The real meaning of guru
In guru yoga, the essential point to understand is that all the buddhas are of one taste in the dharmakaya. The dharmakaya is the absolute guru, and this is all the buddhas. This is the very heart of guru yoga practice. Without understanding this there’s no way to practice guru yoga comfortably. Even if we do the visualizations it won’t be completely satisfactory because we’ll be unclear as to how buddha is the embodiment of the guru and the guru is the embodiment of buddha. However, it will be extremely clear if we understand the very heart of guru yoga, that the guru is buddha and buddha is the guru.
We can integrate this understanding into our guru yoga practice by thinking in the following way. When we become enlightened, if there is one sentient being who can be guided by a manifestation of Tara, we will manifest in the aspect of Tara to guide that sentient being. Now, that Tara is the manifestation of all the Taras and all the other buddhas. It is not that there is a separate Tara with a separate mind who guides that particular sentient being and there are billions of other Taras who guide other sentient beings but not that particular one.
When a sentient being is ready to be guided by an aspect of a buddha and be taught Dharma, the buddha who reveals the Dharma to them has to be all the other buddhas. Otherwise that sentient being would not be guided by all the buddhas but by some buddhas and not others. This way of thinking creates problems in the mind. When Manjushri or any other buddha guides us, that guidance is the guidance of all the buddhas and that manifestation is the manifestation of all the buddhas.
In reality, even though there are numberless different aspects of buddhas, the holy mind of all the buddhas is one but appears in different aspects to guide us sentient beings, just as all the rivers that go into the ocean become one.
The dharmakaya is like the ocean in which many waters are mixed and our various gurus are like drops from the ocean. All our gurus are manifestations of the dharmakaya, the absolute guru, the holy mind of all the buddhas; the absolute guru manifests in an ordinary form in accordance with the level of our karma. This ordinary form is the conventional guru, the essence of which is the absolute guru.
When we actually see or visualize a deity or see statues or paintings of deities we should recognize that they are all the guru. There is no deity other than the guru.
The guru in guru yoga means our present gurus, who guide us to enlightenment by teaching us the alphabet, giving us commentaries, oral transmissions, tantric initiations, vows and personal advice; they are the embodiments of the dharmakaya, the absolute guru, the transcendental wisdom of nondual bliss and voidness. When we do Guru Puja, Six-Session Guru Yoga or any other guru yoga practice we shouldn’t think that the central figure has nothing to do with our guru. When we are doing Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga or Guru Puja we have to remember that there is no Tsongkhapa who is not our guru.
When we visualize Lama Tsongkhapa, the aspect we visualize is Tsongkhapa but our main focus should be on Lama, the guru. When we say “Lama Tsongkhapa” we know that we are talking about the dharmakaya of all the buddhas and that Tsongkhapa is the particular embodiment of this dharmakaya that is of one taste with the holy mind of all the buddhas. This will bring some change in our mind because we will quickly receive blessings. The mind that was previously dry and uninspired will develop great respect, devotion and inspiration to practice. Through effort in our practice, realizations of the lam-rim path will then come. This is how it is possible for us to achieve enlightenment.
Otherwise, if we concentrate just on the aspect of Tsongkhapa and not on the meaning of Lama when we practice Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga or Guru Puja, we leave out the guru yoga practice. Of course we can still accumulate merit by making offerings and so forth simply with the thought that Tsongkhapa is a buddha; after all, we accumulate merit by making offerings to bodhisattvas, Sangha, and even our parents, even though they are not buddhas. But for us to generate all the realizations from perfect human rebirth up to enlightenment, the blessings of the guru have to enter our heart.
It is similar when we meditate on Guru Vajradhara in the practice of Six-Session Guru Yoga. Vajradhara is the particular aspect we visualize, but it is more effective to focus on the absolute guru. It makes sense to relate to the absolute guru every time we hear or say “guru” or “lama.” It would be strange to simply think of the relative guru, the guru who appears to us in ordinary aspect and gives us teachings and not think of the absolute guru; it would be strange to think of the aspect and not the essence. If when we meditated on Guru Shakyamuni Buddha we saw him in essence as an ordinary person, a sentient being, we wouldn’t see any purpose in doing the meditation. If we meditate in this way, we haven’t understood guru yoga practice. We have to meditate on the absolute guru.
Otherwise, if we have no feeling of devotion in our heart and see the guru as an ordinary being, we won’t see any purpose in making requests to him; we’ll feel that we’re trying to get milk from a cow’s horn. We’ll think, “What is the point of making requests to an ordinary person, somebody who has been born from a mother’s womb and has the same flesh-and-blood body as I have? What am I doing praying to somebody who is a human being the same as I am?” Even if we say the prayers, we’ll have no feeling for them. Our heart will feel empty, as if there’s a hole in it.
Whenever we do guru yoga meditations or think of or physically see our guru we should immediately think, “This is buddha.” The instant we see the particular form of our mother, for example, even in a large crowd of people, we are instantly aware that it is our mother. There is the immediate recognition, “This is my mother.” It is similar with guru yoga practice. We should immediately be aware that our guru is in essence the absolute guru. At the moment we have to apply effort to think this but later a definite understanding that the guru is buddha will spontaneously arise in our heart, without need for logical reasoning or quotations, just as when we see our mother’s form we don’t have to exert any effort to think it’s our mother. This is the way to develop stable realization of guru devotion.
When we serve our guru with this awareness of the absolute guru, the holy mind of all the buddhas, even if we are offering only a cup of tea, we are spontaneously aware that we are offering the tea to all the buddhas. If we are sitting next to our guru we are aware that we are sitting next to all the buddhas of the ten directions. When our guru gives us advice, teachings or an initiation we are aware that all the buddhas are giving us the advice, teachings or initiation. Even if we don’t have realization of this, it is effective to attempt to listen to teachings with this awareness. We will then feel much more connection; we will feel much closer to all the buddhas.
Geshe Senge mentioned one high lama in Tibet who used “Guru” in front of the name of every buddha; he would say “Guru Arya Tara,” “Guru Yamantaka” and so on. Many lamas relate to deities in the same way because the guru is the source of all the buddhas and the Triple Gem. From where do all the buddhas come? From the guru. From where do Buddha, Dharma and Sangha come? From the guru. And what is that guru? It is the absolute guru, the dharmakaya, the transcendental wisdom of nondual bliss and voidness.
The real meaning that we should constantly remember when we use the word guru and also when we see the guru is primordial unified savior, the extremely subtle primordial mind of dharmakaya, the absolute guru. When we think of the guru as the primordial unified savior, the dharmakaya, we see that because this dharmakaya is bound by infinite compassion to us sentient beings, it has to manifest in various forms to guide us. As we don’t have the karma to directly see aspects of buddha, it has manifested in the ordinary aspects of the gurus that we visualize. If we miss the real meaning of guru we will think that a guru is simply someone from whom we have received teachings and won’t be able to figure out how all the deities are manifestations of him.