One of the core teachings of vajrayana is that we should see our teacher as a Buddha, because, in simple terms, if we do so we will get the blessings (transformative power) of the Buddha rather than the lesser transformative power of an ordinary being. But how are we to understand such an instruction when our teacher behaves badly or otherwise does not show the nine qualities of a Buddha?
How likely is it that our teacher actually is a Buddha?
True Buddhahood is not a single-bang event; it is a process of removing layers after layer of ever more subtle obscurations. The Buddhists with their love of enumertation have identified ten bhumis, or levels of enlightenment, and it’s unlikely that any teacher in this day and age has reached the tenth Bhumi of full enlightenment.
“As times have degenerated, nowadays it is difficult to find a teacher who has everyone of the qualities described in the precious tantras.” Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher. P138.
And Patrul Rinpoche is not talking about enlightenment here, just the basic qualities of a reliable teacher.
Of course if we see with pure perception (‘sacred outlook,’ where everything is seen and experienced purely in its true nature), everyone is a Buddha, the teacher as well as ourselves and everyone else; our Buddha nature is just obscured by our emotional, cognitive, habitual and karmic obscurations.
“The sole purpose of viewing the teacher as a buddha is so we can see these same awakened qualities in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. It is a tool that helps us to gain confidence in the purity of our true nature.” Minguyr Rinpoche. Lions Roar, Sept 24th 2017
So if we see the teacher as a Buddha but not ourselves and everyone else, then we are not truly seeing purely. (Watch out for teachers who don’t make that clear!) The vajrayana path trains us to see purely, but if we don’t have some experience of emptiness/shunyata we may use the idea of pure perception as a kind of a white-wash; we might project our idea of purity onto conventional reality, rather than seeing the actual purity of the essential nature of phenomena directly.
Mistaking projection about a teacher for pure perception leads one to believe that the teacher actually has achieved full enlightenment whether or not his or her behaviour is in accord with teachings on the qualitites of an enlightened being. Clinging to any kind of belief can lead us to deny evidence that counteracts the belief, and if we choose belief about reality over actual reality, we are increasing our delusion rather than reducing it.
On the other hand, if we focus only on the poor behaviour of a teacher, we will not see his enlightened qualities, and so will not get the best out of our relationship with him or her. (See a previous post on recognising the good and not so good qualities of a teacher.)
How do we avoid this confusion?
To help work this out, I’m returning again to Alexandar Berzin’s book Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010), to the chapter on “Seeing a Mentor as a Buddha” ch. 11
Reading the whole chapter (and the chapter that follows) is vital to truly understanding this directive to see your teacher as a Buddha, so I recommend you do read it. But I’ll give some quotes here. The first one gives a perspective we were never taught in Rigpa – the Madhyamaka distinction between contingent and ultimate existence – and it’s one that will make the instruction to see your teacher as a Buddha a great deal easier to relate to:
In A Commentary on [Dignaga’s “Compendium of] Validly Cognizing Minds,”Dharmakirti stated that the defining characteristic of a phenomenon that arises from causes and conditions is its ability to perform a function for a specific audience. Because of this ability, the phenomenon is what it is. Thus, for instance, a watch that performs the function of a toy for a baby is not simply a watch functioning as a toy: it is a toy, for the baby.
The Madhyamaka explanation clarifies this point: the object is only contingently a toy, not ultimately a toy. It is not the case that the watch contains a concrete, findable defining characteristic, like a genetic code, that by its own power makes it ultimately a watch. Nor is it the case that the item here is an object that has two such characteristics in it, which by their own powers make it ultimately both a watch and a toy, either simultaneously or alternatively. Nor is it the case that the object itself is ultimately something undefined, which is neither of the two. It is a watch or a toy contingent on its ability to function validly as a watch for an adult or a toy for a baby, without ultimately being a watch, a toy, both, or neither.
The confusion here is that the four logical inferences cited in the graded-path texts demonstrate that spiritual mentors function as Buddhas for their disciples, while the scriptural quotations state that they are Buddhas. By the above explanation, the two statements are equivalent, but only in the sense that mentors are contingently Buddhas, not ultimately Buddhas. Westerners who are unaware of the Madhyamaka distinction between contingent and ultimate existence find the entire presentation totally baffling. Their confusion becomes even more perplexing because a magnifying glass does not need to be the sun in order to act as a medium for the sun. Therefore, when the texts recommend seeing that a mentor is a Buddha, we need to understand this to mean seeing the person only contingently as a Buddha, inasmuch as he or she validly functions as a Buddha for disciples.
Sakya Pandita explicitly made this point in The Divisions of the Three Sets of Vows. There he wrote, “The Prajnaparamita texts state that disciples need to regard their mentors as if the teachers were Buddhas. They do not claim that the mentors actually are Buddhas.”
Berzin goes on to say that there are many levels of understanding, and he looks at the “additional deeper meanings specific to highest tantra practice.”
“The Sakya master Ngorchen clearly stated in A Filigree for Beautifying the Three Continuums that in the context of highest tantra, the tantric master is not merely like a Buddha; he or she is a Buddha.”
He also tells us that a skeptical attitude to this deprives us of realizing the deepest insights to be gained from the teaching.
And yet, he also says:
“Some spiritual seekers take the highest tantra statement to have a literal meaning. Consequently, they view all their tantric masters’ actions, words, and emotional states as perfect. This frequently happens regarding dzogchen masters, since dzogchen supposedly means that everything is perfect. In Ascertaining the Three Vows, however, the Nyingma master Ngari Panchen made the situation clear. He explained that, in private, dzogchen masters may occasionally need to act in contradiction to the norms of generally accepted behavior. However, when in the public eye or in the company of beginners who may lose faith, dzogchen masters need to uphold strictly the liberation and bodhisattva vows. Thus, if popular spiritual teachers act improperly with students at Dharma centers, they are violating the basic Buddhist principles. Naivety over this point may open spiritual seekers to possible abuse.”
Confused? Not surprising. The answer to not taking it literally and at the same time not depriving ourselves of the deepest insights to be gained from the teaching is a correct understanding of the idea of seeing purely.
“The usual human appearance of the body of a tantric master and its simultaneous appearance as the enlightening body of a Buddha, particularly during an empowerment, are two facts about the same attribute of one phenomenon (ngowochig, ngo-bo gcig; “they are one by nature”). The phenomenon here is a tantric master; the attribute is the appearance of his or her physical body; the two facts about that attribute are that the appearance can validly be as a usual human and as the enlightening body of a Buddha.
The two appearances are two facts about the physical body of a tantric master and, in this sense, our tantric masters are Buddhas – although, of course, not inherently and ultimately Buddhas.”
He goes on to say that “our tantric masters are inseparably ordinary humans and Buddhas.” Then he deepens our understanding of this point by going into the three levels of significance of inseparable impure and pure appearances.
Remember the Heart Sutra? Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form. When we see like this, there is no contradiction between seeing a Lama who exibits abusive behaviour as a Buddha because on the absolute/pure appearance level of existence he is, as we all are, indeed a Buddha. This isn’t an easy perspective for our dualistic minds to hold, however, and as Berzin and many other Buddhist teachers say, the idea that our teacher is a Buddha must not be taken literally on a conventional level to mean that he or she is actually enlightened and that everything he or she does is enlightened action and therefore acceptable. (“Naivety over this point may open spiritual seekers to possible abuse.” Berzin.)
I think it is always helpful, no matter what level of understanding we are considering, to remember the initial angle Berzin presents that the Lama is a Buddha only in so far as he or she functions as a Buddha for us in terms of teaching and practice.
His Holiness puts this in perspective in a statement during the Conference with Western Dharma Teachers in 1993:
“I have had many teachers, and I cannot accept seeing all their actions as pure. My two regents, who were among my sixteen teachers, fought one another in a power struggle that even involved the Tibetan army. When I sit on my meditation seat, I feel both were kind to me, and I have profound respect for both of them. Their fights do not matter. But when I had to deal with what was going on in the society, I said to them, “What you’re doing is wrong!” We should not feel a conflict in loyalties by acting in this way. In our practice, we can view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha,⁴ and in dealings with society, follow the general Buddhist approach and say that that behavior is wrong.”
Berzin concludes by pointing out the reason why we practice seeing our Lama as a Buddha and why seeing the flaws that obscure his or her clear light mind (Buddha nature is also important:
“In short, the deepest basis for mentally labeling a tantric master as a Buddha is the master’s clear light mind. The basis for labeling is not the fleeting stains that may or may not be obscuring that mind. Nor is the basis the strength of the manifest qualities of that mind. Thus, the mental labeling of a tantric master as a Buddha based on clear light mind is always valid.
… Seeing that the flaws that appear in our external gurus are dependently arising fleeting stains enables us to see that the flaws that appear in our internal gurus – our clear light minds – are also dependently arising and fleeting. This insight is essential for actualizing the Buddha-qualities of our own clear light minds.
Click here to read the whole chapter. This is only part one of his teaching on this topic; at the end of the page, in the right hand corner, you’ll find a link to part two where Berzin goes even more deeply into seeing the Lama as a Buddha in Tantra. I highly recommend both chapters.