The Path To Enlightenment

The following article is from the Winter, 1995 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

H.H. the Dalai Lama

translated by Glenn H. Mullin 237 pp. #PAEN $14.95

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This new edition of a foundational teaching by the Dalai Lama is now available from Snow Lion. The following is an excerpt, from the chapter Where the Guru and Disciple Meet,' which we feel is important for Western practitioners.

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, Eveiy action seen as perfect. However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni's own words: Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me. The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of every action seen as perfect not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom.

Take myself, for example. Because many of the previous Dalai Lamas were great sages and I am said to be their reincarnation, and also because in this lifetime I give frequent religious discourses, many people place much faith in me, and in their guru yoga practice they visualize me as being a buddha. I am also regarded by these people as their secular leader. Therefore, this teaching of every action seen as perfect can easily become poison for me in my relationship with my people and in my effective administration. I could think to myself, They all see me as a buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them. Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten. I always recommend that the teaching on seeing the guru's actions as perfect should not be stressed in the lives of ordinary practitioners. It would be an unfortunate affair if the Buddhadharma, which is established by profound reasoning, were to have to take second place to it.

Perhaps you will think: The Dalai Lama has not read the Lam Rim scriptures. He does not know that there is no practice of Dharma without the guru. I am not being disrespectful of the Lam Rim teachings. A student of the spiritual path should rely upon a teacher and should meditate on that teacher's kindness and good qualities; but the teaching on seeing his or her actions as perfect can only be applied within the context of the Dharma as a whole and the rational approach to knowledge that it advocates. As the teachings on seeing the guru's actions as perfect is borrowed from Highest Tantra and appears in the Lam Rim mainly to prepare the trainee for tantric practice, beginners must treat it with caution. As for spiritual teachers, if they misrepresent this precept of guru yoga in order to take advantage of naive disciples, their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs.

The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines. Without this approach it is difficult to digest one's Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then follow that teacher within the conventions of reason as presented by Buddha. The teachings on seeing the guru's actions as perfect should largely be left for the practice of Highest Tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principal yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!

In Tibet, due to the Dharma being so widespread, and due to the kindness of many past masters, the people were inspired by a great deal of faith. Even a small patch of red cloth was regarded as true Sangha. They had no difficulty in practicing every action seen as perfect. Therefore, responsibility for the purity of the tradition rested in the hands of the lamas, and, unfortunately, it is very easy for a lama to become spoiled by the teaching, every action seen as perfect.

Actually, the more respect one is given the more humble one should become, but sometimes this principle becomes reversed. A spiritual teacher must guard himself or herself carefully and should remember the words of Lama Drom Tonpa, Use respect shown to you as a cause for humility. This is the teacher's responsibility. The student has the responsibility of using wisdom in his or her demonstration of faith and respect.

Faith generated is a virtue, but if it is not guided by wisdom it can get us into trouble. We Tibetans generally have so much faith that we take Dharma practices for granted. A monk who lives from the offerings of patrons, but does not abide within the practices, creates a negative karma equal to stealing from a temple. Someone who has spiritual qualities or who is engaged in intensive study or practice fulfills the qualification of receiving offerings and their acceptance is meaningful. But a bad monk would be better off to swallow a hot iron ball. A problem is that we usually only observe those teachings that feed our delusions and ignore those that would overcome them. This leniency can easily lead to one's downfall. This is why I say that the teaching on seeing all the guru's actions as perfect can be a poison. Many sectarian problems in Tibet were born and nourished by it.

The First Dalai Lama wrote, The true spiritual master looks upon all living beings with thoughts of love and shows respect to teachers of all traditions alike. Such a one only harms delusion, the enemy within. The different traditions have arisen principally as branches of skillful methods for trainees of varying capacities. If we take an aspect of their teachings, such as the precept of all actions seen as perfect, and use it for sectarian purposes, how have we repaid the past masters for their kindness in giving and transmitting Dharma? Have we not disgraced them? If we misunderstand and mispractice their teachings, it will hardly please them. Similarly, it is meritorious for a lama to perform rituals or give initations to benefit people, but if his or her motivation is only material benefit, that person would be better off going into business instead. Using the mask of Dharma to exploit people is a great harm. What the Chinese did to us was bad, but not as bad as the effects we would create by taking Dharma and using it for sectarian purposes or to exploit people. This rots the foundation.

In this context the great yogi Milarepa said, When Dharma practitioners do not abide within their practices, all they do is harm the teachings. Just as intestinal worms can kill a lion, using the teachings for sectarianism and exploitation can easily destroy the Dharma.

We erect elaborate altars and make extensive pilgrimages, but better than these is to remember Buddha's teachings: Never create any negative action; always create goodness; aim all practices at cultivating the mind. When our practice increases delusion, negativity and disturbed states of mind, we know that something is wrong.

It is sometimes said that a major cause of the decline of Buddhism in India eight hundred years ago was the practice of Vajrayana by unqualified people, and sectarianism caused by corruption within the Sangha. Anyone teaching Tibetan Buddhism should keep this in mind when they refer to the precept, every action of the guru is to be seen as perfect. This is an extremely dangerous teaching, particularly for beginners.


Path to Enlightenment is a revised edition of Essence of Refined Gold. Available now.

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