The Significance of the Guru

The Significance of the Guru

Spring Teaching 2024 • Fifty Verses on the Guru • Day 3 •
16 February 2024

Before beginning Day Three of the teachings, His Holiness extended his Losar greetings to the monks and nuns, and the Tibetan community in general.

I hope that all of you in this New Year may be healthy, and that all of your activities go well, and that you encounter no difficulties or obstacles, and that all your own individual and common aims can be fulfilled.

He then began a detailed explanation of the text of the 50 Verses.

I prostrate to the Bhagavan Vajrasattva.

This is the translator’s homage, added by the translator, Rinchen Sangpo, it was not in the original text. When the Buddhadharma was first being translated into Tibetan, the translators, like the Indian authors, paid homage to whichever deity they had faith in.

Later the Tibetan kings, ministers, translators, and panditas discussed this issue. They decided that it was most appropriate if the homage were in accord with the topics of the sutras and tantras, and made a rule that at the beginning of all Vinaya texts, one must write “I prostrate to the Omniscient One”; at the beginning of Foundation vehicle sutras, “I prostrate to the Three Jewels” ; at the beginning of Abhidharma texts, “I prostrate to Manjushri”; and at the beginning of Secret Mantra texts, “I prostrate to the Lord of Secrets”. This method would identify the nature of the text immediately.

In discussing these homages, Geshe Potowa said that as the Vinaya is the sphere only of the omniscient Buddha, it was appropriate to pay homage to the Omniscient One. The Vinaya can only be understood by the Buddha. Only the Buddha can make the rules of the Vinaya. No one else, even bodhisattvas on the tenth level, can change the subtlest rules in the Vinaya. Likewise, as the conduct of the Mahayana secret mantra is accomplished in secret, not in the open, it was appropriate to pay homage to the Lord of Secrets, he said.

The aims of the secret mantra can only be accomplished if it's practiced in secret, then you accomplish the siddhis. If you don't practice in secret and in private, no matter who you are, if you publicize it to everyone, in particular, if you reveal secrets to people who are not appropriate vessels, then you won't achieve the siddhis.
It is a very strict system, he said.

Dromtönpa added, “When two people are entering a single mandala simultaneously, even if the teaching is about the same tantra or sadhana, they must be taught individually.”

Before Atisha came to Tibet, the Karmapa explained, there were many masters who were giving Vajrayana empowerments to all and sundry, announcing mudras proudly. For example, they would publicise the empowerment they were about to give and then teach the Guhyasamāja-tantra to hundreds of people. Dromtönpa was highly critical of their behaviour and called it a ‘grave mistake.’ The situation improved a little after Atisha. The Kadampa masters were very strict about Vajrayana practice and generally practiced the secret mantra in private. They were careful to conceal their Vajrayana practice, even to the extent of doing mudras underneath their zen at meal times.

Here “I prostrate to the Bhagavan Vajrasattva” seems to be a prostration to the teacher of the tantras, Vajradhara.
Regarding the use of the Sanskrit word Bhagavan [Eng. perfect conqueror], in the Indian tradition it’s a title given to a deity such as Indra or Brahma or Shiva. These are worldly gods, so, in order to make a distinction, the Tibetan translators used the word chom-den-de [བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས]; the de adds the meaning ‘transcendent’, which is not in the Sanskrit.

The Introductory Points
According to Karma Khenchen Rinchen Dargye’s commentary there are three different parts.
1.   the meaning of the title.
2.  the prostration to the homage.
3.  the pledge to compose.
Today we're looking at the actual words of the text. I thought that maybe it would be good to explain the text according to Drogön Chögyal Pakpa’s summary. This is one of the earliest extant texts—the other is by Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen. There is also a later commentary by Je Tsongkhapa and others.

According to Drogön Chögyal Pakpa’s outline, the text has three main parts:
1. the introductory points connected to the composition.
2. points regarding the text.
3. the concluding summary.

The first part, the introductory points connected to the composition has two points, the homage and the pledge to compose. The homage is in Sanskrit.

I bow down as is proper at the lotus feet of the guru, Who is the cause of reaching the state of glorious Vajrasattva. Following them has been described in many stainless tantras; I shall explain it in brief. Listen respectfully to this. (v. 1)

In the Chinese translation, the lines are in a different order. The first and second lines of the stanza in the Tibetan translation are the third and fourth lines in the Chinese. To explain this in brief: there's a Sanskrit commentary on the 50 Verses, titled Pancikā: though we do not know who the author is, it was translated by Guru Lotsawa Shonnu Pal.  
The first line concerns whom we should pay homage to. It talks about the special deities in whom we have faith, and this is whom we are prostrating to. And if we do not prostrate to them, then we will not accomplish our aims. Before the author comes to the actual topic, he prostrates to the special deity. The prostration should be done at the lotus feet of the Guru, who is the cause of reaching the state of Glorious Vajradhara.
The second line teaches the purpose of the homage and the need for praise.
The third and the fourth line describe the topic of the text and the two reasons for the author to pay attention to the text: in order to be able to complete the composition of the text, and so that others may be able to engage with it.

In order to be able to complete the composition, before he began to compose the text, the author, Master Vāpiladatta, prostrates to his Guru. By doing this, the author of the text himself perfects the accumulation of merit. Because of perfecting the merit, he will turn away from unmeritorious activities and pacify all obstacles.
And it's not just for the author of the text. In the future, when we are teaching or listening to the text, if we prostrate to the guru at the beginning, as described in the words of the text, then we too will be able to gather the accumulation of merit. We will be able to pacify all internal and external obstacles. And we will be able to engage in the studies and complete it without any obstacles.

When we say completing the composition, it's not just for the author writing the text; it’s the same purpose for those listening and studying the text. This is the first purpose.
The second purpose is that because of the author of the text, Vāpiladatta,
paying homage to the Guru, we realize that the Guru is an extraordinary individual, a sacred, important being. Thus, individuals in the future will also understand that gurus are really significant. Whatever practice we engage in, whether it be the Mahayana or the foundation vehicle, the Guru is indispensable.
And so, in particular with the Mahayana, we need to know the characteristics of a Guru, what qualities they should have, and what they should not be like.
We should prostrate to exalted Gurus and know what an exalted Guru is to develop faith and conviction.

Then we begin to wonder, what is an extraordinary being? Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen explains it means someone who has realized the view. Now there are two different views—the correct worldly view and the correct supra-mundane view.
The correct worldly view is belief in karmic cause and effect, someone whom we should pay homage to knows what should be done and should not be done.
We should pay homage to people who practice karmic cause and effect properly,
If the Guru has conviction in karmic cause and effect, then we can achieve the result of reaching the state of glorious Vajrasattva.  There is a profound connection between the two.
The second quality the guru needs is the correct supra-mundane view, that is wisdom, the inseparability of emptiness and compassion. In this context, the one we are paying homage to is someone who has the correct worldly view in their mind-stream and who also has the correct view that transcends the worldly, the supra-mundane view: the wisdom of the inseparability of emptiness and compassion. The individual who has these two views is a superior individual, a distinctive individual, an extraordinary individual.
How do we know that the guru in this text has these qualities? We know because it is taught by Glorious Vajrasattva.
This teaches the purpose of paying homage.

།In summary, there is the homage and the pledge to compose. It encourages us to listen.

How should we listen? “Listen respectfully.” What should we listen to? What “I shall explain in brief.” Where was this taught? “In many stainless tantras.” Do you know anything about them? By “following them.” What preliminaries should be done before teaching? “Bowing down just as should be done.” To whom or what? “The lotus feet.” Whose lotus feet? “The lotus feet of the guru.” What is the necessity for bowing to them? it is because they are “the cause for reaching the state of glorious Vajrasattva.” Did you make up this explanation? The phrase “described in many stainless tantras” applies here, too. If they have been taught in the tantras, that should be enough, so why is it necessary for you to repeat those explanations? The phrase “explain in brief” refutes the argument that this is redundant.

Glossing the text
Having given a summary overview of the first verse, the Gyalwang Karmapa glossed the text in detail.

Glorious–according to the Pancikā [Sanskrit commentary translated into Tibetan by Lotsawa Shonnu Pal] the word glorious in “glorious” Vajrasattva means the accumulation of merit such as going for refuge and the accumulation of wisdom such as meditating on ultimate bodhichitta.  Alternatively, it can be described in terms of the transcendences, the three of generosity, discipline, and patience are the accumulation of merit; the five of prajñā, means, aspiration, wisdom, and power are the accumulation of wisdom. Transcendent diligence and transcendent dhyāna are included in both; they are understood as the accumulations of merit and wisdom. 
Vajra–the Pancikā says this is because their qualities are similar to the seven qualities of a vajra such as indestructibility. The Karmapa explained that a vajra was the extremely powerful weapon that the god Indra held in his hand. It was so terrifying that pregnant female demi-gods would give birth immediately upon seeing it. The word ‘vajra’ can also be translated as “diamond” which is both the most precious and hardest substance.

Sattva–the Pancikā says this is because they will not perish or deteriorate. They are the permanent vajra holder. The Tibetan term is ‘pawo’ or ‘hero’, and His Holiness added that they are called ‘hero’ because they are never discouraged.

Glorious Vajrasattva–according to the Pancikā it means the vajra being who possesses glory, which is the same as the great Vajradhara.

The cause of reaching the state of glorious Vajrasattva–the one who has this function is the Guru, and that, according to the Pancikā, is the reason we prostrate to them. But one also must listen carefully to the text in order to know how to serve the guru appropriately:

By hearing how you should follow a guru, you will know what should be done and what should not be done and perfect the accumulations. It is because of this that it is a cause of achieving our desired aims. Therefore, we listen to how to follow the guru for the sake of the unexcelled result, and strive with dedication, and the text that teaches this is the Fifty Verses on the Guru, as in the story of the abduction of Sita.

Gyalwang Karmapa elaborated: because of doing this we are able to gather the two accumulations perfectly and then achieve the state of glorious Vajrasattva. Achieving the state of glorious Vajrasattva is dependent upon following the Guru, and in order to follow the Guru properly we need to listen to this text.
He also commented on the reason the Indian commentary mentions the story of the abduction of Sita. The Kadampa forefathers also used this analogy. They pointed out that though the Ramayana exists in both a written form and also the one which storytellers recount, the actual Ramayana is neither—it’s the events themselves: the abduction of Prince Rama's wife Sita to Lanka [now Sri Lanka] by the evil king Ravana, and the great war that they engaged in to protect her. They used the analogy when commenting on the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment.

Likewise, His Holiness explained, although there is a text called Fifty Verses on the Guru, the Fifty Verses on the Guru written in letters, read aloud, the general meaning that appears to the mind are not the actual Fifty Verses on the Guru. The actual Fifty Verses on the Guru should be understood as properly following an exalted guru in order to achieve the unexcelled result. The Karmapa emphasized the necessity of going beyond an intellectual understanding of a text to actually put it into practice. If we fail to put it into practice, we have failed to properly understand it. The Fifty Verses on the Guru are pith instructions that we need to follow in order to reach the unexcelled result.

I bow down to the lotus feet of the Guru–the Pancikā cites three reasons for using the term ‘guru’ This is connected to bowing down at the lotus feet of the guru. We say guru, because they give the profound and vast pith instructions of the dharma, because they are like a parent giving us benefit and happiness, and because they are worthy of offerings and service. The lotus is a metaphor for feet and you are prostrating to them.

Because they are both lotuses and feet, they are lotus feet. Bowing down means prostrating.

As is proper–the Pancikā explains that this means showing respect to the guru by following the rituals described in texts:

Because it does not transgress the steps of the ritual, it is “as is proper.” This means preceded by a mandala offering with great delight and a subdued expression. Here “lotus feet of the guru” indicates a praise, and “bowing down” teaches a prostration. These teach three types of offerings: the prostration is with the body, the praise with the speech, and as acts of body and speech are preceded by mind, the mind is implicitly taught.

At this point the Pancikā raises a doubt in the form of a question about prostrating to the guru:

“But the Buddha and so forth are our special deities, so we should pay homage or prostrate to them, should we not? How is the guru our exalted special deity?”

The answer to this doubt is:

Here the guru is the special deity, because they act in a superior way towards us or are especially kind. Alternatively, it is because they are the natural kāya of all buddhas, as it says:

Those who, having become their student, Intentionally deride such lords Have denigrated all the buddhas. (v.10)

The Karmapa commented that the guru does us an exceptional service by guiding us and shows great kindness. They are the same as all the buddhas and bodhisattvas in their kindness. The guru is like an emanation of the buddhas, they are someone who performs the activities of the buddhas, and their representative or ambassador.

All the buddhas and bodhisattvas only have one focus and that is to bring benefit to sentient beings. There are those they have a karmic connection with, and those that they don’t. There are as many different inclinations and capabilities as there are students, so for some it is appropriate to be tamed by a buddha, for others by a bodhisattva. The guru accomplishes the activity of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Not only that, not all sentient beings can meet a buddha or bodhisattva in person and receive teachings from them, but they can meet gurus and receive Dharma teachings from them. They forge a dharma connection with us and engender our longing for the Dharma and for liberation.

Hence, the guru is a representative of the buddhas and bodhisattvas and performs their activities, we prostrate to the guru.

The Gyalwang Karmapa explained that he would stop the teaching at that point as he was still not fully recovered from his recent illness and he was concerned to teach such an important topic, connected as it is with the Vajrayana, as correctly as possible. He observed that it seems the more significant, the more sacred the Dharma, then the more obstacles that occur.

It was essential for everyone to understand the significance and great importance of the guru-student relationship.