7. The Guru-Disciple Relationship


A Dharma Teaching by His Holiness Rimay Gyalten Sogdzin Rinpoche


Section 7


The Guru-Disciple Relationship


Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I’m very happy to discuss with you the Guru and Disciple relationship. In general, the Guru-Disciple relationship is incredibly deep, deep like the ocean; and very vast, vast like the sky; and very long, long like a river; and very tough, tough like a rock; and very stable, stable like the earth. And of course, please don’t be offended by anything I say. This relationship is so important, but this is just a discussion. I hope it will help open your hearts and minds. If there is something useful I say, please use it, if it is not useful, just leave it alone. In that case, I guarantee we will all benefit from the Buddha-Dharma.

My precious Root-Guru, H.H. Drubgen Yizhin Norbu said: “The relationship of guru and disciple must be as warm and as close as the relationship of a father and his son or daughter. The guru has a tremendous responsibility to care for his children, who, in their turn must follow all the teachings that they are given, and keep all their vows.”

Once you have found your teacher, serving him and following his advice is even more difficult, as Buddhism is not a one-day process but takes many lifetimes. For most beginners, this is not where the problems end, but where the problems start, because you have to be wise when you relate with a guru.

Serving your guru

It is important to look after the teacher’s needs, and follow his advice as best as you can, to maintain and nurture your relationship. In Tibet, there is a formal or traditional way of relating to the teacher, for example, you can invite your teacher for a meal and offer him the best food available. When you see your teacher for the first time in the day, making three prostrations is traditional. That’s not required in every informal situation, especially in the West. However, at any formal teaching, Empowerment, or taking of Refuge or taking vows, it is required as an essential way of showing your gratitude for the teachings and your devotion to your teacher, who brings you the Dharma.

When your teacher approaches, stand up. Traditionally, we try not to ever step on his shadow, just as a further way of showing respect. We also have a tradition, that when you walk with him, follow two steps behind on the left side – if you follow directly behind, you may step on his shadow – and if you follow on the right side, you show that you are superior to him. At bed time, even if there is no other bed available, a student never sleeps on the teacher’s bed. When visiting, it is important to dress for the occasion as a sign of respect and not turn up at his doorstep looking like you’ve just gotten out of the bed.

Actually, all these rules are very much a Hinayana approach. Gampopa actually taught that the highest path, Mahāmudrā , can be practiced completely apart from Sutra or Tantra Paths, free of all the traditional rules of practice – Mahāmudrā is a practice totally free of any anxieties, but not neglecting discipline. The Guru-Disciple relationship is extremely important and profound in any true Mahāmudrā practice, much more than that in Hinayana practice.  The inner essence of respect expressed by following the traditional rules of etiquette is actually even more important, even if we are free of the outer forms.

Devotion and attachment

There is a saying that the guru is like fire. One cannot get too close as you may get burned. And you can’t stay too far away either, as you may not get the warmth of the guru’s presence. Though it is good to be by your Guru’s side every waking moment, you may begin to see many faults. The advantages are that you will learn all the time, but the disadvantages are equally great, as you might begin to generate bad thoughts towards him, because the Guru is not a Buddha but a human being. Sometimes, your devotion may become attachment, and you may become possessive and jealous about your Guru. You may even begin to see him as your personal property, and become angry at those who “use” him without your permission, or don’t follow the rules as you see them!

The flower and the bee

A devoted student is advised to behave like a bee - bees extract the nectar from the flower and fly away, they never sleep in the flower. Similarly, you, also, cannot sleep inside the fire, as you will get burned. If he were always by your side, you would take him for granted. When I was a child, I was always with my Guru. When I was naughty he would scold me and of course, I might get upset. But when I did something good, he would praise me, and of course, I liked that! It is only natural to react that way because I am a human being. I knew that he was our Teacher and I had that respect for him at all times. However, because I was always with him, I didn’t always see him as the Buddha, even though I knew he was very precious, he was everything to me. But now, when I think of him, I have ultimate, indestructible devotion for him and I can see him as the real Buddha at all times, even when I’m sleeping. So, the closer you stay to the Guru, and the more you see of him, there is a chance you may begin to lose your respect for him and the preciousness of the moment. That’s not necessary true in all cases, but it is something to be careful of. But remember, when you are completely ready for the Guru, when your devotion is total, then no matter how close your are to him, you will always recognize his preciousness and see him as the Buddha. If you are not completely ready, then “not too close, not too far” is a good rule to follow. In this case we need a skillful balance. When the Guru is physically present, take the opportunity to learn and remember everything that he teaches. And until you meet him again, you should practice, practice, and practice what he has taught.

The qualities of a student

The Vajrayana practitioner should be able to keep his personal practice, the Vajrayana Vows, and any teachings that he has received, secret and sacred. If he were to share with everyone he met, this would break the power of his practice, and he would then take a longer time to fulfill his aspirations. Not all Vajrayana teachings are suitable for the beginner. If the practitioner were to share inappropriately, he may harm the listener by causing him to develop a negative view towards the teachings, and, towards the practitioner himself. And by doing so, the student himself will create negative karma which will be an obstacle to his practice. Of course, you may discuss topics with your close Vajrayana brothers and sisters, or share with your teacher but you should not share with everyone.

Secondly, to walk the Vajrayana Path, the student must have wisdom, should never doubt his practice, and must have great discipline, diligence and effort. For example, students always ask me why “nothing is happening” even though they have been trying so hard, and they begin to doubt their practice. They think, maybe, that Buddha is sleeping or too busy. A few of my students have actually said to me, “Oh, I chant the Dzambala and White Mahakhala mantra for so long but I still don’t see anything, it’s not working. Maybe they are powerless or sleeping. Please, wake them up!” So, I told them I tried to wake up Dzambala and Mahakhala. It turns out that they are already wide awake; I think maybe you are the one sleeping.”

A practitioner should never have such thoughts and doubt about their practice. Whether a practice is effective or not, has nothing to do with the practice itself, but totally with the practitioner. If you have practiced for a long time and “nothing happens”, then either you are practicing incorrectly, or you do not have absolute faith, devotion, confidence and appreciation in your practice. Then, you may try changing your practice or your lineage or your meditation pillow! But it’s far more important to work on your own faith, devotion, confidence and appreciation.

Vajrayana Practice is not a one-day affair but takes many lifetimes. At the same time, you are encouraged to attend teachings, read more books, then contemplate and meditate on what you have understood. By doing so, you will achieve wisdom. 

Listen with your heart

View the teacher’s advice as medicine. The student should approach his guru with an open heart and complete faith. If your heart is closed, or you are full of pride, you will never learn anything and will doubt the words of your teacher. You will always be wondering is he really better than me? Does he really know what he is talking about? You should never doubt the teacher but should approach him like you are a sick person going to a great healer.

When visiting your teacher, bear in mind that you are not going there for sightseeing, or just to meet some friends and chitchat. You are going there to learn something, and the way to learn is to open your heart to him.

The very precious gift

The most precious respect or offering a student can give his teacher is to diligently follow his advice, put his teaching to practice and persevere through any hardships. That is really a very precious gift. If the student follows the teacher’s advice, it is said that one will be able to overcome all difficulties, will be far from samsara, will never be reborn in the lower realms, and will be someone held in respect among all beings, while Buddha and bodhisattvas will always be close to you.

Faith and devotion

Devotion is like a bridge that connects you to the Buddha and your teacher, therefore, devotion is the key that opens the door to the guru. Without devotion, one receives nothing.

There are three types of devotion. Pure devotion arises upon seeing Buddhist images or when you read books. Longing devotion arises when you read biographies or listen to tales of the Buddha and bodhisattvas’ heroic feats and you are inspired to follow the same path. And finally, there is convincing devotion, this occurs through your own practice, you’ll be able to develop a strong and total confidence, and you are even prepared to give your life to support that confidence and total trust in your guru.

My Precious Guru stated that every student has devotion to his or her teacher but this cannot be called precious devotion. When a student knows that his teacher has only 1% of good quality and 99% of bad qualities, and despite of this, remains extremely devoted to him – that is the most precious devotion of all.

It is just human nature to always look for faults in others including your teacher. When a student spends a lot of time with the teacher, this will undoubtedly occur, and the student will develop a negative attitude towards the teacher. But when a student has this convincing devotion, even when seeing bad qualities in the teacher, he will still be able to maintain a pure view and have an indestructible devotion towards him. This is the most precious devotion of all. Once you find a teacher, this is the type of devotion you must cultivate.

The importance of spiritual friends

Spiritual friends are important for giving encouragement to the practitioner at difficult times. Good spiritual friends are those who dig out your hidden faults and encourage us to practice. They are not the one who always see faults in teachers; who never listen to or contemplate the teachings; who never make an effort to practice meditation; who create rifts among vajra brothers and sisters; who uphold the causes of anger and jealousy, pride, attachment and selfishness; who never practice and are always distracted; who are always lazy and sleepy, who have an over-active mind and with very strong attachments. These are not good vajra friends. By associating with them, you will emulate their habits. A good Vajrayana practitioner should try to control or reduce unstable emotions and not to encourage them. So choose your Spiritual Friends wisely.

Samayas and other meaningful advice

The student must be able to maintain his Samaya, Vows or commitments. In every Empowerment, some commitment is involved. In most cases, the Guru will give “je-nang” which is Tibetan for blessing. However, if it is a complete initiation, you should start the practice from the day that you receive the initiation. Those who have attended the same Empowerment then become your vajra brother or sister, and the guru becomes your teacher. As there is now a strong connection to each other, you cannot criticize, gossip, and have negative feelings towards each other—because by doing so you may break the samaya and create obstacles to your Dharma Practice.

If a practitioner has broken samayas, though he may have great devotion and practice diligently for many hours in a day, he will never achieve what he aspires to achieve – it is like a pot with a hole – no matter how much water is poured in, everything leaks out. So it is extremely important for a student to maintain pure samaya.

Sometimes, students may receive many Empowerments – some may have received even more Empowerments than me! If that is the case, you may find it difficult to keep your daily commitment. So if you find yourself in a position where you are short of time, you should then practice by thinking that your Yidam is the embodiment of all Buddhas. Of course, if you are able to, you should try to complete all the required commitments. At the very least, you should never forget your daily practice.

A Vajrayana practitioner must have a bell and a dorje, which symbolize Wisdom and Skillful Method. Using these hand implements in your practice symbolizes the Union of Skillful Means and Wisdom, like using two hands to produce a sound. Skillful Means encompasses right methods, compassion, and Bodhicitta. If a practitioner does not have the implements, it is like a house without a kitchen.

Extract the essence but don’t forget to water the flower

Of course there are many other qualities that the student and the teacher must have. The above merely gives a general guideline as to what qualities one should look for to find a teacher, and also what the teacher will look for in a student.

Above all, a good student must learn to extract the essence of his teacher’s teachings like the bee extracts nectar from the flower. At the same time, the good student will also remembers to water and look after the flower, as the bee will still need the flower to make more honey.

Finally, my biggest wish is that you all learn a little bit about the guru-disciple relationship. Meanwhile I encourage you to practice your Yidam practice and to follow your Guru’s instruction as much as you can. That way, I am sure everything will be taken care of.

This is my prayer:

Although my body is in Vancouver,

My mind is with all my disciples, no matter where they are.

I hope you have a fantastic and marvelous connection with Buddhadharma,

And keep striving towards the goal of ultimate enlightenment.

If you think the Guru or Buddha is in front of you, then the Guru or Buddha will always be in front of you, wherever you are.

By H.H.RGS Rinpoche