Dharma Teachers

We see how important it is to recognize and cherish authentic teachers—especially in Tibetan Buddhism, where allowing devotion to lapse is not only harmful to one’s enlightenment, but to one’s health.

Today is the twenty-fifth parinirvana of my teacher, the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. A great teacher’s death is called a parinirvana (“highest nirvana”), because at that time he or she fully transcends the clutches of worldly confusion and enters the most profound and total enlightenment. It is an auspicious time not only for the teacher, but for his or her students. With the dissolution of the teacher’s physical body, “the mala (Tibetan rosary) breaks” and the teacher’s blessings scatter like beads throughout the world.

Thinking of my teacher (we often called him Rinpoche, meaning “precious one”) a quarter of a century after his death, I reflect on how fortunate I was to meet him. I have known many teachers through my years in the Tibetan Buddhist and Zen traditions, some highly realized, but none affected me like Rinpoche. From the moment I saw him through a window at Karmê Chöling, his Dharma center in Vermont, his presence captivated me. From then on, to paraphrase a Buddhist chant about the qualities of a Buddha, I could “never get enough of seeing him.” Of all the teachers in the world, I believe I was meant for him alone, and I am most grateful to have found what I now think of as the needle in the haystack. He once taught that a student can be excellent and the teacher enlightened, yet they will not connect unless a special chemistry exists between them. According to him, this union is specific and rare, and persists throughout many lifetimes. With that knowledge, I feel lucky to have been born as a human in a place where he manifested.

Of the limitless benefits that result from meeting one’s teacher, some stand out. The first is the opportunity to see enlightenment. Until I encountered Rinpoche, I had heard, read about, and meditated on the idea of enlightenment, but I had no proof that it existed. I found it hard to believe that the Buddha’s followers had been lying for over two millennia; nevertheless, from my standpoint, enlightenment was all hearsay.

Very shortly after meeting my teacher, however, I recognized that he was enlightened, and that all his activities emanated from enlightened mind. At that point, I knew spiritual awakening was real and accessible. Furthermore, Rinpoche not only embodied enlightenment, he transmitted it—an ability, after having experienced it, that I still find incomprehensible. Somehow, in his presence, one could experience the mind of all the Buddhas in oneself. Experiencing enlightened mind, even for a short period, is a stimulus beyond compare for diligence on the path. The possibility of receiving mind transmission is another reason to seek an enlightened teacher—and, in this digital age, to strive to be with the teacher physically.

Another quality my teacher possessed, because of his attainment, was “realness.”  He was the first completely authentic person I ever met. Watching him interact with others demonstrated how a truly human human, uninfluenced by ties to ego, conducted themself. As a physician, I found that instruction indispensable, and I was elated one day to discover that I too could communicate authentically with my patients—a revelation that remains one of the highlights of my medical career.

Rinpoche’s realness extended to uncontrived compassion as well. I remember watching him at an outdoor event in Colorado one summer, being helped to the bathroom by attendants. (He had been crippled by a previous stroke.) A woman intercepted him on the way, relating her problems and crying at length. He administered to her patiently, and in the process wet his trousers. All the world’s teachings on compassion can’t compare with the sight of my teacher sacrificing the most basic of comforts to care for that woman.

I viewed Rinpoche as the pinnacle of all things in a person. He was the kindest, gentlest, bravest, most intelligent, most sensitive, and most advanced in all estimable human traits of anyone I ever knew. To my eye, as a representative of all that was best in humanity, he was worthy of veneration. I loved and respected him with my heart and mind, and recognized him as the most important component of my spirituality.

My understanding of his importance in my spirituality may have kept  me out of physical danger as well, as the following story about the Kagyu lineage holder Marpa and his teacher Naropa reveals:

That night they slept near each other and at dawn Mahapandita Naropa manifested the mandala of Hevajra with the nine deities, bright and vivid in the sky. He said, “Son, teacher Marpa Chokyi Lodrö, don’t sleep, get up! Your personal yidam [meditational deity] Hevajra with the nine emanation devis has arrived in the sky before you. Will you prostate to me or the yidam?” Marpa prostrated to the bright and vivid mandala of the Yidam. Naropa said, “as is said,

 

Before any guru existed

Even the name of Buddha was not heard

All the buddhas of a thousand kalpas

Only come about because of the guru.

 

This mandala is my emanation.” Then the yidam dissolved into the guru’s heart center. (The Life of Marpa the Translator, p 92)

Having made the most serious error of his spiritual life by supplicating the deity rather than his guru, Marpa was then informed, “The main point of this incident is that the lineage will not be long within your family.” This was crushing news to Marpa, who longed for his family to be holders in perpetuity of Naropa’s teachings, but it was only part of what he was to suffer for his lapse:

“Marpa felt very upset. He began having nightmares and, at the same time, he became sick with fever and came near to death thirteen times. He also went into a coma three times.” (The Life of Marpa the Translator, 92)

From this vignette, we see how important it is to recognize and cherish authentic teachers—especially in Tibetan Buddhism, where allowing devotion to lapse is not only harmful to one’s enlightenment, but to one’s health.

Writing about my teacher, I think about Dharma teachers in general, and humbly submit that I know of none presently alive with his abilities. Since his death, I have met, listened to and read many renowned teachers in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, and have yet to discover or hear of one capable of transmitting enlightened mind. So, expecting to meet a teacher like mine at one’s local Dharma center is unrealistic.

However, we can follow two guidelines to find a capable teacher who can assist us on the spiritual path. The first is that the teacher comes from a legitimate enlightenment lineage: an unbroken line of enlightenment transmitted in succession from the Buddha. “Self-made” spiritualists, who claim to have found whatever they have found on their own, are to be avoided. To expect someone to know—and, more importantly, experience—the prerequisites for enlightenment, without the teachings, practices, and mind transmission traditions developed over twenty-five hundred years, is unrealistic. With those aids, enlightenment is difficult enough; without them, it is nigh impossible.

The second proviso is that teachers be completely committed to their students’ development. Any self-serving activity on their part should be viewed with extreme concern. All teachers need assistance, from setting up chairs at their talks to even buying them a building. Whatever the case, students must always feel that the teacher’s activities are to benefit the students, and not to fulfill the teacher’s own personal agenda. This does not mean that relating with a spiritual guide who is oriented towards others is all love and light—in fact, at the highest levels of Tibetan Buddhism the guru’s role (according to my own guru) is to “insult” the student. Even in that case, one understands that the process is not about the teacher’s personal wants, but the spiritual growth of the follower. Nothing rivals the pain of being “used” in spirituality—even in a capitalist society where such activity is rampant and expected—so be forewarned: one breaks this second rule at one’s peril.

I also wish to suggest a test that helps to identify a teacher’s level of attainment, as well as his or her suitability for us as students. Most Dharma teachers disseminate information about the Buddha’s teachings and spiritual practices. The exceptional ones have, as they say in car commercials, “added features.” One is that they project an aura (for the lack of a better word) that evokes various responses from the people around them. People may feel more relaxed, or unusually awkward; more outgoing, or more rigid; more caring, or suddenly suspicious of everyone. The specific quality of the experience matters less than how intensely we feel it, because what we are witnessing is the ability of advanced teachers to amplify mind. The ability of teachers to change our minds is a good judge of their degree of progress on the path; and the intensity of our response to them—the more powerful the better—indicates how compatible we are with them. (To repeat a note from earlier: here, as in other interactions with the teacher, there is absolutely no substitute for direct, in-person contact.)

Writing about my teacher may cause disillusionment in others. After hearing me extol his virtues, they may wonder if they will ever find a mentor like mine. It’s worth noting, however, that as a Vajrayana Buddhist, I am trained to regard my teacher as perfection, whether that is actually true or not. Since he really was perfection, however, and I never had to force myself to see him that way, my comment is less consoling than I would like. Whatever the case, no matter who our teacher is, we are the main person responsible for our own success on the path; and with most teachers, if we apply ourselves we will progress. Furthermore, as the saying goes, “the teacher for us will appear when we are ready,” so working hard by learning, studying and meditating will prepare us to meet him or her. It happened that way with me, and there is every reason to expect it will happen that way with you.

One thought on “Dharma Teachers

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