Wednesday 31st December, 2008
These teachings, sponsored and organized by the Hwa-Yue Foundation from Taiwan, are the third in a series of teachings entitled: Lineage Practice Teachings. More than one thousand five hundred people filled the main assembly hall at Tergar Monastery to listen to His Holiness deliver the teachings in a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese. Chinese devotees from Taiwan and Hong Kong formed the majority of the audience. However, there were also disciples from the Americas, from Europe and from other Asian countries including Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia.
The morning and afternoon sessions began with prayers in Chinese, accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments – a wooden bell beaten to keep time, and a bronze bell. At the morning session, representatives from the audience prostrated along with the Gyalwang Karmapa.
His Holiness’ theme was teacher and student. He began by joking that these teachings, and the ‘English’ ones which would follow Monlam, were as much a test of his burgeoning linguistic skills as of his dharma knowledge and experience. He then congratulated the audience on attending the teachings in spite of the economic downturn and the recent terrorist bombings in Mumbai. Speaking confidently and fluently in Chinese, he proceeded to explore the concepts of teacher and student in Tibetan Buddhism, delighting his listeners with lively caricatures, humorous asides, and witty puns.
(Please note that what follows is a précis of the English translation of the teachings given in Tibetan, so that you can share some of the experience. We hope that a definitive translation from a full transcription of the Chinese and Tibetan will be possible later.)
Because so many different interpretations of the word exists, Gyalwang Karmapa began by clarifying the meaning of ‘lama’, the Tibetan rendering of the Sanskrit word ‘guru’, as meaning someone who is ‘heavy with good qualities’. Hence a lama was someone who possessed the qualities necessary to develop students. The characteristics of a spiritual friend and a lama were basically the same. They should be well-educated in the Dharma, able to teach the Dharma, hold Pratimoksha vows, and hold any other relevant vows, transmissions etc.
Gampopa mentioned three characteristics of a genuine lama. The first characteristic was to have cut the ties to this life. No attachment to this life meant being focused on more than this life and paying no attention to the eight worldly dharmas, but it was difficult to find someone who was completely free of attachment to this life. It was possible to talk of three types of worldly interests: the white worldly interest of the Bodhisattva, who could enjoy being praised; the mixed worldly interest when people sometimes focused on future lives, sometimes on this life; the black world ly interest when all activity was fixated on this life only. A person who could only focus on this life was not a genuine dharma practitioner. A dharma practitioner should think of future lives and the path of liberation.
The second characteristic was that they could guide their students with their great wisdom; without wisdom and intelligence a lama was unable to teach the dharma to a range of students with different needs. A lama needed to know what things to abandon and what to practise, and had to be able to teach in a way that students could understand.
The third characteristic was endowment with great compassion, so that a lama never gave up on their students, supporting them however bad they were. Without this great compassion, a lama might well abandon a very difficult student. The ideal was that a lama would want to keep their students from falling into the lower realms, even at the cost of his or her own life.
In short, a lama’s good qualities should exceed their faults. An uneducated person able to help students focus on the dharma and future lives, could be a lama, in the same way a mother who loves and cares for her children tries to pass on her best traits to them, in spite of her lack of education.
Then how could a student assess a lama’s qualities? Gyalwang Karmapa warned that, except for a few extraordinary individuals, it was very difficult to assess a person’s qualities, and impossible to know what they were thinking, so the only method was to observe the lama’s words, deeds and conduct, checking that they were in harmony, and that they did not contradict the dharma. Although a skilled imposter might fool people for a short time, they wouldn’t be able to fool all of the people all of the time!
In assessing a lama, we could also reflect on whether the lama was helping us, whether our minds were becoming clearer or calmer, whether we were engaging with the dharma more. If the mind of a student turned more to the dharma under a lama’s influence, then that was a genuine lama. A further sign was to feel joy at encountering a lama.
If a lama had only a few good qualities it was still possible to take them as one’s lama, because it might be that their qualities exceeded their faults, or that they held the altruistic intention. Gyalwang Karmapa referred to the First Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche who travelled across Tibet, receiving instructions from many lamas. Some of these were only village lamas, uneducated and illiterate, but he received transmissions and empowerments from them. In some cases he even had to teach them the alphabet first! So, although the rule was to find a lama who possessed more qualities than we did, this may not always be the case, if we had a special purpose.
Finally, there should be a mutual connection between the teacher and the student.
Gyalwang Karmapa then turned his attention to what it means to be a ‘student’.
According to Gampopa, a student should possess three characteristics: they needed to be able to ‘bow down to the lama with respect that has no pride’, the student must follow the lama’s instructions joyfully, and finally the student must engage in actions that are pleasing to the lama.
First, Gyalwang Karmapa explored what it means to be able to bow down to a lama with respect that has no pride. He reminded us that often, out of ignorance, we believe we have qualities that we do not possess, and this makes us vulnerable. We need to be protected from ourselves. The role of the lama is to teach us the path, otherwise we will be prey to our own afflictive mental states and emotions.
Our very birth is the product of these afflictive mental states, and our karma controls when we will die. The four sufferings of birth and death, ageing and sickness are beyond our control. What we often call happiness is not true happiness but only a change in the degree of suffering or a temporary relief, similar to someone going from extreme heat into a cool place. At first it is a great relief from the heat, and then you begin to feel cold, and finally you are freezing. Feelings of happiness end up as suffering. Thus, we have to rely on a lama to teach us the Four Noble Truths which will lead us on the path of liberation.
The Sutras teach that the lama is similar to or equal to the Lord Buddha. In the Diamond Vehicle teachings the lama is Buddha, and so we have to train our minds, like exercising the body, in order to habituate ourselves to see only the good qualities and not the faults of the lama. In the Sutras Buddha promised that he would appear as Vajradhara to help sentient beings, and the lama is the only one who can fulfill the activities of the Buddha.
All buddhas and bodhisattvas ‘woke’ out of the wish to help sentient beings, but sentient beings had to be open to this help, and the key was faith. Regarding an ordinary lama as Buddha was to treat the lama as the representative of the Buddha, in an unbroken lineage passed down from the Buddha. The lama was like a magnifying glass on a pile of cut hay in sunlight. Without it the hay would not catch fire, but if you used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays, it would catch fire.
We had to be careful because we could not always see people as they really were. Naropa thought Tilopa was a fisherman when he first met him. Mila thought Marpa was a farmer. Appearances are deceptive, often affected by our karma. Even a street dog might be a buddha. We could never be sure.
The second requirement was to follow the lama’s instructions. Since the lama is the one who shows what is to be abandoned and what is to be adopted, it is important to put into practice whatever the lama says. However, if in some instances we are unable to do the practices given us, it is permissible to go to the lama and give clear reasons why one is unable to do it, and in this case there would be no degeneration of samaya. If, on the other hand, we knowingly decide not to do what the lama has instructed then there would be degeneration of samaya.
Finally, His Holiness commented on ‘actions that please the lama’. He explained that this did not mean praising the lama or making material offerings, as people sometimes seemed to think. Rather, it meant practicing the dharma teachings and oral instructions. That is an offering to the lama.