Buddha’s teachings on Sutra and Tantra take us places we’ve never been before mentally, or for that matter physically.
In our beginningless lives, in lifetime after lifetime, including year after year in this one, we have been searching for happiness high and low, pretty much non-stop. We have also been searching for freedom non-stop. Yet here we are, still not perfectly happy, still not free. Despite our unending search for happiness, liberation and enlightenment are magical inner destinations that (speaking for myself) we have not yet reached.
Every day seems to bring difficulties and pains — do you know anyone who is as happy as they’d like to be? Why not? It’s not through lack of trying. Maybe it is because we haven’t yet travelled the path to real happiness and freedom. And one reason we have not yet travelled that path is because we have not yet followed a trustworthy guide.
Without a Spiritual Guide to lead us, we have no idea where we are going, existentially speaking. No Google map can point us the way to mental freedom. No YouTube video can show us how to fix the endless pains of our samsara. No pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem, Varanasi, or even Bodh Gaya can land us in the invisible destination of bliss and emptiness.
To quote Gen Rabten at the really really good International Kadampa Summer Festival (still ongoing til Aug 25th, click here!)
We are here because we want new ideas. We know that if we always think what we’ve always thought, we will always feel what we’ve always felt. We want different outcomes for ourself, for our family, for our communities. We look at the tarnished history of our world, and the suffering and the injustices, and we want something different. That is going to require different ideas, new ideas, new ways of thinking.
The spiritual path is one that will definitely take us through some unfamiliar terrain within our own minds – terrain that is fascinating, wonderful, sometimes challenging, and ultimately transcendent, eventually culminating in full enlightenment for everybody’s benefit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know someone who has already taken this journey, who in fact lives there? Especially if they are offering to guide us along the way, inspiring us to deal with the challenges, and showing us how to avoid any pitfalls?
The practice of relying upon a Spiritual Guide is common to all Buddhist schools, Hinayana and Mahayana, and has been since time without beginning. It is considered an essential ingredient of the path both to liberation and to enlightenment. As Geshe Kelsang said (quoted by Genla Dekyong in the Festival):
Personal spiritual trainer
The big yellow book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, contains all the stages of the path to enlightenment in detail, and is the go-to book for Buddha’s teachings on relying upon a Spiritual Guide. At the beginning of that chapter, Geshe Kelsang says:
Reliance upon a Spiritual Guide is called the “root of the path” because all other spiritual realizations of Sutra and Tantra depend upon it.
One reason for this could be that we had no idea these realizations even existed before meeting our Spiritual Guide. Generally, we don’t know we need a Spiritual Guide until we’ve tasted some Dharma, at which point it becomes a bit obvious, and increasingly more obvious the more we delve into these deep and far-reaching teachings on Sutra and Tantra.
Just as in our ordinary education we need to rely upon the help of well-qualified teachers to guide us from the level of nursery school to the completion of college or university training, so in the spiritual training that leads to full enlightenment we need to rely upon a well-qualified Spiritual Guide.
If I decide for some reason that I would like to make airplanes, the day I start reading the manuals is the day I know that I am going to need someone’s help and instruction.
It’s all very well to dismiss this seminal practice to say we need to follow our heart or follow our bliss, except that we’ve already basically been doing that for a inconceivably long time. We’re going around in circles. If we want to learn things that we’ve never learned before, things that are going to take us somewhere completely new, if we want a transcendent route out of the cycle of suffering, we have to follow a transcendent Guide.
As Gen Rabten put it last week:
We have had countless lives, in every one of which we longed to find a lasting happiness and an end to suffering. We have travelled through each and every realm countless times. And never once have we fulfilled our wish for happiness and peace. This cyclic existence, samsara, is not an external prison, but a prison created by our own mind. There is just one door through which we can escape. That door is the realization of emptiness. In this life we have met a pure spiritual path that has led us to this door. Not once in our countless previous lives have we found a better position than this. If we step through this door, our samsara and all our sufferings will cease. We will find our own nirvana and the ability to lead others to theirs.
Who benefits from this practice?
We do. A qualified Spiritual Guide is not going to be bothered from their own side whether or not we rely upon them because they already have everything they could possibly want or need.
In Buddhism, as I think I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, faith in Buddha and our Spiritual Guides depends on faith in our own Buddha nature. If on the basis of at least suspecting that we have the potential for boundless freedom, and perhaps first giving ourselves a few moments to feel some of the peace we already have in our heart, we think through some of the following benefits we’ll experience from relying upon a Spiritual Guide, this will increase our wish to find and rely upon one. This in turn will increase our effort or enthusiasm, which will lead to all these benefits.
We progress towards enlightenment
If I rely completely upon my Spiritual Guide, he or she will reveal what I have to practice to attain full enlightenment …
(For the purposes of keeping this article reasonably short, I’d like to direct you to Joyful Path to find the rest of this quote and other quotes below, page 98 onward).
Our Spiritual Guide reveals the truth to us and explains what we need to do, such that we can accomplish our spiritual goals swiftly, even “in this very lifetime”. How is that even possible?! If you are wondering that, check out Buddha’s Tantric teachings. Enlightenment in one lifetime is possible if we find a qualified Tantric teacher.
Here is one of my favorite quotes, which is by Padampa Sangye in One Hundred Verses for the Tingri People:
If we rely upon our Spiritual Guide he can lead us wherever we wish to go and so we should repay his kindness by offering faith and respect. If we wish to attain enlightenment, our Spiritual Guide will lead us there…. If we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land, he will lead us there. He will lead us to whatever virtuous destination we desire.
I will take you wherever you want to go. Don’t be concerned about what other people are doing or how they are looking at you, just follow me.
And it’s true. It has been true for me so far, and for many others, and for practitioners since the time of Buddha including Buddha himself — they have all had Spiritual Guides who took them where they wanted to go. No one has ever attained enlightenment without a Spiritual Guide. I don’t think you’re going to be the first.
We delight all the Buddhas
Buddha Vajradhara says:
When disciples make offerings to their Spiritual Guides, I myself and all the other Buddhas enter into the body of the Spiritual Guide and accept the offering.
And there’s more, it’s pretty deep, you can learn more about how that works from the chapter.
We are not harmed by demons and other evil influences
When we have refuge in our Spiritual Guide, we are not going to experience spirit attacks and so on. Most humans cannot see spirits, and probably a lot of humans don’t even believe in them; but a lot do as well. (Recently I have been told by various housemates that when I’ve been away they’ve heard voices and seen lights flicker on and off in my attic apartment. I don’t mind. In any case, these apparently benign spirits go away when I come home.)
According to Buddha, there is a whole so-called spirit or hungry ghost realm, one of the six realms of samsara; and quite apart from the fact that life is ghastly for them, some of these spirits can give us a hard time. There is no space in this article to look more into this, but it reminds me of the quote from Hamlet:
There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
We easily overcome our faults and delusions
If I rely upon my Spiritual Guide, through his or her kindness he will show me how to abandon faults and delusions and so I will be able to avoid harmful actions and their results.
Here, Geshe Kelsang mentions the example of Milarepa, which, if you haven’t read yet, and even if you have, I strongly recommend – it is a really good story, popular in Buddhism. Milarepa had done some atrociously bad things, like murdering about 30 people, by the time he met his Spiritual Guide. I am assuming that none of you reading this is a mass murderer, but even if you are, and have gotten away with it this far, although it is eating away at you, if you rely wholeheartedly on your Spiritual Guide and their instructions you can abandon and purify every single evil action.
Milarepa attained enlightenment in that very same lifetime! Which means there’s a lot of hope for the rest of us. The stronger our faith, the more “easily” we can overcome our faults and delusions. “Easily” sounds good to me.
Our experiences and realizations of spiritual grounds and paths greatly increase
The story is told here of Geshe Jayulwa, who had no time for meditation or study because he was always serving or cleaning up after his Spiritual Guide. One day he went outside to empty the trash and
… his mind naturally developed single-pointed concentration on emptiness and, without having to exert extra effort or engage in meditation, he gained a realization of emptiness.
This happened due to the purification and huge good karma he got from humbly serving his kind Spiritual Guide, who in turn was freed up to help so many other people. Without us helping Venerable Geshe-la, for example, he cannot get much done practically speaking – he has said that he is like one hand and his students are like the other.
We never lack spiritual friends in all our future lives
Je Phabongkhapa is the Spiritual Guide of Trijang Rinpoche, who is the Spiritual Guide of Geshe Kelsang – making him, I do believe, our spiritual great-grandfather. Which is good news because he was a formidable Lama. He says:
Although our Spiritual Guide may at present appear to be ordinary, if we do not assent to this ordinary appearance but practice regarding him or her as a Buddha, we shall create the cause to have actual Buddhas … as our Spiritual Guides in the future.
Right now everything appears to us as ordinary because we have ordinary minds. This makes ouropinions unreliable, and even if Buddha Shakyamuni or Manjushri or Tara were to appear in all their glory in front of us, their illusory bodies made of wisdom light, and say “Hello!”, what would we see? An ordinary person. (In fact, they may have already tried to say “Hello!” to you.) Buddhas are already all around us all the time. Enlightenment is reality. In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Venerable Geshe-la says:
Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has been shining all along; and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we shall see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.
Traveling the spiritual paths of Sutra and Tantra is very much the process of unveiling that reality – we’re not seeing all that wonder because our ordinary appearances and projections are getting in the way, like clouds. So we practice seeing our Spiritual Guide as an embodiment of all these Buddhas appearing in a form that we can relate to, talk to, and understand – but never for a moment thinking that the ordinariness we perceive belongs to our Spiritual Guide, but rather to our own perceptions. You can see how this unordinary view is creating the cause to see Buddhas in their actual forms.
We do not take rebirth in the lower realms
You may think, “I wasn’t planning on doing that anyway.” But the thing is that we have been in samsara since beginningless time and are travelers bound for future lives. This world is not our permanent home, as Buddha said, and we have at most a few hundred months left before we have to leave this body and its world.
When we fall asleep tonight, everything about today is going to disappear and we will enter a different world in a different dream body — maybe it’ll be a nice world, but it could just as easily be a nightmare. Then tomorrow with any luck we’ll wake up into a world similar to today’s world (though not the same, as explained in these articles on subtle impermanence).
A similar thing will happen when we die, except that we won’t be waking back up into anything even remotely resembling what is appearing to us now. In the time it takes to go through the death process, the few hours or less that it takes to die, everything about this life will disappear. We will be parted from everything and everyone we know in this life, including our body, friends, career, and children. We have to think about these things because it is only a matter of time before this happens to us.
And at that point, we will definitely want our Spiritual Guide with us. He is the one person who can accompany us in the death process and stay with us in all our future lives. No ordinary being can do this, however much we want them to come with us. Our Spiritual Guide can, and he will. Therefore, this is a very important benefit.
All our wishes, temporary and ultimate, are easily fulfilled
I don’t have anything to add for that one, at least not right now.
Does any of this sound good to me?
We can close our eyes and contemplate all or any one of these benefits, asking ourselves, “Is this what I want? Would I like this benefit? How might that work?” If we do this, and it moves our heart, we’ll naturally have a wish to find and rely upon a Spiritual Guide. And if we have that wish, we will find and rely upon one. As the old saying goes:
When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
For which Buddha could refuse you?! All of them attained enlightenment because they found living beings’ suffering impossible to ignore and wanted to be in a position to guide us out of samsara. Therefore, if someone is finally seeking lasting freedom and happiness, what Buddha is going to say, “No, not you, sorry. Mm mm. I attained enlightenment to guide all living beings to freedom and bliss, but there is an exception to every rule, and I’m afraid that’s you.” No, that’s not going to happen. Therefore if you want to follow the path with a Spiritual Guide, one will appear, one has already appeared to be honest.
Coming up next … once we have decided to rely upon a Spiritual Guide, the big and obvious question is – Who?! Who is my Spiritual Guide?
Meantime, please leave your comments in the box below!