Reverence and humility, Contentment and gratitude, and timely hearing of the Dharma: this is the highest blessing.  --Mangala Sutra
Reverence and humility,
Contentment and gratitude,
and timely hearing of the Dharma: this is the highest blessing.
–Mangala Sutra

Gurus, Devotion, and Lies

2011-07-28 14.19.46I watched the documentary Kumare last week, and since then have had a number of spirited discussions with members of my Sangha about the film. Geshe Lobsang had told me I must see it. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen it and don’t want details, skip a few paragraphs.)

Yes, the guru Kumare was a fake, and Vikram Gandhi deceived the people who became his followers. But when he said to them, repeatedly, “I am an illusion; I am not what you think I am; I am a mirror of you…” – well, he wasn’t lying. He was telling the truth about himself, the truth about the role he was playing in their lives, and the truth about themselves.

I do not know how I would have reacted if I had been one of his followers. Would I have been the one to walk up and hug him when he confessed, aware of the courage and vulnerability of the man standing in front of me, grateful for the help he had given me? Or would I have reacted like the yoga teacher who had previously felt that her own teaching had deepened through her association with Kumare, but who turned her back and walked out of the room, never to speak to him again?

The various reactions say more about the followers than they do about the Kumare figure or Vikram Gandhi. That is the nature of the Guru/disciple relationship. The Guru is the mirror of the self, onto which we throw our projections, receiving back a reflection of what we put forth.

Because I practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and have for many years, I have a Guru. Several, in fact. My heart teacher, Lhading Rinpoche, came into my life more than a decade ago when he resided in Atlanta for a couple of years.

While I loved the time that he lived in Atlanta, and the many opportunities for easy and frequent interactions, it was also an uncomfortable time. Rinpoche had a keen knack for discerning the difference between a true question, and a conversation motivated by the need for attention. He exposed flaws in my behavior and personality, rarely criticizing me directly, but creating situations in which I saw myself as I was. I still wince when I recall some of our interactions. I often experienced intense embarrassment because I couldn’t do something “right” – whether it was the intricacies of a complicated ritual that tripped me up, or the simplicity of making tea. Nothing he did or said provoked my embarrassment. I was simply seeing myself in the mirror of his presence, and finally realized that I needed to learn an easier, less self-conscious way of being with myself. Interestingly, my fear of public speaking disappeared around this time. Go figure. Took me years to make the connection.

In a situation where I truly deserved his anger, I was blessed with unconditional love, and the freedom of true forgiveness. But I also bore the burden of knowing the deep shame of disappointing him. His rare wrath was reserved for situations when I was flippant about my practice. I learned to take my practice more seriously, myself less so.

Through his influence, I let go of the hubris of being satisfied with who and what I am. I am simultaneously more accepting of my flawed self and yet understand how much more work I need to do on the path of transformation that stretches ahead of me.

Rinpoche once again lives in India; I see him infrequently, write and call less often than I should. I feel his presence with me, despite the physical distance.

2013-11-03 16.29.47I did phone when I was diagnosed with cancer.

“Rinpoche,” I sobbed into the phone, “I have cancer.”


“I have breast cancer.”

Silence, as I continued to cry.

“And? What do you want me to do about it?”

Good question. “Pray for me?” I asked, in a tiny voice.

“Pray for you?! You don’t need my prayers. You need a doctor! Do you have a good doctor?”

That stopped the tears.

“Yes, I do.”

“Then do what your doctor says. OK, I will pray for you, too.”

With that, he situated my illness where it belonged: a medical problem, not a religious one. I had a serious disease and needed treatment. Sitting around and crying about it wasn’t going to fix anything, and he isn’t a faith healer. The responsibility for my health is my own. .

When the Dalai Lama conferred the Kalachakra initiation in 2006, I traveled to Amaravati, stopping off first at Drepung Loseling in Mundgod to visit another of my Gurus, Geshe Palden Drakpa, a dear, elderly teacher who recently had heart surgery and was unable to travel.

On the way to Hyderabad from Hubli the train was filled with monks and nuns, some of whom I knew, including a few who had spent time in the US and spoke English well. I mentioned to one that I was looking forward to seeing Lhading Rinpoche at Kalachakra.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “There will be over 100,000 people there. You will never find him.”

Disappointed and saddened, I was mostly silent for the rest of the journey. Walking down the main street in Amaravati the next morning, on my way to meet a friend, I saw Rinpoche walking towards me. As I fumbled in my bag for a kata, the traditional Tibetan offering scarf, he took my hand in his and pressed his forehead to mine. And then told me something that few others knew: he had just come from the teaching venue, and the Dalai Lama was there, preparing for the ritual that would begin in two days. He himself was going to the house he was sharing with two young tulkus and his sister, who had been able to travel to India from Lhasa, to bring them all to the tent. I should go there, he said, and do my prayers and meditations in the presence of His Holiness. We made plans to meet up later in the day so that he could show me where his house was located, and I hurried to meet my friend, a fellow student of Rinpoche’s. We went directly to the teaching venue, and found it exactly as he described: An enormous tent, the Dalai Lama on his teaching throne, and very few other people. We rejoiced in our good fortune. We stayed until His Holiness finished his preparations for the day, then found the others from our Sangha – who had spent the day lounging and gossiping in their tents, and were dismayed to learn of the opportunity they had missed. By the next day more people had caught on, and the tent was much more crowded.

I reflected on my “chance” encounter with my teacher, a pattern that would repeat itself daily, despite 100,000 other people milling around.

After the first day of teachings, Rinpoche took his students to the rare, ancient Kalachakra stupa to teach us the ritual for offering a kata there, with a prayer, as well as the mantra we would recite as we circumambulated it. My mind blanked as I waited for my turn. What should my prayer be? As I stepped up to the mound of katas, heartfelt words sprang from my lips, an entreaty that I have repeated every day since: “In this life, in all my lives, may I never be separated from my teachers.”2012-07-22 14.47.55

Guru devotion isn’t blind, unconditional acceptance and following of another person. It doesn’t mean giving up one’s own judgment or discernment – quite the contrary, in fact.  It does mean being willing to surrender oneself into the crucible of a relationship that will change you, if you let it. It means trusting someone to guide you in your spiritual development. And sometimes, it means having someone to remind you that you need to rest.

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

I interpret that statement on several levels. Not only that the student needs to have sufficient preparation to understand the teaching that will be imparted, but also that the student is mature enough for the relationship, and ready to relax his or her ego defenses enough to allow faith to emerge and grow. (Sharon Salzberg has written eloquently on the subject of faith in her eponymous book, which is well worth reading.)

2012-09-09 18.08.52The Buddha admonished his followers not to take his teachings or instructions at face value, but rather to experiment with them, test them, and then determine their validity. Those words are empowering, but also carry the weight of being willing to take responsibility for one’s own actions. None of my Gurus would tell me to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, but if they did, I would refuse. Duh. If nothing else, they have taught me the importance of discernment. And common sense. I know that I cannot fly, and my faith in my Gurus is not so deluded that I believe that they would cause wings to sprout from my back after I jumped.

Powerful transformations and accomplishments can be achieved even on the basis of a false guru. Those accomplishments are not the gift of the Guru. They are, rather, the result of our own faith and the willingness to allow ourselves to be transformed in relationship to another. And it is for that very reason that it is important to choose the Guru carefully, so that the process takes place in relationship to someone worthwhile. As nascent students of Buddhism, we were taught that the Guru/disciple relationship is not to be entered lightly, and that the teacher should be examined carefully. Practicing within an established tradition and genuine lineage is helpful, because that structure makes it easier to avoid poor choices. This is one thing that Kumare’s student’s lacked: the context to make a proper decision. They would have benefited from someone to caution them, someone to advise them, and a healthy dose of skepticism. It is easy to be entranced by exotic clothes and a fake accent.

And yet, and yet. Kumare’s students were helped by him. Not because of any special insight that he possessed, but through the power of their own faith. He, too, was transformed by his relationship with those people.

Gurus do not need to be enlightened, or perfect, or infallible. But by choosing to see them as enlightened, I have learned much about the power of my mind to construct my reality. A Guru is a guide, a teacher, a mirror – and an example of the potential that can be realized by sincere spiritual practice. I gain much from my Sangha, my fellow travelers on this path. 2012-07-22 15.32.31Yet my relationship to them is one of equals, and therefore different from my relationship with my Gurus. Implicit in the Guru/disciple relationship is the simple fact that one person is more knowledgeable, more accomplished than the other. I look to my teachers for a reminder of my potential. Not to openly acknowledge their role in my life, in the manner that is appropriate in our tradition, would be churlish and ungrateful.

And so I prostrate to my Gurus, who through their teachings and example have led me onto the path of wisdom and compassion, the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. I am a better person for having known them.

They have pointed the way. I still have to do the work.

My practice is imperfect and my accomplishments are few. That is my failing, not theirs.

I can follow the doctor’s advice, or choose to disregard it.

My choice.

And my loss, if I should choose poorly.

© 2015 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.