Home » Guru Yoga – What’s the problem?

Dudjom Lingpa
Dudjom Lingpa

The heart of tantric Buddhism

The essence of the vajrayana path – and a gateway to abuse

Before I go any further: yes, guru yoga is right at the centre of vajrayana practice. Whether it is “the” heart, is another matter. There is an argument that the real heart is “the practice of the four empowerments”, and that guru yoga is a kind of condensed way of doing that. However…

The overflowing stories of abuse in some western Tibetan-style Buddhist communities can no longer be a surprise. Specifics are discussed on the Internet, including this site. If you need a refresher then Google is your friend, or you may look here (for “What’s the score?) or here (for a quick refresher).

The new openness can only be a good thing. The question we are still wrestling with is – how did it happen? And how can we stop it?

Criticism of Tibetan Buddhism has, unsurprisingly, welled up. That’s overdue. But let’s not tar the whole thing with the same brush. There is more than “rotten lamas” to Tibetan Buddhism.

It’s never been hard to find material that criticises Tibetan Buddhism, and often that criticism has some substance. All the same, some of those critics do take a simplistic view of what Tibetan Buddhism is about – and when I say “simplistic”, I mean “over-simple”, not just “very simple”. And why is that? Often enough the critics’ ignorance seems to be based on their sources: would-be practitioners – like myself. Many of us are indeed woefully ignorant about our own adopted tradition.

Boiling guru yoga down to a childish pretence that our own human teacher is literally Dorje Chang, an expression of the primordial “Buddha in the sky” if you like, is an example of this. On that view, the view promoted by some abusers, the human teacher must be obeyed in all things, however bizarre, stupid, or repellent. Such a view is a recipe for disaster. Obviously.The disaster can take the form of the guru going off the rails. The disaster can occur in the student’s own psyche. But a disaster is waiting to happen.

Well-known author Stephen Batchelor seems to have had an experience of this sort. According to his article in Tricycle, he found that he “could not accept the doctrine of guru devotion”. He himself freely admits that he got involved very deeply, very young: “… at the height of my youthful enthusiasm for everything Tibetan”. The gap between Tibetan culture and Western culture is so large, he can hardly be blamed if his understanding at the time lacked subtlety. From the other side, Tibetan teachers also often have a very rudimentary understanding of the way our culture differs from Tibetan culture. Sometimes they see our weaknesses, but fail to see our strengths.

What is the guru-yoga practice, anyway?

So when a practitioner sits down to “practice guru yoga”, what are they actually doing?

There is a liturgy, usually comprising many standard elements: the taking of refuge, developing the “mind of enlightenment”, phrases, offering of flowers, lights, incense and so on, acknowledgement of failures, prayers for blessings. Likely as not there will be a key mantra, or a few key lines that are recited many times, while the practitioner learns to rest in the recognition that at a deep level the practitioner’s own mind and the guru’s mind are not different.

And the visualised guru? For Nyingma practitioners the guru will often be pictured as one of the many forms of Guru Rinpoche. There are guru yogas focused on important historical teachers of the tradition concerned – Milarepa, Karma Pakshi and Mikyo Dorje are just three well-known examples in the Kagyu tradition. For Gelugpas it may well be Tsong Khapa. The visualisation may be of the “celestial” border, Dorje Chang.

There is even an extremely simple but important tradition in Nyingma practice in which the guru is not visualised as a quasi-human body at all, but simply as a single, radiant letter “A”. This really does make it clear that while human beings can be expressions of the guru – and in vajrayana practice the connection with a human guru is, of course, essential – the real meaning of the guru or lama is much bigger and more fundamental than any individual.

Comments from Ringu Tulku

By way of a better exampIe, I’d like to share a few words from Ringu Tulku. They make it clear that it is possible to be a serious practitioner without abandoning common sense.

Ringu Tulku
Ringu Tulku

He says1:

The attitude one encounters most frequently is that of people placing themselves under the domination of the guru, viewing their guru as their master and themselves as his or her slave. They do whatever the guru tells them to and, as they generally expect gurus to be quite unpredictable and strange, they are not surprised to be asked to do lots of funny thing, through which they are convinced they will progress and ultimately become like their guru. This is not a healthy attitude, but perhaps understandable!

Guru Yoga should be viewed as different from the actual guru/student relationship. We practice Guru Yoga as an ideal because it is a practice, an exercise. The guru/student relationship is something else. I don’t mean that you should not have faith in your guru. It is good to have faith in our guru, but with an open mind and open eyes.

If you are absolute sure that the guru is a completely enlightened being, that whatever he/she says is right, whatever he/she asks you to do is good for yourself and good for everybody, if you have no doubt about that, then of course you will feel devotion. It is natural. But otherwise, you may not. If you do not do something the guru tells you to, you do not break any vow. The Dalai Lama usually says that if our guru tells us to do something, and we think it is not the right thing for us, we may tell him. I think that is right. There is no breach of samaya. I am not giving my own opinion; I am actually quoting from the texts.

When the guru dies, the relationship remains the same. From the Buddhist point of view, when the guru dies, it is believed that the gurus power becomes even stronger, and if he has very good students, they then become like him. There are lots of stories illustrating how student, one, two or many, are transformed after their guru’s death. The guru’s blessings do not disappear with him.

Of course there is a relationship. It is a heart relationship and therefore there is a certain element of emotion in it. I do not agree at all with a kind of professional relationship, I mean completely without emotions.


Sometimes people are too dependent on their guru. Not only in the West, sometimes also in the East. They ask his advice on everything, like what kind of color they should paint their bathroom, and so on. This is not necessary. The guru’s job is to try to teach his student how to actually stand on his/her own feet, to be independent as much as possible, to try to understand the Dharma and know how to practice by themselves.

Guru Yoga is a training to awaken the inner guru. Through our devotion to the outer guru, through his teachings and the practice of Guru Yoga, we come to realize the inner guru. This is a practice of devotion, of merging and of being, through which we learn how to be without concepts. We learn how to open up completely and how to surrender our ego. Through it, we can broaden ourselves, make ourselves non dual, so that we can experientially see, meet our inner guru or our inner light.

Guru Yoga is much, much more than obeying your human teacher

Now, whether it’s coincidence, in the stars, or the result of a shift in our culture, it happens that Sogyal Lakar’s overdue fall from grace happened at much the same time that Harvey Weinstein’s story came out. This has led to a lot of discussion about the position of “lama”, and in particular about abuse of that position. Critics often imply (not without any reason, but perhaps not with enough) that vajrayana students are expected to take the word of their lama/guru as absolute law. The loss of perspective, loss of intelligence and the shut-down of common sense entailed in this are pretty obvious.

Comments from Dudjom Rinpoche

The point I most want to make is what Dudjom Rinpoche (Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje) had to say about “carrying out one’s teacher’s instructions”. For those who are less familiar with these things, Dudjom Rinpoche was very erudite. He had a huge literary output, marked not just by scholarship but by poetry. After the Tibetan diaspora, when someone was needed to speak on behalf of the Nyingma school, he was chosen to be the first “head” of the Nyingma.

He does not, however, offer a “lightweight” recipe for relating to the teacher. He gives, for instance, a visualisation and mantra to be used in the unfortunate circumstances in which one cannot avoid stepping on the teacher’s shadow, an act that would otherwise lead to disastrous effects after death! So a) he knew what he was talking about, and b) his teachings were traditional.

After explaining that vajra-masters are Vajradhara in person, and that one must follow them without doubt or hesitation, he goes on to say that it is “important to carry out everything your teacher asks joyfully and respectfully”. Just as we – and the critics – might expect. But then:

“If you cannot do so, either because it is something inappropriate – contrary to the dharma or whatever – or because you are unable, properly ask to be excused in a way that does not displease the teacher, and request permission. To abandon it thinking it does not matter, without asking the teacher’s permission, will not do.”

He makes much the same point in a number of different ways: the wise, he says, make every effort to obey, but if they are unable, they clarify their inability by speaking about it. He explains that if the teacher asks you to do something improper, e.g. contrary to the dharma, you must think about it, why it is normally not allowed, and why perhaps you have been asked to do it. Then either carry it out or ask permission not to. Simply to disobey is wrong.

So he’s not letting us off the hook, and he does describe an approach to the teacher that many Westerners would find uncomfortable. But, at the same time, isn’t it quite human? If the teacher asks you to do something that you are convinced is wrong, then simply to ignore and disobey really does break the sacred bond, the one we call “samaya”. But to say, “Look, I’m sorry, I can’t because …” is exactly how the student IS supposed to react. It’s not easy – but nor is it stupid.

We must educate ourselves

There is a common thread running through this – many of us Western, would-be vajrayana students are desperately uneducated in the dharma. As a result, we have a two-dimensional, overly simple understanding of the teachings. We often fail to distinguish between fairytales, poetry, and literal advice, between aspirations expressed with poetic hyperbole and literal vows.

Tibetan culture was rich and complex. Some of it – the social structure, for example – is highly incompatible with Western views. We would not like it! So those of us who are trying to absorb what we perceive as the enormous value embodied in Tibetan Buddhism have to see that we must approach it very cautiously; we must be very slow to conclude that we know what *anything* means; we must be ready to live with not understanding, to live with being unsure, and to live with puzzlement and uncertainty. That’s OK!

It’s complicated

Tibetan Buddhism is therefore one of the last things to turn to if we want easy certainties. And yet… aren’t some Western devotees looking precisely for the certainty of the “word of the lama”, of the guru who tells you what to do, what to believe, what to accept and what to reject? Looking, in other words, for a surrogate father?

Some lamas can, of course, be complicit in this. Perhaps they genuinely believe that they are “protecting” their students from confusion by guiding them towards a very minimal exposure to the variety of views and thinking within Tibetan Buddhism.

And that brings me to my point:

The very concept of the “lama” is multilayered. It extends from the first stirrings of compassion for sentient beings in the mind of the Buddha, through the great lamas who gave their teaching and inspiration to the various lineages, through those teachings themselves down to the person who teaches you the alphabet. And yet this rich and complex idea gets reduced to the single person sat on the throne at the front of the hall who tells you to donate (money, usually) for the good of the teachings while sending his (it usually is “his“, obviously enough) close students out for cigars and rosé wine.


Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso

Finally, a story, though only on good authority, not from personal experience.

a) The scene: Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (Karma Kagyu students will know who he is) with newish, but serious students.

b) The actual event: he discovers that one at least of the students is doing their prostration/guru yoga practice while actually visualising him, himself, as the lama in the centre.

c) The upshot: an extremely forceful clarification that the visualisation should, as it says in the text, be of the imposing, dark blue Vajradhara.

d) The explanation: he, himself, is the human lama. As the lama, he is the connection to the lama in a much bigger sense, the three jewels and the three roots – hence the respect and devotion. As the human, he has all sorts of faults in which the students should emphatically not be taking refuge.

As Dudjom Lingpa (the predecessor of the Dudjom Rinpoche mentioned above) said2:

“Take the dharmakaya, Samantabhadra, as your guru.”

  1. In “The Ngöndro: Foundation Practices of Mahamudra”,
  2. “Heart of the Great Perfection”, Düdjom Lingpa’s Visions of the Great Perfection, Düdjom Lingpa, B. Alan Wallace, Wisdom Publications 2016 978-1-61429-348-4

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