Since many Dharma teachers
have yet to embody the Dharma fully,
why imagine that they can never let you down?
The first guideline of the Four Reliances in Buddhism reminds us to ‘Rely on the message of the teacher, not on the personality’. An alternative translation says ‘Do not rely on the individual, but on the Dharma.’ While this might seem like common sense, it is indeed easy to unmindfully develop attachment to a teacher by the power of charisma, as expressed through the way one talks and acts. Often, looks are not even in the picture. When this happens, one unknowing comes to see that teacher as the embodiment of one’s spiritual refuge. That person becomes the one who resembles the Buddha the most (according to one’s limited imagination), the Dharma in the flesh, and the best member of the Sangha. This is not necessarily a bad thing – especially in the Vajrayana tradition, where one is supposed to see one’s teacher to personify the Triple Gem. However, guru devotion is not meant to become guru attachment.
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche comments, ‘However, faith in one’s guru does not mean blind faith. It does not mean believing “My guru is perfect,” even though your guru is not perfect. It is not pretending that your guru’s defects are qualities. It is not rationalizing every foible of the guru into a superhumane virtue. After all, most gurus will have defects. You need to recognize them for what they are. You don’t have to pretend that your guru’s defects are qualities, because the object of your devotion is not the foibles, quirks, or defects of your guru, but the Dharma that your guru teaches you. You are not practicing the guru’s foibles. As long as the Dharma you receive is authentic and pure, then that guru is a fit object for your devotion [unless of course, the devotion feeds his/her delusions and harms others].’ It is clear that the Dharma is truly the central refuge in the Threefold Refuge of the Triple Gem.
Even if one takes the ‘fourth refuge’ in the guru, the Dharma s/he teaches or represents is the essence of that worth taking refuge in. The Dharma is core for both teachers and students – that which they attempt to live up to. It is their ultimate reference point for truth and moral compass. As John Peacock put it, ‘It is the Dharma that is above all. If the Dharma is not the central issue, then we are perhaps looking at the cult of personality. A good teacher will always put the Dharma first.’ Indeed, one of the easiest ways to detect teachers of questionable integrity is by noting how loud their egos are in shouting for attention via various deeds, including the display of so-called special powers, much of which are sleight-of-hand tricks and mind games. They also never tire of devotees addressing them as their ‘supreme’ masters. Well, they have to be the ‘best’, and your ‘only way’ to ‘salvation’. If not, they would lose you as a potential follower! (See specially selected articles on Dharma teachers at http://moonpointer.com/new/2009/11/13-articles-on-dharma-teachers.)
Since the Dharma is about nothing
other than ultimate Truth and goodness,
the Dharma can never let anyone down.