Relying on a Master
by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche
We all need to find freedom from samsara and attain enlightenment, and the only way to do so is by relying on a spiritual master, receiving the master’s guidance, and practicing what the master teaches. All the past, present, and future Buddhas rely on a teacher; there is not a single enlightened being who attains enlightenment without depending on a master. Nowadays, many people think that they can just do their own meditation without relying on a teacher, but that’s not very beneficial, and when meditation is not successful, it may cause rebirth in the animal realm.
If enlightenment could be attained without reliance on a master, the Buddhas and lineage masters of the past would have said so, but they all attained enlightenment by relying on their master and practicing his or her instructions. One may be a great scholar and memorize as many texts as an elephant can carry on its back, but one still won’t attain enlightenment without the blessings of a master. It is through the blessings of one’s guru that one can recognize the nature of one’s mind. I’m not just making this up; that’s how all the masters explained things.
It is said that it’s important to have a connection with highly realized masters, whether it’s a connection through Dharma or mundane matters and whether such a connection is positive or negative. If we can’t have a positive connection with highly realized masters, then even with a negative connection, although we’ll have to experience the result by wandering for a time in samsara, ultimately we will receive benefit because of such a master’s power of bodhichitta. Even though there is no end to samsara for sentient beings in general, for those who have a connection with the Dharma, there will be an end. Thus, continuously pray to your master from the depths of your heart.
The Tibetan word for master is lama. La refers to unsurpassed, inconceivable wisdom and ma to the loving-kindness of a mother. So a master is someone endowed with inconceivable wisdom and boundless love for all beings.
When I mention the word master, maybe you think I’m talking about myself, but I’m just explaining the transmissions that the past masters taught and the related stories. Don’t create too many concepts about what I myself am saying here; develop trust and confidence in what the past masters and Buddhas taught, and generate faith and devotion in them. I personally don’t have any experiences or realization at all and know nothing about what might happen tomorrow or next year or even what will happen tonight. I might not have any of the qualities or powers a master should have, but even so, without relying on a qualified master there is no way to attain enlightenment.
When Naropa was told by his teacher that his karmic root master was Tilopa, he set off to find him. He searched for a very long time, wandering far and wide, but couldn’t find him anywhere. Finally, he asked someone if they knew where a master named Tilopa lived and was told that someone by that name was staying in a small house with smoke coming out the roof. When Naropa arrived, he found Tilopa grilling fish in the fire. Naropa asked Tilopa to accept him as his student and requested teachings, but Tilopa replied, “What are you talking about? I’m just a beggar!” But Naropa wasn’t fooled and was certain that this was his master, so he followed him for twelve years, doing exactly what Tilopa told him to do.
One day they came to a high cliff and Tilopa said, “If you want to follow your master’s command, jump off this cliff !” So Naropa went up to the cliff ’s edge and jumped. He ended up half dead with all his bones broken. When Tilopa came to see him three days later and asked if he was sick, Naropa replied, “I’m not just sick, I’m dying!” So Tilopa cured him through his blessings. In that way, Naropa experienced eighteen hardships but didn’t receive any teachings. Then one day, while making tea, Tilopa sent Naropa to fetch some water. When Naropa returned with the water, Tilopa said, “No matter how much I tell you, you never understand!” Then he whacked Naropa very hard on the head with his sandal, knocking Naropa out. When Naropa regained consciousness, his realization had become equal to Tilopa’s. This happened solely due to Naropa’s fervent devotion to Tilopa.
There are countless stories of past great masters going through a lot of hardship while staying with their teacher. Here is a more recent example: Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche said that Khenpo Ngakchung was an emanation of Vimalamitra. The previous Drubwang Rinpoche (Palchen Dupa) studied philosophy with him and received all the pith instructions. One day, Khenpo Ngakchung said they should go for a stroll, and they went to an isolated place where Khenpo Ngakchung wanted to sit, so Drubwang Rinpoche took off his shirt and let Khenpo Ngakchung sit on it. Sometime after that, they went for another walk, and Khenpo Ngakchung got extremely angry. He took off his shoe and beat Drubwang Rinpoche so badly that Drubwang Rinpoche fell unconscious, and when he regained consciousness, his realization was equal to his master’s. If one follows one’s master with such strong and unwavering devotion, the result can really be quite extraordinary, but these days any master who did such things in the United States would likely be arrested and put in prison.
In fact, there are many practitioners who have realized the nature of mind and attained perfect enlightenment just by doing guru yoga. Being introduced to the nature of one’s mind can happen only through the master’s blessings, and without the blessings nothing will happen. This is not something that can be bought, and no matter how learned a scholar you may become, without a qualified master it’s not possible to recognize the true nature of our mind. As this is the root of the practice, without blessings there is no way to attain enlightenment, and the path to Buddhahood is blocked. There is no other way to discover the nature of your mind; you can’t buy it or find it anywhere other than through the blessings of a qualified master. That is why the single most important practice in Dharma is guru yoga.
We have now obtained this precious human body endowed with the eighteen favorable conditions, which is very hard to obtain and may never be acquired again. If we use this support to practice Dharma and enter the path of liberation, we will always receive the proper support to continue on the path, but if we don’t use it to integrate the Dharma into our being, there is very little chance of getting such an opportunity again. If we don’t use our precious human body for Dharma practice, we may accumulate a lot of wealth, power, fame, and so on, but it will have no real benefit and will just carry us farther away from the path of liberation, casting us into the lower realms. Thus, it is our responsibility to strive again and again to let our master’s blessings enter our stream of being. Now that we have obtained this precious human body, we should acknowledge, feel confident, and never forget that our sole object of refuge is the Three Jewels manifesting as our root master in the form of Guru Padmasambhava, who is the embodiment of all past, present, and future Buddhas.
Our physical form really is extraordinary, so we should use our body, speech, and mind for the sake of perfect enlightenment, physically doing prostrations, circumambulations, and sitting in meditation; verbally reciting mantras and Dharma texts as much as we can; and mentally giving rise to bodhichitta, vast or small. All this is possible only because of this exceptional human form that came about through the kindness of our parents — without parents we wouldn’t have a body, and without a human body we couldn’t engage in virtuous practice. It is said that this body has great potential, both positive and negative: If we use it properly, we can accumulate a great deal of merit, but if we use it in a negative way, we can cause a great deal of harm. We can accumulate such negative actions that we’ll never attain liberation, or we can engage in Dharma practice and attain perfect enlightenment in this very lifetime.
Please remember that beings in nonhuman forms such as gods, nagas, animals, gandharvas, and so forth don’t have the opportunity to attain liberation, so now that you have obtained this extraordinary support, which is so rare and precious, and have been so fortunate as to meet the Dharma, you shouldn’t waste such a rare opportunity; instead, devote yourself wholeheartedly not only to receiving teachings but to applying them as well.