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What it means to see the guru as the Buddha

What it means to see the guru as the Buddha

  • Explaining “pure appearance”
  • Techniques to change our habitual ways of thinking
  • Separating a teacher’s unskillful actions from the Dharma itself
  • The possibility of appreciating the good a teacher has done for us (in giving pure teachings) while not condoning the harmful actions he may also do
  • What it means to see the guru as the Buddha

We’re going to continue where we were the last couple of days

Now I want to talk about this thing in tantra called “pure appearance.” Throughout Buddhism you have many different techniques that help us overcome different afflictions. There are many different levels of techniques, many different antidotes, and so on. Clear appearance is one of those. How it’s often phrased is, in the context of tantra—especially highest yoga tantra—then we are to regard everything around us (including ourselves) as the deity, or as something pure. In the practice, after meditating on emptiness with the motivation of bodhicitta, then we imagine our wisdom arising in the form of a deity and we identify ourselves as that deity. But we are a purified deity, we aren’t our old selves, and it’s not our old body that becomes the deity’s body because everything’s been dissolved into emptiness. And then you practice seeing your environment as a pure land, and the people around you as buddhas, and the resources you use as pure items that don’t cause afflictions, and all your activities as the activities of a fully-enlightened one.

In this perspective of seeing everything as pure it helps you overcome the critical, judgmental mind that’s always picking flaws at everything by thinking of everything as being pure and free of all the stuff that we usually project on it: from inherent existence to “that person’s making fun of me.” We imagine all of that stuff is gone and we see everybody as pure. It’s an antidote to our ordinary appearances and our ordinary way of thinking about ourselves and others.

In that kind of perspective, then seeing your spiritual mentor—especially the teacher called the vajra guru, the one who gave you the initiation—of course, you’ve got to see them as pure as well. It would be ridiculous to practice seeing everybody else as a buddha but not the person who’s your spiritual teacher. But usually when they explain “samaya,” or the kind of commitments and bonds that you make when you take an initiation, they often explain it in terms of pure appearance of the spiritual mentor–especially. And the reason why that is important in that context is that whether we use that method to overcome our critical aspects regarding our teachers, or another easier method is taught in the general Mahayana teachings. The purpose of it is is to prevent us from projecting all of our internal rubbish onto the spiritual mentor and then getting fed up with the mentor and then walking away.

When we start practicing the Dharma we bring all of our old stuff to it and we project so much stuff onto our spiritual mentor. It’s amazing. Some people project this person as an authority figure who’s trying to control me. Other people project they’re going to give me all the love I never had from my family. Another person projects they’re going to have confidence in me that nobody else had and give me an important position. We all bring our own stuff. And then, whatever the teacher’s doing, of course, you have an opinion factory-like mind that never goes on strike, never shuts down, operates 25/8…. If you have a very active opinion factory then you have opinions about everything your spiritual teacher does, just as you have opinions about what everybody you see does. Or how they look. Or anything. So we just start projecting opinions like mad on top of our teacher: why do they do this, why don’t they do that, how come they treat this person that way but they treat me this way, how come they sleep too long, or they sleep too little, or how come they’re so stingy here and so generous there, and why this and that…. The whole nine yards.

There are a lot of those general preferences and opinions. But then we can get sometimes incredibly critical. We see our teacher do something, and then all of a sudden we just project all sorts of stuff on top, create a huge story, and get really angry and upset, and then we say, “Okay, I’m done. I’m finished with Buddhism, this teacher doesn’t deserve my respect, and they illustrate, they demonstrate, they represent all of Buddhism, and so I’m fed up, bye bye.” And we give up our Dharma practice.

That is incredibly difficult. It’s very, very dangerous if we do that. And I’ve seen that happen. I’m not talking here about tantra or anything. But one person I knew, he had many students, and then … he did some things that I think were not so skillful, but some of the students overlooked it, but other students got really fed up, and then they said to me, “Well, he taught me this Dharma practice and I don’t trust the Dharma practice that he taught because look how he’s acting now. So, do I give up my practice? I’ve turned away from this teacher, but do I give up the practice?” And I said, “No. You got an actual Dharma practice, you’ve told me yourself that when you practice it it helps your mind. Why would you give it up simply because the teacher’s actions disappointed you? That teacher is not all of the Dharma. Your refuge is in the Dharma. Your refuge is not in a human being.” So I got that person back into their practice. But what it showed me is that when we get hyper-critical we put ourselves in danger of just abandoning our whole practice all together. And if we do that, who is harmed by it the most? We are. Very clearly, we are.

I mean, of course, if your teacher’s been teaching you some weird thing that isn’t Buddhism, that’s another story. But if your teacher’s been teaching you something Buddhist, and then they do something that you really have a different opinion—how they spend money, or how they do whatever, you have a different idea—then you get really mad and you think of throwing away your practice, you’re the one who loses.

The whole idea of seeing the actions of the teacher as pure is to prevent us from getting into a really negative state like that, where we cease to listen to our teacher’s advice.

Now, all of this is based on the assumption that the teacher is keeping general Buddhist ethics, and that the teacher is acting properly.

In terms of seeing the teacher as perfect we’re often told to see our spiritual mentor as the Buddha. It depends which lamrim text you read. Je Rinpoche talks about it very briefly in the lamrim, he doesn’t emphasize it. Other lamrim texts emphasize it completely. It’s the same with different teachers. They say, “You must see your teacher as the Buddha.” Then the way we understand it (as Westerners) is, “Oh, this teacher is the Buddha, that means they’re omniscient. They know everything. So if they’re acting in strange ways we’re told that this is just our opinion factory, but we’re supposed to see them as the Buddha.”

I remember hearing about this and whether it’s about seeing the teacher as the Buddha or ordinary sentient beings as the Buddha. I was thinking, well what am I supposed to do if two people are on the street and they’re fighting, I’m supposed to see both of them as buddhas. And this one’s Yamantaka and that one’s Mahakala, and so they’re just dancing together and nobody’s getting hurt in this fist fight because they’re both deities. Is this how I’m supposed to see it? Because they don’t explain it very well. Or at least my experience. Maybe they explained it well, but I certainly didn’t understand it. I remember also in the course–I’ve been involved many years–there were two teachers who were having a really big argument, there was all this stuff going on, conflict and insults and stuff going back and forth. Fortunately only one of them was my teacher, the other one wasn’t. But I had many friends and both of them were their teachers, and they were really confused. And I’m like, how does this happen, and I’m supposed to see both of them as buddhas, but they’re doing this. What’s going on here? It was so confusing for people.

In 1993, when we had the conference of Western Buddhist teachers with His Holiness, he spoke about his own personal experience regarding this. Now some of you may know more or less about Tibetan history, but when His Holiness was young he had two primary teachers, Tathag Rinpoche and Reting Rinpoche. Nobody knows whether the lamas were fighting or whether it was their attendants who were quarreling. It might have been both. Anyway, according to common appearances, these two lamas, plus their attendants, were really in conflict to the point that there was a war between the Tibetan government and Sera monastery where Reting Rinpoche was. Actual physical war between them. Then the Reting Rinpoche was locked up in a prison in the Potala Palace.

Now, can you imagine if these two were your teachers and this was going on? Would it affect your Dharma practice? Would you be on the verge of just saying “forget it all”? It’s pretty heavy stuff. And there’s much more to it, I’m not telling you the whole thing.

This was the situation when His Holiness was young with his two primary teachers. And he said, “When I meditated I thought of their kindness to me in teaching me the Dharma–because everything I know, my ability to practice the Dharma and how much the Dharma has helped me is due to these lamas and other lamas. There’s no way I can criticize them, because I’m so grateful for their kindness and everything they taught me. And that’s how I see them in my meditation. But,” he said, “when I get off my meditation and I have to deal with the Tibetan government, I tell my two teachers what you’re doing is wrong, stop fighting.” And I remember us Westerners, we just sat there like, wow. Because he could put two things together in his mind in a non-contradictory way. When looking at it in a Dharma way his teachers were the Buddha, he had that kind of devotion. Looking at it in a practical way, with the Tibetan government, he had to say “what you’re doing is wrong.” One did not contradict or discourage the other. And it made me see that my way of thinking (and I think, probably, for many people) we can’t put together contradictory qualities in one person, even though they abound. If somebody is good, everything they do is good, we’re madly in love with them, they can do no harm. When they make one mistake, everything they do is bad, and we criticize them.

We’re like this in our personal relationships, aren’t we? We’re madly in love with someone, they make mistakes, you overlook it because you love them so much. Then they start doing something you don’t like, instantly that one small thing–the upside-down glass, or the right-side-up glass, or the sink not being cleaned, or them being late on doing their chore, of leaving their dirty socks on the floor–and all of a sudden you’re irate with this person you were madly in love with. Right? We’ve all had that happen. We are extremists.

So, what it made me think is this technique of seeing the teacher as a buddha with all actions as pure is designed to prevent us from getting into that extremist mentality. But, like I said before, we don’t often see it as that, we don’t understand what it means.

For example, I remember one of my friends telling me—a long time Dharma student—we were talking about this thing of our teacher being the Buddha, seeing the teacher as the Buddha, and she said that she was going somewhere one day with our teacher and she just assumed, because he was a buddha, that he would know the directions on how to get to the place they were going. And he didn’t. And it made her lose faith. And I thought, no I don’t think that could be what it means seeing the teacher as the Buddha. That he’s supposed to know how to get from point A to B anywhere on the globe? But if he’s omniscient, and you’re told that he’s omniscient—especially your highest yoga tantra, the one who gave you the empowerment—then of course you think like that and you get into that problem. Don’t you?

I remember another time someone was very upset because one of the teachers, the way he spoke indicated that he saw women as inferior. And they’re going, “But this teacher’s supposed to be a buddha. How could he see women as inferior and pick out women’s faults like that? How could he really be a buddha?” And then another one of my teachers thought George Bush was an excellent president because he stood up to the Chinese. He was a strong leader in terms of Iraq. The rest of us are going, like, what? But he loved George Bush. George Bush is nothing now compared to Donnie. But at that time I had a real problem with George. Now George is easy.

But it makes you think: Does seeing the guru as a buddha mean that my teacher may see women as inferior so therefore I have to? My teacher thinks George is a good president and I think he got us into a useless war, but I have to change my opinion because my guru is the Buddha and buddhas know everything? You see how this gets very difficult for people who are introduced to tantra way too soon. That, I think, is what the basic problem is. People are introduced to tantra way too soon. This becomes a big problem.

In this particular situation, which is the source why I’m giving all these talks, is the guru was doing some unusual behavior and the students were told, “See his actions as pure. See him as the Buddha.” And then you’re told, when somebody is practicing highest yoga tantra and they have completion stage realizations, they may do things that are very unusual. Because remember the story of Tilopa and Naropa I told you yesterday? And remember the story of Marpa and Milarepa and building the tower and tearing it down and building it and tearing it down, and kicking Milarepa out of the teachings and humiliating him? And those are realized beings. And I’m supposed to see my teacher the same way. And if you break your samaya and don’t see it that way it’s a direct ticket to Avici hell. So the students do their best, keep their samaya, and see the guru this way, and it’s all pure appearances. So no, there’s no abuse. There’s no exploitation. There’s none of this going on. That’s what the students were trying to tell themselves, that’s what they told everybody else involved. And they hired a PR agency to teach a few people how to be spokesmen to the press about this. Which was, “Don’t answer any question directly, and say, ‘His Holiness supports this teacher 100%.'”

So you see the kind of confusion that would come about? This is why His Holiness himself has said teaching people to see the guru as buddha and to see all actions of the guru as perfect can be poison in many situations, and this should not be a teaching that is given universally to people.

Then the question comes, well why, then, for example, in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, is it emphasized so much? Because those teachings, which were given by Pabonka Rinpoche and recorded by Trijang Rinpoche, were the introductory teachings before Pabonka Rinpoche was giving a series of highest yoga tantra initiations to a group of monks. His audience was people who were devoted to the Dharma, who had studied the philosophical texts, who had a good understanding of the Dharma, and it was prior to giving highest tantra initiation where, I was saying, you see everybody as buddhas. So of course it would fit in that circumstance.

And then since Vajrayana is very popular in Tibet, and many teachers are steering their students there, even if they don’t have them take initiation soon they’re going to steer them that way eventually, so they say, well it’s good from now on, just you’re a beginner, see your teacher as the Buddha and see all actions as pure. But that doesn’t work with baby beginners. At least not with Westerners. Maybe Tibetans…. They have a lot of faith and they can do that.

But actually, what my Tibetan friends say is, not to the face of the lamas but behind their backs they will criticize. They’ve told me, for example, if there are rinpoches in their classes at the monastery they’ll debate them just as hard, and if they’re not acting properly they’ll tease them just as much as they’ll tease everybody else. But we Westerners, they’re all Tibetans, they’re buddhas, they’re holy. We get so confused by this. All the actions are perfect.

His Holiness says this kind of teaching should not be given to people who are new. And then His Holiness goes on to describe that there’s actually three kinds of spiritual mentor. But I think maybe I’d better save that for tomorrow. And also I have a way in which I’ve come to understand pure appearance that’s a little bit different, that might be more helpful. We’ll do that tomorrow.

Audience: It sounds like seeing the guru as a buddha is an actual practice. It’s not something, I mean, outside of tantra, not something you should do all the time. It’s within a certain context.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): If you’re practicing highest yoga tantra then that becomes part of your practice. And here the assumption is that you have checked the qualities of the guru–as a student you’ve checked it–you’ve made sure that the guru is a reliable teacher, that they know what they’re talking about. You aren’t rushing into this. You’ve received a highest class tantra initiation from this person and as part of your practice of seeing everything as pure, of course you see your spiritual mentor as pure, too.That’s the context of pure appearances.

Audience: Right, so like when you’re going to the market….

VTC: Then you also see everybody as pure.

Audience: So when you go to the market with your teacher and he doesn’t know the directions, maybe that’s not the time to apply this practice….

VTC: Right. You can see that the purpose of the practice is to help us not project our rubbish on the teacher and then get angry and upset and walk away. The purpose of the practice is not to think that our teacher knows everything.

Audience: That’s very helpful to hear you explain, because I think it’s very confusing

VTC: It’s very confusing. And similarly, your teacher gets sick. Are you supposed to say, “Well, he’s actually a buddha, that’s actually a nirmanakaya body, so he isn’t sick, so I don’t need to take him to the doctor.” Well, no, what they say you do there is you think he’s manifesting being sick (in other words, he’s really a buddha but he’s manifesting that) so that I can create the good karma by caring for him and taking him to the doctor and nursing him when he’s sick. But that’s just an appearance, it’s just a manifestation. That’s how you’re taught to see it. So that one’s not so bad if you can see it that way.

Personally speaking, if my teacher gets sick that doesn’t make me lose faith in his realizations. If he doesn’t know how to get somewhere, that doesn’t bother me. If he has different political and gender opinions than I do, that doesn’t bother me. Because I didn’t come here to learn how to go somewhere in a car, or politics, or gender issues. I came here to learn the Dharma.

I came to this conclusion through a great deal of suffering, because I had different opinions on some practical issues than my teacher did, and I realized that I just had to say, “You know, look, this is a free world, people approach things differently. Not everybody’s going to look at things the same way I do, or prioritize things the same way I do, including my teacher. That doesn’t mean my teacher’s wrong, and it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong either. It just means these are natural human differences. My teacher’s entitled to his opinion, I’m entitled to my opinion. On things like politics, this kind of stuff. So I don’t let that stuff bother me. I don’t personally feel the need to say, “Well he’s just manifesting not knowing.” Or, “He’s just manifesting sickness.” Because I don’t feel that any of those things really endanger my devotion to my teacher.

Some people, it may endanger their devotion, like the example I gave you. Or some people may say, “But shouldn’t you practice seeing everybody as buddhas, including your teacher, so isn’t this part of the general practice?” To which I say, “Yes, then I should actually, when all of you get sick, I should also say, ‘You’re just manifesting sickness.’ Because you’re all buddhas.”

Now of course, if I thought you were all buddhas…. In one way I might be a lot nicer to you. But in another way, I may not train you as much as possible and neglect some of my duties. So I think you have to be able to see things in different ways in different situations. And I’m sure, even though the Buddha…. I mean, the Buddha has appearances…. All his appearances are pure. But at the same time, he realizes that we are sentient beings with confused minds. That’s why he teaches us out of compassion. Then we may think, “Well if the Buddha sees everything as pure, how can he see us as confused sentient beings? Doesn’t he see us as buddhas? But if he sees us as buddhas then why would he teach us because we would already be enlightened.”

I think what’s happening here is, first of all, we are very literal. And second of all, we project inherent existence onto everything and everybody. So if somebody is a buddha they are an inherently existent buddha. Which means there’s no way to see them as also a sentient being. But I think the Buddha, from his side, sees, yes, he sees purity. But he also sees that there are suffering sentient beings. Because if he didn’t see that, he certainly wouldn’t bother teaching.

And then if the whole point was that you became a buddha, but then all the sentient beings became buddhas with you, then you don’t need to teach them, so then why do you even need to become a buddha. Then you’re only becoming a buddha for yourself, and bodhicitta is a big farce.

You see? I think in many of these things, it’s similar to the thing of when you’re giving an analogy you have to see which parts of the analogy you’re supposed to analogize and which parts not. In teachings like this, how are they supposed to be applied? And in what situations do you just leave them aside? At least this is the only way I can possibly make sense of it.

I think His Holiness saw the confusion people face when he said, you know, this is something that corresponds to highest class tantra, it shouldn’t be taught to baby beginners, and even people in the middle.

Audience: It really has to do with seeing both sides at the same time, which is very difficult and takes a lot of wisdom to discriminate.

VTC: Yes. We like “it’s all this” or “it’s all that.”

Audience: And then I wanted to say that it’s interesting that a lot of these teachings in the past were given only to monastics, and now they’re just given to any old person. I guess it’s right to expect a lot of abuses to occur.

VTC: Especially new people coming into Dharma centers. It’s fine to give these teachings to long-term lay disciples. That’s perfectly fine. But baby beginners coming to Dharma centers? And then the other students say, “oh this is a rare opportunity….”

That’s why I think, build a good foundation in your Dharma practice. Practice at the level you’re at, with what feels comfortable to you now. Already thinking about cherishing others more than ourselves is stretching our mind a lot. Already thinking that the pleasures of samsara aren’t really pleasures is stretching our mind. Already thinking that things are not truly existent is a big stretch. Let’s work on those things, and get a good understanding, and stretch our mind gradually, instead of thinking, “Okay, I’m here and clunk I’ve got to be like this.”

As they say, slowly slowly.

And then if we do it slowly slowly, then as we mature different teachings make sense to us, because they’re given in a context that we now understand, that we could not understand before.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.