Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga (Ganden Lha Gyäma)

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala, India 1986 (Archive #266)
Ganden Lha Gyäma: The Hundreds of Deities of the Land of Joy

In this commentary, Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaches on the Ganden Lha Gyäma practice, often translating the Tibetan verses line-by-line. The teachings were given by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala, India at the end of the Second Enlightened Experience Celebration held in March 1986.

The teachings were edited and assembled in this format by Uldis Balodis. First published by Uldis Balodis and Kopan Monastery in 1990. Lightly revised by Sandra Smith, September 2020. Tibetan terms checked and revised by Ven. Gyalten Lekden, September 2020.  

Please note: A Highest Yoga Tantra initiation is not required for Ganden Lha Gyäma practice, however, this teaching includes specific instructions suitable for Highest Yoga Tantra initiates. Rinpoche also teaches on more general lamrim topics including the preliminary practices, refuge and karma.

This commentary is now available for download as a PDF file.

4. Seeing the Guru as Buddha

I am going to go over some verses which I think will be of benefit. They are from a text which Gomchen-la, a Nyingma meditator who lived in Solu Khumbu, gave me and which was written by his root guru—and His Holiness Trulshik Rinpoche’s root guru. Some people may have met him—he makes many medicines which are remedies against poisons found in Solu Khumbu, very powerful poisons which turn into scorpions or something later! Not lobsters, scorpions. They are very dangerous and very deep diseases related to some kinds of spirits which some people invoke. I think some Westerners who were trekking got sick and although they were treated in the West for many years nothing helped; someone heard that the only way to get cured is to go back to the same place! I think a few of them went back and took the special pills which Gomchen-la made. He was very helpful in protecting people from the danger of untimely death. I think he passed away last year. He showed signs of being the embodiment of the yogi Thangtong Gyalpo, and he looked quite similar to that yogi’s picture.

Earlier I mentioned a little about taking refuge in the guru having established the understanding that the essence of the guru is buddha. Then there is inspiration to become, or to achieve, the guru. Otherwise he is merely somebody from whom you get just words and an intellectual understanding, just same as the teachers in school—nothing more useful to rely on than that.

The previous Kagyu lamas practiced thus:

Whatever actions are done by the qualified, precious guru — all are good;
And whatever actions are done are all of quality.
Even if the act of being a butcher or killing human beings is done, it is meaningful and good:
It is definite that sentient beings are guided with compassion.

I think it means in the sense of transferring the consciousness of evil-doers to the pure realms and things like that. In other words, it is similar to the wrathful pujas in tantra such as fire-pujas by means of which one can separate a person’s consciousness from the body. So, whether it is done with weapons or by meditation it is to achieve the same end.

Even if the act of degenerate moral conduct is shown,
It is increasing the qualities,
And it is receiving the qualities;
It is showing the unification of method and wisdom.

I think “increasing the qualities” and “receiving the qualities” could be related to the virtuous teacher himself as a practitioner, a yogi; it means the increase of his qualities, the increase (of the realizations) of the rest of the tantric path, quickly cutting off the dualistic view and achieving the Vajradhara state. Or it can be understood to be in regard to the sentient beings—subduing the minds of the sentient beings by guiding them from their disturbing thoughts, the strongly dissatisfied mind, attachment and so on—in general to develop their realizations of the path. Or, saying it simply, to guide the sentient beings. “Showing the unification of method and wisdom” means he is showing that he is the same as Vajrabhairava father/mother, Heruka father/mother and Vajradhara father/mother. This is the way to view actions in a pure form, the way to stop heresy, wrong conceptions, which are the heaviest obstacles to the achievement of the graduated path to enlightenment.

Even if others are cheated by his telling lies,
This is guiding all sentient beings
On the path to liberation
With wisdom and various methods.

Even if the action of stealing is done, it is a method:
It is transforming others' possessions into merit.
Hence is a method to pacify
The poverty of the living beings.

In other words, it becomes a method to guide those sentient beings by causing their possession to be used to accumulate merit for them.

If the act of scolding is done it is the wrathful mantra;
It is definite that it eliminates the obstacles.
If the act of beating is done it is a blessing:
All the realizations come from that, and devoted ones are joyful.

Even if the act of killing a hundred human beings at one time is done,
It is just the action of Buddha benefiting sentient beings.
Even enjoying a hundred princesses
Is the great bliss, transcendental wisdom—Mahamudra.

Gyalwa Ensapa said:

In short, whether great or small realization arises
This is due to whether one has meditated great devotion or small devotion.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained, meditation in this context means that through remembering his qualities devotion arises and through remembering his kindness respect arises.

May I keep this advice as a heart practice,
Recalling the qualities of the kind guru
Who is the originator of the realizations;
And by not seeing mistakes in him
Complete this promise without obstacles.

This means reflecting on his qualities and not looking for mistakes in him.

I think it was Khedrup Sangye Yeshe who wrote:

The buddhas and bodhisattvas who descended in the past
Are presently working for the sentient beings;
If one understands,
this comes down to the qualified guru.

A question can arise, which the lineage lamas explained in the meditation on the guru to stop wrong conceptions toward him. Once when I was translating one student raised the same question: “I also teach Dharma to others and I’m not a buddha, so how can I say to them that they should think of me as a buddha? How is that possible?” There is one short effective advice or meditation from the lineage lamas to stop the wrong conception toward the virtuous teacher, part of which I mentioned before. In the lamrim in the section on guru devotion it says the guru who is accepted by Vajradhara is Buddha; but when you hear that outline the wrong conception makes the interpretation, “Oh, that means among the gurus there is one who is the embodiment of the Buddha—it doesn’t mean all of them.” The wrong conception argues: “This one is not because I saw such and such a mistake in him. Is this one a buddha? No, because I see such and such mistakes,” and so on. If we try to find mistakes and negativities, then definitely we will see some mistakes. Even if the guru has had a great education and has great knowledge of many things, if we are inclined to look for mistakes we definitely will find some: that he is very impatient or has a partial mind in terms of sects or monasteries or something.

If you listen to the wrong conceptions and are biased that way you cannot find even one guru who has finished with all mistakes and has all the qualities. Then what it comes down to is as I explained before: that those who are guiding you to enlightenment by giving initiations, oral transmissions, commentaries and so on are also sentient beings. Buddha is sort-of hiding somewhere or has become a sort-of fairy tale. So, if you follow that wrong conception the mistaken position which follows is that buddhas do not have all the qualities which are explained in the teachings, because if they do have those they definitely have to guide us and should be guiding us now. But the only thing to point to as the way they are guiding us is, as Khedrub Sangye Yeshe said, our gurus.

The result of seeing only mistakes is as it was for Lekpai Karma, who lived, I think, for twenty-two years with Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and offered his services. But because he did not practice seeing the guru in pure aspect as a buddha, after all those years he found Guru Shakyamuni Buddha to be just a liar. He went with Guru Shakyamuni Buddha on alms rounds, and once in a village a woman offered one handful of grains and Guru Shakyamuni Buddha made the prediction: “Due to this cause in the future you will become a buddha...”—it says “without having a sign” or something like that. Lekpai Karma could not work it out—one handful of grains being the cause for her to become a buddha. He thought Guru Shakyamuni Buddha was being devious by flattering the woman just for one handful of grain. Because from his own side he did not listen, did not practice seeing Guru Shakyamuni as a buddha, even though from Buddha’s side he had become enlightened an unimaginable length of time ago, during all those years Lekpai Karma did not see him as having ended all errors and having all the qualities.

In reality causative phenomena, materials, have the nature of impermanence, changing each second because of being under the control of “other,” of causes, but they appear as permanent. Each time there is an appearance of an object to our senses—the I, the aggregates, the external phenomena—it comes from labeling. The appearance comes from your own label, from your own mind. Your own mind labels and then the appearance comes. Before you see the base and before your own mind labels, there is no appearance of that object. There is no appearance of I, there is no appearance of table, there is no appearance of flower, there is no appearance of book, there is no appearance of cushion, there is no appearance of wall, there is no appearance of paintings, there is no appearance of Tushita Retreat Centre. Before you label “Tushita” there is no appearance of Tushita. Before you label there is no appearance; after you label there is an appearance. During each day of your life from morning until night, from birth until death, from beginningless lifetimes up to enlightenment, all appearances—of yourself, of others, of everything, come from your own mind by merely labeling. That is logical, it is reality, that is the actual evolution; but what we believe, or the way things appear, is that subject, object, action and phenomena exist without depending on our own mind merely labeling. That is completely contradictory to reality. We experience so many hallucinations, even without taking LSD and the rest!

Now, although the mind is deeply hallucinated, with many wrong conceptions, yet you think that only you, no one else, can decide who is a buddha and who is not. Having deeply checked in your heart, you decide that only you can judge one hundred percent correctly. That is the case in general. So, understanding the fallacy of this also helps very much in guru practice. If everything that appears is true then the rest of what appears must be true—all the hallucinations, all appearances would be true and in accordance with reality: permanence, true existence, even things like mistakenly seeing a white snow-covered mountain as yellow, or the ground in the form of worms. By using reasoning to show how all appearances, including these hallucinations, are not in accordance with reality helps one to eliminate doubt and lean more to the view that the guru might be a buddha; at least to lean more to that view. An ordinary-appearing sentient being may be a buddha and knowing that makes one be more careful with one’s attitudes and actions of body, speech and mind. It is similar in regard to the guru; it causes one to lean more to the view that he might be a buddha.

So back to the objection, “I also teach, but I am not a buddha.” The argument against this view is that because you are not a buddha you do not let your disciples practice correct devotion to the virtuous friend, which means you do not guide them from their wrong conceptions and heresy. That means you throw them into the lower realms. The outcome is that they go to the lower realms. Unless they receive the teaching they cannot practice guru devotion, so they cannot change their mental attitudes, and so they create the negative karma to be in the narak and experience sufferings for many eons. That is the greatest interference to successful generation of the whole path to enlightenment.

I often say this, and it is useful to think about it: among sentient beings our parents are the most powerful object; if we create negative karma in relationship to our parents it is more powerful, more dangerous, and the result is much heavier than with other sentient beings. If we create good karma by offering service and helping them the karma is also much more powerful and the result is much greater and more long-lasting. Then, Sangha are a more powerful object than parents and we create heavier negative or good karma in regard to them. The next most powerful are arhats, then bodhisattvas, and then buddhas. By looking at a bodhisattva disrespectfully, with kind-of angry eyes, the karma is much heavier than gouging out the eyes of all the sentient beings on earth. But looking at a bodhisattva respectfully, with a calm mind, the karma is much greater than making charity of our eyes to all the sentient beings on earth. So there are incredible differences.

Then, a more powerful object than buddhas is the guru: the highest object is the guru. If we are able to practice we can accumulate the most extensive merit in a very short time, but if we are not careful even the slightest negative karma becomes most heavy and is experienced for the longest time. The strength of the karma created increases from our parents up to the guru. Since the negative karmas created in relation to the guru are heavier than those accumulated with respect to other beings, it is the greatest obstacle to generating the path to enlightenment within our mind. Therefore, there is a need for a method, there is a need to do something. Since correct devotion to the virtuous friend in thought and action is the very root of the whole path to enlightenment, it does not matter whether from the side of the guru they are a buddha or not. In order to achieve enlightenment, the peerless happiness, we need the profit to be gained from this practice. We want the highest happiness, all happiness. It is vital to not allow the wrong conceptions to arise, therefore there is a need to practice constant awareness and guru devotion all the time—the constant awareness that the gurus from whom we have received teachings are buddhas.

When we think of our mother or see her even among a crowd of many thousands of people, immediately and effortlessly the recognition “This is my mother” comes. Similarly, we have to try to transform the mind so that whenever we think of the guru during meditation or during break times, at any time at all, or when we see their form, immediately we remember “This is Buddha.”

You could think this is Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, or if you have a personal deity that you practice, you could think, “This is Tara, this is such and such.” As it is said in the thought training teachings by Kadampa Geshe Chekawa, and also in the Bodhicaryavatara: there is nothing your mind cannot become if you train it. So, if you remember each day, when meditating and during break times, it becomes easier and easier. When wrong conceptions such as seeing or thinking about wrong behavior in the guru arise, to the extent that you have meditated and trained you will be able to remember that you are mistaken, and are creating obstacles to the path to enlightenment; and you will be immediately able to remember that the guru is in essence a buddha.

His Holiness often says: even if you cannot see the guru as a buddha, the basic thing is to stop the wrong conceptions, or heresy, from arising, so that you do not create obstacles to your success in the lamrim path. That is the whole point. Because of those reasons, the way the Kagyu lamas train their minds in guru devotion is to see the guru in pure appearance. If you are practicing Heruka, the main thing is to make the complete determination: this is Heruka, completely, one hundred percent, and likewise for whatever deity you practice. Then each time a wrong conception arises you should think as quickly as possible, “This is Heruka,” or Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, or whatever. You should have the complete determination all the time. To stabilize that, quotations and stories about your lamas which illustrate their particular qualities of body, mind and speech which are not common to sentient beings, such as their understanding, loving kindness, or skill at guiding other sentient beings, are useful.

With this awareness, respect and the other qualities naturally come—suddenly your way of acting changes. Also fear arises. And if, in regard to your other gurus whom you have less faith in, you think, “This is the embodiment of my main guru”—the one in whom you have great devotion and see less mistakes— faith and also fear comes, the same fear as you have with the guru you have great faith in.

Now, for the reasons I mentioned and those which came in the quotations, before making Dharma contact it is important to check the guru by analysis. That is emphasized very much. Once you have had Dharma contact and the danger of wrong conceptions arises, in order to gain the profit of fulfilling your wishes you should apply the advice that the lineage lamas of lamrim gave, according to how they practiced. If you check well at the beginning, the eight shortcomings of incorrect devotion to the virtuous friend are experienced less. Firstly, it depends on understanding the complete teachings of guru devotion, as without that understanding there is no way to practice, no way to know how to handle and stop the wrong conceptions. Once you have the understanding of these teachings it depends on how much you can practice them, how much effort you put into it, which depends on how well you understand the importance of it. How much the eight shortcomings arise depends so much on that. So, it is your own responsibility. The practice has to be done.

I thought what Gomo Rinpoche mentioned when he was giving teachings to Lama Yeshe, Bakula Rinpoche and Gelek Rinpoche in Gelek Rinpoche’s room in Delhi very effective for the mind. When Lama returned in the evening, after dinner he mentioned what Gomo Rinpoche had said. I think Rinpoche was talking about the meaning of “lama,” which means heavy, or greater quality. When Rinpoche started to give an initiation he told the three of them, “You people are very learned, and I am not like that, but I have one thing that you don’t have—this initiation, so my quality is just that much greater in that regard.” Even if one has just a transmission of a mantra or something it gives one greater quality.

What degree of quality you are able to see also depends on your own karma—the whole thing depends on karma. Somehow it is dependent on your own mind and how much merit you have and how much the obscurations have been thinned. For some people, when they first meet a guru there is no devotion but devotion arises later. For others in the beginning there is devotion but later it disappears; especially if the person is near the guru for a longer time it is like a cloud disappearing in the sky, but if he is more distant devotion comes easier! There are these differences. For some gurus you do not have devotion from the beginning, but later, because of your own stable practice of correct devotion to the virtuous friend, devotion develops. So, I think it basically depends on a continual practice of correctly devoting to the virtuous friend through understanding the teachings.

In the Lama Chöpa commentary His Holiness did not mention all the outlines of that meditation as they are explained in the elaborate teachings on the lamrim, but His Holiness touched on and made very clear the most important points, those which are a block and that are not clear to us. The Lama Chöpa teaching, which contains many of the outlines on guru devotion found in the lamrim, was unbelievably effective. Just one word of those teachings broke all the wrong conceptions. His Holiness said that manifesting in ordinary aspect means having mistakes and disturbing thoughts; that itself is called the ordinary aspect. There is no other way to define an ordinary aspect. Through understanding this point the appearance of any mistakes in the actions of the guru toward yourself becomes the cause to develop devotion, and to see only good qualities. The appearance of mistakes becoming the cause of devotion is the sign of the stable root of devotion having been established within your heart. This is very important—this is the most essential point of guru devotion meditation; then the devotion in your mind cannot be disturbed. Understanding these points becomes the cause for the development of devotion.

It is very much dependent upon how things appear. In Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo’s lamrim teaching he says: “If the teacher goes to bed very late and the disciple wants to go to bed early but does not find the opportunity to so, he will see the guru’s going to bed late as a mistake. But, if the virtuous teacher goes to bed very early, for the disciple who likes to go to bed early that is a quality.” You can take this as one example of how it is very much dependent on our interpretation. Many times the problem comes from not understanding the external appearance and not understanding the reality. Reality is beyond the outside appearance that we see. But, because we cling so much to the external appearance, we strongly believe that reality is like that. For example, when we think of I or look at external phenomena, they do not appear as anything other than truly existent I or phenomena. Especially those who have not realized shunyata believe that the I that exists is nothing other than a truly existent I. What exists in reality is the dependent I, the merely labeled I, but for such a person that does not exist. Because it is not knowledge of their mind, they cannot see it, do not realize it. For that person the dependently arising I does not exist. All the problems and confusion arise from this. We believe in, and cling so strongly to, what appears to us. We believe that what appears to us is one hundred percent true, that in reality it is like that.

For example, Lama Yeshe acted angry many times, but on occasions he said, “As the object is a sentient being, how is it possible to for me to get angry?” What Lama said is according to reality—for him the two were contradictory. It was impossible to get angry because the person is a sentient being, which means they have a suffering nature, are obscured, are pitiable. Although Lama had no eight worldly dharmas of clinging to this life, he acted them out: he had no miserliness but sometimes appeared as though he was miserly about things. There are so many stories about this. It was only later, when we saw inner qualities which contradicted this, that we realized that what we saw was not true was not according to the reality. Incredible signs happened at the time of Lama’s passing away. So, it is very much one’s own interpretation according to karma.

It often happens that a guru seems to experience death and rebirth caused by karma and disturbing thoughts, but later shows inconceivable qualities, contrary to what was his normal life appearance. In The Essence of Nectar, in the section on the guru devotion meditation, Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo says:

Even if the guru is very cruel or very impatient, if the disciple practices regarding him as Manjushri or Maitreya Buddha, it creates the karma to meet the virtuous teacher who actually has the same qualities as Manjushri or Maitreya Buddha in future lives.

That is an important point to realize. It comes at the very beginning of the guru devotion meditation: the need to develop devotion. The method is to see the essence of the guru as being a buddha. Why should we regard the guru as being in essence a buddha? Because we do not want a loss, but want profit. That is the logical reason.

So, even if our virtuous teacher is as described above, if we regard the guru as being in essence and aspect, (especially in essence), Manjushri, Shakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya Buddha, Vajrayogini, Tara, Chakrasamvara, Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra, or whoever, we will receive the blessing of Shakyamuni Buddha, the blessing of Maitreya Buddha, Manjushri, Tara, Chakrasamvara, Kalachakra and so forth. Similarly, if we regard the guru as an ordinary bodhisattva we receive that much blessing; if we regard the guru as a higher bodhisattva we receive great blessings; then, if we regard the essence of our guru as a buddha, then we receive the blessing of the actual buddha. Even if the guru is not a higher bodhisattva nor buddha, nor even an ordinary bodhisattva, if from the side of the disciple they practice properly they receive that much blessing in their heart. Even if the guru is not even an ordinary bodhisattva, if the disciple has correct devotion then they can become a bodhisattva or a buddha before the guru does. This guru yoga practice is done because we do not want loss but do want profit.

Next Chapter:

5. Guru Yoga »