The word guru gets thrown around a lot these days. There are tech gurus and tax gurus and gurus for restoring old barns. In Sanskrit, the word guru means "heavy," as in heavy with good qualities. Oddly, and without ever really having planned to, I happen to have a guru--in the original sense of the word. A spiritual master. Someone I revere beyond the ordinary level of thinking him kind, wise and admirable.
His name is Gelek Rinpoche and I became his student almost 30 years ago. Rinpoche was born in Tibet, and is one of the last generation of Tibetan lamas fully educated in the old Tibetan monastic system. As he sometimes says, he was essentially born in the middle ages, and vaulted into the 20th century when he fled the Chinese invasion in 1959.
I was raised Jewish--my grandfather was one in an unbroken lineage of rabbis dating back many generations. And as a child--and still to this day--my Jewish identity has meant a lot to me. I wasn't seeking to find a guru, nor become Buddhist.
But an encounter with Rinpoche--much less the opportunity to learn from him--is something I'm glad I didn't overlook. I had studied Buddhism before I met him--I received my first instruction in meditation from my mother when I was 7 and my parents were writing an article about teaching families to meditate together, and rediscovered Tibetan Buddhism as a college student at Wesleyan University. And it wasn't guru love at first sight--the relationship took years to grow until I finally realized what kind of person Rinpoche is. It wasn't that he took time to reveal himself; I just didn't fully appreciate the extraordinary way he walks the talk. He is extremely scholarly, a walking encyclopedia of Tibet's great wisdom tradition. But it's not just his almost unimaginable depth of learning and understanding, but also the fact that he embodies the teachings of wisdom and compassion so thoroughly, and seemingly effortlessly.
Of course, it wasn't really effortless for Rinpoche: he became a monk at age 4 and spent up to 18 hours a day meditating and studying for the first 20 years of his life. Like the Dalai Lama, he was born a "tulku," a teacher who is recognized from a very young age as the reincarnation of another great spiritual master. In Rinpoche's case, he recognized as the reincarnation of the abbot of Drepung Monastery, one of the most important in Tibet. (In 2006 I had the opportunity to return to Tibet with Rinpoche, which was something like an exiled Royal returning to his kingdom after being exiled by a still occupying foreign army.)
The question is, Can we as westerners really follow the same path and gain the same results? And after three decades, what have I learned from Rinpoche?
Let me begin by stating the obvious: I don't claim to have any spiritual development and I have no great qualities. But that is the fault of my laziness not the fault of the teachings or the teacher. Still, despite my flaws, I can say that Rinpoche has changed the course of my life, and shifted the development of my mind and personality in important ways.
Two things that I have learned from him that are most important in life are motivation and purification. For motivation, I try to remember every day when I wake up to think, "I'm glad I am alive today. Let me not waste this day. May I be as helpful as possible to as many people as possible today."
Throughout the day, we are taught to remember that motivation--to be concerned with others. That might seem trite. But when we really make even a slight shift away from self-concern to at least intermittently thinking that the needs of other people are as important as our own, a radical transformation has taken place. Again, I am not saying I have done it, but at least I have a little daily practice and effort put in every 24 hours, and the confidence that it will make some difference.
Today is Yom Kippur--the day of Atonement. In Judaism, the idea of atoning for one's sins has to do with repairing and renewing a relationship with God, as well as with other people. It is a kind of cleansing, so that we can start each year with a clean slate.
When it comes to purification, Tibetan Buddhism has a host of specific methods--the main idea being predicated on accepting that our actions have results. And while we all create a lot of negative karma, we are all capable of purifying it. The most powerful methods of purifying are wisdom and compassion.
The other thing I try to remember as often as possible is guru yoga. Guru yoga means merging one's mind with the mind of the guru. Again there are detailed meditations and specific practices, but ultimately, the idea is that the mind of the student and the teacher melt into one, like milk being poured into milk. Guru yoga is also a way of correcting our motivation and also a tremendously powerful way to purify.
A lot of the practices in Tibetan Buddhism are based on visualization--in other words we are using our imagination to reprogram our personalities. For example, we are taught that as soon as we wake up, to try to remember to think we have already become fully enlightened, and then imagine how it would feel to see the world from the eyes of a Buddha. By doing this continuously we are physically rewiring our brains, and while it takes a long time, I can see from observing Rinpoche that the methods of Tibetan Buddhism really do deliver results. That's one of the great values of having a pure relationship with a guru. You get to see the result you hope to achieve, walking around right in front of you.
When we bless our food, we imagine that we are making offerings to a baby Buddha within ourselves, feeding our own future enlightened selves. And with each sip or bite we imagine that we are filled with bliss from the joy of that inner Buddha receiving the offering. (I remember this most of the time, but sometimes the food is already in my mouth and I quickly say the blessing after I am already swallowing it!)
We are also taught several ways to transform falling asleep and the time we spend dreaming into the spiritual path. Each night when I fall asleep, I imagine that the entire universe is dissolving into me and that my mind becomes very subtle and disappears into a spacious open field of awareness that understands the wisdom of ultimate reality. Sometimes I might forget and fall asleep without doing this meditation but it's become such a habit now that even though I might not have a great understanding of what interdependence really means, the process has become part of my bedtime ritual.
These are just three examples throughout the day--not including my formal meditation commitments--of how my relationship with Rinpoche has changed my life in ways big and small.
I don't claim to have any spiritual development. The truth is that I often fail to be mindful and kind and patient and my wisdom is almost nonexistent. My mental focus is also still weak. Every day I have thoughts that are selfish and dumb and mean. So I don't share these things to brag or say that I have achieved anything great. I have not. But as Rinpoche says, if you put a drop of water in a bucket every day, you will eventually fill the bucket.
What I can say is that I have gained is a solid path. A sense of confidence that I am ever so slowly chipping away at my fear and nervousness and meanness and selfishness, and slowly building up kindness and warmth and clarity. None of these practices seem to be in opposition to the values of my Jewish upbringing--I can't imagine that any God would be displeased with my efforts to be kinder and wiser. And i don't view my relationship with a guru as a "religious" thing. It's more like having a super mentor, and an ambassador to the realm of enlightened beings. As we say in the business world, it's all about connections.
At the very least, by the time I die, I hope to have something solid that will have impacted not only this life but my future beyond that as well. And for that, I owe all thanks to Rinpoche.
NOTE: For anyone curious to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism, Gelek Rinpoche will be in New York at Cooper Union, from 2PM to 4PM Saturday November 5th, giving a guided meditation based on the female Buddha, White Tara, with an emphasis on healing. It's free but registration is required. For more info visit jewelheart.org