Relying upon the Spiritual Guide in these modern times

January 19, 2009

This article is a continuation from Smear: Geshe Kelsang calls himself Third Buddha and seeks veneration from his students.

The only reason for having a Spiritual Guide is to receive guidance on a spiritual path. And the only reason to follow or rely upon that Spiritual Guide is to make progress on that spiritual path — never to gain worldly power or success.

Geshe Kelsang said in Paris in October 2008:

“To understand who our Spiritual Guide is, we should know what the spiritual path is. If we know this, then we can understand how someone can be our Spiritual Guide…. If we understand that the qualification or characteristic of the teacher is to sincerely lead his or her students to correct spiritual paths (principally the trainings in renunciation, universal compassion and the correct view of emptiness) through giving teachings and showing a good example, we don’t need to worry. He or she will never cheat us. Otherwise we may be cheated.”

We can be “cheated” by someone who abuses our reliance for worldly purposes, for example for power, reputation, prestige or wealth. However, we cannot be cheated by someone who is genuinely leading us along the spiritual path if we are relying upon them for our own spiritual development and not for their benefit.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

“The most important thing is that we are doing this for our own purpose, because faith is our spiritual life. Dharma and the normal aims of samsara should not be mixed. If we separate these there will no problems; if they are mixed then it is possible that some problems will arise because the teacher can misuse his or her higher position due to the students having so much devotion.”

This is similar to saying that religion and politics do not mix – if politics and worldly concerns are brought to bear on a relationship between a Spiritual Guide and a student, the relationship becomes a power struggle wherein the student is inevitably the loser. The teaching on Guru devotion means to develop and maintain deep faith in our Spiritual Guide and to put his or her teachings into practice. “Just this!” There is no need for further relationships, such as business or political relationships, which in fact will only give rise to problems.

(This has been shown, for example, in the situation over the last 30 years in the Tibetan exile community. The dual, conflicting role of the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader and political leader in charge of their lives and livelihoods has led to great suffering and confusion for many practitioners in the Gelugpa tradition because he used his worldly power against them.)

Pure, effective Guru devotion has in fact always worked independent of politics. There are classic examples we can follow, as Geshe Kelsang suggests:

“We can take examples from ancient times of how, for example, the Indian Buddhist Master Naropa relied upon Tilopa and how Atisha relied upon Serlingpa, and in Tibet how Dromtonpa relied upon Atisha and Milarepa relied upon Marpa.”

However, a note of caution:

“We should follow their example, but because both the teachers and the students were very simple, there were no problems. Now in the modern world it is not simple. Due to the huge development of material activities, people have developed many different aims. So be careful, keep Dharma purely and never allow extreme views. Teachers should never use Dharma for their position, and students should never use their teachers for their position. We should follow Guru devotion only according to the development of Dharma realizations. Because the modern world has developed so much, it is very easy to follow in an extreme way. We know that other religions have this extreme; teachers say something and their students immediately follow them, and this causes suffering to so many people. It is very necessary to prevent these kinds of things.”

In keeping with the Kadampa Geshes’ precept “to remain natural while changing your aspiration”, and the common sense wisdom tradition of Je Tsongkhapa, today’s Buddhists need to avoid zealous types of behavior that have no place in modern, democratic cultures. Our view of our Spiritual Guide must be kept inside the heart. We must avoid fanaticism mentally, verbally and physically — for example, telling the world that our teacher is an enlightened being, using epithets such as “Avalokiteshvara” or “Manjushri” etc.

“Teachers should never show ‘I am a holy being, I am Buddha’ and so forth, and also the students should never say, ‘My Teacher is a Buddha’. This is ridiculous. Saying ‘My Teacher is Heruka’ or ‘My Teacher is Vajrayogini’ is not correct conversation! We should speak and act exactly as normal. We should respect what people in society believe. Otherwise, if we behave and react in strange ways that society does not accept, we will become isolated. They will never appreciate us. Even faithful disciples never talk like this. For example, I have many faithful students, but they never say ‘Geshe Kelsang is Heruka’ or ‘He is Buddha’ or ‘He is Lama Tsongkhapa’. They never say this. … Modern people follow the truth as they see it, so if you say ‘He is Heruka’, ‘He is Buddha Shakyamuni’, people will see contradictions and not appreciate or believe you.”

This approach also has the potential to avert the disharmony that comes from comparing and contrasting one’s spiritual leaders.

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