Teacher & Student

Did the Buddha advocate the idea of a guru?

The relationship with the teacher is meant to be a skillful means for our awakening…it points to the method of “Letting go into humbleness.”
  • Question: Hi Elizabeth, although i have great respect and admiration for buddhist teachers such as Pema Chodron, Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh (to name some of my favourites) i am uneasy about this notion of a “Guru” and Guru devotion. It speaks to me of hero worship and placing another human being up on a pedestal. To me a teacher of the dharma is a teacher of the dharma….i mean did the Buddha advocate the idea of a Guru? Someone other than an ordinary human being? 🙂

    Response:  Thank you for your question. I think this is a question for many people so I appreciate you asking this. The teacher\student relationship is a really big topic for people who have teachers and for others who are looking at the tradition and trying to understand it.

    In contemplating your question I am trying to discern for myself: “What is the difference between a teacher and a guru?” I suppose the word ‘teacher’ is a more general term. We have teachers at school while we are growing up. I suppose we can think of them as people who pass on information to us so we can function well in the world. Sometimes we appreciate this and sometimes we do it because it is mandatory. However, sometimes a teacher will have a huge impact on our lives…and even determine the direction our lives take.

    The relationship with a teacher can be quite intimate. And I am not just referring to a spiritual teacher. Often we hear stories or encounter relationships where a teacher will pass on a lineage of wisdom or creativity to a student and the student has a deep sense of appreciation and devotion to the teacher. Devotion is an interesting term and also poignant and moving as an experience. My friend Greg studies Sanskrit and Tibetan at Oxford University. I asked him recently how he would translate the word “devotion.” His translation was deeply illuminating for me. He translated the Tibetan word for devotion (mugu) as “Letting go into humblenesss.”

    I think for myself it is hard to talk about the role of the teacher without looking at the role of the student too. When I think about what it means to be a student the word openness or humbleness comes to mind. I don’t mean “humbleness” as self-effacing or that we have to give up our own discernment just because we are in a process of learning with a teacher. In fact, open question is part of that learning. So I don’t think that being a student means we need to be subservient. But when we take a teacher we are making an agreement (and that is a choice!) to stay humble, open and to learn. What would be the point of having a teacher if we were to simply hold on to our own ideas? So we are putting ourselves in a position of learning. This does not mean we can’t ask questions…it means that we position ourselves to learn. And this means to remain open without falling into blind acceptance or skepticism.

    In fact, once I asked my teacher how to be a good student and he said, “Just be open.” Open is a way of being beyond the extremes of just falling into beliefs or falling into doubt. Even when challenged we can stay open…and this is not a passive state (like blind acceptance) – this is a learning state.

    When we read the sutras and study the life of the Buddha he put himself in this position throughout his life. He had many teachers…and he practiced what they taught him with much diligence and devotion. For him, these teachers didn’t have the understanding that he was ultimately seeking yet his relationship to these teachers set him on to the path of awakening. In the end, the Buddha let go of the many beliefs he had: that he could find happiness in the ordinary world of ‘things’ or that he could find happiness through abandoning worldly life and neglecting his body. He just gave up on these views…and with a deep sense of humbleness he sat under the bodhi tree. So humility, as you can see, is at the heart of this tradition.

    After his enlightenment his disciplines surrounded him because they could recognize his qualities. They were attracted to this sense of humbleness and wonder in the Buddha…and what was wonderful is that the Buddha was able to put words to the path and guide them. They looked up to the Buddha, took him as an example and served him as a way to let go into humbleness themselves. So the path of learning and service has a function…and this was understood.

    Now the term ‘guru’ (Skt) or ‘Lama’ (Tibetan) actually means ‘Nothing Higher’ or ‘Unsurpassable.’ So we have to ask, “Why is that?” I don’t think it is the personality of the Lama that is unsurpassable or even the person him\herself. The relationship with the teacher is meant to be a skillful means for our awakening…it points to the method of “Letting go into humbleness.” This has to do with the falling away of the ego and leads to freedom. So in this way we can say, “What can be higher?”

    The idea of humility is sometimes a stretch for the Western practitioner. We misunderstand ‘humbleness’ as ‘lesser’ or ‘lower.’ But I am talking about humbleness as encountering the best of our qualities as human beings. For instance, when we look up at the night sky it is so vast and mysterious. In relationship to this vastness we are so small and the universe so big and beautiful…and yet at the same time we are part of that bigness. So looking at the sky we have this experience of wonderment and awe. This is the open question I often talk about. It is the ability to see that life is bigger than the ideas or beliefs we have about it.

    I often see this more in other cultures…devotion is understood as a sense of humbleness. Sometimes having an object – a starry sky at night, or a teacher whose qualities evoke a sense of wonder in us – serves as an important skillful means. On top of that a teacher is actually passing on the teachings to us and pointing things out about our ego: serving as a mirror for where we are stuck…but also our own Buddha Nature or our own sense of wonderment. So the relationship is intimate…although not necessarily on a personality level, but on a waking up level.

    I can say personally that the teacher\student relationship has been at the epicenter of my path. And I must say that it took me a long time to understand it. Partly because I have been married to my teacher…this has challenged me in some wonderful ways, but also because it is a process for us all. And what I have come to understand is that it really has nothing to do with our own individuality…but has everything to do with this process of awakening and letting go of the ego – falling into humbleness. When we let go of the ego we feel free. So really, this relationship turns out to be quite empowering. Because what actually happens is that the very qualities you see in the teacher are inherent within the nature of your own mind.

    Now I think people – especially in this culture – grapple a lot with this topic in the way you are also expressing. And I can’t speak to everyone’s process. I can’t speak to everyone’s expression of devotion and am not in any position to judge that. But I can say that there are times where I have felt uncomfortable in my attempt to “please” the teacher and there have been times where I felt so much appreciation that serving the teacher was deeply inspiring and natural for me. There have been times I have fallen into blind acceptance and also times I have fallen into doubt. But I have come to also recognize a third alternative, so to speak. And this is the mind of wonderment, humility, and openness. It is the mind of amazement. As the Buddha said in the sutras, “Those who are awake live I a constant state of amazement.” This is the resting place for the practitioner.

    It is interesting to consider though Mandy, that all of the teachers that you mention (exemplary teachers!) in your question have guru\disciple relationships with their teachers. Ani Pema Chodren was a close student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and presently a dedicated student of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche (also my teacher). The Dalai Lama has expressed profound appreciation for his gurus. Once at an empowerment he had tears in his eyes when he spoke about the teacher who had transmitted the bodhicitta teachings to him. I don’t know the teacher of Tich Naht Han but when I was at a conference recently 2 of his young nuns were my roommates and they talked of their teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, with so much love, devotion and appreciation. So clearly there is something to this relationship that is intimate and profound. It may be that this affection is often quite genuine for people and comes from a deep sense of appreciation. And I would say that these teachers are beautiful and graceful examples of students and what can occur through this very unusual relationship.

    Let's Discuss

    11 thoughts on “Did the Buddha advocate the idea of a guru?

    • Jeanie says:

      Elizabeth, Thank you for this wonderful post. I suspect I will return to it again and again as I travel my path. And thanks to Greg for the beautiful translation.

    • Robyne Rieger says:

      Elizabeth- this was so clear, and helpful to me in understanding the teacher/student relationship. I’m constantly amazed by her wisdom!

    • Silvia Carry says:

      During his teaching of LAM RIM this past December -Jan in Bylakuppe, HHDL annouunced that it was the 25th Anniversary of the Paranirvana of his Senior Tutor and Guru, Ling Rinpoche. He went on to say that for some time after the loss of Ling Rinpoche he felt lost and sad. AND he wanted to have a small get together, with the those few still alive who had been students of Ling Rinpoche.
      at that, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche (my Guru), now 93 and also a student of Ling Rinpoche , was escorted by two monks to the throne, where with tears in their eyes, they had a brief tête-à-tête. It was an extremely touching moment. And a perfect example of the bond that never breaks (the Guru from afar is always with us)

    • penelope says:

      HI Elizabeth. Another great post from you. Thankyou! But I have been wondering alot recently is “humbleness” an American terms ( I was hearing the Sakyong Mipam Rinpoche say it a few weeks ago). Is your friend Greg American? What has happened to “humility” such a lovely word!

      • admin says:

        Yes, Greg is American…Humility is also a great word. I think of them as being pretty close in meaning.

    • Mark says:

      I think humbleness is great in terms of I haven’t really got a clue how it works and maybe you do. But what if you think you teacher is wrong, mis-reading the situation or giving you a half-arsed generic answer that doesn’t cut it? Like it’s all emptiness, it’s just your mind, blah, blah, blah. It rare that people stand up to lamas and say, you know what, that answer isn’t satisfactory and hasn’t given me a greater understanding or insight into who I am and what is going on in the milieu of my mind.

      • admin says:

        Hey Mark,
        Who said anything about not speaking …up? My point is that i don’t think there is a prescribed way of being with the teacher…except to be open. To me openness is beyond belief and skepticism. If there is not a commitment to openness then how would this relationship not be based on reactivity like any other ordinary relationship? Openness is not opposed to discernment…and i would never suggest anyone hand over their agency in this way. Thinking that emptiness is simply passive is a misunderstanding…emptiness gives us a bigger view to respond from rather than reacting.

        • admin says:

          OH, i see what you are saying. That makes a lot of sense. That does also seem like part of being open. Thanks for clarifying.

    • Mark says:

      anks Elizabeth. I don’t think debate and opinion is necessarily equated with defensive reactivity. I’m speaking about my fear of questioning authority and giving up the fantasy that someone has the ‘right’ answer (ie. do this and everything will be fine). Perhaps that is being truly open…

      • admin says:

        I get what you are saying…thanks for clarifying C;

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