By Narayan Choyin Dorje
To awaken to our own enlightened nature, we need the help of an enlightened being to pacify obscurations, increase longevity, merit and wealth, master energies of the seen and unseen universe, and destroy interrupting forces in us and around us
The genuine guru, like the skilled gardener, has the ability to nurture and enrich the student’s quest
If in the teacher there is a notion that he is a teacher giving precious teachings… then there is no teacher and no teaching h.w.l. poonja
“The embodiment of the Enlightened Ones of the past, present and future is your root guru, the one who has all qualities and shows you the threefold kindness of sharing with you material support, dharma teachings and enlightenment. So you should keep him (or her) at all times on the crown of your head. To meet such a guru is as hard as for flowers to appear in the sky. To receive his (or her) teaching is as rare as the appearance of stars in the daytime. Therefore, you should pray that you merge inseparably with the mind of your guru.”
When we talk about the guru in the present-day context, it is helpful to differentiate between a mentor and the genuine master or satguru. Some traditions call the mentor kalyanamitra, ‘a friend who supports you in everything that is wholesome’. Naturally, this spiritual friend will also point the way to ultimate liberation, but not necessarily challenge your subject-object relationship with yourself and the world at large. Thus the spiritual friend most likely will not directly confront psychological and societal patterns that make up the fabric of our lives. These patterns will most often, as we are enmeshed in them and unconscious of their hold over us, prevent us from experiencing directly our own enlightened nature. Rather than directly challenge the way we lead our lives, the spiritual friend will point out how to operate within our given framework in a more wholesome and enlightened manner. The spiritual friend thus acts as a soothing presence in our life. Most people, who say they are looking for a guru, are actually looking for a spiritual friend to help ease their burden and better their lives. They wish for a mentor who helps them but doesn’t lead them too far off the beaten track.
The genuine master or satguru, on the other hand, acts as an enlightened being. Thus the guru will compassionately, but on occasion also radically confront everything in us that is inhibiting and suppressing the coming forth of our inborn enlightened nature. Being with a guru is not always pleasant. The famous meditation master Kalu Rinpoche said: “The grace of the enlightened ones resembles the rays of the sun. Even in the hot season, the sun cannot make a piece of paper on the ground catch fire, but if you have a magnifying glass, the paper will easily burst into flames. The direct path consists of inserting the magnifying glass of the guru between the grace of the enlightened ones and the mind of the disciple.” For all human beings, nearness to fire is generally too close for comfort.
In the guru, roles of spiritual friend and genuine master often overlap. Thus the guru is not merely, and in all instances of his or her interaction with us, focused on challenging the status quo. Satgurus can be very supportive and helpful, including in everyday matters. They can even act like doting grandfathers, as H.W.L. Poonja (better known as Papaji) frequently did, who was one of the great inspirations in my own life. Yet, one of his nicknames was also ‘the butcher’, due to his ability of cutting away any layer of falsehood, which he did when necessary with ferocity, humour and uncompromising directness. Directness in dealing with the ego, by the way, does by no means imply that the ego is fought like an enemy that really exists. Most often the method consists in the immediate pointing out of its ultimate non-existence. Or the guru demonstrates how limited and contrary to the path or to enlightened nature a certain attitude or behaviour is.
What makes up a genuine teacher and the way he or she expresses relevant insights is quite complex. In this article, we will examine it along the lines of the so-called ‘four activities of the enlightened ones’ to elucidate the many facets of a guru’s actions. This may help us understand what we can expect when we actually start working with one. We need to bear in mind, however, that whatever we state in general terms cannot even come close to the spontaneity of the real encounter. When working with a genuine master, always be open to the unexpected—but don’t expect it to always happen.
Scope of guru’s actions
The introductory lines summarising the guru’s role by Padmasambhava, the great Indian siddha who established the Buddha’s dharma in Tibet, can be applicable to any spiritual tradition. In the past, the guru supported students with room and board, and protection in the jungle or mountain wilderness. General teachings together with individual instructions were freely given. On their basis, liberation from the constraints that make us suffer followed as surely as the fruit follows after the flower has been pollinated and the maturation period has passed.
In India like in other Asian and indigenous societies, this relationship has been known and respected for ages. Its purpose is the sharing of a mode of being that, for lack of a better word, can be loosely described as re-enchantment of our being in the world, or ‘enlightenment’. Enlightenment thus refers to a mode of existing beyond conceptualisation and is free of the imprisonment of any conditioned state, yet likewise doesn’t deny the existence of any circumstance or condition. Rather enlightenment is akin to partaking in a free flowing dance of appearances, which are both totally open and of luminous clarity in nature. As a guide to the enlightenment that is always already here, “the primary role of the guru is to help us experience the relationship between form and emptiness in every instance of our lives as non-duality”. The best guru is one who is fully realised and embodies all the qualities that he or she wishes to awaken in their students.
This ability of the guru to evoke the ‘one-taste’ and unconditional awe for all of reality in the student is of crucial importance. In Kashmiri Shaivism, it is called spanda, the ‘tremor of wonderment’ permeating all existence. The teacher has to be open to this wonderment and allow it to move through his or her system. Otherwise, transmission cannot happen. The teacher needs to be able to speak from the heart of realisation. As one western master aptly pointed out: “A genuine teacher is there to speak for our essential nature and act on its behalf, until we can learn to do so for ourselves.”
Four activities of the enlightened being
Pacifying: The first time I met a genuine master who was able to issue forth waves of blessing such that everyone around him could palpably feel them was in 1975 in the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh. I had just visited Bodhgaya, where I met a man from Argentina who told me of this extraordinary Tibetan Rinpoche, abbot, master artist, father and mother of his students and living Buddha all rolled in one. At least, this is what I was told in glowing words of praise. As I was bound for the Himalayas anyway, I decided to check out this Rinpoche and see for myself.
When I finally met Khamtrul Rinpoche at his community of Tashi Jong one crisp morning in March, not even for one second arose the slightest doubt that I was sitting at the feet of a rare and warm-hearted human being of ungraspable presence and simplicity. I had never met a man like this before, combining the freshness of a newborn with the wisdom, and no doubt, cunning of middle age. And never had I felt so accepted in the moment as I was, enveloped by the kind of love that is not tied to anything and asks for nothing in return. Khamtrul Rinpoche was of medium height and exuded tremendous vitality. He appeared to be strong as an ox, yet possessed the grace of movement of a dancer. He also had a winning smile and a soft voice that resonated from a space whose location was hard to pinpoint. It seemed as if the heart of hearts was addressing me, not his mouth. He spoke broken English, and enjoyed joking about his lack of eloquence in this foreign tongue.
After pleasantries over several cups of tea, he unexpectedly looked at me straight, and said pointedly: “Today after breakfast you will go up on the hill behind the monastery and gaze into the blue sky. Look into the blue sky in a relaxed soft manner, the whole day long, okay.” After which he excused himself. It was strange, even when I heard him say these words, his practice instructions didn’t seem to come from a source other than the entire relational field of our interaction—not from his mind separate from mine, and definitely not from the teacher’s ego talking to the student’s ego. Spoken with great clarity of purpose, the words floated like feathers but deeply sank in with the weight of realisation.
I followed the advice and spent the day on the hill looking into the blue sky, although I nodded off when the sun was high. It was probably around noon when I stretched out on the grass still green and soft from winter moisture, to wake only shortly before dusk, totally refreshed and feeling whole and endowed with a sense of great flexibility of body and mind. As I walked down to my host family’s home, a poem formed out of nowhere, which I wrote down and gave to him later. The overarching feeling was that of peace. I felt entirely pacified and inspired. All thoughts and cares that I had brought with me had melted away, which is not unusual and happens to many in the presence of a genuine guru.
Spontaneously pacifying whatever is in need of pacification is the first of the four activities of an enlightened being. This sense of peace is due to the ability of the genuine master who is not different from the enlightened ones, to purify obscurations and negative influences, even diseases. When you feel at peace and at ease in the presence of a teacher during the first meetings, then you may have found someone with whom you can travel on the path.
Enriching: Pacifying alone would eventually lead to stagnation. Therefore the genuine guru has additional qualities at his or her disposal besides the ability to pacify. He or she also needs, among other things, to be able to enrich and inspire the student so that they carry on with their task—that they have the necessary fuel of merit and material wealth to burn. Which is what I experienced with Khamtrul Rinpoche in the weeks that followed. For example, he gifted me a precious Tibetan block print, illustrated with his own drawings, of the biography and spontaneous songs of liberation of the Tibetan saint Milarepa. Strangely enough, ten years later I was requested to translate these precious books into German—with the additional help of an English rendering, as I otherwise cannot undertake such a task for lack of proper language skills.
The greatest inspiration, however, happened shortly before my parting from Tashi Jong. I had come to say good-bye to Khamtrul and thank him for his invaluable support. When I entered, I found several people present—his secretary, a carpenter, a young tulku receiving ritual transmission of a text, and a few attendants moving about, cleaning ritual implements or refilling everyone’s cup with tea. Clearly not the centre of attention, I was however gestured to sit near Rinpoche’s low dais. Although the scene appeared focused on mundane tasks, being in it felt more like partaking in some enactment of profound magic. Sometimes Rinpoche was reading a folio to the tulku, at other times he was instructing the carpenter on how to fix a window, in-between he dictated a letter to his secretary, only to return to reading the text to the tulku. Everything unfolded so naturally, with such unspeakable grace and fluidity that I felt transported to the unnamable heart of reality, as if in the middle of a translucent whole, a centreless centre of a continuity that did not involve any ‘doing’ neither subject nor object.
At which point, the motivation clearly and distinctly formed in my heart and mind: “This is the way to be, this is what I want to be like, being present and acting spontaneously, without the weight of one who believes to be in charge.” My eyes grew moist with tears of joy. As soon as the thought formed and the tears started to well, Rinpoche pounced on me like a tiger, grabbed me under my armpits and pounded with his left fist three times on the top of my head, all the while beaming with delight. This unusual event ended as swiftly as it began. I found myself back, sitting at his feet, and nobody showed any reaction other than the lifting of an eyebrow here and there. Soon thereafter, I left.
This unusual behaviour was a random act of kindness on the part of the guru, which has enriched my life to this day, as it reinforced the purpose already laid out. It also filled me with a sense of abundance—spiritual and mundane—that has never left me even in the most challenging of times. Literally, Khamtrul Rinpoche had knocked some sense into me, although it wasn’t of the ordinary kind. Above all, the act was selfless. I never became a formal student of his. I met him only one more time in Delhi about 18 months later, although we did exchange beautiful letters and more poems two or three times a year until he unexpectedly passed away in 1979.
A genuine master cannot help but act in the best interest of a being or situation according to his direct insight into a given circumstance. A western teacher, holding both Kashmiri Shaivaite and Tibetan Buddhist lineages, described the random acts of kindness of a real guru: “To encounter such a being who wants nothing from you, who refuses nothing, who takes nothing, and who does not even want to lead you to liberation is the experience of all those who approach an authentic master. Such contact makes us keen to attain the fluidity that we perceived in the mirror held out to us. A master is nothing else but the mirror of our own freedom. In the total opening and easing of the mind, he or she has no projections. He or she allows the richness of each moment to pass like a parade and contacts his sensorality without making any mental commentary about it. He or she lives things as they are, in their intensity and their original duration, without adding, without cutting off, without grasping or abandoning. A master is always there, ready for unconditional love.”
Mastering: This activity is a little harder to understand than the previous two as it refers to the guru’s ability to control circumstances, and to master energies of this world as well as of other realms and use them to actualise enlightenment. Due to their connection with what we usually call ‘magic’, the guru will use the powers at his disposal with great discretion and rarely talk about them openly. They are not to be displayed, especially not for the sake of increasing one’s personal influence over others. Yet, they are an important aspect of the path, as for the enlightened ones, power over outer circumstances comes naturally to benefit beings. It unfolds in a totally uncontrived manner. And it is always handled compassionately with great sensitivity to the laws of karma.
Many years ago, my Satguru Papaji was planning to take some students from Rishikesh, where he spent much of his time, to Badrinath and Gangotri. A group of six or seven assembled one fine morning at the bus stop, ready to board the vehicle, when all of a sudden Papaji decided that they shouldn’t go. Everyone was practically on their knees, begging him to change his mind and proceed as planned, as they had been looking forward to spending time with him at these sacred sites. He remained adamant and would not budge. When asked for a reason, he remained tight-lipped, even turned furious. Finally, the students trotted back to the ashram, thinking they had done something wrong and angered their teacher, who in turn had demonstrated his displeasure. Only later did it dawn on them that he had saved their lives. They found that the bus they had been ready to board ended in a ravine, and everyone on board was killed.
Why did Papaji not openly announce what was going to happen? Why did he not warn others in the condemned vehicle? Out of cold-hearted meanness? Certainly not. First of all, no one besides his students would have had the trust to believe him. People would have shrugged off his warning and proceeded anyway. Another reason is respect for laws of karma. It was the passengers’ karma to die in the accident, and even an enlightened master could do nothing about that. With the students, the situation was different. They were under Papaji’s direct care and also practitioners on the path. On the path, it is important to keep this precious human body intact, as it is the only vehicle that can enable us to actualise this goal in this very lifetime. In other words, Papaji saved the lives of his students so that they could continue with their lives’ purpose.
Destroying: Even more potentially controversial than the ability to master, magnetise and control aspects of the manifest universe is the fourth activity of subduing, destroying and wrathful subjugation. On the diamond path of Vajrayana, it is treated with utmost care as something sacred and secret. For the ordinary person, it is best not to think too much about such powers as they would only be misunderstood—and consequently misused. The best way is to approach them from the angle of self-awareness, of noticing what we should abandon in order to cultivate what is wholesome.
For example, if I get deluded by my own words that have been put to paper in this article, by an intelligence greater than that of the person called Narayan, and subsequently believe only for one minute that I am this great teacher who can explain subtle nuances of the spiritual path with clarity and eloquence—then this is a notion that needs to be destroyed. If entertained for any length of time, it would lead to delusions of grandeur! As Papaji would emphasise: “If, in the teacher, there is a notion that he or she is the teacher giving precious teachings, which lasts for more than just a split-second, then there is no teacher and also no teaching.” In other words, the main notion to be destroyed by the power of awareness is that of conceptualisation and identification. It is at the core of harm-doers and interrupting forces that need to be subdued.
Today, there is much talk of the ‘inner teacher’ and of the need to follow one’s own authentic voice. No doubt, it is healthy to cultivate these and remain open to their injunctions. However, we have to make sure that what speaks to us is not the voice of our own confusion that wishes to perpetuate its own destructive ways under a ‘spiritual’ cloak. Honesty cuts through a lot of self-deception. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that for the most part what we regard as our ‘inner voice’ through previous conditioning came to us from the outside and from others. Therefore, our ‘inner voice’ represents a composite of many outside voices who, in terms of their understanding of the path to enlightenment in this very life, are not always reliable and trustworthy. Rather, they tend to continue what we already know—which is samsara and all the forms of suffering connected with it.
Therefore, if we truly wish to wake up in one lifetime, we have no choice but to meet a genuine master who embodies what he is sharing with us. Even if we only wish to access a more enlightened way of living, we still need the help of a spiritual friend and mentor. He or she will point out to us a healthier attitude. As a child we needed our parents, siblings, schoolteachers and peers to learn from. We needed human contact and direct interaction with the people and forces that make up our world. Likewise, if we really wish to awaken to our own enlightened nature, we need the help of an enlightened being who can mirror these qualities to us—to pacify obscurations; increase longevity, merit and wealth; magnetise and master the energies of the seen and unseen universe; and to subdue and destroy all interrupting forces in us and around us.
Narayan Choyin Dorje has received direct transmission and teachings from Lama Anagarika Govinda, Roshi Tetsuo Nagaya, H.H. Khamtrul Rinpoche, H.H. Karmapa XVI, Venerable Tarthang Tulku, Shri H.W.L. Poonja and others who wish to remain unidentified. Together with his wife Paula Laxmi Horan, he lives in Goa and sometimes teaches basic meditations and practices of the diamond path. He can be contacted through www.paulahoran.com.
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