The moon represents active compassion, the masculine principle, and Padmasambhava in Tibetan Tantric symbolism.


by Ngala Nor’dzin Pamo

I first came across the little booklet ‘Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion’ in about 1983 or 1984. At that time I was a regular visitor to a Gélugpa centre with a resident Tibetan Geshé. I found the booklet worrying and confusing. It seemed to be talking about a type of relationship I didn’t have and couldn’t imagine having. It made me feel rather embarrassed and uneasy, and it didn’t seem relevant to my situation.

Now I find this little booklet helpful and inspiring, as I now have some insight into what Asvaghosa is talking about. I was first given this booklet to study when I was a Sutric practitioner, and many of the directions in the text seemed rather extreme when applied to my relationship with my Buddhist teachers. These teachers were spiritual friends (ge-wa’i-she-nyen) rather than vajra Lamas (dorje-lopon).

The introduction states that the source of this teaching is a wide range of Tantric texts. It would have been taught before a student received Tantric initiation, so that the student would know how to approach and regard vajra commitment.

This translation and commentary appears to have been written for a monastic audience and adapted accordingly, but the original may well have encompassed all aspects of Tantric teaching, including ngak’phang Lamas – male or female – with a consort. I feel there is evidence for this in a sentence in verse 26: Treat even your guru’s beloved (family) with the same (respect you show) for him.

It is unclear from the booklet whether it has been translated from the Tibetan or the original Sanskrit. The text in parenthesis seem to be the translator’s additions to make the text flow better. I would suggest that Asvaghosa’s first century original is in fact: treat even your guru’s beloved with the same respect you show for him? or even: treat your guru’s beloved the same as them. For although this text was presented to Western students studying Sutra, with no knowledge of Tantra and vajra relationship, this is a Tantric text, teaching on vajra relationship.

Devotion is the ground from which vajra relationship can function. Without devotion there can be no real vajra relationship, because vajra commitment requires letting go of our rationale and entering a relationship of complete reliance on the teacher. The things our Teacher asks us to do may not always appear logical or even reasonable. If we have absolute confidence in our Teacher and have developed total devotion, we will find these things easier to attempt. If we doubt our Teacher and would rather put our confidence in our small mind and ordinary view, we will find it difficult or impossible to do things that challenge our rationale or ordinary view. This will hold us back from gaining realisation.

Devotion cannot usually arise out of thin air however; not unless both the student and the Lama are exceptional. It has to be cultivated and developed over time. It is important that one should have experienced moments (at least) of real inspiration and love for one’s Lama, and be able to envision the possibility of developing great devotion, before considering entering vajra relationship with them.

Generally our first experience of a Teacher is to be inspired by them in some way. After this initial impression we need to spend more time with them and learn something about their qualities and abilities before we ask them to accept us as a student. It is essential that we only take on a teacher we have confidence in. If we do not believe they can teach us and advance our practice, we will not be able to develop devotion to them, and there is no point in taking the relationship beyond that of ‘spiritual friend’. Likewise we must be very aware and sure of what we are doing before we enter vajra relationship. We must be aware of the implications and commitments of such a relationship, and know whether we are up to it.

It can be quite fruitful to practice alone and we can have some powerful experiences. But inevitably questions arise, and powerful experiences can become distractions. Once we begin Tantric practice we are faced with a multitude of awareness-being practices. We may be frightened, perplexed or outraged by the thought of trying to arise as a wrathful awareness-being. These are powerful and extraordinary images. How are we to know which is the best practice for us? Who are we to ask if we do not have a Teacher? We may have the opportunity to receive many empowerments; Teachings can appear to contradict one another; we may realise we have taken on impossible commitments – which are we to follow if we do not have a Lama to explain and direct our practice, and guide us through the maze of possibilities? It is only through establishing appreciation and confidence in our Teacher, that we can do the practices that have been given to us with certainty of their value. It is only through the guidance of our Lama, that we can organise our daily practice in the most beneficial way.

Our Teacher is devoted to offering the Teachings to as many people as possible. Every waking and sleeping moment of their life is dedicated to helping others. Their effort is tireless and endless. They demonstrate great clarity and kindness. Why should our Teacher bother to answer our questions? Why should they bother to find endless ways of phrasing their answers to suit our particular lack of understanding? How does this benefit them? It is simply their wish to be a link for us in the lineage of Padmasambhava. It is their wish to bring us to our own awakening of clarity and kindness-mind.

Devotion is having complete trust in the Lama’s desire for the disciple’s realisation of rigpa. Devotion can be very empowering, because it frees us of doubt and confusion, and ensures we are open and alert to the potential of all the time spent in our Lama’s presence. Vajra relationship is not about abdicating all responsibility for decisions in our lives, but about always being open to the activities and wishes of our Teacher and the direction in which this may take us. It is about having confidence in our Lama’s ability to see us, in a way that we cannot see ourselves. This quality of transparence, enables our Lama to cut through convention and ordinary rationale to work with us in the most adventitious way to effect change and realise the most profound states.

Devotion keeps the student in an alert and receptive state whenever they are in the teacher’s presence. This is through their attentiveness to the teacher at every level. Transmission and realisation is possible at any moment, especially in the presence of one’s teacher, so it is important to try and be in the most receptive state possible.

Even in ordinary, everyday life, someone who can teach us something we want to learn, is a person we are going to try and develop a positive relationship with. We aren’t going to be rude and disrespectful to them. It is simply common sense to treat them with respect and be open to receiving what they have to say. We want them to think well of us, so that they will be happy to teach us. We aren’t going to be unfriendly or insult someone we want to learn from, or pretend to know more than them. They won’t want to teach us anything if we act like that! They’ll just tell us to get lost!

The practice of Guru Devotion is common sense and formal courtesy. Maybe these days in the West we are not so used to showing people reverence and old-world courtesy. We often grow up with the belief that no-one is better than us and that we should not kow-tow to anyone. School children are often rude and cheeky to their teachers, acting as if they have nothing to learn. The commonly held opinion is that school teachers are paid to do their job and so are not worthy of any special respect – it is a job they do simply because they are paid to do it. However this is not true of your Buddhist teacher. If your Lama never again received gifts or money from students and people attending talks, you can rely on knowing that your Lama will still continue their Buddhist practice and still try and make the teachings as available as possible, even if they have to fit this in around doing an ordinary full-time job.

A disrespectful attitude is not sensible if we want to learn something – in any situation; it simply creates barriers to learning and receiving. We are not avowing that our Lama is better than us – we all have beginningless Buddha nature – it is just that at this time, in this place, our Lama is in a position to help us; and not only that, they are willing to give time and energy and commitment to helping us. This is something to appreciate, and we must reflect this appreciation in our attitude and behaviour. We must act appropriately. Our courtesy and reverence should be sincere and appropriate for the development of a fruitful relationship with our Teacher.

In Tibetan Buddhism refuge is taken in the Lama, the Buddha (sang-gye), the Dharma (chö) and the Sangha (gen-dün). This is in acknowledgment that it is only through the energy, kindness and activity of the Lama, that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha can be accessed. A personal relationship with a Lama is necessary for Tantric practice to function. The relationship between vajra Lama and vajra student should ultimately become the most important relationship in our life. It is essential that we fully understand this and take it to heart. This is the only relationship we will have in our life that can ultimately lead to Enlightenment. From this point of view it is more important than our relationship with our spouse, with our children, with our parents. It should also be more important than this life.

The 50 Verses of Guru Devotion advocate regularly paying homage to one’s Lama, as all the Buddhas of the past, present and future, residing in every land in the ten directions, have paid homage to the Tantric Masters from whom they have received the highest initiations. This paying homage, can simply be thinking of your Lama as you set up offering bowls or formally making mandala offerings and prostrations. However the text says (in public) avoid prostrating and unorthodox actions (such as washing his (i.e. the Lama’s ) feet). It could get a bit embarrassing for your teacher if you insist on making three prostrations to them outside Tesco’s!

The importance of testing and knowing the Lama is discussed: verse 6: In order for the words of honour of neither the Guru nor the disciple to degenerate, there must be a mutual examination beforehand (to determine if each can) brave a Guru-disciple relationship. Asvaghosa says the Tantric Teacher should be an extremely stable person, with body, speech and mind totally under control. It is interesting to note that ‘mutual examination’ is stressed; the value of the student and respect for the student is seen as important as that of the Lama. Also there seems here to be some acknowledgement of what a big step vajra commitment is in the phrase brave a guru-disciple relationship. It is no ordinary thing to commit to a Lama for the rest of our lives. It is a step beyond reason and intellect. It is a bold move.

The text discusses the dangers of becoming a guru’s disciple and then despising them. Verse 10: Having become the disciple of such a protecting (Guru), should you despise him from the heart, you will reap continual suffering as if you had disparaged all the Buddhas. Sufferings that may be incurred include disease, being killed by poisonous snakes and boiling in hell. This is a rather cultural view of the problems that may arise from disparaging your Lama. Teachings on the lower realms would have been common in Tibet as a spur to practice, whereas in the west they can have the opposite effect, in appearing to be against reason, and be the cause of the rejection of Buddhism. However the understanding of the lower realms in terms of psychological states, makes more sense to us. Similarly it is perhaps not very helpful to be warned of disease and disaster as an encouragement to devotion.

Our perception can certainly become diseased and poisoned by wrong views so that we experience hellish existence. To be unable to trust and have confidence in someone who has shown us nothing but kindness, who exhibits endless patience and energy in helping others, and who has invested a lot of time and effort in our spiritual welfare, is an unhealthy psychological state. To regard something as valuable and important; to take the major step of committing oneself to a teacher, and then to dispise them is a hellish state to get into. Our perception from then on will be always open to doubt; we will be unable to trust in anything because we have rejected something that we once regarded as so precious. If we continue in it, we can start to see negative motivation in our Lama’s actions, or start to judge everything about our Lama by some unreliable, dualistic yardstick. Having entered into a relationship that is in its essence one of trust, love and openness, our whole experience of that relationship will become diseased, poisoned and hellish if we start to view it critically.

Asvaghosa expresses the importance of making offerings to your Guru, and appreciating that there is no relationship you can have or any thing you can own that is more important than the relationship with your Vajra Lama. If we go to a party – a situation where we know we will receive hospitality and kind attention – and have good manners, we naturally take a gift. ‘Offerings’ seems such a grand word, but all this means is that we are expressing our appreciation for the hard work of our teacher on our behalf, in the form of some material gift or effort. Offerings can take the form of an actual present, or be symbolic, such as with water in offering bowls, or simply be remembering our Lama and sending them good wishes.

A disciple with the good qualities of compassion, generosity, moral self-control and patience should never regard as different his Guru and the Buddha Vajradhara. The text says that you should never even stand on your guru’s shadow, let alone step on or over their shoes or seat, or sit in their seat. This degree of reverence may seem a little extreme, but it should be understood as method. We can practise devotion in the same way we can practise anything else, and adopting attitudes and doing things that do not come naturally, can gradually develop into a clearer understanding and a natural flow of devotion.

Verses 24 and 25 implore the disciple to obey their Guru and follow his advice. There is no point in asking for advice if you aren’t sure you can follow it, or if you have no confidence that it will be helpful. It is better to not ask for advice, than to receive advice and then ignore it; even in an ordinary relationship it is mildly insulting to be asked for help and then to have your advice ignored or rejected. The disciple should listen attentively to advice and then report back when they have carried it out. If you are not able to carry out instructions, then you should explain clearly why you could not and apologise. Your Lama is not likely to be displeased if there is a genuine reason.

The booklet goes into a lot of detail about how not to behave in the presence of your Lama. Things to avoid include sitting on the same bed or seat as the Lama, walking ahead of him; sitting or reclining while your Guru is standing; or, in the presence of your Lama: spitting; arguing; chatting idly or excessively; cracking knuckles or cleaning your nails; leaning casually against pillars and such. Again this is common good manners. If we have respect for someone, we will be attentive and alert to their presence. We will notice their arrival and stand up when they come into the room. Our Lama may actually prefer that we do not stand when they come in; they may prefer their students to be more relaxed around them; but still we should stop chatting and casually lying around, and be aware of our Lama’s presence in case they are wanting to start a practice or a teaching, or address us. We should address our Lama with respect and the appropriate honorifics, and see to their needs before our own.

When approaching your Lama about receiving a particular teaching or empowerment, the disciple should be like a newly-wed bride, timid, bashful and very subdued. Conceit and boastful behaviour should be avoided. When we ask our Lama to give us a teaching or empowerment, we are implicitly acknowledging our confidence in their level of realisation, and in their ability to give us transmission. We should not approach this situation with the attitude that we have a right to receive this teaching or empowerment; that we know we are ready for it and expect to receive it. If our Lama doesn’t feel we are ready or that the time is right, then we must happily accept their judgement.

When the situation arises that the disciple has themselves become a Lama, with ceremonies to perform and students of their own, Asvaghosa advises us that: In the presence of his guru a disciple should not act (as a guru) to his own disciples... stop your disciples from showing you respect such as rising (when you come) and making prostration. When we are in the presence of our Lama, but with our own students present, we must be very sensitive to the two roles we occupy. It is only through the kindness of our Lama and the time and energy they have invested in us, that we have been able to achieve the status of Lama ourselves. Therefore our attitude should reflect this in the presence of our teacher and our students, and we should ask our students to defer to our Lama, rather than to us.

We are implored to have a respectful attitude and to be diligent, but Asvaghosa encourages us to be realistic and use common sense. He tells us not to worry if we are unable to act appropriately because of illness. A Lama does not expect a student with a broken leg to make three prostrations! We are told that if we are diligent and do whatever pleases your guru and avoid anything he would not like, then a disciple shall gain powerful attainments and follow in his guru’s footsteps, and become a (suitable) vessel (to hold) the pure Dharma.

Asvaghosa dedicates the merit of writing these verses for the benefit of all sentient beings, saying As I have not made the mistake when writing this work (of adding my personal interpretation), may this be of infinite benefit to all disciples who would follow their guru. These verses would have been taught to disciples before they received teachings and empowerments, and also recited by Tantric disciples on a daily basis, as a continual reminder of the importance and nature of vajra relationship.

General behaviour and the mode of interaction with the Guru, will often be orchestrated by the Guru themself. For instance it may be that a Lama prefers disciples to only prostrate to them on ceremonial occasions, and likes relationships to be more relaxed and informal than described in this text. It is essential that we understand that any relaxation in the formality of the relationship must be initiated by the Lama, not the disciple. The Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion present excellent guide-lines for behaving with the appropriate level of respect and reverence.

Asvaghosa believes that one should feel calm and relaxed in the Lama’s presence. He says that the mere sight of them should bring one pleasure. However some vajra masters can be rather stern, or ferocious or intimidating, so that we can feel rather nervous in their presence, even though we are aware of their compassionate nature.

Devotion arises from trust; trust at a very deep level; trust in the lineage of your Lama; trust in the commitment, dedication and realisation of your Lama. The personality display of your Lama may be very different to your conventional view of ‘ordinary’ behaviour. Your Lama may act in what appears to be an unorthodox or even outrageous way. With devotion, the disciple puts up no barriers to this and is able to be open and receptive to the transmission that can come through such situations. Transmission can occur through a look, a gesture, a thump on the back, or some shocking comment from your teacher – anything. Alertness and an appropriate attitude to the Lama ensures that we are always open to the possibility of receiving transmission. The life circumstances display of the Lama may be chaotic, unorthodox or unpredictable from a conventional viewpoint, but again it can be a source of inspiration when viewed as the Lama’s kyil-khor.

Any shortcomings we see in others are always unreliable because of our dualistic view. Similarly we should view the personality and life circumstances of the teacher purely. With devotion we are able to avoid our subjective view blocking our openness to transmission and inspiration. If we criticise our Lama and regard aspects of their personality with disapproval, or find their life circumstances conflict with our subjective opinion of how a Lama should live, then we have closed our minds and blocked any possibility of transmission. In this way we may block and reject profound and subtle methods of teaching. The Lama is able to guide us to experience new dimensions of ourselves, but if we do not follow their advice, then we are denying ourselves this opportunity. The Lama can cut through or explode our conventional view, and this can happen in subtle and startling ways.

Guru yoga is an essential Tantric practice. In guru yoga we visualise the Lama as an awareness-being. Through guru yoga we merge with the awareness-being or arise as the awareness-being to develop our enlightened qualities. Viewing the Lama as an awareness-being helps us overcome any tendency on our part to see faults and shortcomings in our teacher. Only a practitioner with very great devotion is able to experience profound realisation through guru yoga using the image of one’s own flesh and blood teacher. If we can attain this level of devotion then it acts like a catalyst to our practice. It also enables our Lama to be even more effective and helpful, because they can function to the full extent of their capabilities.

If we take to heart these Fifty Verses to Develop Guru Devotion, we will not put up obstructions and create difficulties for ourselves and our spiritual development. We will become open-hearted apprentices; vessels that it is easy to pour teachings into. The transmission from our Teacher will be able to flow freely and unhindered.

This article first appeared in vision, autumn/winter 1999, entitled ‘Lotus of Wisdom – Refuge’ by Ngakma Nor'dzin Pamo

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