Approaching the Guru
by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

A talk on devotion by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, given in 1996 in Boulder, Colorado at the commemoration of the death of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

To tell you the truth, I think I am the wrong person to talk about guru devotion, because I don’t have it. This is not because there is any deficiency in my teachers; it is entirely because of something lacking in me. Believe me, I have so much ego, and devotion is bad news for the ego. On the other hand, I have studied devotion, so I may have some theoretical knowledge about it.

Why devotion?

Why do we need devotion? Generally speaking, we need devotion because we need enlightenment. In one way, enlightenment can be understood very simply as a release from certain obsessions and hang-ups. Until we are free from these obsessions and habits, we will wander endlessly in samsara, going through all sorts of anxiety, suffering, and so on.

The cause of all these sufferings is our fundamental insecurity. We are always wondering whether we exist or not. Our ego, or rather our attachment to the idea of self, is completely insecure about its own existence. Our ego may seem strong but it is actually quite shaky. Of course, we do not ask such questions consciously, but we always have a subconscious feeling of insecurity about whether we exist.

We try to use things such as friends, money, position and power, and all the everyday things that we do, like watching television or going shopping, to somehow prove and confirm our existence. Try sitting alone in a house and doing absolutely nothing. Sooner or later your hands will reach for the remote control or the newspaper. We need to be occupied. We need to be busy. If we are not busy, we feel insecure.

But there is something very strange in all this. The ego searches constantly for distraction, and then the distraction itself becomes a problem. Instead of helping us to feel reassured, it actually increases our insecurity. We get obsessed with the distraction and it develops into another habit. Once it becomes a habit, it is difficult to get rid of. So in order to get rid of this new habit, we have to adopt yet another habit. This is how things go on and on.

In order to undermine this kind of habitual pattern, Lord Buddha taught us many, many different methods. Some of these are very skillful methods, such as overcoming the emotions by making friends with them. Even a single word of the Sakyamuni Buddha can liberate us from all these obsessions and habitual patterns. Take, for instance, the teaching on impermanence. When many of us, including myself, hear teachings on things like impermanence, the precious human body, and love and compassion, we tend to dismiss them as very simple and preliminary. But this is because we do not actually understand them.

Training the Mind

The quintessence of the path is to have the wisdom that realizes egolessness. Until we have this wisdom, we have not understood the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

In order to achieve this wisdom, first we have to make our mind malleable, workable—in the sense of being in control of our own mind. As Shantideva said, if you want to walk comfortably, there are two possible solutions. Either you can try to cover the whole ground with leather—but that would be very difficult—or you can achieve the same effect by simply wearing a pair of shoes. In the same way, it would be difficult to train and tame every single emotion that we have, or to change the world according to our desires. In fact the basis of all experience is the mind, and that’s why Buddhists stress the importance of training the mind in order to make it workable and flexible.

Yet a flexible mind is not enough. We have to understand the nature of the mind. This is very difficult to do, precisely because it involves the wisdom of realizing egolessness. We have been in samsara from beginningless time. Our habitual patterns are very strong. We are completely deluded. For this reason, it is very, very difficult for this wisdom to appear.

So what is to be done? There is only one way to obtain this wisdom—by accumulating merit. How should we accumulate this merit? According to the general vehicle of Buddhism, the method of accumulating merit is by having renunciation mind, by contemplating impermanence, by refraining from all the causes and conditions that will strengthen the ego, by engaging in all the causes and conditions that will strengthen our wisdom, by refraining from harming other beings, and so on. In the mahayana school, the merit is accumulated by having compassion for sentient beings.

To cut a long story short, if you want enlightenment you need wisdom. If you want wisdom, you must have merit. And to have merit, according to mahayana, you must have compassion and bodhichitta, the wish to establish beings in the state of freedom.

Blessings of the Guru

The vajrayana is renowned for its many methods and techniques, some of which are quite easy. The most important one, however, is to have a “sacred outlook.” And guru devotion is the essence of this sacred outlook. It says in the commentary to the Chakrasamvara Tantra that, “Through the blessings and kindness of the guru, great bliss, the realization of emptiness, the union of samsara and nirvana, can be obtained instantly.” This quotation talks about buddhanature.

Generally speaking, the ultimate message of Buddhism is that you possess buddhanature. In other words, you already and quite naturally have within you the qualities of complete enlightenment. But you need to realize this. The fact that you don’t have this realization is the reason why you are wandering in samsara. According to Nagarjuna, the Buddha didn’t say that you need to abandon samsara in order to gain enlightenment. What he said was that you need to see that samsara is empty, that it has no inherent existence. This is the same as saying that you need to recognize your essential buddhanature.

There are many different methods for recognizing this Buddha within. Of these, the quickest and easiest is to receive the blessings of the guru. This is why guru devotion is necessary.

For example, you may be having a nightmare about monsters. But then suddenly, somebody throws a bucket of cold water over you and you wake up. The cold water doesn’t really make the monsters disappear, because there were no monsters in the first place. It was just a dream. But on the other hand, when you are having a nightmare, your sufferings are real, and the person who throws the bucket of water over you is indeed very kind and special. If you have a lot of merit you are able to meet such a person, a person who can throw the water. On the other hand, if you don’t have merit, you may never wake up from the nightmare.

The guru lineage originates with someone called Vajradhara or Samantabhadra. Our masters tell us that he is our own mind, the nature of our own mind. This means that when we trace back through the lineage, we actually end up with our own minds, the essence of ourselves. The guru is not some kind of almighty sponsor that we have to worship or obey. The most important thing to understand is that the guru is the display of our buddhanature.

On the ordinary level, one can say that the guru is someone who tells you what to do and what not to do. A small child may not realize that hot iron burns, so his father tells him that it burns and saves him from getting hurt. The guru is doing this for you when he tells you what is right and what is wrong.

In Vajrayana, though, the guru does something even more important. You must have read many, many times that your body, speech, mind and aggregates have all been pure from beginningless time. But we don’t realize that. As Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche said, it is precisely because the truth is so simple that people don’t understand it. It’s like our eyelashes, which are so close that we can’t see them. The reason why we don’t realize this is our lack of merit. The guru’s role is to grant us empowerment and introduce us to this purity—and finally to point out directly the mind’s nature.

Putting the Guru to the Test

The great vidyadhara Jigme Lingpa said that it is very important to analyze the guru first. As I said before, we are naturally very insecure people. Because of this we are easy prey. We make all sorts of mistakes that are difficult to clear up later on.

Before you start to follow a guru, you should have a good understanding of the dharma. I don’t mean that you have to understand it completely, but at least you should have some understanding. You should analyze, and you should be skeptical and critical. Perhaps you should argue, and try to find fault by using logic and reflection.

But while you are doing this, you should not have the journalist’s approach of looking for faults. The aim here is to find the path, not to find faults. So, when you study Buddhism, you should try to see whether this path suits you or not, whether this path makes sense or not. This is very important.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that we want to go to New York, and we are hiring a guide. We need to have at least some idea where New York is. To take a guide without knowing whether New York is in the east, south or west is what I call the “inspirational disease.” It’s not enough just to find the guide attractive—to like the way he looks, talks and behaves. You should have at least some knowledge where New York is, so that if in the middle of the trip he begins to act a little funny, you feel okay because you know that you are heading in the right direction. He may lead you through strange or rough roads, but that doesn’t matter if you know you are heading in the right direction.

On the other hand, if you don’t know the way at all, you are obliged to place all your trust in this one guide who claims that he can do anything. Maybe if you have lots of merit, you might accidentally find an authentic guide and actually reach New York. But if I were you I would not trust this kind of accidental success all the way. It is good to analyze the path first, and then you can have one or a hundred or thousands of gurus if you like.

Approaching the Guru

What should we do next? One of the great Sakyapa masters, Jamyang Gyaltsen, said, “First you have to think about, contemplate, and manufacture devotion.” You need fabricated devotion, which is to consider that the guru is the Buddha. Make believe, so to speak. After a while, at the second stage, you will really start to see him as the Buddha, without any difficulty. And finally, at the third stage, you will realize that you are the Buddha. This is the unique approach of the vajrayana.

As I said at the beginning, I personally don’t have real devotion. I don’t see my guru as the Buddha, but I try to contemplate and think that he is the Buddha. This is what we call created or fabricated devotion. In the beginning we consider that all the faults we see in him are nothing but our own projections. But the truth of the matter is that the guru has all the qualities of the Buddha. He is the Buddha, he is the dharma, he is the sangha; he is everything.

We think like this again and again. This may strike you as nonsense, but actually it’s very logical—after all, everything depends on the mind. It is because of our delusions that it is initially very hard for us to see the guru as the Buddha. We have to practice and get used to it again and again, and then it will definitely work.

Shantideva has said that if you get accustomed to something, there is nothing in this world that is difficult. Let’s say this is the first time in your life that you are going to a bar. You are introduced to someone and, due to some past karmic connection, this person proceeds to give you all the initiations and oral instructions and teachings on how to mix various drinks. Tequila with lemon, martinis dry and sweet—all sorts of details about drinking.

Being a very devoted and diligent student, you practice drinking. In the beginning, it burns your throat, it hurts your stomach, and you get drunk. You vomit and you get up the next morning with a headache. With lots of enthusiasm you keep doing this. This is what we call foundation practice. You keep going to this person, and even though he occasionally gives you a hard time, it doesn’t matter. You are a very diligent student. Then one day your mind and his mingle: you know everything about alcohol, you know how to drink. At this point, you are a perfect lineage holder of alcohol drinking. You can then begin to teach others.

The Universality of the Guru

We think that the guru is only good for giving teachings, that the guru is only good for special things but not good for headaches or other problems. This is not the way to think. For every problem that you have, pray to the guru, receive his blessings and you will be free from it. In one Tantra, it says, “Years and years of doing meditation on the development or completion stages, or years and years of chanting mantras, cannot compare with one instant of remembering the guru.”

How should you behave with a guru? As an offering you can think of things like dress code, etiquette, politeness, but it doesn’t really matter. However, there are two very important things that you should never forget. The first is that you should never have pride. This is because you are there to learn, to receive teachings, to find enlightenment. As Tibetans say, “A proud person is like a stone.” No matter how much water you put on it, it will never get soaked. If you have pride you will never learn. So it’s very important to adopt an attitude of humility.

The second important thing is never to waste an opportunity to accumulate merit. Having merit is so important. When you watch a movie, if you don’t know that it’s a movie and think it’s real, you will go through all sorts of emotional trauma. But if the person next to you says, “This is just a movie,” from then on you will be free from this kind of delusion. On the other hand, if you don’t have merit, then just at the moment when the person next to you says, “Look, this is just a movie,” someone behind you might cough very loudly, and you may not hear what the person next to you says. So you miss the opportunity of realization—all because you don’t have merit.

Also, if you don’t have merit, your ego is always there ready to interpret everything in its own way. Even though the teacher gives you the most important teaching, you will always interpret it according to your own agenda.

So at this point, instead of trying to outsmart the ego, the most important thing to do is to accumulate merit. How? There are lots of different ways. You can wear a tie and look handsome and think “This is an offering to my teacher.” If you are driving at night, when you see the street lamps, you can immediately visualize them as lamp offerings to the guru. If you can’t do this yourself, and if you see somebody else doing it, at least rejoice in what they are doing. There are so many things we can do. Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche said, “Accumulating merit is so easy, in fact much easier than accumulating non-virtue.”

We need to have a grand, magnificent attitude. Devotion should be grand. I think if you have true devotion, everything can be taken as a manifestation of your guru.

Approaching the Guru, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.