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For Westerners Guru yoga is difficult. It’s so difficult for us that the Dalai Lama teaches Guru Yoga at the end of the Lam Rim, even though it’s right at the beginning in every Lam Rim text.

Basically guru yoga can be translated as guru devotion. That is: devotion to your spiritual teacher.

On the most fundamental level this is natural. Of course you will be devoted to the person who guides you along the path, helps you become a happier and more balanced person and so on. Since most spiritual teachers have charisma, devotion to them is in some ways a matter of course.

However, as you read this you are probably conjuring up all kinds of images of guru’s misusing their disciples. The advice given in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is very simple: if your teacher behaves in a way that you cannot reconcile with his (or her) role as a spiritual teacher, keep your distance. Treat specific outrageous requests, like giving up all your money to him, as jokes.(*)

Of course the main way to prevent trouble is much simpler: only take on someone as your spiritual teacher if you feel you can trust them.

Summer 2012 I attended Lam Rim teachings on Lama Tsong Khapa’s Short Lam Rim text. During the course of those teachings he gave clear instructions on the levels of Guru Yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since these levels make sense in a general Buddhist setting I think it’s useful to share them here.

  1. When you take refuge or pratimoksa vows, like the lay vows, the teacher who gives you those vows becomes a guru for you on a very basic level. You’re only required to see him or her as a teacher, nothing more. This makes sense as those vows are common to all of Buddhism, including Theravada Buddhism. Since guru yoga plays no part in Theravada Buddhism it would be a break with tradition if it were necessary to see the vow preceptor as a guru in a higher sense.
  2. When you take the Bodhisattva vows, you are expected to see the person who gives them to you as an emanation of the Buddha. This is still doable, because faults and mistakes come with the territory of emanations of the Buddha.
  3. When you take a tantric initiation, you are required to see the person who gives those vows as an actual Buddha. Any limitations you see in them will have to be seen as necessary for the development of the students.
There are all kinds of issues with devotion to the spiritual teacher that I won’t go into here, because Alex Berzin has created a whole book (available as a free ebook) on the topic. What it boils down to is simple, I think:
  • Don’t move too quickly. Some people who pose as spiritual teachers do misuse their position in all the ways that people in power tend to do. It’s better not to have a spiritual teacher at all than to have to break the relationship.
  • Keep as much distance as you need in order to be able to see that person as a Buddha. Seeing them brush their teeth may not be conducive to the relationship.
Dr. Berzin’s book is great to set the mind at ease on all the issues that may come up in trying to deal with guru yoga in a Western context. However, amid all the good advice one thing seemed missing to me: how to do the actual devotion part. I think for many people it’s not hard to feel thankful to the teacher. It’s also useful to remember that what we are doing is generally speaking not so much tantra as training for tantra, even if we have taken vows.
When  Kay Cooper and Gordon McDougall came to Amsterdam to teach the Tantra module of Discovering Buddhism I asked them about this and they shared what their teacher Geshe Tashi had said: the main thing is to stay present in the relationship with the master and practice what they teach.
The main thing about spiritual teachers is that they will teach what their students need to hear at that point in time. So if the teacher tells you something opposite to the above, as long as they’re not asking you for something unreasonable, take their advice as teachings and ignore the above.
If a spiritual teacher asks you to do something you can’t do: it’s perfectly alright to just not do it.


(*) My own teacher, Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen, literally gave the advice to treat outrageous requests as jokes. I’ve heard several other teachers in the FPMT advise to just stay away from a teacher whose behavior you can no longer live with up close. Most of this post is condensed from my notes on the summer 2012 Lam Rim teachings he gave on the short Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, using the 3rd Dalai Lama’s Essence of Refined Gold and Trijang Rinpoche’s Lam Rim outlines. I did not check these notes against the audio files, nor did I check with the translator to see if I understood everything correctly. Mistakes are entirely my own responsibility.

About the author: Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Tamika W. Morin May 12, 2013, 8:48 am

    We studied the Middle Length Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, which isn’t yet out in an official translation yet, as far as I know. There is the Lam Rim Chenmo – The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, in three volumes , also by Tsong Khapa: the long Lam Rim. There is also a short Lam Rim by the same author (which I can’t find on Amazon), and other lam rim texts by other authors. Be warned: the Lam Rim Chenmo was illegible to me a few years ago. I think most people will need help understanding it even in translation.

  • Sammie Q. Curry June 1, 2013, 3:46 am

    Through my visit to various countries, I noticed that there are many self-appointed lamas providing initiations. They do this because they don’t know how to teach, and just confer initiations by ringing bells and say “goodbye” without even giving a proper teaching on refuge. There is even the danger of their giving commitments to people to recite powerful mantras, but a person receiving such a commitment [without proper understanding and motivation] can end up having enhanced anger, attachments and other delusions which cause them to end up in the lower realms. To really learn Dharma, one has no choice but to learn lam-rim and lo-jong. Thus in daily life, the transformation of delusions can only happen by applying mind-training. If one meditates without understanding Dharma, one might gain the benefit of some relaxation but otherwise, the meditation is wasted.

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