The Guru-Disciple Relationship – Advice by HH the Dalai Lama

There is a tremendous potential for abuse in this idea of trying to see all the behaviours of the guru as pure, of seeing everything the guru does as enlightened. I have stated that this is like a poison. – H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama in “Healing Anger…”

In “Healing Anger – The power of patience from a Buddhist perspective” pub. Snow Lion, USA 1997, pp 83-85, H.H. the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, states:

Q: What do you think about Dharma teachers who speak and write about Dharma beautifully, but do not live it?

A: Because Buddha knew of this potential consequence, he was very strict in prescribing the qualities that are necessary for a person to be qualified as a teacher. Nowadays, it seems, this is a serious issue. First on the teacher’s side: the person who gives some teaching, or gives talks on Dharma must have really trained, learned, and studied. Then, since the subject is not history or literature, but rather a spiritual one, the teacher must gain some experience. Then when that person talks about a religious subject with some experience, it carries some weight. Otherwise, it is not so effective. Therefore, the person who begins to talk to others about the Dharma must realize the responsibility, must be prepared. That is very important. Because of this importance, Lama Tsongkhapa, when he describes the qualifications that are necessary for an individual to become a teacher, quotes from Maitreya’s Ornament of Scriptures, in which Maitreya lists most of the key qualifications that are necessary on the part of the teacher, such as that the teacher must be disciplined, at peace with himself, compassionate, and so on. At the conclusion, Lama Tsongkhapa sums up by stating that those who wish to seek a spiritual teacher must first of all be aware of what the qualifications are that one should look for in a teacher. Then, with that knowledge, seek a teacher. Similarly, those who wish to seek students and become teachers must not only be aware of these conditions, but also judge themselves to see whether they possess these qualities, and if not, work towards possessing them. Therefore, from the teachers’ side, they also must realize the great responsibility involved. If some individual, deep down, is really seeking money, then I think it is much better to seek money through other means. So if the deep intention is a different purpose, I think this is very unfortunate. Such an act is actually giving proof to the Communist accusation that religion is an instrument for exploitation. This is very sad.

Buddha himself was aware of this potential for abuse. He therefore categorically stated that one should not live a way of life which is acquired through five wrong means of livelihood. One of them is being deceptive and flattering toward one’s benefactor in order to get maximal benefit.

Now, on the students’ side, they also have responsibility. First, you should not accept the teacher blindly. This is very important. You see, you can learn Dharma from someone you accept not necessarily as a guru, but rather as a spiritual friend. Consider that person until you know him or her very well, until you gain full confidence and can say, “Now, he or she can be my guru.” Until that confidence develops, treat that person as a spiritual friend. Then study and learn from him or her. You also can learn through books, and as time goes by, there are more books available. So I think this is better.

Here I would like to mention a point which I raised as early as thirty years ago about a particular aspect of the guru-disciple relationship. As we have seen with Shantideva’s text Guide to the Bodhisatva’s Way of Life, we find that in a particular context certain lines of thought are very much emphasized, and unless you see the argument in its proper context there is a great potential for misunderstanding. Similarly, in the guru-disciple relationship, because your guru plays such an important role in serving as the source of inspiration, blessing, transmission, and so on, tremendous emphasis is placed on maintaining proper reliance upon and a proper relationship with one’s guru. In the texts describing these practices we find a particular expression, which is, “May I be able to develop respect for the guru, devotion to the guru, which would allow me to see his or her every action as pure.”

I stated as early as thirty years ago that this is a dangerous concept. There is a tremendous potential for abuse in this idea of trying to see all the behaviours of the guru as pure, of seeing everything the guru does as enlightened. I have stated that this is like a poison. To some Tibetans, that sentence may seem a little bit extreme. However, it seems now, as time goes by, that my warning has become something quite relevant. Anyway, that is my own conviction and attitude, but I base the observation that this is a potentially poisonous idea on Buddha’s own words. For instance, in the Vinaya teachings, which are the scriptures that outline Buddha’s ethics and monastic discipline, where a relationship toward one’s guru is very important, Buddha states that although you will have to accord respect to your guru, if the guru happens to give you instructions which contradict the Dharma, then you must reject them.

There are also very explicit statements in the sutras, in which Buddha states that any instructions given by the guru that accord with the general Dharma path should be followed, and any instructions given by the guru that do not accord with the general approach of the Dharma should be discarded.

It is in the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra of Vajrayana Buddhism where the guru-disciple relationship assumes great importance. For instance, in Highest Yoga Tantra we have practices like guru yoga, a whole yoga dedicated toward one’s relation to the guru. However, even in Highest Yoga Tantra we find statements which tell us that any instructions given by the guru which do not accord with Dharma cannot be followed. You should explain to the guru the reasons why you can’t comply with them, but you should not follow the instructions just because the guru said so. What we find here is that we are not instructed to say, “Okay, whatever you say, I will do it,” but rather we are instructed to use our intelligence and judgment and reject instructions which are not in accord with Dharma.

However we do find, if we read the history of Buddhism, that there were examples of single-pointed guru devotion by masters such as Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa which may seem a little extreme. But we find that while these masters, on the surface, may look like outcasts or beggars, or they may have strange behaviours which sometimes lead other people to lose faith, nevertheless when the necessity came for them to reinforce other people’s faith in the Dharma and in themselves as spiritual teachers, these masters had a counterbalancing factor – a very high level of spiritual realization. This was so much so that they could display supernatural powers to outweigh whatever excesses people may have found in them, conventionally speaking. However, in the case of some of the modern-day teachers, they have all the excesses in their unethical behaviours but are lacking in this counterbalancing factor, which is the capacity to display supernatural powers. Because of this, it can lead to a lot of problems.

Therefore, as students, you should first watch and investigate thoroughly. Do not consider someone as a teacher or guru until you have certain confidence in the person’s integrity. This is very important. Then, second, even after that, if some unhealthy things happen, you have the liberty to reject them. Students should make sure that they don’t spoil the guru. This is very important.

In The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, pp. 209–211, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states:

Premature Commitment To An Unsuitable Guru

In some cases it happens that disciples do not examine a spiritual teacher very carefully before accepting him or her as their guru and committing themselves to a guru/disciple relationship. They may even have received tantric empowerments from this teacher. But then they find they were wrong. They see many flaws in this teacher and discover many serious mistakes he or she has made. They find that this teacher does not really suit them. Their minds are uneasy regarding this person and they are filled with doubts and possibly regret. What to do in such a circumstance?

The mistake, of course, is that originally the disciples did not examine this teacher very carefully before committing themselves to him or her. But this is something of the past that has already happened. No one can change that. In the future, of course, they must examine any potential guru much more thoroughly. But, as for what to do now in this particular situation with this particular guru, it is not productive or helpful to continue investigating and scrutinizing him or her in terms of suspicions or doubts. Rather, as The Kalachakra Tantra recommends, it is best to keep a respectful distance. They should just forget about him or her and not have anything further to do with this person.

It is not healthy, of course, for disciples to deny serious ethical flaws in their guru, if they are in fact true, or his or her involvement in Buddhist power-politics, if this is the case. To do so would be a total loss of discriminating awareness. But for disciples to dwell on these points with disrespect, self-recrimination, regret or other negative attitudes is not only unnecessary, unhelpful and unproductive, it is also improper. They distance themselves even further from achieving a peaceful state of mind and may seriously jeopardize their future spiritual progress. I think it best in this circumstance just to forget about this teacher.

Premature Commitment To Tantra And Daily Recitation Practices

It may also occur that disciples have taken tantric empowerments prematurely, thinking that since tantra is famous as being so high, it must be beneficial to take this initiation. They feel they are ready for this step and take the empowerment, thereby committing themselves to the master conferring it as now being their tantric guru. Moreover, they commit themselves as well to various sets of vows and a daily recitation meditation practice. Then later these disciples realize that this style of practice does not suit them at all, and again they are filled with doubts, regrets, and possibly fear. Again, what to do?

We can understand this with an analogy. Suppose, for instance, we go to a store, see some useful but exotic item that strikes our fancy and just buy it on impulse, even though it is costly. When we bring it home, we find, after examining the item more soberly now that we are out of the exciting, seductive atmosphere of the marketplace, that we have no particular use for it at the moment. In such situation, it is best not to throw the thing out in the garbage, but rather to put it aside. Later we might find it, in fact, very useful.

The same conclusion applies to the commitments disciples have taken prematurely at a tantric empowerment without sufficient examination to determine if they were ready for them. In such situations, rather than deciding that they are never going to use it at all and throwing the whole thing away, such disciples would do better to establish a neutral attitude toward it, putting tantra and their commitments aside and leaving it like that. This is because they may come back to them later and find them very precious and useful.

Suppose, however, disciples have taken an empowerment and have accepted the commitment to practice the meditations of a particular Buddha-form by reciting a sadhana, a method of actualization, to guide them through a complex sequence of visualization and mantra repetition. Although they still have faith in tantra, they find that their recitation commitment is too long and it has become a great burden and strain to maintain it as a daily practice. What to do then? Such disciples should abbreviate their practice. This is very different from the previous case in which certain disciples find that tantric practice in general does not suit them at the present stage of their spiritual life. Everyone has time each day to eat and to sleep. Likewise, no matter how busy they are, no matter how many family and business responsibilities they may have, such disciples can at least find a few minutes to maintain the daily continuity of generating themselves in their imagination in the aspect of a Buddha-form and reciting the appropriate mantra. They must make some effort. Disciples can never progress anywhere on the spiritual path if they do not make at least a minimal amount of effort.

In The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, pp. 185–186, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states about

The Root Guru

Sometimes we differentiate a root guru from our other gurus and focus particularly on him or her for our practice of guru-yoga. Our root guru is usually described in the context of tantra as the one who is kind to us in three ways. There are several manners of explaining these three types of kindness. One, for example, is the kindness to confer upon us empowerments, explanatory discourses on the tantric practices and special guideline instructions for them. If we have received empowerments and discourses from many gurus, we consider as our root guru the one who has had the most beneficial effect upon us. For deciding this, we do not examine in terms of the actual qualifications of the guru from his or her own side, but rather in terms of our own side and the benefit we have gained in our personal development and the state of mind this guru elicits in us. We consider the rest of our gurus as emanations or manifestations of that root guru …

More about the Teacher-Student-Relationship

Spiritual Teacher and Sexual Abuse / Sexual Exploitation

See also

  • Open Letter – Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers

Posts on this Blog


  Last edited by tenpel on February 26, 2014 at 12:29 pm


  1. Even though in FP we learnt the qualifications of a true spiritual guide I don’t think any of us checked out GKG,we just took it on face value. We read his books and thought he doesn’t say anything wrong so he must have all these qualifications. In truth we don’t even know who wrote those books,you hear him talk and his English is bad but his books are so eloquent,I’ve spoken to someone who was fairly high up and he said he’d heard a lot of in house rumours that GKG never wrote those books. GKG is so clever at marketing himself, people say GKG has never said he is our spiritual guide it’s our choice but he’s made it so their is no one else in the NKT who can take that role. Yet we never meet him,we in reality have no clue what he’s like. We wouldn’t marry someone we’ve never met yet we hand our life to a monk who doesn’t know anything about us and we know nothing about him. Westerners can be so naive about anything that seems mystical and foreign if he was English I doubt the NKT would have lasted 5 mins. I’m glad to hear it has major financial problems but I feel for all those practitioners who have given everything what will they do when the empire crumbles? GKG can’t have long left, so many will lose so much when the puppet master is gone.

    • Lineageholder says:

      I’ve spoken to one of the editors of Geshe-la’s books who said that he wrote the books and he used to be meticulous in the editing process, even spotting mistakes in their punctuation, so these stories of “I’ve heard that someone heard that someone said….etc etc” are just rumours and false information. But as Geshe-la said, if someone can write better books, go ahead – you’re welcome! It can only help living beings.

      • I tend towards to believe that Geshe-la wrote the books, and I tend to disbelieve that he didn’t write them. However, he might have said: “if someone can write better books, go ahead – you’re welcome! It can only help living beings.” but he doesn’t live to what he says – as so often – because he himself oppresses and controls that nobody than him publishes books within his organisation. For a brief intro into this topic see:

        • Do you really believe he writes the book’s Tenzin? His English is so bad and he is no where near that eloquent when he teaches. He probably is very involved and gives guidance but there’s no way he writes them , he doesn’t give anyone else credit either when it’s obvious how much help he gets plus this is not just an idol rumour this comes from someone who would know but I can’t say more because I don’t want to land anyone in it but it comes from a source close to GKG. If he did write them it would be even worse because he doesn’t practise what he preaches.

          • The point is one should base what one says on reasoning and facts or valid inference or at least sober indications but in the latter case one has to phrase what one says as a possibility and not as a fact, like ‘based on these … indications it is rather likely that …”. It is too easy because there is an apparent contradiction between oral teaching skills and oral English skills compared with the books to infer from this that he didn’t write the books or that he is not the author of the books. This is just too much of a vague assumption even a bit going into the direction of conspiracy theory. What real evidence is there or what indicates and support such a theory?

            All in all it is also likely that he is really not very eloquent in oral explanations but in writing, and that he gets the needed help in English or an co-author – who helps him to write it down or who supports him in different ways. I think the amount of editor work by others can be quite high however, he would still be the author.

            If he did write them it would be even worse because he doesn’t practise what he preaches.

            This is no valid proof that he didn’t write the books but an ethical judgement. It’s true, all in all, if one checks it carefully, he doesn’t practice what he teaches but this doesn’t prove or is any indication that he didn’t write or isn’t the main contributor to his books.

            • Ok I take your point I don’t know if he does or does not write the book’s,I’m sure he is a big part of the process. I did hear that Neil Elliot is a genius and many believe he had a big part in putting the book’s together. He was also said to be a narcissist who was the main driving force behind the NKT which is why he was brought back so speedily after his departure. I’m sure Steve wass would have been a major loss too as he had the charisma GKG is missing. I use to see Samden as my Guru because I got my HYT from him I was heart broken when I heard what he’d done. But I also got it because it was obvious how sexually charged he w as you could feel it miles off that’s why there’s no way GKG didn’t know early on.

              • I heard that Geshe-la was even warned of Wass before he put him into the position of being his successor. Some of the community of Madhyamaka centre with which Wass was associated with were very concerned of Wass becoming Geshe-la’s successor and sent some information to Geshe-la, however, Geshe-la ignored the warnings …

                • Not a surprise.

                • Lineageholder says:

                  I heard,,,,,,(insert unfounded rumour)

                  Not exactly valid cognition, is it? Buddha said it is important not to pass on information you don’t know to be true.

                  • When I say I heard you can be sure that its a rather reliable source and that it was proven not to contradict other information I have. However, it was not confirmed so far by other sources. To not delude the reader to what has still to be verified by consulting other sources I used the phrase “I heard”.

                    I would wish you, NKT or your WSS would be as careful as that.

                  • Buddha said it is important not to pass on information you don’t know to be true.

                    A wonderful example of how NKT use pseudo-Dharma to manipulate others. Where did the Buddha say this?

                    In the Vinaya there are examples where someone saw the misconduct of someone else and reported it to another person. This person informed the whole assembly. Then the whole assembly sat together to find out the truth. If it were true what you say it follows the person who listened to the witness and reported it to the assembly acted wrongly, if he acted wrongly the Buddha would have said so but he did not.

                  • “Buddha said”? You were going to say “Geshela said” but were too embarrassed (Id be surprised if you even knew the Buddhas dates without googling them). Actually, this is how KG justified not speaking out when his protege Elliot was using nuns for sexual favors and Wass was ‘practicing tantra’. The result: for the victims, mental illness and attempted suicides; for the perpetrators ‘retreats’ followed by promotion. Clearly , keeping quiet works So much for the Vinaya I guess its just ‘not helpful’

                    • ‘Lineageholder” (cue howls of derisive laughter) wrote “I heard,,,,,,(insert unfounded rumour) Not exactly valid cognition, is it?”
                      The use of term ‘valid cognition’ is very impressive and gives the impression that the author is knowledgeable with regard to Buddhist metaphysics

                      However, we can be sure that LH has never even read an original Buddhist sutra. How? Because
                      ALL sutras begin with the phrase “Thus have I HEARD”

                      According to LHs understanding this would mean that all Buddhas sutras were not based on “valid cognition” What a silly billy and how jolly ignorant of genuine Buddhism you are LH

                    • Lineageholder says:

                      Hi Anon, there is a world of difference between “I heard….some third hand rumour” and Ananda saying “Thus I have heard” at the beginning of the Sutra because he was actually present at the Buddha’s teaching and heard it directly for himself. You’re not comparing like with like.

                    • LH, I think you mess up now everything.

                      First of all there is no proof that what “I heard” (actual I read it btw) is “unfounded rumour”. This is just a claim by you.
                      Secondly you claimed what one has heard (and if it is “unfounded rumour”) would “Not exactly [be] valid cognition” which is incorrect because what one has heard or seen with an unmistaken sense consciousness, like the ear or the eye consciousness is per definition a sense direct valid cognizer.

                      I assume you wanted to disparage the information by putting it down as rumour and by claiming that what I said is contrary to Buddha’s teachings. For the latter you gave a self-styled Dharma which wasn’t given by the Buddha.

                      If you want to question what I say, I think you should be just honest instead if manipulating me. You could just say: What is your source? I don’t believe you. What evidence do you have? But your intention was just to shut me up and you applied the common NKT manipulation tactics …

                    • sure Ok LH whatever you say, you’re always right -damn I wish I was good at debate like you, you must be almost enlightened, what with winning all thes arguments and all damn-I must’ve just missed my way (psyche-you need to get out more-you could make a lot of people very happy with your sense of humour It’s nice to see that there are still folk who are willing to make fools out of there self in public Well done-brilliant comic timing

      • So the stories about long standing NKT followers not being allowed to write books on Buddhism in accord with specific rules , and people being threatened with legal action for writing books are all lies?
        Don’t you know anything?PS “geshe la says” AGAIN

        • try googling Kadam Nick Gillespie legal threat!

        • does Geshe la ever say think for yourself? Maybe if he did and you thought for yourself, you’d be doing what geshe la says!

          • You can’t control people if you tell them to think for themselves.

            • Not necessarily. Ole Nydahl for instance stresses much that his followers should use their brain and not become stupid sheeps. But he skilfully infuses in his “teachings” that his followers were somewhat better than those other Buddhists, Christians, Muslims etc. so he empowers them to think and blinds their intelligence by the pride he inspires in them at the same time. This is also a way to control people to stay in your organisation. Maybe a bit more intelligent way because harder to detect ;-)

      • Is that why GKG threatens to sue his old students that try to write books? His English is terrible if he writes those books I’ll eat my dog. I bet he writes the kids books too does he?

  2. john swainson says:


  1. […] Dalai Lama clearly says (in “Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship“, 1993; Healing Anger, Snow Lion, 1997 pp. 83-85) that the abusive behaviour of masters must […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: