A Wise Spiritual Friend




In order to gain a correct understanding of emptiness you need to hear teachings from somebody who has at least a correct intellectual understanding of emptiness and, if possible, some direct experience as well. Otherwise, you need to do a lot of purification and accumulate a lot of merit in order to gain such correct understanding. This is also the case if you are hearing teachings and studying texts that in themselves are correct but their meaning or main points escape you. With purification and accumulation of merit you will gradually understand.

The right understanding of emptiness also depends on receiving the blessings of the guru in your mind, and that depends on whether you have the cause for blessings in your heart. What are the causes of such heart blessings? They are devotion to your virtuous friend, looking at him from the side of his qualities and seeing him as pure, and you must generate these causes within your own mind.[1]

Life is a dependent arising.[2] What you become depends on whose example you take. In general, life is like this—how your life turns out depends on the kinds of people upon whom you rely and the nature of the material things intended to give you comfort or enjoyment. If you rely on a blind person, they cannot guide you along the road. Similarly, if you rely on someone who doesn’t have Dharma wisdom and can’t discriminate between what is right and to be practiced and what is wrong and to be abandoned, both now and in the future, then you cannot progress. By depending on someone who has Dharma wisdom, you can meet the right path and gain the unmistaken wisdom of knowing what is right and what is not. If you follow someone who doesn’t have Dharma wisdom, who has no idea of it at all, you stay ignorant. You don’t go beyond ignorance.

With a wrong guide, someone who reveals the wrong path, instead of generating right realizations you generate wrong ones. Then you have no opportunity to create the cause for happiness in all future lives. Liberation and full enlightenment for yourself and all other sentient beings doesn’t happen. This becomes the greatest failure. Besides wasting this life you waste so many future lives. Instead of finding happiness, you experience suffering. This is a great loss.


Guru yoga is one of the very important preliminary practices and is definitely needed in our daily life practice.[3] Through it we receive the guru’s blessings and from this we can receive the realizations of the path to enlightenment. In this manner, our mind is changed. Without such conditions, this kind of change doesn’t happen.

Without a guru in ordinary aspect, our lives would be totally lost and guideless. We would be like a baby left in a forest at night, surrounded by tigers and other wild animals without any guide or protection. We would be extremely terrified, totally lost. Every second, every minute, every day we spend with a guru that we can see in ordinary aspect and who can therefore guide us is extremely precious—more precious than the whole sky filled with wish-granting gems. That guru kindest buddha of all. He is the most important, most precious one.

Why? Because in this available aspect our gurus reveal the path, giving us teachings on refuge, karma and morality in order to save us from the lower realms, where we would otherwise have to undergo many eons of suffering, and lead us progressively toward higher rebirths. Revealing the four noble truths or the three higher trainings, they lead us to liberation. Revealing the Mahāyāna path, they bring us to enlightenment.[4] Nor are there adequate words to express their kindness in giving us refuge and the pratimokṣa, bodhisattva and tantric vows and then tantric initiations, oral transmissions and commentaries as well. All this guidance is unimaginable.[5]

As mentioned in the prayer entitled Calling the Guru from Afar by the great enlightened being, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo, it is only through the kindness of our guru that we have all these many years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds of incredible freedom to take the essence of this body, to take advantage of this opportunity to make unmistaken choices.[6] You should reflect as follows:

While wishing to take the essence of this precious human rebirth to gain happiness and not to suffer, to avoid loss and achieve gain, in each second I remember my guru’s kindness in making available these incredible opportunities to me while I am in this perfect human body.



The stronger your guru devotion the stronger will be the blessings you receive. Just like water poured onto a seed in the soil, through guru devotion you receive the blessings of all of the buddhas—having guru devotion is like nourishing seeds with water so that they can sprout. Just as water makes the seed ready to germinate, devotion to your virtuous friend moistens your mind, making it ready to receive the blessings of the guru. Then, through intensive purification to remove obstacles to realizing emptiness along with practices to collect great merit, you assemble all the conditions for the seed to sprout. At the same time, it protects you from worms and from being burned by fire!

If you combine listening to teachings on emptiness with purification through the Vajrasattva or Thirty-five Buddhas practices, accumulation of merit through making maṇḍala offerings to your guru with bodhicitta and so forth, and practices for receiving your guru’s blessings in your heart, then, one day, suddenly—because of the imprints left on your mind—just by hearing your guru read one or two words of a text, in the time it takes to snap your fingers, your mind suddenly wakes up. All of a sudden, the meaning clicks in your mind. In a flash you are able to recognize, “Oh, this is the object to be refuted as explained in the Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamaka school. This is what gag cha means![7]

See continuation of this topic, see  post  Kinder Than All The Numberless Buddhas



Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] For extensive teachings on guru yoga (bla ma’i rnal ’byor), see Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Heart of the Path (LYWA: Boston, 2009). The emphasis here is on the special role of guru yoga in terms of creating the necessary conditions for the realization of emptiness. Note  the use of the male pronoun here does not mean that women cannot and are not equally qualified to be gurus. If anything, that gender biases  dwell in (and are even constructive of) language indicates that language is a dependent-arising of a no-less distinctly cultural kind than the sexed-body constructs of male and female and and also the physical forms or bodies to which gendered pronouns might refer.  The Meeting of Father and Son Sūtra says:

Great King, both the imputed and the imputed do not [inherently] exist. There is no woman in the woman [that is, in the basis of the imputation ‘woman’]. There is no man in the man [that is, in the basis of the imputation ‘man’]. Thought they are thus non-existent, wrong thought is generated, but even this thought does not exist inherently.

Quoted in Hopkins, Meditation on Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1983, 1996. 629. Those versed in Judith Butler’s J. L. Austin-inspired performative theory will notice a significant overlap here of ancient and contemporary post-structuralist theory.

[2] In English, the Sanskrit word pratityasamutpāda or rten ‘byung/rten ‘brel in Tibetan, is often translated as the equivalent terms ‘dependent arising’ or ‘dependent origination’, rather than ‘dependent link’. Geshe Sonam Rinchen points out how a potential misunderstanding may arise when using ‘arising’ or ‘origination’:

We first need to know what dependent arising or dependent existence means in general. The Tibetan expression ten ching drel war jung wa (rten cing ‘brel bar ‘byung ba) is used as a translation of the Sanskrit pratityasamutpāda. In English the words “arising” or “origination” are often used to translate the Tibetan jung wa (‘byung ba). This can be misleading because it seems to refer to an event or occurrence with implications that something is produced, but this is not necessarily so. “Dependent arising” refers to dependence on causes and conditions but also to dependence on parts and on attribution. Everything that exists is dependently existent. If anything exists, it does so dependently.

See Rinchen, How Karma Works, 19.

It is also useful to observe here that, according to Jang-gya: ‘The term pāda, which has samut preceding it, is used for “arising”. It is also suitable to be explained as “existing” (yod pa, sat) and “established” (grub pa, siddha)’. See Hopkins, Emptiness Yoga, 313. Hopkins glosses the significance:

If the term “arising” in “dependent-arising” always had to mean arising or being produced from causes and conditions, the permanent things could not be dependent-arisings. However, by taking samutpāda as meaning “existing” or “established”, pratityasamutpāda comes to mean “existing in dependence” or “established in dependence” and thereby includes permanent phenomena. In the Middle Way School, all phenomena—permanent and impermanent—are dependent-arisings. Even among impermanent phenomena, that an agent arises in dependence upon an action does not mean that an action produces an agent, with the action first and then the agent second as would be the case in actual production. Rather, an agent is established in dependence upon an action, is designated in dependence upon an action. An action also is designated in dependence upon an agent; the two are interdependent in a way such that one cannot arise before the other. ibid.

When Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche says, then, that “life is a dependent arising,” we can understand that life is an impermanent phenomena and thus dependent on causes and conditions. As such it is not immutable. If it were, our experience could never change. Not one iota. What chance then to even operate as an agent, let alone perform actions, especially those geared towards cessation of suffering and the acquisition of stable happiness? If we pursue the meaning of dependent arising further, we can see that it also means that (in the current example) life is dependent on parts and imputation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes these three meanings:

In Sanskrit … pratitya has three different meanings—meaning, relying, and depending—all three of which have roughly the same meaning of “dependence.” Samutpada means “arising” … When arising in dependence upon factors is explained on a subtle level, understanding it involves an understanding of inherent existent … [p]rior to understanding that a phenomena is empty because of being a dependent arising, because of being dependently designated, one has to understand the presentation of cause and effect well … Therefore, the Supramundane Victor, Buddha, set forth a presentation of dependent arising in connection with the cause and effect of actions in the process of life and cyclic existence, through which to gain a great understanding of the process of cause and effect itself. Thus, there is a mode of procedure of dependent arising which is called the twelve links of dependent arising. A second level of dependent arising is the dependent arising of phenomena in dependence upon their parts. This implies that there is no phenomenon that does not have parts, so all phenomena exist in dependence upon designation to their parts. There is a third, even deeper level of dependent arising, which stems from the fact that when objects are sought from within their basis for designation, there is nothing to be found that is the basis for designation and thus phenomena have just dependently arisen in the sense of being dependently imputed. The first level of dependent arising is the arising of phenomena in dependence on causes and conditions, so it applies only to caused phenomena, that is, products. The other two levels of dependent arising apply to both permanent and impermanent, produced and unproduced phenomena.

See Dalai Lama, The End of Suffering, 203-4. If our life was not empty of inherent existence which is to say, not dependent on being imputed by thought in dependence on a base of designation–the sequential unfolding of temporal experience in time–then its nature would be inalienable. Totally innate and thus forever transfixed in absolute self-referentiality. How then could we experience growing up or growing old? How good we talk of a sad or a happy life? How could we talk of living well or productively? Or come to the conclusion that our life is, quite frankly, a disaster! And if not labelled in dependence upon parts (as is a table in dependence on a flat surface, wood, glass, chrome plated legs, etc) then why would we need to label “life” in relation to consciousness  or an animated body? And just how would we come to determine that a stone was lifeless, unlike the limpets, sea-urchins etc, that might live upon it and even call it home. And why would our life be disrupted (to say the least) if our already war-torn body was vaporized in a blast? Or how to account for our evolving life experience as our foetal body develops?

[3] For traditional instructions on how to practice guru devotion in daily life, see Aśvaghosa, Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion (Dharamsala: LTWA, 1975). Guru yoga is counted among the five preliminary practices within the Mahāmudrā tradition in which experiential recognition of the ultimate nature of the mind is emphasized. Geshe Rabten identifies the five as “the offering of prostrations, recitation of the Vajrasattva mantra, taking refuge in the triple gem, offering the maṇḍala and guru yoga.” Echoes of Voidness (Boston: Wisdom, 1986), 101. See also “A Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra: The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones,” by the First Paṇchen Lama, in the Dalai Lama, Gelug/ Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, 97–98.

[4] See Pabongka, Liberation, 62, for a similar abbreviated account of how the entire subject matter of Lord Buddha’s teachings can be subsumed within the small, middle and great scopes. It is also the basic structure of the lam rim (Graduated Path to Enlightenment) texts.

[5] See the Dalai Lama, Tsong-ka-pa and Jeffrey Hopkins, Tantra in Tibet (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1987), 166–67, for equivalent emphasis.

[6] Calling the Lama from Afar: A Tormented Wail, Quickly Drawing Forth the Blessing of the Lama, the Inseparable Three Kāyas is found in long and abbreviated versions in Essential Buddhist Prayers, Volume 1 (Portland: FPMT, 2011), 125–35. The verse that is the basis of Lama Zopa’s commentary above reads, “Thinking of this excellent body, highly meaningful and difficult to obtain, and wishing to take its essence with unerring choice between gain and loss, happiness and suffering—reminds me of you, Lama” (ibid.,128–29). For an online text version together with an audio version with Lama Zopa Rinpoche chanting, see http://www.lamayeshe.com/article/calling-guru-afar

[7] dgag bya (phonetically, gag cha; pratiṣedhya) is the Tibetan term for the “object of negation,” “object of refutation,” “refuted object,” or “object to be refuted”—all terms used synonymously in this text. Regarding the essential of identifying what it exactly means, Tsongkhapa writes:

With regard to delineating the absence of true existence in phenomena, if you do not understand well just what true establishment is, as well as how [phenomena] are apprehended as truly existent, the view of suchness will definitely go astray. Shāntideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds says that if the thing imputed, the generality [or image] of the object of negation, does not appear well to your awareness, it is impossible to apprehend well the non-existence of the object of negation: 

Without making contact with the thing imputed,
The non-existence of that thing is not apprehended.

See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 186. It is this need for absolutely sharp precision that explains Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s exultant tone, “This is what gag cha means!” The determination of the meaning of ‘object of negation’—let alone its declaration in the form of a public announcement—is an unimaginably rare event: like stars in daylight. In the midst of any intellectual frustration, it is perhaps wise to delight in the fact that,  at last, we have encountered a marvellously significant problem, one that carries us to the very foundation of our woes. So at last we are pitted against the “real” foe.




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