Questions about the Relation with a Spiritual Teacher

Nine Attitudes to Hold toward Ourselves in Our Relationship with Our Spiritual Teacher

Might Rinpoche offer some advice about how we should approach our teachers and Dharma studies?

The sutras describe nine types of attitudes to hold toward ourselves in our relationship with our spiritual teacher:

  • Firstly, we should be like an obedient child, like someone who will listen to their parents and do exactly what they say and not act in just any which way. This is what it means to be obedient. 
  • The second attitude is that of being like a vajra. A vajra or dorje is a ritual implement having several prongs fused together with a central prong. Likewise, we should feel fused together with our spiritual master such that nothing can come between us, no matter what happens or what anybody says. 
  • The third attitude we should have is of being as humble as an attendant. In other words, we should behave like an attendant who respectfully serves the person that they attend, and who doesn’t have the thought of being better than that person. We shouldn’t feel that we know more and are better than our teacher; but rather, we should have an attitude like that of a humble attendant. 
  • Fourthly, we should be as stable as a mountain. A mountain cannot be moved; it cannot be made to waiver. Likewise, our attitude of respect, appreciation and confidence in our spiritual teacher should be as unshakeable as a mountain. 
  • The fifth attitude is to be as receptive as the earth. The earth can support anything and can act a foundation or a basis upon which anything can be built. Similarly, our attitude toward the spiritual master should be as receptive and open as the ground. All realizations can be built on this receptivity, just like anything can be built on the ground.
  • Sixth is to be like a ferryboat. A ferryboat can go back and forth across a river many, many times and doesn’t get tired. Likewise, we should be willing to endure whatever difficulties are involved in practicing the Dharma, just as a ferryboat is willing to go back and forth.  
  • The seventh attitude is to be like a cart. A cart is able to carry any type of load that’s put in it. It will carry gold and silver, but it will also carry a very dirty load. In other words, whatever comes our way in terms of this relationship, we should be able to support and carry. We shouldn’t feel that the spiritual master is acting nicely toward this disciple and not acting nicely toward us. That is the type of attitude that we shouldn’t have. We should be like a cart that supports whatever is put into it.  
  • Eighthly, we should have the attitude like that of a sweeper. In India, a sweeper is somebody who does the unsavory jobs, like cleaning the toilets. We should be willing to do whatever is necessary to help our teacher, even if it’s work that we ordinarily find unsavory.  
  • The ninth attitude is like that of a dog. When a dog is disciplined or yelled at by the master, the dog takes it and still wags its tail. A dog still likes the master no matter how much the master disciplines it. Likewise, we should have this type of attitude when we are disciplined ourselves. 

These are the nine types of attitudes that we should have toward our spiritual teacher, as explained according to sutra. 

Proper Reliance on a Spiritual Teacher (Guru Devotion)

We can know all about this subject matter of the attitudes we need to have for properly relying on a spiritual teacher if we read the biographies of how Milarepa devoted himself to Marpa, how Marpa devoted himself to his guru Naropa, and how Naropa devoted himself to his guru, Tilopa. The fact that all of them were able to attain enlightenment in their very lifetimes was due primarily to their strongly and properly relying on their spiritual teachers.  

The 8,000-Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra relates the account of the disciple, Sadaprarudita. The literal translation of his name is “the one who is always crying.” The account goes that the Buddhas and bodhisattvas appeared to him in the sky and foretold that his guru will be called Dharmodgata. Sadaprarudita thought that if this bodhisattva, Dharmodgata, was going to be his guru, then he should have something appropriate to present to him as an offering. However, he was extremely poor. So, to raise funds, he went through the streets and said to people, “Here, I have only my body. Would anybody like to buy the services of my body to do any type of physical work that you want? I need to make an offering to my spiritual master.” He sold his physical strength like this. 

Indra, the king of the gods, became aware of this disciple selling himself in this way and decided to test his sincerity by manifesting as a brahmin. He appeared to Sadaprarudita and said, “Brahmins are people who engage in sacrificial fire offerings. I need some human flesh and some human fat and bone marrow for an offering. Will you sell me these from your body?” Sadaprarudita agreed, and with a big rock smashed his leg and took out pieces of his bone, flesh and marrow and gave them to this brahmin.  

All of this happened in front of the house of a very wealthy merchant. The daughter of this merchant saw what was taking place outside and asked Sadaprarudita why he was doing such awful things to himself. He explained, “I need to accumulate a great deal of positive potential (merit) and offerings in order to meet with my guru, the bodhisattva Dharmodgata.” She asked, “If you receive teachings from this bodhisattva Dharmodgata, what will you achieve from that?”  He said, “This guru can teach me the methods for being able to achieve enlightenment, and by means of this, I’ll be able to benefit all living beings. This is why I am doing this.” The daughter told her parents what was happening outside.

Indra then realized the sincerity of Sadaprarudita’s devotion and intention, and his resolve to achieve this noble state. He said to Sadaprarudita, “I’m not really a brahmin. I’m just a manifestation of Indra and I can see that your intention is very sincere. I don’t really need your flesh and bones like this.” With his special powers, he restored Sadaprarudita’s leg to its original state.  

There were 500 ladies-in-waiting and daughters in the house of this wealthy merchant. They were all sent, along with all the horses and chariots and displays of wealth, to accompany Sadaprarudita to go meet his guru. They accompanied him to the place where this great master Dharmodgata lived. However, when they got there, they found that Dharmodgata was in a twelve-year retreat, sitting in absorbed concentration. They were told that after he finished his twelve-year retreat, he would come out and teach. Therefore, Sadaprarudita and all these ladies-in-waiting and daughters stayed there for those twelve years, circumambulating around the place where the master was doing the retreat.

Finally, it came to seven days before the retreat would end. They went to sweep and prepare the area in the dirt courtyard at the guru’s house where he would teach. When they swept, a great deal of dust arose. They tried to find some water to sprinkle on the dirt to settle the dusty soil, but no matter where they went to search, they couldn’t find any water. 

Sadaprarudita became very worried because he thought that when the guru comes to give teachings and a lot of dust rises, that won’t do at all. Therefore, all of them, the 500 ladies-in-waiting and daughters and Sadaprarudita himself cut themselves and used their own blood to sprinkle on the earth to settle the dust. All of this blood was then blessed by Indra, king of the gods, and transformed into extremely pure, perfumed water. After seven days, the guru Dharmodgata ended his long retreat and came out, and his disciples presented their offerings and received teachings. 

This is a very interesting example because, although Sadaprarudita had a vision of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas who told him that he should go and meet his guru Dharmodgata, he didn’t consider the fact that he’d had such a vision of the Buddhas to be the remarkable thing. Rather, he took as the remarkable thing all the work he should do to prepare for meeting with this guru. Sadaprarudita made all these efforts and did all these austere things in order to meet with this guru, since meeting him was so vitally important for reaching enlightenment and being able to benefit all beings.

When Sadaprarudita first went to see this spiritual master, he had already attained the first of the five pathway minds, a building-up pathway mind, a path of accumulation. By having such confidence in this way in his guru, he was able to make progress all the way up through the ten levels of bodhisattva bhumi-minds to the eighth bodhisattva bhumi in his lifetime.

Normally, it is in tantra that we find the discussion of achieving enlightenment in one lifetime as one of the benefits of proper reliance on the spiritual teacher. But here, even in the sutras, we find an example of the great benefits of this proper reliance in shortening the path. In his actions of trust and confidence in his spiritual teacher, Sadaprarudita was able to build up the same amount of positive potential that normally would take two countless eons to accumulate through the sutra methods. Remember, it takes three countless eons of building up positive karmic potential to achieve enlightenment according to the sutra path. So, even the sutras themselves speak of the huge benefits of proper reliance on the teacher in building up positive potential very quickly. 

Meditation on Relying Properly on a Spiritual Teacher

The actual way to meditate on the proper reliance on a spiritual teacher is as follows: we visualize in front of us, in their ordinary forms, however many gurus we have. Just as when, in the Tibetan medical system, a skilled doctor treats us, they first prescribe a medicine that causes the symptoms of the disease to flare up and then, once they are better able to recognize the problem, they cure us, likewise we do a similar process when we practice meditation on our spiritual teachers. 

To repeat, we start by visualizing our gurus, however many we have, in their ordinary forms in front of us. Then, we let thoughts arise about how this one teacher is not a Buddha, and how this one has this fault and that one has that fault. We allow all these types of critical attitudes to arise and then think about all these things that we were discussing earlier about the necessity of seeing our teacher as a Buddha, based on our confidence in their good qualities. 

In addition, we think about the fact that the way our teachers appear to us and the types of opinions we have based on them are totally unreliable. In this way, we eliminate this attitude of criticizing and finding fault. 

This is the way to properly rely on a teacher once we have thoroughly checked them out and become confident that they are properly qualified to be relied upon. We let the negative thoughts arise, then apply the opponent way of thinking and thereby eliminate these negative thoughts.

The Benefits of Listening to Teachings in a Large Group

Is there a difference when we listen to a guru in a large teaching like this one?

The advantage of receiving teachings in a large group is that we gain the benefit of all the different viewpoints of the people that are in the group. Later, when people discuss the teachings among themselves, they can debate back and forth with different students about what the teacher said and learn how different people understood it. From having all these varied points of views, they gain a deeper understanding. The more people at a teaching, the better it is and the more understanding that is generated. 

Questions aren’t simply supposed to be asked to a teacher. They’re things that the students should ask each other and discuss among themselves. By discussing with people who come from different backgrounds and different ways of understanding, we learn much more. It’s through this process of debate and discussion that our intelligence sharpens.  

Likewise, we never know who’s in the audience. There can be people who are manifestations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas and who have all sorts of talents and abilities. We don’t know. If people like this are with us in an audience, studying together with us, they can help us very much. Similarly, if we go to one of the famous, great universities where there are large classes, afterwards we find that many of those same people go on to get the highest positions within their societies. The fact that they were classmates of each other and are now working in these high positions can be very beneficial for them to be able to network with each other and accomplish a lot of things together. These are the benefits of studying in a group.  

Root Gurus

Would Rinpoche speak very briefly on the idea of root gurus, and whether one should choose one’s guru by virtue of rapport or accessibility or any other criteria?

The first thing that is extremely important is to make a careful investigation or analysis before taking someone as our spiritual teacher. If we think of meeting a certain lama, we should check them out thoroughly beforehand and ask a lot of people about the person. We need to find out as much as possible about them. When we’ve investigated very carefully from many different sources, then we should observe what type of feeling arises in us when we think about this teacher as becoming our guru.  

Sometimes, like with the example of Jetsun Milarepa, just by hearing the name of Marpa, the strong thought immediately arose in him, “Ah, this is my guru. I must go see him.” Likewise, see what type of feeling sort of instinctively arises in relation to this guru. If the thought actually arises that, “Yes, I must go and try to meet this lama,” and also if we have heard many good things about the person and really checked up from different reliable sources, then, when we go, we should check to see what type of things happen. In other words, see if it’s very easy to meet them when we go to where they are, and if the guru is there and teaching at the time. Observe whether there are all sorts of auspicious signs at that same time. All these things would be very good signs. 

On the other hand, if when we go, they’re not home, or they’re busy and, after going many times, we never get to see them, that’s not such a good sign. Likewise, check to see if there are auspicious signs on the road when we go to see this guru. In other words, see if there are a lot of people carrying flowers, water or milk, or riding elephants or horses or things like this, these are positive signs. This is coming out of an Indian context, right? Likewise, if we see bad signs, that isn’t so good.  

When one of the greatest disciples of Tsongkhapa, Gyaltsab Darma Rinchen (Gyaltsab Je), first came to meet Tsongkhapa, it was not to study with him but to debate with him. He arrived while Tsongkhapa was in the middle of giving a discourse. Tsongkhapa was sitting on a large throne and Gyaltsab Je came into the teaching and thought to go right up and debate with Tsongkhapa. He climbed up onto the throne and sat down next to him. 

Gyaltsab Je himself was a very learned scholar, and so Tsongkhapa moved over and made room for him to sit down next to him. Tsongkhapa continued to give the discourse from the text as he was doing to this large group of disciples. Gyaltsab Je listened and, after recognizing that Tsongkhapa’s explanation was very good, he climbed down from the throne and sat in front and listened respectfully.

It was actually a very auspicious sign for him to have climbed onto the throne, because when Tsongkhapa passed away, Gyaltsab Je became the first successor to the throne of Tsongkhapa. In the middle of this discourse, Tsongkhapa took off his pundit’s hat and threw it up in the air. When it fell back down, it landed on Gyaltsab Je’s head. Everybody laughed. That was also a very auspicious sign that Gyaltsab Je would be the first successor to Tsongkhapa’s throne. This line of successors to the throne of Tsongkhapa has continued unbroken until today. The present holder of this position is the 97th successor to the throne of Tsongkhapa. 

The Qualifications of a Spiritual Teacher

The spiritual master should have many good qualities, and in our previous sessions we were speaking of three general qualities that should be present. 

  • First, the guru should be very learned
  • Secondly, the guru should have very strict ethical self-discipline
  • Lastly, the guru should have a very kind and warm heart. 

Of all of these, the most important are the latter two, a very kind, warm heart and disposition, and very strict ethical self-discipline. Even if this teacher has certain shortcomings, once we have decided to rely on them and have entered into a disciple-guru relation, we should only focus on their good qualities and never on any of these faults or shortcomings. By virtue of the fact that we look only at their good qualities, these good qualities will completely outshine any of those faults that might in fact exist from the guru’s side. We don’t see any of the flaws, because we just see the good qualities that outshine them.  

An example is the sun. There are stars in the sky during the day and the night. During the day, it’s not that there are no stars in the sky; it’s just that the sun outshines the stars, and we don’t see them. Likewise, seeing good qualities outshines the negative qualities, so if we don’t look for them, we don’t see them anymore. For instance, in terms of ourselves, we have many faults and shortcomings, but because we are so obsessed with our good qualities and thinking that we’re so great, we’re completely blind to our own shortcomings and faults. Like that, we should have this attitude toward the guru and just see good qualities and never faults.

How Is It Possible to Commit Heinous Crimes with a Precious Human Rebirth?

We discussed how we could get rid of heinous crimes through repenting having committed them; but, because we’ve attained rebirth as human beings through accumulated positive karmic potential and we carry this background and awareness of our remorse with us when reborn, how is it possible for people to commit heinous crimes in the first place? How is that they have deviated from their past good karmic deeds to such a big contrast? 

The point is that we’ve had beginningless rebirths and, because we’ve had beginningless previous lifetimes, we’ve built up an infinite number of different types of karmic potentials. Therefore, when we come into this lifetime, although it comes as a result of a certain amount of positive karmic potential from the past, likewise we also carry the whole karmic collection of potentials from the deeds that we’ve done from beginningless time. Included among them would, in fact, be the karmic potential to be able to commit a heinous crime such as killing our mother or our father. 

If we look at all the karmic potentials that we have accumulated in the past, the negative karmic potentials far outweigh the positive kind that we have. Although some positive karmic potential can result in having a precious human rebirth now, still we have all these other karmic seeds from the past. That positive karmic potential is being depleted by having given rise, as its result, to the precious human life we have now, and what we’ll have left is just all the negative karmic potential from the past. Therefore, it’s very important to build up more positive karmic potential now while we have all the leisures and endowments to be able to do that with our precious human rebirth.