Dharma Wheel by Bob Jacobson
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Namo Gurubhya !

Hail to the Teacher


"Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru:
Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism."

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

What is a spiritual teacher?
Reasons for following a guru.
Qualifications for a spiritual teacher of basic philosophy
Qualifications for a spiritual disciple
Where and when to find a guru?


This role of a spiritual teacher or guru is often misunderstood in the West. For one thing, we lost the ancient system of studying under one teacher for many years to learn a craft like carpentry or masonry and we are not used to this system anymore. There is a lot of confusion about spiritual teachers as well; some people seem to believe that they will take over the entire responsibility of a disciple's life, making the pupil more like an obedient mindless puppy. But nobody can take over our own responsibility in life (see the page on karma). Even if we leave some decisions over to someone else, we are still responsible for our actions, including shifting the decision to someone else.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai LamaAs Sogyal Rinpoche warns in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

"The West has become a heaven for spiritual charlatans. ... without the guidelines and criteria of a thriving and full-fledged wisdom culture, the authenticity of so-called "Masters" is almost impossible to establish."

We need to be realistic about spiritual teachers: if we want to learn something, a teacher is needed, or is at least very useful. How far would we have come with learning to read and write without a teacher? A spiritual teacher is for spiritual matters: you do not normally ask your mathematics teacher for advice on language.

In the Tantric system, a guru is essential for the practice. Having a spiritual teacher and practising "guru devotion" was even a secret practice for a long time. More information on a tantric guru can be found on the tantra page.

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We need help on the spiritual path to guide us finding the right way. Obviously the best person to accompany us as a tour-guide is someone who has already successfully travelled the path. This person can help to quicken our progress and avoid obstacles.

Why do we need an experienced guide? I like the following story with a cynical undertone from Rama Krishna:

"Tapobana the Master, had a disciple who served him with diligence. The master kept him solely because of this diligence and the services he rendered, for he found the disciple rather stupid. One day, the rumour spread throughout the whole region that Tapobana's disciple had walked on water. He had crossed the river as if he crossed a street. Tapobana called his disciple and questioned him. 'Is it true what people say? Did you actually walk over the water?'
'What could be more natural?' answered the disciple, 'It is thanks to you, blessed one, that I walked over the water. At every step I repeated Your Holy Name, and that is what upheld me.'
Tapobana then thought by himself: 'If my disciple can walk over water using my name, what would be impossible for me, his master? If in my name miracles take place, I must possess powers I did not suspect, and I must be more holy than I was aware of. After all, I never tried to walk on water.'
Without delay he ran to the river bank. With unshakeable faith in himself, Tapobana repeated: 'I, I, I .....' And sank..."

Before you decide to follow a spiritual teacher, it is extremely important to check him or her: there are quite a number of cheats around... In the old Indian tradition, teachers were often checked for 12 years or more before a student fully entrusted a teacher the spiritual guidance. It is easy to follow people blindly, especially the ones who are smooth talkers and are good salespeople. The reason why gurus are getting such bad names is because people should not have blindly trusted most of them to begin with! Do take your own responsibility serious to check your own feelings, do you feel some personal connection, verify if their behaviour concords with their words, are they putting more emphasis on worldly matters than their spiritual path, see what the disciples say, and of course what other teachers think.

Zasep Tulku Rinpoche summarises the essence:

"If you are only studying Dharma for the sake of study, sake of development of your understanding of Dharma, if you are only studying Dharma intellectually, just intellectually on intellectual level, then I don't think you need a guru-disciple relationship. And also you can study with all kinds of teachers. It's like going to university. You study with different teachers or professors, and you go on, you move on. But if you wish to commit yourself to the path, then it is necessary, because one needs to know how to accomplish the realization, how to practice the Dharma."

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1.  Proper ethical behaviour - a guru should not harm others but try to help
2.  Single pointed concentration
3.  No self-grasping or egoistic thoughts
4.  Having love and compassion as main motivations to teach
5.  Realised emptiness, at least have a proper intellectual understanding
6.  Perseverance in teaching
7.  Wealth of scriptural knowledge
8.  More learned and realised than student
9.  Skilled speaker
10. Given up disappointment in the performance of the students

If possible try to find a guru who possesses all these qualities, but at least the first 5. This may be difficult enough to find.

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Just like a teacher requires certain qualifications, so should a disciple fulfil some criteria.
A proper disciple should consider him/herself as a patient, the teacher as a doctor, the Dharma as medicine and one should take the medicine: practice. Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: "There is no substitute for hard work"

A proper disciple should avoid the so-called 3 faulty attitudes:

- being like an upside down vessel: refusing to learn and scepticism
- being like a leaking vessel: forgetting everything and showing no interest
- being like a polluted vessel: being very prejudiced and believing to know everything better than the teacher
A proper disciple should fulfil the 3 requisites:
- lack of prejudice, being open-minded
- intelligence and a critical mind: not blindly following orders
- aspiration: wanting to practice and experience results (not just scholarly study)

As Lama Govinda writes in A Living Buddhism for the West:

"If a chela (disciple) is accepted by a Guru, he has to approach the teacher with trustful openness and devotion; these are the two basic conditions without which spiritual guidance is impossible. It is just here that many Western chelas make it hard for themselves, because they cannot bring themselves to bow to their teacher, and become upset when their prejudices and opinions are criticised. Even when they profess to love the teacher, they defend their position and defend their standpoint. ... A true guru is not concerned with imposing conformity of thoughts and feelings. He wants to arouse personal recognition and experience in the chela - not to teach him, but inspire him. But he also wants to liberate his chela from the attachments to opinions, prejudices, and dogmas - and this is often a painful process."

But, as Lowenthal and Short comment in Opening the Heart of Compassion:

"While respect for and openness to the teacher are important for our growth and freedom, blind devotion fixates us on the person of the teacher. We then become confined by the limitation of the teacher's personality rather than liberated by the teachings."

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This is not an easy to answer in general, as every individual is different. However, it is often said that when a disciple is ready, the teacher will appear. If you cannot find a teacher, see if you fulfil the above requirements for a proper disciple, and work to improve your own attitude. Depending on your own karma, you may need to do quite a lot to find the right guru. Perhaps you are impatient and expect too much overnight, then doing self-study and questioning yourself what you really expect from a teacher may help.

For medtiations, see the List of Sample Meditations.

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Last updated: April 28, 2001