is a guru? And what makes someone a true guru? There cannot be a more debated
& contested issue among Western Buddhists today.
this exclusive interview, H.H. the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa addresses these issues
pertinent to those on the Vajrayana path and the critics of the path who often
claim that the Vajrayana school over-emphasizes the importance of a guru, thus
leading to blind worshipping as well as resulting in ‘guru abuse.’
have often said that when you teach Buddha Dharma, you seek to put across a
message which is universal, one which cuts across cultural and geographic
barriers. However, one of the main principles in Tibetan Buddhism is that of the
guru, or lama, and this seems to press strongly against many ideas in Western
culture. May be it is because the guru is actually culturally specific that it
has no precedent in the West, and some Westerners have difficulty in relating to
it. So is the guru a cultural phenomenon or a universal principle?
an interesting question, nobody has asked me this so directly before. I don’t
think the guru should be looked at as a cultural thing, it should definitely be
treated as a spiritual and universal issue. Otherwise, you would imply that the
entire practice of Buddhism, especially the practice of Vajrayana, is just a
cultural development. I always say that if you go too much into the cultural
aspect of a religion, and get stuck there, that approach becomes a spiritual
poison. That kind of notion will definitely paralyze you. Don’t get me wrong:
there are beautiful cultures in the world, but they are beautiful in a different
sense. We should not confuse spiritual practice and culture.
you are asking whether the guru principle is designed only for Tibetan culture
and society, it is not. It is universal. Why? Because the authentic guru is
nothing other than the universal truth. We are not really talking about the
human body of the guru whom you are looking to, or whom you are sitting in front
of, we are talking about the ultimate goal of the spiritual path itself. This is
what the guru principle represents. However, until you realize the nature of
your mind, you need support from a human being, in the form of instructions on
meditation and so on. Whoever can give this kind of guidance skillfully is also
known as a guru. But this is what I would call the conventional guru, or the
relative, external guru, as distinct from the ultimate guru which is the
conventional guru is someone who leads you in the right direction. Without him
or her we would all be lost; we don’t have wisdom so we are unsure what to do
or where to go. This is why we need a guru, I don’t think that is special to
Tibetans, or to Tibetan culture. Everybody, everywhere, needs such guidance, no
matter whether they are Tibetan, Indian, British or French ~ culture really
doesn’t matter. Wherever you come from, you need spiritual guidance. And since
the actual meaning of the guru is the realized state of mind, there is no reason
why we cannot say that this is a universal principle.
when we decide to follow the Buddhist path, we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma
and Sangha. We take the Buddha as our guide. So why is Buddha not enough?
don’t know who Buddha is. Who is Buddha? Where is Buddha? That’s exactly the
point. We need a human connection in order to know the Buddha. It's quite
unfortunate, I know, but what to do? We cannot find Buddha by ourselves. ‘Buddha’
actually means enlightenment, the enlightened mind. As we are not yet
enlightened we are lost, so we need the help of a skillful human being, who is
smarter than us, who can give us true authentic guidance. This person is what we
call the guru. He or she may only be the conventional guru, but we need this
guru all the same.
what is the relationship between the conventional guru and the Buddha?
conventional guru is the guide who leads you to the actual guru, which is
enlightenment, the Buddha within you. However, you have to realize Buddhahood
for yourself; the poor guru cannot do it for you, he can only give you guidance.
Vajrayana we always say that the guru has to be seen as a Buddha. Again, this is
not cultural, it should be seen in a universal way. It means that, in terms of
helping us realize our Buddha nature, the guru is as kind to us as the Buddha
himself. I know the idea that the guru or the lama is a Buddha can lead to
tremendous confusion unless you know what it means. So, first of all, what do we
mean by Buddha? Buddha is enlightenment. And, secondly, what do we mean by guru?
The guru in human form, the conventional guru, is the key person who guides you
along the spiritual path, so you come to know or realize your nature, the
ultimate guru, which is Buddhahood. Rather than make a long distance, we express
this in an abbreviated form and simply say that the guru is Buddha.
are two points here, aren’t there? The guru is the key person who leads you to
the Buddha nature, but also the guru is considered to have many of the qualities
of a Buddha.
you can say that too. By ‘Buddha qualities’ we mean that he or she has
skillful methods to share with us, and has great compassion to share with us. So
yes, you are quite right, you can call the lama a Buddha from many points of
also take refuge in the Dharma. Although the Buddha has passed away he left his
teachings. Is it not enough to follow the guidance the Buddha himself has left
it is not enough. Why not? The difficulty is that you may get lost ~ not ‘may,’
but rather it is 95% sure you’ll get lost. Why? Because we may be very smart
in other senses, but very unfortunately we are extremely ignorant in terms of
is true, we take refuge in the Dharma. But what exactly is the Dharma? We can
read Buddhist texts, we can do chanting and other practices if we want, but will
this bring us a good result or a bad one? We don’t really know what will come
of it. This is another reason why we need a guru.
all, as I said before, we need a guru to lead us in the right direction. Dharma
is a direction. Dharma is not a book, and ultimately Buddhist books are not
Dharma, they are just paper and ink. Scriptures are what we would call
conventional, relative Dharma, but for them to help you, you need the skill and
understanding to know how to go through them. It is precisely this skill that is
imparted by the guru, and learning this skill is the authentic way of taking
refuge in the Dharma. In fact this is basically why the guru is so important:
because he shows you the path to Buddha, and the path is another name for the
difficulties arise because of our ignorance. If we were really smart, why would
we need a guru? We have our own, authentic guru within ~ enlightenment, the
primordial Buddha ~ so why rely on an external one? That’s exactly the point.
But unfortunately we are nowhere, we don’t know that primordial Buddha, we
have not realized our Buddha nature, therefore we still need guidance from a
human being who has the qualities of the Buddha.
the State of the World Conference in San Francisco recently, some of the Western
Buddhist teachers present said that Buddhism is entering a new phase in the
West, where the master is no longer so important. Buddhism will develop in a
more egalitarian way, based on mutual support between Sangha members, and on
active service within the community (engaged Buddhism). Maybe the model of the
Vajrayana guru doesn’t fit the Western mentality? If this is a cultural
barrier, how can we cut across it?
don’t think the Vajrayana guru is a barrier. Actually, the guru principle is
extraordinarily effective in helping us to understand the universal truth. Of
all the different teachings of Buddha, the Vajrayana teachings especially
provide a very real possibility to attain the universal truth. I do not see the
Vajrayana as being a great door to blockage. For example, the Vajrayana doesn’t
let you become blocked with the idea of the guru; and if your enthusiasm at
becoming a Buddhist leads to your becoming attached to Buddha and deities,
peaceful deities, female deities, male deities ~ but as soon as you are attached
to them, you are not a practitioner of Vajrayana. You are not meant to be
attached even to your enlightenment.
Mahayana Buddhism, of course, attachment is equally discouraged, but not to
everything. Mahayana discriminates between those things to which we should not
be attached, such as beautiful women and men, flowers, wealth, health and so on,
and pure things, such as Buddha and Dharma, towards which attachment is allowed.
So I think Vajrayana is the quickest way to get into the universal realm.
to find a guru needs skill. When the Buddha gave Vajrayana teachings, he knew
the risks involved, therefore he himself said you have to take your time to find
a guru. You shouldn’t just say, upon meeting a lama, ‘I like him very much,
he’s such a nice chap.’ No, this is not good enough. There are hundreds of
thousands of nice guys in the world, you can’t be so naive. If Westerners are
disillusioned with masters, it is their fault. They are too hungry for a
spiritual touch that as soon as ‘a master’ comes they take to him or her and
don’t check first. Some simply fall in love. People are so hungry, firstly for
spiritual guidance, and secondly for emotional support. They cannot now blame
their problems on the culture of Tibet.
said on one occasion that the difference between emotion and devotion is that
emotion is misunderstanding and devotion is understanding. Could you say more
develop devotion once you have taken many years of your life, and considerable
trouble, to check that the person who claims to be a master is indeed an
authentic master. You don’t choose him as your teacher because you are
attracted to him, or to Buddhism. You test him first. But it is important to
know how to test. In fact, there is a wisdom in knowing how to test. It is not
the sort of test you give a student at the end of a university course, or a sort
of job interview to see whether someone is rich, well educated, computer
literate, etc. You need some spiritual wisdom before you can check a master, and
intellectually you have to be informed. This preparation comes through listening
to basic Buddhist teachings, or reading spiritual books. Then at least you have
an understanding of what is meant by a guru, and what a master’s
qualifications have to be. So you develop devotion on the basis of
I say that emotion is misunderstanding, I am thinking of someone whose reaction
to a master goes something like this: ‘I just met you today, and I fell in
love with you because you smiled at me, or you hugged me, or whatever. I sense
you are the man, the guide, the guru, whom I have been looking for all these
years.’ But at that moment of reaction, such a student is not checking himself
or herself to see what is really going on inside. Instead, he or she is simply
slipping into emotion. This is a mistake.
said that the guru is the gateway to the universal dimension. Could you also say
that he is the gateway to the absolute?
guru will open the door for you, open the door of your understanding. The guru
will discriminate for you, pointing out misunderstanding, and pointing out
understanding. It’s as though he is drawing a map for you. He is able to do
this because he is an experienced person. For example, I don’t know London and
am completely lost here. I have been lent a car, but I can’t go anywhere
because I don’t know the city. A spiritual master has to be as expert in
spiritual expertise as a London taxi driver is in knowing all the roads and
short cuts. Only someone with that degree of experience is able to lead you.
universal truth I am referring to is the ultimate state of life, and of the
world. This is really difficult to express in words. It is something that is
beyond what we are seeing right now. This is the relative level, and that is the
ultimate level. The relative level is the level we normally relate to, and where
things relate to each other, but ultimately there is no truth in it.
there two things here? A truth which applies universally, and our experience of
There is the experiential point of view, and the universal point of view. In
philosophical terms, it is the difference between Tathagatagarbha and Dharmakaya.
The universal point of view is primordially there, whether you experience it or
main practice in Vajrayana is guru yoga. Could you say in a nutshell what the
point of guru yoga is, and how it works?
point is to realize the Buddha nature, enlightenment, the universal truth, which
is primordially there within yourself. But guru yoga is just a technique; it is
not a universal technique. It is a particular Vajrayana technique which relates
only indirectly to the universal. The practice of guru yoga ~ the recitations,
the visualizations ~ is just relative or conventional. We live in the
conventional world, so we practice conventionally. Guru yoga is actually a
process of cleaning the mirror of rigpa, our intrinsic, pure awareness, and that
process is known as blessing. You can use different names for this, but we use
the word ‘blessing.’ The reflection of your face is already there, in the
mirror, and through this process you will be able to see it clearly. This is the
do you think it is a mistake to give up on the guru?
Some masters are taking advantage of the situation too, of course. It’s too
easy to be a master in America, for example. Hundreds of disciples can gather
around a master as soon as he teaches in America. It is fine to have thousands
of fans if you are a rock star, for a spiritual teacher that is not the point.
want students to have enough knowledge to check me, and to take time to check
me. People are too quick in this modern world. Their minds are very
computerized. Life is very fast, and they think there is no time to check. So
people complain about masters, and decide they don’t need one and can practice
by themselves because the Buddha nature is within them anyway. Unfortunately, it
will never work. On the other hand, if you take time to check, you will find
there are hundreds of genuine masters. So if you are careful, you will never be