Dangerous Friend: The Teacher-Student Relationship in Vajrayana Buddhismby Rig'dzin Dorje
According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the student must/i>
Although Tibetan Buddhism continues to grow in popularity, the crucial relationship between teacher and student remains largely misunderstood. Dangerous Friend offers an in-depth exploration of this mysterious and complex bond, a relationship of paramount importance in Tibetan Buddhist practice.
According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the student must have complete trust in the teacher (the "dangerous friend") if he or she is to achieve any understanding. It is the teacher's responsibility to uphold the integrity of the tradition, the basis of which is compassion for all beings, by transmitting it properly to an appropriate student. Likewise, it is the student's responsibility to meet the challenge of carrying on the lineage of teachings. By entering such a relationship, both teacher and student accept the burden of protecting those teachings by understanding them completely and correctly, by practicing them fully and faultlessly, and by transmitting them without omission.
Dangerous Friend includes discussions of the following topics:
• Meeting and recognizing an appropriate teacher.
• Understanding the gravity of entering the teacher-student relationship.
• Shifting one's approach from spiritual materialism to genuine Buddhist practice.
• Accepting the challenge of being truly kind, honest, and courageous.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Opening
The relationship between the vajra master and vajra student should be the most important relationship in one's life as a spiritual aspirant. This is the only relationship we can have which ultimately leads to enlightenment. From the
Vajrayana point of view
is more important than our relationship with our spouse, our children, or our parents. For a Vajrayana student
is more important than this one life.
"Without the vajra master, there is no Vajrayana." These were the words of my vajra masters, and the words of their vajra masters. These words might well have been expressed through the lineage of non-dual experience for two thousand years,
but it is only in the west, and at the turn of the twentieth century, that they have needed to be expressed. It is only in this time and this place that we need to define the essence of Vajrayana in order to demonstrate that the role of vajra master is indispensable.
The vajra master provides the fuel for the path. Without fuel, engines are curios to be preserved in the museums of cultures which have depleted their fuel supplies, and no longer have recourse to motorized transportation. Ngak'chang
Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, in a vajra letter to their sangha, made this clear: Petrol or gasoline may well be dermatologically harmful, but without it one's Harley Davidson or Vincent Black Lightning can only roll down convenient hills. One can strip a vehicle down and expose the engine in the creation of a dragster, but if one removes parts of the engine, even the most luxurious sedan will not serve its intended purpose. The vajra master is the living fuel of Vajrayana—of Tantra and of Dzogchen—and politically correct,
"psycho-egalitarian" arguments as to the unsuitability of this mode for the western temperament are both fatuous and flaccid.
Our experience of emptiness or devotion is the base; realization of the nature of
Mind is the fruit or result. But the vajra master is the path. It was Trungpa
Rinpoche who coined the memorable description of the Tantric teacher as
"the dangerous friend"; dangerous because the student grants the lama a dramatic freedom of action. Khandro Déchen, in answer to a question I
asked, confided the following:
The vajra master is dangerous in the sense of the danger a vacuum cleaner poses to a carpet, or that a bath poses to body odour. The Lama is dangerous to our dualistic conceptions—but beyond that, he or she is the compassionate surgeon who saves our lives. The surgeon's knife cuts us open—but if there's a cancer to be removed, then the operation is to be welcomed.
"New age" spirituality in general is afraid of danger, as is the society that spawned it. Nowadays people seek guarantees about aspects of life that were previously treated as matters of individual responsibility. There is a little fishing village in Cornwall, England where a diving board has been removed on the grounds that people might dive in at low tide and hurt themselves. In some ways it is laudable that people wish to protect others—but the result of this kind of paternalism is that we are gradually stripped of more and more sense of personal responsibility. This actually has the effect of making us more vulnerable—rather than protecting us through encouraging greater responsibility. So those who say that association with the vajra master is unacceptably perilous are also saying that the individual is incapable of making choices which involve risk. Would they also wish to legislate against skiing, parachuting, and climbing trees? Many people in the world take calculated risks and are admired for their adventurous spirit. But when the
"politically correct" discuss the role of the vajra master, they seem unwilling to allow individuals the right to choose—even though their choices are regulated by warnings that are as ancient as the role itself. The person who leads an Outward Bound weekend pushes people to overcome their limitations in terms of rock climbing or some other physical pursuit. The lama as vajra master pushes us beyond our dualistic rationale. Ngak'chang Rinpoche says of the vajra master in this context:
Lama is the ecstatic, wild, and gentle figure who short-circuits your systems of self-referencing. The Lama is the only person in your life who cannot be manipulated. The Lama is the invasion of unpredictability you allow into your life, to enable you to cut through the convolutions of interminable psychological and emotional processes. The Lama is the terrifyingly compassionate gamester who re-shuffles the deck of your carefully arranged rationale. To enter into vajra commitment is to leap from the perfect precipice. To find yourself in the radiant space of this choiceless choice, is the very heart of Tantra. To leap open-eyed into the shining emptiness of the
Lama's wisdom display, and to experience the ecstatic impact of each dynamic gesture of the Lama's method display is the essential luminosity and power of the path.
Tibetan Buddhism we take refuge in Guru (lama;
This is an acknowledgment that it is only through the energy, kindness, and activity of the lama that Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha can be accessed. A personal relationship with a lama is absolutely necessary for Tantric practice to have any function whatsoever. The relationship between the lama, or vajra master,
and vajra student should be the most important relationship in one's life as a spiritual aspirant. This is the only relationship we can have that ultimately leads to enlightenment. From the Vajrayana point of view it is more important than our relationship with our spouse, our children, or our parents. For a
Vajrayana student it is more important than this one life.
The primary goal of Tantric practice is to experience the relationship between form and emptiness as non-duality. This is called
"the one taste." The vajra master embodies that realization in person. But this experience, because it is non-dual, neither belongs nor does not belong to the teacher as an individual: it was neither born with anyone nor does it ever die with anyone. Whenever this state is experienced by one being, it can also be experienced by others, mutually and simultaneously, without having to be conceptualized as something that travels between one party and another, like spooky vibes wobbling through the twilight zone. It is called transmission;
realization as an outlook shared by individuals. If one could experience the mind of the lama oneself, enter that unconditioned condition, then that would constitute one's own experience of the realized state. This "unifying with the mind of the lama" is the fruit of the practice of guru yoga (lama'i naljor;
bLa ma'i rNal 'Byor)
which is the essential practice of Vajrayana. All the traditional stipulations about the teacher-student relationship in Vajrayana are founded on this prospect,
even though to Buddhists of other persuasions it might sound incomprehensible.
The coming together of lama and student at this level is called vajra relationship or vajra commitment. This Tantric expression refers to the relationship with a root teacher or
tsa-wa'i lama (Tib. rTsa ba'i bLa ma,
which is beyond the possibility of being broken by either party. The root teacher is the lama whose realization enables one to experience the nature of Mind. The symbolism of a root is that if the root is cut, the tree dies. One would never wish to be cut off from one's root teacher. One aspires to remain in a state of continuous transmission, just as the life of a tree is sustained by its roots'
capacity to draw up water. The life of the tree and the life of one's practice depend upon the root. Without the root there is no water and no life. Without the root teacher there is no transmission, and no enlightenment.
Meet the Author
Rig'dzin Dorje is a practitioner and teacher in the Nyingma School of Vajrayana Buddhism. He is currently spiritual director, in the lineage of the Aro gTer, of Buddhist centers throughout Europe, and he spends much of his time traveling and teaching. He lives in London with his wife and son.
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