How to Follow the Guru Correctly

How to Follow the Guru Correctly

Date of Advice:
June 2017
Date Posted:
June 2020

After meeting a student who asked about guru devotion, Rinpoche sent this letter advising the importance of checking the guru first, and what to do if the guru instructs the disciple to do something which is non-Dharma.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Honolulu, Hawaii, June 1975. Courtesy of Kathleen Bryan.

My dear one,
There is something I left out when I spoke to you, but you must know this. I spoke about the guru to you and what you need to know is, perfect gurus such as Tilopa, Marpa and so forth, and perfect disciples like Naropa and Milarepa, however many hardships those disciples have, they never arise heresy or anger [toward to guru] even for one second. They never lose faith that the guru is a buddha.

That is the perfect disciple, who can bear all the hardships, in that special case. Then whatever the guru tells them to do, they should do everything, like in the case of Tilopa and Marpa, who are buddhas. That is why enlightenment in this life, in a brief lifetime of degenerate time, is possible. It happened not only to them, but to many others.

For ordinary people, if the guru tells you to do something which is not Dharma, for example, asking you to kill somebody or anything like that, then it is said in Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion1 that you can ask permission to not do that action which is not Dharma.

You can do tangske, a sort of prostration, where you hold the upper robe and stroke it three times with your right hand, so it is like prostration, showing respect, then you ask permission to not do that action. It is said in another text, I think Vinaya, if the guru says to do non-Dharma things, to not do those actions.

What this means is that you can humbly, without losing faith that [the guru] is a buddha, with that faith, you humbly ask permission to not do that. You request to not do that action. That’s what it says. But do not think the guru doesn’t know Dharma, do not show arrogance, which creates so much negative karma.

Generally, however much the guru knows—whether the guru is an expert, or middle or knows a little Dharma—from your side you have to respect them. From the disciple’s side you have to respect them, so ordinary people must respectfully request permission [to not do something which is not Dharma.]

Therefore, my emphasis is to check the guru from the very, very beginning. Don’t be like a dog that sees the food, the meat, thrown out, then immediate runs to it without checking. That’s why, in the beginning, checking the guru is the most important thing in your life, so your life is protected and you don’t get into trouble later

With much love and prayers ...


1 (Disciples) having great sense should obey the words of their guru joyfully and with enthusiasm.
   If you lack the knowledge or ability (to do what he says), explain in (polite) words why you cannot (comply).
          - Verse 24, Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion [Return to text]