Sceptics with an everyday, dualistic perception of the universe will consider the 'Most Precious Teacher' (Guru Rinpoche) as the historical founder of Buddhism in Tibet who has been deified by legend, so rich is his biography in miracle and the extraordinary. Even this view of things would still have to acknowledge the tremendous importance of such legends in shaping the world picture of hundreds of millions of Tibetans. However, if - as both mahayana Buddhists and quantum physicists believe - reality is vast, subjective rather than objective, complex, subtle and multi-layered, Guru Rinpoche can be envisaged in a far broader perspective, as being the marvellous manifestation of deepest truth within the commonly-perceived yet illusory world. As such, he can be considered in three main ways: as a generic name for emanations of Buddha Sakyamuni, as the archetypal guru or as an historical figure.
Guru Rinpoche as emanations of Buddha Sakyamuni
"Know, Vasettha, that from time to time a Buddha is born into the world, a Fully Enlightened One, blessed and worthy, abounding in wisdom and goodness, happy, with knowledge of the world, without equal as a guide to erring mortals, a teacher of gods and men. He thoroughly understands, by himself, and sees, as though face to face, the entire universe and all its beings. He makes his knowledge known to others, proclaiming the truth both in letter and in spirit, beautiful in its origin, beautiful in its progress and beautiful in its consummation. He reveals the higher life, in all its purity and all its perfection."
From the Buddha's discourse Tevigga Suttanta
With enlightenment, three dimensions of existence (kaya) are attained. The first of these is the formless expanse of absolute truth which is the mind of the Buddha, known only by the Buddhas. It is called dharmakaya and sometimes represented by Amithaba, the Buddha of Boundless Light and Life. From its profound wellspring of wisdom, compassion and beneficent power come all the relative qualities of enlightenment. Although other beings cannot experience the Buddha mind directly, they can witness its qualities indirectly through their senses, as meetings with Buddhas who teach them and open their minds to greater realities. In particular, the Buddha mind expresses itself as 'pure land' experiences in the minds of highly realised bodhisattvas. This aspect of Buddha is known as sambhogakaya: the dimension of perfect expression. It is the world hinted at in Buddhist paintings: a spacious dimension of mental light in which everything is a natural, spontaneously generated symbol of enlightenment's qualities. When dharmakaya is represented by Amithaba, sambhogkaya is represented by Avalokiteshvara, the quintessence of compassion.
The third dimension is a relatively grosser level of experience which can be witnessed by worldly beings, as emanations of Buddhas within their familiar and very solid universe. This is nirmanakaya: the emanated dimension. Nirmanakaya itself adopts many forms. The most spectacular is the supreme nirmanakaya, the Buddha as world teacher, who introduces the complete body of universal truths to a world, as did Sakyamuni in the eighty years of his earthly life. Such a Buddha continues to emanate after his death, for however long his teachings remain in the world. He does so either as a human or another sort of sentient being, in order to help and guide people along the path of peace. It is the sum total of all these flashes and facets of the Buddha Sakyamuni's activity in the ordinary world over the centuries which is known collectively and represented iconographically as Guru Rinpoche - The Precious Teacher. Guru Rinpoche is the very spirit of Buddhism as it comes to one country after another, one person after another. Not born of a womb but born from the lake of cosmic purity, it knows neither birth nor death and is totally fearless. Thus, stories of Guru Rinpoche 'subduing' local demons and negative forces can be viewed reasonably as ways of explaining the way in which local superstitions, fears and primitive beliefs dissolve with the arrival of enlightened intelligence and ethics. Some might argue, with equal validity, that gods and demons incarnating local beliefs are not less real than anything else, since everything is a projection of the mind.
Guru Rinpoche as the universal guru
Beyond the specific being Padmasambhva and even beyond the collective influence of Sakyamuni, Guru Rinpoche is the guiding power which emanates from pure mind, anywhere in time and space: the universal teacher. The dialogue between disciple and guru is really the age-old interplay of illusion and truth, darkness and light, the relative and the ultimate. Guru Rinpoche is the archetypal perfect teacher: a role model. In him are to be found all the skills required to guide others. First and foremost, he attains mastery himself and only teaches others that which is perfectly assimilated in his own being, through having gone to the correct source, practised the teachings assiduously, become a worthy lineage-holder and been empowered as a guru. He embodies all the personal qualities of kindness, patience, tolerance as well as the more dynamic ones of knowing when to show force and wrath in order to help others break through emotional or meditation barriers.