To truly understand Tibetan Buddhism, one must come to grips with the unique role of the teacher, the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship, and the possibilities that having a teacher can open up.

Tibetan Buddhism is composed of the Vajrayana or Tantric teachings on top of a foundation of the Sutrayana (vehicle of the Sutras), the core teachings of what are sometimes called the Sravakayana and the Mahayana. In the context of the Sutrayana, a relationship with a teacher roughly maps to the categories of a pratimoksha master and a master of the bodhisattva vows, but there is a wide scope of possibilities and overlap within these roles. The teacher imparts, for example, important points on shamatha or vipashyana meditation, philosophy, or techniques like mind training (lojong), and these are akin to the role of teachers in other Buddhist traditions.

But in the relationship with a male or female vajra master in the context of tantric teachings, including Mahamudra and Dzogchen, the teacher and student have very specific commitments to each other, which is a very different situation. While this relationship may very well incorporate the elements of the relationship with a Sutrayana teacher, it is important for people to understand that a Vajrayana teacher is not really akin to the role of the Zen priest or the spiritual friend (kalyāṇamitta) of the Pali tradition of Buddhism, let alone the Hindu Guru, therapist, or a modern-day life coach. The practice of Guru Yoga (see sidebar below), whereby the student visualizes their teacher in the form of an enlightened being is one example of how different things are in this context.  The relationship is much more central and is an essential mechanism for making great strides on the path.

That is why traditional texts encourage people to spend up to 12 years carefully considering whether a teacher of Vajrayana is suitable for them. They are not encouraging people to be wishy-washy and put off making a commitment; rather, this number underlines the importance of choosing a teacher very carefully.

Dudjom RInpoche on the Teacher-Student Relationship

The benefits are immeasurable and are not accessible without a teacher. The great 20th-century master Dudjom Rinpoche gives some traditional examples to demonstrate the importance:

Ordinary, childlike beings are incapable of proceeding even vaguely in the same direction as the perfect path by the strength of their own minds, so they need first to examine and then to follow a qualified diamond master. Diamond masters are the root that causes us to correctly engage in the whole Buddhadharma in general and especially to follow the path properly. They are knowledgeable and experienced guides for inexperienced travellers setting out on a journey, powerful escorts for those who are travelling to dangerous places, ferrymen steering the boat for people crossing a river. Without them, nothing is possible. This is reiterated in countless scriptures.

Recently, there has been a lot of news and discussion in the media, Buddhist and otherwise, around the role of the teacher in Buddhism—in particular, Tibetan Buddhism. This mostly relates to a small handful of teachers (including the leader of Shambhala International, an organization totally unaffiliated with Shambhala Publications) against whom there have been serious allegations of abuse of power, some of it sexual. Many of these articles have been read by a younger generation of Westerners curious about Buddhism and other spiritual traditions but suspicious of hierarchy, organized religion, and spiritual leaders with perceived authority. This media attention seems to validate their suspicions.

But however bad some of these cases are—and it should go without saying that someone who is causing harm is acting in complete opposition to the Buddhadharma—a teacher harming or taking advantage of a student is an unacceptable exception to the norm; it is a rare aberration in an incredible system that has benefited millions of people East and West in the most profound and transformative ways.

These aberrations are not new. People are human, and throughout Buddhist history (or any tradition) there has been the occasional charlatan or flawed leader—as the discussion of how to avoid a bad teacher in many of the texts below make plain. But the fact is that there are so many highly educated, spiritually accomplished (typically following many years in retreat), caring, selfless teachers in this tradition, and it is a shame that people who do not know better are being exposed, online and in print, only to the exceptions rather than the norm and the potential.

Specifically, much of the recent coverage and discussion online and in print around the role of the guru or lama has reflected a deep misunderstandings of the role of the teacher in Tibetan Buddhism and has therefore created a lot of confusion. The best way for a student to find the right teacher who can lead them far along the path to enlightenment is to have a solid ground in understanding what the roles are, to be aware of the cultural dynamics at play, and to know which qualities to seek and which to avoid.

So, we are pleased to share this Reader’s Guide to help those interested in understanding the role, importance, and centrality of the guru or lama and the transformative power of the student-teacher relationship. We hope this will better prepare those pursuing this path to understand the choices they are making and set them up for spiritual success and accomplishment.

His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya
His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya {photo by Wonderlane on Flickr}
It probably should not look like this.
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Dzongsar Khyentse on the Teacher-Student Relationship

Perhaps the book that addresses head-on the contemporary concerns and confusion about the role of the teacher—from gender inequality to power dynamics and bad apples—is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s The Guru Drinks Bourbon. This is a thrilling modern guide to help students understand what they are in for and what is expected of them. It is, after all, a two-way street. He covers many areas and, while acknowledging a checklist is too simple of a model, he does present some helpful guidelines.

“The good guru

  • has realized the ultimate view
  • is open-minded
  • is reluctant to teach
  • is tolerant
  • is learned
  • is disciplined
  • is kind and never denigrates others
  • has a lineage
  • is progressive
  • is humble
  • is not interested in your wallet, thighs, or toes
  • has a living guru and a living tradition
  • is devoted to the three jewels
  • trusts in the laws of karma
  • is generous
  • brings you to virtuous surroundings
  • has tamed the body, speech, and mind
  • is gentle and soothing
  • has pure perception
  • is nonjudgmental
  • abides by the Buddha’s rules of Vinaya, Bodhisattvayana, and, of course, Vajrayana
  • fears wrongdoing
  • is forgiving
  • is skillful"
Dalai Lama and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
The Dalai Lama is a great example of a teacher continuing to receive initiations and teachings
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Another book exploring the student-teacher relationship is Alex Berzin’s Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy RelationshipThe work covers many of the traditional topics but also gives a lot of thought to contemporary issues, cultural differences, and Westerner-specific issues like paranoia and vulnerability. He brings in some models from psychology (transference and regression) to explain many of the dynamics Westerners may present and how students can overcome them.

Wise Teacher, Wise Student

$18.95 - Paperback

By: Alexander Berzin

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Sera KhandroThe great early 20th century master Sera Khandro relates over several pages in her Refining Our Perception of Reality the qualities of a guru without whom progress on the path of Vajrayana is not possible:

In general, although it is taught that there are six kinds of masters from whom you receive instruction, the masters who give the pith instructions are your root spiritual masters imbued with threefold kindness. Thus, no discourse or tantra relates a story of the attainment of enlightenment without that individual having relied upon a spiritual master. Each and every one of the highly accomplished masters who appeared in the past relied on material or nonmaterial spiritual masters, and developed all the qualities gained along the paths and stages of awakening; this is a matter of record. Therefore, your lamas have exhausted any flaws and have perfected all qualities: your lamas are the Buddha incarnate. Yet the mind-streams of us ordinary individuals are easily influenced by such things as conditions in our country, our historical period, or our companions. We must thus begin by examining spiritual masters from vantage points both close by and distant, then rely on them having set aside our negative thoughts or attitudes. In the end, having offered service by pleasing the lamas in three ways, and having kept tantric bonds without allowing them to be violated, we train so that our lamas’ wisdom mind and conduct are impressed upon us: our mind and conduct become like a clay image [satsa] emerging from a mold. This is very important.

Refining Our Perception of Reality

$34.95 - Hardcover

By: Sera Khandro

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Dudjom Rinpoche, mentioned above and one of the greatest masters of the 20th century, starts off his magisterial explanation of the foundational practices—A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom: Complete Instructions on the Preliminary Practices, for those embarking on the path of Vajrayana Buddhism—with a long chapter titled “The Qualifications of Masters.”

He concludes it with:

Sublime teachers who are rid of all the faults just described and who possess all the right qualities are, because of the times, very hard to find—like the udumbara, the king of flowers. Even if they should happen to come across such teachers for just a little while, sentient beings with impure perception see faults in them—as has happened many times, starting with Devadatta who saw faults in the Bhagavan. Moreover, most people nowadays have the same store of negative deeds and misfortune, and so they perceive faults as good qualities and good qualities as faults. They see even those who have not a single ability that accords with the Dharma, whether manifest or hidden, as sublime beings, and so on. Those who know how to check are rare indeed. In particular, with regard to giving the profound teachings on the actual condition of things, teachers who have no realization cannot make the ultimate experience and realization develop in their disciples’ mindstreams. We should therefore take this point as a basis and regard a teacher who has most of the right qualities as the equal of the Buddha. The reason for considering even those in whom six of the above sets of qualities are complete and who have most of the right qualities as sublime beings and for following them is described in the Approach to the Absolute Truth:

Because of the age of strife, teachers have a mixture of faults and virtues:
There are none with no negative aspects at all.
Having carefully checked those who have more qualities,
Disciples should put their trust in them.

On Guru Yoga

Mala for Guru YogaAs mentioned above, Guru Yoga is an essential practice in all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.  Dudjom Rinpoche gives an overview of it in Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom that gives a sense of how central the teacher is:

Whether our teachers present in person are ordinary beings or emanations of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, if we are able to pray to them considering them as the Buddha, there is absolutely no difference between them and the Buddha or Bodhisattva or yidam deity in person, because the source of blessings is devotion. So whichever profound practice we are undertaking, whether the generation phase or the perfection phase, we should begin by making the teacher’s blessings the path. There is no more to it than that. But as long as we have not received the blessings, we will not be genuinely on the path. It is said that if disciples who keep the commitments give themselves wholeheartedly, with devotion, to an authentic diamond master, they will obtain the supreme and common accomplishments even if they have no other methods. But without devotion to the teacher, even if we complete the approach and accomplishment practices of the yidams of the six tantra sections, we will never obtain the supreme accomplishment. And we will be unlikely to accomplish many of the ordinary accomplishments either, such as those of long life, wealth, or bringing beings under one’s power. Even if we do manage to achieve a little, it will have necessitated a lot of hardship and will have nothing to do with the profound path. When unmistaken devotion takes birth in us, obstacles on the path will be dispelled and we will make progress, obtaining all the supreme and ordinary accomplishments without depending on anything else. This is what we mean by the profound path of Guru Yoga.

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Khenpo Ngawang PelzangKhenpo Ngawang Pelzang in his famous Guide to the classic Words of My Perfect Teacher, wrote,

“There is one single criterion you should particularly check when examining a teacher: it is whether he has bodhichitta. If he has the bodhichitta, whatever sort of connection one makes with him will be meaningful. A good connection will bring buddhahood in one lifetime, and even a negative connection will eventually bring samsaric existence to an end.”

While one may not be so confident in their bodhicitta detection skills, the point is, after studying and analyzing the teacher, to use your own judgement.

If you wanted more detail, the author presents a more descriptive list of what characteristics to look for.

There are many other traditional overviews that include key instructions for evaluating, committing to, and following a teacher. From the tradition His Holiness the Dalai Lama was first educated in, Tsongkahpa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment covers the subject over several pages. The great 18th-century adept Jigme Lingpa’s Treasury of Precious Qualities beautifully covers this as well.

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One of the most classic treatises on the guru-disciple dynamic is by the great 19th-century scholar and master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, who wrote The Teacher-Student Relationship. In this work he covers the following facets of the relationship:

  • How to Seek the Wisdom Teacher
  • The Justification for Following the Wisdom Teacher
  • Categories and Characteristics of the Master Who Should Be Followed
  • The Way in Which One Enters into and Goes Astray—Which Follows from the Characteristics of the Master
  • The Characteristics of the Student Who Follows
  • How to Follow
  • The Necessity of Following the Wisdom Teacher in That Way
  • Avoiding Contrary, Harmful Companions
  • Creating Faith as a Favorable Condition
  • The Way That the Wisdom Teacher Should Explain and the Student Should Listen to the Holy Dharma

Kongtrul relies on sutra and tantra sources to explain each of these. The reader will put it down having a much better appreciation for the scope of the Vajra master and student’s responsibilities, neither of which can be taken lightly.

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Dangerous Friend: The Teacher-Student Relationship in Vajrayana Buddhism by Rig’dzin Dorje focuses exclusively on the Vajrayana aspects of the teacher-student relationship.

Dangerous Friend

$24.95 - Paperback

By: Rig'dzin Dorje

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In Secret of the Vajra World, scholar and teacher Reggie Ray includes a chapter on the Vajra Master. His conclusion, which encapsulates much of the above, is as follows:

Many people are suspicious of Buddhism in general and particularly of the Vajrayana because of the intensity of the guru-disciple relationship. They are made uncomfortable by the level of projections that occur in the interaction of teacher and student. They do not like the lack of explicit restrictions, rules, and limitations on the relationship. They would prefer clear expectations and boundaries, without the uncertainty and intimacy that Vajrayana Buddhism implies.

Without denying the dangers in this as in all other intimate human relationships, and acknowledging that there can be no complete guaran­tee against mistakes and abuses, still there would appear something shortsighted in this point of view. As long as human beings live in the realm of samsaric duality, there is the inevitability of projection—in this case the positive projections of seeing something ‘‘out there’’ to which we are attracted and that we feel we need. What is sometimes not sufficiently realized is that no human beings are outside of this cycle.

Moreover, projection of this nature is not an inherently bad or unde­sirable thing. In fact, it is only because we are willing to project, willing to seek our dreams, that we can come up short and begin to integrate the part of ourselves that we had at first seen as outside. People do get ‘‘stuck,’’ but usually not forever. This process always involves vulnera­bility and suffering, but only in a culture that abhors pain and equates it with evil can one fail to see the transformative element.

The Vajrayana operates by eliciting and provoking the projections of our own deepest nature, then forcing us back on ourselves so that we have to integrate and take possession of those projections. This process is seen no more clearly than in the relation of teacher and student that forms the backbone of the path. Trungpa Rinpoche comments that at the beginning of the path, the teacher is seen virtually as a demigod. In the middle, he is experienced as a friend and companion. And at the end, when we have attained the state of realization that we once saw uniquely in him, he becomes inseparable from the inborn, living wis­dom within.

What is sad is not to see this process of projection in Buddhism, where it can lead to something dignified and noble, but to see the way that it operates in the contemporary ‘‘modern’’ world, where it so often leads to an utter dead end. Here, people project their deepest yearnings onto things that have little to do with the human spirit and its matura­tion—new cars, upscale houses, clothes, vacations, credentials, fame, wealth, and power. It is not surprising, for example, that it is often among those who have succeeded most fully in realizing the materialism of the American Dream that one can find the most emptiness, fear, and unacknowledged despair.

Secret of the Vajra World

$39.95 - Paperback

By: Reginald A. Ray

Additional Resources

Another way to approach this is simply to read the stories of great masters and be inspired by their example. Here are a few places to get started:

Khandro Rinpoche

Khandro Rinpoche

Khandro Rinpoche discusses her teachers in her expansive Refuge chapter in This Precious Life: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on the Path to Enlightenment

The incomparable lamas of the Longchen Nyintig tradition are presented in Tulku Thondup’s Masters of Meditation and Miracles.

The inspiring stories of Patrul Rinpoche are the subject of Matthieu Ricard’s collection of the oral history of this essential figure, Enlightened Vagabond.

The archetype of students, Milarepa, can be read about in many of the books included in our Reader’s Guide on him.

A subsequent article will address the related topic of Guru Yoga, which lies at the heart of the Vajrayana.