Often students and followers of Vajrayana get confused about what qualities are seen as essential requirements in a Vajrayana guru. They falsely believe that they should not examine a teacher and that they should take the first teacher they meet and feel intense devotion for. Fortunately, a great Vajrayana master and guru, Jetsun Tāranātha, explains clearly about what qualifications are necessary for a guru.
Below are some first-published excerpts from Tāranātha’s famous text, ‘A Hundred Blazing Lights: A Supplementary Commentary on Meaningful to See.’ together with a list of questions a prospective follower might want to ask before taking empowerments from a teacher. All the great Buddhist masters and texts state that one should only follow a QUALIFIED Buddhist teacher when doing any Tantric or Vajrayana practise.
ESSENTIAL QUALITIES OF A TEACHER
When Tāranātha explains what having ‘confidence in a teacher’ means in the context of having the ‘three confidences’ he states:
The second point is confidence in the teacher. [The teacher] must be from a lineage, whose direct source begins with the Shakyamuni Buddha, which has been transmitted directly from one teacher to another, up until one’s own root lama. Also it must be [a teacher] in which the blessings have not deteriorated and in which the experiential realisations are continual without interruption.
One needs [teachers] who are not ‘words-only’ [no lineage blessings or experience], and do not have degenerated vows and samaya, or are not carrying bad spirits and Maras. If someone is an authentic or lineage lama, yet is applying the obstacles of a Mara, or is carrying a negative spirit, even though one practises all the Dharma from this lineage, a large amount of obstacles will arise. If the source is a famous lineage lama who has broken samayas, even if one practices the Dharma of that lineage, no excellent qualities will arise. Afflictive emotions will rise up and overflow. Everything connected to [the teacher and the practice] will be inauspicious. Not only that but if the [teacher] has also lost even the ‘words-only’ transmission, after requesting and meditating on [their teachings], experiential realizations will never arise at any time. Whether one meditates or not, it will be the same.
If the lama only tells little lies [and is generally honest], they might say well it is included in this text but: ‘I don’t have any experience of it though.’ If some lamas are very deceitful, in order to greatly mislead the students, some will even speak like they have experiential realisations. Yet, even if [their students] do a little practice of their temporary oral instructions, they will be still be destitute. Instructions [from the teacher] to ‘do this and that’, without reasons, will arise. These are not conducive to having confidence in the teacher.
ESSENTIAL QUALITIES OF MASTER AND STUDENT
Further along, in the same text, Tāranātha, states in his explanation on Guru Yoga the essential characteristics of master and student:
As it is said:
A disciple with intelligence should not accept as his Guru someone who lacks compassion or who is angry , malicious, arrogant , has desirous attachment , is undisciplined  or boastful of his knowledge .
(A Guru should be) stable (in his actions), cultivated (in his speech), wise, patient and honest. He should neither conceal his shortcomings, nor pretend to possess qualities he lacks. He should be an expert in the meanings (of tantra) and in its ritual procedures (of medicine and turning back obstacles). Also he should have loving compassion and a complete knowledge of the scriptures.
Thoroughly proficient in the ten principles, skilled in the drawing of mandalas, skilled in explaining the secret mantra, with supreme faith and his senses fully under control.
Even though this was is said in The Fifty Verses to the Guru, since it is cited in the scriptures on Stainless Light, it is clearly the same as the words of the tantra. From the Glorious Kalacakra Tantra:
First, the one to be followed, the pure lama. Endowed with samaya and especially abiding in the vajra vehicle. Meditates on ultimate reality; completely pure without attachment  and free from stains; a disposition that is patient and tolerant. Entered the path and enabling students by giving the path and robbing them of the fears and dangers of the hell realms . Observes chaste, pure conduct . Regarding demons, one who holds the support of the vajra staff and has accomplished Vajrasattva.
These are the excellent qualities of the master.
Endowed with pride, suppressing others with anger, shredded samayas, craving  and without having listened purely. One who strives to seduce and deceive students, who does [not have] experience of abiding in the supreme bliss nor the empowerments . Craving all wealth and resources, immodest and careless and using harsh words, and with lust for sensual objects .Such experts in leading students to hell should be abandoned in order to attain the perfect bodhicitta.
This [above] is the presentation of the faults [of the teacher].
A deep and vast mind; that really likes the teacher, who gives away things , and understands the excellent qualities; strives for liberation; has respect for the tantras/lineage, a mind that is not wavering and unstable, that keeps very well hidden their attainment; that does not associate with malicious/ cruel friends,……
These [above] are the excellent qualities of the student that are taught.
In terms of the master, there are two types: 1) the supreme type, who possesses all the characteristics of a master; and 2) one who, even though they have not completely perfected the excellent qualities and abandoned all the faults, does not possess any inappropriate qualities. Both these types are suitable.
Similarly, the characteristics of the student are divided into three: the best, the middling and the lowest. In terms of the characteristics of the teacher, having bestowed empowerments, they have received samaya commitments and understand the ten principles and so on. This is not only the defining characteristic of the Secret Mantrayana, generally, the characteristics of the lama is that they are generally the same as a spiritual friend of the Mahayana. There are no huge difference s in the characteristics of the teacher in the Sutra and Mantra [traditions].
From among the [characteristics] of the seven faults such as the absence of compassion and so on, these are faults of the master. If the master’s conduct is predominantly composed of those faults, one should not [rely on] such a teacher. Even though the best[teacher] is one who has only a small amount or who has abandoned them, these days, [such a teacher] is difficult to find. If they have abandoned five or six of these faults and only have one or two such faults, then it is indeed the case that such faults will not arise. Among these faults, since the biggest fault is absence of compassion, this is the most important fault to abandon.
Skt. Gurupanchashika, T 3721 – Fifty Verses of Devotion to the Guru, by Asvaghosha. Here Taranatha is reciting verses 7-10.
Within the Kalacakra tradition, a fully ordained monk is seen as the best teacher and superior to those without monastic vows. Check and ask if your teacher has the full monk vows or not. They may look like monks and wear even monk like robes and clothes but that does not mean they hold the vows. Ask them. A householder can teach but they should not generally teach fully ordained monks unless they are a highly realised practitioner.
‘That said the Kalacakra Tantra asserts the superiority of Anuttaras (yogis and yoginis) on the ground that there is no monk or celibate who can equal one who has taken the tantric vows and precepts and is self-empowered by means of mantras.’ Any teacher who does not demonstrate these qualities should not be followed in tantric practise as they will lead themselves and their disciples to the lower realms.
Conclusion and Ways to Examine
So that was the great Jetsun Tāranātha’s advice. Here is my conclusion and suggestions for questions to ask oneself. Please think and analyse carefully. As one master said: do not rush into picking a teacher you meet, like a dog rushes to eat some meat they’ve just discovered. You can take your time, up to twelve years. Analyse and investigate. Challenge the teacher. See how they react.
- Do they react to your challenging or disagreeing with them with overwhelming anger and hostility or love and compassion?
- How do they treat you and other students? do they treat you as beneath them and with contempt?
- Do they avoid you if you challenge them? Do they indirectly, or directly, encourage and exacerbate criticism, conflict and division among other Lamas and students?
- Do they respect ALL women and females, whoever and whatever they do? Do they make derogatory and disparaging generalised comments about women? Do they sexually objectify, seduce and chase after women?
- Do they encourage friendship and harmony between vajra brothers and sisters?
- Are they very secretive and lack transparency and accountability for their movements and actions?
- Do they have lineage masters still living? Do they continually demonstrate respect and devotion to their own root lama and lineage masters? Do they have photos and pictures of them in their shrine rooms? Do they encourage friendship, support and respect for other lamas and students in the same lineage?
THINK FOR YOURSELF. Emotions and feelings and blind devotion are not reliable…….It does not matter if the lama has a big name, even a famous lineage, if they do not have unbroken samaya, three sets of pure vows (Individual Liberation, Bodhisattva and Vajrayana – for more on those see here) and love and compassion combined with a deep understanding of emptiness and/or they have anger, lust and craving for sensual pleasures and power, and lack of love and compassion they should not be followed.
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It is a joy to read these practical words of advice from Jetsun Taranatha. Thank you for continuing to uncover these relevant and timely teachings.