The Spiritual Friend

His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third,
Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge


I wish to remind everyone that it is important to arouse the precious motivation of Bodhichitta before receiving instructions on the Buddhadharma. We aspire to help others achieve enlightenment and therefore receive the instructions that originated with Buddha Shakyamuni.
 In order to be able to practice the Buddhadharma correctly, many favorable conditions are necessary. One first needs a precious human birth, which is a very rare occasion. Having attained a precious human birth, one needs a teacher who shows the way, which is not just a matter of fact. One also needs to receive the teachings from him. When all three conditions prevail, one is able to engage in the practices Lord Buddha showed.  

 A human being who does not have a spiritual friend, guide, and escort will not attain enlightenment. Should one have a teacher but receive no instructions from him, one's aspiration to become free from the bondage that conditioned existence entails would never be fulfilled. Therefore, all three aspects are a prerequisite when embarking on the journey to mental refinement that Buddhism presents.
The merit from many lives engenders favorable conditions. One does not merely meet a teacher but has maintained a positive karmic link with him for many lifetimes. This link does not arise from the fascination a student feels every time he or she meets a Lama, a fascination that weakens and diminishes in the absence of the master. When another teacher comes into town, new fascination arises and ceases again when he has left. One meets other famous Lamas and the fascination, which is but a whim, overwhelms one once again. This is not the bond referred to when discussing a genuine Guru-disciple relationship. A genuine relationship has been alive for many lives and is a karmic link that develops and matures as time proceeds.  

 Who is a Lama? In the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, a genuine teacher and master doesn't only teach but, due to the karmic bond, he has the ability to free his pupils' mental stream of consciousness from bondage. His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa is my Root Guru. He is the One who is truly able to show ultimate fruition.
 The Lama who shows one the nature of one's mind is one's Root Guru. In the Kagyu Lineage, the Karmapa is our Root Guru. All living beings in the world have so many reasons to be very dedicated to His Holiness, because of his unceasing beneficial activities. Such a Lama is a Buddha. In Vajrayana, it is very important and indispensable to see one's Root Lama as Buddha. A Buddha needn't sit on a high throne and wear robes of brocade and silk, rather a Buddha possesses the ability to truly liberate the mind stream of his pupils, whether he is famous or not.  

There are four classifications of a spiritual friend in Buddhism, which depends upon a disciple's mental propensities and openness. The four classifications are: an ordinary human being, a Bodhisattva on a high level of the Bodhisattva bhumis, a Buddha in the perfect Nirmanakaya incarnation, and a Buddha in the pure Sambhogakaya emanation.
 An ordinary teacher is somebody who is well versed in the Buddhadharma and can convey Lord Buddha's teachings appropriately and accordingly.  

 The spiritual friend as a Bodhisattva is on at least the first bhumi or level of spiritual refinement to enlightenment and is more than an ordinary teacher, since he has realized qualities of value within himself and is therefore able to guide his pupils correctly. Since he has abandoned what needs to have been abandoned and has realized what needs to be realized, he possesses love and compassion for his pupils.
 The spiritual friend in the perfect Nirmanakaya incarnation is the Buddha who is free of all obscurations and has realized excelled awareness. He possesses the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks of enlightenment and incarnates in order to benefit others. Shakyamuni Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, were Nirmanakaya incarnations.  

 The spiritual friend in the pure Sambhogakaya emanation does not take on a physical form but appears as the yidam or meditation deity, the unification of wisdom that ascertains emptiness and skillful means that embraces great compassion for his disciples.
 A spiritual friend manifests to his disciples in one of the four forms, depending upon the appreciation on the side of a student. A practitioner who has not realized emptiness himself cannot appreciate high Bodhisattvas and therefore needs to rely upon ordinary teachers to learn. When a student has progressed along the path, he is able to rely upon the guidance that realized masters give. The level of a teacher therefore depends upon the pupil, the reason teachers manifest differently.  

 The four types of spiritual friends need not be four different teachers but can be embodied in one master if a pupil's inclination and pure dedication allow him to appreciate the Root Guru as the embodiment of all four. As said, the outer appearance of a Lama isn't decisive, rather his or her ability determines the progress a follower achieves on the path to omniscience.
 Pupils needn't be impatient and worried in their aspiration to meet their Root Guru, because there are so many possibilities to learn the Buddhadharma from other teachers before one meets one's Root Guru. One should not think it's not necessary to hear the teachings of the Buddha before one meets one's Root Guru and falsely think one may not have anything to do with other Lamas. Meeting one's Root Guru isn't like a date but occurs spontaneously. While one treads the path to mental refinement, one matures and then spontaneously meets and recognizes one's Root Lama. It is important to allow the maturation of a Guru-disciple relationship to naturally occur, instead of pushing oneself. Perfect dedication presupposes mental stability on the side of a pupil, which is developed through the practice of the Buddhadharma. In Vajrayana, a forced or contrived commitment is a hindrance. A genuine and pure Guru-disciple relationship is the most decisive factor in the highest vehicle of Buddhism. Therefore, a pupil needs patience and diligence in studying the teachings. The Guru-disciple bond then naturally takes place and all further experiences give rise to pure devotion, which is so important in order achieve omniscience.  

 These instructions concern a disciple's attitude towards his Lama and teachers. A Lama, too, must check whether he can take the responsibility upon himself and lead a student to fruition or not. Both a Lama and disciple must carefully check whether all necessary conditions are fulfilled. Should this be the case, the bond is spontaneously established. Fruition depends upon the relationship, this is true, but there isn't a need to push the relationship. As it is, one first needs to realize relative reality. One's Root Guru then discloses ultimate reality to a disciple. Until then, one has enough to learn and practice. So many teachers visit the Dharma centers in the West, qualified teachers one can learn from and may rely upon.
 I have spoken about the bond between a teacher and his disciples and now ask, “What do you think? Do you have any questions about this topic?  

Questions & Answers

Question: The theory is good. When teachers come so often, it's harder making such a relationship. In Tibet, it was easier. In Europe, we have visiting Lamas and Rinpoche may only come once a year, so it is more difficult.

Rinpoche: Yes, it's a practical problem. When you study the Guru-disciple relationships upheld in the Kagyu Lineage, such as between Naropa and Tilopa, you will see they too had many difficulties. At that time, there were no airplanes, no cars. Lord Marpa, for example, walked to India from Tibet three times to meet his Guru. When you have enough faith and devotion, you go to meet your Lama.

Same student: The Lama doesn't come to you, you go to him?

Rinpoche: That's right. Really, do keep a close relationship if you have a Lama.

Question: How do you uphold the connection to a Lama? You said it is good to meet many Lamas before choosing one. I have often met Gelug Rinpoches and received teachings from them. Is that okay?

Rinpoche: Saying that you have a Guru and not being interested in the teachings isn't correct. You need to learn. You learn how to practice from one Lama, but you learn the teachings from many. It would be very difficult learning meditation practices from many teachers; it would also be very difficult learning all teachings from one Lama. It's good to learn. But, many people mix the practices they receive from many teachers. They do Kagyu practice for one month, Nyingma for another, and then Gelugpa. It isn't bad, but practices aren't something that may be tested at one's convenience. Practice needs to be brought to fruition. Therefore, one practice is enough.

Question: You said that the Karmapa is the Root Lama. How do other Lamas then become Root Lamas?

Rinpoche: The Kagyu Lineage is the oral transmission of the practices handed down to us from Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa. The First Karmapa was a pupil of Je Gampopa. The Lineage proceeds to the First Situ Rinpoche, the Second Karmapa, and so forth. The Lineage-holder is the Karmapa. The Karmapa holds the Mahamudra instructions, which is the reason he is the Root Guru of the Kagyu Lineage. All Lamas of our Lineage follow the Karmapa, who is automatically their Root Guru. Therefore, any Lama of our Lineage represents the Root Guru. This is the reason it is possible to visualize His Holiness as one's Root Guru as long as one doesn'tt have a personal Guru.

Question: Can you tell us about the Bardo initiation planned in Kamalashila?

Rinpoche: It is a fact that we will all die and will encounter the peaceful and wrathful deities, aspects of our own mind present within us now. They appear to us at death and we are not able to recognize them. If you receive the initiation and realize their meaning, you will cognize them as aspects of the Buddha during death, instead of experiencing fear and fright. Should a successful practitioner recognize them, he would automatically experience liberation.

Same student: If one practices Phowa before death, then one does not enter the Bardo and confront them?

Rinpoche: That's true, if you can do it.
 Question: Do the deities appear to all beings in the same form? It is said they appear according to an individual's apprehension. Does this mean people from other traditions experience them differently?

Rinpoche: During the Bardo, we experience the manifestation of our habitual patterns and the forms are experienced identically, irrelevant of cultural background.

Question: Rinpoche said that there is no difference between men and women in Buddhism. Why are there so few female teachers? Why are there so few Dakinis described in the literature? Why do nuns need to take more vows than monks?

Rinpoche: It's a good question. There are female Lamas, but there are more male teachers. The activities that evolve from practicing and developing skillful means is masculine, the reason most incarnations of realized masters are men. This doesn't mean that there are no female Lamas. As for the vows, the Buddha had a reason to teach them the way he did. The vows of the Vinaya were formulated because difficulties arose. I believe that somehow nuns made more mistakes. The Tibetan Vinaya has less vows than the Chinese; they have more than four hundred, we only have a little more than three hundred.

Question: Are there female Lamas who have children?

Rinpoche: Yes, but not so many.

Question: What kind of connection do we need with a Lama to receive an initiation?

Rinpoche: A bond arises when one receives an initiation. This bond is stronger than the one established from only receiving teachings.

Same student: Is it a connection with the Root Guru?

Rinpoche: Maybe. A blessing initiation, for example, does not involve a commitment, so it depends on the initiation. The full initiation is given by one's Guru.

Question: We have been told that when we think of our Root Lama, he will be there, whether we recognize him or not.

Rinpoche: This doesn't refer to the physical body of the Guru, which is a symbol. The absolute Guru is the Guru's mind, which is the Dharmakaya. The essence of the Guru's mind is the indivisibility of emptiness and luminosity, not different from your mind. This is the reason the Guru is never out of reach. Whether you think of him or not, he is always with you.

Question: How do you think about the Lama?

Rinpoche: Test.

Same student: How do I know it is right? If I have a connection with my Root Guru, shouldn't I stop testing?

Rinpoche: You can test, but I would say it is too late to test after you have become committed. You can test and change Lamas, but it's not advisable. This is why I said you should not push yourself to find your Root Guru, yet it is necessary to have one. You do not search for your Guru but experience deep devotion. Therefore, once you have entered a Guru-disciple relationship, you don't need to test anymore, because devotion is stable and lasting. You may see many faults in the Guru you have found, but you shouldn't forget that he, like you, is a human being. Many people even saw faults in Shakyamuni Buddha. So. I recommend you test the Lama before he becomes your Root Guru.

Question: If one hasn't met one's Guru, how does one attain enlightenment?

Rinpoche: By accumulating positive merit, by abandoning and purifying negativity it will be possible to meet one's Guru.

Question: Is the practice of a lay practitioner and that of a monk or nun identical?

Rinpoche: It is said to be easier by taking the vows because monks and nuns concentrate on study and practice more intensively than lay practitioners in order to be able to teach, the purpose of ordination. It is an advantage and quite encouraging. This doesn't mean a lay practitioner doesn't achieve beneficial results. It's only easier if ordained.

Question: It's said that disturbing emotions need to be eliminated. In Vajrayana, they can be transformed and are said to be the chance to achieve omniscience. How does this fit together?

Rinpoche: Since the times of His Holiness, when there were many western monks and nuns, most have given back their ordinations, so it is very difficult for foreigners. Some people even return their ordination vows after a few months, so it becomes a game one plays. There are monasteries for monks and nuns where encouragement is found in the East, which isn't the case in the West, the reason it's hard to keep the vows here. The Vinaya vows do not simply mean one abandons negativity on the spot. In order to transform emotions, you need discipline. In order to become a Vajrayana practitioner, you need three conditions: outer discipline, the inner Bodhisattva commitment, and the secret discipline of the commitment.

Question: If one doesn't meet one's Root Guru in this life, how can one be certain to meet the Dharma in the next life?

Rinpoche: It depends upon practice, the reason we practice. Practice appropriates favorable conditions to meet with and be able to practice the Dharma later.

Question: How can one explain the Dharma to someone who isn't a Buddhist? Points come up that cause arguments, because one cannot explain it properly. In that moment, one breaks vows, because one said something wrong and has misled others. Should we be quiet or discuss Buddhism with others?

Rinpoche: One needs to be skilled. One should never force people and discuss Buddhism if they are not interested. If it is possible to talk about the teachings, it is important to be very skillful.

Question: Would you please explain what incarnate Lama and Samaya mean?

Rinpoche: Samaya is the Sanskrit term for "commitment" or "bond." An incarnate Lama is tulku in Tibetan. As it is, every living being is born. Ordinary beings are born according to the consequences of karma and therefore have no control. A Tulku has control and determines his birth consciously in order to help others.

 Question: What is Dzogchen? Is it a part of the Vajrayana or another path in Buddhism?

Rinpoche: It belongs to the diamond vehicle. There is Phyag-chen or "Mahamudra" and Dzogchen or "Maha-ati." They are different terms for the same practice.
  Question: I'd like to ask a question that perhaps isn't appropriate for a moment like this. I've had nothing to do with Buddhism until the last couple of years. For about six months I have had strong spiritual experiences that have happened through a sequence of events that would take too long to speak about now. One spot was that I landed in a temple with the people I was traveling with. Is it possible to figure out that I came into this meeting through a Guru? I'm grateful to be here, because for a long time I didn't know what was happening to my sanity. You talked about it. What I basically want to say is I'm glad to be here and am still progressing. It's getting better. I'm glad to be here.

Rinpoche: Thank you. Are you learning meditation from a book?

Student: Yes, through reading a book.

Question: Will you tell us about the next Karmapa incarnation?

Rinpoche: I'm sure you already know that we have opened one of the outer letters His Holiness wrote, in which he describes the Pujas that need to be done. We sent the news to Tibet and have received information that they are doing the practices. The next thing is to then open the main letter. As you know, there are many rumors. Until we open the main letter, nobody can say that he is born. It's important for us to know that His Holiness will come. It's important for us to live our lives properly and to work together. We should not fight with each other and dissever the bond among the pupils, which determines the presence of the Lama. We need to maintain a harmonious relationship. Samaya is very important and doesn't only apply to the relationship between the Guru and his disciples, but also between the brothers and sisters in the Dharma community. There is also a Samaya of the Lineage. The pure Samaya is important for the His Holiness to return. Of course, we have personal misunderstandings because we are human beings, but we all seek a spiritual goal and must practice. A lot of confusion and biased attitudes within our Lineage gives rise to negative results. This is why I ask everyone to work and practice together. We are brothers and sisters.

 Through this goodness, may omniscience be attained

And thereby may every enemy (mental defilement) be overcome.

May beings be liberated from the ocean of samsara

That is troubled by waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.

May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).

Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.


Presented at Karma Chang Chub Choepel Ling in Heidelberg, Germany, 1987, with sincere gratitude to Ani Dorothea Nett. Translated into English and edited by Gaby Hollmann, Munich, 1987 and 2008 for the website of Karma Chang Chub Choepel Ling and the archives of the Jamgon Kongtrul Labrang at Pullahari Monastery in Nepal. Copyright Jamgon Kongtrul Labrang, Pullahari Monastery, Nepal, 2008.