“Rely on the message of the teacher, not on his personality.”
This is the first of the “Four Reliances,” which are sound basic advice about approaching Buddhist teaching. The point is that, if what a teacher says is accurate, it does not matter if he or she is an unpleasant or even unethical person. And, a charismatic, well-spoken teacher whose teachings are mistaken is a hindrance, not a reliable source.
This advice is given in terms of the sutric view of a teacher as primarily a giver of information. The goal of sutric Buddhism is emptiness, which is without characteristics. For sutra, a teacher is ideally colorless, devoid of personality. Any personal considerations would only distort the message.
As usual, in relation to sutra, tantric Buddhism says “yes, but”—and goes on to assert almost the opposite. That is because tantra starts from emptiness and returns to form. It is the reverse journey from sutra—except that we bring emptiness with us. In tantra, we seek empty form. We try to see the world as vividly unreal, brilliantly insubstantial, a fabulous display produced by nothing. Tantra is complex and colorful—and the ideal tantric teacher is complex and colorful, too.
Our personalities are form: definite characteristics. We respond to different situations with different combinations of emotions. Ordinarily, these responses are habitual and automatic. We feel that we have no choice but to respond to insults with anger. We are slaves to our feelings.
The sutric approach to emotions is to renounce (abandon) them, so we find the peace of emptiness. We learn to break the link between provocation and response. Ideally, a sutric master meets all situations with equanimity—and so has no personality.
The tantric approach to emotions is to transform them into their enlightened equivalents. We do that by mixing them with emptiness. We take the dark, heavy solidity of rage, find its empty character, and discover that it manifests as mental clarity. We take the bitter pain of neediness, find its empty character, and discover that it manifests as compassion. Rage and clarity are the same energy. Neediness and compassion are the same energy.
personality display communicates and inspires
A tantric master ideally has no personality—no fixed emotional responses to situations. However, a tantric master displays emotions as empty forms. “Displays” means that these apparent emotions are deliberate and purposeful, rather than reactive. The outward display of transparent emotions is a tool. They communicate and inspire. They also demonstrate to the student how emotions can be transformed. Experiencing the teacher’s transformed emotions helps us understand how we can transform our own.
This is “personality display.” Tantric lamas are intensely different from each other in style. They produce the appearance of personalities, even if (ideally) they do not have any. Personality display is a key aspect of a tantric lama’s teaching, because it models the way particular personalities can be transformed. For sutra, one must not rely on the teacher’s personality. For tantra, one must rely on the teacher’s personality display.
Students with particular personalities learn best from teachers whose apparent personalities are compatible or complementary in some way. For example, some students need a teacher who is always supportive and gentle. Others need a teacher with an edge, who may be demanding or even confrontational. Some need a teacher who is dry and academic; some need one who is warm and funny; some need one who is terrifyingly wild.
Because a skilled lama has no fixed personality, he or she may display entirely different apparent personalities to different students. He or she may also display different personalities to the same student at different stages of the student’s spiritual growth. The teacher appears to become whatever the student needs to take the next step in the student’s own transformation.
If you are approaching the possibility of becoming a regular or committed student of a lama, I suggest that you first go to talks or classes or retreats with as many as possible. You may be struck with how different they seem. I have described how I discovered that there are no generic lamas. If your circumstances permit—do not settle for one who is not a good “fit” for you.