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Advice on Guru Practice

The great meditator Ngawang Norbu Gomchen Khampala (ca. 1901-85) was the incarnation of the renowned fifteenth century Tibetan Lama, Tangtong Gyälpo—mahasiddha, healer, scholar, poet and scientist—who invented a method of forging steel and developed chain-link bridges in Tibet. Gomchen-la lived in a cave high in the mountains of Solu Khumbu, Nepal and on 10th January 1975, on a visit to Kopan Monastery, gave the following teaching to students in a lam-rim retreat and the monks and nuns of the International Mahayana Institute. It was translated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Published in 2005 in the LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.

Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche’s introduction: Gomchen-la is a great meditator from the mountains of Solu Khumbu not far from where I was born. He’s originally from Tibet. He rejoices greatly that Western people are saying prayers and meditating on the Buddhadharma, because it’s unusual, not normal. It’s as if the impossible has happened. Therefore, he rejoices. I have asked him to give the Western students some instruction, and it seems he has much energy to do so. He’s also saying that I should translate everything he says and not hold anything back!

I have spent only one night at Kopan, but the feeling here is very good. I think it’s because everybody is living in refuge; it’s the power of people’s minds living in refuge and their becoming inner beings, or Buddhists.

In Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s previous life he lived in Solu Khumbu as the Lawudo Lama, and at that time, you were also probably born around that area and made karmic contact with him. Because of that and your good fortune as well, even though in this life you were born in far-distant foreign countries, you have found a teacher who can explain Dharma in your own language, which other lamas can’t do. Therefore, you are greatly fortunate. You should take this opportunity and, in particular, take great care with your guru practice.

There are many lamas from the different schools—Nyingma, Kagyü, Gelug and Sakya—who can explain the Dharma very well, but the problem is language.

In Buddhadharma, guru practice is the most important thing. In fact, the only object to whom we need pray is the guru, because the guru encompasses the entire Triple Gem—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Therefore, first of all, it is necessary to find a perfect guru, but I’m not going to talk about that here.

In the sutra teachings, we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but in tantra, we take refuge in the guru. As it says in the Guru Puja,

You are my guru, you are my yidam,
You are the dakinis and Dharma protectors.
From now until enlightenment,
I shall seek no refuge other than you.

This is the tantric way of taking refuge. You should try to actualize this; gain experience of it. Lama Zopa Rinpoche should explain this practice to you and from your side you should make heartfelt requests to receive teachings on the practice of guru yoga.

When I was in Tibet, I asked my guru to explain it to me, but he said, “If I talk about guru practice it will look as if I’m praising myself; as if I’m saying, ‘I am good; I am the best,’” and would not explain it to me. He told me, “You can study the details of guru practice in books to understand what it entails. If the lama explains it the disciples might think he’s just aggrandizing himself or boasting that he’s the best.”

I rejoice that you are not only reciting prayers but analyzing the meaning of the teachings as well; thinking of the meaning and concentrating on the fundamental path. Say that there were many millions of billions of galaxies full of stupas full of Buddha’s relics and every day you made offerings to all of them, there would be enormous benefit in that. But as it says in the Mahamudra teachings, “Meditating on the fundamental path for just a short time has more benefit than every day making offerings to millions of billions of galaxies full of stupas containing relics of the Buddha.” Therefore, I thank Lama Zopa Rinpoche and all of you.

There are many people who can recite the words and give clear intellectual explanations of the teachings but don’t practice or analyze the meaning. Here, you are doing both: not only are you thinking about what the words mean but at the same time you are trying to put that meaning into practice. Study combined with meditation—meditating while receiving the teaching—is called “experiencing the commentary”—while the teacher is giving the commentary the disciples try to gain experience of it. That’s a wise and excellent way to practice.

There’s a prayer of request to the guru that goes,

Magnificent and precious root guru,
Please abide on the lotus and moon seat at the crown of my head.
Guide me with your great kindness,
And grant me the realizations of your holy body, speech and mind.

What is the kindness to which this prayer refers? It’s what’s happening here at Kopan Monastery—being guided by the guru, who out of his great kindness gives commentaries on the teachings and confers initiations, which ripen the mind.

With respect to the last line of this prayer, the essence of whatever deity you’re meditating on—for example, Avalokiteshvara—is the guru. Meditational deities are manifestations of the guru. When we request the realizations of our guru’s holy body, speech and mind, we receive the blessings of the guru’s holy body, speech and mind. These blessings purify the negativities of our own body, speech and mind, which then become one with our guru’s holy body, speech and mind.

Once, the great pandit and yogi Naropa was reading texts in the extensive library of a great temple when a dakini suddenly appeared out of a dark cloud in the space in front of him and said, “You know the words but you don’t know the meaning.”

“Where can I learn the meaning?” Naropa asked.

She replied, “There’s a great yogi called Tilopa. You can receive the commentaries from him.”

Consequently, as directed by the dakini, the great pandit Naropa went to West Bengal, in the north-eastern part of India, in search of his guru, Tilopa. When he got there, he asked the local people if they knew Tilopa. They said, “There are two Tilopas: a rich one and a poor one, a beggar. There are two.” Naropa said, “Tilopa, the guru I have to find, doesn’t necessarily have to be rich or poor.”

Later, as he went around, he found Tilopa by the river, pulling fish from the water, cooking them over a fire and eating them. Seeing this, instead of criticizing Tilopa or being shocked by his behavior, he remained silent; not a hair of his body moved. He just stood there quietly, without a single negative or disparaging thought, and simply reflected, “Since sentient beings are so ignorant, in order to release them from ignorance and lead them to enlightenment, Tilopa has manifested in this form, catching fish and eating them.”

Thinking like this is one way of practicing guru yoga. In previous lifetimes, Naropa had created the incredible merit and karma necessary to meet a guru such as Tilopa and never generate a single negative thought about him. Therefore, when he finally did meet this great guru, he realized he was a true saint and saw him in only a positive light. Similarly, you people have also created good karma in previous lives. In fact, your karma might be even better than Naropa’s was because you see your guru in a better aspect—as a monk in robes.

Anyway, when Naropa saw Tilopa, he said, “Please guide me,” meaning, “Please lead me to enlightenment.”

At first, Tilopa replied, “I’m just a simple beggar, I can’t do it; I can’t accept your request. I can’t help you.” But finally he did accept, after which Naropa followed his guru impeccably.

One day while they were walking along the edge of a high cliff, Tilopa said, “Is there anybody here who can fulfill the guru’s command?” which is the way to become enlightened in the one lifetime. The command was to leap off the cliff.

Naropa replied, “None other than me can do it, so I will,” and he threw himself over the cliff.

He lay there at the foot of the cliff, badly injured, for three days, during which time Tilopa completely ignored him. Finally Tilopa asked Naropa, “What happened? What’s wrong with you?”

“This is the result of following the guru’s orders,” Naropa said. Then, just by Tilopa’s laying his hand on Naropa, all his injuries were completely healed.

Naropa underwent twelve such life-threatening experiences following his guru’s orders. It would take too long to recount them here and anyway, I’m quite old and don’t remember them very well.

Another time, Tilopa told Naropa to go get some soup from some farmers working in a field. They wouldn’t give him any so he tried to steal some, but they caught him and beat him very badly. Again, Tilopa just left him lying there for three days, after which time he asked, “What’s up with you?”

The whole point is that without a single exception, Naropa did exactly what his guru told him to do. Like the time they came across a royal wedding, where a king was getting married. There was a magnificent procession with the bride on horseback. Tilopa said, “The disciple who wants enlightenment in this life should go grab that bride.” Naropa thought, “That’s me,” and without any hesitation or doubt went straight up to the wedding party, pulled the woman off the horse and tried to drag her away. All the people immediately jumped on Naropa, bashed him up and even cut off some of his limbs.

Again, Tilopa left him for three days and finally returned to ask, “What’s the matter with you?”

“This happened because I followed my guru’s orders.” Once more Tilopa healed Naropa just by touching him and his severed limbs were miraculously restored.

There’s another story about the day that Tilopa hit Naropa on the head with his shoe so strongly that he passed out. When Naropa came to, his mind and his guru’s holy mind had become one; whatever knowledge Tilopa had, so did Naropa. This was the result of his impeccable guru devotion and doing exactly what Tilopa told him to do.

As the teachings explain, you have to decide completely that the guru is definitely buddha. If you don’t come to that conclusion, then no matter what Dharma practices you do, they won’t be of much benefit; they won’t become a quick path to enlightenment.

Another teaching says, “Meditating on the guru’s holy body is hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than meditating on trillions of deities in all their various aspects.” However, whatever deity you meditate on, you have to remember, “This is my guru’s holy body.” You should not think, “This is the deity; the guru is something else.”

Also, following your guru’s instructions is far more beneficial than reciting the deity’s mantra trillions of times.

There are two stages of the Highest Yoga Tantra path to enlightenment: generation and completion. While there is great benefit in meditating on the completion stage, doing it for even many eons pales in comparison to invoking the guru’s holy mind just once.

I don’t have that much more to say. I just wanted to say a few words about guru practice, so I’m simply emphasizing a few of the important points.

As I mentioned, you should request Lama Zopa Rinpoche for teachings on guru devotion and from your side pray to the guru as one with the deity. But remember what my guru told me when I asked for teachings on guru practice: “You can understand the practice of guru devotion by reading the texts; if I explain it to you, it will appear as if I’m extolling my own virtues; boasting that I’m the best of all.”

These days, people can’t practice like the great pandits of old. It’s very difficult. Instead of following our gurus’ orders like those fortunate beings did we have a bad attitude towards our teachers; instead of generating devotion we criticize them; instead of doing what they suggest we do the opposite.

However, even though we can’t practice like those great pandits did—purifying their negativities by following their gurus’ orders—we can purify in other ways. For example, we can do prostrations, make mandala offerings, recite Vajrasattva mantras and so forth.

There are many different tantric deities but in essence all of them are the guru. Therefore, when we make offerings to the various deities, we are actually making offerings to the guru.

The way to receive blessings is not to think that Avalokiteshvara is separate from your guru but that they are one. The really quick way to receive blessings is to concentrate on the guru and make your mind one with his holy mind, like mixing water with milk.

Don’t think that Avalokiteshvara is somewhere else, is more beautiful than your guru or has no relationship to the guru from whom you receive teachings. It is not like that. Avalokiteshvara, or any other deity, is the guru. This is what I really want to emphasize.

There was once a yogi called Tsang-nyön-pa. Tsang is the name of a place; nyön means crazy. This yogi led an ascetic life and wandered around a lot. Before eating, he would always offer his food to his guru. One day he was in a forest and met a shepherd, who gave him some tsampa. He hadn’t eaten for a long time and was very hungry, so he started eating it immediately. But the moment he put the food into his mouth, he thought, “Oh, I forgot offer it.” So he took the tsampa out of his mouth and, with incredible devotion, offered it to his guru.

At that moment his guru was giving teachings many miles away. All of a sudden, the food that Tsang-nyön-pa offered appeared in his guru’s mouth and he had to stop speaking. He said, “Today my disciple Tsang-nyön-pa, who hadn’t eaten for a long time, got some tsampa and offered it to me with such great devotion and single-pointed concentration that it actually came into my mouth.”

The amount of Dharma you know, the number of realizations you gain, depends on how much devotion you have for your guru—the greater your devotion, the greater your Dharma understanding and realizations. It all depends on guru devotion.

The great meditator Ngawang Norbu Gomchen Khampala (ca. 1901-85) was the incarnation of the renowned fifteenth century Tibetan Lama, Tangtong Gyälpo—mahasiddha, healer, scholar, poet and scientist—who invented a method of forging steel and developed chain-link bridges in Tibet. Gomchen-la lived in a cave high in the mountains of Solu Khumbu, Nepal and on 10th January 1975, on a visit to Kopan Monastery, gave the following teaching to students in a lam-rim retreat and the monks and nuns of the International Mahayana Institute. It was translated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Published in 2005 in the LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.

Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche’s introduction: Gomchen-la is a great meditator from the mountains of Solu Khumbu not far from where I was born. He’s originally from Tibet. He rejoices greatly that Western people are saying prayers and meditating on the Buddhadharma, because it’s unusual, not normal. It’s as if the impossible has happened. Therefore, he rejoices. I have asked him to give the Western students some instruction, and it seems he has much energy to do so. He’s also saying that I should translate everything he says and not hold anything back!

I have spent only one night at Kopan, but the feeling here is very good. I think it’s because everybody is living in refuge; it’s the power of people’s minds living in refuge and their becoming inner beings, or Buddhists.

In Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s previous life he lived in Solu Khumbu as the Lawudo Lama, and at that time, you were also probably born around that area and made karmic contact with him. Because of that and your good fortune as well, even though in this life you were born in far-distant foreign countries, you have found a teacher who can explain Dharma in your own language, which other lamas can’t do. Therefore, you are greatly fortunate. You should take this opportunity and, in particular, take great care with your guru practice.

There are many lamas from the different schools—Nyingma, Kagyü, Gelug and Sakya—who can explain the Dharma very well, but the problem is language.

In Buddhadharma, guru practice is the most important thing. In fact, the only object to whom we need pray is the guru, because the guru encompasses the entire Triple Gem—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Therefore, first of all, it is necessary to find a perfect guru, but I’m not going to talk about that here.

In the sutra teachings, we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but in tantra, we take refuge in the guru. As it says in the Guru Puja,

You are my guru, you are my yidam,
You are the dakinis and Dharma protectors.
From now until enlightenment,
I shall seek no refuge other than you.

This is the tantric way of taking refuge. You should try to actualize this; gain experience of it. Lama Zopa Rinpoche should explain this practice to you and from your side you should make heartfelt requests to receive teachings on the practice of guru yoga.

When I was in Tibet, I asked my guru to explain it to me, but he said, “If I talk about guru practice it will look as if I’m praising myself; as if I’m saying, ‘I am good; I am the best,’” and would not explain it to me. He told me, “You can study the details of guru practice in books to understand what it entails. If the lama explains it the disciples might think he’s just aggrandizing himself or boasting that he’s the best.”

I rejoice that you are not only reciting prayers but analyzing the meaning of the teachings as well; thinking of the meaning and concentrating on the fundamental path. Say that there were many millions of billions of galaxies full of stupas full of Buddha’s relics and every day you made offerings to all of them, there would be enormous benefit in that. But as it says in the Mahamudra teachings, “Meditating on the fundamental path for just a short time has more benefit than every day making offerings to millions of billions of galaxies full of stupas containing relics of the Buddha.” Therefore, I thank Lama Zopa Rinpoche and all of you.

There are many people who can recite the words and give clear intellectual explanations of the teachings but don’t practice or analyze the meaning. Here, you are doing both: not only are you thinking about what the words mean but at the same time you are trying to put that meaning into practice. Study combined with meditation—meditating while receiving the teaching—is called “experiencing the commentary”—while the teacher is giving the commentary the disciples try to gain experience of it. That’s a wise and excellent way to practice.

There’s a prayer of request to the guru that goes,

Magnificent and precious root guru,
Please abide on the lotus and moon seat at the crown of my head.
Guide me with your great kindness,
And grant me the realizations of your holy body, speech and mind.

What is the kindness to which this prayer refers? It’s what’s happening here at Kopan Monastery—being guided by the guru, who out of his great kindness gives commentaries on the teachings and confers initiations, which ripen the mind.

With respect to the last line of this prayer, the essence of whatever deity you’re meditating on—for example, Avalokiteshvara—is the guru. Meditational deities are manifestations of the guru. When we request the realizations of our guru’s holy body, speech and mind, we receive the blessings of the guru’s holy body, speech and mind. These blessings purify the negativities of our own body, speech and mind, which then become one with our guru’s holy body, speech and mind.

Once, the great pandit and yogi Naropa was reading texts in the extensive library of a great temple when a dakini suddenly appeared out of a dark cloud in the space in front of him and said, “You know the words but you don’t know the meaning.”

“Where can I learn the meaning?” Naropa asked.

She replied, “There’s a great yogi called Tilopa. You can receive the commentaries from him.”

Consequently, as directed by the dakini, the great pandit Naropa went to West Bengal, in the north-eastern part of India, in search of his guru, Tilopa. When he got there, he asked the local people if they knew Tilopa. They said, “There are two Tilopas: a rich one and a poor one, a beggar. There are two.” Naropa said, “Tilopa, the guru I have to find, doesn’t necessarily have to be rich or poor.”

Later, as he went around, he found Tilopa by the river, pulling fish from the water, cooking them over a fire and eating them. Seeing this, instead of criticizing Tilopa or being shocked by his behavior, he remained silent; not a hair of his body moved. He just stood there quietly, without a single negative or disparaging thought, and simply reflected, “Since sentient beings are so ignorant, in order to release them from ignorance and lead them to enlightenment, Tilopa has manifested in this form, catching fish and eating them.”

Thinking like this is one way of practicing guru yoga. In previous lifetimes, Naropa had created the incredible merit and karma necessary to meet a guru such as Tilopa and never generate a single negative thought about him. Therefore, when he finally did meet this great guru, he realized he was a true saint and saw him in only a positive light. Similarly, you people have also created good karma in previous lives. In fact, your karma might be even better than Naropa’s was because you see your guru in a better aspect—as a monk in robes.

Anyway, when Naropa saw Tilopa, he said, “Please guide me,” meaning, “Please lead me to enlightenment.”

At first, Tilopa replied, “I’m just a simple beggar, I can’t do it; I can’t accept your request. I can’t help you.” But finally he did accept, after which Naropa followed his guru impeccably.

One day while they were walking along the edge of a high cliff, Tilopa said, “Is there anybody here who can fulfill the guru’s command?” which is the way to become enlightened in the one lifetime. The command was to leap off the cliff.

Naropa replied, “None other than me can do it, so I will,” and he threw himself over the cliff.

He lay there at the foot of the cliff, badly injured, for three days, during which time Tilopa completely ignored him. Finally Tilopa asked Naropa, “What happened? What’s wrong with you?”

“This is the result of following the guru’s orders,” Naropa said. Then, just by Tilopa’s laying his hand on Naropa, all his injuries were completely healed.

Naropa underwent twelve such life-threatening experiences following his guru’s orders. It would take too long to recount them here and anyway, I’m quite old and don’t remember them very well.

Another time, Tilopa told Naropa to go get some soup from some farmers working in a field. They wouldn’t give him any so he tried to steal some, but they caught him and beat him very badly. Again, Tilopa just left him lying there for three days, after which time he asked, “What’s up with you?”

The whole point is that without a single exception, Naropa did exactly what his guru told him to do. Like the time they came across a royal wedding, where a king was getting married. There was a magnificent procession with the bride on horseback. Tilopa said, “The disciple who wants enlightenment in this life should go grab that bride.” Naropa thought, “That’s me,” and without any hesitation or doubt went straight up to the wedding party, pulled the woman off the horse and tried to drag her away. All the people immediately jumped on Naropa, bashed him up and even cut off some of his limbs.

Again, Tilopa left him for three days and finally returned to ask, “What’s the matter with you?”

“This happened because I followed my guru’s orders.” Once more Tilopa healed Naropa just by touching him and his severed limbs were miraculously restored.

There’s another story about the day that Tilopa hit Naropa on the head with his shoe so strongly that he passed out. When Naropa came to, his mind and his guru’s holy mind had become one; whatever knowledge Tilopa had, so did Naropa. This was the result of his impeccable guru devotion and doing exactly what Tilopa told him to do.

As the teachings explain, you have to decide completely that the guru is definitely buddha. If you don’t come to that conclusion, then no matter what Dharma practices you do, they won’t be of much benefit; they won’t become a quick path to enlightenment.

Another teaching says, “Meditating on the guru’s holy body is hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than meditating on trillions of deities in all their various aspects.” However, whatever deity you meditate on, you have to remember, “This is my guru’s holy body.” You should not think, “This is the deity; the guru is something else.”

Also, following your guru’s instructions is far more beneficial than reciting the deity’s mantra trillions of times.

There are two stages of the Highest Yoga Tantra path to enlightenment: generation and completion. While there is great benefit in meditating on the completion stage, doing it for even many eons pales in comparison to invoking the guru’s holy mind just once.

I don’t have that much more to say. I just wanted to say a few words about guru practice, so I’m simply emphasizing a few of the important points.

As I mentioned, you should request Lama Zopa Rinpoche for teachings on guru devotion and from your side pray to the guru as one with the deity. But remember what my guru told me when I asked for teachings on guru practice: “You can understand the practice of guru devotion by reading the texts; if I explain it to you, it will appear as if I’m extolling my own virtues; boasting that I’m the best of all.”

These days, people can’t practice like the great pandits of old. It’s very difficult. Instead of following our gurus’ orders like those fortunate beings did we have a bad attitude towards our teachers; instead of generating devotion we criticize them; instead of doing what they suggest we do the opposite.

However, even though we can’t practice like those great pandits did—purifying their negativities by following their gurus’ orders—we can purify in other ways. For example, we can do prostrations, make mandala offerings, recite Vajrasattva mantras and so forth.

There are many different tantric deities but in essence all of them are the guru. Therefore, when we make offerings to the various deities, we are actually making offerings to the guru.

The way to receive blessings is not to think that Avalokiteshvara is separate from your guru but that they are one. The really quick way to receive blessings is to concentrate on the guru and make your mind one with his holy mind, like mixing water with milk.

Don’t think that Avalokiteshvara is somewhere else, is more beautiful than your guru or has no relationship to the guru from whom you receive teachings. It is not like that. Avalokiteshvara, or any other deity, is the guru. This is what I really want to emphasize.

There was once a yogi called Tsang-nyön-pa. Tsang is the name of a place; nyön means crazy. This yogi led an ascetic life and wandered around a lot. Before eating, he would always offer his food to his guru. One day he was in a forest and met a shepherd, who gave him some tsampa. He hadn’t eaten for a long time and was very hungry, so he started eating it immediately. But the moment he put the food into his mouth, he thought, “Oh, I forgot offer it.” So he took the tsampa out of his mouth and, with incredible devotion, offered it to his guru.

At that moment his guru was giving teachings many miles away. All of a sudden, the food that Tsang-nyön-pa offered appeared in his guru’s mouth and he had to stop speaking. He said, “Today my disciple Tsang-nyön-pa, who hadn’t eaten for a long time, got some tsampa and offered it to me with such great devotion and single-pointed concentration that it actually came into my mouth.”

The amount of Dharma you know, the number of realizations you gain, depends on how much devotion you have for your guru—the greater your devotion, the greater your Dharma understanding and realizations. It all depends on guru devotion.

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