Not just anyone can be a Spiritual Guide, of course — it has to be someone who can guide us along the spiritual path. As a reminder of some of their necessary qualifications:
A pure Spiritual Guide must have authentic spiritual attainments, hold a pure lineage, cherish the Buddhadharma, and with love and compassion give unmistaken teachings to his or her disciples. If we meet such a Spiritual Guide we should consider ourself to be very fortunate.
Once we feel we have found a reliable source of spiritual guidance, here are 5 simple practical things we can do to rely on them.
(1) Feel happy
We can just feel happy about it, for a start. As it says in Great Treasury of Merit:
We should try to feel close to him [or her], maintaining a happy and affectionate mind towards him at all times. We should regard our Spiritual Guide as our mother who cares for us and cherishes us, as our father who provides us with all we need and protects us from danger, as the moon that cools the heat of the delusions in our mental continuum, as the sun that dispels the darkness of ignorance in our mind, and as a kind benefactor who gives us the priceless gift of Dharma.
Why feel happy? Because:
Geshe Potowa says that if a pure disciple meets a pure Spiritual Guide it is not difficult for him or her to reach enlightenment. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
We can hopefully see from these articles that relying on a Spiritual Guide is not about having another authority figure in our life – who wants one of those, really?! Not me. Relying on a Spiritual Guide helps US make spiritual progress – there is a lot more in it for us than for our Spiritual Guide. We can keep reminding ourselves of the benefits until we feel lucky to have found ourselves in this position.
If through relying upon a Spiritual Guide we develop the realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment within our mental continuum, we will be truly rich, even if we have no material possessions.
No other wealth is going with us. Only our faith and/or spiritual realizations can truly protect our mind when old age ravages our body and death comes knocking.
Not long ago Venerable Geshe-la said something along the lines that ten years goes very quickly. I have been finding this a helpful way to feel the brevity of this human life.
When we’re 10, 20 seems a zillion miles away, and 30 positively ancient. When we’re 20, 30 on the horizon signals the end of youth but is still a long way ahead, we’ve got this, and there’s no way we’re ever going to be fat and middle-aged let alone old. At the slightly alarming age of 30, time is speeding up, but being 40 and middle-aged is still at a safe distance. Until all of a sudden we rather shockingly hit 40, where even looking at a chocolate donut puts on 5lbs and we are now the lucky recipient of those hilarious “Haha, not enough candles!” birthday cards. We now have to kid ourselves that people are not really middle-aged until they reach 50. At that slightly surreal half-century milestone — “No way can I be 50?!!”– wrinkly 60 seems like the beginning of old age and we are beginning to sense that we might, after all, end up one day being one of those bent-over old people. (Luckily “50 is the new 30!”, only of course it’s not, and you won’t find any 30-year-old agreeing.) When we’re 60, the illusion of youth and beauty — or even middle-age and being relatively presentable — is rapidly slipping, yet we tell each other that old age doesn’t begin until we’re 70. When we reach 70, the decrepitudes of the 80s and 90s are now just around the corner, we’ve seen what happens to people when they hit this wall, but we’re still not too old yet, we still have time to get our acts together … don’t we?!
Point is, don’t these decades actually fly past?, and we only have 8 of them, give or take. We can count them on both hands. It seems like mere months since my friends and I were at those earlier milestones, commiserating or joking with each other about how old we were becoming and how the heck did that happen?! And it was just months.
Nowadays when I look at someone and think “They’re pretty old”, there is an increasing chance that they are younger than me. And I can see from Facebook that younger friends are racing through the decades at the same speed, always relatively young but also undeniably, well, middle-aged. None of us gets away with it, no matter the glamor, wealth, or good genes. The sufferings of sickness and old age get all of us in the end, if we don’t die first. The meaty body and brain always wear out. In Sutra Addressed to a King, Buddha says:
Ageing is like an immovable mountain.
Decay is like an immovable mountain.
Sickness is like an immovable mountain.
Death is like an immovable mountain.
Now in London this summer helping my dad take care of my mom, who just got out of hospital, it is very easy to think back to the time when they were both fit and forty and traveling the world — yet here they are now largely stuck inside. This is increasingly the same for the dwindling number of their friends who are still alive, eking out their health and pleasures as long as they can. This is entirely normal. And my generation is next in line. If ever there was a good time to get a move on, that would be now.
Luckily we are not our bodies, our brains, or even our gross minds, not even close. There is an incredibly blissful clear light within all of us, our real home whence life after life we forgettingly arise and return, that totally transcends all these ravages of time. The spiritual path is at its essence being gradually guided to the clear light of bliss by our Spiritual Guide’s teachings and blessings so that we can enjoy it forever. I must say that my mom surprised me at breakfast this morning by quoting word-perfectly Wordsworth’s mystical Intimations of Immortality:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
Out of time (as I might soon be saying on my death bed 😳) The remaining four ways of relying upon a Spiritual Guide are coming up in the next article. Meantime over to you, I would love to hear your comments below.
Happy Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day! June 4 marks the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first ever teaching in this world.
A question: if you knew that Buddha was alive and wandering this Earth, what would you do? …
… I know what I would do, I would be right there! I would find him. I would follow him. I would offer my services to help him bring the medicine of Dharma to everyone who wanted it. I would feel this was something unimaginably epic!!!
I would do the same if I knew, for example, that Je Tsongkhapa was around, or Nagarjuna, or Saraha, or Atisha …
And Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso IS around. A fully accomplished Buddhist master of the same caliber as these great practitioners of yore, he IS alive and wandering this Earth. He has done an extraordinary amount for Buddhism and Buddhists in the world today, continuing to turn the Wheel of Dharma for a huge and growing number of modern people. His life and works are epic.
Today also happens to be his 90th birthday and Kadampa Centers everywhere are doing long-life practices for him to stay on this troubled Earth as long as possible. That way, people can still find him.
If you’ve read the biographies of the great Buddhist masters I mention above, you’ll know that most people had no real clue who they were or how influential they were going to be until later in their lives or even after they’d passed away (if ever). It seemed to dawn on people over time just how incredible these people were. That is not unique to Buddhism – don’t we often only fully appreciate people’s greatness after the fact?
In particular, whenever I read anything about Je Tsongkhapa or by Je Tsongkhapa it feels like I’m reading something about or by Geshe-la. Here’s what it says about Je Tsongkhapa in Great Treasury of Merit, for example:
Although Je Tsongkhapa was an emanation of Manjushri who possessed clairvoyance and miracle powers, he did not appear as a special, exalted being, but manifested as an ordinary, humble practitioner.
Geshe-la is truly humble – he has lived simply in modest surroundings all his 90 years, just practicing what he preaches, helping others all day long, completely uninterested in any status or other worldly concerns.
In this aspect he showed an immaculate example to others, gave pure teachings, and led thousands of people into correct spiritual paths. He spread a very pure Buddhadharma throughout Tibet, showing how to combine the practices of Sutra and Tantra, and in particular how to practice the Vinaya and Highest Yoga Tantra together.
Is this not what Venerable Geshe-la has been doing his entire life? What else has he been doing? Except that instead of his activities being confined to Tibet, due to the wonders of globalization and modern technology the Kadampa Buddhist teachings are now starting to reach the entire world.
The meditation on relying upon a Spiritual Guide
It says in Great Treasury of Merit:
Our Spiritual Guide is any spiritual Teacher who sincerely leads us into spiritual paths by giving correct instructions. Thus our Spiritual Guide can be eastern or western, lay or ordained, male or female.
And so on. They can be anyone.
It was Buddha Shakyamuni who first taught the importance of relying upon a Spiritual Guide (Skt. Guru yoga). For example, in the Condensed Perfection of Wisdom Sutra he said:
Good disciples who respect their Spiritual Guide
Should always rely upon their wise Spiritual Guides.
If you ask why, qualities of wisdom arise from them;
They reveal the perfection of wisdom.
The Conqueror who possesses all supreme good qualities says
“The qualities of a Buddha depend upon the Spiritual Guide.”
As with any other teaching of Buddha, it is good to ask ourselves about the validity of relying upon a Spiritual Guide — is it true, does it work, does it make sense to me, how will it help? Buddhism is not about blind faith, including — perhaps especially — when it comes to relying upon a Spiritual Guide.
The first question is probably why would I want to rely upon a Spiritual Guide? The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye (who I’m guessing taught in a place called Tingri) said:
O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go.
So where is that exactly? If we don’t mind staying in samsara forever, including in the lower realms, we don’t need an enlightened teacher to show us the way out. But:
If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there. No one is kinder than our Spiritual Guide.
What is a Guru?
As explained here, the actual Spiritual Guide (Skt. Guru) is not like a person we normally think of, but is the omniscient wisdom of bliss and emptiness.
In Vajra Cutting Sutra Buddha says that those who think is body is a physical object and that his speech is sound are mistaken because his actual body is the Truth Body. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
The idea of what a Guru actually is can be hard to understand, and developing this understanding of his or her real nature is a huge part of a Buddhist’s spiritual journey.
Ultimately the student or disciple is seeking union with that state of compassion and wisdom, which is enlightenment, so as to become enlightened themselves. Guru yoga provides the technology for this.
It is also a doorway into seeing everybody in a pure way, as a Buddha, including ourselves, so as to manifest our own boundless potential for enlightenment. For as Venerable Geshe-la says in How to Transform Your Life:
Because we cannot see others’ minds, we do not know who is actually a realized being and who is not. Someone may not have a high position in society, but if in his heart he maintains loving kindness to all living beings, in reality he is a realized being.
(This also includes fellow practitioners within our spiritual society, I might add. If the past is anything to go by, there are probably plenty of highly realized beings lurking amongst us, not teaching from high thrones, no reputation at all, simply pulling the weeds, preparing publicity, or sitting around doing seemingly nothing. Think of Shantideva or Geshe Jayulwa or Biwawa or a lot of the Mahasiddhas, for a start — no one had a clue who they really were.)
When we are relating to our Spiritual Guide in this ultimate sense, we are not relating so much to a personality as to omniscient wisdom and compassion appearing for us, and our mind mixes with this, receiving blessings or inspiration. (Blessings are not that mysterious – check out these articles.)
Moreover, we develop faith in the context also of having faith in our own potential for enlightenment – without that, there is not much point in developing faith in enlightened beings.
The goal of Buddha’s teachings on Sutra and Tantra is to transform us from an ordinary, limited, deluded being, who suffers and can only benefit in a limited, temporary way into an enlightened being, who can genuinely protect countless others and lead them to perfect happiness. Our ability to make that transition depends upon blessings to transform our mind. Those blessings come when we shine the sun of our faith on the snow mountain of our Spiritual Guide. In the International Spring Festival this week, Gen-la Khyenrab said that our Spiritual Guide is the focus or lens through which all the blessings of the Buddhas come into our heart. He quoted:
The ultimate goal of human life is to attain enlightenment, and this depends upon continually receiving the special blessings of Buddha through our Spiritual Guide. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Four reasons why our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha
As Gen-la Khyenrab also explained, the object of the Guru yoga meditation as presented in Lamrim is our faith believing that our Spiritual Guide is an emanation of all the Buddhas of the ten directions.
Buddha attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through his emanations. ~ How to Transform Your Life
So the question is:
Who is his emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?
This is the jist of the meditation. And there are a lot of things we can ask and contemplate to increase our understanding and experience of Guru yoga, letting our faith grow naturally over the months and years. This seems like the perfect day to say a quick something about the four main considerations given in the Lamrim teachings, which you can read about in detail in the big Lamrim book called Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
Buddha Vajradhara said that Spiritual Guides are Buddhas
He said this in Two Examination Tantra:
In degenerate times, when the practice of Buddhadharma is in decline, I shall manifest as a Spiritual Guide … I shall appear as an ordinary being, and I shall come in many forms.
If our Spiritual Guide isn’t this seemingly ordinary being who is an emanation of Buddha Vajradhara, then who is? It also occurs to me that a transcendent being can appear as ordinary, but an ordinary being cannot appear as transcendent.
Our Spiritual Guide performs the enlightened actions of a Buddha
As Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit:
The Buddhas have spent aeons investigating which is the best way to help sentient beings, and they have concluded that it is to manifest in an ordinary form as a Spiritual Guide, demonstrate a perfect example, and guide sentient beings by giving Dharma teachings.
Let’s think about this for a moment … if all the Buddhas right now wanted to appear in your life to help guide you to enlightenment — which they do — how would they do that? “Ok, Luna’s ready. What do we have to do?!”
Discussing this with each other, they might well conclude that it would make sense to appear as a monk in the notoriously Buddhist country of Tibet, who studies and practices Buddhism for decades in the well-established monasteries, manages to escape when the Chinese invade, goes into a 16-year retreat, and then is invited by his own highly regarded teacher to fly to the West deliberately to help modern people like you. There he teaches and translates and sets up Centers, and you encounter him, read the books, and meet other practitioners. Through this you realize that everything he says is incredibly helpful and liberating and that you want to practice it. So you do. And you are guided along the spiritual path.
What would a Buddha do differently?
Our Spiritual Guide has given us literally everything we need – there is nothing we don’t have when it comes to traveling this path to liberation or enlightenment. Why is nothing lacking? Why is everything appearing for me? Where is it all really coming from?
In these degenerate times Buddhas continue to work for the benefit of all living beings
Benefiting others is the very meaning of becoming a Buddha – it is the whole reason why they attained enlightenment! It is why we ourselves are training for enlightenment, and Buddhas have already been there and done that.
To the coarse beings of these impure times who, being so hard to tame,
Were not subdued by the countless Buddhas of old,
You correctly reveal the excellent path of the Sugatas. ~ Offering to the Spiritual Guide
Who knows what Geshe Kelsang really thought in those first few years as he met his first spiritually bedraggled and clueless Western disciples (speaking for myself). Yet, whatever he thought, he didn’t leave us to our own degenerate devices, but has been consistently gentle and understanding, just like Je Tsongkhapa:
Je Tsongkhapa was like a mother teaching her children. A mother patiently teachers her children everything they need to know, from how to eat and how to walk, through to how to read and how to write. In the same way, Je Tsongkhapa patiently taught the Tibetans everything they needed for their spiritual development, from the initial step of entering into a spiritual practice through to the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
Appearances are deceptive and our own opinions are unreliable
As I write this outside in a café, a man at the next door table is hacking and coughing – he is reminding me of the pandemic that is not over yet, despite my complacency that has set in on this warm summer’s day, and that people are still hacking and coughing and dying all over the world. Who is he, really? For that matter, who is the homeless dude who swore at us yesterday as he swigged his whisky, before bicycling away fast on a green bike that he stole from right under our noses? Amongst other things, he reminded me how crazy it is that we don’t have affordable housing in this wealthy country, how easy it is for me to take my home and resources for granted, and how much I want to become a Buddha to help everyone find shelter (mind you, it wasn’t my bike, hahaha!.)
In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe-la says:
We cannot say for sure that our closest friend or worst enemy, our mother or even our dog, is not an emanation [of Buddha]. The fact that we feel we know someone very well and have seen him or her behaving in deluded ways does not mean that he or she is an ordinary person. What we see is a reflection of our own mind. An ordinary, deluded mind will naturally perceive a world filled with ordinary, deluded people.
Therefore, naturally this must also apply to someone who actually seems to check the boxes for being a suspected emanation. We are advised in general to check out a Spiritual Guide’s qualifications, of course. In Great Treasury of Merit, Venerable Geshe-la says:
A pure Spiritual Guide must have authentic spiritual attainments, hold a pure lineage, cherish the Buddhadharma, and with love and compassion give unmistaken teachings to his or her disciples. If we meet such Spiritual Guide we should consider ourself to be very fortunate.
However, it is also worth remembering that nothing exists outside our mind. Therefore:
While my mind is impure I shall continue to experience hallucinations and mistaken appearances. Only a completely pure mind can perceive things the way they really are. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune
Everything we see right now is relatively faulty and ordinary (speaking for myself). Which means that even if all the Buddhas were to appear right in front of me – and perhaps they are – I would see them as ordinary or not at all. As Geshe-la says in Joyful Path:
Before they purified their minds many of the Mahasiddhas and Yogis saw their Spiritual Guides in low and imperfect forms.
It’s true, they did! Check out the various biographies. It’s not just us!
Asanga saw his Spiritual Guide, Maitreya, as a dog. Naropa saw his Spiritual Guide, Tilopa, as a fisherman. Devadatta and Bhikkshu Legpai Karma saw the completely perfect Buddha as a very limited being.
Like them, to overcome ordinary appearances we need faith that our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha appearing in this ordinary form so that he or she can actually benefit us. This pure view gives our mind a transcendent focus and we are able to reach for the sky. Then over the years as our mind gradually clears, we will come to see our Spiritual Guide more and more unmistakenly. One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde, as it happens:
We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.
Point is …
In Essence of Vajrayana, Venerable Geshe-la quotes Geshe Potowa, one of the great Kadampa Geshes:
Whether or not our Spiritual Guide is precious depends upon us and not upon our Spiritual Guide. If we view our Spiritual Guide as a Buddha, we will receive the blessings of a Buddha. If we view him or her as a Bodhisattva, we will receive the blessings of a Bodhisattva, and if we view him or her as an ordinary being, we will receive nothing.
So it is up to us – and it is also for us, not our Spiritual Guide. He doesn’t need us to seem him as pure. He already has everything he needs.
It is very helpful to understand that all we ever perceive is a reflection of our mind. An impure mind can only perceive an impure world. If we are waiting to see an objective, truly existent Buddha, we are never going to see one. We need to reach beyond our appearances, beyond the impure, suffering appearances that are capped by the karma we have, to tune into something transcendent and pure.
Geshe-la goes onto say:
Knowing this is very helpful because for as long as our mind remains impure it is impossible directly to perceive anyone, including our Spiritual Guide, as a real Buddha. Our task at the moment therefore is to use our imagination, and the many valid reasons explained in the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune, to train in the recognition that our Spiritual Guide is a living Buddha. Through continually training in this recognition our faith will increase and our mind will become purer and purer, until eventually we will directly perceive our Spiritual Guide as a real Buddha.
If we consider and meditate on these four points, we will develop a conviction that our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha; and with this recognition we will feel very guided. And since we have never travelled to enlightenment before, this guidance is exactly what we need.
Thank you Geshe-la. I will dedicate myself to the flourishing of Kadam Dharma.
Over to you – I’d love to read your comments and stories on this auspicious day 😇😍