By Erric Solomon

What is devotion? Is there something about the guru/disciple relationship that makes it unsuited to the modern world? If this relationship is truly essential to swiftly making progress along the path, how can we do so safely, especially in light of some of the stories we have recently had to hear about?

On the very last day of our Radically Happy book tour, the very last question that we were asked was whether the guru/disciple relationship still should have a role in today’s world. I have been thinking about that question ever since, because I could see how much this question needs to be properly answered. In fact, it kept coming up in different ways along our tour, often from long time practitioners. In the last months I have read some stuff online, which I honestly found kind of shockingly uninformed, which seemed to be more muddying the waters than clarifying anything. I can understand where people are coming from, but it also made me a little sad since it seems as though they are diminishing the possibility of discovering the most important part of the most important practice—recognizing and abiding in the nature of mind.

What Devotion Really Is

Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche used to explain that devotion and love were both the rising of uncontrived love. When the object of that love is beings who are less fortunate (i.e. lost in samsara), then we call it compassion. When the object of uncontrived love is beings who are more fortunate than we are (i.e. the buddhas, bodhisattvas and great teachers), we call it devotion. It is through the transformative power of intense uncontrived love, that the naked empty essence of our mind will be directly revealed.

The third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, expressed this beautifully: “In the moment of love, the empty essence nakedly dawns.”

This is why devotion is emphasized so much in Vajrayana, especially amongst the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. It is sometimes called a universal remedy.  It can cure our most stubborn afflictions—the subtlest clinging that keeps us bound to cyclic existence. And this tradition has thousands of stories of practitioners, otherwise ordinary people, who achieved lasting realization solely through devotion rather than great scholarship or knowing about the most esoteric practices.

Our nature is bodhicitta.  When it rises, it appears as love. It’s just semantics, whether we call it devotion or compassion—either way, it’s bodhicitta. So, although these days it seems that some people will look at devotion as an expression of a sycophant, it really is an expression of bodhi.

Of course, because we have a lot of habits, with this love can come all the usual accoutrements of samsara. This love can be adorned with grasping and all our usual ways of relating to love, giving love, our traumas and dramas around love. But if we are sincere, and really work on cultivating authentic bodhicitta, we can use our normal habit of grasping in a way that releases grasping.  In other words we skillfully rely on conceptual thinking to bring forth authentic devotion and compassion. In the beginning, it doesn’t seem like it’s uncontrived, but gradually we get little glimpses of the uncontrived devotion and compassion that is the nature of all experience.

The Guru’s Role

Traditionally it is taught that our root guru is the one who gives is complete initiation (wang) into the mandala of the deity, or who has given us the three vows (pratimoksha or vows of individual liberation, bodhisattva vows, and the samayas of secret mantrayana), but, most importantly, has introduced us directly to the original nature of our mind. And so, this is what we hope to receive from our teacher.

To put it in modern vernacular, it’s our guru’s job to disrupt, and interrupt our subtlest and most stubborn habitual clinging; and then give us the tools to become ever more familiar the freedom that was momentarily revealed.  Buddha pointed out that there are 84,000 different ways we can go wrong, and for each of us we will have a completely different combination of obstinate obstacles. So our master will skillfully employ a combination of pacifying, magnetizing, enriching and subjugating our ego-clinging in order to guide us. We all like the first three. It’s wrathful subjugation that freaks us out, or rather our ego. But the most subtle and entrenched habits sometimes need unusual antidotes. If you look at the different deities of the shitro, there are peaceful and wrathful. The wrathful ones are still compassionate, but it may not always feel very pleasant.

Therefore, in many texts it says we should study the teacher for 12 years to decide if we can follow them. People often misunderstand this as meaning there might be something wrong with the teacher and we need to be careful. Although there have been and always will be charlatans, this is not the biggest reason we need to be careful when we take a teacher as our guru. The big reason is that in order to realize the full potential of the student/teacher relationship in Vajrayana, we need to gradually develop complete faith in our master. Although it can take quite a while and require a good deal of effort on our part, eventually we have to wholeheartedly surrender to the master no matter what. If it sounds a little frightening, ask yourself: “do I want to be like Tulku Urgyen, Dilgo Khyentse, or the Dalai Lama or do I want to keep cycling around chasing hope and living in fear and all the other endless emotional states that drag us around all the time?” The great teachers all have a fierce devotion to their gurus, and in some cases had to endure some pretty challenging stuff.

When we hear this sort of “total surrender” kind of stuff, we naturally bring in all of our concepts about what that means. It doesn’t mean we can never question our teacher. In fact, it is necessary to question the teacher; first of all, we might have misunderstood. The desire to clarify is actually a good thing. At the same time, we do have to have a fundamental trust or we won’t have any confidence or stability in the recognition of what the teacher is pointing out.

I once saw one of my main teachers harshly scold his main attendant. This teacher is famous for his compassion, and I had never seen him act like this. But I had no doubt that his motivation was pure, and the proof of his training was that his attendant was obviously a great practitioner. So, I asked him, “Rinpoche, why don’t you scold your non-Tibetan students like you scold your monks?” He replied, “Because I worry that if I do that, since my non-Tibetan students don’t have the same kind of devotion, they will leave the Dharma.” I begged him to put me in the same category as the monks and spent the rest of the day quite sad. He gradually became more wrathful with me, and I was happier, although not as comfortable. This story is something we might want to reflect on if we want the maximum benefit of this special relationship.

In reality, I never met anyone who actually spent 12 years analyzing their teacher before committing. For most of us, we met our teacher and, after a time, the karmic connection was simply obvious. But it is a very, very rare person who then sees the complete truth of this sacred bond in all its glory without making any effort. It takes time for the relationship between master and disciple to fully ripen.

part 2 is here

part 3 is here