The essential qualities
Although the texts explain all these many different qualities to look for in a guru, the very essence is that our guru should at least be someone who emphasizes cherishing others more than cherishing self, because we then have the opportunity to develop bodhicitta, the root of the Mahayana path, and thus achieve enlightenment. Otherwise, if our guru doesn’t emphasize cherishing others, we will have no opportunity to develop bodhicitta. In essence, we should choose as our guru somebody who emphasizes cherishing others through the practice of loving kindness, compassion and bodhicitta.
Failing that, choose a spiritual teacher who emphasizes liberation from samsara rather than samsaric pleasures. If our virtuous teacher doesn’t emphasize cherishing others, he should at least be someone who looks at samsaric perfections as suffering and emphasizes liberation, because in this way we have the opportunity to achieve liberation.
At the very least choose a spiritual master who regards working for the happiness of future lives as more important than working for the happiness of this life. If our spiritual teacher doesn’t emphasize this, he can’t guide us even in the path to the happiness of future lives, which means to a good rebirth. If aimed only at the happiness of this life, our practice won’t even become holy Dharma. Even if we’re meditating every day, there’s the danger that what we do will become purely non-virtue, purely attachment to the happiness of this life. If our teacher doesn’t emphasize detachment from this life’s pleasures and working for long-term happiness, the happiness of future lives, there’s the danger that we’ll waste our life completely caught up in meaningless activities for the happiness of this life.
Whether our teacher is ordained or lay, the very essence is that he should emphasize these three things: by emphasizing bodhicitta, he is able to bring us to enlightenment; by emphasizing liberation from samsara, he is able to bring us to liberation; and by emphasizing letting go of clinging to this life and working for the happiness of all the coming future lives, he enables us to achieve the happiness of future lives. Those who know how to practice lam-rim regard these as the main qualities to examine before establishing a samaya relationship with a guru. Otherwise, without these qualities, even if a person is very scholarly and has great knowledge, it will be difficult for him to successfully guide disciples to enlightenment.
If the guru has at least the very basic qualities that I have mentioned, it will help us to avoid the danger of later engaging in the heavy negative karma of generating anger, heresy or other negative thoughts toward the guru, and also of giving up the guru.
The fundamental quality
Among all the many different qualities to consider in choosing a guru, the fundamental thing to examine is whether the person emphasizes the practice of morality, or ethics. As described in the first verse of the requesting prayer in Guru Puja,25 the fundamental point according to Lama Tsongkhapa’s teaching is living in the morality of ordination. However, whether the virtuous teacher is lay or ordained, the basic quality is that he himself should live in morality and emphasize the practice of morality, because otherwise there is no basis for realization. Disciples who don’t practice morality, which means protecting karma, can’t achieve even the happiness of a good rebirth in their next life, let alone liberation from samsara. Just as you can’t hold liquid without a container, you can’t receive the body of a happy migratory being—a human or deva—in your next life without living in morality. Without the practice of morality, you can’t even be protected from the lower realms. If the guru is someone who emphasizes morality, he’s able to protect the disciple from negative karma, the obstacle to achievement of enlightenment, liberation and the happiness of future lives. The disciple is then able to achieve temporary and ultimate happiness.
Tibetans who know the essence of lam-rim practice don’t decide on their gurus by checking how famous or learned they are because they know that successful practice has to do with samaya. Those who know how to correctly devote themselves to the virtuous friend, as Lama Atisha did with Lama Suvarnadvipi, check the lifestyle of the person and his practice, including how he devotes to his virtuous friends. On that basis, they then decide. A person could be famous and very learned but have some corruption in the samaya with his gurus. Even though one could learn intellectually from such a person, it would be difficult to complete the practice and gain real benefit. Real benefit doesn’t come from just learning the words, like in school or university, but from subduing the mind.
25 Source of virtue, great ocean of moral discipline,
Treasury brimming with jewels of much hearing,
Master, second buddha clad in saffron,
Elder, Vinaya-holder, I make requests to you. (V. 43.) [Return to text]