we want to go in. So with this verse, you have a variety of visualizations that you can do – either visualizing the guru or visualizing Shakyamuni Buddha or visualizing Avalokiteshvara or visualizing lots of figures, a refuge tree. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s just a representation of what we are aiming for – the direction we’re going in and our own individual enlightenment that we are aiming for. You have to realize that there are so many variants of how you do these visualizations and what you visualize, it really doesn’t matter. They’re all equally effective. So don’t get sectarian about it: “My way that my guru taught me is the only way, and everything else is wrong.”

So just take a moment when we take this safe direction and these verses for bodhichitta – I mean, these are recited before every teaching usually (certainly the Tibetans recite it before every teaching) – how meaningful is it to us? How convinced are we that we can actually go in that safe direction and reach the goal of enlightenment? This is the thing to really work on. Am I just working on the basis of faith that it’s possible to achieve this? Or am I convinced that it really is possible? And wouldn’t it be helpful if I work on it and then say that it’s possible? Wouldn’t that make it more stable?