Always a Student

Three dharma teachers on what they continue to learn from their current teachers.

By Lama Hun Lye

Photo by Hong Son.

The Guru In My Mind & Heart

By Hun Lye

If there is anyone whom I naturally think of when I cultivate guru yoga or read about devotion to the guru as the path, I think of two teachers. When I first met Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche more than thirty years ago, he said to me, “I don’t have students or disciples; these are my dharma friends and members of the center.”
A reluctant teacher for a reluctant disciple, I thought. About six years later, Rinpoche had me deliver a letter to the head of our lineage, His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche. Although I don’t know if the letter had anything to do with me, that meeting turned out to be the start of my discipleship under His Holiness.

A supplication commonly used by all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism says:

Glorious root guru, precious one,
Abide on the lotus-seat in my heart,
Look upon me with your great compassion,
Grant me the attainments of body, speech, and mind! 

Often, “on the lotus-seat in my heart” is replaced with “on the lotus-seat above my head,” depending on context. I use this supplication in its two variations to remember the guru both in my mind and heart. Inviting the guru to remain above my head is to deliberately have someone hang over me like a heavy rock held by a string. As I find myself increasingly in the position of being regarded as a teacher by others, having Khenchen Rinpoche as this heavy rock above my head is very important. The more others relate to me as a teacher, the more I have to remember this weight above my head. From Khenchen Rinpoche, I learned that the compassion of a guru is always in opposition to winning a popularity contest. His example—of only adhering to the buddhadharma in word and in deed, no matter what others expect or want from him—is rock solid and immovable. 

Having my guru as a rock dangling overhead (and the possibility of it crashing down) is part of this path. Having the guru abiding in my heart is the other part. If we are only relating to the guru in the first way, we may end up with a fear- or guilt-based type of devotion. This will not work. We have to also invite the guru to abide in our hearts. When I pray that my guru “abides on the lotus-seat in my heart,” I allow His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche’s oceanic presence to permeate and pacify my restless mind. While I’m always wanting to resolve anything uncomfortable or any conflict quickly, His Holiness reminds me to “Do nothing. Just wait.” Heads of lineages, such as His Holiness, don’t only have people coming to them to seek guidance on the path or request blessings or prayers. People also come to His Holiness asking for favors, lodging complaints, unloading problems, and even attempting to manipulate, while coating all of these actions with a veneer of respect and piety. Yet, I have never seen His Holiness respond with anything but quiet patience. His Holiness once told me: “As long as the sky above has not fallen down, and the earth below hasn’t opened up, whatever it is that you are confronting is always workable.” A simple but powerful message. 

For me, the process of discipleship began a long time ago with my two teachers in the most ordinary way. It has been years of gradual, quiet, but stable growth of the relationships. There was no “crazy wisdom,” there were no flights of fancy. The ways both these teachers turned up in my life weren’t marked with special dreams, auspicious signs, or overwhelming feelings that we read about or hear others repeat. If anything, it has always been very grounding, and quite ordinary. And now, I recognize this to be a form of blessing. If anything but the “ordinary” had turned up, I probably would have run away! 

The Blessing of His Presence

By Lama Shenpen Hookam

I have a number of special teachers, all close colleagues of each other, but for me Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche is the main one. I have always tried to follow his direction in terms of what I do next in life. Sadly, for the last ten years or so, due to a decline in his health, he has been unable to give direction verbally, yet I am able to pick up something from his eyes and the way he looks at me. In a way, he has already given me all the instruction I need for this life. He has placed me where I need to be in order to accomplish as best I can what he has already directed me to do.

When he first became ill, I promised him I would visit him every year for the rest of his life. However, during the Covid pandemic I was not able to keep my promise, and since then have felt too frail because of my age. Nevertheless, I intend to be at his nunnery in Kathmandu for his ninetieth birthday celebration on March 1 next year. In order to protect his health, Rinpoche mostly doesn’t receive visitors these days. But last year, during the annual gathering for his international students, Rinpoche emerged for a file-past where one of my students, who had never met him before, was present. She reported that the sense of Rinpoche’s blessing was overwhelming, something I have increasingly noticed over the years since he became ill. The small group of nuns dedicated to caring for him tell me that he exemplifies on a daily basis what he always taught us, which is to meet all experience with equanimity and never forget bodhicitta and the “view.”

Initially, I was drawn to Rinpoche by his presence and the sense that he knew me to the very core. His instructions seemed to land exactly where they were needed so that I could immediately put them into practice as best as I could. When asking him questions arising from my practice of reflection and meditation, he always put me right with just a few words, as if he already anticipated my question and what was on my mind before I’d said it.

I easily forget that, actually, there is no reality to time and distance: Rinpoche hasn’t gone anywhere and neither have I. I know and feel this in my heart, yet part of me still thinks of him as far away in Nepal, and I miss him. Is he really doing okay? Does he really want to live long? We, his students and colleagues, pray for his long life each day, believing that his presence with us is a blessing for the whole world at this desperate time. I am sure his enlightened activity is pervading not only this world, but countless worlds in every instant. That is the nature of bodhicitta and of bodhisattvas.

In the days when he was traveling to dharma centers around the world, Rinpoche encouraged us all to sing Vajra songs and perform Vajra dances, turning every moment into a ganachakra (tantric feast) and an expression of our devotion to the guru’s view, meditation, and action. We would sing Milarepa’s songs and the extemporaneous songs Rinpoche himself was so famous for. He would use these occasions to impress upon us the immediacy of the living presence of the dharma and the joy of letting go of concepts, even if fleetingly.

We keep up this tradition daily here at the Hermitage of the Awakened Heart by joining together, some in person and others online, singing one of these songs so that its words and melody stay with our sangha community throughout the day. The singing of dharma songs together is something my students and I carry with us as a constant reminder of him—a kind of guru yoga, in fact, for me at least. 

To that end, I’ll close by quoting one of Rinpoche’s songs, which captures so much about the teacher–student relationship:

When an excellent lama endowed with compassionate heart
And an excellent student with endurance in meditation
Come together, this connection makes the teaching accessible,
But what gives this link its meaning is the samaya [bond] it brings about. 

Letting Go of Everything

By Mushim Ikeda

In seeking a spiritual teacher, I want someone who acknowledges that we are all struggling toward liberation, including politically, who knows that we are all improvising, that we all long for dignity and agency, and most importantly, that we are all one community, living and dying together, subject to racist and inequitable social conditions.

My first Buddhist teacher was Korean Zen monk Samu Sunim, who had resided in Toronto, Canada, for many years when I met him in Michigan in 1982. His senior students described him as “a great Zen master.” At the time, I idealized this as the Western stereotype of a “purified” being who lived in a dimension where obsessive anxieties, sexual desire, political rage, and childhood wounds had been vaporized.

I hoped that if I meditated enough and followed all the orders and did my best to (imperfectly) show up and cheerfully work in service to the sangha, that I might get lucky and achieve this thing called Zen transmission and experience enlightenment, awakening, the unconditioned, or whatever name we might call the goal of Buddhist practice. So it was a rude awakening when, late in 1985, Samu Sunim said he wanted to meet with me one evening. He had set up a candlelit meeting in the attic of the Michigan temple, which was under construction at the time and felt cavernous and mysterious. It was clear that he was in Zen master mode and I was there as “Musim” (the original romanization of the Korean Zen name he’d given me), his student. 

“I have many plans,” Sunim said, alluding to various Buddhist projects, “and I need to know I can count on you. Will you swear lifetime loyalty to me?” He named his two senior female students, who were serving in top administrative positions in his temples at the time, and said, “They have taken this oath.” 

There was a long silence. I was very aware that in terms of power, I was a full renunciant who had no savings, no trust fund, and would have no safety net if I left his organization. The situation was scary and messy. And, unexpectedly, I felt overwhelming gratitude that I was an American woman over the age of thirty, and had come of age as a poet and artist during the Women’s Movement and Roe v. Wade, Black and Brown Power, the Stonewall riots, the Asian American pride movement, and the Civil Rights era. 

“I love and respect you,” I said to my teacher, “but I can’t swear to serve you for the rest of my life.”

Three years later, in 1988, on a mountain in Korea, I was a freshly ordained junior nun, and my ordaining senior nun said to me, “Mushim Sunim, obedience is the first rule of the nuns’ life. Even if I should strike you, you must never complain.” 

I kept my eyes lowered and thought to myself, again: “Nope.” 

Forty years later, in 2022: “I’m going to turn seventy soon, and I want to prepare to die well. Will you teach me some of the Tibetan Buddhist practices?” I asked Lama Justin von Bujdoss. I’d met him in 2018 when we were both teachers for a Lion’s Roar-sponsored meditation retreat at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York, before the Covid pandemic. 

We had time for a cup of tea before the retreat began, and I was favorably impressed by his grounded, relaxed, friendly, and respectful style. I knew he’d worked for a living as a Buddhist chaplain in Riker’s Island Prison, and had practiced under various Tibetan lineage teachers for years and was a father of two young children.

“Okay,” Lama Justin said, amiably. 

“I’m nervous about what I’ve heard about the teacher as ‘guru’ in the Tibetan lineages,” I said. “I’ve been around the block with authoritarian teachers.”

Justin chuckled. He definitely knew what I was talking about. 

I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but basically it boiled down to: “We don’t have to do that here.” 

Although he’s given me very simple instructions in a tiny Dzogchen practice, Lama Justin has seemed most interested in talking to me about Tibetan Buddhist dark retreats, and his experience during a forty-nine-day solo meditation retreat in complete darkness. “I think there were a few days where I really felt that I had died,” he said to me. “I had to let go of everything, including my children.” 

And that moment, connecting through the terror and awe and responsibility of raising children whom we must ultimately let go of, one way or another, was when we began to establish our heart connection. 

Lama Hun Lye

Lama Hun Lye

Lama Hun Lye grew up in Malaysia and has a Ph.D in Religious Studies from University of Virginia. He is a lama in the Drikung Kagyu since being appointed a Dorjé Lopön (lit. “vajra-master”) by H.H. Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoché in 2013. He is founder of Urban Dharma NC and Drikung Dharmakirti International Sangha.