The Story of the Shepherd-Lama

September 3, 2015

The Story of the Shepherd-Lama
From a Teaching by Penor Rinpoche

In Tibet there was a family of nomadic herdsmen. They raised and sold animals for a living. They were in no way knowledgable about the dharma. Their work was of an essentially worldly nature. 

One of the shepherds hired by this family would be given food when he took the herds out every day. He would go to the bank of a river, let the herds graze and sit down at midday to make tea and have his lunch. Where he was sitting, there was a rock outcropping. Every day he would take the leftovers of food and tea and put them on the rock. He was not motivated by any consideration that this was either a good or bad thing to do. It was simply an idle habit he had of placing leftovers on the rock. 

This particular rock outcropping had three surfaces on which he used to put the food. As it happened, these rocks were inhabited by certain local spirits. One of these was a naga spirit, one was a mara spirit and the other was of a class known as the tsen spirits. These three non-human spirits were very appreciative of these "offerings" that this seemingly spiritual person and accomplished practitioner was giving them on a daily basis. They discussed among themselves: "One of us, at least, should do something out of gratitude. Who shall it be?" And as they talked among themselves it was decided that the mara spirit would be the one to help the shepherd. And so the mara spirit entered into the body of the shepherd, which caused him to undergo a complete transformation. He actually became a very erudite and clever person. 

When he returned home from the fields, he was a changed man. Instead of just coming home as usual, he came home and began talking about dharma ­ he began teaching. Over time he came to have thousands of students. He was so impressive as a spiritual teacher that he gathered a huge retinue of students around him. He also wrote many books. He gained a wide reputation for being very learned in the dharma.

This continued over many, many years and his fame continued to grow.

He was continuing these activities when another lama who was traveling in the area heard about him. Due to the visiting lama's authentic psychic powers, he was aware of the fact that the shepherd-lama was not someone who really had genuine qualities. He realized that the shepherd-lama's teaching ability had been imparted by the possession of a mara spirit. 

And so the visiting lama said to one of his attendant monks: "I want you to take this incense down to where this other lama is teaching and I want you to burn it and waft the smoke through the area so that the lama and all of the students smell the smoke. Can you do that for me?" 

The monk said "No problem," and he took the incense down and burned it. He went through the crowd of thousands of people who were listening to this shepherd turned teacher. As soon as the shepherd smelled the smoke, the mara spirit left his body. The poor shepherd sitting on his throne looked around at the great crowd of people and said "Where are my sheep?"

The point of the story is that even though a teacher may be clever, famous and capable of speaking about the dharma, that does not determine authenticity. You need to examine clearly what it is you are looking for in a teacher.

Importance of the Oral Transmission

The process of spiritual development is one of the student relying upon a teacher. We may call that teacher a lama, a guru, or whatever, but the essential point is that there is an oral transmission that takes place in which a teacher teaches the student: the student listens to the teachings, absorbs their meaning and puts them into practice. 

There is a reason for this emphasis on an oral transmission. From the time of the Buddha up to the present day, the buddha dharma has always been transmitted and meant to be transmitted orally, ensuring that there is a living tradition that is still embued with the blessing and power of the original teachings. It also guards against the possibility of so-called teachers simply coming up with their own ideas. Instead, the teacher passes on a proven tradition of teachings. 

This makes the buddha dharma different from other kinds of learning where it may be possible for people to innovate. In such realms of learning it may be appropriate to come up with new systems of thought or to introduce new ideas. But when we are talking about the buddha dharma, every teaching must connect with the original teachings of the Buddha in order for a teaching to be valid. The teachings cannot be something that someone is simply coming up with on their own. The teachings are something that the teacher passes on. 

Similarly, in other types of human knowledge it may be permissible to present information in a manner as entertaining and pleasing as possible. But although it is important for dharma teachings to be presented in a manner which is pleasant to hear, it is most important that the transmitted teachings have the power to bless and influence those who hear them in a positive way - not only in this lifetime, but in future lifetimes as well. So even though the teaching of the dharma should be elegant and well-presented, what is most important is the blessing of the essential message.

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