Falling in Love with a Buddha

Frank Berliner, a longtime student of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, describes the ever-deepening stages of relationship one experiences with their guru.

The first stage of falling in love with a buddha is embarrassment. the embarrassment comes from having our confusion and shortcomings so clearly exposed. we cannot argue with such a mirror, because it is so accurate and direct, and entirely without ulterior motives. At times we experience this mirror as merciless because it is so uncompromising. it is not so much that a buddha is deliberately trying to embarrass us, but that the pristine clarity of the reflection is hard for us to look at without turning away. when we see our grasping, our pride, our insecurities so vividly displayed, it is excruciating.

As a result, we may often have very strong feelings of anxiety or resistance to being in the presence of such a mirror. indeed, we may want to run away and never come back. for many, this is what happens. But if we are able to move beyond our embarrassment, we may enter the second stage of falling in love with a buddha. indeed, chögyam trungpa rinpoche liked to say that the experience of disappointment was the most reliable, and valuable, one we could possibly have in growing spiritually. it cut through our wishful thinking and helped us see things more clearly and more realistically.

The next stage is longing. this longing arises, first of all, because the love that a buddha expresses toward us is unconditional. No matter how little affection we may have for ourselves at any moment, a buddha’s affection for us is unwavering. At times this warmth—which radiates in our direction for no discernible reason and often does not seem connected in any way with how worthy we may feel we are—is overwhelming. it is like the sun, which does not discriminate where it will shine and where it will not. And like flowers, we turn toward the sun.

This longing is deepened by something further— the glimpses we have of our own enlightened potential when we are in a buddha’s presence. traditionally this longing is referred to by the term “devotion.” it is said by all the great spiritual masters that devotion is the single most important factor in a student’s progress on the path toward realization.

This longing, or devotion, acts as a magnetic force equal to the power of the force of our resistance and embarrassment. this dance between resistance and longing characterizes the whole journey of relating to a buddha as a mirror, from beginning to end. we want to run away from the mirror with every fiber of our being, but we want to run toward it at the same time.

The final stage is realizing that the buddha is everywhere. what this means, first of all, is that falling in love with a buddha is an unending love affair. Beyond that, it is an unrequited love affair. it is unrequited, not because a buddha ever actually rejects us in any way but simply because a buddha’s ultimate function is to keep reminding us that we must do the work of becoming a buddha ourselves. there will be no final confirmation of our enlightenment from our teacher. there will be no one to congratulate us at the spiritual finish line. in fact, there will be no finish line!

A buddha reminds us, again and again, that to become fully awakened we must fully embrace our utter aloneness, just as he or she has done. And paradoxically, the more alone we become, the more deeply connected we become with others.

The whole principle of the guru is directly connected with the realization that the buddha is everywhere. the word guru literally means “that which points toward.” the guru keeps pointing us toward our own enlightened potential by effortlessly reflecting back to us both our confusion and our wisdom in every encounter.

Eventually the outer guru, in the form of our living teacher, becomes the inner guru, in the form of our encounters with every life situation. At that point, a buddha hands us completely over to the world, so to speak. the whole world becomes our mirror, reflecting our confusion and wisdom. Now the teacher is always with us. in fact, we cannot get the buddha out of our system even if we try. this world continues as our teacher long after our relationship with our personal teacher may have ended—whether through death or other kinds of permanent separation.


From Falling in Love with a Buddha, published by All My Relations, 2012.