Said the Dalai Lama in 1976…

Rob Hogendoorn
Written by Rob Hogendoorn

In 1983, Glenn Mullin published his translation of the Third Dalai Lama’s ‘Essence of Refined Gold,’ along with a commentary that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama gave in 1976 to several thousand Tibetans in Dharamsala, India.1 Mullin had attended this teaching himself.

That same year, in his Tibetan New Year’s speech of 10 March, the Dalai Lama confronted his fellow Tibetans directly: ‘My countrymen, beware of the yawning chasms! Forgetting the enemy who invaded and wrested the country, you indulge in squabbles and factionalism. Discarding the thoughts and motives to promote the interest of the larger masses of one’s own people, you seek and work to promote your own interest only. Refusing to recognise the grave economic situation that the Tibetan people are in, you desire and emulate luxury life-style of other rich people. These are unhealthy trends and matters of serious concern. So, give a thought to these seriously.’2

Shortly before the Dalai Lama’s speech, during a routine consultation in Drepung Monastery in February 1976, the state oracle Nechung prophesied that the Dalai Lama ‘will not be amid you for long.’ ‘The Ottowa Journal’ wrote at the time: ‘The monk council, overawed, kept the prediction a secret for a while in the national interest. Only the Kashag, the Tibetan cabinet, was informed.’ Nechung’s foreboding became a matter of public concern, however, when the Dalai Lama adamantly refused to accept the customary longlife offerings made by the Tibetan government: ‘Even his tutors and the heads of the four Tibetan Buddhist [sects] have also failed to persuade the Dalai Lama to accept the ceremony.’3

Looking back on this episode, Tibetologist Martin Mills explained: ‘The general Mahayana Buddhist view of higher teachers such as the Dalai Lama is that, as manifestations of Buddhahood, they appear only as a consequence of people’s good karma, and do so only to teach and guide other beings to liberation from samsara. As such, if people fail to take the advice of the spiritual guide, he simply withdraws his earthly presence. The present Dalai Lama had previously indicated that the matter of [Dorje] Shugden was decisive in this regard during the mid-1970s, when resistance to his reforms within the heart of the Tibetan Government-in- exile caused him to refuse their annual long-life offering, and to hint that there would not be a fifteenth Dalai Lama.’4

Syndicated news reports published through the summer of 1976 in the United States of America are a testament to the dismay the Dalai Lama’s actions caused in the Tibetan exiles’ lives, leading to headlines such as: ‘State Oracle upsets Tibetans’, ‘Dalai Lama—Last of the Line?’, and ‘Is the Eternal Dalai Lama to Die at Last This Time?’ By the time these articles were published, the Dalai Lama had completed the three month retreat that he began after his 10 March speech. Thereafter the Dalai Lama relented and accepted the customary offerings after all.5.

The following comments on the practice of ‘guru yoga’ are quoted from the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s commentary on ‘Essence of Refined Gold’ in 1976.

‘The offering of practice means always to live by the teachings of one’s guru. But what happens when the guru gives us advice that we do not wish to follow or that contradicts Dharma and reason? The yardstick must always be logical reasoning and Dharma reason. Any advice that contradicts these is to be rejected. This was said by Buddha himself. If one doubts the validity of what is being said, one should gently push the point and clear all doubts. This task becomes somewhat more sensitive in Highest Tantra, where total surrender to me guru is a prerequisite; but even here this surrender must he made only in a particular sense. If the guru points to the east and tells you to go west, there is little alternative for the student but to make a complaint. This should be done with respect and humility, however, for to show any negativity towards a teacher is not a noble way of repaying his kindness.

The practice of guru yoga means that one ignores any negative traits that the guru may seem to have, and that one meditates upon his positive qualities. If we can develop the habit of always seeing him through his good qualities, our confidence in him naturally grows, and eventually we become able to take our preconceptions about faults he seems to display and transform them into spiritually useful tools. Perception of faults in the guru should not cause us to feel disrespect for him, for by demonstrating faults to us he is actually showing us what we should abandon. At least, this is the most useful attitude for us to take. An important point here is that the disciple must have a spirit of sincere inquiry and must have clear, rather than blind, faith.

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect; but personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, “Every action seen as perfect,” but this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith for me.” The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of “every action seen as perfect” not be stressed. Whenever me guru manifests un-Dharmic qualities or gives teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing him as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom. Take myself, for example. Because many of the previous Dalai Lamas were great sages and I am said to be their reincarnation, and also because in this lifetime I give frequent religious discourses, many people place much faith in me, and in their guru yoga practice visualize me as being a Buddha. I am also regarded by these people as their secular leader. Therefore, this teaching of “every action seen as perfect” can easily become poison for me in my relationship with my people and in my effective administration. I could think to myself, “They all see me as a Buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.” Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten. I always recommend that the teaching on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should not be stressed in the lives of ordinary practitioners. It would he an unfortunate affair if the Buddhadharma, which is established by profound reasoning, were to have to take second place to it.

Perhaps you will think: “The Dalai Lama has not read any Lam-rim scriptures, He does not know that there is no practice of Dharma without the guru.” I am not being disrespectful of the Lam-rim teachings. A student of the spiritual path should rely upon a teacher and should meditate on his kindness and good qualities; but the teaching on seeing his actions as perfect can only he applied within the context of the Dharma as a whole and the rational approach to knowledge that it advocates. As the teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect is borrowed from Highest Tantra and appears in the Lam-rim mainly to prepare the trainee for tantric practice, beginners must treat it with caution. As for the guru, if he misrepresents this precept of guru yoga in order to take advantage of his naive disciples, his actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into his stomach.

The disciple must always keep his reason and his knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines. Without this approach it is difficult to digest one’s Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then follow him within the conventions of reason as presented by Buddha. The teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should largely be left for the practice of highest tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principal yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!

In Tibet, due to the Dharma being so widespread, and due to the kindness of many past masters, the people were inspired by a great deal of faith. Even a small patch of red cloth was regarded as true Sangha. They had no difficulty in practicing “every action seen as perfect.” Therefore, responsibility for the purity of the tradition rested in the hands of the lamas, and, unfortunately, it is very easy for a lama to become spoiled by the teaching “every action seen as perfect.” Actually, the more respect one is given the more humble one should become, but sometimes this principle becomes reversed. A spiritual teacher must guard himself carefully and should remember the words of Lama Drom Ton-pa, “Use respect shown to you as a cause for humility.” This is the teacher’s responsibility. The student has the responsibility of using wisdom in his demonstration of faith and respect.

Faith generated is a virtue, but if it is not guided by wisdom it can get us into trouble. We Tibetans generally have so much faith that we take Dharma practices for granted. A monk who lives from the offerings of patrons, but does not abide within the practices, creates a negative karma equal to stealing from a temple. Someone who has spiritual qualities or who is engaged in intensive study or practice fulfills the qualification of receiving offerings and his acceptance is meaningful. But a bad monk would be better off to swallow a hot iron ball. A problem is that we usually only observe those teachings that feed our delusions and ignore those that would overcome them. This leniency can easily lead to one’s downfall. This is why I call the teaching on seeing all the guru’s actions as perfect, a poison. Many sectarian problems in Tibet were born and nourished by it.

The First Dalai Lama wrote, “The true spiritual master looks upon all living beings with thoughts of love and shows respect to teachers of all traditions alike. He only harms delusion, the enemy within.” The different traditions have arisen principally as branches of skillful methods for trainees of varying capacities. If we take an aspect of their teachings, such as the precept of “all actions seen as perfect,” and use it for sectarian purposes, how have we repaid the past masters for their kindness in giving and transmitting Dharma? Have we not disgraced them? If we misunderstand and mispractice their teachings, it will hardly please them. Similarly, it is meritorious for a lama to perform rituals or give initations to benefit people, but if his motivation is only material benefit, he would be better off to become a businessman. Using the mask of Dharma to exploit people is a great harm, What the Chinese did to us was bad, but not as bad as the effects we would create by taking Dharma and using it for sectarian purposes or to exploit people. This rots the foundation. In this context the great yogi Mi-la-re-pa said, “When Dharma practitioners do not abide within their practices, all they do is harm the teachings.” Just as intestinal worms can kill a lion, using the teachings for sectarianism and exploitation can easily destroy the Dharma. We erect elaborate altars and make extensive pilgrimages, but better than to do so is to remember Buddha’s teachings: “Never create any evil; always create goodness; aim all practices at cultivating the mind.” When our practice increases delusion, negatity and disturbed states of mind, we know that something is wrong.

It is sometimes said that a major cause of the decline of Buddhism in India eight hundred years ago was the practice of Vajrayana by unqualified people, and sectarianism caused by corruption within the Sangha. Anyone teaching Tibetan Buddhism should keep this in mind when they refer to the precept, “every action of the guru is to be seen as perfect.” This is an extremely dangerous teaching, particularly for beginners.’

  1. Gyatso, Sonam (the Third Dalai Lama). (1985). Essence of refined gold: Commentary by H.H. the Dalai Lama XIV (G. H. Mullin, Trans.). Ithaca: Snow Lion.
  2. Gyatso, Tenzin (the Fourteenth Dalai Lama). (1976). Statement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the Seventeenth Anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising Day, 10 March 1976. Retrieved 16 June 2020 from http://tibet.net/1976/03/statement-of-his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-on-the-seventeenth-anniversary-of-the-tibetan-national-uprising-day-10-march-1976/
  3. Singh, A. J. (1976). State Oracle Upsets Tibetans. ‘The Ottawa Journal’, p. 5.
  4. Mills, Martin. (2009). ‘Charting the Shugden Interdiction in the Western Himalaya’. In John Bray & Elena De Rossi Filibeck (Eds.), ‘Mountains, Monasteries and Mosques: Recent Research on Ladakh and the Western Himalaya: Proceedings of the 13th colloquium of the International Association for Ladakh Studies’, pp. 251-270. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra.
  5. Nowak, Margaret. (1984). Tibetan Refugees: Youth and the New Generation of Meaning. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 29-30.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.