Dharma and personal responsibility

Dharma and personal responsibility

by Lama Ivo


Padmasambhava Phurba


I decided to write something short about the nature of Dharma practice, because there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about some basic principles of the spiritual path even among “seasoned” practitioners.

The direct reason is that from time to time students ask me “what is the appropriate prayer or mantra for such and such an occasion…”, “can I recite this or that mantra when I am not sitting and meditating…”, even “should I practice or not”. I feel that this shows a basic lack of understanding of what spiritual practice is. I know that a few Tibetan lamas actually encourage this kind of attitude, mainly to keep their students captive and dependent. I am worried however that I receive such questions from my own students as well, which means that I failed in helping them develop a genuine understanding of spirituality (or maybe they get too much influence from the general trend). In any case, this has to be clearly explained.

Dharma practice is a personal matter and personal responsibility! You are doing this to yourself. You have to know what you are doing. Yes, the teacher is very important, but in a personal way, not as an external manipulator of your practice or your world. He does not share the responsibility of your spiritual development in any way. He is not joining you in samsara if you keep being dishonest to yourself – it is your choice and your future you are working for. You are intimately responsible to understand what you are doing, before you start doing it. A genuine teacher is there to help, but he can not, and should not be a substitute for your own intellectual understanding of the process. Even during the highest phases of the Vajrayana and Dzogchen paths, when there is a need for the student to let go of his ego completely and to put the teacher in his/her place, so to speak, we are still making a personal discovery of something universal, we are not letting someone else’s individuality take over. The teacher is a timeless principle, reflected by our twisted samsaric perception in a seemingly external way. But it is just a perceptual paradox, not truly external.

What is wrong in asking which prayer to use when someone is sick, or dying? Everything. If you know what “prayer” is, if you understand the principle of interdependency when you say one, if you truly are master of your own Dharma practice, then you will make your own prayer and will direct it to the enlightened energy you feel close connection to. You will be able to do that on the spot, and it will be an expression of your spiritual potential and power. This will create the necessary tendrel, and your aspiration will change reality. If on the other hand you need to be told the name of a traditional prayer to use, you are missing the point entirely. Even if you are given one, and even if you recite it one pointedly, it will never be a part of yourself.  It will work only partially, because it will be borrowed energy. There is some tendrel in this also, but this is a different principle for a different application.

Basically the same goes for the question “which mantra to use”, but it is heavier, because this indicates that you have been initiated into Vajrayana and have no clue about it. If you know what a ‘mantra’ is, then any of the mantras you have received and personalized through practice will have power, and you will be able to know what kind of energy the situation needs and how to create this energy. The mantras are also a very personal matter and they are to be accomplished in deep meditation practice. They are not phrases we can repeat here and there, expecting that the sound itself will do some magic. The degradation of the mantras becoming YouTube songs is mostly sad and unfortunate. The mantra has energy only when it and the practitioner are one in the sphere of the mind. It is not music, it is not meant to be “recited,” it is meant to twist the universe.

Anyone who considers himself/herself a Dharma practitioner, I implore you, make the path your own! Understand intellectually what you are doing before you start doing it, and if you are among the lucky ones who get to reach the stages where the intellect becomes a hindrance, you will have a very stable foundation and enough confidence to finally let go of it completely. Don’t rely on the teacher in a theistic way, do not transfer on to him your own responsibility. Do not be a puppet in an enormous religious machine. – this is not what the spiritual practice is about.

If someone is telling you that you are absolutely incapable of making your own prayer, this person is not an accomplished spiritual teacher, period. This person is a manipulator. Look elsewhere, and find a better teacher. Your life is too precious to waste it serving someone else’s huge ego – your own ego is enough of a problem, direct your energy where it can really be useful

Yes, there are incalculable wonderful prayers in the Indian and Tibetan Dharma tradition, yes, you can of course use them to make a connection to the amazing teachers who composed them, you can identify with their aspirations and circumstances if you feel the need. But this should not rob you of your own strength. You should not forget that those prayers were made by practitioners like yourself, in a time of need. None of them was specifically written for you to recite, unless you find your name explicitly mentioned in the colophon.

As for the mantras of Vajrayana, you can not change those, but their use follows a different principle entirely. You should know how and when to apply them. The sadhanas though are not fixed and they can evolve in your practice when you reach the higher stages of the path, with the help and close supervision of your Vajra teacher.

Ninety percent of the people who come to me for Dharma advice and instruction do not understand well the principle of personal responsibility, and, alarmingly, this includes Dharma practitioners who have been on the path for decades, who have studied with prominent Tibetan teachers and who should have a lot of Vajrayana experience. In my 20 years of Tibetan Buddhist practice I have personally met less than five Western practitioners who displayed some kind of signs of accomplishment on the Vajrayana path, and they were students of exceptional teachers, and had done a lot of retreats. This is a very sad statistic, as the Vajrayana, as hard a path as it is, is not that impossible. On one hand it is the teachers who are at fault and it is very rare to find a teacher who leads his/her students on the genuine path to freedom and not on some kind of an ego trip. On the other hand it is a fault of the students who let themselves be manipulated.

A teacher’s responsibility is not to let his student follow an ego trip. If the teacher is ruthless enough in this he will lose most of his students, but those who stay will be genuine and will have a chance to reach accomplishment. The responsibility of the student is to understand this process and to muster all strength and honesty in order to survive spiritually his teachers’ instructions and behavior. Everything else is utterly meaningless and can only contribute to the chaos and confusion this human world is so full of at this stage.

Please know what you are doing at every step of the way. Never assume things. Each and every one has the power to be genuine, yourself included. This power however is rarely used and you should not look to other samsaric beings for inspiration and approval. In samsara everyone is confused. The only reflection of the Buddha nature is the genuine teacher. Look for such a teacher and be a good student.


Written by Ivo in Yucatan, Mexico, October 2013. May it help!