In the context of vajrayana in general and guru yoga in particular, you, the practitioner, are encouraged (told?) to think that your teacher is really buddha.
Now, in this context, teacher means a teacher in the role of guru. Several years ago, i wrote an article that mapped out the different roles of a teacher. You can read this article here: http://www.unfetteredmind.
The guru-student role is a particular relationship and is based on a spiritual connection. In some cases, the student recognizes something in the teacher that echoes with his or her own longing or calling. In other cases, the teacher recognizes a potential or a quality in the student, sometimes when the student had no apparent spiritual interest. In still other cases, the relationship evolves slowly over time. There is no rule.
One of my colleagues heard a teacher speak and immediately recognized that this was his teacher, and has followed that teacher for his whole life. For others, they have come to appreciate that one of possibly many teachers has having a special significance for them, but that recognition came slowly. Still others have had a single meeting, in which nothing was said, but the meeting had a profound effect on them, and they have always regarded that teacher as their guru.
Needless to say, this whole area is fraught with danger. If your longing is based in unfulfilled childhood longings, then you are very susceptible to cults and cult leaders who know how to take advantage of those deep psychological desires. Because susceptibility ranges right across the socio-economic spectrum, education, wealth, etc., are not reliable safeguards. The best book I've read on this topic is The Wrong Way Home, by Arthur Deikman. The book has been reprinted and augmented to include a discussion of terrorism under the title Them and Us.
But let's assume you have found a solid teacher. What does it mean "to think that your teacher is really buddha"?
As a first step, I find it helpful to consider a translation point, namely the use (or not) of a definite or indefinite article. English usage almost always requires the presence of an article, either "the" or "a". This holds for most modern West European languages, but it is not universal, by any means. Linguistically, particles seem to have evolved rather late in the game. They are not present in Sanskrit, Latin or Tibetan, for instance.
Further, when translating from Tibetan, most of us have habitually used the definite article. It makes things definite, it adds authority, and the Tibetan tradition is freighted with authority, as we all know. For instance, my first book was published under the titleThe Great Path of Awakening. The Tibetan does not have any article, however, so whether Kongtrül had in mind "the" or "a" is impossible to determine. If I were to republish the book now, without question I would use the title A Great Path of Awakening. The indefinite article opens up other possibilities where the definite article eliminates them.
Thus, when we come to this phrase in Tibetan, we could translate it in three ways:
- think that your teacher is really the buddha
- think that your teacher is really a buddha
- think that your teacher is really buddha
Each of these three possibilities has a different meaning. Is one of them the right one? If so, which?
The first, "the buddha", implies some form of connection with Buddha Shakyamuni, or at least with a universal buddha principle such as Vajradhara (the tantric form of Shakyamuni in the Kagyu tradition).
The second, "a buddha", says that your teacher has the qualities and attainments of a buddha -- quite wonderful if true, but given the traditional descriptions of buddha in the sutras, unlikely, if only because the traditional descriptions have been heavily mythologized. Of course, this raises the question What is a buddha?, but I'm not going to dip my toes into those waters today.
The third possibility is the one that intrigues me. Many years ago, I was part of a small informal conference of Western and Asian teachers (from all traditions) and this topic came up in the conversation. At one point Gelek Rinpoche quietly said, "For me, my teacher is buddha." Not "the buddha", not "a buddha", but "buddha". There was something about the way he said it that caught my attention. It seemed to me that he was not describing his teacher or claiming any special qualities for him, but simply describing how he related to his teacher. I was quite moved by the humility and reverence that infused his words. By omitting any article, he had transformed this instruction into an exploration, and exploration imbued with faith, devotion and commitment.
As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, as Westerners, we are not used to having a symbolic relationship with someone we actually know. We are used to thinking in concrete rather than poetic terms, and, in today's world, in transactional terms almost exclusively. These implicit frames of reference do not serve us well when it comes to following the calling in our hearts. That calling often doesn't make sense in rational concrete terms, but it is the very core of our lives. And that calling, as I've said before, is not about getting something that makes our lives better. It is not a transaction at all. It is something we pursue, regardless of what happens to u. Usually, that calling cannot be expressed in words, and when we find a person who seems to be able to guide us in that calling, that relationship, also, cannot be put into words.
Thus, we enter a mystery, as we do whenever we give our word, whenever we commit ourselves to a relationship and whenever we commit ourselves to a path. And that is what I think this instruction is pointing to.