According to the Vinaya
These characteristics mainly describe the outer conduct expected first from
the potential Teacher and that of his disciple. It enumerates in great
detail both worldly conduct and moral conduct which are conducive to a
healthy relationship and thus can engender the deep faith and devotion on
which the disciple can build his development.
Lopon Shakyaprabha in his "Fifty Verse Precepts of the Sramanera, the
Novice": poses that
"The spiritual teacher should have pure moral conduct, be well versed in
performing rites and bestowing vows, and have compassion towards the ill.
He should not only follow the precepts himself but also encourage others to
follow them too. He should exert himself to benefit his disciples by
displaying generosity that is the giving of robes etc, and to dispence
teachings. He should give advice from time to time. These are the qualities
befitting a perfect spiritual teacher."
The Vinaya explains that having pure moral conduct means the knowledge of
the five classes of downfalls, the seventeen basic precepts, the twelve
ascetic practices, and the four principles of a monk discriminating between
that which is to be discarded and that which have to be observed. Having the
rituals of the Vinaya means a thorough knowledge in particular of the three
rituals of the monastic community, the annual summer retreat (Yarne), the
bimonthly confession ceremony (Sojong) and the restriction lifting (Gagye)
by following them himself and being able to teach them to his disciples.
His compassion should skilfully extend to the sick bringing about their
He protects his disciples from adopting wrong conduct and encourages them to
practice pure morality, thus simultaneously cleansing their impurities.
According to the circumstances in the Sangha or among the disciples, he will
give advice form time to time; Minling Lonchen explains that He prevents his
disciples from falling into Samsara and encourages them to practice the
precepts. He transmits the vows and discriminates between that which has to
be followed and that which has to be discarded. Thus he embodies pure moral
conduct and wisdom. Thus concludes the characteristics of a spiritial
teacher according to the Vinaya tradition.
How should we examine a spiritual master? Today we have a habit of looking
for a university degree, a PhD or some famous or spectacular event. This
will not bring us any closer to an authentic teacher but may lead us further
astray. The all-knowing Jigme Lingpa in his Treasury of Knowledge already
warned over three hundred years ago:
"The accumulated virtues of a faithful follower may go to waste if he does
not check a potential spiritual teacher. If we become deceived by not
knowing the qualities of a spiritual teacher, our precious human birth could
be wasted in the same manner as we would mistake the shadow of a tree for a
snake. The successful turning towards virtue of our three doors relies on
finding an authentic spiritual teacher." It is therefore vital to check
whether the qualities mentioned in all the texts are present in our
Before receiving any Pratimoksha vows from anyone, we should first ensure
that this person himself holds all the precepts perfectly and is able to
perform the appropriate Vinaya rituals. How otherwise could he pass these
vows onto us?
By exmaining our potential Master's compassion towards the sick and the care
he takes of his disciples by bestowing pure vows, we further realize the
true nature of the Master. There would be very little point in bestowing
precepts through rituals if he failed to ensure his disciples welfare or
displayed no compassion towards to sick.
An authentic Master will know how to encourage his existing disciples who
are not yet accustomed to the vows and may otherwise stray into bad habits
and need to be guided back onto the path.
Besides the above, the potential teacher should be seen to be generous not
only for the basic necessities but also in bestowing teachings. A teacher
who may fail in one of the above, although a good practitioner himself may
not have the ability to steer his disciples on the right path or deny them
the chance to follow him through lack of basic necessities.
Finally, displaying all the required qualities, if the potential teacher
does not himself follow the virtuous activities of prayers, study and
practice, he will not be able to guide his disciples away from the idle
activities such as sleeping, eating, roaming or lying about.
Thus we should follow a potential Teacher only after having examined his
characteristics not only though blind faith or respect. For this generate
times, some people are very skilful in giving the appearance of kindness and
compassion. Disciples may be attracted to a smiling countenance but it soon
transpires that he can only lead himself and others away from the virtuous
path fo he does not really follow the precepts. Such teachers should be
The point here is that non-virtuous friends as the scripture refers to them
do not appear to us behaving like highway bandits,
"Non-virtuous friends do not have frightening appearances with horns on
their heads but appear kind and smiling as if to benefit us. They help us
to play and laugh, wasting time, bringing about distractions and encourage
us to commit non-virtuous actions. Such people have to be avoided like an
Guru Rinpoche himself described that,
Not to examine the Master
Is like drinking poison
Not examining the disciple
Is like leaping from the precipice.
Following someone soley by heresay or reputation, without previously
checking for oneself the genuineness of the claims entrusting our entire
liberation to such a teacher may only yeild uncertain results and benefits.
There once was a master whose words and mantras carried great blessings.
Whilst performing phowa, he took a large number of horses and cattle from
the deceased from each 'phat' he uttered and was consquently reborn as a
huge sea monster whose whole body as eaten by a myriad of small creatures.
Similarily, the Master will also check the spiring disciple over an extended
period of time. It is said that for an ordinary mind, it will take nine
years or more to get to kow a person, for a sharp mind, three years and for
one close to Buddhahood at least several months. There are also famous
stories of how very great Masters sent gifted but very difficult students to
other Masters, not necessarily because they did not have to tame them, but
also because the disciples may have had karmic connections with other
All of us will have different experiences according to our previous karma
and activities. Some fortunate people may benefit from the results of their
previous virtuous activities and meet a perfect teacher, others may come in
contact with a teacher who is not authentic and could not lead to higher
rebirth, let alone liberation and complete enlightenment.
This is why such emphasis is brought upon carfeul examination of a potential
Teacher, before making the decsion to choose a person as our master, Even
if, after realizing a teacher was not authentic, we were to meet a perfect
one, it would be very difficult to come back on the right path because of
acquired bad habits and behavior. Hence beware from the onset to choose