Teacher & Student

Self Reflection and the Teacher Student Relationship

Remaining open to our teacher’s advice and feedback can be a very difficult practice but is the basis of true self reflection. When we look deeply into our hopes and fears in relation to our guru there is the potential to cultivate our innate intelligence.


    I’m a new “seeker” have a wonderful spiritual teacher but he says I’m resistant and stubborn and at times he feels I’m manipulating and controlling the relationship. I am unaware of my actions which I guess is a good reason to be learning how to become “aware” he is somewhat frustrated with me and I’m very upset about it and don’t know how to correct things. I don’t want to lose him as a teacher but need more guidance on how to be open and honest. Any advice?


    Dear Friend,

    Fantastic question. Thank you! I can honestly say that it has taken me many, many years to really understand the nature of the teacher\student relationship in this tradition. But it has been a powerful practice, without a doubt. Like most people, you may have begun this relationship out of a feeling of adoration for your teacher, which is natural. Perhaps he reflected your own longing for moving out of a state of confusion, and serves as an example of sanity for you. This is wonderful…but then there is a lot of work to do.

    Recently, someone wrote an article in Buddhadharma magazine about the teacher\student relationship and described it as challenging and gritty. I loved that, because it does push at the ordinary notions of what you want in a relationship. Your romantic fantasies may be challenged, that’s its purpose. The function of the teacher in this context, aside from giving practice guidance and teachings, is to reflect your fundamental sanity and longing for freedom from suffering, but also your confusion and awkwardness. It is not easy to look at your self, and resistance will inevitably arise.

    How do we take in advice and feedback from our teacher? Once I asked my teacher what it means to be a good student. He said, “Just be ‘open,’ Lizzy.” This is very simple advice but I found it very profound. I don’t think the whole point is to take the teachers words and make them ‘true’ or ‘untrue.’ You don’t have to let the teacher’s words define you. In fact, in this tradition there is no such thing as a permanent, solid, “ME…” so the practice is to be open and fluid with experience. To tighten around his words is the opposite of practice. I realize this is not easy and may not be completely clear to you yet! It requires learning a new way of investigating mind and experience. It is a new use of your discernment. But it is important that you understand that this is what you signed up for when you asked your teacher to work with you. So let his words penetrate your being and let them percolate…and be willing to see things in a totally different way, beyond being ‘bad’ or ‘good’ or ‘pleasing to the teacher or not. That is the practice.

    Taking on a teacher is an agreement. It is an agreement the discerning mind takes on for a clear purpose. It is not based on blind faith…but has a vision. Really, with any kind of teacher we are there to learn something – math or a skill. If you already knew everything you wouldn’t need a teacher. So obviously there has to be a sense of humility and desire to learn. Here, when you become a student (particularly in the Vajrayana lineage) you are asking the teacher to help you work with the ego. It is a process of refinement. My teacher has often said, although the teacher helps guide you and give you feedback, the practice aspect has less to do with the teacher and more to do with how the student is able to openly self-reflect. You have to be enthused to look at your blind spots. That should be your main focus. So the point is not even to please the teacher…it is a practice of letting go of things that don’t serve you, which is not easy.

    Taking a teacher to point out the logic of the ego is actually a very advanced practice. A contemporary teacher of our lineage, Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche, once said that the teacher\student relationship is one of the hardest practices of all. I see often that in contemporary culture, confusions arise as to the purpose of this relationship. We want to be affirmed and loved…we want to be special. Sometimes teachers exude warmth, affirmation, and care. But aside from reflecting our goodness, the teacher’s job is to also bring to the surface our shortcomings and confusion. We need to look at how we create confusion. We have to look at all our wants, needs and expectations. We need to see them and not expect the teacher to fulfill them.

    Imagine how this is for the teacher having all these students with all these needs, wants and expectations? Is it realistic to think he\she should fulfill them? Do you really need another neurotic relationship in your life? How would it be to have a bunch of students who always wants affirmation? And what good is it to be a student who already knows everything and is not willing to self-reflect? How could this possibly be a spiritual practice? When we get caught in this kind of confusion reflect on these kinds of questions because it puts this whole thing into perspective.

    My teacher wrote a book called, “It’s Up to You,” which I recommend to you. It is all about how to self-reflect. In other words, what do you do when the teacher points something out that challenges you? How can you use this information to help you grow, rather than turn it around on yourself as being bad or stupid? Conversely, how can you be open rather than blame the teacher for not understanding you? Here we are simply open to look and let life change us. We don’t have to affirm or deny. We don’t have to give up our ability to discern nor do we have to cling to our ideas. The ability to do this is what we call the practice of the Middle Way. If we are not able to process information in a sane way, then the teacher and the teachings will just become another egoistic enterprise.

    So please be very gentle on your self with this as it is a challenging thing to do. You are new at this and it takes time to get clarity on the nature of the relationship. Often, I find, no one really spells it out. The teacher\student relationship is quite natural in India and Tibet. We have a whole different psychology. I often feel there is not enough information about this in Western culture – what it entails. We either think we have to over agency to an idea or teacher or on the flip side totally dismiss the whole thing, in which case we just continue to hold on to our rightness without any kind of humility or inquiry to guide us.

    If you remain soft with yourself and allow yourself to have this experience – if you have the passion to really explore the mechanisms of your own confusion and suffering – it can be deeply empowering and change the way you see your world. This is the only way transformation can happen.


    Let's Discuss

    4 thoughts on “Self Reflection and the Teacher Student Relationship

    • Santacitta b says:

      dear elizabeth,
      this is an excellent reflection on the teacher/student relationship in the vajrayana. i found it also profoundly challenging, confusing and liberating at the same time. it showed my deep unacknowledged pattern which could only emerge in such a strong relationship as this. thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Here we are simply open to look and let life change us. We don’t have to affirm or deny. We don’t have to give up our ability to discern nor do we have to cling to our ideas.

      Great! Plus there is no need to get things ‘right’ because ‘things’ never are.

      Thanks for your clarity Elizabeth

    • celeste says:

      one of the challenges seems to be: letting go of what you want it (the relationship with your teacher)to look like/be
      such a gift

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