The Guru Question—An Interview with Drukchen Rinpoche
From View magazine, issue number 9
What is a guru? And what makes someone a true guru?
Drukchen Rinpoche, explains what the guru or lama really is from the Vajrayana point of view.
You have often said that when you teach Buddhadharma, you seek to put across a message which is universal, one which cuts across cultural and geographic barriers. However one of the main principles in Tibetan Buddhism is that of the guru, or lama, and this seems to press strongly against many ideas in Western culture. Maybe it is because the guru is actually culturally specific that it has no precedent in the West, and some Westerners have difficulty in relating to it. So is the guru a cultural phenomenon or a universal principle?
That’s an interesting question, nobody has asked me this so directly before. I don’t think the guru should be looked at as a cultural thing, it should definitely be treated as a spiritual and universal issue. Otherwise, you would imply that the entire practice of Buddhism, especially the practice of Vajrayana, is just a cultural development. I always say that if you go too much into the cultural aspect of a religion, and get stuck there, that approach becomes a spiritual poison. That kind of notion will definitely paralyse you. Don’t get me wrong: there are many beautiful cultures in the world, but they are beautiful in a different sense. We should not confuse spiritual practice and culture.
If you are asking whether the guru principle is designed only for Tibetan culture and society, it is not. It is universal. Why? Because the authentic guru is nothing other than the universal truth. We are not really talking about the human body of the guru who you are looking to, or who you are sitting in front of, we are talking about the ultimate goal of the spiritual path itself. This is what the guru principle represents. However, until you realize the nature of your mind, you need support from a human being, in the form of instructions on meditation and so on. Whoever can give this kind of guidance skilfully is also known as a guru. But this is what I would call the conventional guru, or the relative, external guru, as distinct from the ultimate guru which is the enlightened mind.
The conventional guru is someone who leads you in the right direction. Without him or her we would all be lost; we don’t have wisdom so we are unsure what to do or where to go. This is why we need a guru. I don’t think that is special to Tibetans, or to Tibetan culture. Everybody, everywhere, needs such guidance, no matter whether they are Tibetan, Indian, British or French—culture really doesn’t matter. Wherever you come from, you need spiritual guidance. And since the actual meaning of the guru is the realized state of mind, there is no reason why we cannot say that this is a universal principle.
Traditionally, when we decide to follow the Buddhist path, we take Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We take the Buddha as our guide. So why is Buddha not enough?
We don’t know who Buddha is. Who is Buddha? Where is Buddha? That’s exactly the point. We need a human connection in order to know the Buddha. It’s quite unfortunate, I know, but what to do? We cannot find Buddha by ourselves. ‘Buddha’ actually means enlightenment, the enlightened mind. As we are not yet enlightened we are lost, so we need the help of a skilful human being, who is smarter than us, who can give us true authentic guidance. This person is what we call the guru. He or she may only be the conventional guru, but we need this guru all the same.
So what is the relationship between the conventional guru and the Buddha?
The conventional guru is the guide who leads you to the actual guru, which is enlightenment, the buddha within you. However, you have to realize buddhahood for yourself; the poor guru cannot do it for you, he can only give you guidance.
In Vajrayana we always say that the guru has to be seen as a buddha. Again, this is not cultural, it should be seen in a universal way. It means that, in terms of helping us realize our buddha nature, the guru is as kind to us as the Buddha himself. I know that the idea that the guru or lama is a buddha can lead to tremendous confusion unless you know what it means. So, first of all, what do we mean by buddha? Buddha is enlightenment. And, secondly, what do we mean by guru? The guru in human form, the conventional guru, is the key person who guides you along the spiritual path, so you come to know or realize your own nature, the ultimate guru, which is buddhahood. Rather than make a long sentence, we express this in an abbreviated form and simply say that the guru is buddha.
There are two points here, aren’t there? The guru is the key person who leads you to the buddha nature, but also the guru is considered to have many of the qualities of a buddha.
Yes, you can say that too. By ‘buddha qualities’ we mean that he or she has skilful methods to share with us, and has great compassion to share with us. So yes, you are quite right, you can call the lama a buddha from many points of view.
We also take Refuge in the Dharma. Although the Buddha has passed away he left his teachings. Is it not enough to follow the guidance the Buddha himself has left us?
No, it is not enough. Why not? The difficulty is that you may get lost—not ‘may’, but rather it is 95% sure you’ll get lost. Why? Because we may be very smart in other senses, but very unfortunately we are extremely ignorant in terms of spirituality.
It is true, we take Refuge in the Dharma. But what exactly is Dharma? We can read Buddhist texts, we can do chanting and other practices if we want, but will this bring us a good result or a bad one? We don’t really know what will come of it. This is another reason we need a guru.
Above all, as I said before, we need a guru to lead us in the right direction. Dharma is a direction. Dharma is not a book, and ultimately Buddhist books are not Dharma, they are just paper and ink. Scriptures are what we would call conventional, relative Dharma, but for them to help you, you need the skill and understanding to know how to go through them. It is precisely this skill that is imparted by the guru, and learning this skill is the authentic way of taking Refuge in Dharma. In fact this is basically why the guru is so important: because he shows you the path to buddha, and the path is another name for the Dharma.
These difficulties arise because of our ignorance. If we were really smart, why would we need a guru? We have our own, authentic guru within—enlightenment, the primordial buddha—so why rely on an external one? That’s exactly the point. But unfortunately we are nowhere, we don’t know that primordial buddha, we have not realized our buddha nature, therefore we still need guidance from a human being who has the qualities of the buddha.
At the State of the World Conference in San Francisco recently, some of the Western Buddhist teachers present said that Buddhism is entering a new phase in the West, where the master is no longer so important. Buddhism will develop in a more egalitarian way, based on mutual support between sangha members, and on active service within the community (engaged Buddhism). Maybe the model of the Vajrayana guru doesn’t fit the Western mentality? If this is a cultural barrier, how can we cut across it?
I don’t think the Vajrayana guru is a barrier. Actually, the guru principle is extraordinarily effective in helping us to understand the universal truth. Of all the different teachings of Buddha, the Vajrayana teachings especially provide a very real possibility to attain the universal truth. I see the Vajrayana as a great door to universal truth. It takes you out of all types of relative blockage. For example, the Vajrayana doesn’t let you become blocked with the idea of the guru; and if your enthusiasm at becoming a Buddhist leads to you becoming attached to Buddha and Buddhism, the Vajrayana doesn’t accept that either. Vajrayana has many deities—wrathful deities, peaceful deities, female deities, male deities—but as soon as you are attached to them, you are not a practitioner of Vajrayana. You are not meant to be attached even to your enlightenment.
In Mahayana Buddhism, of course, attachment is equally discouraged, but not to everything. Mahayana discriminates between those things to which we should not be attached, such as beautiful women and men, flowers, wealth, health and so on, and pure things, such as Buddha and Dharma, towards which attachment is allowed. So I think Vajrayana is the quickest way to get into the universal realm.
Now to find a guru needs skill. When the Buddha gave Vajrayana teachings, he knew the risks involved, therefore he himself said you have to take your time to find a guru. You shouldn’t just say, upon meeting a lama, “I like him very much, he’s such a nice chap. He welcomes me warmly, he’s obviously a good person, he’s the man I want as a spiritual guide”. No, this is not good enough. There are hundreds of thousands of nice guys in the world, you can’t be so naive.
If Westerners are disillusioned with masters now, it is their fault. They are so hungry for a spiritual touch that as soon as ‘a master’ comes they take to him or her and don’t check first. Some simply fall in love. People are so hungry, firstly for spiritual guidance, and secondly for emotional support. They cannot now blame their problems on the culture of Tibet.
You said on one occasion that the difference between emotion and devotion is that emotion is misunderstanding and devotion is understanding. Could you say more about that?
You develop devotion once you have taken many years of your life, and considerable trouble, to check that the person who claims to be a master is indeed an authentic master. You don’t choose him as your teacher because you are attracted to him, or to Buddhism. You test him first. But it is important to know how to test. In fact, there is a wisdom in knowing how to test. It is not the sort of test you give a student at the end of a university course, or a sort of job interview to see whether someone is rich, well educated, computer literate etc. You need some spiritual wisdom before you can check a master, and intellectually you have to be informed. This preparation comes through listening to basic Buddhist teachings, or reading spiritual books. Then at least you have an understanding of what is meant by a guru, and what a master’s qualifications have to be. So you develop devotion on the basis of understanding.
When I say that emotion is misunderstanding, I am thinking of someone whose reaction to a master goes something like this: “I just met you today, and I fell in love with you because you smiled at me, or you hugged me, or whatever. I sense you are the man, the guide, the guru, who I have been looking for all these years.” But at that moment of reaction, such a student is not checking himself to see what is really going on inside. Instead, he or she is simply slipping into emotion. This is a mistake.
You said that the guru is the gateway to the universal dimension. Could you also say that he is the gateway to the absolute?
The guru will open the door for you, open the door of your understanding. The guru will discriminate for you, pointing out misunderstanding, and pointing out understanding. It’s as though he is drawing a map for you. He is able to do this because he is an experienced person. For example, I don’t know London and am completely lost here. I have been lent a car, but I can’t go anywhere because I don’t know the city. A spiritual master has to be as expert in spiritual experience as a London taxi driver is in knowing all the roads and short cuts. Only someone with that degree of experience is able to lead you.
The universal truth I am referring to is the ultimate state of life, and of the world. This is really difficult to express in words. It is something that is beyond what we are seeing right now. This is the relative level, and that is the ultimate level. The relative level is the level we normally relate to, and where things relate to each other, but ultimately there is no truth in it.
Are there two things here? A truth which applies universally, and our experience of that truth?
Yes. There is the experiential point of view, and the universal point of view. In philosophical terms, it is the difference between tathagatagarbha and dharmakaya. The universal point of view is primordially there, whether you experience it or not.
The main practice in Vajrayana is guru yoga. Could you say in a nutshell what the point of guru yoga is, and how it works?
The point is to realize the buddha nature, enlightenment, the universal truth, which is primordially there within yourself. But guru yoga is just a technique: it is not a universal technique, it is a particular Vajrayana technique which relates only indirectly to the universal. The practice of guru yoga—the recitations, the visualization—is just relative, conventional. We live in the conventional world, so we practise conventionally. Guru yoga is actually a process of cleaning the mirror of ‘rigpa’, our intrinsic, pure awareness, and that process is known as blessing. You can use different names for this, but we use the word ‘blessing’. The reflection of your face is already there, in the mirror, and through this process you will be able to see it clearly. This is the point.
So you think it is a mistake to give up on the guru?
Yes. Some masters are taking advantage of the situation too, of course. It’s too easy to be a master in America, for example. Hundreds of disciples can gather around a master as soon as he teaches in America. It is fine to have thousands of fans if you are a rock star, but for a spiritual teacher that is not the point.
I want students to have enough knowledge to check me, and to take time to check me. People are too quick in this modern world, their mind is very computerized, life is very fast, and they think there is no time to check. So people complain about masters and decide they don’t need one and can practise by themselves, because the buddha nature is within them anyway. Unfortunately, it will never work. On the other hand, if you take time to check, you will find there are hundreds of genuine masters, so if you are careful you will never be cheated.