Is My Teacher Perfect?

Shambhavi sitting on a couch eating popcorn
May 27, 2021

What does perfection mean in the context of Hinduism and Dzogchen? Is it dangerous to consider our teachers to be perfect as some traditions advise? A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

So here we are in satsang. Satsang means being in reality together. And what satsang is really about is relaxing and experiencing more of your real nature, experiencing more of your inner and outer goodness, and just recognizing more of what life is really about.

And it doesn't even have to be in a way that you can articulate, just feeling what is really to be felt and without all the distractions and all the urgency that everything else seems to have [laughs].

So whatever we're doing in satsang, that's the purpose.

And if we're practitioners and we feel ourselves relaxing and smoothing, spreading feeling or maybe something even more special than that, we should try to relax into it more. We should try to go along with it.

A lot of what we do in spiritual life—if we're being intelligent about our spiritual life—is we're relaxing into things and going along with what is already happening. Because the natural state, the enlightened, awakened state is already happening.

We just aren't going along with it most of the time. [laughs] We're powering through, or we're listening to our fears or whatever we're doing, or we have concepts about what will make us happy that aren't really what will make us happy.

So a lot of spiritual practice is to feel an opening to what's already happening and just go along with it, deepen into it, or as they say these days—lean into it. I don't know where that phrase came from, but don't even lean, just melt into it. Even leaning is too aggressive.

So I wanted to talk about perfection. The word Dzogchen is usually translated or always translated as the great perfection. And it means the natural perfection of the essence of reality, or everything.

You'll also hear in traditions from India, things like 'you should see the teacher as perfect,' or 'as God,' or 'everything is perfect.' 'Everything is God,' etc. Things like that. If we have any idea of what that means, it's usually pretty wrong.

So I wanted to, first of all, start with a tantra that is part of the Trika tradition. It's a bit later than, for instance, Abhinavagupta, but it's very typical in that it gives lists of how a disciple should be and how a guru should be. And the lists are interestingly pretty indicative of what is actually erroneous about our ideas of perfection.

So this is again, it's called the Kularnava Tantra, and here's a little section called "Characteristics of the Acceptable Shishya."

So shishya is another name for disciple, an initiated student. "The disciple chosen should be one who is endowed with auspicious features, given to sadhana that leads to samadhi, of good qualities and culture, clean of body and apparel, wise, devoted to dharma, pure of mind, steady in observance of truthful practice, gifted with faith and devotion, diligent, sparsely eating, deep thoughted, serving without motive, scrutinizing, heroic, free from poverty of mind, skillful in all action, and”—again,—“clean, obliging to all, grateful, afraid of sin, approved of the holy and the good, believer in God, liberal, engaged in the good of all creatures.

He shall be one who has trust and modesty, who is not given to deceive in matters of wealth, body, etc., who achieves the impossible, is brave, enthusiastic and strong, engaged in favorable activities, not intoxicated, able, helpful, truthful”—again—“limited and smiling in speech, not given to blaming others, who grasps what is said but once, clever, expansive in intelligence, averse to listen to his own praise, and genial to others' criticism of himself, master of his senses, contented with himself, intelligent, celibate, free from worry, disease, fickleness, grief, delusion, and doubt."

In other words, already realized! [laughs] You know, this is such a silly list.

And then the characteristics of guru are even rather maybe sillier. Actually, one thing that's very interesting about this list of characteristics of guru is that the very first whole section of it is that the guru is a good disciple. And I actually agree with the general principle of this.

Then here's the guru "and the guru himself is one who is clean...”—this text is obsessed with cleanliness—"clean of apparel, charming, endowed with all features, perfect-limbed, knowing the truth of all agamas and application of all mantras, bewitching the world, sweet-looking like a god of happy countenance, easy of access, clean.

He is one who dissipates delusion and doubt, knows the meaning of mudras”—or gestures—“who is wise and knows the pros and cons, whose attention is directed within though the look is outward, who knows all, knows place and time, in whose command lies siddhi, the fulfillment of all desire, who knows the past, present, and future, capable of check and sanction"—I'm not sure what that is—"capable of piercing inwardly, instructing, quiet, compassionate to all creatures."

"To his control are the movements of his senses, conqueror of the six enemies of desire, anger, greed, delusion, jealousy, and pride. Foremost, highly solemn. Knows the distinction between the fit receptacle and the unfit. Is equivalent to Shiva and Vishnu.

Good, condemns the doctrines of the unawakened, stainless, ever-content, independent, endowed with the powers of mantra, lover of good devotees, steadfast, merciful, speaks with a prior smile, dear to devotees, ever-generous, deep, superb, practical, enthusiastic in the worship of chosen deity or guru, given to blameless ritual, engaged in the practice of his vidya, acquiring dharma and the like, content with what comes by itself distinguishing between good and bad."

Hmm. "Unattached to women, wealth, bad company, vice, etc. with a feeling of oneness with all, free from dualities, constant in observance, not overeager without self-desire and partiality, not selling mantra, yantra, and tonsure for the sake of money or learning, unattached without doubts, with decided views supremely conforming to dharma, equal in praise and criticism, silent without preference, free from disease. These are the characteristics of guru."

[Pshew]. Yeah. And there's like, you know, dozens of lists like this.

This is not what is meant by perfection. So one of the fault lines for modern practitioners is between the traditional instruction or traditional advice to see perfection in everything, including your teacher, versus the fact that so many teachers are treating people in such a bad way.

You know, some of us feel that that teaching about the perfection, 'we should see God in the teacher,' as a way of sort of training wheels, of seeing God in everything, basically.

Although, of course, in cults they just tell you to see God in the teacher and leave it at that [laughter]. They don't remember the everything else [laughs]. That's part of the problem.

But really, the teacher should be treated as training wheels for what is available to be felt and perceived everywhere. In other words, the teacher is a device to lead you to feel unconditional devotion toward everything and to see the perfection in everything.

So what does it mean that everything is perfect? Well, let me say what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that you are supposed to see what's happening with teachers and think it's okay on a relative level.

That is not what it means.

And of course, some teachers do use this teaching to wiggle or wriggle or try to wriggle out of being accountable for their behavior. This is an absolute teaching.

So the difference between relative and absolute. Relative teaching means from the perspective of our dualistic experience. When we're still having an experience of separation, we're in relative experience. And there are practices and teachings that are relevant to relative experience.

The absolute teaching is everything is—as they say in Dzogchen—everything is perfect from the beginning.

So this has to do with direct perception. It is not a concept. It is not some sort of religious concept about the perfection of God. It is an aspect, or it may be the aspect, of the direct perception that one has when your sense organs open their gates very, very wide.

And so you are able to see for yourself what reality is actually made of. And then what you see could be described as perfection.

So this perfection is an embodied experience that we don't need to fake it till we make it. We can actually just keep doing our practice until it happens for reals. That's the idea.

But when the gates of your perception open, then you see for yourself that everything is made of wisdom, that everything has blazing clarity, that everything is a play of manifestation, that the teacher and the student are part of that play of manifestation. And I'm going to read something from Anandamayi Ma that talks directly to this.

But while we are also working on a relative level, then we are also having the experience of being able to be harmed and all that kind of thing.

And so we have to make choices and we have to protect ourselves. And we should not protect teachers who go around saying, 'you have to see me as God while I do all these crappy things' [laughs].

You know, the fact of the matter is, if you saw them as God, if you had that direct perception for yourself, then you would make the most skillful choice about not being around them.

Seeing the perfection of everything for yourself with your own senses does not mean that you have to be around everyone, doesn't mean you have to do everything that anyone asks you to.

And as a matter of fact, you have wonderful what is called viveka. You have wonderful discrimination.

When you your sense perceptions are more open, you're more clear about what circumstances you want to engage in and what circumstances you don't want to engage in. So we get all muddled up with this idea of perfection, thinking it means we can't make choices about how we use our energy or who we spend time with. That if everything is perfect, we should be okay being with anything that happens.

But we also take it to mean that somehow on a relative level, we have to see everything that happens as good or acceptable or okay.

It doesn't mean that. It means that on an absolute level we see the equality of all phenomena, and everything is made of blazing wisdom.

So we always have to keep these two levels in mind and understand that we get to make choices and that we should be real about our experience. So this is a hard thing. This comes up all the time in this kind of tradition.

And if a teacher tries to manipulate us by saying—I'm God. I'm perfect. This is what the traditions say.—and you can tell with your own intelligence and senses that they are actually just using that to mask their lack of responsibility, you should have no hesitation in calling that out or just leaving.

So I'm just bringing this up because we just live in an environment right now—whether it's because we have social media or because we're just a little more aware of these things, given discourses around abuse and harm.

These things happened back in the day too. Back in ancient times. Of course, patriarchy and all that stuff has been around forever. So it's not that this stuff is new, but we're talking about it more and seeing it more.

And this teaching about perfection is often used to manipulate people. So that's why I sort of took that angle to your question. And I think it's just something that's important to understand, that when you see the perfection in everything, you'll see it and you don't have to be convinced or talked into it by somebody [laughs].

It will happen when it happens. But it is a real perception. It's very tricky, you know. We're in a very tricky position with that perfection. But the wonderful implication or repercussion of the 'always already perfection of everything' is that when we see it, we also see it in ourselves.

So it just so happens sometimes it's easier to notice it in the teacher first or in something outside of ourselves. It can become a gateway. Not always, but sometimes.

But the point is that we are discovering the nature of the Self, which means our own self, too. So another consequence, a wonderful consequence of getting downloads of the perfection of everything—and basically that just means everything is made of wisdom, clarity, intelligence, compassion—a wonderful repercussion of that is we see it in ourselves too.

We understand we are also That.

So not only does it not set teachers up to be in a position of power, the actual perception of perfection shows us the total equality of the teacher and the student. The total equality of the essence nature of the teacher and student.

So if anybody says 'I'm perfect and you're not.' You know, run in the other direction as fast as you can because that person has no idea what they're talking about [laughs].

They're in a state of total concept-land. Or ‘I have something you don’t’ or all the kinds of things. ‘If you don’t stick around me, you’ll never get anything’ that, you know, ‘you’re doomed’ or something. ‘I’m the only one that can give you X, Y, or Z.’ Run, run, run.

This is someone who does not know what they’re talking about. And the thing that I’ve been contemplating a lot the last few months is in this environment where there’s so much charlatanism, basically—call it what it is—how can the absolute teachings be given in a way that is useful and doesn’t lead people to either reject the teachings or misinterpret them?

So this is really where I feel my role is right now to find a way to do that. To find a way to keep giving the teachings about the absolute nature of reality and all the magic that that entails. At the same time, not leading people into any kind of spiritual bypassing or rejection of the teachings because they don't understand that the relative is also included in that. That we're not rejecting the relative, that this is not a transcendental tradition. We're paying attention to the whole thing.

It requires a great deal of intelligence to do spiritual practice and perceive these things directly for yourself. But that's really what it's about. Requires a lot of sensitivity, boldness, exploratory nature, willingness to question everything, but also a willingness to follow at the same time.

We often think that following means not questioning, but that's not true either. It's very, very tricky.

And that really helped, that answer, to like know the relative as relative, and to just see this perfection as the perspective of the absolute.

Yes, but it's a— it's a perspective of the absolute, but it is the direct perception that you will have. So it's not a concept that you have to buy into or be convinced of.

You know, I heard this teaching, particularly from my reading of teachings of Anandamayi Ma and also from my Dzogchen teachings, because 'perfect from the beginning' is one of the core teachings of Dzogchen. I didn't reject it, but I really didn't know what was being talked about.

It was really just a word, perfection. It didn't— didn't really touch me in any direct way.

And then when I started to have experiences of the natural state through my own senses, then and only then did I really understand what was being talked about. When I read Anandamayi Ma, her teachings, there's a lot I understand. But then there are also things I don't yet understand.

And I just have enough confidence in her that I don't reject those things that I don't understand. I just kind of remember them, put them in my back pocket, and know that if that's what's in store for me, someday I'll understand them directly for myself.

And that's the same if you have a teacher you have confidence in. You don't have to understand everything.

And it's very good to recognize when a certain kind of teaching is not really landing. You know, you kind of get it conceptually or you could entertain it conceptually. But it's good to know what you don't actually have an experience of.

But if you have confidence in the teacher's level of realization, if you think they know what they're talking about, then you can just hold that as something that's in store for you later. That's what I do when I read Ma, and there's something I just don't grok yet.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.