Questioning the Advice of the Guru
by H.H. the XIV. Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso
You should do everything your guru tells you to do, even if it seems strange, right? Wrong. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama every student is responsible for checking the guru’s instructions against reason and Dharma. The rationalizations that many students tell themselves in the face of odd guru behaviours – “It must be a teaching” or “It’s crazy wisdom that you can’t question” or “It’s a test” - serve only to damage students who don’t understand that even powerful teachers have personalities that sometimes have blind spots and make mistakes.
H.H. the Dalai Lama speaks strongly on this topic in this excerpt adapted from The Path to Enlightenment.
The offering of practice means always to live by the teachings of one's guru. But what happens when the guru gives us advice that we do not wish to follow or that contradicts Dharma and reason? The yardstick must always be logical reasoning and Dharma reason. Any advice that contradicts these is to be rejected. This was said by Buddha himself. If one doubts the validity of what is being said, one should gently push the point and clear all doubts. This task becomes somewhat more sensitive in Highest Tantra, where total surrender to the guru is a prerequisite; but even here this surrender must be made only in a particular sense. If the guru points to the east and tells you to go west, there is little alternative for the student but to make a complaint. This should be done with respect and humility, however, for to show any negativity towards a teacher is not a noble way of repaying his or her kindness.
Perception of faults in the guru should not cause us to feel disrespect, for by demonstrating faults to us the guru is actually showing us what we should abandon. At least, this is the most useful attitude for us to take. An important point here is that the disciple must have a spirit of sincere inquiry and must have clear, rather than blind, devotion.
It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, "Every action seen as perfect." However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni's own words: "Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me." The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of "every action seen as perfect" not be stressed. Should the guru manifest unDharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom.
Take myself, for example. Because many of the previous Dalai Lamas were great sages and I am said to be their reincarnation, and also because in this lifetime I give frequent religious discourses, many people place much faith in me, and in their guru yoga practice they visualize me as being a Buddha - I am also regarded by these people as their secular leader. Therefore, this teaching of "every action seen as perfect" can easily become poison for me in my relationship with my people and in my effective administration. I could think to myself, "They all see me as a buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them." Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten. I always recommend that the teaching on seeing the guru's actions as perfect should not be stressed in the lives of ordinary practitioners. It would be an unfortunate affair if the Buddhadharma, which is established by profound reasoning, were to have to take second place to it.
Perhaps you will think: "The Dalai Lama has not read the Lam Rim scriptures. He does not know that there is no practice of Dharma without the guru." I am not being disrespectful of the Lam Rim teachings. A student of the spiritual path should rely upon a teacher and should meditate on that teacher's kindness and good qualities; but the teaching on seeing his or her actions as perfect can only be applied within the context of the Dharma as a whole and the rational approach to knowledge that it advocates. As the teachings on seeing the guru's actions as perfect is borrowed from Highest Tantra and appears in the Lam Rim mainly to prepare the trainee for tantric practice, beginners must treat it with caution. As for spiritual teachers, if they misrepresent this precept of guru yoga in order to take advantage of naive disciples, their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs.
The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines. Without this approach it is difficult to digest one's Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then follow that teacher within the conventions of reason as presented by Buddha. The teachings on seeing the guru's actions as perfect should largely be left for the practice of Highest Tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principal yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!
Actually, the more respect one is given the more humble one should become, but sometimes this principle becomes reversed. A spiritual teacher must guard himself or herself carefully and should remember the words of Lama Drom Tonpa, "Use respect shown to you as a cause for humility." This is the teacher's responsibility. The student has the responsibility of using wisdom in his or her demonstration of faith and respect.
A problem is that we usually only observe those teachings that feed our delusions and ignore those that would overcome them. This leniency can easily lead to one's downfall. This is why I say that the teaching on seeing all the guru's actions as perfect can be a poison. Many sectarian problems in Tibet were born and nourished by it.
The First Dalai Lama wrote, "The true spiritual master looks upon all living beings with thoughts of love and shows respect to teachers of all traditions alike. Such a one only harms delusion, the enemy within." The different traditions have arisen principally as branches of skillful methods for trainees of varying capacities. If we take an aspect of their teachings, such as the precept of "all actions seen as perfect," and use it for sectarian purposes, how have we repaid the past masters for their kindness in giving and transmitting Dharma? Have we not disgraced them? If we misunderstand and mispractice their teachings, it will hardly please them. Similarly, it is meritorious for a lama to perform rituals or give initiations to benefit people, but if his or her motivation is only material benefit, that person would be better off going into business instead. Using the mask of Dharma to exploit people is a great harm.
We erect elaborate altars and make extensive pilgrimages, but better than these is to remember Buddha's teachings: "Never create any negative action; always create goodness; aim all practices at cultivating the mind." When our practice increases delusion, negativity and disturbed states of mind, we know that something is wrong.
It is sometimes said that a major cause of the decline of Buddhism in India eight hundred years ago was the practice of Vajrayana by unqualified people, and sectarianism caused by corruption within the Sangha. Anyone teaching Tibetan Buddhism should keep this in mind when they refer to the precept, "every action of the guru is to be seen as perfect." This is an extremely dangerous teaching, particularly for beginners.
(c) The Path to Enlightenment by H.H. the XIV. Dalai Lama, Snow Lion Publications
Translator: Glenn H. Mullin. Offered with kind permission from www.snowlionpub.com.
 This excerpt adapted from The Path to Enlightenment was published in Snow Lion The Buddhist Magazine & Catalog Volume 23, Number 3, Summer 2009
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"My religion is not deceiving myself."
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE
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Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship
Originally published as
Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a Spiritual Teacher:
Building a Healthy Relationship.
Ithaca, Snow Lion, 2000
Reprint: Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010
Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications
Preface: Historical Survey of the Interaction between Western Seekers and Tibetan Spiritual Teachers
Initial Contacts between Western Seekers and Tibetan Spiritual Teachers
Since the migration of the Kalmyk Mongols to the Volga region of European Russia in the early seventeenth century, the Tibetan form of Buddhism has been present in the West. Over the centuries, contact increased as Germans settled along the lower stretches of the Volga and czars recruited Kalmyk horsemen into the imperial army. Slowly, the Kalmyks' beliefs and Buddhist practices attracted the attention of Western spiritual seekers.
Language barriers and a lack of translated materials naturally led to an initial romanticization. For example, the nineteenth-century Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy, popularized the image of mysterious spiritual adepts sending secret teachings telepathically from Himalayan caves to especially receptive persons in the West. This image fired the imagination of many sincere seekers and led to further inflation of Tibetan masters and the types of relationship possible with them. Tibet has long stood high at the pinnacle of the "mysterious East."
Fittingly, the first contact with Tibetan Buddhism in the United States came with another migration of Kalmyk Mongols. Displaced in Germany after the Second World War, a group of them settled in New Jersey in the early 1950s. In 1955, Geshe Wangyal, a great Kalmyk teacher, moved to America as their spiritual leader. Bursting the bubble of fantasy, he introduced many Americans, including me, to the more realistic face of Tibetan Buddhism.
With the exile in India in 1959 of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and about a hundred thousand of his followers, more opportunities opened for Westerners to meet authentic Tibetan Buddhist teachers. The earliest crew of foreign seekers consisted mostly of young spiritual adventurers who traveled to India and Nepal in the late 1960s sparked by romantic ideals. I too was part of that wave, though I came as a more sober Fulbright scholar rather than as a hippie on a magical mystery tour. With few competent translators and scarcely any reliable books available, much remained incomprehensible. Relatively easy access, however, to the older generation of masters, including the Dalai Lama, his tutors, and the heads of the four Tibetan traditions, more than made up for this limitation.
Deeply moved by our initial impressions, many of us began to build relationships with these spiritual teachers and started to learn and to practice Tibetan Buddhism. With no precedent available from our Western backgrounds, most of us modeled our relationships with these teachers after those between Tibetan disciples and their spiritual mentors. Some even adopted Tibetan dress. The promise of an alternative, Shangri-la culture spurred on our interest.
Most young Westerners of the sixties generation had little or no respect for their elders at home. Unable to understand the hardships our parents had faced with the Depression and the Second World War, we found the older generation materialistic and emotionally stiff. We sought openness and unconditional love. Our clumsy attempts at free love with each other had failed to remove our underlying tension and alienation. On the other hand, the natural warmth and acceptance we felt from the Tibetan masters was undeniable, even if the spiritual practices behind their attainments remained incomprehensible. The authenticity of these teachers' realizations spoke loudly to us. Here, at last, were persons worthy of respect – something we had desperately sought, though perhaps only unconsciously. With joy and enthusiasm, we freely prostrated at these masters' feet.
The Establishment of Dharma Centers and the Start of Confusion
The phenomenon of Western Dharma centers began in the mid-1970s as a natural outgrowth of enthusiasm and of several additional factors. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was raging in Tibet and the destruction of the monasteries that had begun in 1959 was nearly complete. The Tibetan refugees in India felt insecure. Many of them had witnessed firsthand India's border war with China in 1962 and its wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Unable to support the millions of Bangladeshi refugees they had initially accepted, the Indian authorities had sent them back. They might easily do the same with the Tibetans.
At the same time, the Tibetan refugees in Nepal watched with apprehension as the Chinese built a road with military capacity between Lhasa and Kathmandu. Two decades earlier, the Chinese had done the same between Western China and Lhasa. As tension grew, Sikkim became an Indian state in 1975, throwing the Tibetans settled there into great uncertainty. Feeling threatened from all sides, Bhutan soon took measures to foster cultural unity and national pride. Tibetan refugees living there began to feel unwelcome. Throughout the Himalayan regions, Tibetans looked for safer havens in case of emergency. The wish for a secure home is universal.
Several older Tibetan teachers had moved to the West at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. They had kept a low teaching profile, primarily associated with universities. A few younger high-ranking Tibetan monks had also come to the West in the late sixties and early seventies, mostly to receive modern education. Responding to the growing thirst for spiritual guidance, they began to teach Buddhism in the West by the mid-seventies, with some of them using nontraditional, adaptive methods. They soon invited their own teachers from India and Nepal to tour the West and to inspire their students.
Initially, the great Tibetan masters they invited mostly imparted tantric empowerments (initiations), performed with elaborate rituals. Tantra is an advanced form of meditation entailing visualization of multiheaded, multiarmed Buddha-figures (deities). Receiving empowerment is the entranceway to this practice. The primary motivation of the Tibetan masters in performing these rituals was to plant seeds of positive potential (merit) in the minds of those attending, so that these people would reap beneficial results in future lives. After all, the average Tibetan would attend such ceremonies with the aim of receiving these seeds. Most Westerners who went, however, had little if any thought of improving future lives. The majority came out of curiosity, or to fulfill their fantasies of the mystical East, or to find a miracle cure for their problems. With hardly any translation or explanation of the proceedings available, peoples' imaginations soared. The exotic splendor of the rituals enchanted many, and Tibetan Buddhism soon became the latest fad.
In response to the enthusiastic interest among Westerners and to the mounting insecurity felt in India and in the surrounding countries, many Tibetan teachers from both the older and younger generations thought to establish a base in the West. Nearly everyone who came founded his or her own center for study and meditation, usually referred to as a Dharma center – Dharma means Buddha's teachings. No such phenomenon had existed before in the history of Buddhism. Previously, teachers who traveled to lands that were new to Buddhism had established only monasteries, not meditation and study facilities for laypeople.
Some of the more dynamic teachers attracted groups in several cities and countries. To meet the growing demand, a few of them invited other instructors - known as Geshes or lamas – from the Tibetan communities in the Himalayan countries to live and to teach at their various centers. Also coming from insecure backgrounds, many members of this second wave of teachers similarly wished to create stable situations for themselves in the West.
Most of these junior teachers would have remained unnoticed in Tibet or among their fellow compatriots in exile. Circumstances, however, thrust them in the West into positions of spiritual authority normally reserved for those of much higher attainment and then left them to manage on their own. The abbots and heads of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions do not serve as supervisors for those under their care. Their primarily role is to preside over ceremonies and, if they are monastics, to ordain monks and nuns. Thus, isolated from their teachers and peers, and lacking any checks or balances, many junior teachers in their loneliness adopted modes of behavior familiar from precommunist Tibet. They assumed the roles of benevolent lords of spiritual fiefdoms, to be supported and served with loyal devotion.
The Western students who returned from India and Nepal played the other side of these teachers' fantasies by mimicking the behavior they had seen Tibetan disciples show toward the highest masters there. Those without personal experience of Asia learned this mode of conduct by watching how their Tibetan teachers treated their own masters on tour in the West. Traditional teachings on so-called guru-devotion and the advanced practice of seeing the teacher as a Buddha, when only superficially explained and poorly understood, led to further confusion.
Further Forces Leading to Misunderstanding
Several additional forces played a role in shaping the relationships that grew between Western students and Tibetan teachers. Most Tibetan teachers came to the West with little, if any, previous information about the basic beliefs of Western culture and took for granted that Westerners share most, if not all Tibetan assumptions, such as the existence of rebirth without a beginning. Moreover, most of these teachers were unaware of the wide diversity of cultures and customs that they would find. To most Tibetans, all Westerners are Injis - the Tibetan term for the English – and share the same cultural background. The average Tibetan's picture of the diversity of Western countries is about as jumbled and vague as is that of most Westerners concerning the rich palette of Asian societies.
The few adventurous Westerners these teachers might have met in India or Nepal were certainly not representative of what they would find in the West. Nor did their experience with Indian or Nepalese culture prepare them for the encounter. They had to face not only teaching laypeople rather than exclusively monks, but also addressing a mixed audience of men and women rather than exclusively men. Moreover, Western women were assertive and demanded equal treatment with the men. For many Tibetan teachers, the cultural gap was more than they could handle. The widely held impression in India, gained from movies, that all Western women are open and eager for sex did not help matters.
In addition, many Tibetan teachers were the only persons from their land to live in a particular city or country. Alternatively, they were there with merely a lone attendant or translator with whom they could speak their mother tongue. When faced with the language barrier in India or Nepal, most Tibetans had learned the local vernacular. The ability to communicate was essential for shopping and for all other practical aspects of life. In the West, however, these teachers led a privileged existence, with students readily available to serve their daily needs. Consequently, many Tibetan teachers did not learn the language of the country they were in and thus they became rather isolated. They had little or no contact with the real lives of their students. Many retreated into an inner world and spent most of their time either reading or meditating.
Further, with the end of the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese relaxation of the Tibetan-Nepalese border, large numbers of Tibetans flooded to India in the 1980s. Deprived for more than two decades of the possibility of becoming monks and nuns, these "new arrivals" flocked to the monasteries and nunneries. The Geshes and lamas teaching in the West had already borne the burden of expectation for raising the funds to build the temples for the reestablished monastic institutions. Now they received unrelenting pressure to finance the housing and feeding of the newly ordained monks and nuns.
The Rise of Unhealthy Relationships
The dynamic of these forces led in many cases to less than optimal relationships between Western spiritual seekers and Tibetan teachers. Westerners, for the most part, speak their minds openly, whereas Tibetans tend to verbalize less or to speak circuitously. For example, if offered a second helping of dessert, Westerners straightforwardly accept if they want more. Tibetans, on the other hand, typically refuse three times before acceding. Immediately saying yes indicates greed and attachment. Because of cultural differences such as these and the universal policy of teachers' not sharing their personal problems with their students, the lack of communication steadily worsened. Members of the Dharma centers had little idea of the emotional and financial pressures their Tibetan teachers were facing.
Sexual, financial, and power abuses soon began to occur. Traditional Tibet also had its share of religious corruption. No society is immune. However, abuse did not happen to the extent that Chinese communist propaganda would lead us to believe. On the other hand, not everyone who was a teacher was a saint, despite what starry-eyed Westerners might fantasize. The challenging circumstances of living in the West merely brought out the worst in some of the teachers who were already prone to scurrilous behavior.
As senior Western practitioners also began teaching Tibetan Buddhism in the early eighties in the West, a lack of proper supervision sometimes led to instances of similar abuse among them. The older generation of truly inspiring masters was slowly but steadily passing away. Power struggles over succession and Dharma-protector issues among respected spiritual leaders within the Tibetan community added fuel to the growing confusion. Dharma-protectors are powerful, invisible beings enlisted by great masters to safeguard Buddha's teachings from destructive forces. Most Western seekers have little understanding of protectors or of the sociopolitical issues underlying the disputes about them.
By the late 1980s and early nineties, the situation became critical. Scandals surfaced and received public outcry. Disillusionment followed in many circles. Some Westerners left their teachers in disgust and gave up Buddhist practice, while others went into states of denial and became defensive. Dharma groups polarized over succession and protector issues and by the mid-1990s several began making public protests against the others. The image of Tibetan Buddhism and its spiritual leaders became tarnished. Cynical circles freely used pejorative labels such as "authoritarian," "patriarchal," and "sexist."
As the millennium drew to an end, many Westerners called for a purely Western Buddhism, free of irrelevant religious and cultural trappings of the East. Differentiating the essence from the trappings, however, is never a simple task. People sometimes discard important factors in haste, without deeply examining the possible consequences. The zealous attitude of such people reminded others of Victorian scholars and missionaries self-righteously proclaiming "Lamaism" a degenerate form of Buddhism. Consequently, furious debate flared up between "traditionalists" and "modernists" within the Western Buddhist community. Debates included the language to use for performing rituals in the West and the place of belief in rebirth in following the Buddhist path.
Now, as the twenty-first century dawns, many of the problems persist and fallout from them remains unresolved. Public protest, abuse, and heated debate still occur. As with recurrent scenes of violence and injustice on television, the recurring misconduct has led some Dharma practitioners to become indifferent. No longer believing in anyone, many find their spiritual practice has weakened and become ineffective. Resolution of the problems and a healing of wounds are desperately needed so that sincere seekers may get on with the work of spiritual development. The student-teacher relationship as understood and developed in the West needs reexamination and perhaps revision.
The Approach Suggested for Revising the Student-Teacher Relationship
The first place to look for guidelines is within the Buddhist teachings themselves, as did Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, who substantiated all his reforms with textual evidence. By indicating the valid sources from which he derived his innovations and the valid lines of reasoning that led to his insights, he dispelled any suspicion that he was making up "false Dharma" – teachings contradictory to the intention of Buddha's words. Even when Tsongkhapa received a pure vision of Manjushri, the embodiment of the Buddhas' wisdom, he obtained advice primarily about which classic texts to reexamine in order to gain a correct understanding.
In the present book, I have attempted to follow Tsongkhapa's lead. Since all four Tibetan Buddhist schools derive from India, where none of them existed as such, they have equally valid claims as authentic traditions. Therefore, in the search for guidelines, I have drawn upon textual material from each of the four schools and from some of their Indian sources.
Clarification of misunderstood points in Buddha's teachings can bring only benefit to sincere practitioners trying to follow the Buddhist path. Clarification, however, requires great care. To disparage points found personally distasteful - perhaps because of misinterpretation - and to invent new teachings more personally pleasing, but which contradict Buddha's deepest intentions, clearly violate the basic vows taken by most Buddhists. Tsongkhapa's example commands respect. Those who take safe direction (refuge) in the Dharma need to trust that Buddha's teachings themselves provide the principles for solving problems concerning the Dharma.
Various schools of Western psychology provide useful analytical tools for understanding some of the problems that may be causing unhealthy relationships with spiritual teachers. Although I have used these tools to identify several syndromes, I have correlated them with the Buddhist analysis and shown how traditional Buddhist methods may address the problems. In this way, I have attempted to highlight the broad applicability of the Buddhist teachings, rather than to adulterate the teachings with Western psychology.
Any approach at restructuring the student-teacher relationship needs to avoid two extremes. The first is justifying the deification of the teacher to the point that it encourages a cult-mentality and whitewashes abuse. The second is justifying the demonization of the teacher to the point that paranoia and distrust prevent the benefits to be gained from a healthy disciple-mentor relationship. In trying to prevent the first extreme, we need great care not to fall to the second.
The Present Book
The purpose of this book is to suggest several guidelines for consideration. I have written it based on textual research and on personal experience of Buddhist disciple-mentor relationships for thirty years, twenty-nine of which were spent living primarily with the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, India. Especially significant have been the nine years of disciple/apprenticeship I spent with Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, the late Master Debate Partner and Assistant Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, during which I trained and served as his interpreter, English secretary, and foreign tour manager. I also have drawn on nineteen years of experience teaching Buddhism in Dharma centers and universities in seventy countries. Unless specifically stated, the opinions and interpretations I have given are merely my own. I do not claim to speak with any authority. I merely hope that the textual information and personal insights given here may stimulate further thought and discussion.
The intended audience for this book includes both people already practicing Buddhism and potential students who wish to avoid the problems that others have previously encountered. Practitioners who have been abused by their teachers or who have been disenchanted or confused by their behavior may find it particularly helpful. In addition, those who are fervently devoted to their teachers may find useful points for helping to stabilize their emotions in the relationships. Although the book discusses student-teacher relations specifically in Tibetan Buddhism, those involved with other Buddhist traditions or with any spiritual path that involves relating to a teacher may also find it relevant.
Since this book does not specifically address scholars, I have cited Sanskrit and Tibetan sources in the traditional Buddhist manner, by title and author's name alone, rather than with footnotes. I have used the English translation of all text titles and, for ease of reading, have used a simplified phonetic transliteration system for Sanskrit and Tibetan names. The standard transcription of these names, as well as the Tibetan, and Sanskrit when available, for the titles of cited texts are included in the bibliography. The bibliography also comprises a detailed list of primary sources consulted, together with available English translations and secondary sources. I also have employed the simplified transliteration system for the Sanskrit and Tibetan technical terms used in the text, and have provided the standard transcription of the Tibetan terms in parentheses. For selected technical terms in English, I also have given in parentheses the Tibetan transliterations and transcriptions and, where indicated, the Sanskrit equivalents, occasionally with the more common English translations.
I am totally indebted to my spiritual mentors, especially to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the late Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche and his fifteen-year-old reincarnation, and the late Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, whose unending inspiration has enabled this work. This book was also made possible by a grant from the Kapor Family Foundation, administered by the Nama Rupa Foundation, for which I am extremely grateful. I deeply thank my assistant, Peter Green, and my editor at Snow Lion, Christine Cox, whose contributions have been invaluable. I also thank Caitlin Collins, Thubten Chodron, Dr. Catherine Ducommun-Nagy, Alnis Grants, Aldemar Hegewald, Dr. Martin Kalff, Israel and Alis Lifshitz, Dr. Rainer and Renata Noack, Sonam Tenzin, Alan Turner, Roberto Volpon, Sylvia Wetzel, and numerous other Dharma friends for their helpful suggestions and advice with this project. May this book be of some benefit.
May 30, 1999
"My religion is not deceiving myself."
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE