How To Request a Guru and Serve Him

How To Request a Guru and Serve Him

Spring Teaching 2024 • Fifty Verses on the Guru • Day 5 •

22 February 2024

After greeting the nuns attending the Spring teachings and all those watching on the internet, the Gyalwang Karmapa resumed his discussion of the Fifty Verses on the Guru. Specifically, he discussed the third, fourth, and fifth verses as described in the following commentaries:

- Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen’s Elucidation of the Fifty Verses on the Guru 
- Drogön Chögyal Pakpa’s A Summary of the Fifty Verses on the Guru
- Je Tsongkhapa’s Fulfilling All the Student’s Wishes: An Explanation of the Fifty   Verses on the Guru

Third Verse – How to Request a Guru

Before expounding on the commentaries, His Holiness Karmapa first gave a general introduction to the third verse of the Fifty Verse on the Guru.

In the three times, with highest faith, 
With mandalas and flowers between
Your palms, revere the guru and teacher,
And bow your head down to their feet.

He explained this verse is about how to ask a potential guru to accept you as a student. The verse makes it clear you need to show respect for your guru and teacher. Breaking down these terms further, His Holiness defined a teacher as someone who gives you the explanation of the teachings, and a guru as someone who has solely qualities by nature and no faults. This is one explanation that can be provided as a definition of a guru.

In order to request someone to be your teacher and guru, you cannot go to them with empty hands. You need to have a basis in order to make the request, and as described in this verse, that basis is comprised of the mandalas and flowers you offer between your palms. You should supplicate with a mandala because a mandala holds the true essence. By properly offering a mandala, you can accomplish all six transcendences; for example, wiping the mandala with gavya [any one of the five substances obtained from a cow: milk, cream, butter, urine, dung] includes the perfection of discipline. The flowers you offer can include jasmine and other flowers, and they should be held between your palms, which you have joined together.

After making this offering, you should next bow your head to the teacher’s feet. It is best if you prostrate and bow down to them fully, touching the crown of your head to their feet. But it is not enough to simply make this movement – when you prostrate, you should prostrate with highest faith, which means faith from the depths of your heart with respect and resolve to serve them as is appropriate. Finally, you should not prostrate only once but at all three times – in the morning, noon, and afternoon.

In his commentary Elucidation of the Fifty Verses on the Guru, Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen explains further that this way of showing respect is the proper way to make a new connection between a master and a student. This situation arises when you hear a teacher’s name and feel you need to follow that teacher and serve them, and when you wish to receive unmistaken empowerments and instructions from them.

You should think this is the guru who will teach you everything and give you qualities for both this and future lifetimes. There should be no doubt the guru is greater than you. You should think that even if you only receive a single word of teaching from the guru, you will practice that single instruction with the intention of achieving Buddhahood for the sake of all beings. Throughout this process, the bodhisattva motivation is of paramount importance and it should imbue the request. If the motivation is mistaken, there’s a great problem.

Je Tsongkhapa’s commentary describes this verse in this same way.

Fourth Verse – An Exceptional Circumstance

Next, His Holiness went on to discuss the fourth verse of the root text, which is about how to request a householder or a more junior monastic to be your guru.

If they’re a householder or a junior,
Those who have vows arrange true dharma
And such in front and then revere them
Mentally to avoid worldly censure.

In his commentary A Summary of the Fifty Verses on the Guru, Drogön Chögyal Pakpa describes the verse by stating that in this case, you should not physically prostrate to the guru in order to avoid being criticized by others.

Je Tsongkhapa describes this verse and the next one as instructions regarding exceptional circumstances – in this case, the exceptional circumstance is that a bhikshu would like to follow a householder or a more junior monastic as his guru.

Here, a problem arises because it is generally known that the bhikshus are the foundation, or root, of the teachings. If this is so, one may wonder if it is proper for a bhikshu to prostrate to a householder or more junior monastic in order to show respect.

It is only in the teachings of the Foundation vehicle that bhikshus are always held to be authoritative and more important than householders and junior monastics. In the teachings of the Mahayana, it is taught that householders who are masters should indeed be shown respect, and that pleasing them is always what is most important. Even if one is an elder bhikshu, one should discard the pride of thinking they are more worthy of respect than their master, and they should prostrate to the householder or junior.

However, one must be judicious in the way one offers these prostrations. As the verse says, in the case where the guru is a householder or junior, the bhikshu should “arrange true dharma and such in front and then revere them.” Instead of directly prostrating to the guru, the bhikshu should prostrate before the true dharma. True dharma here consists of three parts: scriptures, realization, and the dharma expanse.

In order to prostrate in this way, a bhikshu should place dharma texts or other dharma objects like thangkas or statues in front of himself and prostrate to these objects, thinking instead that he is prostrating before the guru. In this way, he can abandon his pride.

The reason the bhikshu should prostrate before these objects instead of the guru is to avoid offending householders. In a society with many practitioners of the Foundation vehicle, which considers monastics to be very important, people may see it as a misdeed if a bhikshu prostrates before a householder or one more junior to himself. Seeing this act and misunderstanding, they may criticize the bhikshu and thereby incur a verbal misdeed. Thus, in order to avoid this circumstance, the bhikshu should physically prostrate before dharma texts but mentally imagine he is prostrating to the guru.

The fact is that worldly people do not understand much about the actual nature of dharma and do not know in any detail what the scriptures of the Buddha actually say. For instance, while in the Vinaya it is stated that a bhikshu should only prostrate to the Buddha and to more senior monastics, the situation becomes more complex when we further consider what these terms mean. For example, a buddha here does not only mean a fully enlightened being, but it can also mean a bodhisattva. Likewise, senior here does not only mean more senior in terms of vows, but also more senior in wisdom, realization, austerities, and fortitude.

If one understands the text to literally mean that a bhikshu should only prostrate to a Buddha and those senior in vows, that would mean a bhikshu should not prostrate to beings like Maitreya and Manjushri who wear the robes of householders. As there are many passages in the scriptures of the Foundation vehicle that speak of prostrating to bodhisattvas like Maitreya and Manjushri, it is clear the meaning of the Vinaya text accords with the broader definitions of these terms, and thus there is no contradiction with the Vinaya for a bhikshu to prostate before a bodhisattva or one more senior in realization.

His Holiness Karmapa further made this point by reminding his audience of the second verse of Fifty Verses on the Guru, noting that here it says that even buddhas and bodhisattvas should prostrate to the guru.

In the three times, the tathagatas
Who dwell in world realms in the ten directions
Prostrate to vajra masters who have
Received the supreme empowerment.

The Stainless Light commentary on the Kalachakra also discusses the relationship between monastics and householders, and in particular within the context of tantra.

The masters’ qualities should be taken,
Their faults should never be. 
Taking the qualities brings siddhi. 
There’s no siddhi from speaking of faults.

The idea expressed here is that we are mainly interested in emulating the qualities of the guru but not his faults – if we take his qualities we can achieve siddhi, but if we take his faults we cannot. So, for this reason, we should look for the guru’s qualities and not his faults.

His Holiness cautioned, however, that we must be careful to not misunderstand this teaching. One may think it is not necessary to examine whether or not a guru has faults, and that if a guru does have faults, one should not acknowledge them, but instead follow the guru blindly. However, this is not correct. In fact, His Holiness stated that adhering to such rules is an act of fools who don’t know how to properly follow a Vajrayana guru.

Instead, when you’re following a Vajrayana guru, you must examine whether that guru has all the qualities a guru should have – whether they are compassionate, for example. If you do not examine them, there’s no way for you to know whether or not they are a valid guru.

Even if you do examine a guru and believe they are qualified, you may later see that they have faults. While leaving a guru by losing faith is a fault, there is a skillful way to separate yourself from the guru without losing faith. In this case, you should leave without showing disrespect and then do not think about their faults even after you have left. You should maintain your faith in the guru once you have decided to follow them, even if you later decide to leave.

Returning to the subject of following a householder as a guru, the root tantra of Kalachakra provides additional instruction and clarification. While it is permissible to follow a householder as a guru in exceptional circumstances, this should not be the general rule. This tantra states that there are three types of gurus:

Of the three who fully know the ten suchnesses,
The bhikshu is supreme,
The middling is the novice,
The lowest is a householder.

Moreover, it also states that a king should not take a householder as a guru unless that person has achieved the levels and is able to visibly display signs of accomplishment.

The reasoning here is that it is true that monastics are the foundation of the teachings as they are the ones who support and uphold the teachings by spending all their time engaging in listening, reflecting, and meditating. As this is so, monastics should be considered first when a king is looking for a guru. If a king passes over a monastic to favor a householder, people will think less of the monastics and thus the monastic community and teachings in general will be harmed. For this reason, a king should first seek out a monastic guru to perform consecrations and ceremonies.

Finally, one should not follow their own father as a guru. Even if one’s father is accomplished, it is challenging for a child to develop pure devotion and behavior towards their own father. As such, it is prohibited to have a master/disciple relationship between a father and child. Nevertheless, in the past there were father Vajra-holders with many faithful children, and these master/disciple relationships were considered to be good tantric lineages. In more recent times, however, such lineages have decreased in number as fewer and fewer children are able to see their parents as gurus in order to follow them properly.

There are also prohibitions against siblings having a master/disciple relationship, yet such relationships have still occurred in Tibet. Many people think such relationships are positive because it is indicative of a pure family, but in terms of dharma it is not a good situation.

Fifth Verse – Respecting the Guru

Drogön Chögyal Pakpa describes the fifth verse as another way of showing respect to the guru in order to perfect one’s own accumulations. Je Tsongkhapa describes this verse as a continuation of the previous verse about the exception of how to behave when a bhikshu would like to follow a householder or a more junior monastic as his guru.

The ordained should serve them in all ways—
Arranging their seat and standing up
And working for their sake, and so forth—
Except prostrations and lesser acts.

While the previous verse indicates that a bhikshu student should not physically prostrate to a householder or more junior guru publicly, such a student should nevertheless serve their guru in many ways. This could include arranging a seat for them by covering the bare ground with fabric and cushions, as well as standing up when the guru enters the room.

The line “working for their sake, and so forth” means that the student should be willing to work to increase the wealth of the guru, to help them produce, increase, and guard their resources, and to help them repay their loans – in short, to help them engage in their business. This line can also be understood to mean that the student should assiduously take care of the guru’s clothes and seat.

In general, this verse means that one must have respect and faith in the guru. In this way, any work one does is done for the sake of the guru. Working for their sake is itself an act of service to them. When it is said we should serve them “in all ways,” it means without leaving any way out.

When this verse speaks of “lesser acts,” it means acts that are done impolitely and disrespectfully. For example, if you join your palms and prostrate but there is no respect, this is a lesser act and it harms the body, speech, and mind of the guru. Such acts should be avoided.

Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen and Je Tsongkhapa both agree that in the case of the guru being a householder, physically prostrating to the guru is also a lesser act because it will not look proper to other people who misunderstand. One should still arrange the seats of the guru, stand when the guru enters the room, and provide all other kinds of service, but a student who is a bhikshu should only prostrate mentally to the guru and not physically. The student in this case should also not wash the guru’s feet, as this act may also offend people who do not understand.

There is an exception when the guru is teaching. When one receives a dharma teaching, one must prostrate. So, in this case, the bhikshu should place a dharma text in front and prostrate to the text as described in the previous verse. In this way, one both properly pays respect through prostration while at the same time avoiding the censure of worldly people.

An Argument in Favor of Prostrating to a Householder Guru

Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen in general agrees with the above-described interpretation of these verses as put forth by Drogön Chögyal Pakpa and Je Tsongkhapa. However, he also provides an alternative interpretation of the fourth and fifth verses of the text. He says there is an argument to be made that these verses do not mean that a student who is a bhikshu should never physically prostrate to a guru who is a householder or junior. To prove this point, he makes several arguments.

First, he says such a claim is contrary to the words of Mahayana scripture. For example, The Noble Sutra of Encouraging Altruism states that one should prostrate to all beings of the bodhisattva vehicle whether they are monastic or laypeople. Likewise, in The Stem Array, a great bodhisattva prostrates to a more junior bodhisattva by laying his entire body upon the ground. These and other examples show the precedent for prostrating to all great beings regardless of their status and that there are exceptions to the statement that a bhikshu should never prostrate to a householder.

In addition, Mahayana scripture makes clear that it is proper to prostrate to a bodhisattva. In the Vinaya it says there are two types of beings who are worthy of prostration: the Buddha and senior monastics. However, the fact that the text lists both Buddha and senior monastics separately means that sometimes there must be Buddhas who are not senior monastics or else there would be no need to list these two separately. As there is no doubt that a Buddha is worthy of prostration, there must be occasions when it is proper to prostrate to a being who is not a senior monastic.

Furthermore, The Ornament of the Sage’s Thought explains that we should think of bodhisattvas as being on the same continuum as buddhas and revere them as such through prostration.

[Bodhisattvas] are the seedlings of buddhas, and are termed buddhas, because things that are cause and result are the same continuum … For this very reason, Bhagavan, bhikshus and arhats also think of bodhisattvas who are not fully ordained or who wear the clothes of householders as teachers and prostrate to them.

Therefore, it should not matter if a bodhisattva is a monastic or a lay person; if they have given rise to bodhicitta, they are worthy of prostration.

In The Blaze of Reasoning: A Commentary on the Heart of the Middle Way, Master Bhavaviveka further supports this claim. He argues that a guru deserves prostration because of their qualities and not because of their appearance.

At times, bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri have appeared as householders. However, this is just their emanation. They have taken these forms to ripen sentient beings but at the same time, they have completely abandoned attachment. Since they maintain their noble qualities regardless of their form, they are not unworthy of prostration.

To illustrate this point, an example is provided. The Sage himself once emanated as a Chakravartin emperor in order to tame King Kapina. Since this Chakravartin emperor was the Buddha, it was still proper for the king to prostrate to him even though he was in the form of a layperson.

In order to tame sentient beings, Buddha has sometimes taken the form of ordinary lay individuals and has behaved and spoken like them. Although this is how it appears to an outside observer, in fact the being was the Buddha, and the Buddha was still worthy of veneration and prostration no matter how he appeared.

In sum, Bhavaviveka argues that you prostrate because of the guru’s qualities; it is the qualities that are worthy of prostration. One doesn’t prostrate only because of the guru’s external form and clothing. Merely wearing robes does not make a person venerable.

Plans for a Puja to Celebrate the Anniversary of Milarepa

His Holiness ended the teaching by announcing a puja to be held on Chötrul Düchen commemorating the anniversary of Milarepa. Expressing his hope that many monasteries and dharma centers would participate, he noted that it is important for us to observe the anniversaries of great beings. While we shouldn’t only accept gurus of our lineage, our own special connection is with the Kagyu forefathers, so we should make a point to pay respect to them. He assured us that when we observe their anniversaries and remember and supplicate them, they will definitely bless us and care for us.