Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Relating To the Guru

The following article is from the Autumn, 2011 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Q: If one has taken a teacher and then sees them behaving badly or in seemingly inappropriate ways, what advice do you give students who are interpreting this? Is it even acceptable to leave a teacher once you have made a commitment to him?

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Personally, I think that we should never completely surrender our own integrity. I think that it's a big mistake to think that once you have taken on the teacher that's it, and whatever he does you have to see it with pure perception. Of course, you know, one can point to Naropa and Tilopa and Marpa and Milarepa, but nonetheless I think that's quite dangerous.

The point is that the students are the children and the teacher is the parent. A good parent helps the child to mature properly, to not endlessly be a child. And if a parent is abusive, then just because they are the parent doesn't mean that the child should be left in their care. If a teacher really acts inappropriately or requests inappropriate behavior on the part of the student, then the student has the right, also as a human being, to say, "No, I'm very sorry, I don't accept that," or, "Well, okay, explain why you're doing this." And if the teacher will not explain, or their explanation doesn't ring true, then I think it's perfectly appropriate to say with all due respect, "Well, I'm sorry, I am going to find someone else." Because quite frankly, many teachers, even though they might be very charismatic and even have some genuine experience and realization, might also have a big shadow which they're not facing and which their culture doesn't encourage them to face. And in dealing with that shadow, we have to use our common sense. If the relationship creates a lot of inner distress and trauma, then this is spiritually not in the least bit helpful. So without creating a lot of publicity or difficulty, one can just simply say, Thank you very much for all your teachings, and leave.

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Sometimes, even if the lama is sitting in front of you, you can feel there's a thousand miles between you; likewise, you can be a thousand miles away and feel that the guru is right there, sitting in your heart.

Q: The teacher/student relationship is fundamental in Tibetan Buddhism. In reality, in the West, only a fan can be so lucky to have a traditional guru/student relationship. So, often it happens to a practitioner that after some years there is less enthusiasm and interest. What can you advise to those in such a situation?

JTP: The important thing is to realize that even in a traditional guru / student relationship, it's not really so necessary to always be around the guru. Once one has made a connection, even if one doesn't see the guru very often and the guru is very far away, still one can keep the inner heart connection. For example, in the Tibetan tradition, there are very beautiful prayers for calling on the guru from afar. And especially if these are set to a melody and one can sing them from the heart―they create that connection with the guru, because it's a mind-to-mind connection. Sometimes, even if the lama is sitting in front of you, you can feel there's a thousand miles between you; likewise, you can be a thousand miles away and feel that the guru is right there, sitting in your heart. At the same time, one has to realize that the ultimate guru is one's own buddha nature: it's the nature of the mind, and one has to cultivate being able to be centered within one's own innate awareness and not depend so much on an external relationship. Because when one is in the nature of the mind, then one is indeed one with the guru. This is why when we do guru yoga we absorb the guru into ourselvesto realize that his/her mind and our own mind have become one. This is very important to realize. The ultimate guru is our own innate wisdom, and if we can access and cultivate that, then the enthusiasm for the Dharma just bubbles up endlessly. It doesn't depend on external shots of inspiration from an actual person.

adapted from Into the Heart of Life by JetsunmaTenzin Palmo

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