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The Guru drinks cheap-o wine straight from the carton, and that’s alright

by Lama Fede Andino

It’s a strange thing to say. At the time of writing this, it is my birthday and I’m thinking about guru devotion.

Strange, but not to me.

I’ve grappled and discussed guru devotion within the Vajrayana for a long time, as I’m sure every single person who dedicated their life to it has.

This topic has been also returning to our Kula in the last few weeks. So I thought it would be timely to address it. As always, I’ll try to keep the things that should be secret, secret.

There’s this old story. I’ve heard and read about it with different pairs of teacher-student: Marpa and Milarepa, Prabahasti and Padmasambhava, Lungrik Gyatso and Taranatha.

It doesn’t matter.

Let’s call them Guru and Disciple.

Disciple comes before the Guru and asks: how should I treat you?

Guru answers firmly: like the Buddha, like the deity itself.

But Disciple has questions. I mean, really? Like the Buddha?

Guru sees Disciples’ doubts, and then, using his samadhi, he emanates a deity. Disciple goes bonkers and starts doing prostrations. Guru then dissolves the deity and admonishes Disciple. The deity comes across the interdependence of the Guru.

Ok, you might say. That’s well and good if your Guru can actually show you the deity. But I haven’t seen my Guru emanate anything. I only see him making bad memes and drinking cheap wine.

Why should I regard my guru as a deity within Vajrayana?

This is a good question, with a three-part answer. Let’s start at the beginning.

One: the Guru is the Buddha you need, even if it’s not the Buddha you want

So, you’re a Buddhist. You want to follow the path of the Buddhas, but you’re not sure what to do. There are several models of path available, but in brief, we can think of them as three:

  • The path of the Theravada, where teaching is primarily by and for monks. You can do some basic meditation if you’re a layperson, but they expected you need to get ordained as a monk/nun to do hardcore training. Theravada’s teachers are older, ordained people; worthy of reverence, but not necessarily a Buddha. They lay the path out in a very structured fashion, following a complete canon of study, called the Tripitaka.

  • The path of Mahayana. Here we have a lot of schools, from Won to Zen to Pureland. Usually, the main path is a small selection of texts, bolstered by commentaries. I’m going to be a little general, since there’s a lot of variation here: in these systems, the teacher is someone who helps you in the path, like a virtuous friend. They help you with the practice and the understanding of the path.

  • The path of Vajrayana, which we’re part, is strange. The idea is to perceive the Guru as the Buddha. Imagine that suddenly, a Buddha appears in front of you. Somehow, he speaks English and you understand him. If he teaches you, the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, wouldn’t you pay attention? Of course you would. But if X person does, you don’t, necessarily.

What’s different here is a question of perceived legitimacy. This happens in your mind.

Actually, everything happens in your mind.

Therefore, monks who look saintly are usually focus of more devotion than people who don’t look like the image you have of a Buddhist, regardless of actual attainment. They conform to your expectations.

Vajrayana demands of you to regard the Guru as the Buddha. If you had the Buddha as a teacher, wouldn’t that be a massive advantage? If you want to box, having Cus D’amato as your coach doesn’t mean that you will be the next Mike Tyson, but certainly it would give you the benefit of his experience over someone who takes Aero boxing classes at a regular gym. Given the same amount of effort to put in, you will be better off if you have a world-class coach if you want to be a champion rather than an indifferent one.

So, can you be sure that the Guru that you pick is a world-class coach? Well, not at the beginning. This is the great danger of Guru-Disciple relationships. But you are better served committing to one that is not. Yes, you might be wrong and therefore there are guidelines to pick a Guru. But if you don’t commit, the mechanics of the path won't work.

Two: Vajrayana is not just the mantras

In the past forty years, the major obstacle that people in the western part of the world faced with Vajrayana was, to put it bluntly, translation. Yes, there are major canons, works of logic and meditation, complete systems that exist within Vajrayana. But most practitioners couldn’t access the texts themselves, being unable to read Tibetan or Sanskrit.

This created a situation where the only access was through a lama.

Now, this is a correct way in tantric terms, but not for the correct reason.

Most people felt the lamas were gatekeeping the teachings and therefore, instead of forging a relationship with one, flocked to all the empowerments from different lamas that they could get. Hey, more empowerments is better, right?

The problem here is that the Guru is not just the empowerment; it is the relationship that enables you to get the empowerment itself. Today, you can go to Amazon and buy many tantric books. There are mantras, there are visualizations, there are deities there. But that’s not tantra.

Tantra happens when there’s a constant, two-way connection between Guru and Disciple.

The internet connection in your home takes several things: the cable, the modem, the computer. If you just have a cable and a computer, you cannot have internet. If you have mantras and visualizations, but no Guru, you don’t have tantra.

You can practice Mahayana (which has a lot of Dharanis and visualizations) just from books, but in Tantra, the interdependence of the Guru is key. Which brings us to the last point.

Three: The interdependence with a human Guru is vital

Ok, but why the need for a human Guru? Can’t you have a Guru that’s a deity? That’s your own mind?

Let me explain this by the way of analogy with therapy.

Disclaimer: being both a trained psychoanalyst and a guru, I’m not saying that therapy and dharma work are the same. In fact, I request those students that I feel would benefit from it to start therapy with a third party. I’m using this just as an analogy, but the goal of therapy and dharma work will not be the same.

Let us do a little role-playing: you are someone who always picks the wrong partner in love. You fall madly in love with them, and they always end up hurting you. Now, in one or two instances, it might be a blind chance. But this happens to you all the time.

Your friends will try to help you. They tell you that the person you’re seeing is going to be a repeat of other experiences. They try to introduce you to different people. But you don’t feel attracted to them at all. You’re only attracted to people who end up hurting you.

Finally, despairing, you listen to advice, and you go to therapy. Therapy’s a lengthy process: you begin by laying yourself bare and are a little disgusted by the analysis of the therapist. But gradually, you come to trust your therapist. As the sessions go on, you feel listened to and the things the therapist says make sense.

Suddenly, you are dating a new person and you see all the signs that you already discussed over and over in therapy. You get an insight into yourself, and with newfound clarity, you can stop that relationship. With time, you even explore other modes of being in love.

Was that anything different than what your friends told you? No.

So what changed?

What changed was the relationship that you built with your therapist through the process.

This relationship created a phenomenon called transference, which invested the therapist with enough legitimacy and authority to point out patterns that were unconscious to you. By seeing those patterns play out, you create the opportunity to break out of them.

But nothing would have happened without investing time and trust.

Vajrayana is the same.

Some people feel they cannot trust an authority figure. They either prefer a visualized, idealized Guru or they think that there is a distinction between a guru’s person and the Buddha nature they have.

This makes them unable to trust them fully, therefore invalidating the process.

Think of it this way: what happens when you visualize a deity?

You imagine the interaction.

Now, there’s always a connection to an outside source. You didn’t produce the Buddha or Avalokiteshvara. There’s always some outside connection, some influence of things that are not yours. We are non-dual beings.

But if it remains at that level, all that the symbol might bring is mixed in with the content of your own mind. Just as you cannot see by yourself the pattern of dating the same person type, you need help to distinguish what is of value in the dharma to that which is not.

In Vajrayana, you need a human person, who you can trust, to build up the attunement with you that will enable them to point things to you, things that you hold dear and listen to.

Things that you don’t want to hear about.

Things that are painful.

This is the value of the Guru relationship.

The customized, personal guidance that you actually need, not just the outlines topic in a book.

So, having said all this, what can you do if you’re unable to trust someone and commit to that level?

Well, Mahayana’s always an option. There’s no Guru in Mahayana, so if you want to be a Buddhist and practice the Sutric sorceries, which is always available you can.

But in Tantra, if there’s a Disciple, there’s a Guru.

Even if the Guru’s a no-good, ugly wino.

Especially if the Guru’s like that. Those are the absolute best.

And if you don’t believe me, look at the Lord of Yoga, Virupa.

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