How can we be certain whether a lama is truly worthy of being seen as a buddha? For who knows where an unqualified and unworthy guide may lead us?
We are well advised to put in significant groundwork ourselves in terms of learning and investigation, before committing ourselves to anyone’s spiritual guidance, let alone seeking their blessings. First of all, we must be aware of what qualities and qualifications a lama should have to be worthy of the title.
In his recent teaching, Lama Jampa quoted from the nineteenth century Tibetan master Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher (a text he taught in full in the nineties). Patrul Rinpoche provides a whole chapter on how to find a properly qualified teacher, how to start to follow him or her in an authentic way, and thus begin to receive their blessings.
A verse early in that chapter conveys something of how we can be positively influenced by those we look to as exemplars:
Just as the trunk of an ordinary tree lying in the forest Absorbs the perfume of a neighbouring sandalwood tree,
So you come to resemble whomever you follow.
Of course, this works the other way round as well. We are all too easily influenced by those who would lead us further into the mire. So one should be very careful who one follows, who one looks to as a role model. Patrul lists four kinds of fake lama that a student is sensible to avoid.
Teachers to Avoid
Teachers like a millstone made of wood. This type of teacher has somehow been given a title, due to their heritage or some such reason, but actually has never really practised dharma properly and so has no ability to teach anyone. Consequently they are as useful as a millstone made of wood would be for grinding grain to make flour. They are all title and little else in terms of spiritual qualities.
Teachers like the frog that lived in a well. Lama Jampa retells this story of the frog in the well in his book Wisdom in Exile as an introduction to the chapter entitled ‘Conceit’. These individuals don't actually know anything beyond the narrow confines of an ordinary person's world.
Mad guides. These individuals have never studied the sutras and tantras properly under an authentic teacher, let alone been part of any lineage. But ‘though lower than ordinary beings they ape siddhas and behave as if their actions were higher than the sky’.
Blind guides. These ones lack any qualities superior to your own and lack the love and compassion of bodhicitta.
These four types of bad teacher were seen by Patrul Rinpoche, a true master in 19th century Tibet, to attract gullible followers. And so we see human traits live on, albeit in a different time and place. The power of modern communications now seems to exaggerate the confusion even more. Beware!
It is obvious that to try and see any teacher fitting one of these descriptions as a buddha would be the utmost folly.
However, there are still teachers to be found who are authentically trained, realised and free of these egoistic faults. So there is no need to be put off just because bad teachers still attract less fortunate people. Wherever there are humans ….
Training in Seeing the Lama as Buddha
The long life prayer for Ratna Vajra, His Holiness the 42nd Sakya Trizin, contains the lines:
Protector, you are inseparable from the holy lord Manjushri.
To the fortunate and unfortunate respectively, you appear or do not appear as him.
How can we become that fortunate person? The sensible answer to this question is: by gradually applying “common sense and intelligence which,” as Lama Jampa said, “are actually the same thing as each other”.
Step one is, of course, to begin learning about Buddha’s basic teachings. As Lama Jampa explains, even the highest, most subtle Mahamudra teachings rest on the basic teachings, so an authentic teacher will always return to and restate these in their original and unaltered form.
Having obtained a good grounding in the basic teachings of the Hinayana and Mahayana, one will have come to know what qualities should be evident in the teacher. His or her moral behaviour should be completely in accord with the teachings, in which they must be well versed.
After you have spent some time finding out about a teacher and decided that you can rely on him or her, from then on the Vajrayana way is to train in seeing that teacher as a buddha. In his teaching of Patrul’s text, Lama Jampa made the point that this is to be seen only in the context of the spiritual path into which we have entered. To an ordinary person, the lama is an ordinary person.
What Are These Blessings?
In the context of dharma, blessings don’t actually add anything to qualities already innate within all of us. What they do is shine a light on our buddha nature.
It is said that the lama shows us our face in the manner of a mirror. This allows us not only to get a sense of our buddha potential but also of the ‘defilements’ in us that are masking that potential.
In his recent teachings on Mahamudra from the ninth Karmapa’s The Finger Pointing at the Dharmakaya, Lama Jampa explained how the ultimate nature - buddhahood - is conveyed by the direct mind-to-mind transmission that occurs in guru yoga at the highest level:
"It is the ultimate nature that is the real guru. This is the Mahamudra itself. The human guru is simply reflecting this and alerting his student to its presence."
In the teachings, it is made clear that this is only possible when the lama is part of a lineage from which he or she has received the teachings; a lama of the words of the Buddha - sutra and tantra - having no teachings of his or her own invention; a lama of the ultimate nature, meaning that he or she has fully realised the ultimate nature.
Clearly, that is guru yoga at the highest level and it will require some years of preparatory learning and development of meditational experience before a student will be sufficiently matured to engage in it fully. However, it seems helpful and inspiring, even for a relative beginner, to know that this is where the path leads for someone who commits themselves to making the necessary effort in their study and practice.
Serving the Lama
In his text, Patrul Rinpoche explains that the skilful way to follow the lama and open ourselves for receipt of blessings as described above is to serve the Lama. That is an excellent means to join our own aspiration of bodhichitta with the enlightened activity of the Lama. A further post, to follow this one, will elaborate on that theme.
This blog is the work of students in Dechen. Posts are typically inspired by an aspect of a teaching recently given by one of our lamas and are the result of reflection and contemplation of that teaching, considered worthy of being shared. A key purpose of the posts is to stimulate readers into their own further contemplation of teachings received.