tantra, guru, devotion, lion's roar, buddhadharma, lama palden, tenzin wangyal rinpoche, rob preece

What does it mean to be devoted to one’s guru?

Buddhadharma ask three teachers about a complex issue at the heart of tantra practice: guru devotion.

By Lion’s Roar

Chakrasamvara, Eastern Tibet, 18th century, Karma (Kagyu) and other Buddhist lineages
Collection Rubin Museum of Art

The Fall 2015 issue of Buddhadharma features a conversation between Rob Preece, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, and Lama Palden Drolma on tantra. In this web exclusive, Buddhadharma asks the three teachers about a complex issue at the heart of tantra practice: guru devotion. 

What does it mean to be devoted to one’s guru?

Rob Preece: This is one of the trickier, more challenging dynamics for Westerners, because we don’t have any precedent for it in the West. There have also been problems in the way some Eastern and Western teachers have treated their students, which cannot be ignored.

Much depends on how we understand the nature of the guru. There are outer, inner, and secret levels to consider. Emphasis is usually on the outer, physical guru. Most of us who seek a teacher are really seeking a connection to something within, but because it eludes us, instead we look outside ourselves. Although there can be a lot of idealization that goes on with a guru because we are projecting something of ourselves onto another person, an outer guru nevertheless enables us to begin to find an inner relationship with our essential nature, something that may be very difficult for us to make connection to in any other way. The relationship with an outer guru can provide a very powerful initial awakening and heart opening through the qualities of devotion, love, and respect.

In tantra, we need to be able to trust in the guidance and integrity of the outer guru. At some point, however, we must move toward the inner guru, ideally facilitated by the guidance of the outer guru and our inner relationship to the deity. Eventually we open to the ultimate meaning of guru, the secret guru, which is the innate pristine nature of our mind. This process requires a gradual surrender of the ego’s ground and opening to our innate buddhanature. 

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: The guru, who is referred to as the guide master, is the one who teaches us and shows us the path to liberation. But every experience in our life constantly teaches us the nature of reality and impermanence if we are open to learning. So appearances are also considered our teacher and master. Our own true awareness, or rigpa, is considered the ultimate master. These are the three masters: your guide master or root master, appearances as master, and the nature of mind as master. These three together merge with awareness and that is the ultimate realization of guru yoga—to become one with the master. To arrive at that level you have to transcend your ego and your pain identity, which is difficult to do.

Lama Palden: It’s definitely easier to open to an awakened being outside of ourselves than to the awakened presence within us. So the guru link is very important, but we should carefully investigate our choice of teacher and let trust develop over time rather than right away. The true guru helps us open the channel to our own wisdom and discover our guru within.  

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: When working with Western students, who have a lot of problems with the notion of a teacher, I’m sensitive not to immediately expect they should do everything that we as teachers tell them to do. However, one of the important dynamics of guru yoga is to come to a place in yourself where you have to say, I’m going to trust somebody. I’m going to listen to somebody rather than try to be in charge and in control all the time. I’m going to listen to somebody because I need help. Of course there is a process of coming to that place in yourself and of finding a teacher whom you trust. But once you do, you make a decision: I’m going to listen, even if what he or she says goes completely against my will. I know my usual patterns are addictive—clinging to emotions and negative situations, so I trust this person to guide me. My teacher is guiding me and I have to be totally open to saying yes rather than discussing, negotiating, and then going against the advice.

In the West this concept is really difficult. Immediately people have a sense of Why should I have to listen to anybody? Why should we have to follow somebody? This question becomes complicated in light of abusive situations and stories.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.