Guru devotion is the head, heart, blood, spine, and breath of the incredible Vajrayana, the path of Buddhist tantra. The Vajrayana is not a safe stroll in the countryside. In fact, safety is probably the least of our concerns. The Vajrayana’s way of dealing with ego and the emotions is hazardous. The methods are sometimes even reckless. Therefore, the tantric path is the most adventurous of all Buddhist paths. If this is not an adventure, then there is no adventure.
Deciding to follow another human being—not a god, not a machine, not nature, not a system of governance, not the sun or the moon but a shower-taking, sleeping, yawning, shitting, moody, bribable being—is either the stupidest thing a person can do or the most rewarding. It is a gift to have this inclination and the tenacity to follow it. It is a gift to have doubtless confidence. It is a gift to be able to kill doubt with doubt. Not everyone has these gifts.
Nyoshul Lungtok’s student had these gifts. Once while doing the guru’s laundry, he found a shit stain and thought, “Oh, the Vajradhara shits.” But having received instructions on how a student must regard the teacher as Buddha, he immediately reprimanded himself, “How can I think the Vajradhara shits?” But then he reprimanded himself again, thinking, “Is this just me being a sycophant?” Then for a third time he reprimanded himself, coming to the conclusion that being a sycophant is just a concept, a fear. And after all these scoldings, he still followed the guru, not blindly but wholeheartedly.
Once you have started the journey of practicing Vajrayana, many things can happen, and you have to be prepared. It’s important to have faith, but it’s good to also have doubt and use reason. Often faith comes in the aftermath of doubt and doubt comes in the aftermath of faith. And the one that comes second is often much more powerful. In the end, we have to abandon both.
The Vajrayana is a path of the union of wisdom and method, the union of science and faith, the union of myth and truth, but even many Vajrayana practitioners find it difficult or don’t even think to try to marry these seemingly unmarriable qualities. For example, many apply the method, such as prostrating to the guru or offering a lotus flower, hands beautifully folded in anjali mudra, but they do so as a ritual without applying wisdom. Prostration is surrender, but very few people prostrate with genuine confidence; they don’t think, “I am prostrating to the deity who is none other than myself, and likewise the deity is prostrating to me.” Knowing that the deity and the prostrator are one and the same is the ultimate prostration.
The guru is actually like a horizon. A horizon is apparent—a line where earth and sky appear to meet. But in reality, they never meet. There is only an illusion of an ending point, a point of reference where we can stand and measure and assess. In this way, the guru is like a horizon between wisdom and method, myth and truth, science and faith.
The Outer Guru
In the Vajrayana, the guru has three aspects: the outer guru, the inner guru, and the secret guru. It’s important to be clear about these before entering a path that uses the guru as a method for awakening. The great Sakyapa master Könchok Lhundrup explained that the outer guru is the physical person you can see and communicate with, from whom you can receive verbal and symbolic teachings and instructions. The outer guru is “as Buddha as it gets.” The inner guru is the nature of your mind—in other words, a mind that is not thinking of a “thing” but is simply cognizant and undeniably present. And the secret guru is the emptiness of all phenomena.
The inner guru and the secret guru have no skin color. They have no title and no seat. They have no form to be clad in silk brocade. They are not bound by moods, attitudes, or culture. And somehow the absence of these attributes adds to their value in our minds, and we hold them in higher esteem than the real McCoy. Outer gurus are invariably complicated entities because they are tangible and lovable. They have moods and attitudes and phone numbers. They are less mysterious because they yawn and go to sleep when they are tired. But all three manifestations of the guru—outer, inner, and secret—are equally valuable. There is no hierarchy.
The guru is not a trophy, nor is seeing the guru as the Buddha the end of the story. When we recognize our own mind as the Buddha, that is the final victory.
We begin the path of the Vajrayana by imagining, fabricating, making believe, “meditating” on the outer guru as Buddha. By the power of our imagination, we see the color of the guru’s skin as gold like Shakyamuni or lapis lazuli like Vajradhara. We may see the guru’s body with the extra arms of a tantric deity and the guru’s gender switching from male to female or female to male. After a while, we begin to see this living and breathing person as Buddha.
But this “seeing,” contrary to what you might think, doesn’t necessarily mean the guru will appear on your doorstep tanned with gold or encrusted with lapis lazuli. It means you will no longer interact with the guru as a dualistic ordinary being as you once did. How will you see the guru? The classic explanation is that interaction with the guru will be a direct experience of form as emptiness and emptiness as form; it will be a mingling with the jnanas and kayas. This explanation is not so far-fetched. Just think about how your perception of a person transforms from the moment you meet them as a stranger to when you fall in love to when they become your lover. As your perception changes, the experience changes.
By the time you manage to truly free yourself from your limited perception of the guru, you will also be free from the limited perception of color and shape. Gold will be indistinguishable from the color of a sponge mop. A thousand arms no longer stupefy or get in the way—in fact, it becomes almost ridiculous to think that a perfect human being would have only two arms. At this stage you stop worrying about all attributes—size, weight, gender, and so on; their significance melts away. It’s like nettle soup: once it’s cooked, you don’t worry about the stinging hairs anymore.
The guru is not a trophy, nor is seeing the guru as the Buddha the end of the story. To be happy with just that would be a contradiction of the Buddha’s words. To focus only on the Buddha would be like focusing on a finger that’s pointing to the moon instead of looking directly at the moon. When we recognize our own mind as the Buddha, that is the final victory. That’s when you become your own master; you no longer seek, find, venerate, follow, or obey one particular person or object—this is the glorious uniqueness of the Vajrayana. Without recognizing your mind as the Buddha, the Vajrayana would be a defective path akin to Kim Jong-il-ism.
Two Supreme Methods: The Practical and the More Practical
The Vajrayana offers two supreme methods for accumulating merit: developing compassion for sentient beings and generating devotion for the guru. We can always accumulate merit through veneration of the Buddha, but for beginners this may be too abstract a concept: we have never seen the Buddha, and we haven’t met anyone who has met him. He’s purely our imagination. The guru whom you have encountered, on the other hand, has appeared before you within your own capacity, and you can communicate with him. You can think of him as a buddha—not Shakyamuni but your buddha, if that’s all your merit can handle. As your ability becomes more efficient, the projection of the guru becomes more sublime. Therefore, the guru is the perfect object through which to accumulate merit. With the guru, you have personal contact, a personal relationship; you can actually have an interaction. In the tantras it is said again and again that to venerate even one pore of the guru’s body has much more merit than making offerings to thousands and thousands of buddhas.
For many of us, generating compassion for all sentient beings is very abstract; devotion to the guru feels more practical and feasible. Even if we manage to generate a vague idea of what “all sentient beings” might mean, we might be able to sustain compassion for them for a day or two, but it’s difficult to feel compassion for all people at all times. Devotion to a guru whom we have chosen for ourselves is much more practicable. Our compassion for all sentient beings is always marred by partiality and projection. Devotion to a guru, however, is very personal and much less abstract. It can begin with admiration, awe, obedience, and inspiration, though they may all be sporadic.
Merit Dictates How We Perceive the Guru
As Jigme Lingpa said, the moon has all the qualities necessary for its reflection to appear on the surface of a clear lake. If the moon did not have a shape or substance, and if it didn’t reflect the light of the sun, it would not be possible for it to appear on the water’s surface. Furthermore, the quality of clear water is that it can reflect, and when the moon and the water—two entirely separate entities—are perfectly aligned without any obstruction between them, a reflection of the moon will appear effortlessly, without intention. Similarly, our inner Buddha has qualities that enable it to manifest effortlessly and without intention. When there are no obstacles, the Buddha will reflect spontaneously in sentient beings who have the merit.
Some beings have the merit to enjoy the reflection of the inner Buddha in the form of the outer historical Buddha Shakyamuni, who came 2,500 years ago. Some have the merit to enjoy the reflection of the inner Buddha in the form of a large fish during a time of famine. For others, the Buddha may be stone statues, paintings, a lotus, a garden, or any of the other material objects that give sentient beings temporary happiness. And those with the most supreme type of merit have the ability to see nondual bliss as the Buddha.
The process of relating to this reflection of the inner Buddha is called devotion. As long as there is the stream of thoughts, there is no end to the projection of samsara. Until the end of samsara, there is no end to the path. As long as there is a path, there is devotion. And as long as there is devotion, there is an outer teacher.
The Human Bridge
If the concept of the outer guru as Buddha is beyond comprehension, recognizing the inner guru and the secret guru is even more vast. In the beginning, we can only form a hazy idea about any of these three aspects of the guru on an intellectual level. To truly understand the inner and secret gurus, we need a bridge that extends from one shore to the other—from ourselves to our inner and secret gurus. The only bridge is a person we can touch and see and with whom we can share experiences, who can be a reference and an example and who has the familiarity and knowledge to introduce the inner and secret gurus. The only bridge is the outer guru.
The relationship with a guru can never be simple. We human beings have a habit of hope and fear, and we each come saddled with our different cultures and characters. As long as we are bound by these distinctions, we are deluded, and as long as we are deluded, our relationships are complicated.
Through the veil of your everyday deluded perceptions, the outer guru may seem like an ordinary person. He shares your taste for pizza with anchovies but also drinks strong coffee, which you don’t like at all. He appears to get cranky when you don’t get it right. He’s a human being. But he wasn’t born in your neighborhood, so he’s exotic and interesting. The more exotic the better, especially if you’re a naive and gullible disciple easily impressed by colors, shapes, and races. The best is when his skin is a completely different shade. Then again, if it’s too exotic it doesn’t work.
It’s difficult to accept a guru as “beyond” human because we practitioners are human beings ourselves; there is a part of us always looking for familiarity. We want our guru to be shaped like us and to like the same love songs as we do. On the other hand, we want our guru to be exceptional and sublime but not too exceptional or too sublime. If the guru had three eyes, we wouldn’t know how to handle that. We buy gifts for the guru and imagine how surprised and pleased he will be to receive them. At the same time, we want the guru to be clairvoyant, if not omniscient, so he will already know what we are bringing. It’s complicated, our mind. So the guru needs to serve both purposes: being an ordinary human who can make sense, and also being one who has all the skills to take you beyond the human state. The guru must be half ordinary being and half sublime being.
The work falls in your corner. You won’t have any trouble seeing the guru as a human being because that’s already your habit. But you’ll have to work to make that person a hybrid by “seeing” him or her as sublime. You have to do whatever it takes—educate yourself, habituate yourself—to see him or her as sublime. And most important, you have to have the merit and the ability to think that way. This is why we have mind training and guru yoga.
While many err on the side of expecting too much of a guru—like constant worldly emotional support and advice—others reject a human guru altogether. It’s as if they are afraid to relate to a living being. They say things like “I am my own guru,” using the convenient and educated-sounding excuse that everything, including the guru, is the nature of mind. But after some questioning, it becomes clear that they don’t have even a faint understanding of what “nature of mind” means.
I’ve met many middle-aged Europeans who resent the Abrahamic religions they were brought up with for managing to infect them with the virus of guilt. At some point along the way, some managed to rebel, perhaps when they were teenagers during the post-World War II era. Some of these rebels managed to get excited about Buddhist teachings; they were turned on by concepts like “everything is mind” and “you are your own master,” and they remain excited to this day. These beliefs align with their rebellious nature and validate their resentment of organized religion. Intellectually, these ex-Abrahamic dharma seekers no longer believe in original sin, but because of their upbringing, the habit of feeling guilty and sinful is still strong. This type of person has a tendency to overenthusiastically wave the banner of inner and secret gurus.
This attitude—that the inner guru is enough—is often adopted by those whose intellectual orientation is slightly nihilistic or who are from very controlling, high- achieving families and resent the idea of yet another powerful person breathing down their necks.
Then there are others who like to be led. Even when it comes to mundane issues, they don’t trust their own judgment or inner voice. They can barely go to the grocery store without being full of doubt. They also tend to be a little bit lazy, asking the guru for advice on every little thing that pops into their heads. These types of people have to learn to trust themselves and rely less on the outer guru. They might find that the more they trust the inner and secret gurus, the more they rely on and love the outer guru.
Ultimately, the question of whether the inner guru is enough for you is irrelevant if your spiritual aim is to attain enlightenment. But there is an easy way to find the answer. If you can overcome any and all external circumstances, then maybe you don’t need the outer guru, because by then all appearance and experience arise as the guru anyway. On the other hand, if a practitioner is not able to control circumstances and situations, then all kinds of mind training are necessary. Therefore, one needs to be led, to be poked, to be spoon-fed.
To find out whether or not you are controlled by circumstances and situations, there are myriad things you can do, such as skip lunch. If you are a man, wear a bra and walk around in public. If you are a woman, go to a fancy party in your bedroom slippers. If you are married, see if you can tolerate someone pinching your spouse’s bottom. See if you are swayed by praise, criticism, being ignored, or being showered with attention. If you get agitated, embarrassed, or infuriated, then more than likely you are still under the spell of the conditions of habit and culture.
You are still a victim of causes and conditions. When a loved one dies or the life you are trying to build collapses, it’s likely that your understanding of the inner and secret gurus will not ease the pain. Nor will your understanding of “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” provide solace. In this case, you need to insert a new cause to counter these conditions. Because your understanding of the inner and secret gurus is only intellectual, you cannot call upon them. This is where the outer, physical, reachable guru is necessary.
As long as you dwell in a realm where externally existing friends and lovers are necessary, as long as you are bothered by externally existing obstacles like passions and moral judgments, you need a guru. Basically, as long as you have a dualistic mind, don’t kid yourself by thinking that an inner guru is enough. When you reach a point where you can actually communicate with your inner guru, you will have little or no more dualism. You will no longer be repelled by or attracted to an outer guru.
Therefore, the outer guru is necessary until you at least have the gist of the inner and secret gurus. When you realize the inner and secret gurus, you won’t even be able to find the outer guru anymore.