All of our spiritual practices include some form of Guru yoa. Guru yoga is a special recognition where we view all of the different deities as being by nature our own spiritual guide. Guru yoga increases the power of our spiritual practices beyond comprehension. Why is this? The reason is simple: The spiritual guide functions as the synthesis of all of the Buddhas, so any action directed towards the spiritual guide with this recognition is karmically equivalent to engaging in this same action individually to each of the countless Buddhas. So just as bodhichitta increases the power of our virtuous actions by the number of living beings, so too guru yoga increases the power of our virtuous actions by the number of Buddhas, which is also countless. Bodhichitta and guru yoga together, in other words engaging in a virtuous action towards the spiritual guide motivated by bodhichitta is karmically equivalent to engaging in that same action individually a countless-squared number of times (countless living beings times countless Buddhas). Understanding this, we should put just as much effort into our practice of guru yoga as we do in generating bodhichitta.
Before I explain the actual practice of guru yoga, I would like to address some popular misunderstandings related to this practice. Some people object that the practice of guru yoga sounds cult-like. They say, it means we are in effect worshipping a human being in this world as if they were the ultimate deity. This can then lead to all sorts of cult-like behaviour. But this is a completely wrong understanding. The little Tibetan guy we affectionately refer to as Geshe-la is not our Spiritual Guide. Geshe-la is an ordinary emanation body of our actual Spiritual Guide the Truth Body of Vajradhara. Conventionally, Buddha Vajradhara sends various emanation bodies into the karmic dreams of living beings (otherwise known as their lives and worlds) to help lead them to freedom. But from our own side we don’t have the karma to be able to see Buddha Vajradhara as Buddha Vajradhara. Instead, he appears to us in the aspect of our spiritual teachers.
This is not at all different than the example given in Joyful Path how we might see water, but a hungry ghost will see pus and a god will see nectar. The same thing appears differently depending upon the karmic glasses we have on. If I put on orange tinted glasses, the whole world will appear to me to be orange. If I didn’t realize that I was wearing such glasses and I had always been wearing such glasses, I might mistakenly conclude that the entire world is orange. In the same way, if I have the glasses of an ordinary contaminated mind I will see all things as being ordinary and contaminated. But if I didn’t realize I was just wearing such karmic glasses, I might mistakenly conclude that the entire world is actually ordinary and contaminated. But just as if I took off the orange tinted glasses I would see the world in all of its myriad colors, so too if I remove my karmically ordinary and contaminated glasses I will see all worlds and beings as rainbow-like vajra light in an infinite dance of pure deeds. In other words, the Buddhas appear to us in ordinary aspects not because they are ordinary but because we can’t see anything any differently. Conventionally, we can say that Geshe-la is an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa, who himself is an emanation of Buddha Shakyamuni, who himself is an emanation of Buddha Vajradhara.
It is important to understand this notion of emanation. Sometimes we think of emanations like we think of Avatars in on-line computer games. In some respects, this is a helpful analogy, but it is not entirely accurate. A better analogy is to think of emanations as facets on a multi-faceted diamond. Each facet of such a diamond is completely inseparable from the underlying diamond. The facet itself is by nature the diamond. By nature in a Kadampa context can roughly be understood as “made of.” Just as a coin is by nature gold, and the facet of a diamond is by nature the diamond, so too every Buddha is by nature the diamond of our spiritual guide. If you look carefully into one facet of a diamond, you can see all of the other facets. Anything you do to a facet of a diamond, you inescapable do the diamond itself. Guru yoga, quite simply, realizes that just as you can’t have a facet without the diamond, so too you can’t have an emanation without the diamond of the spiritual guide. Any action you do to one emanation with the recognition that they are by nature the spiritual guide, you inescapable do that action towards all the Buddhas.
In short, guru yoga does not say we view all Buddhas as emanations of the little Tibetan guy we call Geshe-la, rather we say the little Tibetan guy is himself an emanation of our actual Spiritual Guide, Buddha Vajradhara. He is a facet of the diamond of our Spiritual Guide.
When we engage in any practice of guru yoga, the most important thing is to imagine that the actual deity is in front of us inside our mind. Believing this functions to purify the karmic obscurations which prevent you from directly feeling and perceiving the guru deity in the space in front of you. We should maintain the recognition that the deity we are visualizing is by nature our Spiritual Guide in the apsect of the deity. We do this for two main reasons: First, the extent to which we can receive blessings depends on the strength of our karmic connection with a given Buddha. Karmically speaking, the Buddha we are closest to is our Spiritual Guide. So with this recognition, we receive more powerful blessings. Second, the Spiritual Guide has a specific function of acting as the synthesis of all the Buddhas. Wherever you imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes. Wherever you imagine your spiritual guide, ALL the Buddhas actually go. So this multiplies the power of your practice by the number of Buddhas, which is countless.
After we visualize a deity, we usually make some form of offerings. Here we imagine that countless offering goddesses emanate from the letter HUM at our heart and fill the entire universe making offerings to the guru deity. We strongly believe that this gives rise to a feeling of great bliss within the guru deity. We do not make offerings because guru deity needs them, rather because we need to accumulate the merit associated with making these offerings. Specifically, making the offerings in this context enables us to accumulate the merit we need to be able to overcome our greatest delusion.