Correctly Following the Guru

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal

Advice and many quotations on how to correctly devote to the virtuous friend with thought and action, given to students of the Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Pomaia, Italy. Dictated to Ven. Ailsa Cameron at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in Nov-Dec 2019, and edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore, 2016. Photo: Bill Kane.
The importance of the guru in purifying negative karma

As Lama Tsongkhapa said in the lamrim:

Correctly offering service and respect to the virtuous friend exhausts the negative karmas to be experienced in the lower realms through experiencing just a small harm to the body and mind in a dream in this life.

Then, it is mentioned in the Sutra of Ksitigarbha:

Through experiencing contagious disease, famine or some other harm to the body and mind in this life, one who correctly follows the virtuous friend purifies all the heavy negative karmas that would otherwise cause one to wander in the evil migratory realms for an inconceivable number of ten million eons. At the very least, those heavy negative karmas are purified by receiving a scolding or even by a bad dream.

Here I’m relating this to your putting so much effort into studying Dharma, especially the extensive philosophy. That means you are following the guru’s advice, which brings unbelievable purification. Even if you get lung or some other problem as a result of that study, those heavy negative karmas will be purified so you won’t have to suffer, wandering in the lower realms for eons. You have to recognize this and rejoice.

Another thing to understand is that doing many hundreds of thousands of offerings, prostrations and so forth is included in this. This hard, extensive study is an incomparable way to collect extensive merits and do purification. It contains so many preliminary practices: doing many hundreds of thousands of preliminary practices is contained in this.

And Sakya Pandita said:

For a thousand eons you can practice the paramita of making charity of your head, legs and other limbs and even of the merits dedicated for sentient beings from doing that, but you collect all that merit in one second by following the guru’s path.

That means by following the guru’s orders or advice, by fulfilling the guru’s wishes, even for one second, you collect the same merit as having made charity of your limbs for so many eons and even the merits from doing that. Here you get the idea of quick enlightenment; you are then able to liberate all sentient beings from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to enlightenment. Can you imagine? This is the highest cause for rejoicing. This is what makes life most happy, most profitable.

Then, it is mentioned in Drop of Mahamudra:

If you please the glorious guru, just like fire burns wood, you burn the negative karmas in one instant.

Also, in regard to bearing hardships and experiencing suffering when carrying out the activities of the guru, instead of seeing it as carrying a burden, see it as wearing an ornament.

Why you need the guru

King Indrabhuti achieved enlightenment in a brief lifetime or went to a pure land. Even all the people in the local village went to the pure land due to him; the village became empty. King Indrabhuti said:

Even if you have completed all the qualities, without the guru you cannot be liberated from samsara. Without the oarsman, the boat cannot cross over the river.

That means that even if you know by heart all the Buddha’s teachings, the more than one hundred volumes of the Kangyur and the more than two hundred volumes of the Tengyur by the Nalanda pandits, without the guru you can’t have realizations of the path and achieve nirvana. Therefore, you can’t be liberated from samsara.

The second Buddha, Padmasambhava, said:

If you don’t realize that the guru is buddha (having totally ceased the obscurations, gross and subtle, and completed all the qualities), then the blessings (the guru’s blessings) cannot liberate your mental continuum.

That means if you don’t realize the guru is buddha, you don’t receive the blessings of the guru, and without the blessings of the guru, your mind can’t be liberated from the obscurations.

Padmasambhava then gives the solution:

Think of the guru’s qualities and make prayers to the guru.

That means you look from the side of the guru’s qualities, not from the side of the mistakes. By looking at the guru as a buddha with logic and quotations, when you then see the guru as a buddha, you see only qualities, no mistakes.

Making prayers to the guru means you request blessings for realizations, for enlightenment.

So, if you are thinking to practice Dharma, you should do as Indrabhuti advises, as Padmasambhava advises. It’s different if you are studying like in a university—just to learn something so that you can find a job and make money. Here it means you are really trying to practice Dharma, to achieve realizations of the path to enlightenment. Your main goal is to achieve enlightenment, not just for yourself but to free all the sentient beings from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to enlightenment by yourself. If this is your aim, you need to practice the path, so you need the guru.

Condensing the meaning of tantra, Fifty Verses says:

Attainment follows the vajra master (guru), it is said by Vajradhara. By knowing that, completely please the guru. What need is there to say many words: attempt those important points. Please the guru; abandon all that displeases the guru. You will then achieve attainments, common and supreme, in this life.

It is said in The Essential Nectar:

In short, while you are following the virtuous friend (the guru), you get liberated from the states with no freedom to practice Dharma and find a perfect human body; ultimately, you cease all the sufferings of samsara and achieve the holy state of definite goodness (liberation and enlightenment).

The Essential Nectar also says:

Even if you persevere for numberless oceans of eons, it’s extremely difficult to achieve realization. But by depending on the guru’s power, you achieve buddhahood in one brief life.

Here it is describing persevering with much effort for numberless eons (oceans of eons means attempting for eons equal to the number of drops of water in an ocean).

From a sutra:

For anybody who apprehends Buddha (meditating on and realizing that the guru is buddha), the buddhas are always abiding in front of that person; the buddhas always bless that person and liberate them from all the vices, from all the wrong things.

These are just a few drops of words on why you need the guru, on why the guru is important. (This is not talking about the inner guru.) It is important to have a guru if you wish to achieve enlightenment and to liberate sentient beings and bring them to enlightenment. So, yes, there is the inner guru, but being able to achieve the inner guru depends on the outer guru, on receiving blessings, as Padmasambhava said.

Pabongka Rinpoche’s Calling the Guru from Afar says:

Please bless me to meet the ultimate guru—the bare face of my innate mind—
With the covering of perception of true existence and perceiving it as true removed.

Of course, meeting the ultimate meaning guru, the extremely subtle mind understanding emptiness, the primordial mind, actually depends on following the outer guru and receiving the blessings of the guru. Also, philosophical texts such as the Sera Je Jetsunpa say that the first level of meditator is the one who achieves the path of merit and the second level, one who achieves the path of preparation. It is said that only the second meditator, one with great insight, with realization that is possessed by method and wisdom, is the inner guru, the inner yongdzin. The particular potential to develop the mind to enlightenment is called that, I think.

The Fifth Dalai Lama said:

In the view of your mind, which is hallucinated, your own mistakes appear in the guru’s holy actions. Your own heart is deeply and definitely rotten. By realizing that as your own mistake, abandon it like poison. (Since poison kills you, you throw it far away.)

Whatever action is done, see it with pure appearance as positive, and whatever is taught, actualize it as advised with faith and respect.

Whatever you do then becomes holy Dharma, that profound advice is understood. Whatever you think is the root of accomplishing all happiness and benefit (not only all the temporary samsaric happiness, but the ultimate happiness of liberation from samsara and enlightenment).

This is extremely important, rich advice from the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The kindness of the guru

Rhungpu Sangye, Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche’s root guru, said:

In the past numberless buddhas happened, and they could not guide you with compassion. Therefore, you have been left in the ocean of samsaric suffering up to now.

The limitlessly kind, compassionate Guru Shakyamuni Buddha made five hundred prayers in front of the one thousand buddhas, and he chose to guide the sentient beings of the degenerate hundred-age time, who no other buddhas had been able to guide. Because we were unbelievably difficult to subdue, we were left out by the other buddhas. Having chosen us sentient beings of this degenerate hundred-age time, Buddha descended in this time of the five degenerations. Of course, we were still left out; he couldn’t guide us directly, even though he directly guided so many other sentient beings, and they achieved enlightenment.

Rhungpu Sangye continues:

Then, so many realized holy beings, who completed the path, have descended during this time of Buddha’s teaching, but they could not guide you with their compassion. You didn’t have the good luck, the good fortune, to meet them.

Even now, in this time of the five degenerations, you have received just a human body, but you’re totally under the control of nonvirtues and so ignorant in the points of practice and abandonment. With immeasurable compassion, Buddha descended in the form that exactly accords with your own karma.

Here, the guru manifested in ordinary form, which means one showing mistakes, showing the aspect of being selfish, angry, immoral and so forth. So, that is exactly according to your own obscured mind, which means your own impure karma. As the Fifth Dalai Lama says, it’s your own mistake.

Rhungpu Sangye continues:

With skillful means, the guru then guides you, revealing the pure, profound teachings, without any mistake. In reality, you are meeting Buddha directly. In your view, the founder of the Buddhadharma, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, who descended in this degenerate time, is much kinder than all the buddhas who descended in the past; and the guru is much kinder than those buddhas. The guru’s kindness is limitless, greater than the limitless sky.

So, all those past and present buddhas and highly attained holy beings couldn’t guide you, and you didn’t have the karma to be guided by the pure aspect of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. Only this ordinary aspect, showing mistakes, can guide you, can free you from samsara and lead you to enlightenment. Therefore, this kindness is more than the sky.

Rhungpu Sangye concludes:

In short, each time you see mistakes in the guru, think that the buddhas of the three times and ten directions have manifested in this ordinary aspect, showing mistakes, according to your own impure karma, to be able to subdue your mind and lead you to enlightenment. The kindness of manifesting in this form for even an hour, even a minute, even a second, is like the sky.

Because you’re able to see and hear this ordinary aspect, they’re able to give you advice, oral transmissions, commentaries, according to sutra; teach you the alphabet; give you vows, such as pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows; and give you tantric oral transmissions, initiations and commentaries. They are able to free you from samsara and bring you to enlightenment.

Checking the guru

His Holiness the Dalai Lama advises that before establishing a relationship with a guru, you should study Buddhadharma from them as a teacher for some time. Then when you really want to take them as a guru, with you as the disciple and them as the guru, when you really want to develop that dependent arising, you do that. First they are like a teacher in a university, not a guru. Then after some time you take that person as your guru.

In regard to examining the guru, there may be a teaching or a lineage of initiation that you need to receive from somebody you know, for example, so you know the mistakes of that person. But if you take the lineage from that particular person, you then have to regard them as your guru. You then have to totally look at that person as a buddha. Your way of thinking about that person has to be totally different from before: that is the numberless past, present and future buddhas and their actions are pure. Whether their actions appear to you as pure or not, they are the actions of a buddha, and any mistakes you see are the reflection of your own mistaken mind, your own wrong concepts. It should totally be like that. Then in this way you can receive the blessings of the guru and realizations: all the realizations of lamrim, the three principal paths, and of tantra, up to enlightenment.

The tantra Initiated by Vajra in the Hand (Vajrapani) says:

In regard to the vajra master, apprehend the qualities; never apprehend the mistakes.

After you have made a Dharma connection with someone, with you as the disciple and the other person as your guru, even after receiving one verse of teaching, if you make a mistake, if you don’t follow the guru correctly, it is said in the tantra Essence of Vajra:

Anyone who completely belittles the guru, even if that person practices well for a thousand years, obtaining all the tantras by giving up sleep and distractions from attachment, it’s like attaining hell and so forth.

It is like constantly achieving hell. You go to the hell realm because your mind doesn’t change and the karma is unbelievably heavy. Even if you do the practice, it comes to nothing. Even if you practice for a thousand eons, the karma is so heavy that you are continuously attaining hell. It doesn’t change even the rebirth in the next life.

However, if the guru does something or asks you to do something heavy, something that is not Dharma, you respectfully get permission not to do that. Without losing faith, with constant, complete faith that they are a buddha, and with respect, knowing that whatever is appearing as heavy, as not Dharma, is a reflection of your own mistakes, you respectfully explain and get permission not to have to do that. That is explained in the vinaya and in Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion.

Qualities of the guru

The qualities you look for when searching for a guru are expressed in Requests Recalling the Guru’s Qualities in Lama Chöpa. These verses (vv. 43-52) express the different levels of qualities of the guru, so I don’t have to repeat them here.

There are the qualities of the three higher trainings to reveal the Lesser Vehicle path, then there are the ten qualities to reveal the Mahayana teachings. Even if the guru doesn’t have all ten, it is mentioned that they should have eight or even four of the qualities.

Having five qualities is also mentioned: great compassion; stable, unwavering faith in the Mahayana; learned in the common teachings and in the particular teaching (tantra); expert in leading the disciple in the path; and a subdued, or controlled, mind.

Another set of ten qualities is mentioned there in that Lama Chöpa prayer. Within that it talks about ten outer and inner (sometimes called secret) qualities. The first set, the outer, is to reveal the lower tantras; and the inner is to reveal highest tantra. The other way to understand is the five qualities of a tantric guru mentioned above.

However, the essence is that one who reveals tantra should be able to explain the practice of pure appearance and pure concept, and on the basis of that, the generation stage, which involves utilizing death, intermediate state and rebirth in the path to the three kayas, and then the five completion stages.

At least, the guru should be someone who emphasizes cherishing others more than the self, who emphasizes dedicating the life for others. Without that, the disciple can’t practice the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) path to achieve enlightenment.

Then, the guru should be someone who emphasizes achieving nirvana, true cessation of suffering, liberation from samsara, rather than being in samsara. The guru should emphasize being free from samsara, which is suffering in nature; otherwise, the disciple cannot be free from samsara.

Then, the guru should be someone who emphasizes letting go of, or renouncing, the attachment to this life, from where all the hundreds, the thousands, of problems of this life come, one after another. If the teacher doesn’t emphasize freeing oneself from all those sufferings of this life caused by attachment, then the disciple cannot practice Dharma. Then, it is not only that all the actions of the disciple’s body, speech and mind do not become Dharma, but they become only the causes of suffering, because everything is done with delusion, particularly with attachment to this life.

I’ll just give you one example of the qualities of the guru related to Gomo Rinpoche, from whom I received chöd initiation and some other teachings. When he returned to Mussoorie after having travelled to Spain, Gomo Rinpoche wrote to me that he had achieved Cittamani Tara, Lama Chöpa or Vajrayogini or something like that. He wrote that he had achieved clear light, from the completion stage of highest tantra.

Anyway, Gomo Rinpoche told me that one time in Delhi he had to give the lung, or oral transmission, of all the Cittamani Tara collections of activities (the texts and commentaries) to Bakula Rinpoche from Ladakh, Lama Yeshe and Gelek Rinpoche. When Gomo Rinpoche gave the oral transmission to the three of them, Rinpoche said to them, “You people know Dharma well, but there’s one thing you don’t have: this oral transmission.” Rinpoche expressed the quality that the disciples didn’t have, even though they were expert in Dharma, and that was the purpose of their taking the oral transmission from Gomo Rinpoche as their guru.

Perfect disciple, perfect guru

When the perfect disciple and the perfect guru meet together, enlightenment is possible. It’s so easy, like made by hand. The disciple is able to achieve full enlightenment in the brief lifetime of a degenerate time.

There was the perfect guru, Marpa, an enlightened being, and the perfect disciple, Milarepa, who followed a hundred percent whatever Marpa advised, such as building a nine-story tower three times, putting the stones back each time; he had to do all the work alone and wasn’t allowed any porters or other people to help him; from carrying the stones his back became very thick and kind of blue. Milarepa had no teachings or initiations for years—only scolding and beatings. If he came with the other students for teachings, when Marpa saw him he would immediately scold him, kick him out and beat him.

Like that, the enlightened being Marpa guided Milarepa to enlightenment by letting him bear so many difficulties and hardships. All that was the quick way to purify Milarepa, who had committed the heavy negative karma of having killed more than sixty people, including his uncle and aunt, while they were having a wedding ceremony, and also killed more animals downstairs in the house. The house collapsed after Milarepa used black magic to cause rocks to fall down from the mountain. Milarepa was told by his mother to do that because his aunt and uncle had taken their wealth after Milarepa’s father died.

With one-pointed devotion, Milarepa followed Marpa, offering service, and so achieved the unified state of Vajradhara in that life, the brief lifetime of a degenerate time. Nowadays if a guru slapped or scolded a disciple, the disciple would put the guru in prison for a long time.

Naropa is another example. His guru was Tilopa, an enlightened being, a buddha. Even though Naropa was already a pandit, very learned in the Dharma, a dakini predicted that he should go to see Tilopa and follow him as a guru. Tilopa, an enlightened being, let Naropa bear twelve great hardships and twelve small hardships. Every time Naropa almost died, Tilopa came along, blessed him and he again became well. That’s how Naropa achieved enlightenment very quickly.

Preparing for future lives

It’s very important to prepare in this life for future lives. It’s very important not to make mistakes and to meet the correct guru.

I have already explained how to practice in this life with anybody with whom you have made a Dharma connection. Now, you yourself have the responsibility in this life to prepare for your future lives, until you achieve enlightenment. If you think that it comes from the guru’s side, that they are truly existent, then you will get angry. If you think, “Oh, the guru doesn’t have any Dharma education,” “He doesn’t know about emptiness,” “He doesn’t know about bodhicitta” or “He doesn’t know about tantra,” then you will get angry. That’s totally wrong and comes from not knowing the subject of how to correctly follow the guru with thought and with action. So, you must study that well, as explained in The Heart of the Path, for example.

As Gyalwa Ensapa, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa’s disciple, who achieved full enlightenment in the brief lifetime of a degenerate time, like Milarepa, said from his own experience:

In short, any great or small realization you achieve is due to having meditated with great or small devotion to the guru (to the valid guru, originator of all the realizations). Look at the qualities; don’t look at the mistakes. May I keep this advice as utmost in my heart, and may I complete such a promise without obstacle.

My advice is that you must pray every day:

In all my lifetimes, never separated from perfect gurus,
May I enjoy the magnificent Dharma.
By completing the qualities of the bhumis and paths,
May I quickly attain the state of Vajradhara.

To make preparation for the future, do this prayer every day, not just from time to time, and do it as many times as you can. You have to know that you must make preparation from your side so that you don’t suffer in the future with blah, blah, blah about abuse, having sex, not practicing Dharma, beating, scolding and so forth.

The other prayer you should recite as many times as possible is:

May I never give rise to heresy for even a second
In regard to the actions of the glorious guru.
May I see whatever actions are done as pure.
With this devotion, may I receive the blessings of the guru in my heart.

With this devotion means on the basis of looking and seeing the guru as a buddha. Whether an action of the guru looks pure or impure to you, since you know it’s the action of a buddha, you know that it’s positive, that it’s most pure. That’s your understanding. Then, receive the blessings means receive all the realizations from correctly following the guru up to enlightenment. Everything is contained in the blessings of the guru.

Also, as Lama Tsongkhapa mentioned in the prayer Virtuous in the Beginning, Middle and End:1

As bodhisattva Always Crying One followed his guru Chophag,
Without being distracted by body, life and enjoyments,
May I please well the holy guru
And may I never displease the guru even for one second.2

So, you need to do this practice from your side at this time if you want to prepare for finding a guru in all your future lives. Not only that, in the future you will achieve the guru, you will become the guru. When you become a buddha, you become the guru. There’s no enlightenment, no becoming a buddha, without becoming the guru. There’s no way.

What these enlightened beings are emphasizing in these prayers is that you’re responsible. If you didn’t do the practice of following the guru well in past lives, then in this life you will also make so many mistakes. Not knowing how to follow the guru is one thing. Then, when you follow self-cherishing thought, you make so many mistakes, including in regard to the guru. And it’s the same when you follow ignorance, the root of samsara, and the three poisonous minds.

You are responsible for how your life is going to turn out. When you create so much of the heaviest negative karma, you will have a lot of problems and suffer for eons and eons, and you will not meet a guru. In the case that you do meet a guru, it will be a completely wrong guru, who will show the wrong path, the path to the lower realms, to samsara. You definitely know well that this life has great responsibility for whether all your future lives turn out well, correctly, so that you achieve full enlightenment.

This life is responsible for all your future lives. It depends on whether you purify your mistakes or not. So, this life has great responsibility.

Students nowadays need to pay attention to this. It’s not just “I’m intelligent,” “I know this and that about the guru,” blah, blah, blah. You have to pay huge attention to this. The Essential Nectar says:

If you correctly follow the virtuous friend,
The thought that you will be quickly liberated from samsara
Deeply pleases all the Victorious Ones (buddhas),
Just like a mother who sees her son has been benefited.

If a disciple correctly follows the guru,
Even if the buddhas are not invited,
They happily abide in the guru’s holy body,
Then accept all the offerings and bless the heart of that disciple.

Another quotation from The Essential Nectar is:

If you correctly please the guru in this life,
By the result that is similar to the cause,
In all lifetimes you will meet a supreme virtuous friend
And hear the complete and unmistaken holy Dharma.

In short, during the time you follow the virtuous friend,
You will find the perfect body of a deva or human,
Liberated from the states with no freedom (to practice Dharma).
Ultimately, you will cease all the suffering of samsara
And achieve the state of definite goodness (liberation and enlightenment).


1 A Prayer for the Beginning, Middle, and End of Practice. Find links to this prayer, translated by Gavin Kilty, in the FPMT Catalogue. [Return to text]

2 Rinpoche is using the Tibetan names in this verse. In Sanskrit, they are Sada Prarudita and Dharma Arya. [Return to text]