The Root Guru

Tibetan Lamas and Dharma practitioners consider the root Guru very sacred. Please explain the characteristics and qualities of a root Guru.

I’ve been thinking I should explain that. It is good that you asked today. Our interpreter is good so I think it will be beneficial to make some comments on this subject. What is called the root Guru is really very important, not just for Tibetan Buddhist practitioners but for all practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism. But before taking on a root Guru it is important to educate yourself as to what sort of qualities are necessary and what characteristics and conditions must be present. The previous Gurus have said,

First be skilled in checking the Lama.
Then be skilled in accomplishing the Lama.
Finally be skilled in training as he intends.

Even Buddha did not say that one should accept his teachings and teachers as good without checking them. He repeatedly said to examine them:

O Bikshus and scholars!
Well examine what I teach,
Like gold that is checked by burning, cutting, and polishing it,
Only then accept it, not [just] out of veneration!

First, as explained in the Sutra collection, the Lama should have the following sorts of qualities. Regent Maitreya said,

The Spiritual Guide should be pacified, subdued, fully pacified,
Have more qualities, perseverance, be rich in scriptural knowledge,
Have fully realized ultimate truth, be skilled in speaking,
Have a loving nature and not get discouraged.

At best they should have all eight of those qualities. If that is not possible, Shantideva said,

Always, the Virtuous Spiritual Friend
Should be well versed in the meaning of the Mahayana,
And never give up, even for the sake of his life,
The supreme conduct of the Bodhisattvas!

Thus, the Lama should be a scholar of the Mahayana Bodhisattva collection of scriptures who never gives up bodhichitta even for the sake of his life. That is the sort of nature that is indispensable for a Lama. In the practice of Tantra, for a Vajra Master, in addition to those qualities, they should be well versed in the nature and scriptural system of the Tantras, have mastered the instructions of generation and completion stages, etc, have confidence of the view, not be disordered in Tantric ritual such as the supreme victorious activity, and they should be endowed with discriminating wisdom and a vast minded nature. So how should one identify who is ones root Guru? In the context of Sutra it is the one who gives you any one of the seven types of Pratimoksha vow and explanations of Dharma. Referred to as abbot and master in Sutra rather than the‘root Guru’, it is identifying the same relationship.

In Sutra it is said,

Having heard just one verse from someone,
If one doesn’t hold them as ones Lama,
Having taken rebirth a hundred times as a dog,
One will then take rebirth as a butcher!

Thus, it is said.

In the context of Tantra, we call the root Guru the one who gives the initiation which ripens your unripened mind, the transmission, which provides support, and the commentary which liberates your mind, that is, shows you what to adopt and what to abandon. Anyone who has given those three to you, regardless of how famous they are, you must consider then truly as a Lama who has shown you the three kindnesses. In particular, this also includes one who introduces the true nature of your mind to you, although that is greatly diminished in number these days. Why is that? In these times of the five degenerations, it is extremely rare to find either a Lama or a disciple who is ready to introduce or be introduced to the true nature of their own mind from the very beginning without need for any other preparatory study or contemplation, etc. If it does happen, there is no kindness greater than that! That kind root Guru who has such qualities, you should cherish as your life! Whether you abandon obscuration and attain realized qualities or not, whether you attain enlightenment or not, all such good things depend upon the root Guru. The root Guru is extensively praised with such names as the ‘wish-fulfilling treasury of omniscient wisdom’, and the ‘peerless lord ornament of liberation’. These days there is a lot of trouble among westerners between lamas and disciples. That is the fault of not being able to examine the lama. It is very important to first examine the lama. Otherwise, without examining, running to someone because of name and gain and taking whatever initiations and vows, pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric, that they give, like a dog immediately gobbling down fresh meat, then bowing to them and venerating them as your ultimate refuge for this and future lives, loudly proclaiming to one and all, this is my lama, these are my disciples, and then after things don’t work out after a few months, giving up all regard for the initiation commitments and so forth, then denying the lama and making fun of them, etc. this plants the seeds for hell and is something deeply regrettable. As Jamgon Lodro Taye said,

The Lama, true Buddha appearing, is perceived as a human being.
We forget the Guru’s kindness in revealing the profound instructions to us.
When things don’t go as we wish, meditate on conviction!
We’re obscured from seeing what they are doing by doubt and mistaken views!

Whether or not they are famous and have high position or not, if they are someone who, through teaching us holy Dharma, conferring initiation and so forth, has brought the benefit of Dharma to our mind, we can also call them our root Guru. When you say root Lama, don’t think that you are sort of abandoning the lamas of other traditions such as the Sakya,and Gelug! Just like the branches and leaves of a tree all grow from the tree itself, all of the lamas from whom you have received Dharma and initiations are as if emanated from the root Guru as the source. Likewise, the essence of the Yidam is the root Guru. Although you meditate upon a Deity in whatever aspect, the previous adepts and masters have said that if you think of the Deity as inseparable from the Guru, it is a special condition for the arising of blessings and spiritual attainments.

Without having a Guru, whatever study and contemplation, meditation and practice, recitations, or other virtuous practice is undertaken will not bring liberation from samsara. As said in Tantra,

Without someone wielding the oars,
The ferry will not cross the river.
Though ones knowledge is complete,
Without a Lama it won’t free you from samsara.

These days, the attitude of most Asian people is that the root Guru must definitely be an incarnate Tulku who they consider very precious. Not only that, some Malaysians, Singaporeans, Taiwanese and so forth are delighted to have a guru who is a good-looking young Tulku who dresses up in rich brocade! But an ordinary monk who doesn’t have name and fame who acts ordinary but practices holy Dharma in accordance with Buddha’s Teachings, who has contentment and few desires, they throw away as easily as a stone found on the road, disparaging and using them. At this time when even Dharma practitioners rush to act hypocritically, to say much about it disturbs my heart. So, recognizing this, disciples, please be careful. These days there have been some Chinese people who studied Buddhism for a month or so and without receiving any explanation on mind training or anything, after having looked at a couple of small books, declared that they understood everything and became arrogant about their wisdom and learning. Puffed up with pride, they criticized other Dharma practitioners, lamas and monks, secretly denying them and so forth, while teaching Dharma to those as silly as themselves, crowing that they must be a Tantrika or Rinpoche! When people are proud of their learning and practice and see themselves as highest of all, it is a sign that they have not trained and controlled their mind through the common preliminaries of Dharma practice such as refuge. As the great scholar mahasiddha Chagme Raga also said,

Looking down on Refuge vows,
They say they are modern day mahasiddhas!
Though they fill the world with their claims,
I see no signs of goodness or excellence!

What he is saying is that there are some people who, without even having refuge vows, say they are a modern mahasiddha, giving prophecies and showing miracles, but if you check closely, it is the ‘blessings’ of mara and doubtful that it is any attainment of the Yidam Deity! In short, among all the teachings of Sutra and Tantra, there is nothing that surpasses refuge for its vastness yet ease of practice, so if you would like to be a qualified Dharma practitioner who considers future lives to be of foremost importance, I would ask you to practice refuge and not consider it to be something insignificant.