Some Words on "Words of My Perfect Teacher"

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, May 13, 2007

Dharma-Inspired Movie Review:

Singapore -- "Dedicated to all teachers and students", with the wish that "compassion and wisdom flourish", "Words of My Perfect Teacher" is a quest for a perfect teacher by the filmmaker (Lesley Ann Patten) and her friends.

Initially unsure of whether she has stumbled upon the guru she has been longing to find, she decides to make a film about her potential guru - with his blessings of course - as a subtle skilful means to understand more about his teachings. Having titled the film such, she probably found the guru she was looking for! The film juxtaposes thought-provoking interviews during excursions in different countries in the East and West, set against the backdrop of an infectious Dharma-inclined soundtrack.

The film opens with a brief introduction of the Buddha - "Some 2500 years ago in India, a man was born named Siddhartha. At age 35, he awoke with the dawn and realized that wisdom that he had been searching for had never been lost. He became known as Buddha, the awakened one. The Buddha said this enlightenment could be realized in one lifetime, or over many. It was the birthright of every human being. But to perfect it, you need a teacher."

Yes, a teacher is needed, unless one's spiritual capacity is similar to that of the Buddha himself, though he did have teachers in his previous lives too. As narrated, "Every step to enlightenment has to be taken yourself ? so the most important reference point to have is a teacher who points the way." Here's more on why we need teachers, as advised by the titular teacher -

"We do know we have to crush our ego. In order to do that, we somehow, we have to see a model if you like, a model who has done it. Okay? And we have to admire that model and when we admire, then there is a father, there is a leader. There is all that thing - Buddha, whatever. That is the only way to go. I mean how could you teach someone, in order to crush their ego? Look at your teacher as your maid - it won?t work. Maybe for some very particular people. But it does work when you need to look up at someone higher than you, or someone more pure than you." Interestingly, even the historical Buddha was inspired by previous Buddhas.

So what is the problem with our lives, such that we seek spiritual liberation? Lesley sums it up neatly - "Yes, there it was, from the moment of birth, the first thing the Buddha taught - the truth of suffering. It was the background noise, amidst moments of happiness or distraction; it was always there. An anxiety born from the struggle against change, impermanence, not getting what you wanted, getting what you didn?t want."

The guru in "question" looks perfectly ordinary, though his background is extraordinary. As introduced, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Norbu was born into an illustrious family of Buddhist teachers ? known to be intellectually brilliant, great artists, heroically kind, and awake. At the age of seven, he was formally recognised as the third incarnation of Jamyang Kyentse Wangpo, one of the most admired teachers of the last two centuries. Centred in Bhutan, he plays multiple roles. He has an international teaching schedule with disciples all over the world, and is so deeply respected in Bhutan that its citizens hesitate to look him in the eye. An avid filmmaker, he also runs several charitable foundations, and monasteries in Tibet, India and Bhutan. (See and for more information.) In his words, "My job is to help sentient beings."

Catch it at the Asian Buddhist Film Festival (Singapore) 2007

Despite being revered by so many, the mischievous Rinpoche self-effacingly says that "All the paranoia that ordinary people have I have too." He reveals that, at times, he hates his "profession", because there is "so much hypocrisy, pretence, so much cultural hang-ups." He even says "I wish I am just an ordinary person." With a compelling opening like that, it is difficult not to hear more of what he thinks of his own role as a teacher. Much later in the film, he exclaims that, "We want our teacher slightly human being. We want him to like what we like, we want him to dislike what we dislike, we want to share things - so this shows there is a certain element that we want him to be not that special. And at the same time, he has to be slightly special too. That's a big difficulty there." This he says seriously, though we also see his casual moments of enjoying watching football. Does he merely manifest ordinariness as a compassionate skilful means to connect to us? Maybe?

Is Rinpoche truly enlightened, or merely projected to be so by his followers? Maybe we shouldn't be too concerned with that. In a way, anyone with a "more enlightened" outlook on life is surely a guru to that extent. In the enlightening words by Rinpoche, it does seem that he is more enlightened than most of us. Consider this intriguing dialogue -

Kent: Your students consider you enlightened. Rinpoche, do you consider yourself enlightened?
Rinpoche: Me? No. Because <long pause>? I am still a victim of condition. If I'm enlightened, then I shouldn?t be [a victim of conditions]. If the students keep thinking that I?m enlightened, it will only benefit them. If there is benefit, that is. Okay. That is where the Buddhist teachings on mind comes in. You see. Everything is your mind? It's like, let's say, I don?t know, you are in the bath or something, and a person hops in the bath and sits next to you. This person may be, I don?t know, going through a big problem, and you, without even realising, you didn't do anything, maybe you just sat there right? But somehow this person thinks that you helped him. A lot. I don't know, by stepping over his toes or something. Now, he is not your liberator, but the other person thinks so, you understand? And it will give the other person a sort of benefit. It can give the other person the benefit to keep on thinking that this person helps you. This happens a lot.

But what if a person truly grossly sees someone wrongly as a teacher? Is that not dangerous? Let's hear what Rinpoche says on this -

Luke: How can we determine if a teacher is a genuine teacher?
Rinpoche: That is a good question. It is very difficult, but I mean, especially as a deluded being. People like us, I mean, our judgement, even if we judge that someone is a really good teacher, how much can we trust with our own judgement? Many times our own judgement has failed us. This is why, in Buddhism, study, contemplation, not accepting Buddhism with blind faith, with blind devotion, is very much stressed. Especially initially - by the Buddha himself. Again and again? not to depend on a person but depend on the teachings he gives you. And not simply like that. You have to - it will always be an insurance, if you like to study, to contemplate on the Buddhist texts, study them. And then finally, once you are slightly matured, I would say, you know this ? even if all the other qualities failed, maybe your teacher is not learned, maybe not, I don?t know, gentle? But one thing that I think you should look for is a teacher who is not interested in himself. A teacher who is totally interested in you and fellow sentient beings.

As Rinpoche says, of the mission of a good teacher - "Your goal is to see. All the worldly values have no value. If you have that kind of view, and that kind of aim, then a genuine teacher who breaks all this pride, crushes your pride. Makes this worldly life completely miserable, this is something that you asked for... He has to be the mirror to see yourself, but he's also the assassin. He is the man or the woman whom you have hired to completely dismantle yourself." Perhaps thus, we see him in the film pushing the buttons of the filmmaker, seemingly to test her. It might seem a wee bit contrived when a student says that when his expectations of Rinpoche are not met, he is still teaching him something... patience maybe? This might seem to be foolish rationalisation, but it is also foolish to feel disappointment or anger.

Rinpoche says that he likes "teaching students in many different situations ? in a garden, in a bar, in a toilet." These are modern times, and communication can be done differently. Consider his rationale for making films, which is seen by some Buddhists as unconventional for a Buddhist master. He says that 1000 years ago, masters
paint thangkas to express compassion and wisdom. What he does is simply "painting" using modern technology. He is the director of "The Cup" and "Travellers and Magicians" - both of which were well received.
With much advice on how to seek a teacher, the film is also full of illuminating dialogue on various spiritual matters. Here are some transcribed excerpts, in no particular order -

On Great Teachers

Gesar: You can?t just expect to wake up one day, and the greatest teacher in the world has come to your house. If you expect to have a great relationship with a great teacher, you need to exert yourself extremely... You should never have a sense of doubt with your teacher. If there is ever that sense of doubt with a great teacher, they pick it up and they're there giving you the tools to voice your doubt. The lesser teachers, the malicious fakes, are only interested in cementing their greatness in your mind. When the great teachers are challenged by their students, they enjoy that, and they like that, because it sort of shows that they're gaining intelligence. Great masters never write anyone off.

Rinpoche: Tibetans even have a saying - "If a snow lion comes down to the ground too much, then the snow lion will be mistaken as a dog." But also, lion's roar is wasted if there is nobody hearing. The very reason why you roar is so that someone would get intimidated, get inspired, sort of have some ideas. If you are totally isolated, what's the point?

Lesley: Even tulkus (recognised reborn masters) have to be students before they become teachers.

On Attachment to Teachers

Lesley:  ? they (some students) also have this grasping quality towards the teacher.
Rinpoche: Yes. Well, it is a very complicated relationship. Like the Zen master said: To study Buddhism is to study about yourself. To study about yourself is to forget about yourself... The ultimate aim of Dharma practice, is to forget. Not to say forget, actually to really transcend, to go beyond these distinctions. Now that should be the fundamental base, where we develop a student and teacher's relationship. But not many times it happens this way. Many times, a student relationship is just another relationship. Boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, man, woman. So, that is why there is a game. So when the student is insecure, students play games. When the guru is insecure also. Gurus who are not accomplished - they have insecurity, and they play games. That's why, first of all, students don't go to a teacher, seeking for something they need. Rather they go there to look for something they want. Similar things happen from the teacher too. Many of us, many of the teachers like myself, we are not even brave enough to really give what a student really needs. And what a student really needs could be very raw, very painful. Very naked. And who has courage to do that? So difficult. Because many of us we have agendas. Agenda is the big problem in this world, basically. One should be agenda free.

Lesley: What about the fact, there seems to be a point where a student has to stand up to the teacher or get away from the teacher.
Rinpoche: But that is the path. You see. You are not supposed to, but we know that you will do it, and when you do it, you watch your mind.

Rinpoche: The whole reason you go to a teacher is, ironically, is so "one will not want". You don't want to leave the Guru as an external saviour. You want to realize your mind; the nature of your mind is the Guru. The Guru is only a bridge. So, ultimately, wanting something from an external source is something that we have to eliminate.

Rinpoche: According to Buddhism, a student has to be like a patient and the teacher, like myself, should be like a doctor. The patient must reveal everything openly without any fear, without any inhibition.
Rinpoche: The very trust, that can also have its disadvantages, because it can become blind faith. The very freshness of the West, the freshness, the inquisitive or sceptical, they are very good qualities. But then, sometimes, this can also go too far. You end up not practicing because you end up analyzing all the time.

On Hypocrisy of Teachers & Students

Rinpoche: Many teachers... don't have courage to give their children, their disciples, what they need. Because they have agenda. They want to give them what they want. And that can spoil them. And that can make them emotionally dependent on them. Very much. That is a big responsibility on the teacher. If the teacher and the students are genuinely interested in enlightenment... but if they just want to build a [worldly, instead of spiritual] relationship, yeah, that is the way to go. One should be more superior, and one should be a little inferior, attempting to become superior. But always one step behind. And that works. That's how the relationship works.

Rinpoche: ? Hypocrisy, people like I have, doing one thing, in front of, maybe a picture of my teachers and do something else, behind? That shows there is a lack of acceptance - that your teacher is the Buddha - he knows everything, so there is no such thing as behind the picture or in front. [In Vajrayana Buddhism, the guru is seen as a representation of the Buddha.]

On Happiness & Suffering

Luc: We opened the refrigerator door, ten o'clock at night, looking inside, looking? what are we looking for? What is it really that we want? There may be a piece of cheesecake, but really we want happiness. And we are looking in the refrigerator. Well, guess what, you know? Happiness cannot be found in the refrigerator. It's just not there. But it's obvious, but at the same time, we do this, isn't it? We are just looking with this look of "I want, I want something." Not understanding the whole mechanism, the whole, sort of, the whole process of how we achieve happiness.

Rinpoche: When Buddhists talk about suffering, we're not talking about a pain, we are talking about change, the uncertainty. See, when people talk about suffering, they are talking about like a gross pain, like a headache or a depression or something. That is, like, already like too late. That's like only aftermath. But in every level there is change. Everything is changing and everything is uncertain, and that is suffering.

Rinpoche: When you don't have obsession, when you don't have hang-up, when you don't have inhibition, when you are not afraid you will be breaking a certain rule, when you are not afraid you will not fulfill somebody's expectations, what more enlightenment do you want? That's it.

Rinpoche: Your own nature of mind is radiant, enlightened, and uncontrived, but because we don't know that, because we are so caught up with all kinds of hang-ups, and inhibitions and all that, then we lose that radiance, so we get depressed, emotional, aggressive, all of this. Ideally, we should understand that these are all our imagination, so that slowly we build this confidence to walk out of it.

Shirley: If you see one (bomb) in the sky and it's coming towards you, don't run away from it - you run towards it. So it passes over your head... and I've always thought that is a good way to live life. You know, don't run from your problems, go meet them.

On the Mind

Rinpoche: Everything is your mind. Or interpretation of your mind. Everything is your imagination. And there is nothing that is not an imagination. Therefore imagination is very powerful. Imagination is the only reality that we have. Within the imagination there is a fantasy and a reality.

Luc: Phenomena also means what happens to our mind when we are in a football game. Football is a game. You are supposed to play it, enjoy it. If it becomes serious, like for the hooligans, then the problem is obviously not the game, the problem is believing one's own thoughts, and that's when it becomes dangerous.

Luc: It's always a mind that's perceiving, it's always a mind that's experiencing, it's a mind that's elated? It's also about a concept. I'm Canadian, what is Canada? Is it this sort of a border? No ? borders change. It's not the people because the people, obviously there's new people born now, than there were 100 years ago. The constitution changes, the government changes, every single thing about Canada, about any country, changes constantly. Yet, people kill other people because they believe in the reality of this thing. That's sort of you know, vague, and is very clearly a concept. It's a concept like the square root of two. How many people would go to war for the square root of two? For pi?

Lesley: The stakes have gone up, from the aggression of soccer hooligans to the brutality of armies. In a way, the war was like an exaggerated rendering of my own egotism. I realised, none of us will have true happiness until we learn to deal with our own minds. Because the mind is the starting point for all suffering, entrenched views, closed hearts, and prejudice.

On Practice & Spontaneity

Luc: Rinpoche's Grandfather Dudgom Rinpoche, he used to say, "The truth is so close that we can't see it. It's like our eyelashes." We can't see our own eyelashes. That's why, out of compassion, the Buddha developed all these elaborate practices, because we simply cannot accept the simplicity of this.

Rinpoche: We are getting more and more distant from spontaneity. And that is really creating all the big mess, really. I mean like ecology... We are not happy to spontaneously just camp under a cave or tree. We need to now have a hotel, for instance. So the credit cards and all that. We, human beings - we ask for a programmed life. And some of us think that secures everything. Now it's too late, I mean, if you want an excursion ticket, you have to book it three months before. No more spontaneity, my dear.

On Pilgrimages

Rinpoche: Pilgrimage, although it has become very ritual now... It is, devotion is a ritualistic thing. The essence of going on pilgrimage, is to remind ourselves, that such [enlightened] beings exist. Not as a hero, okay, not as someone who has done this, did this. But as an example. Even going to places like Hiroshima, probably can, even if it is a minute, remind you, how we human beings destroy ourselves. It's like that. Going to Kushinagara for instance, can remind you that life isn't permanent. Even the Buddha himself. [In terms of his manifestation of physical passing.] Going to places like that, Sarnath [where the Buddha gave his first teaching], can remind you that one of the greatest things that has been said in this world, has been said there. And then it might evoke a little interest. What did he say? Know the suffering. Abandon the cause of suffering. And so on, and so on. It's so important you know, to remind ourselves. I mean of course if you are a good practitioner, you don't need those things. I think one should help ourselves with all kinds of help. Even if it requires some type of gross reminder, like holy lands, mountains, trees. Whatever. It's like keeping the nostalgia? The nostalgia can open a door to many things. Nostalgia can be a fuel for creativity. Here we are talking about the nostalgia of an enlightened being. And that may trigger the creativity in the sense of really valuing the Dharma, spiritual path. And seeing the futility of this worldly life.

On Ultimate Truth

Rinpoche: Buddhists in general are trying to train people's mind to think on gentleness, kindness, love, compassion and so on and on. That is all path. But when you talk about everything as mind, you are approaching to the ultimate truth... As we approach the ultimate truth, first thing we have to realise is that then, we are not talking about path ? okay? You see, don't bring the path in here. When we talk about path, of course, we have to talk about goodness and badness. And all that. What needs to be abandoned, what needs to be practiced. Not as we approach the ultimate, then we don't talk this anymore... [As an example,] A woman who desperately wishes to have, a baby, dreams that she is pregnant and even giving birth. She is so happy. Within the very same dream, the baby dies, and she is very unhappy. She wakes up, and the happiness of having the baby, and the pain of the death of the baby are all gone. The third experience is what the Buddha is trying to aim. Not to have the baby. Not to "not to have" the baby. But to go beyond that.

On Renunciation

Bernardo Bertolucci (Director of "Little Buddha", for which Rinpoche was a consultant): Then he (Rinpoche) said, "Wouldn't the ultimate renunciation be the renunciation of renunciation?" Which is absolutely brilliant, because renunciation means to give up everything. The renunciation of renunciation means to give up giving up, so as to be able to embrace everything. Extraordinary.

The film closes with Rinpoche translating a prayer he recited - "How wonderful it is that Siddhartha came to this Earth. How wonderful it is that a simple man, Siddhartha, became enlightened. How wonderful it is that this enlightened being left us the path that led him to enlightenment. Lastly, how wonderful it is that even he did not stay on as a mortal being." [So as to remind us to treasure the shortness of life, to practise diligently.]

Who is you perfect teacher? Have you found him or her yet? If not, the Buddha and his Dharma in the sutras can always be your default perfect teachers. Life itself is a teacher. Similar to what Luc mentioned, everything can teach us something, if only we are willing to learn. If so, may we open our hearts and minds to learn well. You might not have a perfect teacher in the flesh, but you can always be a perfect student! (Part of the material in this review is found in the "Bonus Material" section of the film's DVD.)

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