The Lama’s Blessings: What are they and how can we receive them?

When we see someone we admire, perhaps because of their eloquence or just because of their apparent ability to be positive and happy, it’s natural to think, “I want some of that - some of what he or she has”. Seeing an accomplished lama, we can easily have a similar feeling of wishing we had some of what he or she has. The extraordinary thing is that we can!

 The wish-fulfilling tree of the Kagyu Lineage: source of blessings

The wish-fulfilling tree of the Kagyu Lineage:
source of blessings

This is why the lama is likened to a wish-fulfilling gem. The kindness of the lama is that he or she is dedicated to sharing whatever realisation he or she has, with the wish that others, all of us, may realise our own buddha nature. But of course, as with everything in life, effort is needed on our side before any qualities can begin to become a reality for ourselves.

To quote a couple of lines from a vajrayana teaching given by Lama Jampa in Manchester recently (a summary of which is available here):

"If you see the lama as an ordinary person, you will just get an ordinary person’s blessing.
If you see the lama as a buddha, you will receive a buddha’s blessing."



How can we be certain whether a lama is truly worthy of being seen as a buddha? For who knows where an unqualified and unworthy guide may lead us?  

We are well advised to put in significant groundwork ourselves in terms of learning and investigation, before committing ourselves to anyone’s spiritual guidance, let alone seeking their blessings. First of all, we must be aware of what qualities and qualifications a lama should have to be worthy of the title.

In his recent teaching, Lama Jampa quoted from the nineteenth century Tibetan master Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher (a text he taught in full in the nineties). Patrul Rinpoche provides a whole chapter on how to find a properly qualified teacher, how to start to follow him or her in an authentic way, and thus begin to receive their blessings.

A verse early in that chapter conveys something of how we can be positively influenced by those we look to as exemplars:

Just as the trunk of an ordinary tree lying in the forest Absorbs the perfume of a neighbouring sandalwood tree,

So you come to resemble whomever you follow.

Of course, this works the other way round as well. We are all too easily influenced by those who would lead us further into the mire. So one should be very careful who one follows, who one looks to as a role model. Patrul lists four kinds of fake lama that a student is sensible to avoid.

Teachers to Avoid

Teachers like a millstone made of wood. This type of teacher has somehow been given a title, due to their heritage or some such reason, but actually has never really practised dharma properly and so has no ability to teach anyone. Consequently they are as useful as a millstone made of wood would be for grinding grain to make flour. They are all title and little else in terms of spiritual qualities.

Teachers like the frog that lived in a well. Lama Jampa retells this story of the frog in the well in his book Wisdom in Exile as an introduction to the chapter entitled ‘Conceit’. These individuals don't actually know anything beyond the narrow confines of an ordinary person's world.

Mad guides. These individuals have never studied the sutras and tantras properly under an authentic teacher, let alone been part of any lineage. But ‘though lower than ordinary beings they ape siddhas and behave as if their actions were higher than the sky’.

Blind guides. These ones lack any qualities superior to your own and lack the love and compassion of bodhicitta.

These four types of bad teacher were seen by Patrul Rinpoche, a true master in 19th century Tibet, to attract gullible followers. And so we see human traits live on, albeit in a different time and place. The power of modern communications now seems to exaggerate the confusion even more. Beware!

It is obvious that to try and see any teacher fitting one of these descriptions as a buddha would be the utmost folly.

However, there are still teachers to be found who are authentically trained, realised and free of these egoistic faults. So there is no need to be put off just because bad teachers still attract less fortunate people. Wherever there are humans ….

Training in Seeing the Lama as Buddha

The long life prayer for Ratna Vajra, His Holiness the 42nd Sakya Trizin, contains the lines:

Protector, you are inseparable from the holy lord Manjushri.
To the fortunate and unfortunate respectively, you appear or do not appear as him.

How can we become that fortunate person? The sensible answer to this question is: by gradually applying “common sense and intelligence which,” as Lama Jampa said, “are actually the same thing as each other”.

Step one is, of course, to begin learning about Buddha’s basic teachings. As Lama Jampa explains, even the highest, most subtle Mahamudra teachings rest on the basic teachings, so an authentic teacher will always return to and restate these in their original and unaltered form.

Having obtained a good grounding in the basic teachings of the Hinayana and Mahayana, one will have come to know what qualities should be evident in the teacher. His or her moral behaviour should be completely in accord with the teachings, in which they must be well versed.

After you have spent some time finding out about a teacher and decided that you can rely on him or her, from then on the Vajrayana way is to train in seeing that teacher as a buddha. In his teaching of Patrul’s text, Lama Jampa made the point that this is to be seen only in the context of the spiritual path into which we have entered. To an ordinary person, the lama is an ordinary person.

What Are These Blessings?

In the context of dharma, blessings don’t actually add anything to qualities already innate within all of us. What they do is shine a light on our buddha nature.

It is said that the lama shows us our face in the manner of a mirror. This allows us not only to get a sense of our buddha potential but also of the ‘defilements’ in us that are masking that potential.

In his recent teachings on Mahamudra from the ninth Karmapa’s The Finger Pointing at the Dharmakaya, Lama Jampa explained how the ultimate nature - buddhahood - is conveyed by the direct mind-to-mind transmission that occurs in guru yoga at the highest level:

"It is the ultimate nature that is the real guru. This is the Mahamudra itself. The human guru is simply reflecting this and alerting his student to its presence."

In the teachings, it is made clear that this is only possible when the lama is part of a lineage from which he or she has received the teachings; a lama of the words of the Buddha - sutra and tantra - having no teachings of his or her own invention; a lama of the ultimate nature, meaning that he or she has fully realised the ultimate nature.

Clearly, that is guru yoga at the highest level and it will require some years of preparatory learning and development of meditational experience before a student will be sufficiently matured to engage in it fully. However, it seems helpful and inspiring, even for a relative beginner, to know that this is where the path leads for someone who commits themselves to making the necessary effort in their study and practice.

Serving the Lama

In his text, Patrul Rinpoche explains that the skilful way to follow the lama and open ourselves for receipt of blessings as described above is to serve the Lama. That is an excellent means to join our own aspiration of bodhichitta with the enlightened activity of the Lama. A further post, to follow this one, will elaborate on that theme.

This blog is the work of students in Dechen. Posts are typically inspired by an aspect of a teaching recently given by one of our lamas and are the result of reflection and contemplation of that teaching, considered worthy of being shared. A key purpose of the posts is to stimulate readers into their own further contemplation of teachings received.


Can Science Aid The Understanding of Buddhism?

Between them, the master and scholar Karma Thinley Rinpoche, born in Eastern Tibet in 1931, and Lama Jampa Thaye, born in north west England in 1952, are very specially qualified to examine the relationship between western science and Buddhist teaching, the dharma. This is a meeting of minds that spans the two cultures of a Tibet that knew almost nothing of western science, and that of westerners  awakening to the wisdom embraced in Tibetan Buddhism.


The topic of how science relates to Buddhist teaching, when discussed by such scholars and masters as these, invokes the most profound thought. In his essay ‘The Telescope of Faith’ Rinpoche, making reference to astronomic and cosmic constellations as examples of scientific knowledge where he says:

“Just knowing the size of the universe and the distances and numbers of stars and so on is not the same as complete omniscience.

With skilful means, from his perceiving the nature of things to be the Four Noble Truths, one should know that it is the Buddha who is omniscient, possessing the unsurpassable benevolence of enlightened activities, undiminished by time”


There is clearly great profundity wrapped up in these lines. One question they raise in one’s mind is: Could any scientist, however great yet still limited to describing that which is tangible in the world, ever attain the extraordinary reach of the omniscience to which Rinpoche refers?


The reader may wonder what concern this may be of theirs?

The omniscience of a buddha, which relates to mind rather than matter, has very direct relevance to all of us; for if it were not for that, the Buddha’s insight into the nature of each and every one of our mind-streams and how they function, would no longer have any relevance. So, therefore, having confidence in Buddha’s omniscience means the world to us as Buddhists because it provides a means of removing suffering and achieving happiness and contentment.

But, why concern ourselves with how science does or does not relate to that?


Lama Jampa, in his book ‘Wisdom in Exile’ and in his recent teaching in Bristol in January on Rinpoche’s ‘Telescope of Faith’, explained that there is a need to recognise that, even as lay-people largely unversed in science, we are all influenced to some extent by the pervasive idea that a scientific approach is the most superior way of getting to the truth of things.

Science may well be the best way mankind currently has of understanding the material world and manipulating parts of it through technology based on science. But a a real understanding of mind and consciousness still eludes scientists.

In his commentary on ‘Distinguishing Consciousness and Primordial Wisdom’, Rinpoche notes the important role played by the brain that has always been known in dharma.

“It is not to be thought that the mind is the brain. Rather, the brain’s ability to perform functions is due to the power of mind’s existence.”

This is a very different perspective from that of the materialists; a point that has long been understood by Buddhist masters.

Does this mean that, from a dharma perspective, we should discount or even try to debunk science?

Nowhere does Rinpoche suggest that. During the teaching Lama Jampa gave on Rinpoche’s Telescope of Faith in Bristol recently, he related anecdotally how Rinpoche took a keen interest in the findings of Western astronomy soon after settling in Canada in the 1970s and sees no need to dispute them even though they are in stark contrast to the ancient Indian cosmology referenced in the dharma texts from which he was educated and which he mastered years ago in Tibet.

It is obviously beyond the scope of this blog to attempt to elucidate and answer these subtle points and big questions. For that, we need to study the writings of our learned teachers and, whenever possible, go and listen to their analysis and elucidation of these questions. The experience of being present when the Lama is explaining these matters cannot be bettered, if one really wants to find a way into a profound understanding of immense topics like the omniscience of buddhas and the nature of consciousness and, to bring it right on home, our own minds.

Hearing the Lama expound on such matters and then contemplating his words helps us identify, and begin to strip away, patterns of thinking that have obstructed clear comprehension of Buddha’s teaching.

There is an opportunity to hear Lama Jampa teach once again on this topic on 2nd June when he will present the second (and concluding) part of his explanation of Rinpoche’s Telescope of Faith in Bristol. See the website for full details.


Mahamudra in the Kagyu Tradition

 Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje

Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje

Mahamudra, the ‘great seal’, is one of the two principal streams of practice in the Karma Kagyu tradition. The other is the Six Yogas of Naropa, a set of ‘completion stage’ practices. Introducing his teaching on mahamudra at the shedra in Manchester in December last year, Lama Jampa explained that both of these practices can only be done after completion of all the foundation practices and vajrayana preliminaries (Tib: ngondro), as well as some accomplishment of deity (yidam) practice. Although mahamudra is therefore clearly an advanced practice, it is extremely inspiring to hear about it, even as a beginner on the path.  This is because its truth is already present as a seed within our mind stream, so there is a sense in which one can begin to relate with it right away.

What is mahamudra?

In his book 'Garland of Gold', Lama Jampa says that mahamudra, which can be translated as ‘great seal’, is the ultimate teaching of vajrayana, transmitted by Buddha Vajradhara, the embodiment of the dharmakaya, the true nature of reality. Mahamudra is presented in terms of three phases - basis, path and fruit – though in reality these are one. The fruit, Lama Jampa explains, is simply the recognition of one’s buddha-nature mind. He quotes the Indian siddha, Saraha:

‘Mind itself is the one seed of everything,
Both samsara and nirvana flow from it.
To that which, like a wish fulfilling gem,
Grants all wishes I prostrate.’

Lama Jampa presented a comprehensive introduction to mahamudra when he was invited in 2015 to teach at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute, New Delhi. Read a transcription here

The text that the Lama began to teach in Manchester in December 2017, 'Pointing the Finger at the Dharmakaya', is one of three manuals of practice of mahamudra composed by the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje (1555 - 1603).

Lama Jampa taught part of this text in the late 1990’s but this is the first time he will be giving it in full. He taught the longer text, 'Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance', in 1983 and again more recently in 2011. And, going further back, he was already beginning to give these teachings to students informally as early as 1975, the year he founded Kagyu Ling in Manchester.

The practice of mahamudra is not unique to the Karma Kagyu, as it was transmitted in the supreme yoga tantras from Buddha Vajradhara. What is special about the transmission in the Kagyu is that here there is a ‘sutra’ transmission of mahamudra, found in the discourse (sutra) teachings given by Shakyamuni Buddha. Hence, in this tradition there is a union of the tantric and sutra teachings. This unified stream of teaching is called the ‘simultaneously arising and joining mahamudra’.

At the time of Indian and early Tibetan masters such as Marpa and Milarepa, instruction on how to practise the mahamudra was given orally direct to disciples. The stages of practice as set out by Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje in his three manuals are a distillation of the original oral teaching passed down from master to disciple up until that time. The manuals present the teaching in a systematic way, from the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma, through the preliminary practices of the ngondro, to the main practices of calm-abiding and insight meditation that together lead to the experience of mahamudra.

At the shedra on 6th and 7th December last year, Lama Jampa explained the sections of the text dealing with the common foundations (the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma) and the first three of the four ngondro practices. He will resume his teaching of the text in February and conclude it in July. See the Dechen website for details.