Importance of Oral Transmission
Regardless of the particular level of teaching or practice that we are discussing in the Buddhist tradition, whether it be Hinayana, Mahayana or Vajrayana, the process of spiritual development is one of the student relying upon a teacher. We may call that teacher a lama, a guru, or whatever, but the essential point is that there is an oral transmission that takes place in which a teacher teaches the student: the student listens to the teachings, absorbs their meaning and puts them into practice.
There is a reason for this emphasis on an oral transmission. From the time of the Buddha up to the present day, the buddha dharma has always been transmitted and meant to be transmitted orally, ensuring that there is a living tradition that is still embued with the blessing and power of the original teachings. It also guards against the possibility of so-called teachers simply coming up with their own ideas. Instead, the teacher passes on a proven tradition of teachings.
This makes the buddha dharma different from other kinds of learning where it may be possible for people to innovate. In such realms of learning it may be appropriate to come up with new systems of thought or to introduce new ideas. But when we are talking about the buddha dharma, every teaching must connect with the original teachings of the Buddha in order for a teaching to be valid. The teachings cannot be something that someone is simply coming up with on their own. The teachings are something that the teacher passes on.
Similarly, in other types of human knowledge it may be permissible to present information in a manner as entertaining and pleasing as possible. But although it is important for dharma teachings to be presented in a manner which is pleasant to hear, it is most important that the transmitted teachings have the power to bless and influence those who hear them in a positive way - not only in this lifetime, but in future lifetimes as well. So even though the teaching of the dharma should be elegant and well-presented, what is most important is the blessing of the essential message.
Qualities of the Lama
The teachings we know of as Buddhism were first taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni. These teachings have been maintained by a lineage of living transmission up to the present day by those who have been inspired to follow the example of the Buddha and to study that path and transmit it to others. In any of the various Buddhist traditions we find that there are countless numbers of people who through their study and contemplation have become extremely learned and gifted with spiritual power and realization. But the reason why they teach and the reason why these individuals undertake to become learned in the dharma should not be to indulge in self-aggrandizement. One does not become learned in dharma in order to think of oneself as learned and to gain some special status. One does not teach others from a sense of personal pride, either. Dharma is maintained because it brings benefit to those who hear the teachings. That is the motivation behind teaching.
In order to become an authentic teacher of the tradition, it is not sufficient to simply read enough books to become very clever at the teachings and then set oneself up as a teacher. Rather, it is the case that one's own teacher, a particularly realized individual, must give one permission to teach. It may also be the case that one will be graced with a vision of one's chosen deity during which experience the deity will confer upon one the blessing and authority to teach.
So it isn't simply a question of ordinary people developing enough cleverness to be able to talk well about the dharma. The true benefit of the teachings doesn't come about through an ordinary approach, because that more ordinary approach tends only to feed one's own pride and conflicting emotions. No benefit that can come out of that. It is only when the teaching is a selfless gesture to benefit others based upon an authentic transmission that we really have the benefit that is necessary for the dharma to be maintained.
If we take into account all of the teachings of the Buddha, including all of the commentaries on those teachings by the great mahasiddhas - the learned pundits of the Indian, Tibetan and other traditions of Buddhism - it would be impossible for a single individual to try and put all of that into practice. This does not mean that there is any aspect of those teachings that are useless and have no function. The Buddha Shakyamuni turned the wheel of the dharma in three successive transmissions during his time in the world. In Vajrayana when we consider the thousands of volumes that are collectively known as the buddha dharma, including the 84,000 collections of the Buddha's teachings and the 6,400,000 texts of tantra, it is obvious that no single person could absorb and practise all of that.
Examining the Teacher
So this brings us to the topic of guru yoga. Let us look at the etymology of the word 'lama' in Tibetan. The first syllable 'la' means 'that which is unsurpassable.' The second word 'ma' literally means mother. This means that the attitude of the teacher is like that of a mother towards her children. There is the implication that the relationship with the lama carries with it a great deal of weight. There is also tremendous potential for the student to benefit from that relationship.
This is why in the secret mantra path of the vajrayana teachings, it is emphasized that from the outset it is important for the teacher and student to examine one another. There must be a critical process whereby each one chooses the other. For example, it is said in the tantras, if a lama is acquisitive, ambitious, subject to conflicting emotions, full of pride, jealousy or competitiveness, then it is not appropriate for a student to rely on such a teacher regardless of who that lama may be. The lama must have the right kinds of qualifications, including the quality of compassion. If the teacher does not have these basic qualities, then it will be very difficult for such a lama to grant blessing to the student in the way that is necessary for the lama/student relationship to be effective.
In examining a lama's qualities it may be difficult for an ordinary person to appreciate the qualities of that lama's mind stream, especially at first meeting that teacher. But one crucial factor to be considered is the lineage that the lama holds and whether that lineage has been maintained with pure samaya.
One cannot determine simply from a teacher's degree of learning whether they have the kind of spiritual power that can transmit true blessing. If the teacher's mind stream is not moved by an altruistic and compassionate quality - the quality of Bodhicitta - but rather is one of pride and afflictive emotions, then there is not going to be a beneficial relationship even if that teacher is very learned. This is because the motivation of the teacher is not a proper one.
So initially it is important for the student to examine a prospective teacher. Once the student has come to the decision to rely upon a given teacher, there is no more discussion. The decision has been made. At that point it is important for the student to rely wholeheartedly on the teacher. If one has gone through the examination process of checking the teacher's qualities and determining that this teacher is appropriate for oneself, then one will be able to maintain a respect and a trust in the teacher.
Provided that the student then maintains an attitude of faith and devotion towards a lama chosen in this way, there is no student that will not receive the blessings of the Buddha directly in this living lineage. This is quite infallible.
The Story of the Shepherd-Lama
In Tibet there was a family of nomadic herdsmen. They raised and sold animals for a living. They were in no way knowledgeable about the dharma. Their work was of an essentially worldly nature.
One of the shepherds hired by this family would be given food when he took the herds out every day. He would go to the bank of a river, let the herds graze and sit down at midday to make tea and have his lunch. Where he was sitting, there was a rock outcropping. Every day he would take the leftovers of food and tea and put them on the rock. He was not motivated by any consideration that this was either a good or bad thing to do. It was simply an idle habit he had of placing leftovers on the rock.
This particular rock outcropping had three surfaces on which he used to put the food. As it happened, these rocks were inhabited by certain local spirits. One of these was a naga spirit, one was a mara spirit and the other was of a class known as the tsen spirits. These three non-human spirits were very appreciative of these "offerings" that this seemingly spiritual person and accomplished practitioner was giving them on a daily basis. They discussed among themselves: "One of us, at least, should do something out of gratitude. Who shall it be?" And as they talked among themselves it was decided that the mara spirit would be the one to help the shepherd. And so the mara spirit entered into the body of the shepherd which caused him to undergo a complete transformation. He actually became a very erudite and clever person.
When he returned home from the fields, he was a changed man. Instead of just coming home as usual, he came home and began talking about dharma - he began teaching. Over time he came to have thousands of students. He was so impressive as a spiritual teacher that he gathered a huge retinue of students around him. He also wrote many books. He gained a wide reputation for being very learned in the dharma. This continued over many years and his fame continued to grow.
He was continuing these activities when another lama who was traveling in the area heard about him. Due to the visiting lama's authentic psychic powers, he was aware of the fact that the shepherd-lama was not someone who really had genuine qualities. He realized that the shepherd-lama's teaching ability had been imparted by the possession of a mara spirit.
And so the visiting lama said to one of his attendant monks: "I want you to take this incense down to where this other lama is teaching and I want you to burn it and waft the smoke through the area so that the lama and all of the students smell the smoke. Can you do that for me?"
The monk said "No problem," and he took the incense down and burned it. He went through the crowd of thousands of people who were listening to this shepherd turned teacher. As soon as the shepherd smelled the smoke, the mara spirit left his body. The poor shepherd sitting on his throne looked around at the great crowd of people and said "Where are my sheep?"
The point of the story is that even though a teacher may be clever, famous and capable of speaking about the dharma, that does not determine authenticity. You need to examine clearly what it is you are looking for in a teacher.
When you have gone through this examination process as a student and have come to the decision that you want to rely upon a given teacher, then you have no problem relating to that teacher straightforwardly with a sense of faith and pure view. Then, when you take teachings from that teacher, you are completely receptive to what that teacher has to offer.
Relying on the Teacher
Some of the most important questions you should ask yourself are: Does this teacher have the experience of becoming free of suffering and delusion to be able to impart that kind of freedom to me? Is this teacher motivated by Bodhicitta or not? Is this teacher truly compassionate in his or her concern for me as a student? This is something we find in all of the teachings of the sutras, of the tantras and particularly in the mind teachings of the Mahamudra and Great Perfection schools: It is extremely important to examine the qualities of a lama to determine his or her motivation before relying on that teacher.
The whole point of the examination process is not to critically judge a teacher in some public forum or in an abstract sense. Instead, it is to evaluate the teacher from a very personal level to determine whether or not that relationship with that teacher will be beneficial for you as a student. Does this teacher have qualities and teachings to offer that you, in receiving those teachings, can benefit from? It is entirely from your own point of view and not from some conceptual perspective
Relying upon a teacher is absolutely crucial in order for the student to purely receive the transmission of the teachings. This is particularly true in the case of the Great Perfection ("Dzogchen") teachings. You can only receive the pure transmission of the Great Perfection ("Dzogchen") from a living teacher. There is no source of transmission other than that of working with an authentic teacher.
And again, it is important that the lama or lamas upon whom you rely not be individuals who are motivated by selfish desires for personal gain; that they not be in any way tricky or deceitful people; that the way they speak the teachings not be contradictory or counterproductive; that they not be proud of their own qualities and constantly talking about or demonstrating their qualities in a competitive or self-aggrandizing manner. Any and all of these types of qualities in a teacher are to be avoided.
On the other hand, when you encounter a lama or teacher who has a very noble character, who has excellent qualities, who is skilled and insightful concerning the practice of the Buddhist teachings in general and the Vajrayana path in particular, whose mind stream is motivated by Bodhicitta, who is extremely loving and compassionate in his or her concern for others, and who has him or herself realized the fundamental nature of phenomena in a very authentic and direct manner, when we meet someone who embodies all of these qualities, then we have the ideal case of someone upon whom you should rely as a teacher. This person meets all of the qualifications of a good and authentic teacher.
Therefore, when we speak of someone who is truly a lama, we are not simply speaking of someone who has the title or who is in some general or ordinary sense considered a lama. Only when we speak of someone who really has these authentic qualities are we truly speaking of a qualified and authentic lama, i.e. someone upon whom it will only be beneficial for you to rely. Your practice and your experience in the dharma will only grow as result of a connection with someone who is truly worthy of the title "lama."
When the student's attitude toward his or her lama is one of such faith and devotion that the student really sees the teacher as an actual Buddha, or as the very embodiment of the dharmakaya Vajradhara, or as the very embodiment of the student's yidam - when the student has that kind of complete trust and faith, without any doubt, without hesitation - then the blessings and qualities of the enlightened form, speech and mind of all buddhas and bodhisattvas are transmitted through the lama to the student.
There are also cases in which one encounters a lama with whom one has a connection over many lifetimes. The kind of indication you will have of this is that simply hearing the name of the teacher is an arresting experience for you: every hair on your body stands on end. It is something which happens quite automatically and is not a contrived experience.
When it is a certainty in your mind that this is truly the Buddha, this is truly the dharmakaya Vajradhara, or that this is truly Guru Rinpoche that you are encountering and relying upon in your lama, and when you pray with that certainty in your mind, then you definitely receive the blessings from that connection. But this also implies that you, as a student, guard your own attitudes towards the teacher and ensure that you are always respectful and receptive to what the teacher is saying. Do not give in to your own ordinary habits of pride or self-aggrandizement or in any way undermine the relationship with the teacher by contradicting what the teacher says or by attempting to thwart the teacher's efforts. Any and all of these attitudes are to be avoided since they do not support the trusting and open relationship that is necessary for the blessings to flow from the teacher to the student.
In the tantras it is stated again and again the importance of relying upon the lama as the source of blessings in one's practice. Regardless of the particular prayer that the student offers to the lama, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant it may be, if it is based upon the student's complete trust and faith in the lama, then the blessings of the lama are always accessible to the student. In the Tantra of the Ocean of Timeless Awareness, it states that it is far better to recite one small prayer to one's lama out of pure faith and devotion than it is to perform hundreds of millions of recitations of deity mantras. The effect of prayer is far more powerful when it is truly an expression of one's own faith and devotion in one's lama.
When one has established a connection with one's lama based upon trust, faith and devotion, there are different ways of relying upon that relationship through which various kinds of accomplishment can come about. If a student intends to attain the most sublime accomplishment of enlightenment itself, the student identifies the lama with Vajradhara - the dharmakaya buddha. If the student is particularly motivated to develop deeper wisdom, the student identifies the lama with Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. In order to encourage his or her own love and compassion, the student meditates upon the lama as inseparable from Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. To gain greater spiritual power the student focuses upon the lama as inseparable from Vajrapani, the bodhisattva of spiritual power. To overcome various kinds of fear and anxiety one relies upon the lama as the very embodiment of the venerable Tara. To promote one's own longevity one meditates upon the lama inseparable from Amitayus. To overcome illness and disease one meditates upon the lama as the Medicine Buddha. To promote one's own wealth and prosperity one meditates upon the lama as inseparable from Vaishravana, Jambhala, or any of the wealth deities. To purify the effects of harmful actions and to purify obscurations of one's body, speech and mind, one meditates upon the lama as inseparable from the deity Vajrasattva. To increase one's own personal glory, wealth and opportunity, one meditates upon the lama as inseparable from the Buddha Ratnasambhava, the buddha of the jewel family. To increase one's power - one's ability to exercise a powerful and beneficial influence over the world - one meditates upon the lama as inseparable from Amitabha or a deity such as Kurukulla. If one wishes to enact wrathful activity, one meditates upon the lama as inseparable from Vajrabhairava or any of the more wrathful yidams. If one wishes to adopt the approach that combines all of these qualities in a single form, one meditates upon one's lama as inseparable from Guru Rinpoche. In each of these cases, one's attitude is that of one's own root lama being the very embodiment of one or another of these aspects of enlightened being.
The Great Master Padmasambhava
The universal approach which subsumes all of these aspects is meditation upon one's lama as the very embodiment of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche should not be thought of in this case as simply an historical figure, i.e. as an individual who appeared after the Buddha Sakyamuni in our particular time and space. The actual essence of Guru Rinpoche predates the Buddha Sakyamuni by eons. The enlightened mind stream that is the enlightened mind stream of Guru Rinpoche is the single expression of the innate compassion, blessings and wisdom of countless buddhas from countless eons in the past all focusing in this single mind stream that is the mind stream of the great master Guru Rinpoche.
If we think of the buddha dharma as being divisible into the teachings of the sutras and the tantras, the teachings that we know of today as Buddhism are those which were spoken and taught by the historical Buddha Sakyamuni. In the greater sense, however, the teachings of the buddha dharma, and particularly the teachings of the secret mantra path are not limited to the expression of that single buddha. This is where the activity of Guru Rinpoche is considered to be so universal and so far reaching. Wherever the Vajrayana teachings have been given by any buddha in the past, or are being given or ever will be given, wherever a spiritual teacher is transmitting those teachings, the essence of Guru Rinpoche is embodied there - in that buddha, in that teacher, in that lama. In different realms, in different universes, under different names, in different forms, the manifestations of Guru Rinpoche have appeared and continue to appear in countless numbers. There are any number of accounts in the traditional literature that attest to this manifold display of Guru Rinpoche's activity.
In our particular time and space - as we experience the legacy of Buddha Sakyamuni as one of the one thousand buddhas who will appear during this age in which we live - all of these thousand buddhas and all the activity of these thousand buddhas including the Buddha Sakyamuni are all manifestations from a single source. They are all different aspects of activity that derives from a single source of blessing and a single source of transmission. Throughout this enormous universe and this vast expanse of time, all of the hundreds of millions of manifestations of buddhas and teachers that appear are manifestations of Guru Rinpoche's energy. Therefore, the expression of Guru Rinpoche's blessings cannot be limited to a single time frame and a single region such as India or Tibet.
The accounts of Guru Rinpoche's miraculous birth in India and his journey to Tibet to bring the teachings there are simply one small aspect of the blessing and activity that is the totality of Guru Rinpoche. Even the accounts of Guru Rinpoche's life that we have do not speak of a single figure, but of eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche by way of expressing the enormous scope of Guru Rinpoche's blessing and activity. This blessing and activity continues to manifest in all of the great teachers and masters who are emanations of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche has not died. Guru Rinpoche has not passed away. Guru Rinpoche continues to demonstrate this miraculous activity for the benefit of beings now and on into the future.
None of this teaching contradicts any of the teachings that were transmitted by the Buddha Sakyamuni. The third turning of the wheel by the Buddha was the wheel of teachings concerning the definitive nature of reality and it is in this turning of the wheel that the basis of the Vajrayana teachings is found. However, in our particular time and space, it is Guru Rinpoche who was most instrumental in developing and presenting these teachings of the Vajrayana.
In our ordinary perceptions what we perceive to be the phenomenon of the Buddha Sakyamuni was someone who was born as a prince in what was then the north of India, the son of King Shudodena and Queen Mayadevi. He grew up and attained enlightenment, turned the wheel of the dharma, passed into nirvana with his remains being cremated leaving relics that are still with us to this day.
The essence of Guru Rinpoche is birthless and deathless. It is not something that we can limit to an entity that came into being at one point and passed out of existence at another point in time. Guru Rinpoche's body is not a body of flesh and blood. Guru Rinpoche's presence is not based upon any physical basis. It is ever present. It always has been and always will be, because it is not subject to the limitations of any corporeal form. There are many occasions upon which kings and ministers in India would attempt to assassinate Guru Rinpoche. In one instance his body was committed to flames. An ordinary person would have been killed instantly, but Guru Rinpoche was never physically harmed in any way because his embodiment was not of an ordinary nature.
When Guru Rinpoche came to the Land of Snows and the king of Tibet prostrated to him, the king bowed and touched his head to what he thought was the knee of Guru Rinpoche seated in front of him. However, his head passed through Guru Rinpoche's body and touched the carpet underneath. When Guru Rinpoche departed from Tibet to the realm of the cannibal demons, he didn't die in any ordinary way, passing from his body. He actually left the land of Tibet in a miraculous fashion - something that was witnessed by everybody present on that occasion.
However, I have heard that in the West there are people who are in the business of selling relics of Guru Rinpoche! There are said to be hairs, for example, from the head of Guru Rinpoche. There is one case of a terma revealed by Jatsön Nyingpo which is referred to as a hair of Guru Rinpoche, but it is more like a filament of rainbow light - there isn't really any hair there.
To meditate upon one's root lama as the very embodiment of the essence and blessings of Guru Rinpoche means that any practice you undertake of any deity, or any activity that you intend to enact in your practice - be it pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, or wrathful - in any and all of these ways your practice will be successful and fruitful. If you pray to your lama as inseparable from Guru Rinpoche with your mind full of faith and devotion, Guru Rinpoche is never separate from you.
When it comes to deity practice, we may find judgments arising in our mind saying, for example, that this deity is better that this deity, or this deity is more powerful than another deity, or this blessing comes more quickly with this deity. These types of ordinary thoughts are not really appropriate when we are dealing with something of this nature. The only qualifying factor is the devoted interest and faith in the student's mind. It may be that under certain circumstances, your faith is stronger in a given deity and therefore that deity practice is more effective for you. But that does not mean that at a more ultimate level there is any distinction to be made between these various aspects of enlightened being. They all arise from the single vast expanse of timeless awareness as equally authentic manifestations of blessing and power. There is no hierarchy, so to speak, among the deities. It is not the case that some are more powerful than others, or some more blessed than others, or some more productive of benefits than others. It is rather a question of the degree to which you as a practitioner are motivated in a given direction.
If you are concerned about the degree to which you are receiving blessings from your deity or from your practice, it would be far more useful to examine the degree to which you yourself are developing faith and devotion toward that yidam and toward your practice. The more our minds entertain doubt and anything other than a truly firm and lucid faith in our practice, that much are we confusing ourselves. We obscure our own minds with that doubt, vacillation and lack of certainty and trust. It is on that level that we can say there is no blessing in the practice. Not because the deity has no blessing. Not because the lama has no blessing. But because the student is closed to that blessing by his or her doubt and confusion.
The Practice of Guru Yoga
The actual way in which you carry out the meditation of guru yoga is to visualize yourself in the form of a deity, in this case the feminine deity Vajrayogini. Meditate that in the space above your head, about a cubit in length above your crown (it would be about the length of your forearm), there is a seat formed of three lotuses, one above the other - a white, red and dark blue lotus. Resting upon this threefold lotus seat, you visualize the flat disk of the full moon. Above this you meditate the form of Guru Rinpoche, considering him to be the quintessence of all of the blessings of all buddhas and bodhisattvas united in this single form. Even though the manifestation of Guru Rinpoche's form takes on a certain appearance with specific posture, gestures, ornaments and garments, his essence is inseparable from the essence of your root lama. Praying with this conviction is the basis for guru yoga practice.
The particular form of Guru Rinpoche is white in color with a reddish tinge. He has one face and two hands and his expression is described as semi-wrathful in the sense that it is basically a peaceful expression with a just a slight hint of wrath - not an overtly wrathful expression. The form of Guru Rinpoche is marked with the 32 major and 80 minor marks of physical perfection so that there is nothing about the form that is any way displeasing, disproportionate, lacking or unsatisfactory to the mind of one who beholds such a form. The hair of the figure of Guru Rinpoche is flowing over his shoulders and back. On his head Guru Rinpoche wears the lotus crown that confers liberation upon all who behold it.
The form of Guru Rinpoche is wearing a rich cloak that is referred to as the Cloak of the King of Sawok. The origin of this cloak refers back to a particular event when Guru Rinpoche was staying in the area now known as Tso Pema to the Tibetans or Rewalsar in India. The king of that region offered his cloak to Guru Rinpoche. In recognition of this worldly king offering the symbol of his majesty of Guru Rinpoche, the form of Guru Rinpoche is clad in this outer cloak. Additionally, Guru Rinpoche wears a formal monastic robe emblematic of the Hinayana disciplines. He is adorned with jeweled ornaments such as earrings, necklace, bracelets and anklets. The right hand holds a five prong vajra to his heart center. The left hand is in his lap in the gesture of meditative equipoise, holding a skull cup filled with nectar in which there is a vase filled with the nectar of immortality.
In the crook of the left elbow Guru Rinpoche cradles a trident which is a veiled reference to feminine principle, the aspect of Vajra Yogini. Various consorts such as Yeshe Tsogyal and Mandarava are associated with Guru Rinpoche. Given that they were all essentially of the same nature of Vajra Yogini, this then is the significance of the trident in the crook of the left elbow.
When we find the reference of yab and yum (masculine/feminine consort or father/mother consort) applied to deities, we shouldn't make the obvious mistake of assuming that this has to do with male/female in the physical sense. The deities are not male and female beings, but masculine and feminine energies. The bipolar imagery of the masculine and feminine illustrates the primordial union of appearance (or form) and emptiness. One of the descriptions of this imagery is that the masculine aspect, the yab aspect, refers to phenomenal appearance while the yum, the feminine aspect, is the expression of emptiness. So the way in which the deities manifest is simply a direct expression of the fundamental nature of reality as it is.
The dakini Yeshe Tsogyal is famous for having been the Tibetan consort of Guru Rinpoche, but we should remember that her primary function as his consort was to gather and codify his teachings. Her role is directly analogous to that which the student of the Buddha, Ananda, performed after the passing of the Buddha - to gather together the Buddha's teachings so that they could handed on to future generations. This was exactly the function of Yeshe Tsogyal - to uphold and codify and collect and gather the teachings of Guru Rinpoche. While the dakini Yeshe Tsogyal did appear in human form as a woman in Tibet, her ultimate essence was that of a dakini of timeless awareness. So there is no contradiction in her manifesting that essence as a human woman or as a trident held in the crook of the left elbow of Guru Rinpoche.
In addition, you meditate that the form of Guru Rinpoche above your head is seated in the full vajra posture with the left leg on the right thigh and the right leg on the left thigh. Meditate that the form is radiating brilliant rays of light in all directions.
The inexhaustable adornment of Guru Rinpoche's form is the essence of the sangha principle; that of his speech, the dharma principle; that of his mind, the principle of buddha as a source of refuge. The qualities of Guru Rinpoche embody the chosen deity principle of Vajrayana; his activity, that of the dakinis and dharmapalas (the dharma protectors.) In brief, what appears initially to be simply the form of Guru Rinpoche is understood on a more ultimate level to be the very essence of all buddhas, yidams, dakas and dakinis, dharma protectors and the entire vast array of the three jewels and the three roots all subsumed within a single manifestation.
Regardless of the particular deity that you are meditating upon in your own individual practice and regardless of the specific form that you are visualizing, it is important that you visualize that form to be pure appearance without any substantial or corporeal nature. You are not visualizing the deity as a body of flesh and blood, but rather as a form that is completely insubstantial - a form that is nothing but pure appearance without any solidity or any substantiality. For example, when you are practicing ka-gye (the eight commands on sadhana practice), if you are meditating on Vajrakilaya or Chemchog or any of the major herukas of this cycle, the visualization in the more extensive practices involves the basic visualization of your form as the form of the deity with whole mandalas of deities appearing at points in your body associated with the concentration of subtle energy. So you are not visualizing a form that has a skeletal structure, a circulatory system, a digestive system or musculature. None of these ordinary physical elements enter into the picture at all.
In our time and place Guru Rinpoche is the source for the lineages that we receive. Even though the actual presence of Guru Rinpoche is not perceptable to us directly, still we connect with that source through the unbroken lineage that has been handed down from generation to generation. When we rely upon the lama as the very embodiment of Guru Rinpoche and inseparable from Guru Rinpoche, we connect directly with that unbroken source that has come down to us historically.
In the pinnacle pure realm of Akanishta, Guru Rinpoche received transmission from the dakini known as Leche Wangmo, the powerful goddess of activity. The process in which he received this transmission was of her transforming him into a seed syllable hung which she swallowed. As the hung syllable passed through the chakras of her body, he received the four stages of empowerment: the vase, the body, the wisdom awareness and the fourth empowerment. She expelled him through her secret organ and he reassumed his form. This is obviously not an ordinary process of her swallowing something, digesting and excreting it.
This particular process finds its expression as well in the many abishekas or empowerment ceremonies that are performed by vajra masters. These include similar visualizations in which the student is transformed into a syllable, ingested by the vajra master, transformed and brought forth into the world again as the deity. These are processes whereby the vajra master, in transmitting the blessing to the student, purifies the student's mind stream of the effect of harmful actions and of obscurations and transmits the spiritual power of the empowerment.
Once the student has been generated as the deity by the vajra master, the student maintains identity with the chosen deity for the duration of the empowerment ceremony. The student recognizes his or her essence to be the essence of that deity manifesting in that particular form. The student's conception of him or herself as the deity is the samayasattva, the commitment aspect, which the vajra master imbues with the jnanasattva, the aspect of timeless awareness. The vajra master then proceeds to use the various substances or articles such as the vase and forth as the symbols that transmit ultimate blessing of the various levels of empowerment. It is on that basis that the true transmission of spiritual power and energy can take place.
This is simply an expression of a much larger principle. Whether we are involved in activities of the dharma or whether we are involved in ordinary work, it is our own mind that is the most important factor - how our mind is viewing the situation, how our mind is relating to the circumstances. Both the lama and the student have a responsibility here: in order for true transmission to take place, both the mind of the lama and the mind of the student conceive the situation in the appropriate manner. Then and only then can there really be the authentic transmission of blessings in an empowerment.
Returning to the actual meditation of guru yoga: Having visualized the form of Guru Rinpoche as the union of all buddhas and all sources of refuge above the crown of your head, you meditate that the form is marked at the forehead with a white om syllable, at the throat with a red ah syllable, at the heart center with a dark blue hung syllable and at the navel center with a green hri syllable. In addition you meditate that on the palms and soles of Guru Rinpoche's form are the four syllables ha ri ni sa. Rays of light shining from these syllables in all directions invoke the blessings of all sources of refuge which return and are absorbed into his form above the crown of your head. With one-pointed focus you begin the actual practice of guru yoga which involves supplication to the lama and recitation of the vajra guru mantra, the mantra of Guru Rinpoche.
Following the main body of the practice, you meditate first that from the white om syllable in the forehead center of Guru Rinpoche there comes a white ray of light, like a shooting star, that enters into your own forehead and completely fills your body. The white light purifies you on the physical level of the effects of obscurations and harmful actions, imbuing your form with the blessings of enlightened form. By a similar process you meditate that from the throat center of Guru Rinpoche, from the red ah syllable, there comes a red ray of light that enters your own throat center purifying your speech. From the heart center of Guru Rinpoche, from the dark blue hung syllable, there comes a thread or filament of light like a wafting of incense smoke that is absorbed into your own heart center purifying your mind. And finally, you meditate that from all of the centers of Guru Rinpoche's form come rainbow rays of light of five colors, white, red, yellow, green and blue, all of which are absorbed into your own chakras purifying the last traces of obscuration and conferring the fourth level of empowerment. In this way you receive the four levels of empowerment, the vase, secret, wisdom awareness and the fourth empowerment. This establishes the potential for your own realization respectively, of nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, dharmakaya and svabhavikakaya, the totality of the three kayas.
When you come to actually finish the session, you meditate that the form of Guru Rinpoche above the crown of your head dissolves into light. This light is absorbed into you and at that point you enter into the formless completion stage of the practice. You meditate that Guru Rinpoche's enlightened form, speech and mind are in no way separate from your own body, speech and mind. There is complete non-dual union. You meditate in a formless state of mind, without any frame of reference, without any conceptual elaboration, simply allowing your mind to rest in that state of non-dual union for as long as possible. Following that, you conclude with the prayers of dedication and aspiration.
There are a number of other specific ways in which the visualization of guru yoga practice are presented according to specific lineages, specific traditions and even specific situations. But the general principles that are described in this presentation hold true in all cases: you visualize the lama above the crown of your head. In this particular case you envision the form of Guru Rinpoche as the form that embodies all sources of refuge. In others systems of practice you may be instructed to visualize an actual crowd of the sources of refuge, like a large assembly, above the crown of your head. Or you may be instructed to visualize a lineage, with each figure of the lineage above the other, extending vertically up above the crown of your head. There are different details to the specific visualizations depending upon the system you are studying, but you should understand that despite the seeming differences in the details, the essential nature of the practice is the same in each case.
As I said before, the most important qualities to ensure the success of the practice in the students' mind are faith, devotion, trust and pure view. If a student is truly bent upon benefiting from his or her practice and his or her association with the dharma, those qualities are indispensable.
Reproduced by permission of www.palyul.org Translated by Chökyi Nyima (Richard Barron). Edited by Bill Speckart. © Copyright 1995-2006 by Palyul Ling.