The Way of Guru Yoga

by Karma Wangdu on 29 May, 2014

Kamalashila Institute, Germany.

At the beginning, the Karmapa recited prayers to the root lama and then made a beautiful, long, deep bow in a movement of profound devotion and respect. This gesture embodied the entire teaching, communicating it with a power and elegance beyond words.

In this prelude, the Karmapa reprised the theme of the preliminary practices. The topic for the morning talks was the common preliminaries, which belong to the sutra tradition; the uncommon preliminaries belong to the path of the secret mantrayana (or vajrayana). They number four—refuge and bodhichitta, Vajrasattva, mandala offering, and guru yoga—and this fourth practice would be the focus of the talk today.

Providing some background, the Karmapa explained that the teachings of the Buddha came to Tibet from India beginning in the seventh and eighth centuries. The vehicle of secret mantra took root in Tibet as well as two others, the great vehicle and the vehicles of the hearers and the solitary realisers. This meant that all three vehicles (yanas) were complete in Tibet.

Further, the Dharma came from India in two main waves, known as the earlier and later spreading of the Dharma. The Kagyu teachings belong to the second wave. All of these later schools shared a common focus on the vajrayana with its emphasis on guru yoga. Here, the relationship of teacher and student is crucial, and it was due to this that the uniquely Tibetan system of reincarnate lamas (tulkus) developed beginning with the Karmapa. He did not want to give up the profound and intimate connection with his students when he died, and so he took in order to continue teaching them. The system of recognising tulkus started with the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, who was recognised as a reincarnation of the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.

The Karmapa noted that many of the people in the audience had met the 16th Karmapa and listened to his teachings, and that through a strong karmic relationship, he had received the name of the Karmapa. It had now become his responsibility to look after the centres and students of the Karma Kagyu lineage. This shows the deep and continuous relationship between teacher and student that cannot be interrupted by death.

The Karmapa emphasised that the relationship between a teacher and student is not just a physical one; it’s an inner, profound connection that relates to this world and also beyond. It is through the lama’s compassionate caring and the student’s devotion that a link is created between them. Among the different kinds of affection, the lama’s affection for a student is a special one. A lama understands the suffering of others and wishes to free them from their more obvious problems that cause pain and suffering. But their affection does not stop here. True teachers want their students to go to the root causes of their suffering—the afflictions and ignorance—and uproot them completely. Students should be aware of this and know that when they are receiving instructions, a teacher is focusing purely on how to eliminate the very basis of their suffering.

From the side of the student, devotion to the lama is paramount. Mögu, the word for devotion in Tibetan, has the two meanings of longing and respect. The disciples see the inspiring qualities of the lama that steal their heart away, and they long to have these qualities, too. Further, these are not physical but inner qualities, such as compassion, wisdom, and kindness. Through deeply appreciating these, a real respect—not just an outer show—naturally arises within the student and practice can become continuous.

To summarize, in the Kagyu lineage, a lama first trains in wisdom and compassion to develop the qualities of a teacher in themselves. The student practices in order to inherit these, receiving the teacher’s kindness and the blessing of the lineage. That is the key point of the relationship between a teacher and a student.

This transmission of the lineage is ineffable: it’s nothing you can see, but still it’s there, like the protection good parents give their children, which is also a kind of blessing; the children feel it, but can’t put a finger on it. In a similar way, when our mind is unsettled and full of concepts, we might meet a fine lama and simply through being together for a little while, our disturbances would subside. I myself have this experience when I go to see my teachers, such as the Dalai Lama. We should learn to do this for ourselves by practicing step by step and developing progressively the qualities of the lama. This is how blessings work: they are not material, not something that is handed over quickly like an object, but they arise from a gradual process of coming to embody the qualities of the lama. This is the true blessing.