When the Guru Is Ill

When the Guru Is Ill

Date Posted:
June 2006

A nun wrote seeking help adjusting her mind to the sickness of one of her gurus. Here is her letter, followed by Rinpoche’s reply to her.

Student's Letter

Dear Rinpoche,
With respect to our precious teacher Geshe-la’s health, our kind lama is manifesting the aspect of sickness, and I do not feel quite sure how to think about it.

It is easier with ordinary beings. But since our teacher is a fully realized, holy being, we cannot treat him like a suffering sentient being, and whatever symptoms of illness there are, I cannot really believe them. I feel almost as if I don’t have respect when I ask my teacher how he feels, and I also cannot really tell him what would be good for him to do because I am embarrassed to do so. I think that he knows far better what is good for him.

On the other hand, it makes me sad to think that his eyes and heart could be affected, and that he could be burdened, and it makes me totally sad to think that these eyes full of love would some day not look at us any more, and this treasure of wisdom and compassion could leave us. Geshe-la certainly does not worry at all for himself, but he cares for us, and his looking after his health may totally depend on the intensity of our needs and wishes.

If a Buddha manifests as a human body, does he depend for his well-being, his energy, and his long life on this body and does he depend on medicine at all? Or does his manifestation of a long life depend on our karma, efforts, and prayer? What we see, is it his sickness or our obscurations? What is proper to think and do? Can ordinary medicine and ordinary beings help the illness of realized beings? Can we as his students influence Geshe-la’s health by some special practice?

Rinpoche's response

Dear Jangchub,
Regarding the guru having sicknesses, and whether to have treatment or not, this answer is not for every single guru, but a general answer.

The disciple should pray for the long life and health of the guru, because disciples’ prayers have power. Why? Because there is a Dharma connection.

You can’t leave this out, saying, “This is Buddha, who does not need anything,” and then do nothing. Because the guru is showing an ordinary aspect, such as having suffering and sickness, you should offer service, get medicine, and so forth. The need for your service is also part of the manifestation, and it is for us sentient beings to collect merit and purify. Those sentient beings who offer service need their negative karma to be purified. These are the reasons for the guru’s sickness, because it makes possible very powerful purification for sentient beings, for them to achieve enlightenment quicker.

It is good to recognize this. When Lama Atisha showed the aspect of diarrhea and loss of control of his bowels, Drontompa cleaned it with his hands, without any thought of its being dirty, and from this he achieved clairvoyance. Because his mind was clarified from these actions, he was able to read the minds of sentient beings, even ants, even the minds of people as far away as an eagle can fly in 18 days.

Thank you very much for your concern and for your guru devotion. That is your jewel, the root that eliminates all defilements and obstacles, and achieves all realizations and enlightenment, and enlightenment for all sentient beings.

With love and prayers...