Advice on Calling the Guru from Afar

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Singapore (Archive #442)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave these teachings on guru devotion during an oral transmission of the prayer Calling the Guru from Afar in Singapore, April 1992. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Listen to or download the audio files and read the unedited transcript of this teaching here. You can also read a more extensive verse-by-verse commentary, given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Kachoe Dechen Ling, Aptos, in the winter of 2004-05.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Bendigo, Australia, Sep-Oct 2014.

Calling the Guru from Afar was composed by Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo, the great yogi of Heruka Chakrasamvara, which is a manifestation of the kind, compassionate Shakyamuni Buddha. Calling the Guru from Afar combines guru yoga practice and lam-rim. It is a very effective way to do direct meditation on the three principal aspects of the path and the two stages of Highest Yoga Tantra, because this prayer came from this great yogi Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo’s own experiences.

“At any rate, I must achieve enlightenment quickly and more quickly for the sake of all the kind mother sentient beings, as the meaning, or purpose, of my life is to free every sentient being from all suffering and its causes and lead them not just to temporary happiness or to liberation from samsara but to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. The purpose of my surviving one more year is to be able to actualize the common path of renunciation of samsara, bodhicitta, and the wisdom that realizes emptiness, and as much as possible to leave imprints of the Highest Yoga Tantra path.

 “So, even if I don’t achieve realization this year, at least I should make my mind as close as possible to realization, so that I can quickly end the suffering of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. And not just that, but quickly achieve enlightenment so that I can bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. That is the real meaning of life.

“With the three principles of the path, especially bodhicitta, I am able to make my life as useful as possible for all other sentient beings. Whether it is one, two, ten or numberless sentient beings, I make my life as beneficial as possible for other sentient beings, as Buddha did.”

On the morning of the New Year I think it is very good, either with the family together in front of the Buddha or at the center, to read the prayer at the end of the chöd practice. This prayer describes Buddha’s lives as a bodhisattva and his practice of the six paramitas. He gave his life to other sentient beings. When he was a king he gave his whole family and all his possessions to other sentient beings. He also made charity of his body to a family of starving tigers. He gave his life to blood-sucking spirits and made a prayer that the spirits become his disciples in their next life. This is why these spirits became the four monks to whom Buddha gave his first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, in Sarnath. Before, they were spirits that sucked blood from the Buddha in his past life as a bodhisattva; he used that to dedicate that he would be able to give teachings to them in their next life.

There are many stories there in that prayer. When there was an epidemic disease and many hundreds of thousands of people were dying, the bodhisattva manifested as a particular fish whose flesh became the medicine to cure that disease. By eating the fish, the people in that country then recovered from that epidemic. At another time, when many hundreds of thousands of fish were dying, in a past life as a bodhisattva, Buddha recited a particular buddha’s name and liberated them all.

There are many different stories of the Buddha’s past lives as a bodhisattva, where other sentient beings with vicious attitudes harmed Buddha, but in return he only benefited them. It is very good for the family to read together such stories in front of Buddha together, and then to be able to live life with a sincere, open heart toward all other sentient beings, thus to make your life beneficial. That is the best way to make your life happy and to find satisfaction now and at the time of death. It benefits everybody—the family and all other sentient beings—for enlightenment and everything else.

This practice is very beneficial and could either be done with the family or at the center. After taking refuge and generating bodhicitta, the four immeasurables, the seven-limb prayer, and a short mandala offering, you could then read these short bodhisattva life stories. It is a very good way of reminding us how to live our life. It reminds us of the purpose of life and how to make our life beneficial for all sentient beings. It then makes the New Year a very good new year and very meaningful.

As I give the oral transmission, think, “May I be able to reveal each word that I hear to every sentient being, and whenever I say this word, may they be able to actualize the path immediately in their mind.” Dedicate in this way.

I will give the oral transmission in English. [Rinpoche begins the recitation.]

In “...drawing forth the blessing of the lama, the inseparable three kayas...,” lama doesn’t mean just any lama. The word “lama” can be used in many ways, but here it means your own personal lama with whom you have had Dharma contact, from whom you have received teachings with the recognition of a guru-disciple relationship. As I mentioned during the Amitabha initiation, if you cannot devote to the person who teaches you as a guru from the very beginning, you can first learn from that person in the way that you learn from a school teacher or professor; after some time, if you feel devotion and think that you can devote to the person as your guru, you can then do so. You don’t normally need to request someone to be your guru. Before listening to teachings for the very first time, you can make a request; however, because there are generally thousands of people involved, there is no time for each person to request, “Please be my guru.”

There is a tradition in Tibet, for example, that before attending an initiation or teaching, you go to see the lama to ask if you can attend. The lama then checks and accepts. There was this tradition with Tibetan lamas to check before; but after the teaching has happened and the connection has already been made, there is no need to request, “Please be my guru.” After you have been born, you do not request your mother, “Can you be my mother?” or your father, “Can you be my father?” After you are thirty, forty or eighty years old, you then ask, “Can you be my mother?” I’m joking!

In the Tibetan tradition, if you are going to take a teaching from the very beginning in a guru-disciple relationship, you generally get permission from the lama. You just quickly ask, “Can I take these teachings?” and the lama then checks up.

Now, centers in the West are much more like a school where different teachers come to teach. Here in this kind of situation, we find it very difficult to practice pure view with everybody—if you can practice pure view, it is okay to have many thousands or billions of gurus—and our minds are full of superstitions. So, if you can’t devote to someone as a guru from the beginning, then first listen to their teachings as you would to a teaching in a school or university. Then if you really feel that you want them as your guru, you make the decision to form a guru-disciple relationship then take teachings from them.

I am not saying that you should not regard the teachers who come to the center as your guru. But as I mentioned before, it is in relation to the guru that there is the greatest benefit and also the greatest obstacle. Because the guru is the most powerful object, you can accumulate the greatest merit, experience the most powerful purification, and receive the greatest benefit. You can achieve all success, including the highest, enlightenment. However, if you don’t know how to practice, if you make mistakes, you also create the greatest obstacle. So, there can be the greatest profit and the greatest obstacle to the development of your mind. This is why I am explaining how to be careful in your practice, how to keep your practice clear and neat.

When you are doing guru yoga practice, you then know how many gurus you have, so it is very easy to visualize them. It is very clear who is and who is not your guru. Then to those you have taken as your guru, you have to have a completely new mind; no matter what happens, you have to practice pure view with them once you have established Dharma contact. You should examine carefully beforehand, but once Dharma contact is established, how the guru guides the disciple is the guru’s responsibility and how the disciple follows the guru, practicing correct devotion, is the disciple’s responsibility. Both have a responsibility.

Therefore, even if that teacher commits any of the ten nonvirtuous actions or kills millions of people, the disciple has to practice guru devotion. The root guru of Trulshik Rinpoche, one incredibly qualified Nyingma lama from whom I have taken teachings, wrote an incredibly moving teaching on guru devotion. I don’t remember it by heart, but it was translated into English some time ago. Trulshik Rinpoche’s root guru was a great Nyingmapa yogi. The text has quotations from great yogis describing how they practiced to see as positive what looks like faults, such as the ten nonvirtues of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and so forth. It shows how to use every fault that appears to develop devotion within your mind.

So, we have to be careful before making a relationship. This is for our safety, like the seatbelt in a car or an airplane. On an airplane, the hostess shows us the life jacket and everything else and tells us what to do just in case the airplane crashes in the ocean. The reason that I’m spending so much time talking about the guru now and during the Amitabha initiation is for your safety, for your safe journey to enlightenment.

When you recite “Lama, think of me; Lama, think of me; Lama, think of me,” you visualize your root guru on your crown, with awareness of the real meaning of guru. Remember in your heart that the guru is the holy mind of all the buddhas, the dharmakaya, the transcendental wisdom of non-dual bliss and voidness. To put it in a simple way, the guru is the wisdom of the completely pure mind of all the buddhas. So that holy mind is the dharmakaya, the absolute guru. There are the absolute guru and the conventional guru. The absolute guru is working through the conventional guru, which means that we see various ordinary aspects, which means having faults, that accord with the level of our impure mind. So, all the buddhas are working through this ordinary aspect. One way to understand this is to consider the example of the sun shining through a magnifying glass. Even if there is a very hot sun and dry grass, if you do not have a magnifying glass you cannot burn the grass and make a fire.

Similarly, all the buddhas work through this manifestation, whose appearance accords with the quality of our own mind. Through giving oral transmissions, initiations, commentaries, granting the three levels of vows, teaching the alphabet and so forth, the guru completely burns all our delusions, all the faults of our mind; then, by actualizing the path, we are guided to enlightenment.

This is the meditation practice, and this is how it is explained in the sutra and tantra texts. I am just repeating their essence.

I’m not talking about myself here, but generally speaking, when we take an initiation or teaching from a lama, it means they become your own guru. Indians usually call any Tibetan, whether lay or ordained, lama. As long as someone is Tibetan, they call him lama. But for Tibetans, a lama can be the abbot of a monastery, a reincarnate lama, or your own guru. All these are called lama, and it is similar with the term “Rinpoche.”

Now, when your own guru is giving you advice, scolding you, beating you, or giving initiation, think that Chenrezig, or Kuan Yin, is giving you advice in order to pacify the obstacles to your Dharma practice; he is scolding or beating you for your purification, as in Milarepa’s life-story. When the guru is giving you an initiation (or vows or teachings), always think, “Tara is giving this initiation,” “Manjushri is giving this initiation,” “Amitabha is giving this initiation,” “Vajrapani is giving this initiation,” “Yamantaka is giving this initiation.” You should realize that all the buddhas are giving you the initiation (or vows or teachings). This is the way to understand.

Think, “All the buddhas are giving me initiation through this manifestation, so this action is the action of all the buddhas.” This is the way to meditate and this is what you have to realize. This devotion then takes you to enlightenment. It stops all the obstacles and causes you to generate all the realizations of the path to enlightenment.

Because our karma is not pure, our mind is not pure, we have no chance at the moment to see an actual buddha manifesting to us and giving us teachings; therefore, we have to receive guidance from some other form, a form that we have the karma to see and that accords with our level of mind. We need to have another ordinary form, since we cannot see the other, purer one. We don’t have the karma to see a form higher than this, and if the form is lower, such as an animal, we could not recognize them nor receive teachings from them. It is said that this ordinary form, which has many faults and suffering, is very precious because without this aspect our life would be lost. There would be no guidance and no protection for our life. We would be lost in samsara, lost in the lower realms. Therefore, this aspect becomes extremely precious and important. With this ordinary aspect, which accords with our own mind, we are able to receive all the guidance we need, even to achieve enlightenment.

[Rinpoche continues the oral transmission.]

“The hundred, five and three families...” is talking about the Dhyani Buddhas. There are a hundred different races of Buddha. This race, or family, has nothing to do with blood generation; it has to do with the mind. The five refers to the Five Dhyani Buddhas and the three to Vairochana, Amitabha, and Akshobhya, who are the embodiment of all the Buddhas’ holy body, holy speech and holy mind.

[Rinpoche continues the oral transmission.]

“...ripening the bases of the birth, death, and the intermediate state” refers to the tantric path. The lam-rim part is finished and now comes the part of the graduated path of Highest Yoga Tantra. This verse refers to the essence of the generation stage and the next verse to the completion stage.

[Rinpoche continues the oral transmission.]

“...removed...” is talking about the extremely pure subtle mind. Mind has three divisions: gross mind, subtle mind and extremely subtle mind.

[Rinpoche continues the oral transmission.]

The organization side of meditation centers in the West involves inviting and receiving many lamas. One reason for this is that people have different karma, so each time a lama comes, there are different people who have karma with that lama. Even though many other lamas come to the center, until that particular lama comes, those sentient beings do not meet the Dharma. This is why there is the need to invite different lamas to give teachings. When a lama comes to the center, the sentient beings who have a connection with that lama meet the lama and meet the Dharma. There are these particular benefits. So, from the organization’s side there is the need to do this, but from each individual’s side, there is the need to practice, as explained before.

Any person, whether male or female, lay or ordained, from whom you have taken vows, refuge vows, an initiation, or the Eight Mahayana Precepts, becomes your guru if you have done some of the visualizations explained by that person. The person becomes your guru if you have visualized what they said. Otherwise, it should be possible to achieve all the realizations of the path to enlightenment without a guru. However, nobody has achieved enlightenment in that way, and that is not the experience.

I feel that these are important points to explain. I think this practice, the very root of realizations, is not clear in many people’s minds; it is very confused, as I mentioned before, particularly in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, though not in Mahayana Buddhism and not in sutra. In sutra, as I mentioned, there is an entire volume for each meditation, or sometimes two or three volumes. It is very extensive. Without the lam-rim, which condenses the whole path into one text, you don’t know how to practice Dharma; you don’t know how to begin the path. The lam-rim is extremely precious and important. As I mentioned on one of the days, this emphasis is not there with the common teachers of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. Of course, there are many enlightened teachers, many bodhisattvas, but the common teachers do not emphasize these teachings.

There is a least one volume of sutra teachings that talks about guru devotion, and there might be others. I haven’t read the whole volume of that sutra, but many incredible quotations from it are used in the lam-rim. That is how I know its title. Because the lam-rim is not taught, this emphasis is not there. Since one doesn’t study the whole sutra, which comprises hundreds of volumes, and one could spend many years reading and studying just one volume, it is difficult to understand the whole thing. This is just my general comment. Of course, there are many enlightened beings and higher bodhisattvas who know how to practice, but this is generally what I think.

So, thank you very much. Happy new year to everybody! Thank you so much.

Here I have a relic, the Buddha’s tooth, which I recently got from Tibet, as well as two relics born from the Buddha’s tooth. I was expecting to get another Buddha’s tooth from near Lhasa to put in the Maitreya Buddha statue that my incomparably kind guru Lama Yeshe advised be built. The Maitreya Buddha will be the same size as the stupa in Bodhgaya. I didn’t get that particular Buddha’s tooth, but I then got one from another part of Tibet. This one came from inside a statue of Ensapa, one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s disciples who became enlightened within a few years. The statue was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and inside the statue was a stupa. The stupa was found by some Tibetan people, and inside it was the Buddha’s tooth. One family would crush the tooth and use it for healing, because everything else had been destroyed. One monk found it, then gave it to Chobgye Rinpoche, His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s guru. Chobgye Rinpoche said, “This is the same tooth that I saw in the stupa in Kandy in Sri Lanka.” Rinpoche went there for a meeting as a religious leader representing the Tibetan government. This is a small part from near the top of the Buddha’s tooth. I think the larger part is going to be offered to His Holiness Sakya Trizin. I brought this so that other people could sometimes see it, pray to it, and receive blessings from it. I also make offerings to it on my own altar, when I’m not lazy to make offerings.

I think that’s all. You gave me so much money already. I will put some of the money towards various projects, but I will mention the details later.

So, I think that is all. Thank you very much.