Understanding The Guru Principle

Lama Shenpen with The Guru Principle book, published by Shambhala on 17th August 2021

The following is an extract from the introduction to Lama Shenpen’s acclaimed book ‘The Guru Principle: A Guide to the Teacher-Student Relationship in Buddhism’:

From the Guru Principle Introduction:

“Within the tradition, since the one term guru is used variously to refer to a certain person or to the guru principle (or both), it allows for different levels of meaning and a certain degree of ambiguity. This enriches the discourse and brings a depth of meaning that is absent in translation. It is in order to recapture some of this depth of meaning that I am introducing the term guru principle and mandala of awakening. These are terms that allow us to imply the one principle or the mandala* when referring to a particular person as our guru or teacher. So, for example, I can wholeheartedly bow to a person who for me represents the guru principle or links me to the mandala of awakening without this being taken personally by either side. Bowing to someone as the guru doesn’t put them in a special category. It is simply a matter of principle and mandala connection. All of the people who play a role in the process of our enlightenment, are in effect, playing the role of the group for us. They are expressions of the guru principle.

For this reason, some texts refer to our parents and schoolteachers as our gurus. Even our enemies can become our gurus if we learn patience and forbearance from them. Texts can be our guru; the world around us can become our guru. This is because the guru is the all-pervading and timeless compassionate action of the Buddha’s mandala of awakening, which is reaching out to us through all the circumstances of our life. Everything that helps bring us to enlightenment is the guru in the sense that it is all an expression of the guru principle.

All this means that we can meditate on the one and only guru while knowing there are many gurus, each at a vastly different level of realisation. We can orient ourselves toward the guru principle, which is the living truth of the power (adhistana) of enlightenment coming to us through all our gurus – all those who help and guide us on our way to enlightenment. This is not just an intellectual idea. That is why we behave with respect and honour toward those people who embody that principle, opening our hearts to their influence to change ourselves to become like them. In effect we are inviting them to enter us so that we become indifferentiable from them, one in essence – a joyful union.

In Buddhist cultures it is intrinsic to the fabric of everyone’s thinking that we gain spiritually by honouring and showing gratitude to anyone or anything (such as a stupa, statue, or relic) that plays the role of connecting us to awakening. It may look from outside that culture as if this represents devotion to persons and things, which sometimes it does. Yet that personal devotion is understood is an expression of devotion to the guru principle itself, and acts of devotion as ways of connecting to the mandala of awakening – the all-pervading presence over the Buddha, beyond all concepts of time and space, self and other, and so on.

This means that when the term guru is used for a specific person, there is an implicit distinction being made between the guru principle they embody and their less-than-enlightened manifestation, with whom we might have a personal relationship. Whereas a buddha is a fully enlightened manifestation of the guru principle, most people playing the role of guru for us are still on the path.

We can think of our gurus as Buddha in the sense that they embody the guru principle and play the role of guru for us, without our having to somehow project onto them qualities that they don’t yet manifest, as if they are required to live up to our personal standards of perfection. In other words, we can relate to the guru figure personally as a human being with needs and perhaps failings of their own, while at the same time not losing sight of the more impersonal aspect of their role for us as an embodiment of the guru principle.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

*mandala principle is explained in more detail in the introduction. You can also read more about mandala principle here.

For the launch of the book Lama Shenpen had a fascinating discussion with esteemed author and translator Elizabeth M. Callahan on the wider context of the Guru – What is it that makes a Guru? What are the difficulties we face when relating to a person as Guru? How can we deepen our understanding of Guru Yoga? To watch the recording of this event here.

More about The Guru Principle book from the Shambhala website:

Based on over fifty years of personal experience as both a student and a teacher, Lama Shenpen Hookham writes candidly of the opportunities and challenges facing modern Dharma students who wish to study with a teacher. Traditional texts often do not reflect how the student-teacher relationship really works in practice, which leaves many pressing questions in communities taking root in the West. With honesty and clarity, Lama Shenpen discusses the roles of the teacher, practices related to the guru, and commonly asked questions she receives as a teacher. This handbook is the first of its kind, breaking down in a pragmatic and relatable way everything one needs to know to enter a student-teacher relationship with open eyes and an open heart.

“I am very pleased that my Dharma sister, Lama Shenpen Hookham—who possesses deep experience with both journeys of the student and the teacher—has offered this open-minded and comprehensive exploration of the key principles of the teacher-student relationship. Framing her presentation around key questions that may well dawn naturally in the mind of any curious practitioner, Lama Shenpen shares her insights and understanding generously and accessibly. I am confident that this skillful and kind guide will be of great benefit to many individuals who wish to make the wisdom of the Buddha a part of their lives.”Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Read more reviews of and recommendations for the book by eminent teachers including Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Ringu Tulku and Khandro Rinpoche here.