The human lama

In the Tibetan Buddhist community, both East and West, we love the idea that our lamas are perfect.  We are eager to place our trust in masters who exist only to help us progress spiritually.  The texts themselves insist that we must regard the spiritual master as a buddha.  I agree that this view, combined with faith, is the bridge by which the most profound teachings are transmitted.  I don’t, however, believe that each person put in the position of being a teacher is perfect.

Here at Namdroling, as well as at many other monasteries, it is possible to study in shedra for nine years and graduate as a Lopon.  It isn’t easy, but it is within the range of the intellect, and thus accessible to people who know Tibetan and have the time and interest.

There is certain wisdom to be gained through study, as well as contemplation and life experience.   The actual, direct experience of wisdom, which all the sutras and tantras point towards, however, is an experience beyond intellect.  My own study and experience tell me that the path to wisdom is long; progress is usually made slowly and deliberately.  It never happens by accident.

It is, therefore, possible to become erudite without having pierced the depth of meditative experience.  I know many, many people in this situation.  When these men and women have special titles, such as Tulku, Khenpo, Lopon or Lama they often have great expectations placed upon them.  People often see the title, and begin to impute qualities.  Perhaps there nothing particularly wrong with this, as long as the lama acts in tune with the Dharma.  The thing is, when one’s mind is not fully tamed, it is difficult to always act in tune with the Dharma.  Thus, we have a group of erudite people, trying to act in tune with the Dharma, at least in public, or at the very least, in the presence of their students.  This situation may progress for quite sometime, until the lama is observed doing something which shatters the students’ faith.

This is an issue which often concerns me.  It is not possible for us to demand that all Dharma teachers be enlightened.  We hope, of course, that our guides are advanced on the path, otherwise how would they know where to guide us? Nonetheless, I think we need to create the mental space to have respect and love for our teachers while still giving them room to be human.

Please share your thoughts!


5 thoughts on “The human lama

  1. That sounds very reasonable to me. i do think people do tend to rush into these relationships a bit. Maybe in the west people should try not to get too caught up in long titles and large hats and they should know there is a difference between someone who is teaching you intellectually as they have a greater knowledge of the texts and a tantric guru/disciple relationship. in the tantric student/teacher relationship a much higher degree of trust is needed so as it says in the fifty versus of guru devotion:

    6. In order for the words of honour of neither the Guru nor the disciple to degenerate, there must be a mutual examination beforehand (to determine if each can) brave a Guru-disciple relationship.

    7. A disciple with sense should not accept as his Guru someone who lacks compassion or who is angersome, vicious or arrogant, possessive, undisciplined or boasts of his knowledge.

    8. (A Guru should be) stable (in his actions), cultivated (in his speech), wise, patient and honest. He should neither conceal his shortcomings, nor pretend to possess qualities he lacks. He should be an expert in the meanings (of tantra) and in its ritual procedures (of medicine and turning back obstacles). Also he should have loving compassion and a complete knowledge of the scriptures.

    9. He should have full experience in all ten fields, skill in the drawing of mandalas, full knowledge of how to explain the tantras, supreme faith and his senses fully under control.

  2. I agree with you and would add that there needs to be a clear distinction between “lama, khenpo, etc” and “realized being.” If someone is teaching the Dharma and is not realized, it is incumbent upon them to make this known to their students.

    I do this all the time, telling my Dharma friends who attend my classes that my role is as their friend who happens to have more information than they do at this moment in time. And I am also honest about my failings, like losing my temper while driving for example. I tell them what happened, and then what I need to do (or did do) to correct the situation.

    This way, if they see me doing something less than perfect it doesn’t turn them off to the entire Dharma.

    Westerners in general tend to be overly romantic about what to expect from a teacher of the Dharma…even from an ordinary person like myself. It’s worse because I wear robes. But, I’ve seen it with lay teachers as well.

    At the same time, we cannot deny that guru devotion (to a REALIZED being) is an essential part of the path.

  3. I agree with what you’ve written. However, there’s still the problem of the tulku system. A tulku is supposed to be the nirmanakaya of an enlightened being, right? I don’t buy it, given what I’ve seen and heard over the years. It was my experience that even when someone with a title, especially the title tulku, didn’t act in accordance with the Dharma, everyone around them had to play along and continue to pretend that person was enlightened.

    It seems to me that the tulku system isn’t Dharma–it’s Tibetan religious culture. I just can’t accept it.

  4. For functional purpose the teachers should be around…however it is for the brave ones to be honest about themselves, for it is the honest who struggle to find the balance, and seek the truth.

    Warm hugs:)

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