The Faultless Faulty Guru: Teachings from the 14th Dalai Lama

Statements from the 14th Dalai Lama on the Instruction to See All Actions of the Lama as Perfect, from Lamrim and from Tantric Perspectives

We are providing these statements from His Holiness below because there is a need for clarity about certain instructions regarding the teacher-disciple relationship on the Buddhist path. At a time when there are credible accusations that some Tibetan Buddhist masters of the Vajrayana are abusing their power and exploiting students sexually, emotionally, spiritually or financially for their own needs, it may be helpful to read the Dalai Lama’s differentiated explanations on the subject of the teacher-disciple relationship to find inspiration, orientation or guidance on how to deal sensibly with such a situation.

The following quotes were taken from two publications, one in 2018 and one in 1982.

From a Recent Publication

From the section entitled: Unusual Behavior [an exerpt]

Some texts make statements such as ‘See all actions of your spiritual mentor as perfect’ and “Follow your mentor’s instructions exactly with complete devotion.” These statements are made in the context of highest yoga tantra and apply to exceptional cases in which both the spiritual master and the disciple are highly qualified—for example, Tilopa and his disciple Naropa, and Marpa and his disciple Milarepa. If we are not the calibre of Naropa and our mentor does not have the qualities of Tilopa, these statements can be greatly misleading. Hearing stories of Tilopa’s seemingly abusive treatment of Naropa—instructing him to jump off a cliff and so forth—and Marpa instructing Milarepa to build some buildings and then tear them down, some people think that following their teacher’s instructions included allowing themselves to be abused. This is not the case at all! Marpa told Milarepa, “Do not treat your students like I treated you or the way the great Naropa treated me. Such practice should not be continued in the future.” This is because it is very rare to find both a teacher and a disciple who have realizations comparable to those great masters.

I have had many teachers whom I value greatly, but I cannot accept seeing all their actions as perfect. When I was in my teens, my two regents fought each other in a power struggle that involved the Tibetan army. When I sat on my meditation seat, I felt both teachers were extremely kind and had profound respect for them; their disagreements did not matter. But when I had to deal with the difficulties caused by their dissension, I said to them, “What you are doing is wrong!” I did not speak out of hatred or disrespect, but because I love the Buddhadharma, and their actions went against it. I felt no conflict in loyalty by acting in this way. In our practice, we may view the guru’s behaviour as that of a mahasiddha, but in the conventional world we follow the general Buddhist approach, and if a certain behaviour is harmful, we should say so.

The advice to see all the guru’s actions as perfect is not meant for general practitioners. Because it is open to misunderstanding, it can easily become poison for both mentors and students. Students naively whitewashing a teacher’s bad behaviour by thinking anything the guru does must be good gives some teachers a free hand to misbehave. On the teacher’s part, poor behaviour is tantamount to drinking the hot molten iron of the hellish states, and it contributes to the degeneration of the Dharma in the world. Only in particular situations and to particular practitioners should it be taught that all the guru’s actions are perfect. Buddhism is based on reasoning and wisdom and must remain so.

Because I frequently give Dharma teachings, many people place great faith in me. But for many years, I was also their secular leader. If they saw every action I did as perfect, it would adversely affect the administration. It was important for them to share information and ideas with me and not simply acquiesce to everything I said out of respect.

Keep your distance and cultivate relationships with other teachers, but do not angrily denounce this person.If you have taken someone as your spiritual mentor and discover he is engaged in some questionable behaviour, you may stop attending his teachings. Avoid disrespect or antipathy; anger will only make you miserable. The Kalachakra Tantra advises maintaining a neutral attitude and not pursuing the relationship any further. Keep your distance and cultivate relationships with other teachers, but do not angrily denounce this person. He benefitted you in the past, and it is appropriate to acknowledge and appreciate that even though you do not follow him now …

From the section entitled: Resolving Problems [an excerpt]

In 1993 at a conference with Western Buddhist teachers in Dharamsala, Western teachers told me of a few Buddhist spiritual mentors whose behaviour regarding finances, sexual relationships, and so on deeply disturbed people and gave the wrong impression of Buddhism. I told them that these “teachers” do not follow the Buddha’s teachings. I encouraged them to speak frankly with these teachers, and if they do not listen, then they should make their behaviour public. Although these teachers do not care about the Buddha’s teaching, perhaps they will care about their reputation and change their ways. Some people ask me to speak to these teachers, but that has little effect. If they do not listen when I give teachings and if they do not respect the Buddha’s teachings, they will not listen if I give them personal advice.

You may wonder what to do if a friend is a student of a teacher whose ethical conduct is questionable. Tantric teachings speak of the destructive karma created by separating a mentor and student, yet you want to prevent your friend from harm. If you see that your friend’s relationship with a teacher is definitely harmful, it is suitable to warn him or her, simply stating facts in a nonjudgmental manner. But if that relationship is not harmful, it is best to leave things alone. The key to whether you create the negative karma of separating a disciple and teacher lies in the motivation. Actions motivated by an angry, judgmental attitude are to be avoided, whereas those based on compassion and tolerance are encouraged.

From the section entitled: Advice to Spiritual Mentors and Disciples [an excerpt]

Years ago, I heard about an abbot in Kham, Tibet. Some visitors came to see him. He was not there and his attendant told the visitors, “He has gone to scare the people in the nearby town.” It seems that this lama told people they would go to hell if they didn’t heed his instructions. This is not the Buddhist way.

I would like to speak frankly to both spiritual mentors and Dharma students. From 2012-2015 I taught the eighteen Lamrim texts. Some of these texts emphasize that the guru is Vajradhara, and if you don’t listen to your guru’s instructions, you will be born as a hell being. What is all this about? The Buddha never said if you don’t listen to his teachings and don’t do as he says you will be reborn in hell! The Buddha said that we should not accept teachings with blind faith but through having investigated and analysed them. This is the true way to follow the Buddha’s teachings.

If something doesn’t hold up to reasoning, we should not accept it unless it can legitimately be interpreted to mean otherwise. For this reason, even some Nalanda masters rejected statements in the sutras. After examination, I eschewed the traditional cosmology with Mount Meru at the center. When I said this during teachings in South India, some monks were initially uncomfortable. How can the Dalai Lama reject Mount Meru? But no one could say I was no longer a good Buddhist because I disagreed with Vasubandhu on that topic. Our having freedom to examine the teachings is wonderful, this is a special quality of Buddhism that the Buddha himself encouraged.

HH Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice; The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, Volume 2; 2018,  pp. 123-126 & pp. 127-128.
© Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron. With kind permission from Thubten Chodron.

From a teaching on Lamrim published in 1982

The offering of practice means always to live by the teachings of one’s guru. But what happens when the guru gives us advice that we do not wish to follow or that contradicts Dharma and reason? The yardstick must always be logical reasoning and Dharma reason. Any advice that contradicts these is to be rejected. This was said by Buddha himself. If one doubts the validity of what is being said, one should gently push the point and clear all doubts. This task becomes somewhat more sensitive in Highest Tantra where total surrender to the guru is a prerequisite; but even here, this surrender must be made only in a particular sense. If the guru points to the east and tells you to go west, there is little alternative for the student but to make a complaint. This should be done with respect and humility, however, for to show any negativity towards a teacher is not a noble way of repaying his or her kindness.

The practice of guru yoga means that one ignores any negative traits that the guru may seem to have, and that one meditates upon his or her positive qualities. If we can develop the habit of always seeing the guru through his or her good qualities, our confidence naturally grows and eventually we become able to take our preconceptions about faults he or she seems to display and transform them into spiritually useful tools. Perception of faults in the guru should not cause us to feel disrespect, for by showing faults to us the guru is actually showing us what we should abandon. At least, this is the most useful attitude for us to take. An important point here is that the disciple must have a spirit of sincere inquiry and must have clear, rather than blind, devotion.

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally, I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures “Every action seen as perfect”. However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.’ The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of “every action seen as perfect” not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom…

As for spiritual teachers, if they misrepresent this precept of guru yoga in order to take advantage of naïve disciples, their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs.Perhaps you will think: “The Dalai Lama has not read the Lam Rim  scriptures. He does not know that there is no practice of Dharma without the guru.” I am not being disrespectful of the Lam Rim teachings. A student of the spiritual path should rely upon a teacher and should meditate on that teacher’s kindness and good qualities; but the teaching on seeing his or her actions as perfect can only be applied within the context of the Dharma as a whole and the rational approach to knowledge that it advocates. As the teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect is borrowed from highest Tantra and appears in the Lam Rim mainly to prepare the trainee for tantric practice, beginners must treat it with caution. As for spiritual teachers, if they misrepresent this precept of guru yoga in order to take advantage of naïve disciples, their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs.

The disciple must keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principle guidelines. Without this approach, it is difficult to digest one’s Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then, follow that teacher within the conventions of reason as presented by the Buddha. The teachings on seeing the actions of the guru as perfect should largely be left for the practice of Highest Tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principle yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!

Dalai Lama, The Path to Enlightenment; Snow Lion, 1982, pp. 70-72.
© For the copyrights, the publisher’s permission note, the full excerpt and further readings see: Questioning the Advice of the Guru by H.H. the XIV. Dalai Lama.

© Image: Manuel Bauer, 2014/05/15. His Holiness the 14. Dalai Lama’s Visit to Frankfurt, Germany, 2014.