The one who lets you become more pure, more expansive, more clear – this is the enlightened teacher. This is because the enlightened teacher can lead you higher, and dissolve away your clingings and attachments, a give a wakeup call to the inherent wisdom of your inner mind. Someone who lets you get more greedy and more full of hate and more deluded is an evil companion. This is because he can lure you down to a lower state, and offer you excuses for letting yourself go, and incite you to do evil deeds to protect his own gain, and increase the negative powers of your inner mind.
No matter by what method you hope to strengthen your mind and spirit, you always need a good teacher. This good teacher might be a truly enlightened person of wisdom; it might be something big or small in life; it might be a good book; it might be a special experience, and so on. Of course I myself particularly recommend meditation practice. Over a thousand years, a great deal of experience has been accumulated in cultivating meditation buddhas, and it is the summation of various methods that are effective when carried out, methods that match the particular needs of various kinds of people. Therefore, I think that finding a genuine teacher, taking refuge with him or her, and cultivating your mind and spirit under his or her direction will save you a lot of time fumbling around on your own, and will help you avoid the detours and pitfalls on the road.
Of course, someone who is called a ”good teacher” must be an enlightened teacher. “Enlightened” here means having clear understanding and wisdom. This means that a genuine enlightened teacher must be a person who has genuine enlightenment and who possesses wisdom. In Buddhism they call this kind of person an “enlightened teacher.” He or she is not necessarily famous. This is because among the people who are very famous, there are some charlatans without learning or practical ability. A true teacher is not necessarily a monk or nun, because a person wearing clerical robescan be filled on the inside with greed and anger and ignorance.
After finding this kind of teacher, why is it necessary to take refuge with him or her? The term “take refuge” means to rely on someone. After taking refuge with an enlightened teacher, your mind and spirit will have a place to depend on, and your mind and spirit will have something to rely on. This implies that you are willing to take your body, mouth, and mind and offer them to the spirit of great good and great beauty and great truth, and after this all your actions and words and thoughts will be a vehicle for the spirit of great good.
When a person is not yet enlightened, how can he be sure that the one he has found is a genuine enlightened teacher? You must carefully observe your own mind and spirit. When you are in contact with the teacher, you must observe whether are you gradually becoming more pure and more expansive and more clear, or whether you are becoming more greedy and more angry and more deluded. The one who lets you become more pure, more expansive, more clear – this is the enlightened teacher. This is because the enlightened teacher can lead you higher, and dissolve away your clingings and attachments, and give a wakeup call to the inherent wisdom of your inner mind. Someone who lets you become more greedy and more full of hate and more deluded is an evil companion. This is because he can lure you down to a lower state, and offer you excuses for letting yourself go, and incite you to do evil deeds to protect his own gain, and increase the negative powers of your inner mind. If the other person is a genuine enlightened teacher, you must cultivate your mind and spirit well according to the methods he or she has taught you. If the other person is an evil companion, you must get away from him as quickly as you can, and block off the various temptations and distractions he causes you.
Let’s take an example. Some people, although they do not have the strength to escape from the bonds of desire, still know there are things that must be done and things that must not be done. But after they mistakenly come to have faith in an evil companion, the evil companion tells them, “You must struggle for greater gains, because only by doing this will you have the power to create benefits for society. Pay no attention in the early stages whether or not that struggle for gain will do injury to others: as long as you do not do these things in order to hurt other people, it is alright. You must cast aside all relative concepts of good and evil.” If they believe what the evil companions says, then they will pursue their desires under various pretexts, and protect their own profits, and for this they will not shrink from lying all the time and doing evil things and hurting other people.
You must know that a person’s mind and spirit is like a wooden table: it is easily stained with grease. If you not only do not wipe it off, but constantly rub dirt into it, as time goes by, this dirt will penetrate deeply into the table, and become a part of the table. When the time comes that you want to wipe it clean again, it will not be that easy to do. What is more likely to happen is that, because there is no way to wipe that filthy table clean no matter how you try, you will just get rid of it once and for all. This means thatif a person wants to sink to a lower level, it is very easy to do, and if he indulges himself, and does not remove the filth from his mind and spirit using appropriate methods, then he will rapidly degenerate. Unless he sincerely repents, and resists the inner mind’s evil power with strong faith and appropriate actions, and dissolves away the evil that was growing stronger day by day through his previous self-indulgence, then, because desire is hard to resist, and he has chosen to give up on himself,it is very likely that he will ultimately not escapebecoming the victim of his own evil deeds.
Besides observing your own changes, you can also observe the other person’s character. You must especially observe how the other person handles conflicts of interest with other people. If a person does not hesitate to hurt others to protect himself, then he is absolutely not a teacher who can lead you to a higher level. This has no absolute connection to whether or not what he says is reasonable, or to what he says. A genuine guide for the mind and spirit will not necessarily be a good talker, and will not necessarily have a benign look. Some teachers may even constantly scold you, scold you till your break out in a cold sweat. But when at the same time as this, you still feel that you seem to be understanding something because of this, this too is an “enlightened teacher.” Milarepa’s master teacher Marpa often hit and scolded Milarepa, but Marpa was still a very great enlightened teacher.
Sometimes, the sufferings and difficulties in life can become your teacher. For example, many people become grief stricken when family members or friends pass away, and they lose their attachment to the world of the senses, and give rise to a great mind of detachment. At this point they discover that many of the things they used to be attached to and pursue – salaries, material benefits, external appearance, enjoyments at the level of material things, approval from other people, and so on – in fact basically have no meaning. Faced with impermanence, they collapse at the first blow, and fade away in the blink of an eye. For these people, family members and friends departing from the world is a disaster, but it is also a cooperating causal factor [in the process of spiritual learning].
Here’s another example. Someone is very wealthy, but suddenly he comes down with an incurable disease, and the doctors tell him that no matter how much money he spends, there is no way to cure this sickness. At last he has a sudden realization that for many years he has been wasting his mind, and he tastes the full bitterness: the vast wealth he has accumulated by fair means or foul is in fact not worth a penny. So then he takes all his money and donates it to people in need. For this man, wasn’t it true that the incurable disease was an excellent teacher?
A further example. There is a man who has a wife and children and a car and real estate and money. Suddenly, in a financial crisis, he goes bankrupt and his car and his house are repossessed, and his children and his wife leave him. One day he is eating simple porridge, and he begins to think of his formerly prosperous life, and he feels that worldly things are like a dream, without the slightest feeling of being real. In his mind he becomes indifferent to them, and he lets go of everything, and from then on his life is really raised to a higher level. For this man, the financial crisis is an enlightened teacher.
In the inner mind of one person, great suffering can stimulate the most beautiful things, and in the inner mind of another person it can stimulate the ugliest things. The difference is a matter of whether you choose in the midst of suffering to sink into self-indulgence, or whether you wake up and go toward a higher level. Obviously, it is a fortunate person who can understand the truth that “adverse conditions are favorable conditions, and affliction is enlightenment.”
When you generate an enormous mind of detachment, and you find an enlightened teacher who can lead you to a higher level, you still need a clear, true aspiration. What is called “generating aspiration” means making a vow. That aspiration is the goal that you must reach in this lifetime, the goal and orientation of all your choices and actions. In [the classic sixteenth century Chinese novel about the quest for wisdom] The Journey to the West, the aspiration of the White Dragon Horse is this: “I certainly must carry the Tang Monk to India to get the scriptures.” Since he has this aspiration, his journey has a goal and a meaning, and thus he is able to proceed onward step by step, steadfastly, without slacking off. But the donkey in the mill has no aspiration, and though too he walks on day after day, his journey has no goal whatsoever, and he is just wasting his own life.
Generating the aspiration corresponds to the first of the three types of realms of the people of great achievement in ancient times which Wang Guowei [1877-1927] described: “Last night as the west wind withered the green trees, he climbed the high tower alone, and beheld the road that goes all the way to the horizon.” He beheld the road that goes all the way to the horizon, and then he generated the aspiration, and ultimately he decided to travel that road to the horizon. Without generating the aspiration, you cannot have the subsequent action.